Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 32
Stories
The Temple's Posthole
by M.K. Hutchins
Through the Veil
by Michael T. Banker
Notes on a Page
by Barbara A. Barnett
The War of Peace - Part 2
by Trina Marie Phillips
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

The War of Peace - Part 2
    by Trina Marie Phillips

The War of Peace
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

. . . continued from issue 31 . . .

Ardam watched the town from atop the ridge. There was not a two-leg to be seen outside of their rigid structures. The warm morning would turn into a blazing hot day. That they were not making use of prime working time was foolish, but then, maybe the heat did not affect their simple bodies so greatly.

All thirty children were lined up behind him. Each carried a pack or pushed a cart laden with food, seed and supplies. Kaliff's Family even offered up a share of their finest farming tools. She said they would make more during the breeding season; Ardam knew it would take more than one season to replace what she gave.

This was the first time he had acted without the Family's general approval. It saddened him not to have their faith. They stood back from him now, anxious ruffles wafting through the group as they watched their children prepare. Ardam had spoken with the young ones and told them what to do. It was a good generation; they would not react in fear. He would win the two-legs over with kindness. Ardam looked back. Beyond the Family stood rows of Nemek warriors lean and ready at his call. If kindness didn't work . . .

With a huff and a whistle, Ardam started the descent. The trail of children chittered in excitement. If they were truly training he would have insisted on silence, but they were too young for that. Besides, he was counting on them being children to win over the two-legs. It was best to let them act naturally.

When they were partway down the hill, the two-legs emerged from their structures. They spread out, forming a rough line across the front of the town, a little ways back from the tiled edge. It was not dissimilar to the line Ardam's Family had created a few days before; except he saw that only adults were present. Once again, Mayor Toumani Shaw stood out front, flanked by his two advisors.

Ardam did not hesitate in his approach. He stepped up to the Mayor and extended his hand. "Hello, my friend."

Toumani Shaw took his hand. Ardam noticed that the cloth around his arm was smaller and clean, and the swelling had diminished significantly. He was glad the Barter had not had lasting ill effects.

"Hello, my friend. What is all this?" He bared his teeth in that gesture that Ardam had figured out was something good and not the danger his gut told him it was.

The children fanned out but stayed behind Ardam, awaiting his signal. "I thought you should meet last year's seedlings. These are the strongest, the ones that survived. They were born here." He stopped before he made any accusations. Let the Mayor derive his own meaning.

"I feel like I am one step behind you, Ardam. First I come to you with my staff and you bring me your Family. Then I bring you my Family and you bring me your children."

"We also bring an offer of assistance." Ardam whistled and the children stepped forward. They approached the two-leg adults slowly. Those with packs extended them in their arms, and those with carts pushed forward. They spread out along the line, each choosing one subject to bestow their gift upon.

Ardam hadn't known the two-legs would come out like this but his instructions to get close to them were being carried out beautifully. The adult two legs did not recoil in fear like when he entered the meeting hall. They took the packages and even allowed exchanges of touch. A combination of two-leg murmurs and young Cranther chatter ran throughout the crowd.

Ardam continued. "You said that your resources would not allow you to move your town. We offer the supplies you need and will make guides available to help you find a new home."

The Mayor's mouth hung open but Ardam did not know what that meant. The fur-faced advisor spoke first.

"This is incredible."

Then the pale one. "We still can't leave. Do they expect us to live in straw huts? This is ridiculous."

There was no discipline amongst Toumani's advisors, but maybe none was expected.

Three of the children stepped forward, making their offerings to the Mayor and his advisors. Ardam marveled at the instincts children had. He couldn't have asked for better timing.

It was one of Kaliff's females that approached Toumani. She handed him a tied sack filled with ripe, yellow fenter fruit, which he took with one hand. Then, like Ardam had done, she extended her hand to him. It was then Ardam was sure her mother had instructed her. Now that he looked, the two that approached the advisors were from Kaliff's Family as well. Quiet support. Ardam would not forget this.

Toumani bent down and took the young one's hand. She pulled herself up, climbing his legs to his torso until he was gently forced into holding her in his arms.

"Whoa," Toumani said. "I didn't expect that." He bared his teeth and . . . laughed. The Barter was still teaching Ardam new words. He found that for the Mayor to laugh was a good thing. Ardam was proud that his Family had created such good contact.

