Two moons, one a light blue at crescent, the other a dull gray at full, cast their light upon the jungle-covered land of the planet called Twelve. Beneath the canopy, the colorless light broke through only rarely, so that it appeared as pinpricked beams that shot like arrows to the uneven, moss-covered jungle floor.
Chemy scanned the lights as her mother took apart the two braids on her head. They sat behind their hut in the relative privacy afforded by the dense trees.
“Jolon will ask tonight Mother.”
Mother dipped her fingers into the gourd of honeysuckle oil and water hanging from a leather tong around her waist. The oil scented Chemy’s hair and made it more manageable to work with.
“My daughter, already a single braid,” Mother said. She cupped Chemy’s chin with an oil slickened hand and turned her toward her. Chemy’s face was strong, just like her father’s, with bold cheekbones and a dominating chin. Her skin was darker than the night around them, and smooth and unmarred. Her eyes were bright and large and commanding. She didn’t see much of herself in her daughter, not from the outside. On the inside though, that was where their similarities lay.
She saw the love she felt mirrored in Chemy’s intent face. Chemy could love so that it showed. People took a notice to the rawness of such a thing. Chemy would most likely be a leader someday, with her own tribe of followers, and she would be powerful.
“I’m proud of who you have become and who you are to be,” she said.
Chemy tugged her face from her mother’s hand and looked out at the shafts of moonlight that pierced the area behind their hut. They were familiar lights, lights that she had grown up with. As Mother braided her hair to fall down the center of her back, she wondered what it would be like to live in another hut and to experience different lights.
“I love him,” she said. She had never said the words of her heart out loud before. The release of it to the hardness surrounding her made her tremble. Twelve wasn’t a place that took kindly to love. Life under the trees didn’t have time for such softness. But, there it was, out now, to face the world.
Mother stopped braiding her hair. Chemy could feel the tension radiating from her and worried that her confession of loving Jolon had somehow upset her. But no, it was something else. She heard it to. The familiar sounds of the jungle had gone quiet and a low hum had taken its place.
“Come,” Mother said as she stood. Chemy took a moment to touch her unfinished braid before she followed her mother to the front of their hut.
The entirety of their village, all thirty five souls, had gathered in the little communal area between the huts. The fire at its center had been fed, so that she could see each and every face. Her father stood apart from the others, closer to the fire. Nobody spoke. The only sounds were the crackling of the flames and the steadily rising hum that seemed to be getting closer. She saw Jolon standing with his parents across the way. He looked so proud and strong with his head still so recently shaved from his rites to manhood. The dark pelt he wore from his first kill shone dully in the firelight.
His eyes found hers and he smiled. It felt like her chest would soon explode with the excitement he roused in her. She pulled on the skins she wore and wished she’d had the time to finish her womanhood ceremony before seeing him again. Her hides were for a child and now a lie.
She was a woman and he was to be her man.
Her mind was lost in that thought when her father began addressing the gathering.
“The prophesy is upon us,” he said quietly. She could barely hear his words over the gathering hum.
She looked to him and saw that he had turned his intense stare in her direction. The power of her father’s eyes had been enough to meld this group together, and his ferocious leadership had seen it prosper where so many others had failed. She had always felt secure in the knowledge that he kept vigil over her and their tribe, but now something shown in his eyes that she had never seen before.
He was uncertain.
A boom unlike any thunder she had ever heard blasted from above. She had time to look up at the canopy before it ripped away. A light greater than the sun pierced down upon their huts.
“Father!” she screamed. He outstretched a hand in her direction. His eyes were still upon her.
“Run,” he commanded before shooting skyward toward the light, faster than a bird.
Mother’s arms gripped her shoulders as she stood transfixed. Another of her people went to the light then another.
“Go,” Mother said and gave her a shove. She staggered away, until she was out from under the intense blaze.
There, she turned around. Her people were running, but many were not fast enough. One after another went to the sky. Her mother, who had run with her to the edge of the light, lurched away from her. She grabbed at her hand as she slid back toward the light. She struggled to hold on to her as her feet slid on the mossy ground.
Her mother lifted from the ground so that her body floated in front of her.
“Stay strong, Chemy. I love you.”
And then she was gone, ripped away by that unseen force.
She fell to her knees and stretched her arms to the blinding light.
“Chemy run!” She heard Jolon call. She looked in the direction of his voice and saw him standing on the far edge of the clearing, just under the trees. He cupped his strong hands around his mouth.
“Run!” he called again.
Then he too was torn away from the shadows and up into the light.
She shook her head as her heart seemed to tear in two. She stood and gazed at the light that had taken everything away from her.
The prophesy – it couldn’t be true. It was a myth, a crazy story told to children at night when the rains were heavy and the jungle pressed close. It told of how they had come to live under the trees many, many years ago, of great arrows made of metal that flew among the stars on wings of flame.
The story said that one day those that had brought them would return.
She had never thought that it could be real.
With one last look at the awful light, she ran into the safety of the darkness.
An old parig trail whose scent was so faint as to be of little use for any predator led her deeper into the jungle. She ran and ran, zigzagging through the pinpricks of moonlight until her legs trembled and her lungs burned. Her bare feet never faltered on the slick, uneven ground.
Still, she heard the buzzing hum. She stepped from the little game trail and cut across into unmade land. She climbed a tree and began swinging from vine to vine.
The hum from above the trees was getting closer.
She released the vine and landed softly on the loamy soil. Her skins were stained, and her dark body was covered in splashes of mud and smears of jungle green. She heard the rushing of the great river off to her left and glanced through the gloom in that direction. She might find escape there. The rush of the harsh waters might well carry her to safety.
