The sun is rising over the dunes, painting the horizon red-gold and throwing deep curving shadows across the desert. Arin snorts and tosses his long mane, impatient for a gallop in the cool morning air, but I have to wait for my brother to catch up with us before we can move on. I step in front of the restless stallion, stroking his silky neck, calming him.
Shh, Arin. It won’t be long now and you can run free…
I look back. Jaken is leading his horse down the steep trail, twisting between the rock pinnacles, his footsteps muffled in the soft white sand underfoot. The rock walls shadow his outline, curving above him to almost create a tunnel that weaves a descent through the great russet cliff. This is the only horse-trail down the vertical barrier that separates the deserts of Irithen from the tropical forests of Karesh.
“Jaki! Hurry! We’re ready to go.”
He laughs. The sound echoes hollow and strange in the steep cleft.
“Alissa, can’t you just hold on a few more minutes? You always want to be on the move… and this place is too weird and amazing to rush through it the way you did.”
I let out a long breath of resignation. I really should try harder to understand what it must be like for a fifteen year old on his first trip to another province. Everything is so different from the way it is back home, from landscape to lifestyle to social rules. I try to recall those feelings of excitement in myself, at his age four years ago, on my first journey to my application interview at Kar university.
Of course it had all felt every bit as fascinating and interesting for me as well… but that rush of excitement soon became swallowed up in the challenge of adapting to my new life as a student in tropical Karesh. I quickly discovered the many reasons so few Irithenis choose to submit to the rules and expectations of university discipline.
This is my first visit home since I broke off my relationship with Tigan. It has been five months now and I still feel adrift. But in a way, that was the heart of the problem. I had to finally admit to myself I had been too influenced by his steady predictability at a time when I felt new and uncertain, an outsider in sophisticated Karesh. Maybe I can use this short break to build a different kind of confidence, find my own way of conforming while still having freedom to roam. In any case, everything will be different again once I graduate…
Jaken’s sunbleached blond hair finally catches the red of the rising sun as he emerges from the shadowed trail.
“Hey! Ready when you are!” His excitement flares white-gold against the russet cliff.
I gather my reins and make the leap onto Arin’s bare back. Pangaean horses are a deal taller and stronger than the animals of the early colonists’ homeworld they were named after––if the history vids are anything like accurate. It means that anyone who wants to ride has to stay fit enough to get up there without outside help.
I draw my sand-robe around my shoulders. A quick glance behind to check that Jaken is as ready as his challenge suggests and then I can give Arin free rein.
The flat gravel shield to the oases runs south, lying between the foot of the mountains and the vast shifting dune sea of the Meshkenet erg. The horse trail is worn straight and smooth from the passage of generations of Irithenis making the long journey between Kar and the five oasis cities, strung along the buried water pipeline like beads on a chain. The journey to spend the spring break with my family in Samar Makhan will take us almost two days.
Capturing a giant sand lizard to cross the dunes would take only a day and a half and is the way I have made this journey each time until now. But lizards are cold blooded and can only run in daylight, so crossing the erg means baking in the blistering heat. This journey along the shield is luxury by comparison. If we make it to the water-canyon before the sun gets too high we can rest in the shade and continue in the cool of the evening. Knowing Jaken, he will probably want to keep going all night, by moonlight.
My fellow students from either Kar or Merkaan still find Iritheni culture impossible to understand and I have all but given up trying to explain. The veto on Pangaean air-shuttles even overflying our airspace is only partly due to the way Irithen’s clan chieftains insist on maintaining their semi-independence from the administration in the capital. I have never visited Merkaan but it is by all accounts extremely efficient, clean and tidy with every citizen provided with a house, job, and medical care as a basic right. Which must surely mean long lists of rules and expectations, something the warlords regard as totally unacceptable.
The other reason for the veto is more practical. The short but vicious daily sandstorm has proved well able to blast sand into any form of transport, whether air-shuttle or landcar. Even if the filters manage to stop the sand, they soon become terminally clogged with the stuff. At least, that is what the clan chiefs say and nobody really wants to argue with them.
