Visions of Paradise

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Starflame, Part 1

This is the first installment of a story which originally appeared in Visions of Paradise #109. Let me know if you enjoy it and wish to see more fiction in this blog.

Anila was the first person off the shuttle. She was greeted by two dozen colonists who gathered around the landing grid. Standing in front of the group was the apparent leader.

Anila wore a peacekeeper’s jumper, dark brown with beige ornamentation on her wrists, shoulders and waist. The uniform blended with her dark brown skin and black hair. All the colony’s men wore black pants and shirt with a large straw hat, while the woman wore bonnets and ground-length dresses. Anila was not surprised since Penn’s World had been settled by Quaker revivalists.

The colony leader extended his hand to Anila. “I am so pleased you came here,” he said. His smile was a broad one, but Anila realized it was more a smile of relief than a smile of pleasure. “My name is Ephron.”

“I’m Anila.”

“I thought peacekeepers traveled in teams of three.”

Anila nodded. “My partners are closing down the shuttle. We don’t take any chances when we leave it.”

Ephron looked slightly offended. “We would never impose on your privacy, or that of your personal possessions,” he said, a chill in his voice. “We are the most peace-loving religion in the entire Conglomerate.”

Anita deliberately let a trace of offense creep into her voice as she said, “I’m a Buddhist. We’re pretty peace-loving ourselves.”

Ephron’s eyes widened. “But aren’t peacekeepers a military force?”

“We are precisely what our name implies, an organization created by the Conglomerate to keep peace throughout the spiral arm. Our weapons are strictly defensive weapons which will never be used to cause harm to another being.”

“Aren’t there Mercies in your force?” somebody called from the group surrounding Ephron and Anila.

Anila laughed. “Mercies died out thousands of years ago, if they ever existed at all. Many historians believe they were as much legend as the so-called technological age which preceded the crazy years.”

There was some nervous laughter, but a few people studied Anila critically, not sure if she were telling them the truth. She shrugged. Let them believe whatever they wished; her task was keeping the peace, not debunking superstitions.

Suddenly an audible gasp ran through the crowd as their attention shifted to the shuttle. Anila’s two partners were descending the shuttle’s ramp. First was a foot-high grey cat with white trim under her neck and above all four paws. Behind it walked what looked like a male human, but as he reached the ground certain differences became visible. His legs were jointed backwards and he had two opposable thumbs on each hand. He was totally hairless, although the colonists could not see that through his jumper.

“These are my partners,” Anila said. “Jov–“ motioning first to the cat “–and Hadar.”

The crowd’s reaction to the two aliens was completely different. The colonists eased away from the not-quite human Hadar, but the youngsters were fascinated by the cat. A few tried to run to it, but their parents held them firmly at their side.

Anila smiled. “You can let the children go to Jov,” she said. “She enjoys being petted by youngsters.”

Hearing that, two children immediately pulled free of their mother’s grip, while another began pleading with his father. Meanwhile the cat sat patiently awaiting their prodding and poking.

“She really doesn’t mind?” Ephron said, looking dubious.

Anila shook her head. “Jov is the crowd-pleaser in our group. She’ll let people get away with things that would definitely annoy Hadar or me.”

Eventually Ephron led the three peacekeepers to a private meeting inside a nearby building. It was traditional for peacekeepers to first be shown their quarters and allowed to rest from their trip, but this was not the first time a colony’s need was so urgent they dispensed with the niceties and got right to business.

The meeting room was well-stocked with food and drinks. Both Anila and Hadar filled plates with stewed vegetables and huge chunks of bread with preserves. Hadar looked for meat, but Anila whispered to him that Quaker revivalists had given up the practice of eating meat. They carried their plates to the table and were getting bowls of punch when Ephron approached Anila.

“Shouldn’t somebody feed the cat?”

Anila laughed. “Jov has opposable thumbs on her front paws. She is as capable of caring for herself as I am, although perhaps not so well as Hadar who has the advantage of double the number of thumbs.”

Ephron glanced at Hadar dubiously, his eyes widening at the peacekeeper’s broad smile which exposed sharp teeth obviously intended for tearing prey.

“Don’t worry,” he said in a deceptively high-pitched voice, “My ancestors gave up eating raw meat millennia ago.”

Ephron’s expression exposed his discomfort as he followed Anila away from the others. In a low voice he asked her, “How do you get along with your partners?”

“No differently than I get along with any two humans.”

“It wouldn’t be easier having human partners who don’t have such differences from you?”

Anila laughed loudly, attracting the attention of other nearby colonists. “The Conglomerate is much more diverse than your little colony is. Anybody who fears differences is better off staying isolated on their self-contained little world than traveling through the spiral arm.”

With that she took her plate to the table and sat beside Hadar who was frowning at his plate of stewed vegetables. He shrugged and dipped a chunk of bread into it.

