Like a Flithiss from its Shell - Mark Clarkson & Gary Mitchell

blamire2The wake formally began at sunset, though it had probably started in fact with Lanos, who began drinking before Kliite was actually dead. By firstmoon, three early casualties had been propped in a corner, and even old Timmet had joined the singing.
Iili reclined in a patch of relative quiet and darkness against one wall, watching the crowd and waiting for the next story to begin. She raised Kliite's best metal cup to her mouth and sipped. The nyarra sent warming vapors up her nasal ducts.
The alien sat beside her. Its white airsuit stood out amongst the roomful of flesh-green and dusty wood. Its always unreadable face "was nearly invisible behind the reflections of lights on the hardfoambubble that surrounded it.
Iili frowned as she remembered the whistling shriek which had announced its arrival, how she had looked up to see the alien birdmachine flash overhead, too low. It had plunged into Tesengy canyon, out of sight.

 

There was a terrific explosion.
Iili looked up from her brerrpond. A square of bright orange floated above, in sharp relief against the darkening sky. It drifted lazily down like a windblown leaf, a white airsuited Ur-rt dangling beneath like some strange seedpod.
Iili had seen the sexless things from the stars before had traded with them, brerrmilk for metal - but never had she seen one arrive thus.
She dropped her trimmer and stood to watch. The brerr she had been cropping quickly withdrew and slipped beneath the surface of the pond.
The Ur-rt drifted closer and closer. Germs and defecation! It was landing in a cultivation pond. Iili ran, skirting ponds and patches of mud, arriving at the far row just as the Ur-rt splashed into the muddy water and disappeared. Its orange leaf-thing settled over the surface, floated there like half-rotted llirk in a brewer's cask. blamire1
She expected the alien to be consumed, but to her surprise it came striding out of the pond, apparently undisturbed by the many brerr which clung all about it, trailing off into the water. Their syrl grasped at its airsuit and scrabbled for purchase against the smooth hardfoambubble that encased its head.
The alien pulled a white wand from its suit and casually burned through the entwining syrl. Iili whistled in rage as she saw the once-valuable brerr fall into the water, ruined.
The alien looked in the direction its crippled birdmachine had gone, then at Iili as if noticing her for the first time. Its mouth worked and she heard muffled grunting and groaning from within the bubble.
A metal disc on the thing's chest buzzed and began to speak, "I home go. ???"
Iili was shocked. It wanted to go home? Those brerr represented a season's hard work - they represented metal.
"Deru's plague on all yours," she shouted at it "What about my brerr?"
The alien regarded her, making ambiguous motioning with its arms. It began its coarse grunting again and the chestdisc spoke, "???" The Ur-rt pointed toward the canyon. "Trayd Awpoest Slols," it said as if it hadn't heard her. "I go. Wherehow. ???"
Iili shook her head, disbelieving. How could any creature that could fly between stars be so stupid ... and so rude? Maybe it was their powerful technology that allowed them to be so and still survive - who would dare be rude in return? And this one could barely speak!
She thrummed her softtissues in resignation. "You can walk to Trayd Awpoest Slols in two days. A bridge crosses, the canyon Tesengy there, near the center of village Lavinohs."
She pointed toward a thick cluster of low stone and splitwood buildings.
Again the Ur-rt began to shuffle about inscrutably, waving its arms, obviously agitated. It spoke again, "I to others Slols talk. Big others. Where. ???"
Iili passed a splayed hand through the air between them, wiping away the thing's entreaties.
"What about my brerr?" she asked again. But the Ur-rt only shook its funny head and flapped its hands at her.
"You me big others take." When Iili didn't move, the Ur-rt walked around her and headed for the village.
Iili hesitated for a moment, dejectedly watching the leaf-thing sink slowly into the pond, where it would surely kill the remaining brerr.
"Blowing heavily and thrumming her softtissues, she hurried to catch the white airsuit, determined to collect payment somehow.