The Mayor shook his head. "Ardam, you are both sneaky and honorable. I don't know many leaders that would make an offering such as you have."

The pale advisor accepted the package given him but would not touch its giver. Fur-face was kneeling and exchanging touches and sounds with the child who handed him a bag of seed.

"The memories of two hundred generations reside in this ground. Each generation requires the memories of the last in order to be born. This will be the last generation of my Family if you do not move."

Toumani's shoulders sagged. His mood suddenly reversed from the pleasantness of a moment before. "You make a powerful argument and I wish I could do as you ask. But even with your generous offerings, it is not enough. There is a geothermal source nearby that we use for power and the majority of my people see that as a necessity. My people cannot live as simply as your Family does."

The child in the Mayor's arms squirmed and wrapped several of her arms around his neck. His expression changed to one that Ardam didn't visually recognize but because of the Barter he could feel. Toumani's heart hurt. Ardam knew what it was like to have one or two of his hearts hurt from compassion, but the thought of the two-leg's only heart hurting seemed unbearable. He did not like what he had to say next.

"I am still unable to allow you to stay. I must make sure our seedlings are born. Please prepare to leave."

The pale one stepped forward and snarled in a way Ardam didn't think was possible for the two-legs. He was sure the meaning was not the same as the Cranther mating request it sounded like.

"Are you threatening us again? I told you we're here to stay." He pointed the black stick in the air and it squealed three times. Streaks of red light shot out of it and disappeared into the sky. Ardam didn't know exactly what it was, but it held power and menace. Then the word "blaster" came to him strong through the Barter. The Mayor responded immediately.

"Stand down, Captain!"

Ardam looked at the Mayor and before they could exchange words, he let out a loud, short screech that ended in a growl. In a matter of moments the two-legs were staring up at the ridge, their mouths agape. Ardam knew the sight of four-hundred armed Nemek warriors would have the necessary effect.

He whistled and the children drew away from the two-legs they had been interacting with. It only took a small huff for them to know to fall in behind him. Mayor Toumani Shaw stared at Ardam. He could feel the disbelief, and the fear. This was not the way Ardam wanted it.

"I make this promise to you, my friend. I will not harm any of your Family if you do not harm mine. If I do, you may take my fourth heart, because it will already be dead."

The Mayor recovered his presence. "I do not wish to fight you."

"Then we agree," Ardam looked at the pale advisor, "but not all who are with you seem to feel the same."

Toumani turned and grabbed the stick from his advisor so quickly the two-leg didn't have time to react. They exchanged a look that seemed to keep the pale one in his place. He turned back to Ardam.

"We will not harm your Family."

"Then you will move?" Ardam asked.

"We can't do that either."

Ardam chuffed heavily through his throat pouch. "Then we have accomplished nothing, except to show our weapons." He thought for a long moment, trying to figure out how to keep his options with the two-legs open. "When I return, it will still be in peace."

"In peace, you are always welcome, my friend."

Three days until the seedlings needed to be called forth. He would return in peace but not with wholly peaceful intent. If something did not change, the seedlings would have to wage their own war. How many of them would give up their lives to keep greater numbers on both sides from dying? Ardam hoped they had the strength to thrive. If he was wrong, this decision would condemn his Family to extinction.

It was not the full caucus; he wanted only Raychit and Kaliff for this meeting. The sun was dropping below the horizon through a belt of purple clouds and the morning's events still churned in Ardam's mind. They walked away from the Family and away from the two-leg town, to a grotto with a small stream overhung with trees. Life was strong here; it was one of Ardam's favorite places.

He rested on a boulder and waited for the others to settle. Ardam did not hesitate in getting to the point.

"I believe there is a way to dislodge the two-legs, but some seedlings will be sacrificed. It will avoid a greater war."

"Why avoid war when we have the Nemek to fight for us?" Raychit asked. It was a strong question, but not utterly defiant.

"Because we do not know the strength of their weapons or their people. What if they can defeat the Nemek and then destroy our Family? Then the seedlings will die anyway." Ardam paused and blew out a short whistle. "And I gave my word to the Mayor that we would not attack first."

