Chapter Six
 

  “Welcome to Eiskiyarien.  Nice speech.”  He spoke English, which was a

relief.  Tharani had chosen to speak in English, assuming more would

understand that than Tamil, but she hadn’t been sure it was the right

choice.  Most of the strangers had already drifted away from Tharani

and the others, disappearing into the structures around the clearing.


  The one who’d spoke lingered, half-seen in the uneven mix of firelight

and moonlight.  Thick clouds drifted across the sky, obscuring the

moons, but every once in a while, a lance of silvery light slipped

through.  The flickering light made everything seem not quite real,

and yet Tharani’s body insisted that it was all very real indeed.  Her

body was cold, and damp, and felt heavy.  She was impossibly tired.

Tharani wanted nothing more than to lie down, but the ship doors had

closed behind them.


  “It wasn’t really a speech.”  And it wasn’t anything she had planned,

to address the crowd.  The words had just spilled out of her, born of

frustration, confinement, the roiling in her gut.  The others

clustered behind her, Jit and Rithika, Saila and Arvin, Neelan a

little separate.  Swati was right by her side, a little shadow.  They

seemed content to let her keep talking for them.


  The other laughed shortly.  “Wonder if you’ll speak so proud with

hunger gnawing at your belly.  You aren’t the first to talk

revolution, you know.”


  Hunger.  “But the food on the ship…”


  “The last free food you’ll see.  Work or starve.”  It

began to rain, a fine, cold drizzle.  The other pulled up a hood,

obscuring its appearance further.  Tharani wished she had a hood to

pull up; she re-draped her sari pallu to shield her head, but it was

poor protection, and the cold rain seeped through it, sliding down her

spine.


  Saila plucked at Tharani’s sleeve.  “What is he saying?”

she asked in Tamil.


  Before she could respond, the other snapped out a response

in broken but understandable Tamil, “Say xie, no say he.  I Tausi.”


  “What?” Tharani said, too bewildered to be subtle.


  The person switched back to English.  “Tausi is my name,

Eskie-Tharku is my species, though Eskie will do for short.  You won’t

meet any Eskie-Jeseths anytime soon; they’re all in hibernation this

season, ‘til the storms are over.  I’m female, and my correct pronoun

is she.  But until someone gifts you their preferred gender, use xie.

It’s only polite.  Has nothing changed on Earth in twenty-two years?”


  “Twenty-two years?”  Tharani felt thick and slow here –

there was too much to take in.  What was she talking about?


  “That was when the last human shipment came, a small group

of Chinese farmers.  The ones before that were almost a hundred years

ago, dozens of people from Ireland. We were starting to think the

Vashti had lost interest in humans.”


  The Vashti – that must be what the locals called the

beings she’d been thinking off as the Travellers.  “Were there other

humans from Sri Lanka?  India?  You speak Tamil.”


  “Not really.  I know a few words and phrases in Tamil.  I

speak English fluently, and the common tongue, Thella, as well as my

own language, of course.  Humans have been brought from all over your

planet; the last from your part of the world came a little before the

Irish.  About a quarter of the humans here speak English – you’ll have

to learn Thella if you want to talk to the rest.  Or if you want to

talk to the rest of us.”


  Us?  Tharani had assumed Tausi was human.  How many other

strange beings were there in the universe?  A shudder ran down her

back – perhaps it was just the cold, the rain.  Tharani translated

Tausi’s information for the rest of her – family?  That was too

strong, but she did feel an attachment to her shipmates.  Her crew?

Most of their faces fell with the news that they’d have to learn a new

language, though Swati said eagerly, “I speak English too.  I can help

with translation.”


  The rain was easing, and Tausi pushed back her hood.

“Words, words, words.  Work is what you’d better worry about.”  She

looked human – well, human-ish.  Now Tharani could see that a thick

layer of fine hair covered her skin; she’d known some hairy people in

her village, but Tausi’s hair? fur? covered her neck and cheeks and

forehead – her whole face.  And her eyes were larger than normal, her

lips and nose a little smaller – everything about Tausi was slightly

askew.  It made Tharani’s skin creep.   Another kind of alien.  How

many were there?  She should have realized that the Travellers – the

Vashti – wouldn’t be the only ones.  Somehow she’d been picturing an

empty planet populated only with human workers.  But no.


