Short Story: The March on Heartful

First of all, I am so, so, so, so, so sorry to my patrons for missing the weekly ace academics posts. This week of August is the start of Social Season and with family drama ongoing I've just been too frazzled to remember. I will get out the livereact and the corresponding discussion essay asap.

Secondly, the news is a trashfire and I desperately need some good and soft stories and, since I'm likely not alone, I'm releasing the piece I've been talking about working on these past few weeks to everyone for free as a bonus in case you need some cheering up.

This is a 5,000-odd soft, no-conflict SF story. It is all about people working together and just, you know, celebrating accomplishments together and community-building and. Just. It is soft and huggy and I hope that if you're in need of a piece of fiction where nothing bad even hints at happening and people all care for one another and support one another when things are hard and friendship is the most important relationship of all... Maybe this piece will help you as much as it helps me.

The March on Heartful

Oh, I’ve missed this… Hedriar thought to herself, breathing in the cool planet-side air and enjoying the breeze playing with her feathers. It’d been months since she’d experienced natural weather and she wanted to savour the moment. When a child careened towards the ocean right beside her, she spread her wings for balance, the child’s tail colliding with one and unbalancing them both briefly. Someone called out in a language Hedriar didn’t know. Moments later, another child pelted past and unbalanced her further.

“Are you all right?” a low voice asked in Siehti. Hedriar turned to face the speaker, a sandy brown gekgek. They were wringing their hands and their tail anxiously stirred up small clouds of dust. “I’m so sorry about the children.”

“It’s all right. No harm was done and I might’ve done the same soon.” Hedriar smiled, lifting her head to take in the sunlight. In truth she’d forgotten all about the water she’d seen through the windows of the arrival hall when the breeze had picked up. After months on Cerulean Station, she’d forgotten what wind felt like. Now that she’d been pulled from her reverie, though… “I’ve never seen so much water in one place before,” she breathed. “It’s so blue. I’m Hedriar, by the by.”

“Flip,” the gekgek answered. “You’re, ah, you’re… nidari? Right?”

Hedriar inclined her head, making a curtsey with her wings flared just so. The motion was a blend of a nidari greeting with one more common in the Covenant. When Flip tried to mimic her, using their long, bushy tail to make the wing sweep, Hedriar was delighted they’d recognised it. Cerulean felt too cramped for a proper nidari greeting and, in any case, her race was too rare in the Covenant for people to recognise it for what it was. She’d asked a friend to help her work out something more practical, but this was the first time she’d used it outside of her recitals. “I’m honoured.”

Flip grinned at her. “The kids’ll be disappointed when they realise what they’ve missed. I should help my partner wrangle them before they cause any mayhem.”

“Oh, dear. Shall I try to help with both of those?” Hedriar asked. “I don’t have anywhere I need to be until tomorrow. It’d be no trouble.”

“Are you sure?” Flip asked. Their tone might’ve been hesitant, but Hedriar didn’t miss the hope in their eyes and she did her best to suppress a chuckle.

“Help me find a good spot,” she said instead, grinning at Flip’s nose-wrinkle of confusion. It wasn’t hard to find one Hedriar liked. It was still early morning on Heartful and the beach, though described as small in the brochures, had plenty of space for everyone. It wasn’t, after all, one of the large vacation beaches, but just a way for weary interstellar travellers to relax and wait for transport. Hedriar drew lines to indicate what would be her stage, then set about teaching Flip how to draw the ones intended for outdoor recitals. They weren’t strictly necessary in Covenant spaces since so few people flew, but Hedriar didn’t feel right without them.

“What are these for?” Flip asked as they dusted sand out of their fur afterwards, their bushy tail fluffing up and looking less bedraggled as they worked.

“They’re to guide the people.” Hedriar took advantage of the moment to stretch her wings properly. Soon she wouldn’t have the space for it. “And to guide the lost. Mostly the lost here. You can take a seat, if you like. Just don’t sit on the lines.” She didn’t wait for a response. She’d been out from under her nest father’s shadow long enough that she’d found her own comfortable routine, and in the Covenant that involved a vocal warm-up. Hedriar wasn’t a particularly strong singer, though she was getting better at staying in tune. It caught people’s attention, though, and before long several people, including Flip’s wayward children, had settled as near the ‘edge’ of her stage as they could.

