This time, Maria approached Grigor’s grave with excitement and jubilation. The clearing seemed brighter, cheerier since her last visit. The twitter of thrush and tit lent a gaiety to what Maria normally thought of as a somber place. She could barely kneel still as she quickly prayed her thank yous.
“She’s obviously in need of help,” Maria told the tombstone. “She’s confused, wears strange clothes and speaks with an accent. I think she may be in trouble, running away from something. She seems secretive, but not in a sinister way, more like the refugees were before we gained their trust. Helping her will almost be like old times.”
A breeze gently caressed her face and she almost felt Grigor’s warm hand on her shoulder, almost heard his baritone voice say “Dragoste meu,” in her right ear. She felt his love — their love for each other — fill her with warmth, like hot tea on a chilly September night.
She smiled quietly for a moment more and then looked up toward the sun. “Oh my! I must have been here for hours. Arian will be worried.” She got up and hurried back to her cabin.
Arian entered the clearing where Tengali lay waiting. She had forgotten how broken and shattered all the trees and bushes had looked, ripped from their roots by her inexpert landing. Camouflaging this would take some time, unless….
“Treylar,” Arian said to the hatch. It responded with a slight jerk and then opened smoothly. She stepped inside and the hatch closed behind her.
“Computer, repair status.”
A crackle came through the speakers. “Flak!” Arian cursed under her breath. Then, “Vocal Interface at 90 percent,” came through the speakers accompanied by the soft crackling of static. “Port aft thruster at 98 percent.” Tengali’s voice was smooth and deep. Thorrin always liked a masculine computer. “Self diagnostic found a leak in medical bay refrigeration unit two. All other systems go. Repairs will be complete in approximately 12.6 hours.”
“Good,” Arian said. “Do you need all the robounits to complete the repairs?”
“No. Six will remain idle. Do you need me to activate them for some other task?”
“Yes. Have them clean things up outside and then prepare a better camouflage for your exterior.”
There was a pause as Tengali activated his external sensors to survey the surroundings. “Activating robounits. Clean up and camouflage should be complete within two hours. Any further commands?”
“Not right now. I’m going to program the protective shields and then I’ll be leaving. I expect you to take care of yourself and protect your technology from all intruders, O.K.? I may need you to be functional at a moment’s notice.”
“Understood. I await your perimeter protection activation command.” At that, the voice and accompanying static went silent.
As Arian made her way through the halls to the command center, she noticed the work the robounits had already accomplished. Where there had been dust and bits of wiring, wall and ceiling panel, there was a freshly swept floor. Burn stains from sparks sent out from frayed wires had been removed. Tengali looked almost new. You couldn’t tell he had been burning most of his fuel in a race from home or that he had just the day before accomplished a rather bumpy landing on a strange planet. No, he was tidy, clean, sterile — like the place she was trying her best not to remember.
As Tengali approached Hirth, a fleet of fighters and a couple of medic ships greeted it. Apparently, Tengali was radiating high levels of radiation and officials feared that the crew was unable to pilot the ship, if they were alive at all. The fighters were under orders to destroy him if he got too close to citizen space — they couldn’t have Tengali’s atmosphere-rended remains showering death over half the populace.
“Tengali. This is Hagoth Six. Do you read?” It was Dariana, Treylar’s fiancée. The concern and fear in her heart colored the professionalism of her voice.
“Hagoth Six, this is Tengali. I read you.” Arian spoke almost robotically, remembering how her father had always done this. She felt numb all over, and yet a small, remote beam of relief was piercing the darkness of her sorrow.
“Arian? Is that you?” Dariana again. “Where’s Thorinn? How is everyone?” In her heart, she was really asking about Treylar.
“They are all gone. I am the sole survivor.” That’s pretty much all Arian could remember clearly before the lab. With these words — the first time she vocalized the impossible, terrible truth — the world went iridescent and everything else became a blur.