Raychit glared with three of her eyes. "You are too close to this Toumani Shaw. You trust him too much."

"Did I not answer your challenge? I took the children to meet him and they came back safe. He has acted honorably, has he not?" This meeting was not so much about counsel, as legacy and lessons. If his plan worked, he wanted Raychit to learn there was strength in peace, a lesson Kaliff already knew. And if it didn't, he wanted them to know where he went wrong so they could avoid his mistakes in the future.

Raychit huffed. "Yes, he has been honorable."

Kaliff added her voice. "He will make a valuable ally if you succeed."

Ardam turned his attention to Kaliff. "Your daughter is a sly one. She won Toumani's favor easily."

Kaliff opened all four of her eyes wide in amusement. "It is her talent. I have succumbed to her wiliness many a time."

"I need to call upon the children again." Ardam said. "They are our most powerful weapon, one the two-legs will not strike against."

He expected to hear grinding from Raychit's throat, but didn't. Her eight arms were crossed in front of her body, tense but patient. Maybe referring to the children as a weapon was what held her words.

"I want to teach the children the song of the Birthing Ritual. In three nights I will take them to call the seedlings forth. I believe the seedlings will be able to undermine the construction of the two-legs' town. We may lose some, but they will be born."

Raychit growled low, and curled her nose flange. "So, you are not being as blindly benevolent as it appeared."

"I would have preferred for the two-legs to have left of their own accord, but the seedlings are my supreme concern. This is my Family and I will ensure its survival."

"That is what I want to hear from my Paramount," Raychit said.

"You should never have questioned it." Ardam let the lowest growl and quiet words carry his power. Raychit spread her arms, leaving her torso vulnerable. It was an old gesture and a respectful one.

"Forgive my lapse. I thank you for renewing my faith in the Paramount, in you my friend. I have grown so accustomed to being your counter, that I lost sight of your wisdom."

Ardam appreciated the formality of her response. Even as friends, Ardam could not afford to let anyone forget that he was Paramount. By bringing her to this point with only one witness and not in front of the Family, Ardam was giving Raychit the respect due her post. He had received a worthy response.

"Come, we have a song to teach."

The night was warm and filled with the calls of animals and insects. Once again the children followed Ardam down the hillside, each carrying a green glowing branflee stick. For now, they sang a walking song. It was one of the children's favorites on the long journey south. The clicking rhythms and tones were simple and fun to sing. It also served the purpose of alerting the two-legs to their approach.

This time, Mayor Toumani Shaw came out to greet them with his own army of children. Theirs were of many different sizes, obviously born at different times. Ardam wondered if there was a structure to their breeding schedule. If there wasn't, it might explain why they didn't understand the importance of his Family's seedlings being born at the right time.

The town was modestly illuminated with a bluish-white light. There were no insects that gave off that color and Ardam wondered about the geothermal energy the Mayor spoke of. He looked again at the hard edge of the town and hoped the seedlings were stronger than the base it was built upon. Everything depended on that. It would be the next day before the two-legs realized what he and the children were doing tonight. The only way they would be able to stop it would be if they were willing to slaughter the seedlings as they grew toward being born. He did not think Toumani Shaw would allow that to happen. If Ardam was wrong, the Nemek still stood ready.

He and the Mayor stepped forward at the same time, both extending their hands. The children from both Families spread out on either side of them. Ardam's children stopped singing and extended their hands as well. The two-leg children seemed less certain of how to respond. The Mayor waved his free hand toward his children and they extended theirs. There were laughs and twitters and surprised huffs between the children. Physical contact was proving powerful for both Families.

"Mayor Toumani Shaw, I come to you this third time with a Ritual of Friendship. We bring a song to share with your Family. It is an ancient song that has been with us since the beginning. It is all I have left to offer."

The children were mingling now, touching each other and communicating in that way that did not require language.

"Ardam, it breaks my heart when you come offering us gifts and I cannot help you."

"It is because I believe in your heart that I am here." Ardam let out a long whistle, the first note of the Birthing Ritual. His children stopped their play and started singing. He gestured with his smallest hand on each side and they moved forward, taking slow measured steps around their two-leg counterparts and into the town.

