Tablets for Kkae
Although small, the ship appeared to be seafaring, like the cargo freighter The Profar she had lived on, except for the shape of its bow, which was more cone-shaped than wedged. Scraped into the mountainside was a long hideous scar that trailed the wrecked ship as if it were pulled through the Galadin soil like a giant plow.
Kkae adjusted her body and reached out with the audaltran nerve for which pooshtas as herself were held in regard by the Guardians. The soldiers approaching were the same group that forced her climb into the Barren Mountains. Those wearing the purple froleen on their black uniforms relished the prestige of owning their own pooshtas to serve them as hapshas in the battlefield. Not too long ago different soldiers festooned in bright colors and tassels rode atop trotting froleens through villages and countrysides. Guardian children often ran alongside, straining all four arms to pet the creatures. These new soldiers either marched in straight lines or charged down streets on baalgers, deafening smoke-belching machines, clipping and shoving all manner of creature and property out of their way.
Kkae inspected the wording along the smashed ship’s hull but these were neither Kenu, Libish or the astrometric script of Hata. Beside the strange script was an emblem: a wreath encompassing a globe and set against a field of blue. Guardians regarded pooshtas like herself as intelligent and loyal animals but never able to comprehend the complexities of their culture, let alone able to read.
Through the gaping tear along the ship, Kkae inhaled deeper, and a familiar scent flung her mind back to the Jun-Lupatian monastery in Tapcia where she labored as their hapsha. It was the fragrance of the ancients: thousands of scrolled star charts seeped up through the cracks in the catacombs beneath her paws. Between hauling water from the aucasian well and food preparation, Kkae would slow her gait--even pausing--to stare intently at the celestial art adorning the walls, mesmerized by the array of iron astrolabes, armillas, and theodolites throughout the garden. Occasionally, she would lift the leathered covers and gilded pages of the astronomical tablets adorning the niches along the corridors and she would steal indiscrete studies of the planetary prophecies of interstellar life beyond Galadin that the priests and nuns effortlessly lifted from the most ancient--and sacred--Hata script. Invariably the hand of a cloistered priest slammed the book closed, or--more to the usual--drive a stick down across her pooshta backside with a painful snap. Or two. Amid a flurry of repeated blows by a Jun priest, a Lupatian nun commanded him to stop. Kkae mistook her gesture as carte blanche to freely peruse the books. In between hauling water, she paused to gander at text characters that captioned illustrations and received one smarting blow from the very nun who had come to her rescue.
Overhead the sun pierced through the humid Galadin atmosphere and light meandered through the open wound along the ship's side. Inside, Kkae saw a myriad of strange shapes. But should she dare venture inside, if anything, to find a morsel of food beyond the mere wukroot stowed inside her sawatha?
No need startling a roaming dactyl at close range or some other beastie holed up inside a bulkhead. Pushing her voice Kkae let fly with a bark to tear around in the ship's side, filling her own ears with enough racket to jolt a dead lapira and all its razor sharp teeth back to life. The ship replied with quiet and stillness.
Kkae was alone.
Over debris the pooshta eased gingerly inside the craft, pushing her range of vision into the darkness. Upwards Kkae saw a closed circular hatch, a familiar site aboard The Profar on those countless voyages across the Peadran Sea where she served its captain as his pooshta. But this hatch was oddly small for the girth of a young Guardian, let alone the bulk of an adult. Climbing up, Kkae opened the hatch, expecting it to lead to a maintenance level, but when it swung down sunlight poured in and the amber sky stared back. Now she was topside, looking out, but the deck wasn’t flat or adorned with seats and chairs, but dangerously bowed with no safety railing for Guardians to move around without tumbling and rolling off into the frothy green sea. Perhaps this an underwater craft, the type that attacked the captain’s ship, The Profar.
The captain. In the coastal city of Praxt, his rotund commanding figure coaxed her from out of a narrow alleyway. Here she laid cowering, hungry and cold, after military officers wearing the purple froleen on their arms relentlessly chased her through the market district, eager for a pooshta to serve as their hapsha. Days before she had fled the Jun-Lupatian monastery after it had been set upon and ransacked by a passing patrol of soldiers. Like scavenger canubii gnawing down bones for their marrow or dactyls digging deep for the nightworm, soldiers of the froleen offered no surprises. Any priest or nun trying to stop them were beaten. While these men heaved scrolled star charts and exploration prophecies into bonfires and smashed engravings of celestial coordinates, others wrenched armillary spheres from their moorings and battered into pieces the ancient monastery’s only telescope. Once Kkae stole a glance from the tilted cylinder aimed into the starry night sky and spied with amazement a glowing orb wrapped in bands of color and all set against a backdrop of utter blackness. Was this strange light in the sky another world like Galadin? How was this possible?