Medics in radiation suits boarded Tengali. They rushed her unresponsive body to the quarantine bay of the lead medic ship. Then they scrubbed and examined her, then took her to the University hospital where she had been treated before. Dr. Horak and his colleague who had created Arian’s new nanites were there.
In and out of all the rushing from this place to the other, Dariana would appear, her face seemingly frozen in fighter pilot professionalism. Gone was the laughing sister-in-law-to-be Arian had once known. And then she’d go. Arian couldn’t remember Dariana’s coming or going, just one moment she was there, the next she was gone.
Finally, things settled down. The world ceased to rush by in a blur and Arian felt like she was waking up from a dream. She was sitting in a white room, on a white cot, wearing white hospital pajamas. Dariana was sitting across from her on a silver metal chair.
“Arian? Is that you? Are you really there?”
“What do you mean?” Arian felt dizzy, the cot she sat on kept threatening to leap up at her.
“Dr. Horak!” Dariana bolted out of her chair to the door, opened it and continued to shout. “Come quick! Arian has returned!” She turned around, rushed up to Arian and took her in a big, tight hug. “You’ve been unresponsive for weeks, ever since we boarded Tengali.” She was silent a moment and then pulled away. “Arian, how do you feel?”
“A little dizzy, but O.K. Where am I?” Arian didn’t notice the cloud pass over Dariana’s face because Dr. Horak entered the room.
“How are you feeling, Arian?” he said as he strode across the room toward her.
“A little dizzy,” she replied. “Where am I?”
He took a small, slender pen light out of his breast pocket and examined Arian’s eyes. “Follow the light…. No, just with your eyes.”
She looked to the right, then to the left and again to the right. Up. Down.
“Hmm.” Dr. Horak said. “Your response time is back to normal. Welcome back, Arian.” He didn’t sound genuinely pleased to have her back. That was strange for him. All her life she had known Dr. Horak — he was the doctor that had been assigned to her at birth. He had always been caring, warm and genuine. Something was wrong.
Arian looked at Dariana. Her face was calm but her eyes looked … Arian couldn’t quite place it at first … horrified.
The room was silent. No one seemed to want to speak. Arian had felt this silence before, shortly after reporting to hospital when her wrist-light came on. They were hiding something.
Slowly, with carefully measured tone and inflection, she said, “Where am I?”
Dariana looked at Dr. Horak, her eyes pleading. Finally, Dr. Horak said, “You’re in the Hartha University Research Laboratories’ main research facility. You know, the place where your special nanites were developed.”
“Why am I here? Shouldn’t I be in hospital?”
“First things first. Do you know what happened to your family? Do you remember what happened?” Dr. Horak’s voice was calm, smooth, devoid of any telling inflection.
Arian sat there a moment. What was Dr. Horak doing? Why was he evading the subject? Then, something about the way Dariana looked at her made her realize she had been asked a question.
She looked a Dr. Horak and let the memories flood in. One death pod before the other, the entire ordeal played out in reverse in her mind, ending in a pool of blood.
“Treylar,” she whispered and began to cry. Dariana went to her and sat beside her on the cot. She put her arm around Arian’s shoulders and held her until the sobs subsided and Arian could tell the story.
Two hours later, the men came for the first time. Dr. Horak argued with them. “She’s been through enough! Can’t this wait?”
They started the tests out slowly, modestly, building their concerto of suffering like a symphony working its way to the climax. First it was common poisons found in any home. Cleaning solutions. Pesticides. Everyday cosmetics. Then, more aggressive poisons. Solvents. Industrial chemicals. Laboratory preservatives. Each carefully measured and injected into her blood stream, placed carefully into her eyes with droppers or dribbled into her ears.
Arian survived them all with not much more than agonizing pain, severe nausea and the occasional coughing up of blood. Once the pain went away, they would examine her and each time find the same result — no damage, she was healed as if nothing had happened at all.
Then came the carvings. First they cut her fingers. Then her arms. Then stabbed her in the abdomen. Then sliced open her neck. Each cut drew more blood, was more painful. Before everyone’s eyes, the wounds would heal. One by one, they would reverse course, leaving flawless skin behind.