When one of the children pulled the other’s russet tail over the line in the sand and then hastily redrew it, Hedriar had to force herself not to smile. The two gekgek whispered fiercely at one another in a language she didn’t understand. Her data tablet could have translated for her, but it would have been rude and, besides, it was safely tucked away in her luggage and likely waiting in her hotel room.

More people trickled to her make-shift stage, either from the water, their towels, or from the path leading there and soon people were seated all around her. For a moment, Hedriar asked herself what she’d gotten herself into, then she threw herself into the recital the only way that made sense: by improvising. The first story could only have one topic. She was here for the Continental Weekly and, presumably, so were many of the others. The charity event would start tomorrow. She’d chosen to participate, though many more would be there as spectators.

“In between the beats of a wing,” she began, adding a nidari flourish to the opening. She couldn’t go too elaborate, though. Not with a tale true as truth, not even as she embroidered the telling with familiar patterns. “There lived two foster siblings and, as children, they swore they would never part.” The two gekgek children at the front sat up straighter, and almost immediately fell back into excited whispers. Hedriar gave the audience a few seconds as she gathered the story strands together. Truthfully, the history of the Continental Weekly was not that interesting, especially for children. It featured no grand heroism or epic battles. Just the difficulty of keeping a child’s promise and the harshness of a trek through a planet that looked like it didn’t understand the concept of bad weather. Yet circumstances had parted the siblings without so much as a farewell and the youngest of the two, just a kit, had marched an entire week through harsh winter snows before appearing, frost-bitten and swaying, before the eldest. Centuries later, a hiking - well, slithering - ssossiss group had decided to re-enact the events as a charity fund raiser and it had taken off from there, sweeping Heartful and, from there, the entire Galactic Covenant off its feet with excitement.

Hedriar embellished the emotions she found in the telling, but not the events. Never the events. She followed it up with another tale, a nidari one, that was a little more exciting for her audience. It would be a sad thing to set everything up and only tell one tale, after all. The wind ruffled her feathers, giving her a chance to move in ways the stage at The Hop and Skip on Cerulean did not. It felt strange and strangely comforting.

Before long she wrapped up and bowed to her audience, pleased to find the two children she’d offered to distract sitting rapt and staring at her. She offered them a smile. They didn’t approach, didn’t say a word. Then they laughed, shoved one another and set off to play in the tide.

“I’m sorry about their manners,” Flip said, having appeared beside her… somehow.

Hedriar shook her head. “Don’t be. They’re young.” She moved a wing to gesture at the children in the waves, already joined by others to play a game of some variety. Using the return sweep to wipe some of the lines, she continued. “See, they’re enjoying themselves. What more could I ask of them but a story living beyond the telling?”

“Still,” a new voice said, “they should mind their manners. Thank you for entertaining us.”

Hedriar turned to face the vulpine that’d appeared beside Flip. From the way they stood close together, hands and tails entwined, it was obviously Flip’s partner.

“It was my pleasure.” Hedriar inclined her hand and surreptitiously wiped at more of the lines she and Flip had drawn. “I should get going soon, I’m afraid. Perhaps we’ll meet again.”

“Are you here for the Continental?” Flip asked, suddenly. “That’s why you picked its history, isn’t it?”

Hedriar laughed. “Yes. It seemed a shame not to experience it when it’s such an important event in the Covenant.”

“Then we’ll meet again,” Flip’s partner said, before ruffling the fur on their head. “They’re a medic on the route, but it’s Rodney’s first time participating.” The gekgek nodded at the children playing in the water, but Hedriar couldn’t tell which of them was Rodney. One of the russet-coloured ones. “I’m Azalea, by the way. If you’re staying near the Greenbriar’s, you’re welcome to travel with us.”

“Thank you,” Hedriar started carefully, “but I’d planned to fly there. It’s been too long. Perhaps I’ll see you there, though.”

“All right. I’m sure the kids would love that,” Azalea said. “Let us help you erase those lines. That’s the least we can do.” Hedriar startled, but she let them. It wasn’t necessary, but it was good manners.

Before Hedriar could take off, one of the children, now soaked from ear to tail, flung themself at her in a hug. “Thank you for the stories,” the child said in a rush before pelting back into the water. Flip groaned, but Hedriar only laughed.

