Ajyin smoldered long after the Arbitrators’ purified energy incinerated the world…
These were the boundaries of Yoto’s universe:
More shadow than light… walls that imprisoned rather than protected… more stench than fresh air…
Others among the surviving Numah—his mother, Myrine, his father, Morik, his brother, Eon, the healer, Dilar, and his wife, Selat, their daughter, Celeste, other adults in the cramped, crowded cells that the Olokun had forced the Numah to carve for themselves out of rock, imprisoned behind gated doors that the Numah had built to harsh Olokun specifications—had known far more, and Yoto remained alert to every scrap of their tales, their stories, their memories, learning as much as he could of what had been.
Even as a child, boundaries did not appeal to Yoto.
“Tell me about the moon,” Yoto said to Eon.
“There is no moon,” his older brother said. “There hasn’t been a moon since before you were born.”
Yoto pressed one three-fingered hand against the floor of the rough stone cell to which he and his family and other families had been herded not many days and nights before.
“I thought this was the moon,” the young Numah said.
“It was,” said Eon, roughly. “But it’s not anymore. Now it’s just Neos. It’s just… here. Where we are. Where Vega and his Witch and her magics brought us to do his work.”
Yoto placed his other hand on Eon’s thick forearm, so much larger and more powerful than his own. The blue of Eon’s fur had already deepened, approaching the rich hue that would mark him as an adult. Yoto’s pale fur looked almost white in comparison. Yoto wondered why his people looked different than their captors. He stared at the ears sprouting outward from the base of Eon’s neck, his long arms framing a sunken chest and fibrous torso unevenly matched with a pair of thin legs.
“If it’s still here, if it’s where we are,” Yoto said softly, “why isn’t it still a moon?”
Eon sighed heavily, and Yoto cringed a bit at his brother’s impatience with him. He didn’t mean to annoy Eon; he never meant to annoy anyone, and he worked hard not to. But since the Olokun had brought his family and the other families to the cells, everyone got annoyed more easily, and Yoto knew why.
They were scared, Yoto knew that too, even his father and the other adults were scared. Eon was scared, too, but tried hard not to show it. Yoto tightened his small fìngers against Eon’s muscular arm, but his brother shrugged away the attempt at comfort.
“You ask too many questions,” Eon said.
“Because I never saw the moon,” Yoto said, his voice small. “I just want to know things.”
“Know this, then,” Eon said, nearly hissing. “It would have been better for all of us to have died on Ajyin, better for you never to have been born. Born to die here, a life-prisoner of General Vega. That’s all you are and all the General will ever allow you to be.”
“I’ll be more than that,” Yoto said, surprising himself with his words.
Eon snorted. “But you’ll never be what we were. What we were on Ajyin, free beneath the light of Neos.”
“What was Ajyin like?” Yoto said, eager to change the subject. Before Eon could chide him for asking again a question he had asked so many times before, Yoto added, “Please, Eon. Just tell me one more time.”
But Eon was clearly in no mood to grant his younger brother a favor.
“Tell the story yourself,” he said sharply, then drew a slow breath that seemed to steady him. “Tell it to me, if you want. You know it. You’ve heard it often enough.”
Yoto looked up at Eon, but his brother was staring at the cell’s barred gate. Eon’s ears pricked and twitched—Yoto knew he was listening for sounds of their father and the other males returning, but there was no sound of them. Only the sounds which even Yoto could hear, the sounds of other prisoners moaning, some weeping, others coughing in great wracking spasms. And beyond that, above and behind all the sounds of the Numah were the constant sounds of Olokun activity, the clicking of the creatures’ organic armor plates against each other as they marched, the deep ugly bass of their voices and the even deeper, harsher tones of their laughter as they reveled in their power over the Numah.
“Tell me, Yoto,” Eon said, his voice suddenly softer, almost soothing. “Tell me what you know.”
“I know I never saw the moon,” Yoto said. “I know I never saw Neos in the skies above Ajyin, when it made its own light and that was the light of life that shone down on all the Numah. Now Neos makes no light because General Vega’s shield hides it from the skies. Before we are old, Neos will be gone from the skies completely.”
“And?” Eon said.
“And Ajyin and all the Numah Neos shined down on are gone, destroyed by the Arbitrators before I was born.”
“Not all of the Numah,” Eon said.
“No,” Yoto said. “You’re here, and the rest of us who are here. And that’s all who are left of the Numah.”
“It will be enough,” Eon said. “Someday you will see, Yoto, that those of us who are here will be enough.”