Arian’s body survived them all. Each new test. Each new mutilation. Each new torture. The pain would go away. The wounds would heal and leave no trace. As good as new.
This went on for months. Each new day brought a new test, a new research question, a new torment for Arian’s body to survive. And even stranger that this was that Dr. Malfiant, the woman who masterminded Arian’s miraculous nanites, never seemed to be present. It was apparent that she developed the tests, signed the orders and was involved in some way. But she never was around to witness the implementation of her experiments.
After awhile, Arian wished she were dead, but no longer was the desire born out of survivor’s guilt. She just wanted the pain to end. The physical pain and the emotional pain. Her family was dead. Gone. No longer on this journey called life.
Each day she was stoic, but each night she cried herself to sleep.
Dr. Horak visited her every other day, took her vitals, asked her about her emotional well-being. At first, Arian was honest, but then it ceased to matter. She just remained silent through his visits.
Then, one night she was awakened by Dariana’s voice. When Arian opened her eyes, Dariana put her finger to her lips and handed her some street clothes — the rust trousers and tawny jerkin of a fighter pilot.
“It was all I could bring without raising suspicion,” Dariana had said.
Now Arian noticed that Dr. Horak was at the door. “Hurry, we don’t have much time.”
When she finished programming the protective shields, Arian disembarked Tengali. The robounits had done a great job. The newly made clearing looked as natural as any she had seen and Tengali looked like a oversized nest — something a very large creature might call home. Well, she thought, I guess that’s as good as I’m going to get, given the resources. “Computer, lock all doors. Let only myself in — code word Treylar. Mark.”
The forest was darker than it had been when she arrived. The sun was past its zenith. She had better get back before Maria got worried and came looking for her. As she made her way out of the clearing, she heard a strange grunting sound and leaves crunching under someone’s — or something’s — feet. She turned around just in time to see a dark gray, four-legged creature step into the clearing on the other side. It had coarse, bristle-like hair covering its body with a narrow mane of longer hair along its spine. It was about as tall as one of the robounits and about as long as Arian’s arm. It had a long, narrow nose that ended in such a manner as to thrust its nostrils in plain view. Its small ears were standing up as it stopped and regarded her. Its tail, which had a tuft at the end, jerked back and forth. It looked dangerous enough, with its thick, strong shoulders and four tusks jutting out of its face.
Tengali made a noise and the creature turned its head away from Arian. It sniffed the air a few times and then turned back and grunted. It started forward, angling its tusks in a menacing way. Tengali chirped again. The creature turned towards the ship, revealing that its hindquarters were much slimmer than its front. Then it charged the ship, careening headfirst into the protective shield.
There was the zzst sound of electricity, sparks flew off the creature’s tusks and it was pushed back about the length of its body. It stood up and shook its head and charged again. This time the zzst was louder and the beast was thrown farther, but still left undamaged. This time, the creature got up, looked at the ship then at Arian and ran off into the forest in the opposite direction.
Arian became aware that her heart was beating rapidly and that she was holding her breath. “Thanks Tengali. I don’t think this simple knife Maria gave me would have been a match for those tusks!” Breathing a bit more normally now, she headed back towards Maria’s cabin.
They both arrived at the cabin at the same time. Arian told Maria about her encounter with the strange beast, being careful to leave out any details that would give Tengali’s presence away.
“That was a wild boar,” Maria said. “You need to be careful of them, especially in a couple of months when they begin to rut. Those tusks are quite dangerous.”
Maria looked up at the western horizon. “The sun will be setting in a few hours, but I think we still have time to pick up a few things from the market.”
Maria led Arian to a barn tucked under some trees behind the cabin. It was modest in size, but big enough to house a horse, a cart and a small storage area where strange and sharp-looking implements hung on the wall.
The beast Maria harnessed to the cart mesmerized Arian. There was nothing quite like it on Hirth. Although this one was obviously past its prime, she could tell it had been magnificent to behold in its day.