“They’re trying very hard,” she said with a chuckle. “I see you at the hotel.” With that, she sought out a strip of beach long and empty enough for her to catch a thermal up into the sky. It was time to find the Greenbriar Hotel.

#

Before leaving for Heartful, Hedriar had looked up what the Continental Weekly entailed. She’d read history books and memoirs, watched vids, listened to interviews. None of it had, as her friends had warned her, prepared her for the real thing. A week-long march was gruelling. The sun was out with nary a sign of clouds and the breeze was so faint it was almost non-existent. The rules of the march meant she couldn’t fly - and truthfully there wasn’t enough room to spread her wings on the roads anyway. Hedriar had grudgingly consented to a hat on the first day, if only because the medic who’d offered it to her at the midway checkpoint had told her she’d be disqualified and barred from walking the rest of the way, if she didn’t take proper precautions.

They’d also made her put on shoes, and the sandals rubbed annoyingly between her toes. They did help some. She had to grant the medic that. Living on Cerulean, where all she could do was walk, had somehow made her soles softer, not harder.

After the second day, she’d found herself struggling with pacing. She’d started the Continental at the front, being an early riser, but she was soon struggling to keep it up. For all she’d trained on Cerulean, she simply wasn’t made for walking long distances and she’d fallen behind, trying desperately to at least appreciate her surroundings.

Her feet hurt. Her wings were heavy and weighed down with dust and grime that felt like she’d never get them clean. She’d thought, on Cerulean, that she could handle walking for a week. She’d assured her friends she’d manage. The ground was mostly flat. The weather was predicted to be fair. The route was well-known with plenty of checkpoints and so many medics along the way, it was a miracle any emergencies ever happened. People, even those who, like Hedriar, had found their energy waning, kept going. Some of them even found the strength to whistle or to sing. Hedriar suspected they could’ve made far better time and were doing it for morale. The Covenant valued nothing as much as cooperation, after all.

Near evening when the group Hedriar had been walking with limped into the participants’ camp for the night, cheers rose up. Tired and a little grumpy from dehydration, Hedriar found herself swept along to a camp fire simply because she couldn’t muster up the energy to go against the tide of people determined to celebrate the half-way point of the Continental.

She wound up drifting to one of the smaller groups at the edges, too overwhelmed to take in all the ways people were trying to make music together using nothing but their bodies. A siehti weaving her way through the crowd pushed a plate of food in her hands with a laugh. The hearty vegetarian dish, still hot, smelled divine.

“Someone’s hungry,” a voice she recognised said with a laugh. 

Hedriar almost sagged with relief at having something to orient herself with. “Azalea!” She turned to face the speaker and found the sandy-coloured gekgek practically glowing in the firelight. “How are you?”

“We’re well. Do you want to join us for the evening?” Azalea motioned behind her, though it still took Hedriar a bit to spot Flip and their children sitting on a log. One of them waved at her. Or at Azalea, she wasn’t sure.

“I’d love to.” Hedriar waved back at the children and followed Azalea, careful not to jostle anyone with her wings or be jostled by someone else. Flip and the children made room for her and she sank onto the log gratefully. It was right in front of the back of a tent, so she took the opportunity to stretch her wings. After a bite from her salad, she asked, “How are you enjoying the Continental?” As she’d expected, the children wasted no time in sharing their experiences.

Hedriar kept her presence to prompting the children, but eventually their curiosity rose above their desire to share. She found herself struggling for words in a way that surprised her. Flip rescued her, by asking whether anyone had thought to check on her wings. Medics had, but truthfully their checkpoints and lack of knowledge couldn’t provide adequate care. There were only a handful of winged members of the Covenant, and nidari were by far the largest. “It is harder than I thought,” she admitted at least. “I didn’t expect to find walking so hard. But I’m enjoying myself and making new friends.”

“The Continental’s good at that,” Azalea said.

“It’s how we met,” Flip explained and continued despite loud groans from their children. “She was -”

Hedriar quickly spread her wings to balance Flip when one of the children shoved them and they swayed dramatically backwards in a move Hedriar only belatedly realised was a well-rehearsed reaction. Flip was laughing. At Hedriar’s frown they said, “Inside joke.” They shrugged. “Anyway. Lea was leading the team I was on and… Well, here we are.”

