Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium
    by Gray Rinehart

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium
Artwork by Jin Han

The door leading to the Tephrist's studio reminded Cerna of a clam's shell turned on its side, except it was grossly oversized, indigo-painted, and steel.

"Let's go back, Phil," Cerna said. "Why do you want to go in there? They're the ones making you sick."

Keller would hear none of it. His hand shook a little as he pushed against the damaged identi-plate. The plate and the imperfectly patched wall around it bore the imprint of the only human revolt to have reached this far into town.

As the door-halves swung apart on smooth tracks, Cerna resisted the urge to pull his friend away. The interlocking flutes were sharp edged and equipped with heavy-duty pins as long as his forearm that secured it in the off-hours.

The front room was square, and stark in its simplicity. It smelled pleasanter than Cerna expected, faintly of cinnamon. Not like death at all.

The ceiling was mostly open to the afternoon sky, typical of Peshari construction, but buttresses rose from the corners that were interconnected with steel bars. Shadows from the bars made patterns on the rough, pale, orange tiled floor and the sand colored brick walls. A few bricks were adorned with dead Peshari in miniature bas-relief.

A heavy-beamed archway roughly opposite the entrance led back into the work area. In between, a holo-pillar took up about a square meter in the center of the room, but it was turned off. Otherwise, the room was bare, with not even a plant to break up the uniform color. Cerna guessed that a place devoted to death might not be the best environment for living things.

Keller walked around the holo-pillar and tried to look through the archway, but Cerna stayed in the shade near the entrance. Air conditioning was too much to ask for where the Pehsari were concerned, with their constant demand for open skies, and Cerna was slick with sweat after their walk from camp. Keller, on the other hand, seemed to huddle further into his coat. He'd been a bit slow on their walk, and oddly reticent; he was usually spry, and full of Earth stories.

A young Peshar entered through the archway, and Cerna gave up speculating about Keller's illness.

Keller backed up to give the pseudo-lizard space. It was still sexless, though the telltale lumps on the sides of its throat indicated its siring glands would soon develop. Cerna guessed it was eight or nine Alluvial years old. Its forebody was upright, its forelimbs held together against its chest as if it were carrying something precious. It wore a robe only a shade darker than the sand-colored brick walls, and moved with surprising grace on its four legs, well balanced for a creature nearly five meters long from nose to tail.

"Not often humans here," it said. Its enunciation was distinct enough, though words formed by a Peshar's exhalations always seemed to vibrate excessively because of the way their nostril flaps moved. In this case, the tone was clear-- not only a statement of fact, but of disapproval.

Of course it would disapprove. In Cerna's experience, most Peshari found the humans useful, though barely tolerable.

Keller glanced at Cerna, as if asking permission to speak. Cerna shrugged.

Keller cleared his throat. His voice wheezed, about as raspy as the lizard's, but more liquid. "I would converse with the engraver . . . , uh, the Tephrist."

The fine scales around the Peshar's eyes prismed the light as its skin tightened; otherwise, the creature expressed no emotion. "Busy," it said.

"I propose a contract."

The Peshar tipped its head to the left. "Wish memory-stone?"

Keller hesitated. "A monument, yes."

Cerna stepped to Keller's side. "What are you talking about, Phil? Nobody's died."

Keller shushed him and told the Peshar again that he wanted to contract for a monument. The creature nodded, and Cerna allowed a small grin at how the human gesture had permeated Peshari society. The clerk or apprentice or whatever it was turned, miraculously keeping its tail from striking the holo-pillar, and went to the back room.

"What do you want? That thing to carve a statue for something?"

"In a manner of speaking," Keller said. "Why else would I come here?"

"If you'd have told me, I wouldn't have to guess. I just wanted to get out of camp for a while. Why come to them? Why not just fab whatever it is you want?"

Keller did not answer, and presently a larger Peshar wearing only a beige, rough-woven apron entered through the archway. This one was past siring and bearing -- it had grown into the species' fourth gender stage and walked with an air of authority Cerna had rarely seen in the Peshari.

Without preamble the Peshar said, "Uncommon." It sounded less derisive than the young Peshar had, almost curious.

It activated the holo-pillar and a representation of one of their species' memorial bricks floated above it. The Peshar manipulated the control until a larger brick appeared, about the size of a concrete block, which featured a human woman's face on one side in bas-relief. "Not since Jean-El."

Cerna and Keller both stepped closer to examine the hologram. He had never seen the original -- it was in one of the Peshari official buildings -- but the hologram matched what he remembered of Jean Lynn: soft features, slightly upturned nose and wide eyes in an oval face.

"First contact," Cerna said.

"First," the Peshar agreed. "High honor. Uncommon."