As they neared the village, Iili saw the remains of the canyon Tesengy bridge. It had hung there all of Iiii's life, like part of the land. Now it was gone; the alien's birdmachine had shattered it in passing.
The Ur-rt would have to find another way to go home.
In the meantime, she would take it to Kliite's wake. Iili had despised Kliite; she would not miss his deathparty. And there the Ur-rt would surely find its "others" to talk to.

 

  But now the alien just sat, as it had since they arrived, only watching, never participating. Why had it wanted to come at all?
Nyon, passing by, stopped and sat opposite the alien. "Ur-rt," he said, making a belching sound. "Do Ur-rt have deathparties?"
Iili wrinkled her eyefolds hopefully. Perhaps it would become interested in Nyon and leave her in peace. Probably not.
The metal disc spoke, "Explain. ???"
Nyon gestured with his cup to indicate the room full of Slols.
"Deathparties. Wakes. When Ur-rt die, do other Ur-rt come together to remember and tell stories?"
It made a series of its queer sounds. "Gathering, yes," the disc said. "Tribute dead-one's achievements. Yes. Urrt have." Nyon wrinkled his eyefolds at Iili and stood. She agreed, a tribute to achievements was not the way she would put it. That was the problem with the alien's speech.
How well, she wondered, does it understand us? as Nyon moved to the front of the room.
A sturdy table from Kliite's growroom - its contents summarily dumped on the floor - had been dragged to the end of the main room, where it was heaped with food and drink from Kliite's private stores. Nyon clambered carefully onto it and into a clearing which had been left in the middle.
The singing faded from the room, replaced with an expectant hush.
"Kliite was a brave man," Nyon began, and was drowned out almost instantly in a wave of hoots and nose whistles.
Everyone stamped their feet in approval. "Fierce," he snarled, making animal-like clawing gestures for effect. He raised up on his toes and bounced in little bounces. The noise rose about him as he capered amongst the dishes. "Feared by males and aspired to by females. " "Kliite chose an exotic Kokkonni from far inland. Alas, she had no interest in him.
Her attentions were given to brave Kliite's longtime rival."
Nyon paused, scanning the crowd before settling upon the choice person. With an extravagant wave of his arm he drew everyone's attention to that person, and announced the name with a flourish. "Lanos!"
Lanos, caught in mid-drink, gulped his nyar-ra too quickly, belched, then assumed an air of pompous selfsatisfaction.
"But a male as fierce as Kliite would settle for none other than his first choice." Nyon became serious, his voice dropped. "He challenged the nasty Lanos to a fosesh duel, with the female as prize." Iili recognized one of her favorite tales. Much cheering - and other noises - greeted the well-known fosesh story. "Lanos, being arrogant, agreed at once. A date was set, and at the appropriate time the two rivals met in a cleared field. "Kliite bravely jumped into the fight, attacking his enemy furiously." Nyon picked two serving spoons up from the table.
He raised his hands over his head and wheeled the spoons about. Bits of food flew off into the crowd. A chorus of hoots approved his performance.
"He beat at Lanos first with the right, then the left, then the right again. Lanos, hopelessly outmatched, was quickly driven backward. Kliite pressed, driving Lanos nearer the edge of the marked area.
"When it seemed that Kliite would surely force the other outside the marked square, one strike tumbled Lanos to the ground. Kliite paused, gallantly allowing Lanos to regain his feet."
"This was the moment Lanos needed. Throwing his fosesh away, he ducked under Kliite's guard and attacked him barehanded!
"Yes! The cowardly, cheating Lanos used his bare hands, grabbing Kliite's face ... by the softtissues!"
A rash of rude noises showed the crowd's contempt for the fiendish action. Many people winced in empathy, unconsciously fingering their own faces. Lanos tried to growl at those near him, but the nyarra had befuddled him and it came out as another belch.
"Kliite howled." Nyon dramatically demonstrated the sound.