  The clouds had drifted away, and moonlight was filling the space,

illuminating an assortment of…shacks, was the only word for them.  An

assemblage thrown up from what looked like a mix of wood, metal,

fabric – colorful, but on the verge of derelict.  It might have been

beautiful, once.


  “What kind of work?” Tharani asked.


  “Whatever you can find.  There’s always work in the mines,

but neither of you would likely last long there.  You’d do better to

join a pair looking for a third for their triad.  There are some of us

who enjoy human company.”  And now Tausi was coming closer, too 

close, really.  Stepping past Tharani to reach a hand – also covered in 

thick hair, with claw-like nails at the tips of her fingers – to Rithika’s

cheek.  Her next words were in Tamil.  “You beauty.  Keep you.”


  Rithika made a small sound of protest and stepped back,

into Jitender’s embrace.


  “Ah, a pair?” Tausi said, sounding disappointed.  “Well,

she could still visit him, if she wanted.  To make babies, at least.

But if she came home with me, I have much to offer.  My bondmate and I

have a large apartment; she’d have her own room, plenty of food, and

the work would be light.  I’m a linguist; it’s my job to translate for

the Council, and I could use an assistant.”


  Tharani quickly translated; Rithika shook her head mutely,

her eyes going to Tharani in appeal.


  Tharani said firmly, “Rithika’s staying with us.  We’re staying together.”


  Tausi sighed in disappointment.  “Not hungry enough. Not

yet.  I know, I’m getting ahead of myself.  Well, the offer’s open;

we’ve been trying to complete our triad for much of the last year.

You’d need to meet Vut, but I’m sure he’d like you.”  She took another

step towards Rithika, so that she was less than an inch away, and took

a deep, dragging breath.  “You smell so good.”


  “Where do we sleep?”  Tharani needed to get this

conversation back on track.  Shelter was their most immediate need,

then food.  She could feel the exhaustion dragging at her body – if

she didn’t rest soon, she’d be no good to anyone.


  “It’s the gravity,” Tausi said, finally stepping back to a

more comfortable distance.


  "What?”


  “It’s heavier here than you’re used to.  It’s going to

take a while to adjust.  Not that you’ll ever really adjust, it’s hard

for humans, but you’ll get used to bearing it.  You’re right – you

should sleep, get some strength back.  The ones over there – “ Tausi

gestured to the far side of the fire, to a cluster of shacks that

looked even more battered than the others.  “Those are for you; no one

else is using them.  You can stay there as long as you want.”


  It couldn’t hurt to be polite.  “Thank you for your help.”


  Tausi shrugged.  “It’s my job.  Someone has to orient the

newcomers, make sure you don’t cause too much trouble.  I’ll come back

in the morning, start you on language lessons.”


  “We can’t pay you…” Tharani said.


  “I told you, it’s my job.  The Council pays me – the

sooner we get you integrated, the sooner you can work.  Humans are

lazy and stupid, but better to have you working than lying about,

getting into trouble.”


  As if to punctuate her words, a loud whine began,

ululating up and down the scale, disappearing at the bottom, though

Tharani felt as if she could almost hear other notes…


  “There wasn’t supposed to be an inspection tonight!” Tausi

said, sounding worried.  “Get inside – hurry!”  She pushed Tharani

towards the shacks she’d indicated before, and the tension – no, panic

– in her voice was enough that Tharani didn’t ask questions.  The

others followed her lead as she hurried across the clearing, to push

aside a fabric hanging and enter the small, dark space.  It was

unfurnished – just walls and a dirt floor.  But at least they were out

of the rain, and the walls muffled the sound of the siren, so it

seemed less like it was going to shake apart their bones.


  Tausi hadn’t followed them in, so it was just the seven of

them now, huddled together.  They didn’t even have time to sit down,

to catch their breath, before the door fabric was pushed aside and

there were arms reaching in, dragging them out into the light.


  ***