May 30 2012 10:00am
On a savage backwater world, the last ragged survivors of an expedition to hunt down the infamous war criminal known as The Beast Magrison set off into an inhospitable wilderness in search of the alien village that may be sheltering this beast.
The hunters are aliens from two different species, the village is inhabited by strange aliens of yet another species, and Magrison himself is no sterling advertisement for humanity. Who’s human in this situation? The answer may surprise and upset you.
This novella, “Our Human,” from acclaimed SF writer Adam-Troy Castro explores the fate of the dread Magrison. Readers can find out more about the world that spawned Magrison by tracking down his Andrea Cort novels, Emissaries from the Dead and The Third Claw of God.
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Tor Books editor Liz Gorinsky.
At its onset, Barath’s expedition to capture the beast Magrison consisted of one Human Being, one Riirgaan, one Tchi, and Barath himself, who was a Kurth. All were hated outcasts from their respective homeworlds, with nothing in common but their monstrousness in the eyes of their peoples, and their common greed for the bounty on the head of the even greater monster they sought.
Half the party died within their first few days in the rain forest. The Tchi, an effete disgraced academic of some kind, contracted a lung infection and was inconsiderate enough to confess his sins while writhing with fever. “I was a monster!” he cried. “I betrayed my oaths! I subordinated macrotext! I faked understanding of thematic unity!” It was almost a relief when the Tchi’s spirit left him, midway through another anguished iteration of his transgressions.
The Human Being lasted only a few days longer. He had been a fugitive serial rapist, who before his sudden illness had enjoyed regaling his companions with detailed descriptions of his attacks on females of his species. Barath had endured these boasts but had trouble understanding why the human’s deeds were crimes. After all, sex for the females of the Kurth was never voluntary the first time; it couldn’t be, as they needed to be stalked and taken by force in order to enter heat. Rape was just part of the Kurthian biological imperative, accepted as necessary by both sexes. Human Beings seemed to have a different biological arrangement. Barath gathered that the species loathed those among their number who violated its spirit, but still couldn’t see why a species as notoriously insane as Human Beings would make such a big deal over a simple breach of etiquette. Given time, and sufficient boredom, he might have pressed the human for further explanation. But then the human ate the wrong thing, or stepped in the wrong puddle, or did something else to encourage one of the many diseases that lurked in the jungle, and soon he, too, was gone.
This left Barath alone, save for his maddening final companion, Mukh’than. The Riirgaan had been sold to him as a learned guide who had been living in the Irkiirish jungle because that was the best way to study its fauna—not as a half-mad, unwashed exile squatting in the bush because no other place would have him. Either way, the lizard-face might have known the terrain and the natives as well as Barath’s sources claimed, but he had all the personality of a pustule about to burst.
Barath almost killed this last companion the morning he discovered the parasite sucking at the soft meat between the armor plates on his right hind leg. It was a scaleworm, two claws long, glistening with the natural anesthetic the species uses to numb its hosts, and ready to burst after what must have been hours of feeding on him.
As Barath popped a claw and began to carve the beast from between his armor plates, Mukh’than watched with the unreadable fascination that had always so deeply annoyed Barath about Riirgaans. “You had better hope that’s a female. In that species, the eggs are produced by the female but injected into hosts by the male. If that’s a carrying male and he’s had a chance to unload, you’ll soon have hundreds of the creatures burrowing tunnels through your body. It isn’t pleasant, nor is it quick. Just last year, I came across an infected Bursteeni who lingered an entire rainy season as he was eaten up from the inside.”
Barath wanted to pop all twelve of his claws and give himself a pleasant little lesson in the finer points of Mukh’than’s anatomy. Instead he just lowered his head and proceeded with his impromptu surgery.
Mukh’than said, “You should clean that wound.”
Barath grumbled. “You should mind your own business.”
“You hired me for my guidance.”
“And I’m beginning to regret my choice.”
“If you want to find this village, I’m the only one who can help.”
“That’s what you say. And yet we seem to be lost.”
“We are not lost,” Mukh’than said. “We—” Then the skies rumbled, and he said, “Ah.” Before the torrent could begin, he pulled Barath’s sleepcube from his pack. The tent unfolded, expanded, and became a passable shelter for two, though the exterior canvas was already discolored from long exposure to the acidic Irkiirish rain.
“In terrain like this,” he continued, once they were both inside the shelter, “it can be difficult to judge distances. Rivers change courses; tree cover changes shape. Even hillsides erode, reform, pick and choose their own topography. Too, we are using outdated intelligence, fifteen cycles old; for all we know, the entire village might have died out or migrated elsewhere. You were told this. You should show more patience.”
The Kurth had a special treatment for people who urged patience at times of great urgency. It involved spikes and the careful placement of weighted stones. But Barath refrained. “I want the Beast. I want Magrison.”
And Mukh’than nodded: one of several gestures his race shared with the race of the hated fugitive they sought. “So do billions of others.”
* * *
Our Human remains huddled in the simple hut he built in the time of my firstfather’s firstfather’s firstfather, but we would know he was there even if the simple thatch walls were thick enough to muffle his hacking cough or his one-sided arguments with the many imagined ghosts of his past. We would know even if he wasn’t too old and weak to wander far from his place. We would know even if his alien flesh didn’t exude a rancid-fruit perfume subtle enough to tolerate but distinctive enough to serve as a constant reminder of his presence. We would know that our Human lurked inside the hut even without all these other reasons. We would know because the world around him ripples with the weight of the burden he carries.
* * *
Barath and Mukh’than were hours into the next day’s travels, sloshing through a mulch of stagnant water and fallen vegetation, before Barath violated the oath he made to himself every morning and asked the loathsome Mukh’than, “How much further now?”
“Not far at all,” said Mukh’than.
“That’s beginning to sound like a fresh name for not knowing.”
“Only if you have not paid attention,” Mukh’than said. “Have you not seen the natives who have been tracking us for two days?”
Another trick of the Riirgaan’s ego: withholding this basic intelligence until Barath’s failure to notice emerged at its most humiliating. Barath rose to his full height, craning his neck to lift his armored head off the recess built between his broad, muscular shoulders. He saw nothing: just the stagnant water up to his lower set of knees and a dim hellish landscape littered with heaps of organic refuse. It was the kind of terrain a creature could hack through or burn through, but not see through. So he surrendered some more dignity: “What kind of natives?”
“The kind we’re looking for,” Mukh’than said. “Trivids.”