Yoto did not know what Eon meant, but he knew enough to nod agreement and, once it became clear that Eon was once more slipping into anger, Yoto moved quietly away from his brother and pressed his face against the bars of the cell.
Curled close to her parents in a corner of the cell they shared with Yoto’s family, Celeste watched the brothers.
She had known them all her life, and like Yoto, all of her life that she could recall had been here, on Neos. Had that not been true, Celeste knew, had Vega not captured and brought them here, she would have had a sister.
She did have a sister—a sister, Nilan, who had died beneath the talons of Olokun soldiers during the madness and cruelty of the capture raids. Not even their father Dilar’s great healing skills could save her.
But that had all happened before…
Sometimes Celeste wondered what it was like to have a before. She had none, only what memories her father and Selat, her mother, shared with her. They did not speak often of shattered Ajyin, of the child whose body had been left there to be destroyed along with the rest of the planet, and even less often of what life had been like on the world beneath the glow of Neos. She could only imagine Neos aglow with light, radiant with the love the moon had shown for its worshipers. There was so little light in the cell, in the mines.
So little remained of the life her parents, the other adults, the older children such as Eon, had known. She wished they would share more of their memories, but she accepted their silence as the price of their pain.
Shifting slightly against her mother’s warmth, Celeste turned her attention to Yoto’s mother, Myrine, and smiled as she stared at the colorful beads which Myrine had somehow managed to bring with her from Ajyin, and keep with her all this time.
Someone in an adjoining cell was smoking.
Yoto pressed his head closer to the bars that faced the passageway, moving carefully so as not to awaken his mother. He wrapped two fingers of his right hand around a cell bar, stroking his parched lips with the third. Yoto breathed deeply, capturing as much of the acrid smoke as he could. Sharp and biting as the smoke’s scent was, it was more pleasant than the foul, fetid odors of the prisoners who filled the cells lining the tunnel.
Prisoners whose numbers had just grown larger.
Yoto had been alerted by the sound of the next cell being opened, the mocking laughter of the Olokun guards as they roughly shoved a prisoner into it, the clang of the door closing, sealing the new captive into his fate.
The Olokun did not depart immediately. Positioning himself carefully, Yoto could barely make out the guards’ massive twin-toed feet, three times the size of the largest Numah’s boots. Yoto swallowed hard against the sourness that rose within him at the glimpses of the Olokuns’ amber flesh between the heavy, blood-red plates of organic armor their biology produced, each guard branded with white tribal stripes opposing their natural crimson tones. Pierced at the ankles by fierce, razored talons that could shred a Numah with a single swipe, Olokun armor grew with its owner, creating a living protection that guarded the life of its wearer. The armor, and the tendrils of living material that bore nourishment and tethered the plates to the Olokun disgusted Yoto, nearly as much as the sickening color of Olokun flesh he saw beneath a gap in the plates. He swallowed hard once more, and turned his attention from the Olokun to his own, unarmored skin, its blue-gray hue comforting, natural.
Outside Yoto’s field of vision, the torsos and arms of the Olokun were, he knew, even more fearsome. Did these Olokun bear on their forearms the Cestus Parasite, an organism the Olokun used in battle as a weapon and shield, wrapped around their arms like a gauntlet? Yoto shuddered and turned his face from the Olokun.
Though he had looked away, Yoto could still hear the guards’ mutterings, the deep bass typical of the Olokun, setting his small form on edge. The Olokun tone and its resonances were like a knife to the Numah. Around Yoto, others awakened by the commotion in the next cell, pressed hands against their ears, seeking to block the hated, dreaded sounds of their captors.
Yoto did not cover his ears.
He bit down against the revulsion created in him by the noise that the Olokun called language. Yoto did not know the Olokun tongue as well as others in the cell, but he knew enough, and learned more at every opportunity.
The guards were speaking of the new captive, occasionally tossing a comment at him.
“Be comfortable here, Numah,” one guard said. “As comfortable as you can be.”
“For as long as you can be,” said the other. “For as long as we allow you to be.”
Olokun laughter was, if anything, more revolting than Olokun speech, yet Yoto did not flinch.
“And you, old one,” the first guard said. “Our hospitality extends to you as well. Here! A pipe, and leaf for you. Enough for a bowlful—just don’t take too much time with it.”
There was the sound of something striking the floor of the cell.
“Ah: then?” came the voice of the old man who occupied the cell. Yoto had heard the elder’s voice before, speaking madly to himself of other days, other places, even of other worlds.