The peacekeepers ate, while the colony leaders fidgeted, anxious to get started on business. Some of them stared at Hadar tearing the bread with his sharp teeth, while others watched in amazement as Jov ate with a fork and spoon.

The three peacekeepers were barely halfway finished with their food when Ephron said, “Can we discuss our problem now?”

Anila’s mouth was filled with food, so she merely nodded without speaking.

“One of our children is missing,” Ephron said.

Hadar swallowed. “Missing?”

“She did not come to the main hall for dinner a week ago. All our dinners are communal meals by custom. We sent out a search team, but they found no sign of her. We searched for three days without success.”

“Could she have run away?” Anila said.

“My daughter Sarah would never run away!” a woman cried out, her voice filled with pain. All three peacekeepers looked away politely, and nobody spoke while the man sitting next to her calmed the woman.

“It would be impossible for her to run away without our knowing it,” Ephron said.

“Why is that?”

“We have a protective fence around the entire settlement. Nothing can get past it without setting off the settlement’s alarms.”

“Could somebody have shut the power momentarily while she slipped through?” Anila asked.

Several colonists, including Ephron, looked stunned. “Why would anybody do that?”

Anila shrugged. “I don’t know the dynamics of the colony, nor what type of atmosphere you have created for your children here. Sometimes a colony based on precepts which are perfectly acceptable to adults can be hellish for the colony children.”

Immediately the colonists began talking amongst themselves, and from the tones of their voices it was obvious they were displeased. Finally Ephron said in a low, restrained voice, “Your implication is offensive to the entire colony.”

“I am not concerned with placating your egos,” Anila said. “Do you want us to find Sarah or not?”

“Of course we do, but there is no need to insult the entire colony–“

”Stifle your pride,” Anila said. “I grew up on a Buddhist world where all my friends fled as soon as we were old enough because we were absolutely stifled in the overly-strict Buddhist regimen of the colony. Their practices suits the adults’ own conservative beliefs very well, but they accepted those practices voluntarily. We children were not given the same option as the adults.”

Several emotions flicked across Ephron’s face, and she saw his mouth move back and forth as if he were trying to speak. Finally he said, “So what do you want to do?”

“First we will try to find Sarah ourselves, but if we do not succeed we will question every child in the colony. Because, according to what you told me, she could not possibly have gotten past the invisible fence without help, right?”

Ephron clenched his mouth. “Yes.”

Anila leaned over and spoke quietly with Jov and Hadar briefly. When Hadar nodded and Jov purred her agreement, she returned her attention to the colony leaders.

“Take us to the colony border. We need to see what’s out there.”


The fence surrounding the colony was two miles long. The three peacekeepers walked its length with the colony leaders, attracting other interested colonists along the way. When Anila tossed a rock above the fence, it set off a loud siren which could be clearly heard through the entire colony. As they walked, she and Hadar asked questions about what they saw beyond the fence. Mostly it was open fields with forests visible in the distance. In one direction loomed a distant mountain.

The peacekeepers stopped when they saw movement far off in one of the fields.

“What is that?” Anila said.

They all pressed close to the fence, careful not to touch it, peering into the distance. Hadar took out a small pair of glasses which he hung over his ears, then twiddled two controls on the sidebars.

“It looks faintly apelike,” he said, “covered with white fur. I think it’s eating vegetation.”

“We call them apes,” Ephron said. “All we have ever seen them do is eat vegetation. They seem very peaceful.”

“Some peaceful-seeming animals can be very dangerous when they encounter humans,” Anila said.

“We have considered that,” Ephron said. There was a low moan in the crowd behind them.

“Have you seen any other native life?”

“Smaller animals, some of them meat-eaters but too small to be any real threat to the colony.”

“How small?” Hadar said.

Ephron motioned toward Jov. “The biggest are about twice the size of the cat.”

Anila pursed her lips. “That’s big enough to threaten a human child on her own. Do you have any of Sarah’s possessions that Jov can use to track her?”

Ephron nodded, and one of the colonists reached into a bag he had been carrying. He took out a small white garment which he handed to Anila.

“We figured you would need something which was in close contact with her body.”

Anila grinned and held out the pair of underpants to Jov. “Are you ready to sniff these?” she said, suppressing laughter. Jov let out a loud growl and reared back on her hind legs, extending her front paws. Her claws stuck out threateningly.

“Do you people think I’m some kind of pervert?” she said in a gravely voice, shocking the colonists both with the fact that she could speak and her obvious anger. “I’m not smelling anybody’s underwear! Get me something she touched, like a book.”

For an instant nobody moved, so Anila tossed the underpants back at Ephron. He fumbled trying to catch them, then picked them off the ground and tossed them to the man who returned them to the bag.

“Y-you heard the cat!” Ephron said. “Get Sarah’s bible, and hurry!”

As the man practically stumbled running to the nearest building, Anila gave in to her amusement and laughed aloud.


To be concluded.


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