There were three sentient species native to this world known only as Nameless: invertebrate jelly-things who drifted in its oceans, four-winged fliers who frequented the air above its poles, and the rarely-seen Trivids, who were native to this rain forest that dominated this region, Irkiirish. None of the three had technological civilizations, nor did they have much contact with the illegal human mines that represented this world’s only substantial link to interstellar commerce. Before this moment, Barath hadn’t caught so much as a glimpse of any of them. But he’d been hoping for Trivids. “Where?”
“All around us. Throw a rock in any random direction and chances are you’ll hit one. I count at least thirty.”
Barath turned in a slow, deliberate circle, again seeing nothing but soggy deadfall. Or was he wrong? Over there, to his right: was that a telltale shifting in this place’s damnable patterns of light? “Why are they hiding?”
“Since I’ve been communicating with them all day long, I would hesitate to call it ‘hiding.’”
Barath’s claws twitched. “Why don’t they show themselves to me?”
“Perhaps they don’t like your attitude.”
“They’re empaths. They sense these things.”
“I can’t turn my emotions on and off like a power switch!”
“Then look at it this way,” Mukh’than said. “They’re shy people. They’ve dealt with my kind before. They even know me personally. But your people are rarer, here. You’re a mystery to them. And a formidable one: they don’t like your size, or the look of your claws and tusks.”
Barath sheathed his claws, sought a dry place to sit, and, finding none, lowered his armored rump into the mud. He could almost feel the parasites finding ways to get at the soft meat between his armor plates, but he was willing to put up with the discomfort as long as it tempered first impressions. “Tell them I don’t bite.”
Mukh’than produced some noises with his mouth and gestured with his fingertips.
Three Trivids appeared, passing from the unseen to the seen without any obvious transition. Thin, bony bipeds with sad, comical faces that reminded Barath of pie plates with beaks, they were taller than Barath had expected, towering a head and a half above Barath’s height at full neck-extension. They each strode in the precarious manner of bipeds like Human Beings and Riirgaans, and wore body paint designed to blend with the splintered wood around them. But they were less intimidating than they intended—so lean and pale, so hollow-eyed and melancholy—that Barath almost laughed out loud at the fear he had begun to feel. They were worse than Tchi; so malnourished that the sharpened staffs they carried at their sides looked less like spears carried by warriors and more like walking sticks carried by the disabled.
The three creatures were clearly the same species, but there were gross physical differences between them: a ridge of jagged flesh across the shoulders of one, a gaping maw in the chest of another, an array of tentacles dangling from the jaw of the third. Sexual differentiation, Barath guessed, remembering something Mukh’than had said about the Trivids possessing three genders. If so, this could be a mated group, and the tentacled one, heavy in its lower abdomen, might have been heavy with child.
None of which interested Barath as much as the rag doll the ridged one wore on a knotted cord around its neck.
It depicted a biped, like them, and for that matter, like Mukh’than: a head atop four limbs. There was no detail. But the proportions didn’t resemble theirs, or Mukh’than’s. The head was too big, the arms too short.
As a representation of one of their own, it was pitiful. As a representation of a Riirgaan, it was overly complimentary. As a representative of one of Barath’s people, it was insulting.
As a caricature of a human being, it was perfect.
Barath sat up a little straighter. “Mukh’than.”
“I see it.” The Riirgaan exchanged some pidgin sounds with the natives. “They say it’s a totem.”
“Where did they get it?”
More noises. “They say their human made it.”
Barath might have leaped to his feet at that, but his people, fierce as they could be in battle, had never been graceful risers. “They actually said human?”
“Clearly not. They don’t speak your tongue, my tongue, or the human tongue, Hom.Sap Mercantile. They said a word of their own invention, which I assume to mean Human. I’m not certain whether they see it as a category, a proper name, or a title. If you wish, I can come up with a subtler translation—”
“‘Human’s’ good enough. Introduce me. Tell them we’re happy to make their acquaintance and eager to see their human.”
Mukh’than obliged, listened to the jabber the natives offered in return, spoke some more, then turned his blank mask toward Barath and shook his head.
Barath’s hearts fell. The Human Being they sought was dead. They’d traveled all this way and the human was dead. The reward for his return would remain in the hands of the creature’s own people; Mukh’than would pocket his guide fee and return to his hovel in the jungle; and Barath would have to slog back up the river to the mine and continue working as beast of burden, trying to pay back the debt that had led him to such unpleasant labor in the first place. All because one human too old to care could not be bothered to keep his worthless heart beating long enough for somebody like Barath to come and claim him. “He’s dead?”
“He’s alive,” Mukh’than said. “And they say you can see him. But they also say they will not let us take him away.”
* * *
Our human has emotions and feelings that do not resonate to the same rhythm as our own. His feelings may not be outright painful to us—they do not prevent us from growing our food or raising our families; they do not make existence in his presence a torment—but they are, unmistakably, Other.
* * *
The Trivid village was a collection of mud and grass huts arrayed on an artificial island made of the same mud and dirt, supplemented with crisscrossed strips of cured frond. It was inhabited by maybe a hundred of the frail bipeds, including the thirty who had met Barath and Mukh’than in the jungle. At least a third of those who had stayed home were solemn-eyed young, who watched the off-worlders with a silence that could have indicated anything from awe to defiance. Few seemed to be doing work of any consequence. Several wore the human’s rag-doll image on knotted cords around their necks. All stood by and watched as the party from the woods led Barath and Mukh’than to a straw hut at the heart of the tiny community.
The villager guiding them jabbered at Mukh’than until the Riirgaan translated: “He says their human lives here. He says that their human is very old and very frail and doesn’t leave his hut very often. He hopes we will be kind to their human and understand his limitations.”
“Tell the Trivid whatever he wants to hear.”
After a few more moments of negotiation, the villager handed Mukh’than the handmade human totem from around his neck. The way was cleared, and both Barath and Mukh’than went inside.
The interior of the hut was dim and redolent with the stench of sickness and death. The dominant sound was the tortured wheezing of the emaciated figure lying on a wooden platform opposite the shrouded entranceway. The figure was indeed a human being, but not a human being of the sort Barath had encountered. Most of those had been young and robust, living on minimal sleep with maximum enthusiasm, enjoying exceptional health and vigor thanks to the treatments the mine owners leased from AIsource Medical. By contrast, this creature was even thinner than the natives outside and lacked even their vitality: he lay curled in a circle, one hand twitching, both eyes uncomprehending, his every breath a painful gasp, his skin disfigured by some kind of ugly skin-creases that seemed to have turned his face into a relief map of hilly terrain.