From Ardam's left there was a squealing sound and a flash of hot, red light flew by his head. The searing heat on his skin let Ardam know what kind of danger he was in. His hearts sped up with fear; he ducked and raised his hands in defense. Then he looked over to see the pale advisor pointing a small blaster at him from four body lengths distant. More than twenty townspeople stood behind him. They were not armed. Scared, the children's song staggered into silence.

The Mayor turned on his advisor and yelled. "Captain! Stand down immediately! I told you these people were not to be hurt."

"You're a fool, Shaw! No one brings this much love and friendship, not with an army like they have standing by. They're up to something."

"And are you going to shoot a bunch of children?" Toumani asked.

From up on the ridge the discordant battle cry of the Nemek roared out. Ardam straightened and whistled a triple tone in a complex rhythm, telling the Nemek to hold their positions. Even if he died here he did not want war, though he knew that's what his death would mean.

"There's only one Cranther I need to take out. Then you'll have to return our weapons and we can finish this. If you don't turn them away, I will kill him."

Ardam whistled the first note of the Birthing Ritual again. Then he huffed three times, telling his children to be strong and not stop for anything. Their singing filled the air. When they moved forward, Ardam turned toward the pale one. Against every instinct, he opened all six of his arms and exposed his torso, hoping the gesture's physical symbolism would mean something to the pale one.

"Take my life if you must, but have you considered the lives of your own Family that you are about to sacrifice? My army is four-hundred strong. How many of you are willing to die for his actions?"

Everyone was frozen, except for Ardam's children who continued walking with their song. A flash of fear passed over the pale one's face. Ardam braced himself. In moments of tension, it was not good for the one holding the weapon to be scared. Fear made enemies do rash things.

At that moment, Mayor Toumani Shaw stepped between Ardam and the pale one.

"Yes, Captain. Who are you willing to sacrifice?" Toumani asked in a deeper tone than Ardam had heard from him yet. He wondered exactly what the nuance of pitch meant to the two-legs. Toumani's inner heart and outer demeanor were too conflicted for Ardam to read.

"Stand aside, Shaw."

"I can't do that, Captain. Lower your weapon."

The pale one sidestepped, trying to get Ardam back in his line of sight, but the Mayor kept himself between them.

"Don't you realize they have to be stopped?" The pale one shifted his aim toward Ardam's children while they walked across the town. With a roar, Ardam charged past the Mayor, pushing through the two-leg children. He didn't reach the pale one in time.

Two flashes of red light shot out of the blaster. One of Ardam's children squealed. Then more wailed in response. Before the pale one could swing the blaster around, Ardam crashed into him. He grabbed for the weapon with his four upper arms and used his lower ones to knock the pale one's legs out from under him. The pale one held tight when he fell and Ardam ended up trampling him. Both were locked in their grip on the weapon but the pale one wheezed from Ardam's weight on his chest. He thrashed, shifting the direction of the blaster, and fired.

Searing pain erupted along Ardam's left side. He bellowed long and loud. His grip on the blaster wavered and he realized that one of the arms he had been holding it with was not just hurt, but missing, as was the lowest one on that side. Jagged burn scars laced his torso, oozing white blood.

Then the many hands of the townspeople were between them, trying to wrest the blaster away. They belonged to the two-legs that stood with the pale one. Ardam knew it was over. Amidst the chaos, he could hear his children singing in the background and the battle cry of the Nemek getting closer.

The weapon was yanked from their hands. The pale one still wheezed beneath him. Before Ardam died he would see the pale one pay for harming his Family. He leaned down and punched him with his right lowest fist, and then he did it again and again. The pale one grunted and his face oozed their red blood.

Hands were on Ardam now, pulling him away. Then a small two-leg child appeared and stood astride the pale one, directly in front of Ardam with his hands out in a defensive posture.

"Stop," the child screeched. He was equally pale and had the same green eyes, except his were dripping water. Ardam realized this was his son.

He stopped, and stepped back off the pale one's prone body. The child struck at him with his little hand. It didn't hurt physically, but his fourth heart ached. He never wanted violence.

From behind him, the Mayor called out. "Ardam!"

Ardam turned to see the Nemek warriors at the base of the hillside, swarming the narrow plain. In one hand the Mayor pointed the small blaster at the horde in a futile effort to protect his people. In his other arm was the limp form of Kaliff's daughter.

