Ghosts, by Romeo Esparrago
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The Ghosts of Tedjai
by Tamara Wilhite

 

A stranger dressed in furs and denim had entered the store, a string of gutted rabbits tossed over his shoulder. A young boy dressed only in furs was in step behind him. "Hello," Marcus Halloran offered. There were only half a dozen people in the trading post besides me, all taking in the sight of new faces. Marcus grinned, eager at the possibility of new customers.

"I've come to trade." The stranger's accent was unidentifiable but not impenetrable. He laid the rabbits out on the counter.

"What do you want?"

"Jeans for my son. Tablets of paper. A bolt of cloth, if you have it."

"You have enough here for all that." Lynnette's two young daughters had come out at the sound of unfamiliar voices. They were staring at the child. I could understand why. The boy's hair was gray and his skin was a tawny color; nothing like the "father". Then again, the child's yellow eyes hinted at a mutation, which would explain everything. The boy stared off into the distance, staying close to the father. Was this his first time in civilized society, as small as the trading post was?

The stranger laid the pants out on the counter. Perhaps to reassure Marcus, the stranger took off his fur gloves as he pocketed the pads of paper. You could see it in Marcus's eyes: one, two, three, four fingers and thumb. The father, at least, wasn't a mutant. I noticed heavy scars along the sides of both hands for both the father and son. They were almost surgical in nature.

Marcus and the strangers concluded the rest of the trade in silence.

I took the ten-kilo bag of hydroponic rice from the supply depot. The rice ration was a fifth what it used to be. After the strangers left, I purchased a few aging cans of vegetables with the last of my pay. It was a cruel irony for a colony founded by would-be farmers.

* * *

Everyone knew living here would be hard, just not this hard. Outdoor crops began failing from assaults by alien pests. The greenhouses failed as native mold fouled up water lines. We never thought it would get this bad.

My parents stopped going into Touchdown Town when the food riots started. They stopped going to the trading post when the rations were too small to justify the risk of the trip. Father started hunting; hence, we survived. For us those of us like my brother, sister, and self, Earth was more myth than real. The "Tedjai ghosts" were much more real. The torn-up equipment and lost snare lines were testament to their existence.

We eventually discovered what we initially thought was the cause of all our equipment problems. The "Tedjai ghosts" were creatures similar to small chimps. They weighed about 12 kilos. The critters were omnivores, smart as a two-year-old child, and six-fingered like all other Tedjai mammals. They liked to play with metal and tore wires apart with avid curiosity. We had our answer.

There were sightings of larger creatures. The McRae family began electrifying their traps to scare the beasts away. A few weeks later, his traps were found with the battery wires meticulously disconnected and the hinges destroyed. The prey were not only gone, but the only means Ailun McCrae had of catching meat for his family had been destroyed. Ailun set up a hidden camera to watch the next batch of traps. He couldn't afford the electronics, but he could less afford to let his family starve.

McCrae was furious when the recordings showed a blurry someone deliberately opening the trap and removing his catch. He couldn't identify whom; the electronics were too cheap, the image too poor.

The next time his traps went out, he went out too with a rifle. There were no skimmer tracks. Yet he couldn't rule out the idea someone hiking all that way to steal from him; this was during the hungry years. He waited for the perpetrator to come back. Two nights later, it did.

One of the Town doctors was asked to do an autopsy on what was left after Ailun was done venting his anger. What was left looked like a cousin to the little primates. It had six digits per hand and the digestive system of a native species. It was probably male. No one could be completely certain, though biology between the two worlds were only slightly different from each other. The dead thing was either a bigger cousin species of the little primates or a big mutated primate.

Everyone became wary after the doctor's verdict. A chimp could rip an arm off of a human. If this cousin primate was as large as a human, how strong was it? How smart? McCrae's traps weren't the only ones being raided anymore. Eventually, McCrae's family starved. McRae himself didn't starve; his body was found bludgeoned to death.

My father had been the one to find McCrae dead while hunting between the two homesteads. Upon the discovery, he went to the McCrae homestead to inform the men still there. McRae's nephew and two young men from Town who wanted to learn hunting from McRae were dead. None of their food was stolen. None of their weapons were taken. The items used to bludgeon them to death were never found. Thus started the more frightening version of the myth of Tedjai's ghosts.

People would shoot at shadows and sometimes kill people by accident when they did. If they thought they killed a "ghost", it was gone before anyone got to where the body should have been. The fear drove many people back to town and off the planet. Those who stayed died from other causes.