Barath felt repelled. “What are those?”
“Wrinkles. They happen to older humans. Their flesh starts to sag.”
It was one of the most alien things Barath had ever been told about the Hom.Saps, who he’d considered pretty disagreeable already. “I’ve seen hundreds of humans and never encountered this before.”
“Most of those who travel off-world get regular rejuvenation treatments. This human must have been deprived long enough for natural processes to come back into play.”
“I’ve seen worse. There is a small furry creature, native to a plateau on my world, which becomes a delicacy if it dies in sufficient pain. The natives of the region like to place a young one in a cage just large enough for its own body and feed it enough to make it swell to twice its natural size. As it fattens, the cage bars slice it in —”
Barath had endured more than his share of Mukh’than’s enthusiasm for shocking details. “Enough. Let’s confirm that he’s the correct human.”
The Human Being coughed twice, raised his head off the ancient pillow, and murmured a few words in Hom.Sap Mercantile. “I want Ravia.”
“What is that?” Barath asked, as he removed the skin taster from his pack. “A refreshment?”
“A female of his kind,” Mukh’than said. “A loved one, absent or long dead.”
The skin taster was a flimsy thing, made for human hands, but Barath managed. He brushed the tip of the device across the old man’s arm, withdrew, then projected a genetic analysis for Mukh’than’s perusal. Mukh’than took longer than he needed to read the results, which was inconsiderate indeed, given that Barath couldn’t read the only alphabet the reader could display, the overcomplicated squiggles of Hom.Sap Mercantile.
The special tilt of Mukh’than’s head more than compensated for the inadequate expressiveness of the Riirgaan face.
Barath didn’t even need to ask the question. “It’s him.”
“Magrison? That’s what it says?”
“Full positive,” Mukh’than said. “It’s the beast Magrison. There’s no margin for error.”
So shaken he didn’t know whether to feel triumph or horror, Barath muttered a word he hadn’t spoken since renouncing his faith. Magrison was that infamous. “All this time. All those people looking for him…”
“He had to be under a rock, to hide from the Humans. They have always raised so many monsters among their general population that they’ve grown very talented at finding those who choose to hide.”
Barath grunted. “You probably consider yourself lucky your kind is less talented in that regard.”
“Yes. And so must you. But what do you want to do with this one?”
Barath shuffled back and contemplated the figure. Sixty years, by the Hom.Sap Mercantile calendar, of hiding with people not his own, in squalor that must have reminded him of his fugitive status every day. Sixty years of knowing that the majority of his species fell into those who would have killed him right away and those who would have preferred to make his execution a neverending ordeal. Sixty years of evading the consequences of being a legendary monster…only to be revealed as a pathetic, senile invalid.
Barath, who didn’t often feel sorry for anybody, would have felt pity for this man, were it not for the magnitude of his crimes against his own people…and the size of the bounty for his capture. “Do you know how many sentients would want to stand where we stand now? How many would kill to be here with a knife, a thresher, or even their own bare fists—just to do what this creature here deserves?”
“I hesitate to count,” said Mukh’than. “But as for us?”
“We see whoever makes the decisions around here. We tell them who he is. We see if they’re still so anxious to shelter him then.”
“They will be,” Mukh’than said. “If anything, more so.”
The ancient Human Being spasmed, his coughs weak things barely audible beyond his pallet. “Where’s Ravia?” he murmured. “I want Ravia.”
Barath glowered at the emaciated figure sweating out his last days on the pallet. So many ways to retort to that. So few likely to get past the fog.
* * *
Our human is a creature who has had his life ripped from him, and who now leads a life he would not have chosen, among people who would not have chosen his company.
* * *
Alas, the Trivids had little sense of history and no sense of obligation to justice beyond their little swamp. Barath made Mukh’than translate at the start, but the constant repetitions of “You can’t have him” grew so wearying he just left the Riirgaan to his work. The more Mukh’than wheedled with them the more obstinate they became, jabbering away in the pidgin that Barath could barely stand to consider a language, sweeping their arms in gestures he didn’t need a translator to recognize as abject refusal.
The shadows cast by the forest canopy had grown considerably longer by the time the villagers dispersed, leaving Barath and Mukh’than alone in a village that seemed to have dismissed them.
Barath was so tired by then that he was almost happy for the chance to table the negotiations for the night. “No progress?”
Mukh’than touched a forefinger to his chin in the Riirgaan gesture of negation. “None.”
“What’s their problem? Do they worship him?”
“Venerate is probably more like it. They live only a quarter as long as untreated Human Beings, and therefore see him as a creature who has been part of their village life for generations. They consider any crimes Magrison committed before he came here ancient history.”
“Do they even know what he did?”
“They know he did something bad, once upon a time. He has admitted this much to them. Sometime before he lost his faculties he even warned them that outsiders might try to take him into custody. But they don’t know the specifics, and they don’t care. He is too much a part of their lives for them to care.”
“Maybe if you gave him the details,” Barath said.
“Perhaps. I need to rest anyway. Maybe, in the morning, I will know the best way to make our case.”
Barath could think of few things he desired less than sleep, as his people had minimal need for that condition. He desired another exposure to the prayers Mukh’than mumbled at night even less. But he knew the Riirgaan’s needs were different from his own, so he assented.
They inflated the sleepcube and went inside for a few hours of protection from the insects and the muggy swamp-stench that saturated everything around the Trivid village. The air inside was not much better, given the olfactory consequences of a Riirgaan and a Kurth curled grubby and unwashed in close quarters.
It was a long night. Every few minutes in Barath’s imagination, he leaped from the cube, batted the obstinate Trivids aside, seized the withered human from his bed, and collected the bounty. Then every few minutes he came back to himself, still curled beside his noisome guide, and still grimacing from his own dismay at not having done anything at all. It was intolerable for a sentient like Barath who had never seen the value of waiting.
Of course, impatience was a large part of the crime that had left Barath exiled from Kurth in the first place.
It hadn’t been a serious offense, as such things were judged among his people. It wasn’t killing without acceptable cause, or procreation without a cleansing fast. It had just been slovenly work: bored performance of a task contracted and paid for. Important people had been inconvenienced; a lucrative industrial concern had been shamed; a slave had been damaged beyond repair. It had all been tracked back to him. Barath would never be allowed back on Kurth unless he redeemed both his reputation and his finances—which was one reason he’d seized upon the claims of the dying Bursteeni he’d encountered at the mining camp infirmary.