If he let the Nemek attack, this would all be over very quickly. The seedlings would be saved but forever stained with the blood of the Mayor's family. The offense had come from one; it would not be fair to punish the many.

He took in the deepest breath he could and ruffled a commanding howl through every layer of his throat pouch. The effort flared the pain of his wound. The two-legs nearest him backed away. He repeated the command three times until the Nemek ceased their charge. The warriors staggered to a stop in the middle of the plain. They watched the town, milling uneasily in the moonlight, waiting for the next command.

The Mayor lowered the blaster and his shoulders sagged. Then he walked toward Ardam. Kaliff's daughter lay across his arm, a dark scorch mark scarring her back.

"She's still breathing," Toumani said. "I've already sent for our doctor. I'm sorry, Ardam."

Ardam let out a loud, six-note whistle to call his Family's healer forth. Then he held out his right arms to take the young female. She squirmed at the transfer. Her weight was more burdensome than he wanted to admit. Pain shot through his whole body.

The Mayor looked now as if he hadn't realized Ardam was injured. "My God. Please, tell me what I can do."

He didn't know how to respond. Ardam could feel the heaviness in both their hearts. He glanced behind him. The townspeople were tending to the pale one who was still lying on his back. Ardam saw his own severed arms on the ground. He stared at his burned side where his arms had been. The reality of his mutilation sunk in and he was horrified. But he would bear it like a Paramount should, even if it was one of his last acts.

When he looked toward the town he saw his children on the other end; they had continued on as they were told to do. The song for the Birthing Ritual ended and the children turned. He huffed loud enough to recall them.

Ardam glared at his friend, Mayor Toumani Shaw. They were still united in this effort at peace, but there was blood between them now. With Kaliff's daughter in his arms and pain shooting through his side, Ardam was not feeling generous. "Move your people, or I will."

Toumani's eyes shied away from him and through the Barter, Ardam knew he was seeing grief and regret. The expression was all-encompassing and he couldn't read whether it was for what had happened or what was to come.

The two-leg doctor approached but he didn't know how to help Kaliff's daughter, had no idea if their medicines would help or hurt. The Family's healer arrived shortly after. She wanted to tend Ardam first, but he refused and insisted she tend the little one. He had promised that the children would be safe, and he had failed. Whether he would be alive come dawn remained to be seen. No sense wasting the healer's efforts.

Ardam's children gathered around him. The Mayor stood with most of the townspeople behind him.

"I will not let you harm our seedlings," Ardam said.

"Are we still friends?" the Mayor asked.

Ardam stared out to where the Nemek stood, stalled in their attack. Then he looked back to the Mayor. "If we weren't friends, I would not have stopped them. But I am an angry friend right now. And if I'm not alive come tomorrow, I doubt my successor will be as generous as I have been."

The Mayor frowned. Ardam turned and staggered toward the ridge. The children followed. He was going to have a slow, painful climb and he was not looking forward to what he had to face at the end of it.

The caucus stood in its circle with the Family surrounding them close behind. Moonlight was the only illumination. There would be no branflee sticks to separate them. Ardam would face his Family.

He told what happened in the town, emphasizing the bravery of the children. They were silent as he spoke, until he described the pale one shooting at the children. Then they howled and grunted outrage. Ardam was not proud that he had allowed the Mayor to protect him. If the pale one had not been deprived of a target he might not have attacked the children. He let them know this in a waffled sigh from his throat pouch.

When he finished the story, there were murmurs and chitters of consternation. He could hear some that felt he should not have stopped the Nemek and others that said he should have killed the pale one. There was no consensus. This was why the Paramount needed to be certain in their actions. The only thing Ardam felt certain of now was his next act.

He ran his fingers over the hilt of the stone knife in his hand. With all of his hearts prepared, he stepped in front of Kaliff.

"Though it was Raychit that issued the Ferrago challenge, it is your child who was injured because of my failure. I am truly sorry, my friend." Ardam held out the blade. "I offer you First Right. My life is yours."

Ardam did not expect Kaliff to be the one to take his life. The healer had said that her daughter would recover and Kaliff was not one for rancor. It was simply not her way.

Before Kaliff could respond, Raychit stepped over and took the knife. "It was my challenge. I claim the Right."