Cerna frowned. The human encampment was seventeen Alluvial years old now -- a bit under twenty-two Earth years -- and Commander Lynn had died shortly after the Peshari arrived . . . what, eleven local years ago? He had been a boy, only four Earth years old when the colony landed, and almost thirteen when the Peshari showed up.

This Peshar would have been a sire or an early dam at the time, so it was unlikely it was the one who had immortalized Lynn in the practice of their species -- her remains reduced down and incorporated into a permanent display in the form of a building block showing her sculpted face. Cerna couldn't recall any human other than Lynn who had been so treated. It wasn't uncommon, it was downright unique.

And given how the Peshari had subjugated the human colony since then, he was surprised this Peshar would even humor them by considering the idea.

The Peshar waved its forelimb through the hologram. "Human memory-stone? What human?"

Cerna looked at Keller, whose tear-filled eyes were still on the Lynn memorial. Cerna closed his own eyes for a second, remembering Keller holding Lynn's body after the Peshari emissary had killed her. They had been husband and wife.

"Sacrifice," that Peshar had said at the time, as if it had paid Commander Lynn the highest honor.

Cerna had understood none of it then, and was not sure he understood it even now. He had not seen the actual attack, but he recalled with crystal clarity the look of stunned anguish on Keller's face.

Cerna touched Keller's shoulder. His friend glanced at him, then wiped his eyes and turned full-face to the Peshar.

"Me," Keller said. "It's for me."

"I don't believe this," Cerna said as they stood outside the Tephrist's doors.

"It's true whether you believe it or not."

"So you say. Okay, I kept quiet in there --"

"Thank you."

"-- but what is wrong with you? Why do you need one of their memorials? Are you sicker than you let on?"

"Don't need it, not exactly," Keller said as they started back toward camp. "And it seems to me that everybody is sicker than they appear."

Keller was silent after that, hunched a bit with his hands deep in the pockets of his coat, and Cerna fought the urge to intrude on the silence. But they had seven kilometers to walk, so he could afford a little patience.

Cerna reflected on Keller's proposal to the Tephrist. The old man had uploaded a hologram of a simple ceramic slab to the Peshar's display, not a lizard-style building stone with his face on it; merely an oblong piece of stone with his name etched on it.

Cerna shivered a little at the memory of how the Peshar had laughed -- it was one of the few sounds they made with their mouths, jaws wide like a young bird stretching for food. The barking noise had set off little tremors along his spine.

"No artistry," the creature had said, assessing Keller's design. "Graceless."

Keller, unfazed, had been deferential to a fault as he tried to fix a price for the monument and negotiate around the Peshar's refusal. He had offered a portion and then his entire share of the mineral wealth the Peshari allowed the camp to retain.

The Peshar was unmoved, arguing that a monument such as Keller wanted was too big to fit most buildings' aesthetic, and besides, without an image his spirit would go mad, trapped and unable to see the world around it.

Then Keller revealed that he did not want his remains to be part of the actual monument.

"No relic?" the Peshar asked. It reared up on its hindmost legs and thundered, "Disrespect!"

The creature shook with barely concealed fury, clapping its great middle feet together as if they were hands and pointing steadfastly toward the door with its forelimbs.

Reflecting on its irritation, Cerna thought he understood. The Peshari loved their ancestors and fixed their remains in permanent displays, but built no other monuments. Their architecture was functional and spare; and they made no statuary, either realistic or abstract.

What had Keller thought he could get out of them?

When he could stand the silence no longer, Cerna said, "So you want a monument. Want me to fab one for you? Shouldn't take too long."

Keller walked to the edge of the path and rested one hand on a klick-marker. He scuffed the bottom of the marker with the toe of his boot, where a fading maroon stain testified to another failed human revolution. Cerna tried to remember who had died there --

"It really is lovely here, isn't it?" Keller said. He was looking up at the glacier-topped mountains in the distance, shining in the early-afternoon sun.

"Sure, I guess. It's all in what you get used to."

"At night, too, especially the stars. I love the stars from here. This place is special, you have to admit that."

"Is that why you want a monument? Something special for you, in a special place?"

Keller chuckled. "Something like that." He walked on.

Cerna looked around as they walked, admitting to himself -- he wouldn't give Keller the pleasure -- that the old man was right. The ground here in the valley, fed by streams coming off those glaciers, was so fertile that it had been an obvious place for the expedition to land. They had called the settlement "Alluvium," and it took very little time before they started calling the planet that.

Then the Peshari landed in the valley, and everything had changed.

Cerna got little else out of Keller as they approached camp and his friend refused an invitation to while away the evening watching an old movie.

"No, I'm back on the dig tomorrow," Keller said, "so I'll grab a sandwich in the cafeteria, maybe some soup, and head up Winding Road to watch the sunset from the little point. And see the stars."