The Bursteeni had claimed to have seen Magrison with his own eyes before illness felled him on his way to reporting this momentous discovery to human interests. . To Barath, fallen so far that he might as well have been one of the slaves commanded by his people, the prospect of finding Magrison himself was a map offering a possible route out of hell. Even split between himself and his guide, the reward offered by the Hom.Saps could be enough to fund an outcast’s way home. It could even be enough to fund a return with honor.
If the Trivids could be made to see reason.
If there were a way to take Magrison without their permission.
In the midst of lighting a bowl of herbs—he claimed the intoxicating effect was essential for his nightly ceremony—Mukh’than said, “Do you know, we could satisfy ourselves with bringing back a scraping of Magrison’s skin. After all, telling the human beings where to find him is almost as good as managing an actual capture.”
Barath had thought of that. “They would have no reason to believe us. Samples were sent everywhere the Humans even thought of looking for him. Some have gone missing and later turned up in fraudulent claims.”
“I know. But we could make a visual record. Bring back pictures.”
“A child could fake those.”
“But between the DNA and the pictures and their hunger to see this man caught—they would investigate, wouldn’t they?”
Barath picked at the scab forming over his scaleworm sore. “The humans would still find a way to give full credit to whoever made the actual capture. We’d wind up with a small finder’s fee, nothing more. No, it has to be all or nothing. We have to be the ones who bring him back. He has to be ours, if we want to earn the full reward.”
Mukh’than lowered his face over the rising mists. “You sound like one of the Trivids. They consider him theirs, too.”
“They’re ignorant,” Barath said. “They can’t know the kind of monster he is.”
Mukh’than was just a silhouette shrouded by a curtain of malodorous vapor. “And maybe it’s just as ignorant for us to think that monstrousness on his scale can be reduced to a commodity for our profit. Maybe that’s why we’re not fit to have him.”
The words hung heavy in the little sleepcube, with Barath remaining silent not because he concurred but because he saw no possible response to a statement so completely at odds with his own sensibility. Searching for signs of betrayal in the Riirgaan’s sudden, unexpected burst of idealism, he wished he knew what the homeworld of the Riirgaans was like. It would be helpful to know if Mukh’than found the unrelenting mugginess of Irkiirish, or the forsaken wilderness of this world in general, an unbearable hell he would forsake principles to leave. After a long pause, he said: “You want him as much as I do.”
“I have already said I do,” Mukh’than said, as he lowered himself into the mists. “But perhaps not for all the same reasons.”
* * *
Our Human once worked hard to earn his keep among us. When he was young, and the muscles still clung tightly to his oddly-proportioned bones, he made a point of helping us with the thousand and one small chores necessary to support our lives here. When a hut needed building, the Human lent his strength to the task; when food needed gathering, the Human grabbed a spear like the rest of us; when a child wandered off into the woods and needed finding, the Human searched as diligently as the Firstfather, Secondfather, and Firstmother. Even when we put down the work of our daily lives and sang hymns of praise to the spirits who built all things, our Human sat among us and raised his atonal voice with as much fervor as the most religious holies among us. It was a heroic effort, even if it was doomed to failure, for our Human knew as well as we did that he was not one of us and never could be, not even if the Spirits themselves came down from the sky to declare him an honorary member of the People. He trumpeted his alienness with every word that emerged, foul and unnatural, from his strangely-shaped lips; he came from a world where people walked on air and ate food that never touched the ground and mated in obscene couplings involving only Firstfathers and Firstmothers. Everything he said about his life among the people who had rejected him reinforced our awareness that he was different, that he was strange, and that he rendered us different and strange as well just by the act of living among us. He knew this, too, I think; and throughout the years of his life it made him as lonely as any creature had ever been.
* * *
When the next morning’s negotiations began, the villagers all carried the human’s crude totems around their necks. By the time their apparent spokesperson, a wizened member of the maw-chested sex, finished chanting an interminable string of gibberish that might have been anything from legal preamble to heartfelt prayer, Barath’s head throbbed from sheer frustration. How nice it would have been to be able to resolve this by knocking their obstinate heads together!
Barath could only wonder how much Mukh’than was simplifying the story to accommodate the limited comprehension of the audience. These were people who had never been outside their swamp, who had never used weaponry more advanced than sharpened sticks, who had never seen more than a couple hundred of their own kind in one place. They were people who knew almost everybody in their world by sight, with the odd passing stranger a rare but tolerated anomaly. How could they comprehend a war fought worlds apart, over abstractions, between strangers who had never laid eyes on each other?
It was impossible.
But that’s what Mukh’than needed to explain.
The hours crawled as the Riirgaan finished what he needed to say, but the time for words came to an end with daylight still remaining. Mukh’than returned to Barath’s side, sweat glistening on the flat pads beneath his eyes. He grasped a water tube and sucked it dry, then wiped the moisture from his flat line of mouth.
Barath couldn’t stand it. “What?”
Riirgaan feelings are impossible to read on their faces, but Mukh’than still managed to look haunted. “I think I may have made a mistake.”
“I told them that Magrison’s victims outnumbered the leaves on the trees.”
“And that’s wrong?”
“Not if I’m trying to earn points for eloquence,” said Mukh’than. “But very wrong if I’m trying to win their hearts. Images like that reduce a disaster to poetry, make it unreal, harder to comprehend—a joke compared to a familiar presence they’ve treasured all their lives.”
“Tell them more, then.”
“Saying more would only weaken what I’ve said so far.”
Barath watched the Trivids confer among themselves. It was easy to tell that the villagers respected the gravity of their decision; they’d formed two dozen groups of three, lowered their heads and begun to mutter their soft liquid sibilants. Many fingered the Human totems around their necks, as if seeking comfort in a simulation of the man they had known. Another, a ridge-backed specimen who might have been moved by Mukh’than’s case, gripped the doll so tightly that it punctured the doll’s canvas skin, freeing the pebbles inside to spill onto the ground like parodies of blood droplets pouring from a wound. Several emitted a sour blaat that might have been their equivalent of weeping. Or laughter. It was impossible to tell whether they were devastated, or just rendered uncomfortable by the Riirgaan’s evident belief that they should be.
Watching them, Mukh’than said, “Has it occurred to you, my friend, that this is all about monsters?”
“Think about it. Our departed Tchi companion committed crimes that rendered him a monster in the eyes of his people. The Human Being we traveled with did the same. I know that you are no longer welcome among your own kind, for reasons you’ve neglected to share—and that the pathetic creature we wish to take into our custody is also notorious for reasons that make him a monster of the first rank. Did I ever tell you why I live in filth, rather than ever face another of my own kind? I promise you, you’ll find it most instructive.”
