President Chia Khon is ousted and exiled into space, where she discovers there is more to the cosmos than she’d imagined; by R. C. Capasso.
|Image generated with OpenAI|
“Good-bye, Madam President.” The oily voice slid into her ear as the lights on the console before her blinked out. A forward shield opened, and she stared into deep space.
Sargon could have killed her and dumped her body in the ocean or the Great Crevasse. But with his strange giggling sense of humor he undoubtedly considered this poetic justice. In her first week in office she’d restarted the planet’s space program. From that day on he’d probably dreamed of shooting her off in a rocket.
Well, a political enemy could exile her to space, but President Chia Khon wasn’t done yet. She tugged at her restraints, and they snapped open. Apparently there was no need to keep her captive now. She was alone on a two-person Space Explorer. A scout vessel without ordinance and probably with a course locked in.
Only one light on the console still shone: the onboard computer link for internal communication and research.
Chia rose, her body aching from the struggle when Sargon’s henchmen jumped her outside the Hall of the Elected. Her forehead crest burned, and one ankle gave under her weight. She hobbled over to the computer and touched its screen.
“Computer, what’s the status of life support?”
“The air supply system will be able to provide breathable air until Midsun of 24 Kenoh, year 325 New Time.”
She swiped the screen, cutting off the rest of the report. She didn’t need to hear about food and water. The date was enough. Precise, down to the hour, and rich with meaning. At Midsun of 24 Kenoh, year 325 New Time, the next president of Conora would be inaugurated. Sargon had given her just enough life support to complete her term, exiled in space. He did have style.
She plotted her return, dismissing the looming problem of physically reaching the planet from a vessel she couldn’t steer. Instead she focused on her reappearance. Limping along the short circular passages, she envisioned arrests and imprisonment all around. As she ate her carefully rationed meals, she decided the army would do it all. They’d rally to her, banners flying, and execute an only slightly bloody coup. At night as she stared into the ship’s darkness and wondered at herself.
“If I’d wanted to kill people, I could still be president. I just needed to eliminate Sargon and his followers. Or do what Sargon demanded and wipe out the Listian tribes. Take their cities, their minerals, and their tech. Then I could have ruled for life. No more campaigns, no more inaugurations. One race, no civil conflict. Even Sargon couldn’t have defeated me then.”
She imagined the Listians, their obstinate resistance, their confusing philosophy. The faces that had confronted her. “If I’d wanted bloodshed, I wouldn’t be here. Is it worth bloodshed to save myself?”
Silent emptiness hovered round her. “As if I have a choice.”
The third day she was making her painful tenth lap around the corridor circling the helm when she collapsed. Total darkness. Her mind shut down.
A voice seemed to float near her, and she stirred.
“You’ll feel better in a moment.”
With a jerk she forced her eyes open. A figure stood a few steps away from her. It moved forward and let a blue cloak fall from its shoulders.
Her breath stopped. It could not be real.
The creature stood the span of two hands taller than her. Broad in the shoulder with a torso tapering to narrow hips. A large head with no forehead crest but short golden hair around it like a halo. Two long legs ending in stout hooves. But what struck her most were the being’s dark oval eyes. She sensed at once it was male.
Her voice came out hoarse. “Who are you?”
“I am Peristo. You are safe here.”
She turned her head, blinking quickly. She was in a round room, the walls smooth and green.
“What is this place?”
Ship. It all flooded back, her isolated Explorer, the days of solitude. The crash of darkness. “You knocked me out?” Blood flushed her face, making her crest throb. Kidnapped again? “How dare you!”
“It was to rescue you, Madam President.” The alien used her title awkwardly, as if quoting from a barely understood text. “According to my scan, your life support system was counting down toward termination.”
She sucked in a slow breath. That much was true. “What do you intend to do to me?”
“I am taking you to Menelao. You will be well there.”
“What is Menelao?”
“A city on that world.” The alien turned slightly, pointing to a wall. A viewing screen opened to reveal a large blue and purple planet looming below them.