"He was in great pain, but he was strong. With heroic effort, he beat Lanos about the head and shoulders.
"Lanos could not defend himself from the beating of Kliite's fosesh. He released his hold and slumped to the ground, falling and rolling onto his back, one arm flung at length across the boundary.
"Kliite had won the female."
The room erupted with whistles and yells and the sharp ceramic explosions of Kliite's best mugs as some of the more enthusiastic guests hurled them against the floor.
Lanos drained his own mug and sent it crashing into the wall near Nyon's head. Nyon ducked, turned the motion into an exaggerated bow, and jumped down from the table.
The crowd surged forward in a wave, grabbing up plates piled with food and new mugs of nyarra before the next story began.
Iili considered joining them, but she heard the alien begin to grunt.
"The bridge. She repaired will be. When. ???" it asked. Iili was startled, then angry. It was the Ur-rt's birdmachine which had destroyed the bridge. The Ur-rt was arrogant indeed to evoke it now.
Her softtissues puffed out. She considered standing and pushing by it as it deserved - refilling her cup and then sitting elsewhere. Let the Ur-rt grunt babytalk at someone else.
But she held back - patience pays three times, she reminded herself. And the Ur-rt still owed her restitution for the brerr it had abused. She held up a hand, thumbs extended. "It will take two days. Possibly three."
It writhed within the suit as if beset by pubic beetles. One gloved finger marked a semicircle in the air. "Walk over.
"Do you mean around?" Iili suppressed a snort. "The way around the canyon is four days two in the Greysands." She winked her eyefolds. "There is no water there."
It clawed the air with its white gloves. "Through river go.
Iili's softtissues wrinkled into a smile at the image. She shook her head. "You will be eaten alive." that seemed to shut it up for a while.
The background clatter died down again. Ronosaoo had mounted the table.
Too late, Iili remembered that she was out of nyarra.
Ronosaoo stood still, hands clasped before him, and waited for perfect quiet, Unlike Nyon, Ronosaoo projected a calm and pomposity that were seemingly impervious to nyarra.
"When Kliite was young," he began, "apprenticed to Kree the fermentor from whom he stole the secrets of the nyarra trade, the local beds of Ilirk mosses became diseased and most shriveled and died. Without the Ilirk, nyarra could not be fermented. Kree decided to have a contest among his apprentices."
Iili sighed. Ronosaoo always told the same story at every deathparty, and always told it badly. She leaned toward the Ur-rt and tapped on its stiff suit.
"What about my brerr?" she asked.
"??? Brerr. ???"
"The brerr you ruined in my pond."
"Brerr red thing is. ???"
"Yellow," she corrected it absently. "Yes. Expensive things are."
The Ur-rt hesitated a moment, then seemed to understand.
"Trayd Awpoest Slols pay. Ruinedinmypond brerr buy.
Report to Trayd Awpoest Slols will I." It bared its teeth at her.
Iili cheered, despite her empty cup. At the front of the room, Ronosaoo was stooping and peeling invisible wads of llirk moss from the table, placing them in an invisible sack. He straightened and clasped his hands in front of him again.
"Kliite had won the contest." He bowed to the indifferent applause, then climbed down.
Lanos and three other staggering males emerged from Kliite's growroom, rolling another drum of nyarra before them. It groaned like thunder across the floor, crushing spilled food and pottery shards. Someone screamed as it rolled over a foot.
Lanos and the others stood the drum upright and broke the seal, casting the cover aside. Lanos plunged a hand in, pulling out a clump of rotten black llirk. Iili grimaced. All of the ripe nyarra was apparently gone; this drum was obviously less than a nineday old. She triply regretted her empty cup now - she lacked Lanos's indestructible stomachs.
Her nostrils fluttered around a heartfelt sigh. Barkbrew for the rest of the night, and at only second moonrise. That was probably best. The less she drank now, the better she would do when the time came to divide up Kliite's things.