Barath said nothing.
But Mukh’than didn’t wait for his approval. “I was a darr’pakh.”
“I don’t know that word.”
“It’s what we call a certain kind of teacher, one who is given total control over the life of a Riirgaan child, for one critical year in that child’s development. During that year, before the child receives any other formal education, it’s permitted no contact with friends, or family, or any adults other than the darr’pakh and the other students under the darr’pakh’s care. Forbidden to speak, permitted only to listen, the child spends that year learning the one lesson most sacred to us, the one lesson we never share with outsiders, the one lesson we think every adult Riirgaan should know.” Mukh’than dropped the empty water tube on the dirt and ground it beneath his foot, not stopping until it snapped. “I stopped teaching that lesson, Barath. After twenty seasons of pounding the same ideas into one student after another, I grew weary of my sacred task and simply abandoned it. I changed the lesson plan and spent one year teaching the students at my retreat another lesson, an irrelevant lesson. My crime was not discovered until after all my charges were returned to their families.”
The Riirgaan’s words had the bearing of broken stumbling things desperate to escape a place that had imprisoned them. But it did not seem to be pain that afflicted him. It didn’t look like pain.
Barath would have asked what the false lesson was if not for the dread fear that the Mukh’than would have needed a full year to teach it. “Why?”
“Weakness. Boredom. The usual temptations. You know.”
“And what happened when your people found out?”
The Riirgaan’s shoulders shuddered again. “Among my kind, the sacred lesson must be learned that year, or not at all. The crime was thus irreversible. None of the children could go on to live useful lives. All were removed from their families. Most were committed to internal exile, or to institutions where they still rot today. Some of the unmanageable ones were euthanized.” Mukh’than turned and cocked his head in a manner that could have been bitterness or amusement. “I was long gone. I knew the disgrace that awaited me otherwise. But given a chance, I would do the same thing all over again. The lesson changed me more than it changed them.”
Barath, whose sense of morality had always been subject to his personal convenience, felt the special kind of revulsion that afflicts the merely flawed in the presence of genuine evil. He hadn’t felt anything like this with Magrison. The human may have been something beyond all imagining once, but that which had burned in him before was all but extinguished by age and infirmity now. It still raged inside the Riirgaan. “Why would you tell me that story?”
“Because,” Mukh’than said, with nauseating calm, “I don’t want you to invest too much hope in my skills as a teacher.”
* * *
Our human has been ancient, even by the longer-lived standards of his people, for longer than any of us have been alive. He was ancient even when I was a child still fresh from the litter, curious about anything and everything that walked the world around me, and fascinated most of all by the sad-eyed creature whose only purpose seemed to be storing unhappy memories. He is so old that holding on to breath could only be an act of open defiance against the spirit who brings release at the end of life.
* * *
The Trivids said no, of course. It was inevitable that they would: few peoples in their position would have surrendered something so familiar to charges they neither understood nor saw any reason to believe. They reported their verdict to Mukh’than, with all due solemnity; Mukh’than reported it to Barath, with the smugness of a being who has just had his brilliant predictions fulfilled; Barath muttered some of the fouler curses known to his people, with the resentment of a starving creature promised but repeatedly denied sustenance. Then the villagers dispersed, but for a single ridgeback who lingered long enough to leave the two off-worlders with one final message.
Mukh’than rubbed a finger across his cheek as the ridgeback scurried away. “It says they want us to leave. hey say we make them uncomfortable: you with your anger, myself with…”—a pause, rare among the Riirgaan’s usual smooth translations—“something they find just as disreputable.”
“And yet they keep him. They don’t consider mass murder disreputable?”
“They do,” Mukh’than said. “But they still consider him theirs. They will let us stay another night, but we will not be safe here if we stay much beyond that.”
Barath’s claws emerged without his conscious consent. He clicked them together, feeling them scrape against each other, yearning for the warm bubbling reward of blood—though whether he most ached to slice the Trivids, the Riirgaan, or Magrison was something even he did not know. He did know it had less to do with the severity of the Human’s crimes than with his own frustration at being denied. “We have weapons. Can we take Magrison by force?”
Mukh’than studied him for several seconds, his frozen features hiding a response that might have been anything from horror to enthusiasm. Transparent lids lowered halfway over the great empty blackness of his eyes. “Are you saying you’re prepared to kill them?”
“If they get in our way….”
“They’ll get in our way,” Mukh’than said, with absolute certainty. “If not before we take him, then afterward. Or do you think we can outrun the natives while carrying an invalid we’d need to keep alive?”
“We can keep them at bay. Threaten to kill him if they don’t let us go.”
“They’ll still follow. And send runners to other villages. The further we run the more surrounded we’ll be.”
“Then we outfight them first.”
“Kill one of them in such a fight and you’ll have to kill all of them. Even assuming they don’t manage to bring us down, a lone witness hiding somewhere beyond the tree line would be able to spread word of crimes committed against indigenes—and that’s not all that popular a practice, even in this orifice of a world. Word of it will be up and down the river long before we reach the nearest outpost. We’d wind up retreating to the jungle and spending the rest of our lives dodging spears and living on bugs and worms.”
It was pretty much how Mukh’than lived now, absent the spears, but Barath’s short glimpse of the filthy lean-to the Riirgaan had constructed for himself had not recommended it as a lifestyle to be actively sought. But the need to suggest something, anything, kept Barath going: “The authorities might forgive us if we had the monster with us.”
“The humans have a hateful history, but they’re much more bound by the morality of interspecies protocol than you suppose. You can read the annals of their Diplomatic Corps if you doubt me. But let us suppose we take your course. What if we kill them all, take our time getting back, and Magrison still doesn’t survive our journey to the river? How will we be forgiven for filling a village with corpses just so we could produce the one the authorities want?”
Barath’s claws now fairly throbbed with impotent anger. As much as it galled him to acknowledge that the twisted Riirgaan could be correct about anything, it was all true. Without the consent of the natives, they really did have no recourse grander than bringing the evidence back to what passed for civilization and hoping that the Hom.Saps who followed up played fair when it came to the reward. And yet, the prospect of a lengthy hike back to the river, enduring Mukh’than’s company, without success to make up for it, seemed more nauseating still. “We’ll think of something before we leave.”
“Do you truly think so?” Mukh’than asked, then added a few sardonic words in his native language.
Suspecting an insult, Barath said: “What?”
