by Michael Arram
THE GREAT UPRISING
A broad, green country opened out below the avians. Despite the many burdens they were carrying they hovered for a while, taking stock of their new world. Lance – Reggie’s right hand gripped in his left – gestured with the spear he held. In the dark-blue sky above them hung two moons. A broad river looped across the plain below, and on the far horizon was the shimmer of a great expanse of water. To their right was a long, forested ridge, an isolated outlier of which stood up from the plain.
Damien signalled and Mike led the way down to the landmark, his warriors spread out in a great V-formation behind him and Marky. Unknown creatures scattered in their herds as the avians swooped low over the grasslands heading for the hill. Startled birds of some sort burst from the roof of the woods as the avians landed amongst the curiously formed trees.
The people unburdened themselves in the clearings of the hill’s peak. The rusty commercial containers were opened and unloaded. Mike, Theo and Marky led a patrol to circle the hill and scout out the environs. Anton and his men began a survey of the site, locating water sources. Others erected a village of tents. All was purposeful. The novachekij, the older among them nursing the avian babies, perched up in the branches to keep out of the way. They watched with wide eyes while the adults and meledhij worked below them.
The golden sun in the sky, not much different from the one under which they had been born, reached its zenith and declined. Evening came and fires sparkled on the hilltop. The smell of cooking pervaded the air as Lance and Damien took flight to the highest tree of the hill.
The sky was purple above them. Lance smiled at Damien. ‘So here we are, my old friend and now my king, with a world to explore and a kingdom to build. You know what I’m going to ask?’
Damien took Lance around his shoulder. ‘It’s so exciting and so scary. First we build our town and explore the neighbourhood. Then once it’s safe, we’ll do what I promised, never fear. We have homes to build for your people and a welcome to get ready. Er ... any idea how we get them here?’
‘Yup. Maxxie told me, though it’ll mean I have to say goodbye to an old friend. But then, with the migration, I lay down my job as the Accuser anyway. I and my people are leaving the courts of Heaven, and we will become avians, not angels. Satan has resigned.’
The Petakhij by this time were sitting around the fires they had built, perhaps the first ever to be lit on the exoplanet that was to be their new home. A strong male voice burst out in a Bulgarian country song, and soon all were singing along.
As the adults finished, Danny and Rafe stood out and marshalled the novachekij. Then for the first time the astonishing treble clarity of an avian children’s choir rang out through the still air, and all was hushed as their voices soared in a song composed by Rafe and Gabe Atwood for just that night. And the ethereal lead of the choir – answering, harmonising and rising above the chorus – was that of young Karol Tsernatov, to whom the very stars seemed to pause in their courses to listen.
Dawn flooded golden light over the nameless world that was now the home of the Petakhij. For a while there would be communal meals and living, and the catering team was first out of the tents as the sun rose. Babies were happily catered to by their own mothers as they sat together and gossiped in a circle. Children sitting on felled tree trunks chattered excitedly as they scoffed their rations. The work teams ate off piled plates before taking up their tools and setting to their tasks under the cheerful direction of Anton and Damien.
Well-equipped warrior patrols, armed with crossbow and pike, lifted off to explore towards the cardinal points of the compasses they had brought with them from earth. They would be gone for several days.
As the first day ended, Damien and Davey watched Anton supervising the roofing of their first permanent shelter. ‘That really is brilliant, mate,’ Damien concluded.
Anton chuckled. ‘I suppose we had to be a tree-dwelling people when all is said and done. But this native tree seems more or less designed to be used by us. The wood is fine-grained and so easy to cut and trim. The shape of the multiple tree boles makes it simple to insert plank floors, steps and slatted walls at convenient levels. All you need is a stout shingle roof and there you have it: a house-tree fit for a petakh!’
‘Inspired, I’d say,’ added Davey. ‘Smells pretty good too. Is that the wood?’
‘Wait till you see my idea for a water supply and plumbing. These branches are hollow and make perfect down-pipes. I’ve got a few smaller poles soaking to see whether they distort with long exposure to water. If not, I think we may soon have running water. I have cisterns and settling tanks under construction on the hillside.’
‘We’ll have a lottery tonight, to see which family gets to live in the first official Petakh home on this planet. How about that? I’ve begun a council housing list! What a kingly act.’