Huffs and ruffled exhalations emanated from the Family, nervous twitters too. This is what Ardam expected, but not that Raychit would be so eager. He turned and opened his four remaining arms. They locked eyes and all was still.

Raychit spoke loud enough for all to hear. "You promised our children would be safe. In that you failed. And you stopped our warriors before retribution was achieved. We need our Paramount to be vigorous in his convictions." She pressed the blade against Ardam's gut where a deep thrust could pierce his two smallest hearts. At least his death would be quick.

Then, with a deft flip, Raychit turned the knife and held it out to Ardam hilt first. "Your sacrifice has been great enough and your bravery undeniable. Your wisdom has kept us at peace. I am proud to follow you, Paramount Ardam."

The Family howled and whistled its support. Even those with doubts wanted someone strong to follow. Raychit's response made him strong in the Family's eyes.

Having been prepared for his own death, this turn of events stunned Ardam into silence. He accepted the knife with disbelief. Raychit curled her right ear with some mirth to his response. Her friendship and loyalty obviously outweighed her ambition.

He shifted his gaze to Kaliff and then to each member of the caucus and to his Family beyond. Their support made his third heart light. It seemed that in being Paramount he was not as alone as he thought.

Maybe there were no perfect solutions. He still had a lot to learn about leadership. It was evident now that learning could come from all directions. He wondered what Mayor Toumani Shaw had learned today.

Fatigue tugged at Ardam. From atop the ridge he watched the two-legs fill their meeting hall when the cool mist of morning still clung to the ground. With his fourth eye he noted that the Mayor now held a blaster, as did several others that stood with him. The pale one limped to the proceedings, his face bruised and swollen. Ardam looked down at the place where his arms had been and didn't feel sorry. The healer's balms only calmed the pain on the surface; they could not erase his deformity. A deeper pain lanced through his torso with the reminder.

He watched for hours. The two-legs had their own type of chaos, a chaos that even through the Barter he did not understand. More than once the hall filled with shouts and uproar so loud it seemed as if the structure would fall from the sheer volume of the riot. Cranthers certainly had their arguments but nowhere near the capacity to sustain them as the two-legs did.

The sun crested midday when the seedlings started their protracted assault. Black roads bulged slowly with pressure from underneath. The ones that appeared at seams broke through effectively, as Ardam had hoped, but the rest were fighting a tougher battle.

When the two-legs realized what was happening, they hurried out of the hall. The Mayor was quick to start dismantling tiles to ease pressure on the seedlings; his closest supporters did the same. The arguments grew louder and more physical with pushing and shoving. Divisions became obvious as the Mayor's people coalesced behind those with the blasters, still working at freeing the seedlings. Verbal assaults flew back and forth. The Mayor's group was outnumbered two to one. Toumani Shaw was not going to be able to help the seedlings on his own.

It was time to act.

Ardam whistled and the caucus arrived, lining up behind him. The command whistle and three huffs and the Nemek gathered around him. He gave very specific instructions as to how and when they were to apply their weapons. If he handled this correctly, they might avoid further bloodshed.

The Nemek followed Ardam and the caucus down the hillside. He set a brisk pace but kept it short of a charge. A pace his wounded self could maintain without revealing weakness.

At the edge of town, the Mayor's people hurriedly stacked the materials they removed, working against the constant press of the opposition. Ardam could hear some of the shouts. Words like control and brainwashed came through. The two-legs had lost faith in the Mayor; he was on the verge of losing his power.

Two blaster shots squealed into the air and the opposition group fell back. The Mayor's supporters took over the ground that was relinquished and continued their work. It was then that members of the opposition noticed Ardam and his army. Their movements stilled. A few moments passed before their attention caused the Mayor's group to turn and look. Ardam was close enough now to feel Toumani's concern. He had never seen so deep a crease over his friend's eyes. From the strength of his emotions it was an important expression to remember, but not a good one.

Ardam approached Mayor Toumani Shaw and extended his hand. The Mayor hesitated at the offer, looking over his shoulder at the opposition before turning his gaze back to Ardam.

"I still want peace, my friend," Ardam said. "But the seedlings must be born."

The Mayor nodded and shook his hand. He could feel doubt in the Mayor's heart. "Please do not hurt my people."