There was a general press toward the food, and Iili stood to join it. As she squeezed by the alien, it put out its white-clad arm to stop her. The material of its airsuit was slick and cold.
It felt fragile and thin, but she remembered the brerr clinging to it as it rose from her cultivation pond. They had not even scratched it. A careless brerr granger failing into that pond would have been dissected and consumed.
She fingered a pair of old scars across the back of her hand. There was a saying that you could tell a granger's age by counting her fingers. Iili had all twelve, but she was still young. She coveted those gloves. She found herself wondering how she could fit her other thumb in.
"I request many containers of water." The alien held its hands apart, one above the other, indicating something about the size of its head, then performed an elaborate pantomime of drinking from a large mug.
Her nostrils pinched closed in sudden anger. Did it expect her to act as its servant?
But the Ur-rt grasped one of the bulges on its suit, and when it held its hand out to her she saw a cube of copper resting there.
The light danced along its perfect sides and edges.
Iili quickly scooped the cube from the alien's glove and dropped it into a small pocket. A few more of these and she would recover her losses.

 

  "How many containers of water?" she asked.
It paused before replying, as if thinking it over. It held up one white finger. "I require only one," it said. Then it held its hands one above the other, as before. "But very many."
Iili wrinkled her eyefolds in a shrug. It must mean a big drink, she thought.
At the food table, Iili found a small overlooked bowl of flithii, hidden beneath a broken pot. She found water for the alien and filled her own cup with barkbrew. She, returned and watched as the Ur-rt poured water from the mug into a false nostril on its chest. It looked at her and pointed at the now wet nostril. "To make the water pure," the disc said. She saw it dip its head within the bubble and take something like a nipple in its mouth.
Iili was amazed to see who now approached the speaking table.
Timmet had attended every deathparty as far back as Iili could remember, and she had never participated in the storytelling.
Never!
Two sturdy males took Timmet by the waist and lifted her bodily onto the table. The entire gathering waited in expectant silence- this was such an event that it could well become a tale in itself. Timmet, frail, bent with age, her face weathered, composed herself.
"Years passed," she began in a quiet voice. "Kliite's feats became well known, he added improvements to the stolen brewing techniques, and became well respected and loved by all who knew him."
There were rude but subdued noises, careful not to drown Timmet out.
"As befitted one of his stature, Kliite resolved to carve himself the beat fosesh to be found. To do this he knew he must use mot wood which grows in the forest which lies across the Tesengy river which flows through the great Greysands desert which lies at the edge of our village."
Timmet suddenly became serious and raised her hands in a warding gesture. "To do this he must live through the brerron which infests the river. No one could possibly swim fast enough to avoid it. Not even the mighty Kliite.
"Using his notorious ingenuity, Kliite devised a plan to cross the river Unharmed.
"There is a plant, the brerrbane, which is poisonous to brerron yet harmless to Slols. On the day Kliite swam the river, I went too, and watched as he stripped and wrapped himself in the brerrbane leaves. And to ease his swimming,"for the leaves would slow him down greatly, I rubbed him and the leaves with hwahe oil." Timmet's hands caressed the unseen curves of a strong Siols, and her eyes went wide in an expression of lust.
Iili almost gagged on a swallow of barkbrew. For a moment the laughs and whistles swelled, but Timmet stood, patient and quiet, waiting for the noise to die away before continuing.
"Thus prepared, Kliite entered the river. With all his effort, he swam toward the opposite shore. He did not have to look for the brerron, he could sense it closing in on him from all sides.
The Tesengy brerron is always present.
"It wrapped syrl about Kliite's ankle. It only gave a slight tug, then turned loose. Again and again the brerron wrapped its syrl about some part of him, only to give a small pull and then release him.