As the sun sank towards the western horizon the first messengers flew back from the scouting parties. The Radkornatij met under lamplight to discuss the emerging map of the realm to which they had laid claim. Helen had resigned her three sleeping children to her parents.
‘So,’ pondered Damien, ‘there’re no sentient natives so far as we can tell, but plenty of animal life.’ He turned to the meledh runner who had brought the despatch from the northern scouts, none other than Marsin. ‘So kid, tell us again what you saw in the mountains.’
The boy bobbed respectfully to his king. ‘Sire, it was definitely a flying creature. The lord Mike did not close with it, but commanded us to keep it under observation from a distance. We shadowed it till it turned and disappeared beyond that northernmost mountain range you see traced on the sketch map. It was far bigger than a petakh.’
‘In that case, I want sentries in the air above our camp from now on. Looks like there is something on this world to be cautious of. You’re a good lad, Marsin. Get some sleep and rejoin Mike with some additional supplies first thing tomorrow.’
The boy went off in search of his usakamarad Radovan, who was sturdy enough to work with the construction crews.
A fortnight passed. The exploring parties returned to report on the terrain within a radius of a hundred kilometres. Then they went out again to locate useful minerals, catalogue flora and assess further sites for habitation. They had not seen again the large airborne creature first sighted in the northern border range.
The town named Antonsberh in honour of its builder was slowly covering the wooded hill with its airy and delightful house-trees, soon decorated with paint and coloured screens. Children played on its beaten paths and winged adults flitted between its dwellings. Several larger halls were under construction at ground level: a school-house for the novachekij, and lodges as club-houses for the teenage meledhij under the care of their Warden. School was now back in session for those under sixteen and not yet in the grip of their zharpulavnij, the sexual frenzy that seized the late adolescent avians and drove them periodically into the air to seek partners and eventually to breed, if heterosexually inclined.
The cargo containers had been relocated at the foot of the hill and were now home to a temporary clinic and lab, and there Damien found Yuri, Mattie and Gus one day at work on the local fauna. One thing they had brought with them from earth was a well-equipped laboratory, powered by solar panels and several wind turbines: here were a suite of computers, scanners and all sorts of arcane equipment with blinking lights.
Gus had been dissecting one of the herd animals from the surrounding plains. The group were poring over test results as to its body chemistry and for some reason – perhaps tradition – the three had donned lab coats, the only clothing brought from earth to the exoplanet. They had tailored openings for wings at the back. Yuri looked up at Damien’s approach. ‘Good news, lord king. The animal life here is not harmful to our physiology.’
Mattie grinned and waved a skewer. ‘Actually it’s quite tasty, Daimey. Wanna piece of my deer kebab? I grilled it over a Bunsen burner.’
‘Yeah well, watch your waistline, mate,’ Daimey replied. ‘It’s good news though. We have to start producing our own food, so hunting parties will go out tomorrow. We brought enough supplies to get us through winter – if there is one – but after that we’re on our own, and no supply ships’ll be coming. What will be coming soon enough is a large addition to our population, and they’ll need feeding too.’
Gus blinked up at Damien from his microscope. ‘The observations and measurements I’ve taken indicate that the exoplanet is 1.4 times the mass of earth, with a gravity of 1.09 earth standard. As avians we barely notice the difference, though humans would. The air is a similar mix of gases, though with a higher proportion of oxygen and less carbon dioxide. You will notice that fires burn brighter here than on earth, which will mean that a fire-rescue service may need to be a priority for our social infrastructure.
‘The day here is 25.3 earth hours and the year lasts 343.2 days. We will have to modify our calendar somewhat as a result. There is little evidence of obliquity in our planet’s rotation, as I believe its two large moons keep it more stable on its axis. Its orbit also does not appear to be unusually elliptical. These facts rather indicate that there will not be seasons here the way we experienced them on earth, though it is likely there may be wet and dry times during the year.
‘Early observations indicate that the larger and more distant of our moons has a rich atmosphere and water. It may be habitable, possibly even inhabited. A team of my more advanced novachek students has it under telescopic observation, scanning for artificial light on its dark side.’
Damien widened his eyes. ‘You don’t disappoint, Gussie. You know, though, it’s about time it stopped being ‘the planet’ and the ‘larger and smaller moons’, We’ve got to get names. Any ideas?’
Everyone looked at each other. Eventually Gus offered hesitantly‘Er ... Terra Nova?’
‘It’s sort of traditional in science fiction novels,’ Gus appeared apologetic about it.