Chia pushed herself to her feet. If she was going to a new world, she’d go standing.
“Welcome to sanctuary. I am Kalla.” The speaker was a different species from Chia or Peristo. How could this be? Again, this one had no forehead crest, making her face appear open and unguarded. Her eyes, mouth and what might be a breathing feature were small slits in a pearl-like surface.
Chia scrambled to form a thought. “Sanctuary?”
“Our planet Oeste offers several communities of refuge for otherworlders who need asylum. Based on your biological scans and the settings of your craft, we assumed you would do best in a temperate zone. Hence we brought you to Menelao. If that is not correct, we have settlements in desert, arctic and underwater environments for species that need such climates.”
They stood in a wide garden cut through with channels of still, gleaming water that reflected the lilac sky. A slight breeze cooled Chia’s skin. “This is good.”
“We see that you are wounded.” Kalla glanced discreetly at her swollen ankle. “I suggest we begin with medical treatment, then allow you to integrate into our society as you will.”
Just walking down the ramp of the craft had sent her entire left side throbbing. Chia took a breath and nodded.
She didn’t even scream when a large brown and green creature with webbed feet and hands administered the medical care. Why hadn’t she known such species exist? There must be more to the cosmos than she’d imagined.
Within hours her leg felt like new. Kalla led her to a modest structure under a spreading tree and left her to get comfortable. Stepping inside, Chia discovered a small yellow chamber filled with plants. Silky cushions lay scattered on the polished wooden floor. Behind a screen of vines an alcove held a bed and a table. A second alcove contained basic cooking equipment and shelves filled with packages and unknown fruits or vegetables. Outside the broad, open windows flowering shrubs sent a light fragrance on the cool air. When she found the bathing facilities, she gladly slipped into a low tub to wash. She changed her grimy clothes for a loose golden robe. But she kept her shoes. The four-inch platforms had gotten her through three electoral campaigns and numerous meetings with tall and imperious challengers. She wasn’t ready for the soft sandals at the foot of the bed.
Emerging from her new living quarters, she found Kalla nearby, speaking to a cluster of various species.
“I’d like a tour.” Chia eyed her host squarely. She had to know how far she was allowed to roam, what she was allowed to see and what exactly was going on here.
Kalla smiled warmly. “I’m so happy to show you.”
Chia’s shoes thumped against the stone pavement, while Kalla glided silently before her.
They spent the rest of the day exploring gardens and kitchens. Kalla showed her how to strip leaves off a stubby orange stalk and mix them in a salad with three other types of leaves with unpronounceable names and some white berries called Thou. Chia tasted a berry; it reminded her of a cross between soap and her favorite punto fruit from home.
“I suppose your planet isn’t densely populated with your own species, or you couldn’t afford to give up such space and resources to others.”
Kalla’s small mouth widened in a smile. “Actually, we have quite a large population. But with each planned refugee community we include ways to manage space and resources. It’s enlivened our culture, facing those challenges. And you mustn’t think this has been sacrificial on our part. All of the species have brought inestimable gifts to us in medicine, philosophy and arts.”
They squeezed some kind of a pumpkin as a salad dressing and went to a great hall to have the nightly communal supper.
Chia was starving but could hardly eat. She had to experiment with three sets of utensils before she stopped dropping salad into her lap. She counted eight distinct species at the tables, on the floor or flitting around her. But Peristo wasn’t there.
Why did she care that Peristo was absent? Did she want a familiar face? Because his wasn’t. It was compelling, but not familiar.
“Peristo doesn’t dine with us?” She turned to Kalla, who had kindly invited her to her own table with her relatives.
“He comes and goes.”
Chia nodded. She had patience; everyone said so. She’d outlasted the delegates from that snippy little mining company, hadn’t she? Besides, who was Peristo to her?
The next day Kalla proposed a cultural tour. She led to some larger buildings Chia had only seen in the distance. The architecture had an airy feeling: open porticoes, skylights, and everywhere climbing vines.