Tedjai's native fevers killed half the population the year after McCrae's murder. Those born on Earth either died or purged the alien diseases completely from their system. However, those born here who survived the fevers did so with the native bacterium living in their systems afterward. The threat of epidemic loomed over us all from that day forward. The isolation of quarantine sank in as Earth forbade ships from visiting our world. Soon, no one could leave. And no one came. No sane captain would bring people to our death-trap of a world. We were alone. Except for Tedjai's ghosts.

* * *

"Renada!" The sound of my name brought me to a halt and back to reality. Kelly caught up with me as I walked back toward my skimmer. "I didn't know you were here."

"I'm just picking up supplies." A storm was brewing over the mountains. I wanted to talk to her. There were so few people left, and even fewer I could call a friend. Yet ice was already frosting the treetops at the higher elevations. It was time to go home if I wanted to make it home. I gave her a wan smile and carried the groceries to my skimmer. I raced over the permafrost toward home.

If I went to Town to join the few hundred people who still lived there, I'd feel a false security of safety in numbers. However, long-term survival meant surviving on Tedjai as it truly was, in its raw form, out here in the wilderness. The first colonists sought to remake it in Earth's image. Getting here had warped their children. Tedjai's native life had fought back in a primitive manner, killing many. If we survived a few more generations, we might be as much a part of Tedjai as Homo Sapiens had been of Earth. But we'd have to survive first.

Surviving as a people -- and keeping our humanity in the process -- meant forging a truce with all the ghosts of Tedjai: the broken dreams whose aftermath still shaped our lives, the ghosts of all those who died here, and whatever native creatures wandered these forbidding woods. I told myself that as I kept pushing the old skimmer on the trail home. And it meant getting along with the living, too. Even if that meant getting along with the rudest of humans, like Marcus Halloran.

* * *

Alex and I met the next week in Lynnette's "restaurant" to discuss the native wildlife. Lynette provided the table, food, and service; hence, a restaurant. The stranger was back and talking to Lynnette. I hardly paid attention to Alex. Alex was chatting about my notes. My "field reports" of native plants and animals were the only income source I had; one couldn't live off the standard rations anymore. So I pretended to listen to him in order to keep my "job".

I kept trying not to stare at the golden-eyed child. He was wearing the jeans from his last visit. He looked like it was the first time he'd ever worn them, since he kept shifting and pulling at them. He showed no curiosity about Marcus's two nieces, though the girls kept staring at him. Was his family so isolated that he had neither knowledge nor interest in other people? I pitied the boy.

Finally, Alex said, "Keep up the good work." We shook hands. He paid me as he took my handwritten notes. He was returning to Town to a warm, secure office. Alex had become acquainted with me through letters I sent to Town asking questions only a scientist could answer; before then, he hadn't thought anyone of any intelligence lived out here. I gave him information he wasn't willing to gather himself; everyone else here was a nobody, a nothing. Alex didn't notice the stranger and Marcus in an argument. Marcus and the stranger's argument was getting heated. Someone needed to intervene. "Is anything wrong?" I asked.

Marcus answered, "I asked for ID."

"I can pay with food later."

"What does he want?" I asked.

"He wants a couple kilos of that red-and-gray fungus. And he can't pay for it. He wants to pay me back later in meat."

The stranger tensed slightly. "I'll go elsewhere if you don't agree to my terms."

"What elsewhere?" Marcus challenged.

"I'll pay for it, if you must have cash." I held out the pay from Alex.

"Renada, why--?"

The stranger said, "No."

"You'll throw away an act of generosity like that? Idiot." Marcus grinned. "What are you afraid of? No name. No ID. What are you hiding? Maybe you killed somebody in Town?" I wanted to curse out loud. "Or, maybe, you're such a freak you couldn't register as a person--" A fist caught Marcus square in the chest. Marcus pulled out a knife and sliced randomly in the stranger's direction as he tried to get air.

The stranger moved like lightning and could have easily fled, but he refused to leave the fight. I tried to pull the boy away from the two men, but he shied away from me. Lynette pulled her two daughters into a back room. Marcus got his wind back and got in closer. The stranger missed Marcus with a few swings and grazed him with others. Marcus had been a bully in school, and it showed. He wasn't vicious, just vengeful; a stranger who'd struck first -- Marcus wasn't going to let that go. Neither man stopped until Marcus landed his blade into the other man's flesh.

A low, soft sound came from the stranger as he finally staggered back. The stranger pressed his arm against the gash. The layers of clothing he wore seemed to be soaking up his blood. The stranger shivered once. Then he leaned on his son and staggered out the door. "You idiot!" Shopkeeper or not, the man who controlled whether or not I got my rations or not, I couldn't keep my silence. "What are you trying to do?"