Primae IV is not your average remote planet on the outer rim, the far edge of navigable space. Its resonance, far more powerful than the mere 7.83 hz of the colonists’ homeworld, interferes with coms transmission over any distance longer than five miles. And since resource extraction and use of machines disrupts the resonance, damaging everything from food-crops to human health, all new tec developments are meticulously checked before release for general use. Only the most advanced tec innovations make it out of R&D––and have never yet included anything that can use powerful transmission waves.
I run my hand over the outline of the rolled holo-vis in its sleeve on the side of my pack. The five-mile coms limit means that these visits home are my only chance to message the friends I left behind in Samar Makhan. Yet in a sense, I feel caught between two worlds. Just as Kareshis find Irithen difficult to understand, my old friends who are now in full warrior-training find it impossible to imagine why anyone would want to live in either of the soft, pampered northern provinces.
Even for me, it was a shock to discover that so many students would want to build a career based on trying to beat the demanding standards of wavelength-compatibility. I am far more interested in training for the advanced levels of resonance skills, using the powerful frequency to enhance my natural abilities. These are skills that give me the freedom to roam the wilderness on my own terms.
I know that anyone engaging in a career as a qualified tec can expect to be well rewarded for every small innovation they manage to edge forward in Pangaea’s quest for development. However, this field of study holds little interest for me.
Just as well, as I am useless at tec and always have been.
My guess about Jaken’s choice to ride all night proves accurate. The trail gleams white and straight in the silver glaze of both moons and the horses respond to the cool night air, arching their necks as their hooves pound the smooth crushed gravel of the dry riverbed. We ride hard into the night, the crisp desert wind stirring my hair and the soft thud of hooves on the desert shield pulsing in my ears.
I have so longed for this moment of freedom in the months of study and training, bound by the constraints of university rules. Irithen may be harsh and dangerous––but it is home and it feels like space to breathe. The elegant twin cities of Merkaan and Kar are linked by underground coms cable, air shuttle route, and maglev bullet train––but beyond that urban bubble the rest of the Pangaean continent is as wild and unpredictable as it has always been.
Alive. Primeval. Pristine. Challenging!
Through the generations, Pangaean colonists learned to compensate for the restrictions on tec by adapting to the powerful resonance and using it for navigation, summoning, entrancement and a whole range of other skills that now serve to give us power to survive the harsh conditions outside the cities. As someone born and raised to train in these skills, I sometimes wonder how humans managed to stay alive, before they fled their ancient third planet of a distant sun.
Dawn shifts the dune-shadows from black into blue-beige and I rein in to watch the sun break over the skyline. The horses take their turn once more to walk and regain their wind.
“So, Jaki, are you going to tell me the real reason you brought Arin all the way to Kar for me?”
“What? You mean you can’t believe it was just for the pleasure of riding back home with my beloved sister? How could you even think such a thing?”
“Fine. I’m more than happy to believe that was some of it. But confess, you did insist that I took you all around the university, plus every street in Kar city we could cover before the two days’ stabling fees ran out. Not to mention every student bar and entertainment venue you could persuade me to sneak you into.”
“It was fun though, wasn’t it?”
He flashes me the impish grin that has been his signature ever since he spent his days following me around as an accident-prone four year old. I grin fondly at him.
“The degree of fun is not currently in dispute––providing I can erase my fear regarding precisely what form the parental displeasure will take if they discover how badly I have been corrupting my innocent little brother.”
That produces a brotherly snort of amusement and derision. Jaken’s reputation for disorder is easily as notorious as mine. Except for one significant difference…
No. Don’t think about that. Not now.
“Is it because you really are seriously thinking of applying to the university? Two Irithenis graduating from Kar, both from the same family––or even the same clan––would probably be some kind of record.”
“Alissa, you know perfectly well I never seriously think about anything.”
I raise an eyebrow by way of agreement and wait for him to continue. He gives a diffident shrug.