‘I’ll put it to the Council, Gussie mate. I’m sure we can do better. As for the moons, we’ll have a naming competition amongst the people. It’ll keep morale up. Now tell me, Yuri love, how’s the health of the Petakhij?’
‘I’m expecting to deliver our first extraterrestrial majalath tomorrow, sire. It’s Sarra Lukaszovica, a younger meledh girl who became pregnant with her boyfriend just after the siege of Kaleczyk. They’re in the delivery ward if you want to visit them, lord king. Mother and babies are very healthy.’
‘And the rest of the people?’
‘Construction accidents, but nothing serious; a lot of bumps and bruises amongst the more adventurous novachekij: the boys will insist on leaping from the tallest trees. One got blown hard into a trunk and fell twenty feet; my first broken wing. He’ll recover well, though. We are a resilient species.’
‘What’s next, Yuri?’
‘The lord Davey has teams of collectors out looking for samples of fruits, edible fungi and anything that looks like wild cereals. He has already located a rather tasty root vegetable, which may be susceptible to cultivation. There is an analogue to terrestrial grass of course, but nothing has yet been found that carries much in the way of a seed head that will produce a viable – and eatable – crop. I’m very reluctant to sow the terrestrial cereals we brought, not until we’ve done many more tests. Till then they remain sealed.’
‘We’ll need to make a decision soon.’ Gus observed. ‘But a problem is going to be the frequency and intensity of any wet season. We don’t want to sow a crop and see it washed away by a monsoon, or withered by a dry season for that matter. Perhaps Davey can set aside areas which can be drained and irrigated effectively. These riverlands have a heavy alluvial soil, but must be liable to flooding.’
Damien left cheered by the news so far from his science team, but still anxious about the inevitable and imminent increase to his responsibilities.
It was seven terrestrial weeks after the Great Uprising that Damien made the decision. Commands were issued and all explorers and distant workers were recalled. The entire Great Family was to be assembled on the hill of Antonsberh, at whose peak a great bonfire was erected ready to be lit. The town was full of avians making preparations. The succulent smell of roasting plains buffalo scented the air and made the children’s mouths water when they were not rehearsing their singing. Native fruits and legumes were piled high on tables. Coloured lamps hung from every low-hanging branch.
For the first time since arrival on the exoplanet, an enormous myelhei was wheeling high above the hill, as sexually-charged adolescents and older unattached avians sought fun and relaxation. Couples and smaller friendship groups rutted to the east above the plain and river, away from the spiralling flock rising with the warm air over Antonsberh.
Damien, Helen, Lance and Reggie had other concerns. ‘Antonsberh will be too small for the new community,’ the king decided.
Lance nodded. ‘I suggest we start a new settlement in the mountains to the north. They’re mineral-rich and there is a workable limestone, so Davey was saying. I think the People are happier in the mountains than down on the plains in any case.’
‘I’ll pass the suggestion on to the High Chancellor, my lord Lance. Where is Davey, by the way?’
Reggie chipped in. ‘I saw him by the riverbank. He was watching the couples doing it over the river. He seemed a little … down, I guess.’
Helen agreed. ‘He’s been losing himself in organising the settlement process, working all hours. I wonder if it’s all displacement.’
‘He misses Terry still, you think?’
Helen nodded. ‘Yes, Daimey. He’s got no one to enjoy all this excitement with, and the myelhei can’t offer him companionship, only release. The older ones get bored with it in the end.’
‘Not Anton. He’s right in there.’
‘There are exceptions, maybe. But even he admits that his kids need a mum, especially little Dana.’
‘In the meantime, since your parents have our kids, what about a myelhei of our own, darling?’ Helen grinned her consent and took Damien’s hand. They launched and headed to the rutting area downriver. Reggie and Lance followed on, and both couples were joined and lost in their intense airborne couplings before they had flown more than half a kilometre, Damien on Helen’s back and Lance on Reggie’s.
It was the last moments of dusk that day, and the great bonfire had been lit at the peak of Antonsberh. The singing had died down and the Great Family stood together uncertain as to what was to happen next. Lance and Damien launched themselves and beat high into the cloudless evening sky. Half a kilometre above the town they hovered. They could see the lights of their home twinkling in the gloom of the plain below.
Lance called out. ‘Now, my lord king and greatest friend, this is the final resolution, here on this strange world light-years and lifetimes away from the one where you were born. For this is where you save my people.’