Keller pulled on a pair of gloves as he was walking away, and Cerna returned to his speculations about his friend's sickness. Dr. Riverton usually took the day shift, but it was early enough that she should still be in the clinic.

He hesitated for a moment outside the door. He and Autumn had signed a two-year marriage contract once, and with a start he realized that they would have been coming up for renewal about now if she hadn't broken it off after three weeks. Not that he blamed her -- she was right, he was practically impossible to live with.

The anteroom was empty, so Cerna waved his proximity card at the detector and sat down to wait. The building was one of the earliest in the colony and showed its age, but it was at least fully enclosed and air conditioned.

Autumn had an eclectic collection of children's drawings tacked up around the room. The most recent were left over from New Year's -- the Earth holiday from last week-- rather than the Alluvial solstice that was still months away. It was hard to square the old Earth calendar with the local calendar in terms of celebrations. So far, the traditionalists had won out, though one day the colony would probably synch celebrations with local conditions.

He wondered how much and how quickly the holiday customs would change if the colony survived. Not that survival was at all certain -- the first generation of Alluvium-born colonists was not that big. Lots of people decided against raising children once the Peshari were in charge. Damn lizards.

The door opened, and Autumn laughed and held it for Dr. Schurz, the chief geologist. Autumn said, "That story never gets old. Now, you keep that dry and clean and don't come back to see me again!"

"Nothing would please me more. Hey, Toro, heard you went to P-town today."

Cerna stood up as the two ladies entered. "Yeah, me and Phil Keller."

"Did you go to The Stubby Tail? Came here for the cure?"

"Nothing like that, doc."

Dr. Schurz chuckled. "Don't call me 'doc' in here. Autumn might make me stitch myself up." She raised her left hand to show off her bandage.

"I like that idea," Autumn said. "Might make you more careful."

They said goodbyes all around, and when the geologist was gone, Autumn turned a wry little smile on Cerna. "Good to see you, Toro. What brings you around, really?"

"You're stitching people up these days? With thread?"

Autumn's grin turned briefly to a frown. She lowered her voice. "Yeah. At our last 'inspection,' the commandant confiscated our clinical nano-fabricator. Can't make any auto-sutures, or a lot of other things. I've gone primitive."

"That could be it."

"Could be what?"

"When Phil and I were walking to town --"

"You two walked?" She led him back into her office, sat on her desk, and gestured for Cerna to take the chair.

"We couldn't check out a cart, they're all embargoed. You can't get any kind of transport, really, unless it's for the mine. At least it's not the month of sauna yet."

"Still, that's quite a hike. Phil do okay?"

"Yeah, except that I'm sweating and he's bundled up in a coat the whole time. Acts like he's cold down to the marrow. I asked him what was wrong and he said he'd come up allergic to the lizards. You know anything about that?"

Autumn shook her head. "I can't tell you about a patient, Toro --"

"But you don't have a fabber, so you can't make him any medicine?"

"Toro, I can't --"

"Come on, Autumn --"

"No. As little as we stand on ceremony or protocol, we do still keep doctor-patient relations private. If you want to know more, ask him again. If he wants you to know, he'll tell you."

Cerna frowned at her. "I'm worried about him, that's all. He went to their death-artist, Autumn, and asked for a stone slab with his name on it."

"A what?"

"I'd never heard of the like. Not one of their cremation-sculptures, just a big slab of rock. He said he didn't want his ashes to be part of it, so the lizard turned him down. Said it was 'disrespectful.'"

Autumn pursed her lips. "Probably meant 'sacrilege.'"

"I don't know. I don't think they would've done it anyway."

"But he didn't tell you why he wanted this . . . monument."

"No, and I even offered to fab it for him. A big simple ceramic, wouldn't be hard to run. We can't make real little things, you know, not like your nano-fabber could. Too bad the lizards took it . . . but, hey, what happens when our nanos expire, if you can't make more for us?"

"We'll age faster," Autumn said, "and have to adapt faster to the chemical differences from Earth normal. There aren't that many, though, or this planet wouldn't be as good a match as it is."

"Okay, but we'd get sick, too, right? So that's what's up with Phil? He sure wasn't his usual feisty self, Autumn. Pretty shaky, even. Are his nanos not working?"

"It's not quite that simple, or straightforward -- but even if it was, I still can't tell you about a particular patient."

"Right. Then do a hypothetical for me. If someone's nanos weren't working, and couldn't be replaced, what might happen?"

Autumn's lips thinned, and she glanced away into a lower corner of the room. After a moment, she nodded.

"It would depend on the person. A person with a particular bacterial, enzymatic, and so forth combination might not feel any effect, while someone else might get very ill. Some people might get sensitized to certain compounds over time. They'd feel no effects for months or even years, then suddenly react to the smallest exposure as if they were highly allergic."