“That’s lovely. I’m hoping I can find a way to share the last day with my family.” Both the one she’d found on Cerulean and the one she’d left behind to travel into the Covenant.

“Why can’t you?” one of the children, Rodney perhaps, asked.

“It’ll be the middle of the night for them,” Hedriar explained, “and it’d be expensive. I can’t ask them to spend all day watching my walk.”

“We asked Ma to.”

Hedriar hesitated a moment, then patted the child on the head. “Your mother’s right here, not several star systems away.”

“You should call them,” the other said.

“Rodney…” Flip started, but Hedriar cut them off with a quick shake of her head.

“I could try, if you’re all right with people staring at you curiously.”

“Oooooooooh. Cool! I want to know what that feels like!” Rodney bounced in his place. It took mere moments for him and his sibling to get into a good-natured scuffle, while Hedriar sought around her pack for her data tablet. She’d taken it with her, but it’d slid down to the very bottom. As she sorted out the call, Flip waded into the scuffle with their children, but even then, by the time Hedriar’s sister Betri picked up, the children were still visibly fighting behind her. Betri was laughing before she’d even got a word out.

“Are you calling me for parenting advice, Hedriar?”

“Of course not. You’d advise me to throw them off a cliff for a start.” There was no malice behind Hedriar’s words, their argument almost as old as the both of them. “No, we wanted to call you.” Before Betri had a chance to ask anything, Hedriar introduced Flip and Azalea, leaving Rodney and Merry to introduce themselves, looking properly chastised for about as long as that took, before launching into a barrage of questions so fast it took all three of the adults to shush them. Betri was looking decidedly flustered and Hedriar almost felt sorry for her sister. Almost because Betri could have muted the sound at any moment without anyone noticing and ignored the children. If she hadn’t, then that was entirely on her.

Instead, Hedriar found herself explaining the Continental Weekly, with Flip and Azalea chiming it to add more details, such as the midway party that they were now at, and Rodney adding how he’d narrowly avoided blisters and his pack was heavier than he’d expected. Betri, thankfully, gave his story due consideration rather than trying to wave him off or push him away.

“Studies at the Breath going well, then?” Hedriar asked in a lull in the conversation. They chatted a little bit about how Betri’s life was going, but Hedriar soon focused on holding up the tablet and spinning slowly in a circle to allow Betri to see some of the festivities around in more detail.

“Oh, that looks like so much fun,” Betri said. “Let me guess, you’re going to hide away in a tent soon because there’re too many people. Heddy, you need to get out more.”

“I get out plenty!” Hedriar shot back, but she bit back her annoyance. She wasn’t going to end the call on a sour note. “I was actually going to call everyone next.” When Betri snorted, she continued, “A group call. I just thought you’d want dibs and enjoy looking smug in a few minutes.”

“Oooooooooh. I do enjoy that.”

“Good, it’s your naming day present.” Hedriar couldn’t resist sticking her tongue out, even though that was probably the most ridiculous Covenant habit she’d picked up so far. She took altogether too much pleasure in watching Betri work out the expression and laughed when it was returned. The group call to her foster and her nest parents came next. She called Rodney and Merry over from where they were playing Share, delighted to see her family’s reaction to the two. Eventually, however, the party began to wind down and Flip admonished them all to go to bed. The medic spared no consideration for age, which amused Hedriar and her parents no end.

Still, the longest trek of the event was coming up tomorrow and she did want to be well-rested, so she wished everyone a good night and sought out the tent that she’d been assigned. 

#

Of course, the next day everything went entirely wrong. It started off all right, with Rodney somehow managing to find her over breakfast and begging her to walk with him because… Frankly, Hedriar couldn’t quite follow his reasoning, but it was an easy enough request to grant. At least, it would’ve been had Rodney not clearly been a much stronger hiker than she was. The pace he’d set was gruelling.

She was determined not to let him down, but less than halfway through the morning her wings felt more like dead weight than useful limbs and she’d have seriously considered trading them for a backpack that would take the heat away from her chest. Worse, the path was surprisingly uneven, and if not for the fact that everyone was going in the same direction, she’d have been convinced they were going in the wrong one. As if that wasn’t trouble enough, when they were taking a brief lunch rest at the midway checkpoint, it began to rain. Hedriar had never seen so much water fall from the sky in her life and she found herself floundering after the gekgek youth, bedraggled wings trailing heavy behind her. She’d expected Rodney to abandon her to keep up with his friends, but he slowed his pace and convinced half the people they’d been walking with to do likewise.