Safety. Her mother and father had been captured. Jolon had been taken. She looked about at the shooting beams of moonlight surrounding her. Safety didn’t matter now. She wanted to be where Jolon was. She had to find him. What was safety compared to a life without him?
The eerie noise from above settled overhead. She tugged and smoothed her hides and waited to be caught by the light.
Release, a letting go of a pressure that had covered her entire body, was the first thing she felt, then cold, a cold more frigid than ever thought possible. She shivered at its touch.
Sound followed – beeps and chirps that no bird or insect had ever made. They were dead sounds from a nightmare. And she heard voices. They spoke ugly words of sharp, clipped nonsense.
She lay on her back, held to a smooth, hard surface with straps. And the surface moved. She slid across some level plane. She tried to move her head to better see where she had been taken, but she could not. Her head was lashed in place. All she could see was bright, white light overhead. It was as if the soft, orange sun had been replaced by a harsh, unfeeling glare that sought to illuminate everything.
Things buzzed around her like monotone insects. More than once she felt their sting. She thought she caught a glimpse of one in her soft vision, a gray thing of sharp angles, but she couldn’t be sure.
She entered tunnels that growled like thunder and vibrated like quakes. Some of these places were dark as pitch, and others were red as blood and as blue as mountain flowers, but none held warmth, none had life. She could feel nothing of this place.
The movement finally did stop and the bindings holding her retracted. She stood upon a floor smoother than stone. Everything around her was wavering silver that tricked her eye. Two people stood before her. They had masks that covered their faces and wore garments that billowed out so that she could not see their true shape. Bizarre symbols were in black upon their chests.
“Congratulations, you passed the physical,” one of them said. She could not tell which. It was a masculine voice, but flat, without a soul.
She waited for them to continue. Jolon was here somewhere. She needed to know what was going on.
“Now you have a choice to make,” the voice said.
“I want to be with Jolon,” she said. There was no other choice.
One of the two raised its hand like it wanted to offer greetings.
“Not so fast. There are laws. You must understand first. Volition is required.”
She nodded as if she understood.
“You have something that we do not,” he said. She looked down at her dirty hides and empty hands. She had nothing. They had taken everything away from her.
“You have your life,” he continued. “A life filled with knowledge on how to live in nature, how to survive in the harshness of the wild. You have physical tolerances and instincts and ways that we, who live so much differently, do not.”
She almost shook her head, but restrained herself. She would let the strange ones talk. Sooner or later they would tell her how to find Jolon, and if they did not, she would ask. She would beg, if it came to that.
“Your people have done well here. Our foothold is secure. Others will now follow and this planet will grow in a natural way. Do you understand?”
She shifted from foot to foot. “Yes,” she lied.
The voice laughed in a mockery of real emotion. “You don’t,” he said.
A chill went down her spine. Had she answered wrong? Would they now keep her from Jolon?
The man sighed. “Let me explain. Man has conquered the stars and has been spreading from planet to planet. Our first attempts at this were failures. We attempted to bully our old ways onto fresh planets. We forced ourselves using technology and our own ideas of what civilization should be. It took time, and lives, to learn that this was not the way.”
“Now, our first settlers are those more equipped to handle their environment, people like you, who have physical tolerances that we do not, people who do not have preconceived notions on what civilization is. This allows for adaption rather than conflict. This planet, number twelve, has reached the stage where man can thrive.”
“Those that want may stay and teach those coming. Those who pass the physical may go on, to a brand new world, number seventeen.”
The voice stopped and the unnatural buzzing that had been in the background filled the silence. She wanted away from the dead feeling of this place. But which choice had Jolon made? Had he gone or had he stayed?
“I want to be with Jolon,” she said again.
One of the masked men nodded. “Are you certain? It will be dangerous. You may not survive.”
She was not worried about survival like these two strange beings.
“Yes, I’m certain.”
She woke to a roaring that reminded her of a volcano. There was soft grass at her back. She opened her eyes to a blue-green sky and saw a great silver arrow being pushed to the heavens with fire. She sat up and saw dozens of her people also waking. She wasted no time in looking for Jolon.
He found her before she found him.
“Chemy!” he called, and she was in his arms. She buried her face into the softness of his newly earned pelt.
She pulled away and looked up to him.
“I hoped you would come,” he said.
She took a step back. The others had gathered around. She recognized a few faces, but didn’t see her mother and father. She was about to mention this to Jolon when he dropped to a knee before her.
“Chemy, will you take my hand and walk this path beside me. I have only my love and my strength to offer. It is yours.”
The gathered let loose a howling trill of ululation.
Her heart ached with the joy of a dream fulfilled. She took in the smiling faces surrounding her then gathered up one of Jolon’s hands in both of hers.
“Yes,” she said. It felt as if the love she felt washed over the entire group, including them in her happiness.
“I will follow you,” a young man said from the crowd.
“As will I,” another, a young woman no older than Chemy herself, said.
Jolon stood and placed an arm around her as one after another of those surrounding her and Jolon fledged their fealty.
They had started a tribe.
Side by side, they turned to look at where they were.
They stood in a meadow surrounded by trees with black bark and thin, dark-green leaves. Sounds of strange life echoed all around. She saw one trail after another easily marked by creatures she could not identify.
The air was cooler than she was used to, and it tasted different. She looked up and saw a whitish-yellow sun beating down upon them.
“Seventeen,” she said.
“Our new home,” he responded.
Our. She liked the sound of that.