“Well, I had to check it out after listening to all the stories you’ve been bringing home! But I still feel that advanced warrior training is what I want to go for. Let’s face it, that’s what brings anyone the highest respect and recognition in Irithen––”
He glances across at me, suddenly remembering the tacit agreement between us to stay well clear of that particular topic.
“I mean, of course it’s different for you…”
“Jaki, just shut up.” I lean forward and urge Arin to a canter once more, the light of the rising sun warming my face as dry desert wind ripples through my sand-robe and tugs at my hair. I try to imagine the speed of our passage erasing the haunted memories clinging to me like old spiderwebs in a dark cellar.
The trail to Samar Makhan branches off to my left, cutting across the gravel shield until the boulder wall of the first city on the pipeline spreads dark and long against the sweep of the dune sea. The desert is shimmering in heat haze now and I think longingly of the cool interior of the house and the mist-shower that awaits.
The gate guard has no need to challenge either of us. We are both well-known in the northern quarter. Mostly on account of past disreputable teen exploits––but we have nothing on our records to suggest that we might pose an actual danger to the residents of the city. Except perhaps through sheer carelessness.
We dismount and lead the horses through the winding sandy streets to the rear courtyard of our home. Once inside the thick adobe walls of the stable, the heat vanishes and the task of brushing and watering becomes easier in the cool air wafting up from coiled underground vents and storage cellars. Jaken has warned me that my father and two elder brothers will not be home until tomorrow from their regular shift on pipeline maintenance. Then we have a three day break before the two of us are scheduled go out with our mother and take our turn.
Maintaining the precious supply of desalinated water from the giant pumping station on the southern coast is a sworn duty for everyone in the oasis cities. If the line fails, the underground storage tanks can only last for around ten days, even with strict rationing. Needless to say, the priority that Irithenis give to careful maintenance means that we rarely need to fall back on the emergency stores.
Horse duty complete, I cross the courtyard, heading for the house and some refreshment. The high adobe walls are almost invisible behind the thick leaf-curtain of vines and fruit trees breathing moisture and scent into the dry air. I pluck a huge ripe nectarine as I pass and bite deep into it, the juice running between my fingers and dripping onto my travel-stained robe.
Jaken laughs. “Looks like they starve you of fruit in that weird city you’ve been studying in.”
My answer is somewhat muffled through another taste-explosion of spilled juice.
“They have loads of fruit and everything else. I thought you’d seen some of that. It’s just different. And this is… well, it’s home.” I use my elbow to push through the door and then wipe sticky hands on my robe before dropping it onto the floor.
My mother must have already heard us come clattering in because she calls from the next room.
“You two! I left a tray of food in the kitchen. I’ll bring backup rations when I’ve finished this.”
I peer through the doorway. Someone I have not seen before is laid out on the table while Arima is stitching a jagged cut on his arm. She gives me a brief wave and turns back to her emergency work. Some things don’t change. Settling disputes by duel was outlawed years ago but it is still the preferred solution for anyone hotheaded enough to reject debate and mediation. My parents, and several others with medic skills, often find hopeful strangers dripping blood all over their doorstep and begging for help to avoid the city hospital and too many awkward questions.
I find the tray loaded with pickled dates and sliced oranges, together with tall glasses of iced ayan-leaf infusion. I hastily postpone thoughts of the mist shower, sinking gratefully into the pile of soft mossgreen cushions by the wall and cradling the chilled glass in my hands. Anticipating the rush of alertness from the herb is almost as good as when the real thing kicks in after a few minutes. I focus on the feeling as cool liquid runs down my parched throat.
Arima arrives a few minutes later, peeling off her blood-spattered apron as she settles herself on the cushions opposite us. She smiles, looking curiously from one to the other, waiting for our retelling of stories from our travels. We tease by holding off so she tries a prompt.
“So, Jaki. How was Karesh?”
“Interesting.” He keeps it non-committal, making no secret of his preoccupation with the food.