Their slowed group consisted of about five people altogether and, if Hedriar was honest, the slower pace ensured she could speak in more than monosyllables. Rodney became their de facto leader, though Hedriar hadn’t the first clue how he managed to bounce around them all and shout encouragement.

“Kid’s going to make a great coach someday,” the human beside Hedriar huffed. He was looking a little red in the face as he pulled his boot out of a muddy puddle.

“Undoubtedly. Are you all right?” Hedriar herself was having equal amounts of trouble getting the mud to release her feet when she walked. Of course, the Covenant’s desire for authenticity included unpaved roads. Hedriar hadn’t thought she’d ever hate earth, but each squelch unbalanced her and her the extremities of her wings were caked in mud because it was too strenuous to lift them continuously. She thought she was doing better than the human beside her, though. They weren’t supposed to be this red.

“I’ll be fine. I just need to hold on to the next checkpoint.” The human tried to quicken his pace, but he stumbled. Trying to catch him, Hedriar slipped and sent both of them sprawling on the ground instead. Around them, the entire Continental came to a halt. It lasted only a few minutes as people figured out what had happened. Rodney flitted around them like a worried bee.

“We’ll be all right,” Hedriar said as someone pulled her up out of the mud. She didn’t even want to see how much work she’d have getting herself clean. The human, however, didn’t fare so well. He swayed when people pulled him upright and he wobbled when he tried to walk, stubbornly refusing aid until someone uttered a curse and said something in a language Hedriar didn’t know. It was enough to convince him to lean on them, though, and to continue on while limping.

Rodney offered Hedriar his shoulder, but she turned him down with a smile. “I just lost my balance in the mud,” she said. “And I’ll need a thorough clean when we make camp tonight.” Then, almost regretfully, she added, “You should go on without me. I’m slowing you down.” She raised her hand. “I know. We’re in this together. You’ve said it plenty of times today. But I would like it if you didn’t pace yourself for my doing. This is your first Continental. Go have fun seeing what you can do. I’ll look for you at the finish and if you’ve done as well as you wanted to, I’ll buy your entire family dinner, and you get to choose where.”

That, it seemed, proved to be too great a temptation for the boy. Thankfully because Hedriar had worried whether or not she’d been laying it on a little too thick. Once Rodney was safely out of her far-sight, she let her wings fall and drag in the mud. They couldn’t possibly get any worse and she’d only make herself sick with tension trying to keep them out of it. At her own pace, she found herself near the stragglers again, but her heart felt lighter.

#

The weather, unfortunately, stayed awful until the last day. By then, Hedriar worried she’d never get her wings clean again. She’d had help preening from the medical staff, but it’d made her feel worse instead of better. The act was all-together too intimate, even for medical staff concerned it’d adversely affect her health to do. More than that, two days of walking barefoot in mud had, somehow, done more damage to her feet than the sandals had, and she’d had to suffer the medics’ disinfectant between her toes and their strongly worded advice to wear boots that made her feel trapped if she paused to think about anything at all. Still, she kept going. Her only goal had been to experience the Continental as long as she could and she’d been looking forward to sharing her success with her friends.

By now, she was one of the last people on the route and she could actually look around properly. When she’d started the Continental, she’d been surrounded by so many people all she could catch were flashes of blurry green, and sometimes yellow and brown, or blue. Now… Most of the people had marched on the final stretch, or close enough. Hedriar trudged alone, slip-sliding in the mud, keeping pace with the others who, though struggling, kept going.

For Hedriar, it was a matter of pride now. She’d come this far. She’d go farther. She had no idea how much farther she had to go, but surely it wasn’t too far. She dug her data tablet out of her pack to check when she’d hit the next checkpoint and whether she was predicted to be on track to finish before the end. The tablet chimed at her admonishingly, reminding her she’d forgotten to recharge it, and went dormant.

“Trouble?” the elderly siehti who’d been walking beside her asked.

Hedriar shook her head. “Just forgot to charge it.”

“Ah. We’ll hit the check point in…” The siehti considered, ears twitching. “…ten, fifteen minutes? Maybe twenty with the mud.” At her look, the siehti laughed. “I’ve been walking the Continental since I was old enough to join. First time?”

