See the introduction for more information.This story © Keenan Cross, 2022
[alu hechak, 5bfm, 11yo]
When the headaches became unbearable, Dandec had to ask to stay in his bunk most days. The new foreman could punish him: halve his rations, assign him less and less pleasant work. But the headaches always outstripped the desire to avoid punishment. One day, the burly full-human threw up his arms and declared, “Demihumans!” and sent for a physician to examine the boy.
The one who came was a journeyman who handled injuries in the station. He was ruddy-faxed and had a jolly demeanor, but he had a hatefulness to him that made Dandec very quiet in his presence.
“You didn’t mention it was a demihuman child,” the physician said to the foreman, shaking his head.
“Work is work,” the foreman defended.
The physician looked Dandec over for injury or infection. He tested the boy’s jaw, pressed a thumb between its hinge and his ear, felt around the back of his skull. Generated magelight to show him his throat, nose, and ears.
“I don’t like this one’s eyes,” he said, probably to himself.
“No one does,” the foreman agreed.
Dandec thought he might note that no one hated them as much as he did himself, but the presence of both these adults made him want to be quiet.
The examination continued.
“The only way to really know what is happening within a demihuman is to cut him open,” the physician made sure Dandec heard that. “You can’t learn about them from books, not like with fullkind.”
“That would remove him from my team even if he recovered,” the foreman said grimly.
“I’m not suggesting it, I only mean that it is highly unlikely he can be treated.”
The physician determined that Dandec was not injured, nor sickly, nor malnourished. The headaches were, he thought, simply the result of some demihuman peculiarity, which made him reactant to something in his environment. Most likely it was the sound of the machines. The vibrations, maybe, or fumes in the grease. The foreman could try to get some more work out of this child, but the physician thought it a waste of effort.
Dandec lingered on at the transmission station for a few more days, trying his best to remain useful despite the now constant pain. A despair crept day by day from his core into his ribcage, as he realized that his dream of achieving mastery with the machines of Alu Hechak would never be. In the end, the foreman removed him from duty altogether.
He did not give Dandec’s bunk away, however, though it cost him a pair of hands working with the machines. It would be a long time before Dandec realized what a kindness this was. There was no guarantee that the boy would find a place to sleep at all, otherwise. Painful or not.
There was more kindness in this foreman in general than Dandec had had reason to suspect before. He was new, had replaced the prior foreman a season or two ago, and had set to work directing the transmission station with a clenched fist. He was gruff with all of his laborers; not only the demihumans, and not only the children. It was not that he softened when Dandec had to be expelled, though. It was more that, if his reaction to something was not rough speech or cruelty, he kept his mouth shut. He was very quiet with Dandec.
One day out of three, the foreman took Dandec out of the bunks in the morning, and brought him somewhere. Once, it was to the shipyards. The full-human spoke with a ship’s captain, a loader and a builder, out of the boy’s earshot; the boy sat on a crate, watching the sloshing water and fighting nausea. Another time they rode up in an the elevator of another propeller spire, and the foreman talked with the care staff of a noble’s household that occupied its highest floors. These and many more excursions were useless.
At the time, Dandec thought the foreman was trying to foist him upon another employer. While that was effectively true, the demihuman would realize much later that the big man was gauging his welfare in these places.
It was always moot, because the headaches never ceased.
In a rare time that the foreman spoke directly to him, with gentle words that made Dandec uncomfortable to hear in that voice, he explained: it is the machines themselves. Dandec must find somewhere outside their reach, or his life would be agony.
On other days, Dandec was left to his own devices. At this time, he had none. He was always ill, made nauseous by the pain in his head. There was little he could do other than to find a place to sit and wait out the day.
This was how he discovered Alu Hechak’s gardens.
Being allowed to leave the station unsupervised and walk the city was alien to Dandec. He only knew his home by its propeller stations, and distant views of the bay and the mast towers. There was a constant thrum caused by the machinery, and that was not much decreased when he was not near the propellers, but he had not spent enough time at ground level to notice, hidden below that sound, the roar of the ocean. It was at all times under his feet, dragged in and out by the tide and rolling between the city’s struts. Something about that knowledge pleased him deeply.