“Then what? As if you aren’t aware!” The guard’s laughter echoed in the shadowed tunnel.
“Smoke in fine health, old one,” said the other guard. The two Olokun laughed together as they left, their footsteps like thunder in the tunnel.
For a time after the guards’ departure there had been no noise from the other cell, only the occasional cough as the old man smoked. Then there was a groan, low and long, and Yoto heard another voice.
“What is this place? Why was I brought here?”
“Pretend no ignorance with me,” the elder said. “You were brought here as was I, as were we all. For the pleasure and the punishment of the Olokun.”
The new prisoner’s voice sounded young. “I am a miner, a good one, I did their work for them. I did no harm.” Yoto cringed with disgust at the desperation in the young Numah’s tone. He would never admit to such desperation, nor so clearly reveal his fear.
“We do harm to them by being Numah,” the elder said. “You need know no more than that—there is no more to know, nor has there been since the Arbitrators claimed our Ajyin. Since Vega and his Witch brought us to Neos and robbed our moon of its life by making it serve as our prison. What more would you know?”
The pitch of the new prisoner’s voice grew more strident. “What have I done to anger them? I worked their mines, I produced my quota of the Aegis-ore, more than that! And yet they have taken me from my work, my family, brought me here—for what?”
Yoto knew that his parents and Eon had wondered much the same thing. He had spoken of such things, quietly, with Celeste, the only other Numah of his own age in this cell.
Their life in the deep mines—the only life Yoto had known—had not been pleasant, their rocky warren hardly larger than this cell. But for all the hardships, the family of Morik and Myrine had known some measure of security: one day for slaves in the mine was much like the next.
But since being brought to this cell, each day was dominated by a single, unspoken question: Was this the day they would die?
“Perhaps,” the elder said, “you worked too well. It is said that General Vega is alert for any Numah who displays too much ability, whatever the task assigned to him. He eliminates the talented whenever he finds them, removing us from his fears.”
“Us? And what is your talent?”
The older Numah chuckled softly, and a thick cloud of smoke drifted into the tunnel, tickling Yoto’s nostrils.
“My talent,” the elder said at last, “is what I know, and how I came to know it.”
“Riddles!” shouted the younger prisoner, loud enough to disturb the sleep of some of those around Yoto. “Spare me your puzzles.”
“No puzzles,” the elder said almost gently. “I know many things, and learned more than a few of them on the surface.”
Yoto grasped the cell’s bars and tried to pull himself to a position from which he could hear more clearly. The surface!
“You lie,” the younger prisoner said.
“I do not. What purpose would lying to you serve? Nor, frankly, do we have time to waste on lies.” He chuckled again. “Or puzzles. I tell you truth.”
“You have seen the Aegis?” the young man said, his tone gentler.
“I have, and more.” Another heavy cloud of smoke drifted into the corridor. “I saw the first of the Aegis panels as Vega and his Witch’s powers had them grown, nurtured their life, witnessed their rise into orbit above this moon we once loved so. I saw the Aegis begin to assume its shape in the sky, a few panels growing slowly at first. Then more as the Olokun—and, yes, we Numah slaves—grew more adept at extracting the Aegis-ore and creating from it the nourishment and extracted the minerals that feed the shield’s life. The living shield that Vega feels will defend Neos against the Arbitrators. Yes, I have seen.”
“Seen enough?” the young Numah said softly.
“You know. Don’t pretend that you don’t.” His voice was harsh once more.
“The Aegis doesn’t frighten me,” the elder said. “It holds no sway.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“What you choose to believe, or not, is no concern of mine. I simply want to finish my pipe before… Before.”
The elder inhaled deep, the end of his pipe glowing with heat, its light revealing a shade of yellow in his eyes to the younger miner.
Yoto heard the rustle of rapid movement in the next cell. The young prisoner’s voice became enraged. “Stay away from me! Your eyes… you have it! You have Shield Fever!”
“Shield Fever is a myth,” the old Numah said calmly. “A tale told to frighten children—and simple-minded miners.”
“No, no it’s not! I know it’s real! I’ve seen others with it, seen their madness, seen them take their own lives rather than live beneath the Aegis.”
“I have no idea what you think you have seen. But living beneath the lash of the Olokun is far likelier to drive Numah to madness than living beneath the Aegis.”
“Stay away from me!”
“Silence yourself, you fool!” the elder hissed. “Let me finish my pipe in peace.”
“Let me out! The Fever! Let me –“
The sounds of rapid movement caught Yoto by surprise even as the young prisoner’s words were choked off, replaced by strangling coughs, the sound of thrashing legs and arms.