"Like Phil said about the lizards."

Autumn shrugged. "There's no way to tell what would happen to a particular person. Even with the diagnostic computer running different simulations, there are too many variables to test them all and come up with a confident prediction."

"Okay, but say someone's nanos weren't working, and they got very sick. What could you be doing for him?"

"Not much. The Peshari left us one chem analyzer and one synthesizer, which is good but still limited in what it can do . . . although I did manage to use the industrial fabricator to make a couple of additional parts for the synthesizer, to stabilize some of the processing --"

"Oooh, subversive --"

"We all do what we can," she said, "but sometimes that's not enough."

"So, if I were really sick, you might not be able to do much for me."

"If you had food poisoning, I could help you. Common bacterial or viral infection, or even most Terrestrial diseases, we could figure out a way to fix you. Local Alluvial disease, I'm not so sure. That's where the personal nanos have been the most help, and we've been pretty lucky. Worse than that . . . I might be able to keep you comfortable. Maybe."

Cerna sat back in the chair and looked up into Autumn's pretty face. She was closer to Keller's age than his own, easily in her sixties, but in great shape and looked decades younger -- the blessing of the nanos. "One last hypothetical. If I was thinking about planning a party for Phil, would it be a good idea to make it a Midsummer party instead of waiting for his birthday?"

Autumn looked away, as if scanning the room for the answer.

"You might want to make it a Valentine's party."

Work schedules kept Cerna from tracking down Phil to ask him what was really wrong with him. Two days after talking to Autumn, Cerna was in line in the cafeteria when Camp Chief Miscente walked up to him. "Tauran, can I see you for a few minutes?"

The tone of Miscente's voice and the fact that he used Cerna's real name were plain bad. Cerna nodded and started toward the paystation without selecting a dessert.

They sat in the farthest corner of the cafeteria. Cerna, unsure what was on the chief's mind, barely registered what he was eating except for a faint trace of garlic. He gave up after a couple of bites and watched Miscente paw through screens on his Portal.

"Tell me, Tauran," Miscente said, "why do we suddenly need a separate building for a chapel?"

Cerna sat back. "Huh? I doubt a dozen people ever do chapel stuff in the conference room at the same time. We don't need a building for that."

"Then why did you design one? And why did it suddenly show up on the schedule today, with construction to start next week? And why design it with a basement?"

"A what?"

"I've got an excavation request to dig out a basement under a new building -- you can see the grid coordinates here -- that's labeled 'Chapel One.' Not just 'chapel,' but apparently the first of several? And not to dig footers for walls, but an actual basement? Or near enough -- the project plan says 'storm cellar.'"

"None of our buildings have basements."

"You noticed that, did you? So you just decided that we needed a building with a basement?"

"I don't know how that happened."

Miscente's eyes narrowed, and he pushed his Portal across the table. "The plans have your name on them."

Cerna wiped his fingers on his pants before he picked up the slim computer. Since the Peshari's takeover, only a few humans were allowed such things. Cerna himself always did his designs on a CAD program on a shared terminal, so he fumbled a bit as he tried to call up the relevant references on Miscente's device. He looked at the design package -- a thorough fake, with supply lists, design review minutes, even two change proposals -- then paged through to the equipment requisitions. The excavation list --

"I think Phil Keller did this."

"What makes you say that?"

"Firstly, none of this is real, which is weird, and he's been acting weird. I mean, the date of this design review conflicts with last week's camp council meeting, and it says you were at the review. We both know that's not true. But look at this record here. Phil's a digger programmer, and somebody's reprogrammed this unit . . . and put my name on it, too. The backdated request was to dig footings, but the digger's been re-tasked."

"Let me guess," said Miscente.

Cerna nodded. "It's digging part of the basement right now."

Cerna and Chief Miscente walked to the site of the so-called chapel, atop a small rise away from most of the buildings, flanked by a copse of the Alluvian bamboo-ferns.

Machine sounds and the smell of freshly turned dirt guided them, though Cerna hesitated when he realized this was where the Peshari had massacred eleven colonists after the last uprising. Cerna visualized them where they had fallen; he had escaped being among them only because the Peshari had failed to capture the squad he had been in.

Miscente strode on, and Cerna hurried to catch up.

An automated backhoe had excavated three parallel pits, each about a meter wide, three long, and two deep. It seemed an odd start to a basement, and odder still that Miscente's executive-level authorization failed at first to override the digger's instructions. While they watched, it dug a fourth pit and then stopped. Neither Cerna nor Miscente could get it started again.

The camp chief was the kind of gentleman for whom annoyance was about the limit he displayed. "Fix this, Tauran," Miscente said, his jaw tight as he teetered on the cusp of going beyond annoyed.