Maria led the beast out of the barn by a bit of leather rope intricately fastened about it head. Arian kept staring. It smelled of warm vegetation — like a tea her mother often drank before bed– and had big brown eyes that looked at her as if they shared a private knowledge, a secret behind Maria’s back.
The horse snorted as Maria pulled herself up into the cart and invited Arian to sit beside her on the bench. When Arian was seated, Maria urged the horse forward with a vocal clicking sound and a movement of the ropes. The cart jerked forward and moved out and onto the trail to town.
As they picked up speed, the trees on either side of the path seemed to whiz by. Arian found herself almost humming along to the clip clop sound of the creature’s hooves on the packed earth of the trail. The bunching and rippling of its muscles moving beneath its short-furred skin entranced her.
Maria watched the trail ahead and talked. She discussed the things she wanted to purchase – vegetables, flour, maybe a set of clothes for Arian. She hadn’t any luggage with her, did she? Of course not. Arian couldn’t understand most of what Maria said — the words were new and needed to be translated, so she just smiled, nodded and watched the ballet of the horse’s movements.
About halfway to the village, the horse lifted its tail and released its excrement. Arian laughed — she’d never seen a creature defecate before. In fact, since landing she’d seen more animals than she had in her entire life. Hirth was heavily industrialized and zoos were considered the playgrounds of only the very rich.
Arian’s laughter — bright and young and sparkling — took Maria by surprise. When she realized what she was laughing at and saw the genuine innocence in Arian’s eyes, Maria felt herself fall in love with the child. Suddenly, it was like Arian was her daughter and they were just going on one of many market trips together.
Joy filled her heart and overflowed as laughter. They laughed together, two women worlds apart but intimately bonded like family.
Soon, they could hear the bustle of the market place. Maria tied up the horse where other horses and mules stood tethered and munching on nearby grass.
At first the din of the marketplace sounded like so much human white noise. Within half an hour, Arian’s head began to hurt. The strain of so much translation made the translator run hot.
But the discomfort didn’t curb Arian’s excitement. There was so much to see here! She kept picking up things, pointing things out, and Maria named them. She pointed to some light green leafy bunches. “Lettuce,” said Maria. She pointed to some that were a darker green. “Spinach,” Maria said. She pointed at some dead, silver creatures lying in a basket. “Those are fish brought up from the Danube,” said Maria. She continued to point and learned the words for potatoes, wine, wheat and more. There was yarn made from the hair of sheep, as well as assorted fabrics, garments and blankets made from the yarn. There were leather shoes, fruit preserves and baked breads. After an hour, the pain began to subside and words started to come out of the noise on their own.
Much sooner than Arian would have liked, Maria said it was time to return home. Along the way, Arian was much more talkative — she was practicing forming the strange new words she had learned that day.
“I like the marketplace,” Arian said.
“It has its charms,” Maria replied with a grin. Again, the feeling of being with a daughter she had never been able to have, warmed the edges of her heart. There was something about Arian, an innocence or naivete that made her endearing. At moments she was quiet and shy, and then she’d turn around and be as talkative as a toddler. She seemed both wise and ignorant at the same time. Maybe I’m just a lonely old fool, Maria thought.
“I’d like to go there again,” Arian continued. “I’d like to see what other things are there that we did not have time to see.”
“Then you can come with me the next time I go,” Maria said. “I go every week to buy fresh food.”
The two women chittered on, accompanied by the rhythmic clopping of the horse’s hooves, the song of at least a dozen species of birds singing their last songs of the evening and the chorus of crickets and cicadas. To Arian, it seemed just moments from the time they left the marketplace to when they sat down to a tasty dinner of stew and fresh bread.
Outside, the forest went quiet. The horse snorted as the soft flutter of an owl’s wings pierced the sudden silence. A white owl softly landed on the tree stump outside Maria’s dining room window. It’s knowing eyes watched as the two women conversed, and listened carefully to the words as they made their way through the window and into the night.