“I- Oh, yes,” Hedriar stammered. “I didn’t expect it to be this hard.”

The siehti chuckled. “Always takes the first-timers by surprise. Just remember to enjoy yourself.” With that the leporine bounced off, leaving Hedriar to her thoughts again. Eyeing the sky, she wished she could fly at least part of the way, but she’d not come this far to be disqualified. Besides, her wings were such a mess she didn’t even dare. Instead, she dug out the water bottle that had been given to her at the start of the event and took a sip, wishing she’d thought to bring a nidari-made one instead. Covenant technology hadn’t managed to replicate the level of cooling they had, which was an absurd thing to worry about Hedriar laughed quietly at herself.

Before long, the check point came into view and, beyond it, in the far distance, paved roads. Hedriar collapsed into a chair outside the medical tent, digging through her pack for a sandwich and finding that she’d managed to eat them all already. Someone pressed food in her hands, gone before she’d even finished saying thank you or noticed who’d shared, and she devoured it readily. The cereal dish had undoubtedly come from the check point staff, but goodness only knew who. She ignored the medics wanting to look at her feet and did her best not to lose her temper when they didn’t know how to preen her wings properly. It wasn’t their fault and she was just grumpy because she’d stopped walking and let the aches of her efforts make themselves known.

She managed to thank the staff profusely when she felt a little recovered, though one look at the sun told her she’d have to hurry if she wanted to stand a chance of making it on time.

#

By the time the finish line was in Hedriar’s near-sight, she was marrow-deep exhausted and continued only on the strength of people’s cheers. Her back ached more than it ever had. Her feet had, somehow, developed blisters between her toes and they ached every time she put them down. Her front pack was heavy and she regretted putting on a shirt that stuck to her body. Nidari didn’t even sweat. At least the downpour - the last before the skies cleared - had washed some of the mud from her feathers and left her feeling lighter. Until she’d seen the position of the sun.

She had time, Hedriar told herself. Now that she was back in a city, on paved ground, and hearing nothing but encouragement. Someone ran onto the road to press a water bottle in her hands. Hedriar wasn’t thirsty, but she splashed some of the water in her face and down her chest. “You can do it!” the spectator said when Hedriar pushed the bottle back into their hands. How they’d kept pace with her, she didn’t know. “You’re doing great! Almost there!”

Hedriar didn’t know whether she should find it helpful or annoying, but she smiled and nodded before pushing herself that little bit further. When she stumbled, she found two people throwing their shoulder under hers to hold her up. “We’ve got you,” someone said and it was enough to shock Hedriar out of a haze of determination. “Seili?”

“Yep!” the siehti said. “You didn’t think we’d just let you go on your own, did you?”

Hedriar found she had neither the strength nor the will to protest that Seili had a café to run. She dragged up the energy to look for her other friends on Cerulean, and was surprised to find that the other person supporting her was Azalea. “Rodney says ‘hi’,” the gekgek grunted. “You’re heavier than I expected. Aren’t you supposed to be light as a bird?”

“You don’t have to do this,” Hedriar said. “I can walk.”

“You can fall over and break your face on the cobbles, you mean,” Azalea said. “Just lean on us a bit.”

Because her feet were clearly trying to murder her, Hedriar did just that. “How did you even find me?”

“Nidari entrants aren’t exactly common. Besides, we’ve got tracker chips in your participant shirt in case of emergencies, didn’t you read the orientation package?”

Beside her Seili laughed. “I think the day Hedriar tries to figure something out by learning about it first is the day humans rediscover their missing Earth.”

Hedriar listened to the two conversing amicably until she estimated that she had only a few hundred metres to go. “I want to walk on my own now,” she said, and neither Seili nor Azalea made a fuss. The first few steps, Hedriar stumbled a bit, but she found her rhythm again just in time to see Jonni and Szaaz standing in the crowd, cheering and waving stragglers like herself on to the bright banner. Her helpers seemed to have disappeared back into the mass of people, but that was all right. Azalea had her family to celebrate with and Hedriar had her own waiting for her at the end.

The bouquet that was pressed into her hands as she crossed the finish line smelled divine, but it was nothing compared to the way her friends rushed to embrace her.

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