Cerna caught the next ride to the mine overlook, and found Keller in the control room. "Got a second, Phil?"

"Maybe." Keller eyed the status screens, holding up gloved hands to various figures on the display. He typed some commands, and pointed to the clock readout on the screen. "Apparently I do."

"You do what?"

"Have a second." The corner of his eye crinkled as he smiled.

"Good, you old fart. Now what the hell is wrong with you?"

"Nothing a good dose of cod liver oil won't cure. Too bad we don't have any cod."

Cerna reached out and touched Keller's arm. "Phil, please."

Keller frowned a little, and nodded. He scratched the side of his face, and seemed to shiver. "Doc says I'm full of some odd kind of cancer, since my nanos quit. Came on real sudden. I probably shouldn't be working, but I haven't told Alexandra yet and she'll need to train someone to do my job. You want to do it?"

Cerna stood still for a second, then two, then more. Finally he asked, "You couldn't tell me this on our way to Lizardtown? This why you want a memorial stone?"

"Could be."

Keller held up his right hand as one of the Peshari remote-observation rigs entered the control room. The device traversed the length of the room, returned, and exited the way it had come. Keller put his hand back down, and Cerna took a deep breath.

"Does this have anything to do with putting in a chapel, and with digging out a basement today?"

"I think the plans call for a storm cellar."

"Amazing that you would know that, since somehow my name got put on the plans."

"Just call me Mr. Amazing."

Cerna sat down in a console chair. "I don't know much about cancer -- heard of it -- but it must not be all bad if it's made you grow a personality in the last few days."

Keller lowered his head, and looked at Cerna from under raised eyebrows. He smirked. "That's not the cancer, Toro. That's the good drugs your one-time wife cooked up for me."

"That would explain a lot. But not about the storm cellars."

Keller pushed back from the console, seemingly satisfied that his remote machines could work for a few minutes without his attention. "You've been watching your way through that list of the thousand best movies of all time, have you gotten to The Wizard of Oz yet?"

"I saw that one a long time ago. I haven't been watching them in order."

"So you saw a tornado, and you saw the little girl's family go down into a storm cellar to get away from it. The fact is that cyclonic storms like that are very destructive."

"But we don't get anything like that here."

"True enough. They're very rare here, Holley says. Not the right prevailing conditions. But that's not really the point. The point is the storm cellar. Have you ever noticed how terrified the Peshari are of enclosed spaces?"

"Well, all their buildings are open at the top." Cerna frowned. What difference did it make if the lizards were claustrophobic? It didn't seem to bother them. They built all their devices and furnishings to withstand the elements, and that had given them an advantage when they decided to attack. They would never build a flimsy computer; all of their gear, all their tools and toys, were rugged and tough. They were pretty rugged and tough themselves.

"And all their buildings are one story," Keller said. "We thought it was just an affectation, something they brought with them from home -- after all, they like temperate places like we do, so they would have to invest a lot in heavy-duty architecture if they ventured far away. But they got here in spacecraft, right? Those weren't open to the sky. Did you ever talk to Tsao about what he saw inside their ship during the surrender ceremony? He said their naval architecture seemed to be focused on one thing: overdesign in terms of crushing strength."

"Is this going somewhere?"

"You ever notice that they run utilities above ground as much as possible? They'll barely dig a ditch more than a meter deep, and then they'll either widen it into a gully or set up beefier trench boxes than we would ever use. And they hate the mine. I think if they had their way -- if we hadn't started it before they got here, or if this area were more seismically active -- they'd just shear the top off the mountain and pick through the rubble for what they need.

"You know they don't like us to go down into the mine ourselves, right? The best tech they allow us is like that remote, for monitoring the inside of the mine and directing the tunnelers and excavators. One time I told the lizard foreman that he should go in with me and take pictures of a truck with a broken axle, and I thought his head was going to explode."

"You can't take pictures with a broken axle, Phil, but never mind that. I need you to pull all this together for me."

"Good one. Okay: I'm going to die, probably very soon --"

"And again, thanks for telling me the other day. Autumn seemed surprised that you could make it into town on foot."

"What Autumn doesn't know keeps her off my back." Keller was silent for a few seconds; when he spoke again, Cerna strained to hear him. "I want to buck the system, Toro. I don't want to be cremated like everybody else, and especially not like the lizards. I want to be buried. And by now you should have your choice of four graves to put me in."

"Very clever. But why? You won't know the difference."

"Maybe not, but I think the Peshari will."

Cerna resisted the urge to shake his head. "You're sick, the Peshari are weird and won't let Autumn fix you, we don't have tornadoes, but if we bury you the Peshari will be able to tell?"

Keller pursed his lips, looked up, and tipped his head side-to-side a few times. "That would be interesting, but no, I don't think they'd notice without being told. So someone will have to tell them."