"A great deal will depend on their actions. Do you consider those who stand against you, your people?"

"Yes," the Mayor said with certainty. Ardam wondered why the Mayor held to such loyalty when his people didn't. Disagreement was one thing, rebellion another. Ardam wondered if he would ever fully understand the two-legs.

The Nemek stepped forward, their numbers spanning the length of the town. Ardam used his remaining hands to motion them forward. They approached the crowd with grumbles and weapons at ready. The two-legs moved back.

With a whistle, Ardam signaled the Nemek to begin. They used their spears and knives to hack at the seams that held the town together. The false black ground came apart quickly.

Riotous objection rose from the two-legs, even those that stood with the Mayor.

"Ardam, stop."

"Why?"

"You're damaging our town."

"We're saving the seedlings."

"Let us show you so that our town may be rebuilt elsewhere," the Mayor said.

Ardam paused and read yearning from his friend's heart. In a moment of empathy he let out a ceasing howl that stopped the Nemek. Without asking, the caucus fell in line beside him. The Mayor and one of his supporters knelt at the edge of the road closest to them and showed how the pieces fit together and how they could be disassembled without damage. With four chuffs, he told the caucus members to quickly spread out and instruct the Nemek fighters.

"And what of your people? The ones you give your protection even though they disobey. Will you ask anything of them?"

The Mayor stopped and stared at Ardam. His expression was strained, his heart conflicted.

"My people don't trust me," the Mayor said quietly enough that only Ardam could hear. Then his voice rose. "They seem to have forgotten who guided them through the harsh rains and our first days here."

Ardam looked to each side at the rows of Nemek warriors that stood ready to support him and the Mayor. "I believe you are in an excellent position to make demands. Are you their leader, or not?"

One of the two-legs from the opposition yelled from deep in the crowd. "Why should we follow him when you control his words? You're not in charge of us."

So the Mayor was in a precarious place. "Then let the words be mine," Ardam said.

Ardam turned to the two-legs. "I do not control Mayor Toumani Shaw. You must realize that it is his honor and friendship toward me that has kept you alive. I have shown you nothing but peace . . ."

"Peace?!" a voice bellowed from the back. The pale one limped forward through the crowd leaning heavily on a walking stick. "You undermine our town and then come to destroy it with your army. That is not what I call peace!"

All of Ardam's hearts clenched at the sight of the two-leg who maimed him. In the moment they started beating again, his anger rose. The pale one was not armed this time. Ardam strode toward him.

"I gave you the opportunity to leave, even offered to help, and you repaid me by attacking my children. Amongst Cranthers I have the right to retribution. Shall I take it out upon your child?"

The pale one's face contorted, showing teeth in a manner different from Toumani Shaw's smile. It did not take the Barter to recognize this as the threatening expression he originally thought it to be.

"You wouldn't dare," the pale one growled.

From behind, Ardam sensed movement. A glance told him weapons had been raised. He knew what the Nemek were thinking but he couldn't see which way the Mayor's blasters were pointing. Would the Mayor side with the pale one simply because they were of the same Family, or did he put greater value on his friendship with Ardam?

A friendship that was built on peace.

"You're right, I would not." Ardam said. "Children are far too important to harm." He stepped forward until he was directly in front of the pale one, a hand's breadth separating their torsos. "Don't you see that is the reason for everything I have done?" Ardam filled his throat pouch and released his anger in one brief, roaring bellow. The pale one's eyes went wide and he staggered back with no roar of his own.

"Ardam is right." The Mayor's voice boomed from a short distance behind. "We should have moved when we were first told that children were at stake. What hubris let us think that Cranther seedlings are less important than our own families?"

Ardam knew then that the blasters were not pointed at his back. The relief was small amidst the growing hostility but he was glad his friend had found his strength.

"Shaw, are you really going to let these aliens take our homes away?" the pale one said.

"A strange sentiment considering they have acted far more humanely than you." Mayor Shaw glared at the pale one and their eyes locked.

"We will do what's right. And I have a feeling that Ardam and his Family will still be willing to help us relocate. We will survive, and we will do it with a collectively clean conscience. Let's get to work people."