They walked through a wide entryway into an amphitheater with rows of low benches. Colorful mosaic panels displayed images of various species. “This is our Council Chamber, where we meet for planning.”
“You have a government?” Chia’s breath quickened.
“We have volunteers, often nominated by others of their species. You would be welcome to join us if you wish. As soon as asylum seekers are settled, they may add their voice to Council deliberations.”
“You allow them to impact your laws? Your social policies?”
“They would do so inevitably. And we find that their perspectives keep our laws current and alive.”
Chia opened her mouth, then closed it.
Kalla tilted her head. “The fundamental principle of our law is to respect all the citizens of Oeste, both indigenous and welcomed through sanctuary.”
“You must have had an original culture, a primary way of life before you started taking in other species.”
A shadow crossed Kalla’s face, like a cloud over water. “We did. We had a history of warfare based on competition for resources. Needless wars. I am ashamed to say that even wealthy groups fought other wealthy groups for superfluities. We were a grasping species.”
“But now you take in other beings?”
“We realized in time that we had to rule ourselves. Loosen our hands. Give when our impulses urged us to take. Or we would not endure.”
“So you seek out those in need…”
“It is an act of spiritual discipline. We are healed by it.”
Kalla halted before one of the windows, displaying a water species gracefully cresting a wave. “I sometimes think we need our refugees as much as they need us.”
The next morning at breakfast Kalla excused herself. “I would happily be your guide again today, but necessary preparations require my attention.” She turned to a small, thin figure. “This is Tenay, of the Heldeth colony. They will take you to see another side of our existence.”
Chia stood. The little being, dressed in a kind of rough sacking, bowed deeply, straightening to reveal a round, blunted, almost featureless face. Chia returned the bow and followed them out of the dining area.
In the road stood a small, two-wheeled cart. Tenay stepped between the shafts, settled them on their shoulders, and began to walk.
Chia stared at the cart. It was loaded with lumpy sacks, folded fabrics, and a few greens and melons she recognized from the garden.
“That’s heavy! Let me help.”
“Only one fits between the traces.”
It was true. Even a quadruped from home wouldn’t have squeezed between them.
“Then I’m taking a turn. Wherever we’re going, I’ll do my share.”
A quick smile flashed across Tenay’s dust-colored face.
Tenay played fair; Chia pulled the cart for a full 50% of the trip, though she got mostly the level portion of the route. Tenay took the uphill passage and the trickier downhill stretch where the weight of the cart set them trotting. Just as Chia was about to say something about space technology and automation and other improvements of the current millennium, they arrived at a sprawling, one-story structure.
“Our hospital.” Tenay stepped from the traces. Their face revealed no emotion.
“For the planet?”
“For my people. The amonee pickers.”
The building held several wide units, with row after row of identical beds. Each had its own window, its own table with flowers. Its own patient. Chia estimated nearly two hundred. A handful of beings, all dressed like Tenay, moved among them, clearly offering care.
Chia helped Tenay unload the supplies in a small room off the main corridor. “If I may ask, what medical conditions…?”
Tenay’s face puckered. “Only one condition. Poison from the amonee plants.”
“Everyone is poisoned?”
Tenay tapped her chest. “The lungs. Poison from the amonee flowers we harvested. No cure.”
“The people of this place came and found us after harvest. Took us away. Left machines behind to pick for the next season. We wanted them to blast the planet in pieces, but that is not their law.”
Chia swallowed. “You’re sure there’s no cure?”
“No. Amonee seeds kill. Make nice lotion for some, but kill pickers. Still.” Tenay looked at the supplies. “Those are nice melons. They will feed our people well.”
“Are you not…”
“Poisoned? Me? Only a little. I am young. Did only one season of picking. I will live to have children.”
“There are children?”
“Oh yes. Past the hospital, I will show you our village. Many young who won’t die. From the amonee, at least.”
“I am glad of that.”