"Are they going to care?"

"I certainly hope so. In fact, I'm counting on it. But here, process this: Do you think the Peshari consider humans to be sapient, or just sentient?"

"I thought they were the same thing."

"No, sentience is just being aware, conscious of the sensory world. Sapience is being intelligent, as in homo sapiens. We obviously think of ourselves that way, but do the Peshari? If Ettinger is right, and she's learned more about them than anyone else, they do. They think of us as equals, or nearly equals --"

"Which of course is why they attacked us --"

"That's right! You were trying to make a joke, but it's not a joke. When they got here and found our little settlement right where they wanted to live, they didn't attack right away. They didn't know what to make of us. Likewise, us for them. They were obviously an advanced civilization as far as we were concerned, so we were happy to make peace with them, but human space flight alone didn't impress them. Do you remember, about a week after they first landed, what happened?"

Cerna thought back. "I remember Isaac Burriss got killed about that time. He fell in the river, hit his head on a rock."

"Yes, and Jean invited the aliens to come out to Eyrie Ridge for the memorial service. Almost everybody came, which seemed to impress the Peshari. And even though we hadn't learned much of each other's language, they took note when Isaac's brother released his ashes into the wind. At that point, we became near-sapient in their eyes."


"Right. Not quite to their level, for three reasons. One, we didn't make Issac's remains into a permanent display, like they do. Two, we live in enclosed buildings, which they would never do. And three, they saw some of us entering the mine, something else they would never do. To them, that made us not quite 'wise.'"

"Where do you come up with these things?"

"I read. Suzanne Ettinger's reports are all in the public database. And I think. You should try it some time."


"'If you prick us, do we not bleed?'"

Cerna rubbed his face. "So the Peshari decided we were people and not animals."

"Yes, because we treated our dead with at least some respect, and in a way similar to them. If we had built a funeral pyre, like the Greeks and others used to, I think that would have satisfied them. Hell, that might have impressed them.

"But regardless, it was good for us. If they saw us as animals, they would treat us much worse. As people, or near-people, they decided that they should take care of us. I don't think they expected us to resist so strongly when they first attacked . . ." He paused, and looked away.

"They thought that taking the Commander would be enough, didn't they? Like gladiators, or a champion or something?"

Keller wiped his eyes and nodded. "I think so. They were surprised that we didn't give in immediately, and that it would take so long to get us to surrender.

"To them, they've given us very lenient terms. Technology enough to live pretty well, though they keep ratcheting back what they let us have. A functioning economy and a good bit of self-determination, even pretty broad freedom of movement though they took away all the long-range transport and comms. To us, of course -- or at least to some of us -- the terms are just heinous. The gates may be open, but a friendly prison is still a prison."

Cerna watched as Keller responded to a minor alarm on his console. Some pieces of the puzzle were still missing, but maybe he was starting to see the shape of it.

"So, you think getting buried instead of cremated will be, what, some kind of insult to the lizards?"

"I hope it's more than that. You've only known cremation or reclamation your whole life, and not much of that so long as everyone's nanos were working. Back on Earth we used to have graveyards full of buried people. They made for interesting history, and fun stories, too -- you've probably seen some of them in your movies. I think that's why the colony never did much with Halloween. It's hard to get scared when there's no place for the ghouls and zombies to come from.

"Anyway, Suzanne got access to some of the Peshari history and then to some of their myths. A lot of it is strange and entertaining, tall tales and epic heroes and the like, but one in particular appears over and over. Like the flood story: lots of Earth cultures have an Utnapishtim or a Noah who saves a portion of civilization from a catastrophic flood. It's a cultural memory. Turns out the Peshari have several different versions of a story that is just as common -- except it's a common terror.

"In this one population of Peshari, Suzanne's found five or six different versions of the same basic story: a village or town gets buried under a landslide or an avalanche or something. In one version, it's a volcanic eruption like Pompeii. It's entirely likely the event actually happened in their early history, but for some reason -- maybe because their arms are fairly weak so they physically could only dig well with their back feet, who knows? -- it has become an engrained truth that you could sum up by saying, 'It is wrong to bury any person.'

"No, not just 'wrong' in the basic sense -- reprehensible, unforgivable. To them it's a curse that extends way beyond the person involved. They have recent histories of entire villages being abandoned after an earthquake collapsed a house on top of a couple of them. It wasn't 'cursed is anyone who is buried in the ground,' but 'cursed is the ground in which anyone is buried,' and even 'cursed is the structure that would fall and bury someone.'"

Cerna swiveled toward the window, toward the mine entrance. One of the trucks, operating by program without human or alien aboard, drove out of the mine and headed toward processing. "If that's true, they're not going to let you do it, you know."

Keller chuckled. "That's a funny way of putting it."