“It is a couplet from an epic poem beloved of my people, words spoken by a despairing hero who has given up everything in a fruitless quest to find a villain who once committed a great crime against him. He wanders for years, goes hungry more often than not, suffers every indignity a traveler can suffer, becomes a ragged beggar and then an embittered ancient, only to find that all this time the object of his hatred has lived a rich and full life overflowing with bounty. Cheated of the justice he craves, he collapses in physical and moral exhaustion, shouting those words at the night sky. They mean, ‘The Heavens always favor those who would reduce the heavens to ashes.’ It means that circumstances often conspire to free monsters of the consequences for their crimes…while those who hunt monsters destroy themselves by searching for justice. It’s a charming fable that has provided no end of comfort to me through the years.”
Furious, Barath said: “Because it means your hunters may never find you.”
“Exactly. I take my victories where can I find them.”
* * *
Once, there was still ample life in our human’s aging bones—enough life, at least, that he still offered conversation to those few of us willing to oblige him. He cursed the bastards who were hunting him with a rage that made his eyes glow bright, and turned his voice into an open flame that would have seared any of them unlucky enough to stand exposed to its terrible heat. “Bastard” was of course a Human word, one of several harsh-sounding terms he used interchangeably with the far more reasonable vocabulary of our people. When I first heard him speak it, and the terrible hate he imbued it with, it conjured up a vague image of a terrible monster, like Our Human, only larger and blacker and better armed with claws and scales and teeth; a creature which could only inhabit the foulest of caves or the most monstrous of afterlives. As a child, the idea filled me with an infinite formless terror, and at night the spirits sent me terrible dreams about slavering Bastards come to get me. It did not make me afraid of Our Human, though. It made me feel sorry for a creature who had lost so much to such monsters. It was several seasons until Ctaas, who would become the Firstmother of my Grouping, but who was then a child as formless as I, heard him curse the bastards. In my presence Ctaas asked the Human the question I had been neither brave nor smart enough to voice: What Is A Bastard? Our Human had made that perverse coughing rasp that for his kind indicated vast amusement, and told us: A Bastard is a Human Being born without a Firstfather. It was even more alien than most of his answers, for we had never imagined that such an unnatural thing could happen, even among a species that only mated in Pairs. Our Human brings so much wonder, so much terrible strangeness, into our lives.
* * *
Barath didn’t want to sleep that night, but as he curled up for what should have been a few hours of alert rest, Mukh’than arranged and set fire to his bowl of precious herbs. The vapor was usually no more than an acrid tang, no fouler than the smell of the Riirgaan himself. But tonight it seemed stronger. Tonight the air around Barath turned as thick as the clouds in a blind thing’s eyes, and something like unconsciousness came to claim him despite his intentions. His limbs grew heavy, his thoughts turned to crippled stumbling things, and his sense of time and place bubbled with contradictions. One part of him knew he was in a tent, among potential hostiles in a wretched village well beyond the few pockets of civilization that dotted this horrid world with no name. He felt the simmering fever at the base of his skull, the maddening itch where the scaleworm had gotten him, and the thousand and one smaller pains that came with any journey into places so inhospitable that the smallest steps exacted their price in blood. He even saw Mukh’than bending over him, murmuring words nothing like the prayers he had spoken every other night; and he experienced a moment of unease as the Riirgaan left him alone in a sleepcube filling up with intoxicating mist. He noticed, too, when Mukh’than returned with a rag over his face, carrying a knot of wriggling things at the end of a stick…and when Mukh’than left again. But another part of him was parsecs away, in the palace he would have built for himself upon returning home a success—a curtained place where a Kurth of distinction could luxuriate among his sycophants and slaves, inflating the victories of his youth into blessed lies.
It was such a joyous dream that he might have surrendered to it and died thinking it was his actual fate, but then the palace around him seemed to fill with smoke, and he found himself back in the sleepcube in Irkiirish, tasting his foul dinner of the night before as it burst from his mouth in an explosion of bile.
That was how he found out, before too late, that he couldn’t breathe.
The air inside the sleepcube was now a gray mist that scoured his eyes—a lot like the Riirgaan’s ceremonial intoxicants, only worse. Barath’s lung was a burning ball of flame in his belly; his head a drum pounding out a song of imminent suffocation. He spat out the rest of the terrible taste in his mouth, rolled onto all fours, noted with distant rage that Mukh’than was nowhere to be seen, and for one queasy moment almost succumbed to the apathy that afflicts those so close to death that sinking all the way into that darkness seems less trouble than continuing to fight for life. Then anger took over and he drove himself forward, knocking over Mukh’than’s stool and hammock, stumbling over his own pack, and ultimately finding himself trapped against the cube’s flexible wall.
Once again he almost gave up, thinking gray thoughts of how little he had to live for anyway. He was a pauper. He was dead to his people. He was a friendless alien earning subsistence wages working for human beings on a world so forsaken that even its natives hadn’t bothered to name it. There would never be any future for him, never any glory, never any redemption: just a wretched life and anonymous death.
Then the distant awareness that this wasn’t just a stupid accident of some kind, but something else, ripped free a last defiant snarl. He popped his claws and punched holes in the soft canvas, carving stripes that his addled mind insisted on interpreting as wounds slashed in the flesh of an implacable enemy. Then he drove himself forward through the fresh exit, falling flat on his face in the mud created by a raging torrential rain. He vomited some more, tasted blood, and lay there hyperventilating as black fires burned at the edges of his consciousness.
It seemed a long time before his mind blazed with a single-word explanation.
He must have added something poisonous to his vapors.
Barath pushed himself off the ground, almost stumbling, but was able to rise to his hind legs, allowing the knuckles at his forelimbs to take the weight since his spine lacked the strength to support the far more awkward bipedal stance. His head lolled. He saw something white pulse between scales on his chest, and recognized it as a scaleworm, already growing fat on his blood. And there, further down, was another. And another.
Barath remembered the glimpse of squirming things at the end of Mukh’than’s stick. Mukh’than had told him, just a few days earlier, to watch out for the males. Mukh’than would know what the males looked like. A Mukh’than turned malevolent—or, rather, revealing that he’d been malevolent since the beginning—would know just what to look for. How many had he found? Ten? Twenty? How many males in that many? And how long before they laid their eggs?
Barath’s belly lurched. He spasmed, tried to expel whatever remained in his belly, and failed: there just wasn’t anything left to bring up. For just a moment, thinking of the pain in store for him, he wished he could return to the apathy of near-death that he had just fought off at such cost and once again enjoy freedom from caring. But there was no reclaiming such a lost opportunity. As much as he might wish for death soon, right now he could breathe. He could think. He could hate.