As a laboring child, he had never lived in a demifold. In his daily explorations he now observed those from without, confused by the children’s leisure, often those both younger and older than he. He did not spare a thought to entering it himself, though surely there must have been a process by which to do so. But, curious about them, he visited several of the many across the city.
The part of Alu Hechak that stood over the water was the old city. There lived the nobles, in manses set back away from the streets behind high walls and gardens, or in homes high in the masts of the propeller and sail towers. The vast machines required that large numbers of workers live amongst them. Dandec had never seen a noble; they did not speak with or acknowledge commoners unless in dire need. The one who occupied the propeller shaft where he had worked had a private exit, so that she never needed to walk the same halls as the mechanics and maintenance staff. Other children told rumors: a noble can order you killed on a whim; if you looked directly at a noble, you go blind. When Dandec was free in the streets, he saw them coming and going in covered sedans that rose above the crowds, or by foot but clad in robes that fully obscured their faces and bodies.
As such, the same street in the old city would be home to a large villa, a craftsman’s shop, an abandoned boathouse, and a Machinist temple. Supposedly everything but their own palaces offended the nobles, but they were forced to tolerate it all or else abandon ancestral homes to the sea.
His eyes the way they were, Dandec saw many things other than his immediate surroundings and his destination. Walking a crowded street was less an expedition than a long forward fall, during which visions—of towers, of rooftops, of puddles and feet and faces and clouds and trees—presented themselves to him.
Scattered throughout the hodgepodge city were many gardens. When Dandec wandered, he found that he paid these the most attention, even though he intended to study the demifolds. There were wide plots dedicated to growing vegetables on vines and bushes, and groves with paths for sitting and walking. When Dandec tried to walk these he often found himself chased out, but some were unguarded and he was free to explore.
There had been grasses struggling to take over cracks in the concrete at the station, and some sickly saplings that were allowed to linger in disused spaces. Dandec had seen tintypes of meadows and forests, and the drawings in books, but visiting such a place (in miniature, such as it was) in person was different.
What drew his attention was the dirt. There were the tenacious but doomed weeds in the propeller station, yes, but what separated those from a twenty-five-pace-long flourishing wildland was the accumulation of the grimy particulates he had spent countless hours sweeping out of the machine rooms’ floors. He sifted it through his fingers and swept it away to study the roots of living plants, wondering how they created such life between them. And the roots themselves—invisible, yet the key part that produced the stalk and leaves and flowers.
He spent more and more time sitting in one garden or another, keeping out of the sight of passersby and letting his eyes observe what they wished. He pondered the roots growing down into
the dirt and the stalk growing up into the air. How like the spires, it seemed. They had their visible shafts and their implements for catching the wind, yet they also grew downward, into the seabed below. They grew across, too; each spire had tendrils reaching far, below the streets, like the roots that reached out laterally and tangled with others.
He had a series of favorite gardens. The first was the most ornate one in the city, which he could only observe from afar but which felt well worth it. Later, he found that he preferred one made for walking, with pruned trees and bushes following brick walking paths. He likes to think that his tastes grew more sophisticated.
The final favorite was one he only found after a long time of exploring, in the depths of the city far away from the sea. It was not a garden at all, but a disused plot left over after a building had been removed but never replaced. In its place the soil had accumulated, and grasses grew, and wildflowers, and small, sparse shrubs. There was no order to it that he could see: seeds grew where they fell, where they could. Picking through it, wondering why one grass flourished here but not there, why flowers of one kind seemed so sickly while those of another were so robust though they grew side by side—something in him quickened, and something else was stilled. He could not have said what, or which.