Keller tilted his head. "Because I'll be dead. I won't exactly be 'doing' anything."

Cerna rolled his shoulders, and his voice deepened in frustration. "Okay, they're not going to do it for you, the way you want."

"That's why I need you to do it for me," Keller said.

The next day, Cerna put in the order to fabricate a memorial. Several times he started toward the clinic to talk to Autumn, but Keller had asked him not to. And then, two days later, Keller was dead.

Cerna got the call from Autumn, and rushed over to her office. She handed him a folded-and-glued paper with his name on it in Keller's tall, thin lettering. "It was in his pocket," she said -- and showed him into the exam room where old Phil lay on a gurney, a light green sheet pulled up over his chest. The effect gave his pale skin a sickly tone.

Cerna took Keller's hand. "He's really cold now," he said, his voice tight in his throat. Autumn touched Cerna's shoulder; he leaned his head over and a tear slid down his cheek. He kissed it off her hand.

"What do you have to do next?" Cerna asked.

Autumn sighed. "I need to scan him to see how far his disease had progressed. I'll probably do at least a partial autopsy, to collect some of the tumors and analyze them. Sorry, Toro."

"No, that's fine. I'm sure he would want you to learn more about what he had, so you can help anyone else . . ." He swallowed. "How long will that take?"

"As long as no one breaks a leg or anything, I should be done by nightfall."

"Okay if I come back then? I'd like to sit with him."

"Of course."

Cerna wandered at first, thinking, trying to avoid the note that Keller had left him. No doubt Miscente had alerted the Peshari that someone in the camp had died; would the word get to the death-artist, and would he care? The slab Cerna had ordered fabricated with Keller's name on it would be done that afternoon. But would they let him erect it?

Cerna realized that he was on Winding Road, and walked to where Keller had gone to watch the sunset -- and the stars -- a handful of days before. He sat down and carefully opened Keller's note.

My young friend,

I am much comforted that you agreed to memorialize me rather than having the Tephrist do it. Thank you for indulging my fantasy that my self-determination might survive my demise. Not that any of our self-determination is complete under the P'Shari's benign rule, but they cannot rule our wishes and our dreams.

We're struggling against entropy here, and until we are out from under the lizards' claws I fear entropy will win sooner than it should. This is a blessed land, and it's no surprise that we both want it. We had title to it, if only because we got here first, but we have no higher court to which we can appeal. We can only claim what we can, when we can.

If anyone asks why I wish to be buried, tell them whatever you like. Tell them I want to claim a man-sized plot of land in perpetuity, or to curse the ground upon which the P'Shari walk, or that I believe in the resurrection of the body, or that I'm a crazy old man. I promise not to take issue with whatever story you tell.

I used to hope that you or your children or your children's children would be able to visit Earth one day, but not anymore. Everything is local, and only what is local really matters. I hope that you will come to love this new Earth as much as I have. And that you will enjoy it, freely and in freedom.

If I may be allowed another wish, a harder wish, I would wish that you could get Jean's cinder block back from the lizards, and bury it next to me. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, Earth to Alluvium.

Thank you again, for showing me greater friendship and forbearance than anyone. I wish only good things for you,

B.P. Keller

Cerna smiled at the post-script: "Read more." But he laughed out loud at what Keller had written below that: the unlock codes for his personal e-library, and for the backhoe he had co-opted.

The usual antiseptic smell of the clinic was undercut with something else, a sour-sick odor Cerna could not identify. Maybe he didn't want to know what it was.

Autumn was gone, but Nurse Callura let Cerna in. "You going to be okay, Toro? I'd like to take my supper break now."

He assured her he would be fine, and made his way to the exam room. He was grateful that Autumn had not just covered Keller's body but wrapped it up, head to toe.

Cerna sat on the little rolling aluminum stool, and slid up next to the table.

"What are we going to do, old man?"

He waited, first with his hand on the table, then on the wrapping around Keller's shoulder. Around them the building settled, with groans and pops. He wondered if Peshari buildings made noises like that, and if they spooked the lizards into thinking that they might collapse on them.

He glanced around at the simple instruments in the room, and thought about Autumn's medicinal chemistry lab -- could she mix up more than medicines in there? If he could plant explosives at the base of the walls of a couple of Peshari homes, and bring them down on top of the residents, would the others take revenge? Would they leave? Over the years, none of the camp's strikes, revolts, or attacks had broken the Peshari hold over the human population. It couldn't be so simple . . . could it?

Cerna smiled. "I like that idea, old man, thanks. And just for that, I'm going to give you your wish."

Miscente showed up at Cerna's dormitory early the next afternoon.

"What the hell did you do, Tauran?"