Tenay stood still for a long moment. “Yes. We must be glad that there will be children. And they will grow up on this planet. Safe. We must be glad that even our sick are here, not on Heldeth. Here they die in clean beds and with melons to eat. We must be glad, and we must be grateful, and we must respect the law of this planet that helps us.” Tenay looked toward the nearest ward. “But all of us who walked in the amonee fields have some poison inside. We dream that the planet Heldeth will someday explode. We wonder why the people of this planet came when they did and not a lifetime before. We do not know if we can ever heal from these thoughts. But we try.”
Chia had barely arrived back at her cabin, washing the dust off her hands, when she went to find Kalla. She had so much to ask.
Kalla was in the common kitchen, pounding some kind of pastry. She just turned to meet Chia when, looking behind her, she stilled.
A tall being stood in the doorway. “More are coming.”
Kalla ran her hand down a cloth at her waist, pulled it off and moved toward him. She stood whispering for a moment, then turned to face Chia. “I must go to the water. Please come if you will.”
They sped along the paths into the garden with wide channels, where Kalla had first greeted her. The glasslike lilac water still gleamed as dozens of people, creatures, inhabitants of Oeste hurried into the garden through its arches. A rumbling sound approached, growing louder until a series of wagons drew up on all sides.
Peristo strode in, carrying something in his arms.
His voice rang out, clear but calm. “It is the ash from Etray. Cleanse them, dispose of the garments, then wash yourselves.”
Without another word he laid down his burden, pulling aside its wrapping. As red powder fell from the cloth, Peristo uncovered a limp body. Stripping off his own robe, he took the form in his arms, stepped into the channel and went fully under the water.
Everywhere citizens of Menelao hurried to imitate him.
“Here, we’ll help the children.” Kalla touched Chia’s arms. Chia stirred, pulling her eyes from the sight of Peristo emerging streaming from the water. The being in his arms was now moving, and Peristo helped it to its feet before reaching for another body.
Kalla unfolded ash-filled cloths from a small bundle and took a tiny frame in her arms. Chia turned to see cloth forms piling up behind her. Holding her breath, she reached for one.
Like Kalla, she pulled away the fabric to find a diminutive creature, gray and with six appendages. Slits like gills ran along its torso. Dropping to her knees, she bent over the water and, following Kalla, dipped the being completely under. As the silky liquid caressed her skin, the figure stirred. Small limbs wrapped around her forearm, like an embrace. She pulled the body up. When Kalla kissed her creature, Chia bent and pressed her lips against the smooth cool head. Behind her someone sighed, and she turned. An adult, dripping wet, gills rhythmically throbbing, reached out its upper appendages. She laid the child in the adult’s arms, then reached for the next little body. And the next. They worked through the afternoon, and she wanted it to never end.
When all had been washed and taken to shelter, while the channels remained as clear and lilac as ever, Chia hesitantly stripped off her own ash-covered robe and slipped into the water. Down, not touching bottom, till the liquid flowed through her mane. She rose to pull herself onto the pool’s edge and looked across at Peristo.
He dined with them that night. Somehow Kalla’s table was full with new refugees, and the two of them had to go outside to a small table in the garden. Again, Chia was distracted from the food.
But after he left her outside her dwelling, she took a walk over to Kalla’s home. They shared a glass of some form of wine and reflected in silence. Just before parting, Chia found her voice. “With all these different inhabitants, does Oeste allow… do you have… have you had any relations between species? I mean…”
“Oh, yes! The children of our interspecies unions have been an enormous gift to us. They are quite adept at learning languages and sciences. Some have developed new sensory perceptions. I’ll have to take you to our school.”
Chia nodded. She could visit the school.
Each day she discovered more. The school. The arts workshops. Irrigation systems and farmlands. Peristo accompanied her, if he wasn’t on a rescue mission. At night she read works from the library. One of the novels reminded her a bit of her planet’s vulnerable Listian people; at least she imagined the protagonists with Listian faces.
The world Oeste was wonderful, nurturing, hopeful. Yes, it was imperfect. They didn’t rescue everyone, at least not soon enough. Some refugee groups stayed apart and never wanted to join their rescuers. But that was all accepted. The culture of the planet forced nothing, required nothing but peace and mutual respect.