"He was acting funny around my nieces." The man's arrogant green eyes met mine. If he weren't the owner of the trading post, no one would tolerate his behavior.

I stormed out. I watched the stranger and child get on their skimmer and race off. Everyone who lived out here suspected any stranger of being a Tedjai ghost. We guessed that anyone we didn't know might be one. It was the only explanation we had for why we'd never seen one. How they had learned English or to act like us was anyone's guess. Whether fugitive's child or a mutant, it wouldn't be right to risk the child being left alone if the man bled to death from Marcus's attack.

I found the pair an hour later by following the skimmer's tracks. The man was half-curled up on the ground, the snow around him a faded orange. I wanted to gag from the stink. Orange blood. Only native creatures had orange blood. He was Tedjai. Oh, Lord, the rumors were true -- Tedjai could pass for human.

The boy was watching me with those bright yellow eyes. What was he?

"How badly is he hurt?" No response. How much English did he know? His father was breathing unevenly. Unconscious? "Will you come with me?" No response. "I have medical supplies at home." The boy let me ease his father onto my skimmer. I was able to tie the Tedjai's skimmer to mine. The boy got onto his craft and stayed there. He held on for dear life before I even got my craft started.

It was the longest ride home in my life. I didn't let myself think of the possible consequences for my actions. All I could think of was of another needless death. I refused not to help if I could. Death had taken too many people away from me already.

My mother died of complications from a miscarriage because help was too far away. My brother had found our father frozen to death, clutching a knife to his chest against whatever might come out of the shadows while he lay in the snow with a broken leg. My brother and sister were nearly grown at the time. Our brother was mobile enough and fair enough at hunting to keep the three of us fed. However, it had been terrifying and difficult. With our parents dead, we dared not venture out farther than necessary. Neighbors who feared that a fever killed us all were too afraid check on us for over a year. I couldn't leave a child in far worse circumstances than those my family barely survived.

Finally, home. I dragged the stranger inside. I carefully undressed the man as best I could. From the outside, he did look human. I focused on the wound. The knife had cut into muscles on the chest. An inhuman network of sinew was exposed by the gash. I put old pressure bandages on the wound. The antibiotics lay where they were; I didn't know if they'd do any good. The bleeding finally stopped. An orange mess covered the floor of my living room. The large one was still unconscious, but he might not bleed to death now. It was the best I could do.

Now, for the child ... "Do you have a name?" Silence. "Are you hungry?" Nothing. "My name is Renada Dumont." His eyes followed me as I pulled out a plate of native fungi from the refrigerator. He nibbled at the food after he'd taken refuge in a corner near the adult.

Strange dreams haunted me. My brother Levin told me often that if I did not behave, the Tedjai ghosts would take me away into the forest. I yelled back that maybe they would, but only after punishing him for saying such mean things. The child's face filled my mind's eye; had the Tedjai taken him away from his family to enable the "father" to pass as human? Was the Tedjai here to take me away? When Levin had died two years prior, he'd screamed that he saw them, horrible ruby-red eyes gleaming. I tried to talk sense into him as I tried to pour herbal potions down his throat. He saw me, but he didn't see me. He certainly didn't hear me. Our sister had fallen into a coma within a day of developing a fever. She hadn't had a chance and died within a week. Levin had fought it for weeks. He fought it so long that I thought he might even have made a recovery. Yet, despite all my efforts, he still died. For reasons I couldn't fathom, I never got sick. I wondered which of the three of us was the lucky one. I bolted upright, drenched in sweat. Oh, God, what had I done?

Perhaps it was a show of trust that the boy never came at me with a knife. Or was that only after the man recovered? I spoke to him often, to gauge for his reactions, to test his understanding, to fill in the silence. Since I'd just made a supply run, no one would think to check on me for a long time. I was completely on my own.

The portraits of my family stared down on the strange affair. I saw the child glance up at them from time to time. Had he never seen pictures? "Good morning." The boy peeked around a doorway at my words. "Are you hungry?" He watched me fix my own breakfast. "Do you want meat?" I tossed a piece of rabbit on the counter. He didn't touch it. "If I let you outside, will you catch something to eat? Or will you fetch another Tedjai?" He froze when I opened the door. I closed it again. It was too cold out to wait for the child to maybe make a decision.

I tried reading to him from old children's books. I didn't know if he understood or even if he cared, but it passed the time. I fell asleep that evening while reading. When I awoke in the middle of the night, he was gone. Shortly before morning, I saw him dismembering a native rodent with a stone knife. I closed my eyes. He was eating and it wasn't me; that was progress.