Slowly the crowd shifted. The Mayor's supporters restarted work immediately. The rebellious group grumbled amongst themselves with a few continuing arguments, but finally conceded and spread out to help.

Through all of this, the seedlings pushed upward. Structures buckled even as their young stalks bent. Some would be deformed from their struggle. Though now that their Paramount was deformed, maybe the Family would be more understanding.

The Mayor stepped alongside Ardam and helped him release the wall of a small structure. They looked at each other.

"Was I correct in telling my people that you would be willing to help?"

Ardam looked across the town at the mass of two-legs and Cranthers working together. The rebellious ones had not picked up the task of saving his seedlings eagerly and that had not set well within his hearts. But now they worked with as much vigor as the rest. Ardam supposed that after children and Family, the protection of one's home would be important to a stationary culture. Then his eyes fell on the pale one on the far end of town, refusing to help, and Ardam still felt anger toward him.

"We will help all except that one. I do not want him near my Family or the seedlings."

The Mayor's mouth opened but no sound came out. His eyes widened and Ardam felt this expression as surprise. Finally he spoke.

"What am I supposed to do with him? I can't cast him out, he doesn't know how to survive here alone. None of us do."

"The Nemek have a place for exiles and those requiring discipline. They will take him."

Surprise deepened to shock. Ardam could feel the beginning of bitterness from his friend. He reached over and loosened the next piece of wall.

"They'll kill him," the Mayor said.

"They might."

"Ardam," the Mayor paused, his eyes sliding down to where Ardam's arms used to be. "I know what he did was awful, but you've got to understand, he believed he was protecting us. The Captain is a warrior. He acted in the only way he knew how."

Ardam removed the wall and tossed it into the pile. A line of two-legs and Nemek passed the piece down moving it beyond the border of the breeding grounds into the hands of those that were organizing the pieces. He considered the Mayor's argument.

"If one of the Nemek attacked against orders, I would not hesitate to offer the warrior's life to compensate for the offense."

"Ardam, we've worked so hard at peace, don't let the Captain's blood taint that."

"My blood has already tainted that." Ardam stopped work and faced the Mayor. "My friend, he maimed me, and would have killed me. That is not something I can easily forget. What would you have me do with him?"

The Mayor stammered. "Let us imprison him. We'll build a cage and guard it and feed him. We'll keep him away from your Family."

"Until one of his supporters sets him free. No. He must go with the Nemek." Ardam ended with a huff though he didn't know if the Mayor understood the finality of the phrase.

"But what about his son? He has no mother. Will you send him to the Nemek, too?"

This argument always returned to the children. Ardam could not declare the importance of children and then punish an innocent child for his father's mistakes.

"The south has a more agreeable climate year-round. In two seasons I will lead you and your Family where you can choose a territory in which to re-establish your town." Ardam chuffed on the compromise he was about to make. "The pale one will stay with the Nemek until then. When we part ways, I will release him to you. That is my final word."

The pale one's punishment would not be as harsh as Ardam would like, but his friendship with the Mayor was more important than revenge. And while he would tell them not to kill him, the Nemek would make the pale one work hard and contribute to the community. Maybe he could learn how to get along in the greater Family.

"You are harder than you seem, Ardam. You preach peace but demand it with power."

Ardam could not read all of the emotion behind the statement, but he knew the Mayor was not entirely happy.

"I prefer peace, but I will always take care of my Family," Ardam said.

Nearby a seedling squirmed. Ardam stepped over and tried to reach toward it with arms he didn't have. In his mind he cringed and corrected the movement. The stalk rose thick and strong above Ardam's knee. Large broad leaves enfolded the little Cranther within. His toes and the top of his head peeked out of the encapsulation. It would be a few days before any of them were ready to be fully born.

Mayor Toumani Shaw stepped over and knelt next to the seedling. With the gentlest touch he peeled back the leaf to get a glimpse of the seedling's face. He slept peacefully, all four eyes closed; the seedling had no idea the chaos that surrounded its birth. The Mayor leaned down and inhaled deeply the scent of the child. He sighed, then nodded and Ardam felt the Mayor's mood soften.

"They are incredible, Ardam. You had every reason to fight for them."

Ardam looked at his Family and at the two-legs and thought about the bloodshed they had avoided.

"And even more reason not to."



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