‘Do it, Lance.’
The Satan for the last time lifted his spear and hurled it higher into the sky. It did not fall back. Instead it appeared to rip the fabric of reality. There were cries from the people below as golden light blossomed above them like a second sun and lit up the dusky landscape. Falling from the light came many shapes fashioned of the same brilliance, settling like hundreds of shining flakes on to the hill below. Lance and Damien swooped down after them.
The avians stood amongst their fires facing outwards. Radovan and Marsin peered into the gloom between the home-trees of their town. Vague shapes were moving towards them up the hill. Seeing one emerge in front of him from between the trunks, Marsin moved towards it, trying to make out what it was. As he did so, it seemed to coalesce into a strange avian which blinked at him, its wings flexing and yellow eyes focussing on his. As he stared, it seemed to him that small breasts swelled out on its ribcage and its pelvis widened. Almost before he realised what was happening, a beautiful female meledh was smiling at him. Many more such greetings were going on all around him.
He took her hand. ‘Who are you?’ he breathed.
She answered in perfect Serbian, ‘My name? I … don’t know. I’ve come here to find one. Our lord the prince Satan called us down. We come to experience mortal life and learn about love. We come to renew both our races. Can you teach us?’
Marsin grinned, suddenly blissful. ‘I can try.’
Davey Skipper alone did not join the festival of greeting. He was perched well outside Antonsberh, listening to the gurgling of the dark waters on the river bank and brooding on his loss, even as the golden rift bloomed and faded in the sky. Somehow what was going on back in the town seemed to have little to do with him. His mind was tugged backwards not forwards.
A sudden splash out in the river forced him back to focus. A fountain of spray had shot up as a figure plummeted into the waters, thrashing as the current took it. Davey leapt into the air and dived over the stream. He seized an arm that emerged from the river and hauled out a bedraggled avian, its wings heavy with water and quite useless. He carried it to the shore and set it down. It went on all fours, coughing and retching.
More coughing followed until a young voice sputtered. ‘This is physical existence? Horrible!’
Davey helped the new angel-born to his feet. He was a meledh boy, small for an avian, and seemed rather cross. But, to Davey’s experienced eye, behind the crossness was a lurking fear that the boy was fighting. His heart was moved, even more so than by the boy’s delicate beauty, discernible even in the gloom.
‘What’s your name, kid?’
‘Name? We … I … I don’t know. Should I have one?’
‘I’m David Skipper.’
‘Oh! I’ve heard of you. Mendamero’s lover and great friend. I have made a special study of him; he is my ... hero, you say?’
‘You’d better come along with me to town where the party’s just starting. Here, we’ll walk. Your wings are all soggy. How come you fell?’
‘I tried to fly with the rest, but … I have a problem with physical co-ordination it seems.’ The boy then proved it by tripping over a rock and yelping, just saved by Davey’s quick steadying response. He held the boy fast, and was clung to.
‘You are warm,’ the meledh observed. ‘It is a pleasant sensation clinging to you. We discussed this before coming here, we angels. Sensation was one of the things we most wanted to experience.’
‘Drowning’s not a nice one.’
The boy pondered and, to Davey’s delight chuckled. ‘That was humour. Laughter was the sensation I most wanted.’
Davey looked down into the pensive face below him and was moved. The boy was struggling hard against his fear and confusion, and yet was grasping bravely at his humanity.
Davey kissed him spontaneously and the kiss was eagerly returned.
‘Oh … that’s a powerful sensation,’ the boy said as he broke off. ‘My male member is …’
‘That’s an erection, kid. You’re apparently in zharpulavnij.’ Davey was clumsily groped.
‘You are huge, much bigger than me. I have this feeling in my bowels, as if I’m empty. Does this mean …’
Davey pulled him down and the boy’s education about his sexuality both began and was joyfully consummated many times in the grass on the dark plain outside the town.
Davey awoke with the sunrise to find a slim and beautiful boy sitting up beside him smiling down into his face, and gently touching his dark hair. The meledh’s wings were a bright blue and his skin was ivory. But what was most remarkable was that his face was not at all unlike that of Henry Atwood, the uncoordinated boy who was Davey’s first and hopeless love.
‘Cornelius,’ Davey said. ‘Your name is Cornelius, and I rather think we may be destined for each other, kid.’