"Finally he reached the safety of the forest shore. Very little of the hwahe oil was left, but the brerrbane leaves were only torn in a few places. A small taste of the poisonous plant was more than enough for the brerron." Timmet paused and studied some of the foods arrayed on the table around her feet. She considered one half-empty bowl for a moment, then kicked it onto the floor.
Clutching wrinkled and worn hands to her withered breast, Timmet gazed out at the crowd. "Ali! One can imagine how he must have looked.-The brerrbane leaves had been left in a pile on the river bank, so that now the bright sunlight shone on his naked hide, glistening with the movement of his strong muscles as he carved the wood."
Iili, trying to imagine the pale-hided, potbellied Kliite naked in the sun, collapsed to the floor in uncontrollable hysteria. It was absurd.
And Kree's widow, herself, telling the tale! Who would have suspected Timmet of being such a joker?
Timmet sighed heavily at the image she had concocted.
Shaking her head as if waking from a dream, she finished her story.
"When Kliite returned, he had to cross the river with only the brerrbane leaves for protection. All the hwahe oil had been washed off during his first crossing.
"This time, the brerron decided the slower swimming creature might have something worthwhile under the poisonous covering. When its syrl did not immediately release Kliite, he had to fight himself free. At first he was pulled under, but eventually resurfaced.
"As he emerged on the shore I, waiting there for his return, saw what he had brought back from his adventure. The most excellent fosesh anyone had ever seen and ..." Timmet stooped and swept up two handfuls of sauce-dripping noodles from a foodbowl "... the syrl from the brerron which had dared to drag him underwater!"
She waved the noodles over her head, simulating one great syrl with many little noodles. The effect was uproarious. Iili, who was still collapsed on the floor and only heard about it later was sorry to have missed it.
When Iili reemerged from under the table, Timmet was being helped back to her seat amid tremendous noise and destruction. The tales would continue throughout the night, but there was little doubt now whose story would win the competition. Iili thought it a fitting irony that Kree's widow would have first choice of Kliite's possessions.
Except, of course, this wonderful metal cup.
The alien was looking at her again. It groaned and murmured within its bubble and the chestdisc spoke. "The river just beyond the village." It gestured at the wall behind her head. "This is the Tesengy"
"Yes."
"This Tesengy river is the river Kliite swam to greatmotforest?"
"Yes," she said again, impatiently.
"When Kliite swam it there was also no bridge?"
Iili had never thought about it before. Strictly speaking, that bridge had hung across canyon Tesengy for twenty-seven generations - until the Ur-rt birdmachine ripped it loose. But the Mot Tale predated the bridge by nines of nines of nines of generations.
Iili shrugged. "There was no bridge," she said at last.
"And in the Tesengy live brerron." The disc made it a statement, but she supposed it was intended as a question.
"Yes, yes, yes." She was getting annoyed at its constant questions.
"Very many?" it asked.
Very many? thought Iili. Enough, certainly. No one had ever tried to count. Probably only the one - at that size it scarcely mattered.
And then Iili understood. The Ur-rt had made the large-for-many error again, mistaking brerron for many brerr, rather than giant brerr. The same mistake it had made with the water. Comprehension came suddenly. Kokkonni. It had been speaking the Kokkonni dialect. The alien's birdmachine had come from as far inland as Slols-Kokkonni. Iili spoke only enough Kokkonni to haggle, but she should have recognized the accent. It seemed obvious now, despite the flaccid consonants the disc gave to all its words. All Ur-rt she had ever traded with had spoken Tesengi"i; it had never occurred to her that they might speak another dialect. But now she remembered all of its mistakes: the lack of overtones, the mixing of words. She for it. Red for yellow - the Kokkonni had no word for yellow. And just now large for many. This Ur-rt traded with the Slols-Kokkonni. Its disc spoke Kokkonni. And now the disc was learning Tesengi"i - here, tonight, at Kliite's party.
What a useful tool that would be for a merchant such as herself.
She remembered its question and shook her head, slowly, like Ur-rt. "No," she said. "Not many brerron. Big, but not many."