As the soldiers unleashed their fury, Kkae ran on all fours through the halls and courtyards, bleating out her sonic terror as she scurried for any window, door, or hole leading into the jungle hills outside. Once Kkae was secure aboard The Pofar, she was placed under the captain’s ownership as a kitchen hapsha where she darted for cover under the industrial environment of intersecting cooks, crashing noises and foul odors. After a week lugging and scraping, much as were her duties in the monastery, Kkae was summoned to the master cabin. There, at the captain’s table she was told to sit, where he placed before her a reading primer for Guardian children. She was confused and stared back with her four green eyes moist with fear: text was sacred, only to be handled by the nuns and priests. The captain smiled and tapped the cover, which was a picture of Galadin, complete with its amber atmosphere. On the worn and calloused right hand of the captain, between the thumb and index finger, was the faded mark of the Jun-Lupatian order, worn only by priests and nuns.
Kkae spent less time in the kitchen and more at the captain’s table learning to read stories about ships flying from Galadin to other planets looking for the Gods. Such flying craft she knew nothing of, but the legends were common among the priests and nuns. At night, if the clouds were set aside and the seas calm, the captain would take out a small telescope and show her what Kkae previously had to steal from behind the backs of the priest and nuns. For night upon night Kkae would study the skies--
The memory exploded.
The monstrous mushroom shape of a vrundula towered outside the hatchway above Kkae, sillhouetted against the sun. With a piercing bleat, she dropped like a stone out of the hatchway back into the darkened ship, slamming hard onto her back where lay, waiting to be its next victim. Yet, there was no hiss of the beast propelling through the air or the very monster trying to stuff itself down the hatchway for her. With the exception of Kkae's undulating vents drawing in the thick Galadin air, all was quiet.
Slowly she eased back atop the ship. The towering shape was not a vrundula, nor any animal, but a wadder, a half shell on a pole Guardians used to shade themselves from the sun and rain. Underneath was a chair, but like the hatchway, this particular piece of furniture was too small for the girth of an adult Guardian, let alone a child.
Meepho. That’s what her parents called the little Guardian child snatched up by that vrundula right before Kkae’s four eyes in the Miriak Forest. The girl’s father was the scowling naval commander who found the pooshta hiding in that closet on The Profar. Rather than kill Kkae, as he had the Ponfar’s captain and crew before escorting its slowly damaged hull back to harbor, the froleen-wearing commander took her aboard his underwater craft to serve as his personal pooshta. While on leave at his forest home, the commander handed over the pooshta to his daughter Meepho as a gift to amend for his frequent absences.
The little Guardian loved reading aloud stories to Kkae from her little library. These were tales written in Kenu script, which she recognized as the language taught to her by the captain. Peeking inside one of Meepho’s books, Kkae slowly lifted the symbols from off the page, a story of a poisonous weed called Hata that was allowed to spread throughout the gardens of villagers. A mother and her son go out into the garden to pick vegetables for dinner when they notice the weed growing nearby. The boy innocently reaches for the weed, which he sees has produced a fruit, appearing both appetizing and delicious. His mother warns him not touch the fruit. She explains that the fruit, while delicious to the taste, only makes you hunger for more, but the fruit has no nutritional value. While the villagers gorge themselves, they slowly starve to death. The poisonous fruit is like the astrometric language of Hata, the mother tells her son, and its lies of star travel and interstellar life starve the people of rich lives on Galadin--
Meepho caught Kkae reading, but rather than yell and swat at her, as most children of the froleen were ought to do, the girl did neither, which endeared her to the skittish pooshta. In turn Kkae watched over the girl with a vigilance, sleeping on the floor beside her bed. In the forest outside their home, Kkae attended the child on frequent walks in the Mirak Forest, which was a far cry from the closed-quarters of the dank underwater ship. On one unassuming jaunt along a forested road, before Kkae could summon a defense, the girl was swooped up in the terrible winged arms of a vrundula. Kkae leapt high for the beast, flashing her chromatophoric skin, barking her piercing shrieks, but the child--already unconscious from the neurotoxins--was long swept away into the tree tops.