He could see that the Trivids had been watching all along.
He sacrificed stability for height and rose on his hind legs, snarling like a beast. The Trivids, gathered in the dark and the rain, reacted not at all. The anger burned in him again, and he stumbled forward, grabbing one of the ridgebacks by its neck. He wanted to shout, but the best he could manage was an explosive whisper. “Where is he?”
Either the Trivid had no fear, or his kind showed it in a manner Barath did not know how to read. It did nothing.
Barath wanted to tighten his grip and rip the creature’s head from its shoulders. There was no reason not to. He had no future, and he had no cause to care for his reputation.
Then he saw the totem the Trivid held in its hand. They all held one: every single Trivid, holding before them all they had to show for Magrison’s presence among them. Some held theirs higher than others, either stressing the object’s power, or answering Barath in the only way they knew how.
Barath released the ridgeback, dropped to all fours, and moved toward the crowd—not because he wanted any of them, but because they stood between him and his murderer.
They moved aside.
And in the hut a few short steps away he found Mukh’than, an ardent lover curled beside the ancient human in his bed.
* * *
Our human described this Ravia as taller than himself, as thin as a reed, with a complexion the color of pebbled sand and sunny hair that descended to her shoulders in spiral ringlets. He said that since she was a Firstmother of his species and not a Firstfather like himself there were serious differences in the proportions of her body and his, but the descriptions themselves used terms that were unfamiliar to us. Once he said that every awful thing he had done, he did out of hate for those who had taken her. It is not a way of thinking we understand. But that is why we’re Trivids. And why he’s human.
* * *
Magrison was a knot of withered flesh with frayed cords for limbs. He gaped at the thatched roof above him, not seeing it, reacting not at all to the presence of the Riirgaan who lay naked beside him, stroking Magrison’s pale white chest. Mukh’than seemed almost as insensate; he had closed both his transparent eyelids and the second layer of opaque ones that complemented them, and let his own mouth hang open, as if in parody of the human’s slack-jawed senility.
The vague similarities between Human and Riirgaan anatomy that made some of the more unpleasant races grumble about not being able to tell those two species apart—similar heights and masses, bipedal posture, faces that arranged their features in approximately the same positions—seemed an obscenity in light of the differences that were visible when they lay side by side. Humans had limbs jointed at their midpoints; Riirgaan limbs had three segments. Humans had torsos a little like cylinders. Riirgaans were something like a prickly plant, with flat surfaces punctuated by spines. The proportions were off, too—especially the longer legs of the Riirgaan and the larger head of the Human. Nor did there seem, at first glance, to be any place where their respective parts could fit together. But that physical obstacle didn’t seem to bother Mukh’than any more than the human’s inability to respond did—and from the impassioned way Mukh’than stroked the collection of enflamed protrusions on his own belly, he didn’t need the human’s conscious involvement at all. Magrison’s mere presence seemed to be enough.
When Barath charged them, Mukh’than was fast enough to grab his needle-gun and fire one shot, which dug a stinging furrow in the Kurth’s side. But before he could fire a second, Barath’s foreclaws were firmly imbedded in Mukh’than’s wrist. The gun went flying into some dark corner.
The human clutched for his bed companion and murmured a single word in a voice filled with confusion and dust: “Ravia!”
Barath lifted Mukh’than off the bed by his impaled wrist. “Ravia? Is that who you are to him?”
Mukh’than threw a punch with his free hand. But it had no more effect than a single raindrop falling on stone. Without weapons, there was nothing any mere Riirgaan could do to get past a Kurth’s armored hide.
Barath, feeling nothing but fury, drew Mukh’than closer.
Magrison reached for open air. “Don’t hurt her! Please!”
Barath had never been good at reading Hom.Sap facial expressions, even after years of working for representatives of the species. The shifts from smile to frown to sneer and back again, so significant to them, had never struck him as anything more than random shifts of rubbery flesh. But it would have been impossible to miss the pain and desperation on the face of the slack-jawed old man, reaching with strength he no longer had to rescue the creature he thought he loved. Sickened, Barath faced Mukh’than again. “It isn’t the first time he’s begged for you in my hearing. He asked for you the other day too.”
Mukh’than coughed. “He asked for Ravia…”
“Meaning you.” Barath impaled Mukh’than’s other wrist with another popped claw.
Magrison reacted to the Riirgaan’s agony with a soft, weak cry of anguish.
“He loves you,” Barath said.
“And I love him. He is the love of my life.”
Mukh’than’s voice was an agonized, breathless wheeze. “Ravia was…a female of his species. Mother…to his children. She died…as they died… in the war his enemies fought to avenge his crimes…”
“But he called you Ravia.”
“When I am beside him, I am Ravia. I am a male of my own species…but I am honored to take the place of a female in his.”
The arrogance in the Riirgaan’s voice, dripping with satisfaction about his perverse liaison with a genocidal murderer of another species, was so infuriating that Barath couldn’t resist retracting his claws and hurling the sordid little creature to the hut floor. Barath heard cracks indicating that Mukh’than broke bones when he hit but felt no diminution of his rage. He gave up on a clean kill right then and there, and instead decided to prolong his revenge by first shattering as many as the Riirgaan’s remaining bones as he could manage. He lurched forward, ignoring Magrison’s plaintive cries of “Ravia!”, and falling on Mukh’than before the Riirgaan could crawl away into the dark.
“You killed the others in our party,” Barath spat, grinding the Riirgaan’s wrists for additional pain. “The Human. The Tchi. I don’t know how you arranged it, but you made sure they died on the way here.”
Mukh’than’s response was a broken trill, distorted by agony, that nevertheless reflected real amusement. “That’s right. You would be surprised how easy it was.”
“You must have had trouble figuring out how to kill me.”
“Not at all. I wanted you alive until now.”
“Liar. I barely escaped the sleepcube.”
More trills—but, as strained as they were, not frightened trills, but terrible triumphant ones. “If I had really wanted to suffocate you, you would already be dead. Remember the others. I know better jungle poisons than that!”
“I warned you not to lie to me!”