In the early morning, I opened the door to look out. Three more native rodents were on the front step, necks broken. The boy pulled out another storybook and held it out to me, hands stained from the orange blood of his breakfast. He had just eaten meat no human could eat. Hence, he wasn't human. Part of me wanted to see an innocent child. Part of me wanted to not touch a book an alien was holding. I took the book and started reading. The blood stains irritated my skin, but I didn't stop.

Morning brought progress. The adult was awake before I was. Native rodent bones were piled in my fireplace. The adult stared at me unblinkingly and asked, "Why did you help?"

"Marcus shouldn't have hurt you."

"Why did you help after you knew I was … not like you?"

"I was curious."

"Too curious."

"How did your people learn English?"

"From hunters."

"Are those hunters still alive?" I'd known too many who'd disappeared not to ask.

"No." The very faint glimmer of hope faded as quietly as it had arrived.

"Did you kill them?"

"Not me. And some of them died of disease." Was he trying to be conciliatory?

It wasn't best to be talking about dead humans. "Why come to the trading post?"

"I trade rabbit meat you eat for fungus we eat. It is easier than us trying to gather it and less fighting if you don't hunt on our land."

"Where is your land?"

"It is all our land."

Time to change directions again. "How long have your people been passing as human?"

"When we can."

I was running out of things to ask. And wondering how long he'd tolerate me asking. "Your diseases kill our people. Do our diseases kill your people?"

"Yes."

"What is your name?"

"Teekan."

"What is the boy's name?"

"Amari."

"Did he tell you my name?"

"Renada Dumont." So the child did understand a little English. "Why did the man--?" Teekan gestured the blade's path.

"He said you acted strangely toward his nieces, toward his sister's two daughters. The two blonde girls with the purple eyes." Marcus was proud to be utterly normal, but that perfection didn't extend to the rest of his bloodline. "He was afraid you would hurt them." I was guessing, but I wanted to make the man's act seem reasonable.

" The smaller one ... touched me."

"Your people don't like to be touched?"

"Not touched by humans."

Some corner of my mind noted that this was probably the longest conversation anyone had had with one of them and lived. "Are you going to kill Marcus?"

"No."

"Are you going to hurt him?"

"No."

"Your people have killed humans. We've killed your people." Directly, maybe, indirectly, yes. "If you kill Marcus, other humans will kill you. Then we will start killing each other again. If you don't kill Marcus, other people won't have to die."

"I will not kill him, Marcus."

"Will someone else kill Marcus?" Part of me wanted to make sure he understood the "no one kill Marcus" point. Or, perhaps, only the "don't kill more humans" idea.

"No."

We stared at each other in silence. I wanted to ask him a more hundred questions about this. "Are there any other questions you want to ask me?"

"No."

"You can leave, if you want." Stupid thing to say, Renada. You can't keep him here. Nor would you want to force him. "Or you could stay longer," I offered.

Teekan began adjusting clothing. A soft growl brought Amari to his side. He tugged at Amari's furs until it more resembled a parka. Dressed only in furs now, they looked a little alike.

"Where is his mother?"

"Dead."

"How did she die?"

"Of your diseases."

"I'm sorry."

"Sorry?" Teekan chuffed softly. The child's cheeks and throat puffed eerily in response. "We are leaving." He opened the door himself, not bothering to wait for me to get it. Teekan checked his skimmer carefully before they raced away. Had someone been so desperate for human companionship that they'd ignored the signs that the Tedjai were Tedjai and taught them human technology? Maybe if they'd left a helpless, speechless child left on the doorstep like Amari … I would have. After learning about us, the child could then go home and teach others what it had learned. Maybe that was why Amari was brought along.

When I went back inside, the alien scent filled the air. It lingered like musk, filling the air. The smell from the orange blood stain on the floor might make me nauseous with time. Thinking about what had happened already did.

I'd talked to a Tedjai. The Tedjai was able to talk to me. We'd been talking to Tedjai face to face for who knew how long. They were real. They'd really been here. It was too much to absorb at once.

My sister's picture was staring down at me, bright-red eyes smiling. My own silver eyes had attracted less derision than hers. Our brother had been normal but for his misshapen leg. A Tedjai wouldn't stand out very much among the humans out here in the wilds. Just one more member of the odd, Tedjai-born family.

I collapsed onto the floor, still staring at my sister's picture. I closed my eyes and let my head rest against the hearthstone. The fire crackled and sighed as it devoured the last of the alien bones. "I guess you're the only ghost left in the house now, sister."

 

 

Story © 2004 by Tamara Wilhite tamarawilhite@hotmail.com

Illustration © 2004 by Romeo Esparrago



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