Moving her exploration further down the mystery ship, Kkae surmised she was inside a galley where food was stored and prepared. Her keen nose gathered the remnants of organic matter, but the smell was unlike anything she was accustomed. Each nook and cranny were filled with countless discarded packages and empty containers with incomprehensible labels and texts, but no food to fill her sawatha pouch for the journey could be found.
Through an entryway she located a cabin with ten empty beds stacked one atop of the other in rows. All were rectangular and not bowl-shaped. How could Guardians sleep on these and not fall out?
And there it was, a new odor.
Following the invisible thread Kkae moved down to a small room. Pictures and mementos hung about the walls. These were unrecognizable to Kkae, but the place had a familiar atmosphere, like her old captain’s quarters. While taking in this reality, she saw another rectangular bed along the--
Something was in the bed.
Surely it had heard Kkae enter the ship, and noticed her moving into the room. But this creature did not budge, nor did it flinch.
In all of Kkae’s travels, in all the regions she had lived, the entity stretched out before her was foreign as any beast encountered or imagined. The body’s torso was clothed and the width was narrow. The head had two small eyes and a mouth with flat teeth. Between these organs was a strange proboscis with two openings. Atop the head, as well as around the mouth and jaw, was a covering of fur. The face was emaciated, with the taut skin revealing beneath the shape of bones. Kkae smelled death.
Of the animal’s four limbs, the two lower extremities were the longest, thick at the top with hard-soled casings fastened around the ends with a leathery twine. The two upper limbs were thin and shorter. From the ends of these limbs protruded four slender digits and a fifth one--short, blunt, and off-set from the others, and all of it quite alien to the three-fingered limbs of Guardians.
Beside the creature on a table were several stacks of books filled with a parchment and bound by a hard fabric, not much different than the books read by Guardians. With a mix of bravery and curiosity, Kkae scooped up an emerald colored book and inspected its exceptionally worn cover. Gingerly, she lifted the front cover up and over. Inside, the yellowed parchment contained script that was neither Kenu, Libish or Hata. Turning another page revealed an illustration of the same creature as on the front cover. Upon its head sat a circular headdress with a wide brim, like the zoopas Guardians wore to shade their eyes from the sun and rain. Clasped in one limb was like a basra, the type of weapon Guardians used to hunt animals in the forests and plains. Gripped in the other limb by its hind legs was a strange animal with long ears and hind legs. Upon the face of the creature she detected an expression of mischievousness--
Kkae did not see the alien reaching out until its slender digits touched the book, which she dropped with a frightful howl, knocking into the stacks of books and spilling them onto the floor. For a moment the appendage hovered before it collapsed and dangled over the side of the bed.
From a corner of the room, Kkae eased back toward the creature and saw that its eyes wide open and blue, her favorite color as it was so rare on Galadin. The animal’s lips--dried and cracked--pried themselves from off one another and moved to speak, but she heard nothing. Slowly, without threat, the creature pointed with the other appendage toward the opposite side of the room before it fell back onto the bed in exhaustion.
The gesture confused her, as the other side of the room was empty of artifacts. Was the creature pointing to an unexplored portion of the ship?
Kkae backed out into the hallway and moved towards the stern of the ship. Ahead, beams of light pierced through the tears in the hull. Walls and ceilings were buckled. In the hazy dusk, piles of debris lay strewn. Only on closer inspection did Kkae discover the cause of the alien gesticulations: books, hundreds of them, now freed from the ruptured compartments.
For a time Kkae sifted through the cornucopia of literature. Every text she purused were in a similar but utterly foreign script. Nonetheless, most books regardless of their size or style contained pictures and diagrams, either engraved, embossed, drawn in ink, or distilled in a process that froze time in an amazing lifelike process. Every picture revealed a landscape of alien animals and birds, phantasmagorical mountains and valleys, and untold deep blue rivers and seas, and all of these were depicted on a blue-green world with a silver moon. Throughout these pictures, one singular lifeform dominated life on that planet. These two legged creatures, like the one who lay dying, operated alien ships that traveled on land, water, and in the air. More astonishing were the ships that sailed above the skies, between planets and stars. One ship with the same bottle-nose bow as the one she stood inside sat tethered to an enormous building that floated like magic in the black sea of space. Perhaps this very ship wasn’t an ocean-going vessel built by the Guardians but a craft that had journey to Galadin from another world.