And all of it was a reproach to her. A success in all the ways she had failed.
She should be glad to be there. But something tugged at her, kept her sleep fitful. Her world could be like this, or closer to it at least. But she had not tried, not hard enough.
“I should’ve been able to do this.”
Again she walked in circles, but this time she roamed the gardens, thinking about her world. “I still have friends and allies. I know good people who could be allies, now that I have a vision.”
The next time Peristo was on Oeste, she approached him. “Can I see your ship?”
His eyes flicked to her face, then away. “Why?”
“It’s your life. I’d like to know a little about it.”
He contemplated some large violet blooms spilling over a wall. “All right.”
They walked in silence. She wanted to take his arm but couldn’t make herself do it. She could dissect the budget of a planet, with totals so big the money couldn’t be real. She pardoned prisoners on Release Day. She denied pardon to others. But she couldn’t touch Peristo.
He led her out of the city toward a plain. “There.”
Softly waving golden grass stretched away to a range of low hills.
“I don’t see anything.”
Peristo touched a fold in his garment, and the air shimmered. A huge black shape, taller than Menelao’s Council Chamber, formed before them. “It was cloaked.”
“You mean hidden? Would someone attack it?” Chia scanned the sky for enemy craft.
“No. It just spoils the view.” He smiled. “My people invented the technique when our manufacturing plants began to sprawl too much.”
She swallowed. “So I came here in that. It’s immense.”
Peristo’s face tightened. “Most refugees come in rather large groups. The ship can hold hundreds. Thousands, if they’re small like the Cantonian frog people.” He cupped his hands, looking down into them with a smile.
“It seems inefficient to bring just one person.”
“Each soul is worth the universe.”
She took a breath and walked a few paces, pretending to study the vessel’s design. “And what happened to my little Explorer? Did you leave it out there?”
“I towed it back here. In case.”
They stared at one another. “In case I wanted to leave?”
“I didn’t know you then. If I did, I would have abandoned it and forgotten the coordinates.”
Since he seemed to be reading her mind, she plunged ahead. “I can’t just live here and be peaceful. It’s not in my nature. I have to act.”
“Kalla would give you land to start a new garden.”
“No. I need a new government. I need to be in charge. I need to say, ‘Follow me.'”
“You can’t change Menelao. It’s not right. They’ve built this for so many needs.”
She took a breath. He was following her logic. “I don’t want to change Menelao. I want to replicate it. On my world. As much as I can.” She tried to hold his gaze, but Peristo turned. “If you have my ship, can you trace where it set out from? Where I came from?”
“I already have.” A slight purple rippled under his skin. “I was curious about your home. I mean, I had to confirm the climate was temperate.”
“So you could take me there.”
His voiced dropped. “I don’t want to.”
Her crest pounded. “I don’t want to say good-bye to you, either. But I can’t keep utopia to myself. I have to go back. Maybe someday…”
“No. Don’t say maybe.”
Her throat tightened. “How long will it take to get me back?”
“Three days fast, five days comfortably.”
“Let’s take our time.” She’d be able to ramble the ship with him. Hear stories of rescues or whatever he wanted to tell her. Make memories for her long fight ahead.
He took a step back and folded his hands before him. “Just tell me when.”
Kalla took the news calmly. “We’ve had a few exiles return home. We understand. But you mustn’t say anything about Oeste. Your species couldn’t reach us yet, but their knowing of us could be dangerous.”
“I’m not going to say anything. I’d never jeopardize your world.” She smiled slowly. “Besides, I’m a politician. I take all credit for myself.”
She touched the robe, soft against her skin, and pushed back the mane flowing loosely on her shoulders. In her hut hung the clothes she’d been wearing when Sargon’s goons dumped her in the Explorer. Purple, thickened by stripes of metal and leather and with the false wings jutting out from the shoulders.
“I’m going to need my power suit.”