“It’s no lie. If I wanted to smother you, why would I also infest you with scaleworms? What would be the point of that? If you suffocated in the cube they would die as fast as you did. I wanted only to incapacitate you for a while…to keep you from noticing the scaleworms I planted until after they laid their eggs and began what’s going to be a much slower death. You will not make it back to the river no matter how quickly you travel. You will grow weak. You will collapse. You will linger. You will be in pain, an invalid, mad with delirium for an entire season, maybe two—something these Trivids can care for and consider theirs, so I can have more time to spend with the precious dying thing I consider mine. I have done it before, with other wanderers in this jungle. My only mistake with you, you vulgar brain-dead animal, was misjudging your metabolism… thinking the fumes would hold you longer, and give me time to get away. But that doesn’t matter, not to you. You’re still a corpse too stupid to realize it’s started to rot.”
It was far too early for Barath to feel the scaleworm larva digging burrows inside him, but for a moment he imagined the sensation anyway: a pounding, burning agony, multiplied a thousandfold for every second he was riddled with holes. He shook away the image, lowered himself closer to the traitor who had done this to him, and demanded: “Why?”
“Because I love him. For the same reason they love him.”
Barath pressed the tip of a claw against the soft underside of Mukh’than’s throat. “And that is?”
The Riirgaan’s black, inexpressive eyes were pools filled with the knowledge of his own oncoming death. Perhaps that is what permitted him to speak without exhaustion, without fear. “Because in a place like this, where we live without hope, where we live among creatures with no hope…all we really own is the magnitude of our own sins.” He closed the opaque lids over his eyes. “Don’t you see that that’s what makes him such a treasure to them? How much it must comfort such a people, to claim ownership of such a demon? How much it comforts me, to care for one whose own crimes were so much worse than mine? Or how much it should gall you, in the presence of such fallen greatness, to remember that your own life was destroyed by a crime so petty?”
The crushing silence that followed was thick enough to bury any hope of answer.
“What I did,” the Riirgaan said, “I would do again. It was a sin that made me proud. Can you say the same of your sin, Barath? Was it as grand?”
Barath gutted him. Thanks to the temperature differential between Kurth biology and the Riirgaan equivalent, the blood that geysered against Barath’s chest plates was a thin cold soup, as unsatisfying a vengeance-trophy as any enraged Kurth had ever known. His rage unspent, Barath raised his forelimbs above his head and brought them down hard, shattering the Riirgaan’s skull, driving the brains and bone fragments into the dirt. It should have helped. But the traitor’s blood hadn’t warmed any; nor had Barath’s rage cooled. It could never cool. Not when he was still dying, and there was no one left to avenge him.
Part of him thought he still heard trilling.
Magrison didn’t seem aware that anything unpleasant had happened; he just stared at the ceiling above him, his mouth agape, his slug of a tongue licking his dry withered lips.
“Ravia,” the human said. “Ravia.”
Barath didn’t bother to get up off the floor. He just crawled over to the bed and loomed over the ancient figure, wanting Magrison to see something monstrous in his own tusked, blood-spattered face. He needed that; to achieve monstrousness in the eyes of a monster would have been victory of a sort.
But the old man didn’t see him, really: was no more aware of Barath’s presence than he was of his beloved Ravia’s absence. If he saw anything, it was just the darkness and the fog comprising an exile far crueler than that which he’d chosen for himself so long ago. Perhaps he still experienced memory-flashes of the people he’d hated, the plans he’d made, the atrocities he’d carried out; perhaps they gave him moments of satisfaction, or raw crushing guilt. Perhaps he could live long enough to be taken from here and condemned to whatever execution his fellow humans wanted for him. But time and decrepitude had already provided a darker sentence.
“I should kill you,” Barath said. “Do what everybody wants done. Get that much satisfaction out of this, at least.”
Magrison’s lips curled in an expression that might have been a smile. He whispered something in a language Barath didn’t know, coughed, fought for breath, then whispered the same words again; though whether he spoke to Barath or to some phantom resident of the lost world where he lived was something the Kurth would never know.
Then the human closed his eyes, and did not move again.
Barath regarded the empty thing for a long time, thinking of a world filled with familiar shapes and abandoned opportunities. He thought of all the things the human had done and all the other human beings who would have danced if they’d known he was dead. He thought of his own crimes, wondered if anybody would have searched entire worlds to bring him to justice, concluded that in the end nobody would have cared, and wondered if that made him more or less pathetic than a monster fading in twilight. He didn’t wonder whether the monster he contemplated was Magrison or Mukh’than, because in the end it didn’t matter.
When he left the hut some time later, he wasn’t surprised to find the entire population of the village gathered at a respectful distance. Every Trivid was there: every mated adult, every child. They all carried the human’s totems, and they all faced Barath with the incurious calm of creatures who already knew everything that had happened inside. A few made sounds Barath took to be questions, or possibly invitations. He stared back, expecting them to attack en masse, not caring much whether they did or not. Then one—a ridgeback, who Barath supposed to be the same individual who’d represented them before—stepped away from the crowd, approached Barath, and placed a single gentle hand atop Barath’s head.
It took Barath a heartbeat to understand that the Trivid was offering welcome.
As a people, they were so bereft that their greatest dream was the chance to replace one dying monster with another.
The Trivid approached again, and once again placed its hand on Barath’s head.
Barath growled the last coherent words he’d ever speak to another sentient being. “I won’t be your next bloody human.”
The Trivids cocked their heads, trying to understand.
But by then Barath was leaving the village, on the first step of a journey that he knew he’d never live to complete.
Maybe if he pushed himself to the limits of his strength he’d at least be able to travel beyond their ability to carry him back.
* * *
The bones of our most recent human sit in an honored place. They are massive things, sculpted in proportions nothing like our own, sitting in a mound of scales we peeled from his form after he breathed his last. He died four days from our village, falling apart as he lumbered away from our offers of hospitality, cursing us, snarling at us, and throwing stones every time we tried to draw near. He was not like our other humans: neither the ancient one who lived with us for so many generations, or the black-eyed lover who so often shared his bed. This human was a giant thing with tusks and scales and claws, who walked on all four limbs instead of the two our previous humans preferred. This human looked so little like the other two, who in turn looked so little like each other, that it’s difficult to see how they could all be creatures born of the same world. And unlike the other two, this human never told us of his crime—though the crimes committed by the other two, which they described to us often, were so beyond imagining to us that the offenses committed by the giant tusked thing must have been just as terrible, just as great.
It is a powerful thing, indeed, to have the bones of three such humans among us, in this place which has known no such wonders…so powerful a thing that skeptics among us sometimes wonder if all three of these creatures were indeed of the same species. After all, they looked nothing alike. How could all three be human?
But we see no point in such doubts. We have heard what humans are.
And we know a human when we see one.
“Our Human” copyright © 2011 by Adam-Troy Castro
Art copyright © 2011 by John Jude Palencar