Rummaging through more books, Kkae snatched up a oddly colorful tome and peered at the illustrated image on the front cover depicting several alien creatures stacked one on top of the other. The shape of the animals resembled orvels found in juune tree that slung from off branches high in the wet leafy canopies. But these cartooned animals had only four limbs. On their backsides was a hard encrusted shell like an armored shield. Inside the battered book, each page depicted these creatures living in green soupy ponds.
As Kkae gleaned the full page illustrations, one prominent creature stood out. In the midst of this pond sat a particular animal upon a rocky outcropping, and in nearly every picture this shell-backed creature appeared angry and snarling. Dour countenances were regular expressions on any Guardian; the nuns and priests harbored low cast expressions as tokens of their oath of austerity. While staring at the illustrated animal, it was the maws of anger and disdain clinging to the faces of the military that leapt to Kkae’s mind. The commander who captured her and took her as his pooshta was not unlike this cartoon animal. How often he glowered down upon his underlings, ordering them to attack other vessels, storm coastal villages, and lay waste to anyone that resisted. In the book this orvel-shaped king berated others to stack themselves into a tall tower and hoist him up into the sky, so as to see beyond his throne that was a mere rock. Upwards they elevated their king, all the while their faces were twisted with pain under the heavy burden, until their ruthless leader could overlooked the entire countryside.
Down below, at the very bottom of the stack, a lone creature sat in open rebellion and complained emphatically about the heavy burden heaped upon their backsides. These protests went ignored by the king, for high in the sky above the pond, this monarch noticed a moon--not unlike the three orbiting Galadin--and he desired to be high enough to look down upon it as king. In a fit of indignation a lone creature at the very bottom of the stack, sent the entire tower of animals toppling over and back into their pond, including their cruel ruler who resumed his roost back on the stumpy rock.
Oh how this book tickled a fancy in Kkae! Oh how she wanted to know the words!
Clutching the book she returned to the captain's room and approached the outstretched creature. She held it up for the creature to see, wanting very much to keep it, if only for a short time, but the sickened animal did not move. Giving a bark to awake him, Kkae did not see a flinch nor a start in its eyes. When she bravely prodded him, the creature lay still.
Gripped with insatiable curiosity, Kkae leaned closer and stared into his face. The energy in his body was abating. She sensed the same dying embers in her captain before the soldiers dragged her away to their underwater ship, howling. Never were these supernal abilities more profound than when the lifeforce of the commander’s daughter faded before her on the Miriak forest floor. Kkae’s own screams echoed in her ears while she tore back and forth through the brush and around the trees, tracking the flying vrundula that clasped the girl in its venomous arms until the beast was done and let her body plummet with a dull thud. What was a pooshta to do? When the girl’s mother and uncle came charging, Kkae was instantly waylaid, whipped and beaten by proxy for the vrundula, but she escaped before the uncle could strike a fatal blow with his basra.
For weeks she wandered, rousting wukroot from the ground and water from anything moist. When Kkae perceived another band of soldiers in the distance she did not know where to run, except for the opposite direction. Had they been sent to hunt her down or was this one more patrol indiscriminately barging through region into another? Pooshtas were swift but no speed could outrun Guardian pilkets and cannons if a soldier fancied a little target practice.
At the edge of the forest, the tops of the Barren Mountains towered like a wall. That's where she saw it, a glint of metal on one of the peaks. Kkae hurried towards it but the distance proved too taxing, turning days on her paws into weeks as she pushed her hungered body up the mountain side.
Inside the crashed alien ship, Kkae mourned the dead creature in a way she had not been able to convey to her own captain. From her sawatha she removed a morsel of the last wukroot gathered from the forest valley and gently laid it on the torso of the dead alien.
Food for the traveler, she barked. That’s all she knew. There was more to the prayer the priests and nuns would utter, but she could not remember the rest of the mantra, nor did she understand the complexity of the Jun-Lupatian faith.
For a time she stared at the body, until she remembered the soldiers were still advancing. The books! The soldiers would destroy them. Bursting from Kkae like a spring flood was a wave of anger. Like bombs hurdling down from the sky her shrieking barks pulsated inside the ship, hammering the walls in an endless cacophony of rage.
And then it was done.
Kkae took the cartoon book, and several other books with pictures of the alien home world, and gingerly hid them in her sawatha. But her pouch would be their first search upon her capture, and on the barren mountains there was little cover to shield her presence escape.
How far would the soldiers go to find her? Kkae had to leave right then. One day she would share her discovery. Somewhere, someday.