All but instantly the lights in the corridor came to life, the tunnel itself resounding with the thunder of Olokun feet on stone floors. The guards opened the cell, shouting for the elder Numah to release the younger. Yoto tightened his grip on the bars.
“Kill him if you will, old one,” one guard said, “but kill him later. That’s what he’s here for—and you.”
Loud gasps erupted from the young prisoner as he gulped for air. “He tried, he tried-–”
“He failed,” one of the Olokun said, laughing savagely. “Perhaps he’ll have better fortune in the Arena. Now, come along. We’ll see if you fight more fiercely for the General than you did in here.”
“My pipe,” the elder said softly. Yoto heard the first hint of fear and weariness in the old voice. “I’ve not finished.”
“Yes,” the Olokun said, “you have.”
The tunnel lights dimmed as the guards took the two prisoners away.
Only gradually did Yoto release his grip on the bars of the cell. This was not the first time the guards had taken Numah from their cells for combat in the Arena, but it was the first time Yoto fully realized how helpless the Numah were before their Olokun masters. Always before they had seemed only a fact of life, as unchanging and permanent as the stone walls that imprisoned him and his family.
One day things will be different, Yoto thought as he turned away from the bars at last. Something had begun to change.
The older son of Morik and Myrine missed nothing. Every movement and minor motion was taken in by Eon.
What did he watch for?
Information, of course. Information about the Olokun, their nature, their strengths—and above all, any weaknesses they might possess.
Older than Yoto, Eon’s curiosity about the life to which the Numah had been condemned was both tempered and deepened by experience… and by memory. Memories Yoto did not possess.
Eon had known another life, however briefly. A life lived free on Ajyin, not this dark existence beneath the heels of the Olokun in the tunnels of Neos.
When he closed his eyes, Eon could see, as clearly as though it were before him, the comfortable home on Ajyin into which he had been born. He remembered when the tendrils that flowed from Myrine’s head, as they did from the heads of all mature Numah females, had been ornately braided and well cared-for instead of matted and filthy. He could see love in his mother’s eyes—and see those eyes without the pain that now overpowered all else in Myrine’s features.
More than that, behind closed eyes Eon could see his father smile. He did not know if Yoto’s young mind held even scraps of such memories, but he doubted it. Yoto was little more than an infant when the Olokun seized the Numah and brought them here to perform their labors and provide their… entertainment. Morik had not smiled since then, not that Eon could recall. Only when he closed his eyes could Eon see what had been, what had been taken from them.
Eon did not close his eyes often.
Yoto sat near his mother and brother, waiting.
They were waiting for Morik and two other adult males to return. To be brought back, Yoto thought.
To be brought back by the Olokun guards who had taken them early in the day. There was no chortling or gloating, nor any unusual derision from the guards as they gathered Morik and the others—a good sign. Guards always made it known if their prisoners were bound for the Arena. Today was not that day for Morik, though the day would come soon, Yoto feared. The Numah crowded into this cell were being held for their own trials, being held until it was time for their deaths to be put on display.
Yoto chased the thoughts away, as far away as he could. The presence of the trial and the fates that waited in the Arena would always be there, but he did not think that those fates were due to arrive today.
But if not the Arena—where had the men been taken? Back to the mines? To other labor? Perhaps to the surface? Yoto had no way of knowing, and would not until his father was returned.
If he was returned.
And if he were not?
That possibility always existed, as much a fact of Yoto’s young life as the stone walls and prison bars. Yoto had given the matter some thought, more in the days since the old and young Numah had been taken from the next cell and escorted to their certain deaths in the Arena. Deaths for the amusement of General Vega and the Olokun. Deaths that were witnessed by other Numah brought to the Arena to sit among the Olokun. Yoto had heard some of them speak of this. Of how the Numah anguish at what they were forced to witness only added to Olokun enjoyment.
Sometimes Yoto dreamed that he had been summoned to the Arena, and forced to watch as his father was thrust into mortal combat. To watch as his father died. To watch as the Olokun came next for his mother, for Eon. The dreams were as vivid as reality, and when his mother or father shook him free from the dreamworld, awakening him from his moaning nightmares, Yoto was always astonished to see them alive.
He leaned against his mother now, waiting in the cell, as was Eon and the others, for his father to be brought back. It was a quiet, fitful time, when even trivial conversations seemed too much effort. The Numah waited in silence.
Someday, Yoto found himself thinking, that silence would be broken.
Someday, Yoto thought, the Numah would be heard.
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