Unlike her small cultivation ponds, the river offered almost unlimited room for growth. While there was room brerr grew - given enough room, they became brerron. Brerron made sure you put the bridges up high.
She lifted " a flithiss from the bowl and, as a joke, offered it to the Ur-rt. It shook its head gravely within its bubble. Smiling, Iili crushed the creature's armored head between her teeth and sucked the tender entrails into her mouth. She rinsed away the tiny bits of shell and sand with a sip of barkbrew from her metal cup, and waited for the next tale to begin.
Kliite's party continued throughout the night, tale following tale. Gaorii gave a moving rendition of the torqslol story, with Kliite winning the fabled battle of patience despite a chronic venereal rash. Matiiq related a horrifying variation of the breedingnight ballad. And on.
And on.
It was sunrise before all of the consumables were consumed, and only those who had no manners or who became violently sick left before that. Iili, who had not intended to fall asleep, awoke with a start when someone brushed against her. She expected her prizes to be gone, taken while she slept by those who had hung onto consciousness throughout the night, but the metal cup was still gripped in her hand and the cube of precious copper was tucked into her pocket.
Kliite's house had been stripped. Only broken furniture remained, and oblivious Slols slumped in the trash. The alien in its white airsuit was gone. Had it gone to wait impatiently by the bridge, or was it headed for the Greysands?
Groggily, Iili made her way into the bright sunlight. She fondled the cube   of copper and wondered if she would ever see more.
She walked slowly through the village, drawn to the cliff. At the severed ruins of the bridge she sat, looking out over the forest of motwood beyond the river. In the quiet, she heard the shrieks and buzzes of the birds that lived there.
The Ur-rt was nowhere in sight.
Upstream, morning heat shimmered over the Greysands.
Would the alien make its way through the desert? Would it return with her metal?
She was still sitting there when Lanos came staggering up the trail from Tesengy river canyon. The now-grimy airsuit was slung over his shoulders - devoid of alien.
The Ur-rt had obviously expected its airsuit to protect it as well as brerrbane. Indeed, the Tesengy brerron had shown no more taste for the alien airsuit than had the brerr in Iili's pond. It had cracked the helmet open in its mighty syrl and sucked the Ur-rt out, like a flithiss from its shell. Lanos had spotted the empty suit from the canyon edge and made the long trek to retrieve it. Ur-rt things came very dear, this far from Trayd Awpoest Slols.
He had found something else as well - the Ur-rt birdmachine.

 


The birdmachine had not sunk into the water, but it was half-buried in a patch of moss and mud far enough from the river to be beyond the brerron's reach, hidden from above by trees and the overhang of the cliff. It was badly broken, but there were great lengths of copper wire, sheets of plisstik, broken shards of glissteel - a treasure house whose owner was recently departed.
Iili climbed carefully into the birdmachine's ruined doorway,then turned to face the crowd sitting and standing on stones and patches of dry ground. They waited for sunset.
Lanos had a strong claim on the airsuit, but he would not be allowed to keep all of the Ur-rt tools attached to it. They would be divided up, along with the contents of the birdmachine.
The sun touched the rim of Tesengy canyon and Iili began.
"The Ur-rt... " Iili paused, amended herself, "our Ur-rt," she continued fondly, "was known to all as a friend, but also as a great giver of wisdom. No one better understood our Land or its children, the Slols. No one spoke more eloquently. No one was more handsome."
There were hoots at this, and whistles. Feet slapped against mud.
She thought of the brerr-proof gauntlets, and the disc that spoke both Tesengi'i and Kokkonni, and especially of the innocent hump that dispensed copper. Tonight the best story would be hers. First choice would be hers. She was determined that it be.
She thought about the bulge on the suit - how it would feel to squeeze it again and again, the wealth falling into her hand like milk from a teat.
The torqslol story. Yes, definitely the torqslol story.

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