After several Tides, the foreman brought Dandec to a part of the city he had never seen before, on the solid ground. There, no sign was to be seen of the luxury that the nobles brought with them to the fringes of the old city. Instead, everything was rough and humble. Cement covered almost all of the ground, except where it dove deep into a canal or rose high into a ziggurat that separated one district from another.
The foreman brought Dandec to a caravansaray in the eastern end of the city, a wide concrete and brass structure that looked too square to have any utility. Inside it proved to be mostly a wide open space, wherein dozens of carriages were parked, and even more lungers and horses were stables. It bustled with merchants and peddlers and travelers, repairing their vehicles and caring for their animals, inventorying their wares, seeking private places to rest. An indoor fountain flowed in the middle for thirsty workers. That was where the foreman met with a tall full-human woman, about Dandec’s future.
Do-yath was a regal-looking woman with a square jaw and black-brown hair that she let fall down the back of her bold blue coat. She sat straight and tall on a stool opposite the foreman, with hands resting easily but ready on her thighs. Her attention was on him, but she cast her eyes to the demihuman child who waited at the corner, bushy eyebrows working at unknown thoughts.
They talked for what seemed a long time. Do-yath nodded and considered things the foreman said, and showed him bound books that seemed to be full of numbers. Finally, both stood, and the foreman came back to Dandec. He looked down without leaning, brow set, and thought for long seconds before he spoke.
“Do-yath is going to take you with her caravan,” he said. He spoke as he would with his rare gentle voice, but delivered the words roughly.
Dandec swallowed. He only knew of caravans and merchants from stories. But more importantly, he recognized already that this meant he would be taken away from Alu Hechak.
He should have felt great sadness at that, but even out here, so far from the propellers, his head hurt so badly. He only felt apprehension, and perhaps failure.
The foreman gave Dandec—or perhaps himself— another nod, and then brought him back to Do-yath the merchant.
“You are going to be coming with me,” Do-yath said, in the light voice people used with children who did not work in the propellers.
“Where will you go?” Dandec immediately felt foolish for asking.
“We go many places. We cross the Great Common Plains several times over on our circuit.”
“When will you be here again?”
“In six years,” the merchant looked to the foreman. “Provided we keep our schedule.”
“What will I do?”
“You will load and unload carts, you will tend to the animals, you will help carry goods to and from market. But there are many things you could do. What can you do?”
“I want to grow trees.”
The two adults shared another look.
“You can grow trees,” she said to the boy. “Only, we will be mobile; when you plant a seed, by the time you see it again, it will be tall.”
Dandec turned away. He hadn’t meant to say it, and he felt ridiculed, even though her words were not harsh.
“I want to read and learn,” he said.
“You will have many books. We pass through hundreds of towns, and among them there are scores of libraries and scholars. You can sit atop a lunger and read treatises on horticulture, if you want.”
Dandec nodded. He thought of himself, a learned scholar astride a reptilian mount in the Great Common Plains, where there were a thousand miles of grass-growing dirt like the paltry fields in the city. Knowledgeable and worldly, leaving a trail of growth behind him.
“Let us be on, then,” Do-yath gave him a sharp nod. We shall be leaving in the morning.”
Dandec looked to the foreman, who only looked on stolidly. Do-yath patted him on the shoulder, and with trepidation he followed her to her crew’s quarters.
When Dandec first sat atop a horse, the animal was agitated, shifted back and forth, and complained when goaded to move. The merchants tried him on a lunger as well, with the same result.
“The animals don’t like him,” one of the crew reported to Do-yath, with a thick accent Dandec had never heard before.
“He is probably too uncomfortable on them,” the merchant said. “He has never had reason to ride one. They can tell. He will have to learn to ride. Teach him on the road.”
They left the caravansaray early on the third morning, Dandec riding in a wagon amidst bundles of textiles. He watched the only city he had known recede, as if drawn away from him by a giant hand, until it was only a tan-colored smudge in the distance, backed by its spiny skyline. Soon he was far away, in the valley. And his head no longer hurt.