She smiles again, leaning back against the white-painted adobe wall, giving us our own time and waiting for one of us to volunteer something a little more descriptive. My mother is dressed in the same beige silk tunic and leggings as Jaken and myself, now we have abandoned our sweaty sand-robes just inside the door. Her sunbleached fair hair and green eyes are so like my own, typical Iritheni characteristics––except that most Iritheni eyes are blue.
I have no idea where our different genes came from. But for some reason the history of Pangaea’s southern desert province is vague on so many aspects of our origins, I am unlikely to ever discover the reason why.
It takes only one plateful of treats before Jaken’s irrepressible urge for storytelling overtakes his hunger and he is in full flow, recounting every detail of his recent journey and his forthright opinion on every aspect of it.
I notice my mother glancing in my direction from time to time as if encouraging me to break in and tell my own story, yet I can tell she is being careful not to push me before I feel ready.
This is always the difficult part of coming home. I know how hard everyone in my family is trying to put the past behind us. Keeping the focus on helping me make something worthwhile out of my life instead of dwelling on past disasters. But that care, that hesitancy, haunts every conversation like a grey shadow lurking in dark corners of the room.
Maybe it will all feel easier tomorrow in the crowding and bustle of the others’ return. I scramble to my feet, scooping a large ripe fig from the plate on the low table.
“I think I’ll grab a shower now. Maybe the best stories will come together after I’ve been for a walk outside. I need to remind myself what the city looks like after almost a year away from it.”
I can sense Arima’s spike of silver-blue concern following me as I hurry out of the room.
The twisting streets of Samar Makhan are flanked by high adobe walls that cut the force of the early afternoon windstorm and ease the sting of flying grit. At least, to a level that is bearable if you have a good sand-robe to wrap across your face.
Every surface is smoothed and rounded both by design and by erosion. Most doors leading to homes and courtyards are closed against the wind, leaving the sandy streets almost empty. Only a few citizens unfortunate enough to be forced outside on urgent business are hurrying past in this hour-long interlude of stinging sand.
I draw my robe closer around my head, wishing I had thought to bring my visor with me. No matter. Staying upright against the buffeting wind dulls the sharp edge of my twitchy alertness, brought on by an unwise mix of brewed ayan and ghosts of the past.
I have no particular destination in mind, simply a need to move, to change direction, my attempt to re-learn a familiar city as if it were fresh and new. The next turning into a narrow side street leads to a sector that has always been the traditional territory of market vendors. In practice most of the street traders are those selling jugs of strong alcohol, while others offer the wads of khatin-leaf that act as a rough stimulant to counter the worst disorienting effects of the former.
The familiar smell of spilled arak on sand mixed with the pungent aroma of powdered khatin-leaf hits me in irregular drifts, carried on the wind and sand assailing my senses. Most of the vendors have done the sensible thing and disappeared inside, leaving their wares safe within the heavy lock-boxes parked along the walls. Only a few stalwarts remain, hunched behind their stalls, their heads wrapped in layers of scarves.
Their sharp eyes peer out, alert for new customers.
Weather conditions like this discourage most social discourse. The few interactions are limited to hurried purchases and the exchange of currency. Which is why I notice the slender young man engaged in an intense debate with one of the shawl-wrapped vendors. He shows little interest in buying any of the khatin-packs ranged on the small table and the vendor seems angry and dismissive. As I approach, the youth finally hears my sand-muffled footsteps and turns to look at me.
One glance and he shrugs back to his argument, evidently making a rapid decision that I represent neither threat nor relevance. I move to the opposite side of the street as I walk past, just in case the debate descends into physical violence as it often does in Irithen.
By the time I turn the next corner I should have forgotten the incident but it stays with me, scratching away at the back of my mind. I puzzle over the reason. The stranger is maybe two or three years younger than I am, unremarkable except for his deep blue-violet eyes and a light, slender build no heavier than my own. Or maybe it is the beauty of his features, fine sculpted, almost like those of a girl. And yet, somehow I know it was more than that, something within the half-heard words of the argument that drew my attention…
If I had not unconsciously slowed my pace, I would not have heard the faint cry of pain above the whine and hiss of keening wind.