It continued to be strange, waking each day from dreams of turbines and faceless nobles and finding himself under the sky in a wagon surrounded by strangers. He expected an aching sadness at being parted from everything familiar, but the absence of a headache seemed to supersede it. Instead of waiting for the foreman to find him a new home, he was happy to run in the heathy grass beside the road, watch the well-organized crew at work, and learn his new trade.
Aleroi, as the crewmember was called who was responsible for training Dandec with the animals, called him out from his wagon whenever the caravan stopped. First and foremost he kept trying to teach the new boy to ride. Time after time, he found that every one of the horses and lungers became jittery with him on its back. He could not explain it, and neither could he fix it.
The foreigner, who claimed to have joined this caravan when it came to his home two thousand miles to the southeast, taught other lessons, too. Dandec knew some Plainstongue—it was spoken in every corner of the world—and Aleroi made sure he inched toward fluency daily. The names of different kinds of wool and spices and where in the world they came from; the kinds of numbers a trader needed for bartering and record keeping; some of the history of the Great Common Plains.
The traders collectively had a very different demeanor from the adults at the turbine station. Though much of their time was spent in silence, ushering animals along the northwestern valley’s trade roads, they spoke happily when at rest, played games with dice and cards, joked. There was very little of the desperation and urgency that marked the face of every adult Dandec had known, like scars. It made him deeply curious about them, about their lives and their work. He did not like to speak up, though.
“A caravan such as this,” Aleroi explained, when Dandec expressed his curiosity. “We are easy. We travel, and we have to have food and shelter. We need firm plans at the forefront, to keep us on time. But day to day, we ride under the sky, and have only to labor every few weeks when we set up in a market. So it is not a leisurely life, but it is an easy one. That is why people join Do-yath.”
Dandec wondered if he would have joined Do-yath himself, if he were free and fullkind, somewhere else in the world. It wasn’t a question he could answer.
“Is it an easy life to study?” he asked.
“Studying is something I have never done.”
Dandec was sheepish, but continued.
“I know about philosophers. I know that they look at things and say why they are how they are. They have to study.”
“I don’t know why you would need a philosopher to tell you that,” Aleroi said.
“Why do some trees grow in some places, and others grow in others?” Dandec proffered the most important question in his mind, with an air of confidence.
Aleroi considered that and shrugged.
“What you mean is that philosophers consider strange questions. I think you had better leave those for after you have learned to sort the spices.”
Dandec could see the virtue in that. He had not, in fact, considered learning botanical philosophy himself. Not until now.
The caravan operated with a loose militaristic efficiency. Do-yath was its captain, and she had a close echelon of mates who helped her communicate with the rest. The entire crew numbered somewhere around thirty, including porters, drivers, builders, and experts in different kinds of wares.
There seemed to be no single focus among those: when the caravan stopped at a town or trading post, it shed some of its wares and brought in others, never the same. Dandec found that he loved to hear the inventory explained, and the details involved in transporting the many different sorts of goods. What spices kept best in ceramic or in glass; what fabrics could withstand the rain and what could not. At each brief stop, usually three or four days between, a whole new array of goods came through for him to carry and study, and he could never predict what it would be. It might be more fabrics, or a hundred jars of dyes, or powdered pigment, or dried leaves for smoking.
Do-yath apparently had many ways of predicting what would be most useful to carry and sell elsewhere, between almanacs and experience and correspondence with marketeers across the continent. She seemed an immeasurably wise being, an untouchable king who always headed her itinerant subjects. Dandec did not seek her attention, but she gave him an approving nod from afar whenever she noticed him keeping up with his work.
He only occasionally heard someone deride him as a demihuman. The crew was of all species, there was even a ptericeryne among them. One or two porters may have been demihuman, but Dandec could not say; they could simply have come from far away. Two very young crowfolk children scampered along with the rest. Motley was the word for it, Dandec thought. Hence, among them, being demihuman made him no more different from his new compatriots than they were from one another.
It was always said that the Great Common Plains treated its demihumans the best of any country. Dandec could not wait to see it.