Cerna had slept little but well. Anticipating a visit by the camp chief, he had showered after he finished laying Keller to rest and using the backhoe to cover him and set the heavy slab in place. He began dressing in clean clothes, and smiled. "I granted a friend his dying wish."

Miscente stepped closer, and said in a low voice, "I've got the Peshari commandant outside, with their death-artist, wanting Keller's remains."

"Really? The Tephrist is here?"

"Yes, whatever they call it."

"That's . . . unexpected."

"Look, the doc says she left Keller's body in the clinic, but when she got in this morning it was gone. Chantal said she let you in before she went to eat, but since the lights were off when she got back, she didn't bother to check."

"Sounds like a mystery."

"Don't start. What did you do?"

Cerna walked to the door and opened it for Miscente. "I did what he wanted. I buried him."

Miscente stopped before reaching the door, his mouth half open. Cerna shrugged and walked out to the two Peshari. Both were fourth-stagers, the commandant clad in a robe so deep blue it was almost black, with artful saffron swirls around the collar and edges, and the Tephrist in a more workmanlike robe of rough, brown cloth.

"So, gentle-lizards, what can I do for you today?"

Behind Cerna, Miscente gasped at the insult, but the Peshari paid it no heed.

The Tephrist stepped forward. "Jean-El's mate. Would honor with memory-stone. Remains?"

"Too late," Cerna said. "The memorial's in place."

The Tephrist and the commandant exchanged quick words and gestures in their own language. Cerna caught a minor fraction of what they said and signaled, largely declarations of impossibility.

"Come on, I'll show you." He started toward the fake chapel, not caring much whether they followed or not.

Three of the four trenches in the "basement" were still open to the sky; the second was covered with a thick ceramic block made to look like granite, with Keller's name on it in large block letters. Neither Peshari spoke, and Miscente stepped up to Cerna and said, sotto voce, "You may want to throw yourself in one of those holes if they object to this."

"I hadn't thought of that," Cerna said. "Good idea. But first, you'll want to check your Portal. There's been another change order on this project."

"Don't be a smartass, just tell me."

"I re-designated this area. It's now a graveyard, not a chapel."

Before Miscente could respond, the commandant said, "Our Tephrist does not command your language as I do. Is this artless block the remains of Jean-El's mate?"

"No," Cerna said. "It's just a monument. A marker. That's all he wanted, a simple stone to mark his resting place."

"That idiom escapes me. Resting place? He sleeps?"

"His body is two meters under that slab. Like this," said Cerna, and jumped down into the third trench where he lay on the bottom, heedless of his clean clothes.

The keening of the Peshari was far worse than even their laughter.

"Why?" the Peshari commandant demanded after Miscente had hauled Cerna back out of the grave. The Peshari had retreated a full fifty meters away, and seemed clearly uncomfortable to be even that close. "Why such . . . inhumane treatment?"

Cerna grinned at the Peshar's word choice. He shook a bit of dirt from his hair, and the lizards each skittered back three more steps.

"Phil told me he wanted to claim a plot of land all his own. And he believed in the resurrection of the body. I took that to mean that he wanted his body to inhabit his plot of land."

The two Peshari's hands moved so fast Cerna could not see whether they were actually signing or just waving their forelimbs with no regard to meaning. Their voices were strident, but also too fast to follow. After a moment the commandant said, almost in a whisper, "So, he is to continue, after corporeal demise?"

"Sounds right. No telling when."

"Do many of your people intend thus?"

Cerna looked at Miscente, but the camp chief clearly had no answer.

"Not many," Cerna said, "but enough."

Two days later, the Peshari were still debating among themselves how to address the abomination in the human camp. According to Miscente, a very small minority wanted to pretend it never happened, a vocal faction led by the Tephrist wanted to abandon the colony, and others wanted to raze the human compound and exterminate the inhabitants.

Cerna had only begun reading about strategy in Keller's old e-library, and researching explosives they might synthesize. He had not yet tried to re-engage his old squad; his mind was too full of direct and indirect approaches, ideas that he had to correlate and digest. But that day would come. War would come. Only now they would have a new tactic, if he could produce the weapons to exploit it.

He shut off the grinder and blew dust from his handiwork.

"I thought I might find you here," Autumn said. She stood in the fading afternoon on the other side of the fence Miscente had made Cerna put up around the graveyard. Cerna smirked that the fence line matched Keller's original outline for the would-be "chapel." He waved her in, and stood as she approached.

"Yeah, what do you think?"

The lettering was a bit uneven, Cerna thought, but straight and sure enough for not being programmed into a machine. Autumn read the line in a clear, strong voice.

"Glad did he live and gladly died, and laid him down with a will." She reached out and held Cerna's hand. "So you knew?"

"I adapted it from a poem Phil had marked as a favorite," Cerna said. "I'll do the whole thing eventually, in smaller type . . . Wait, knew what?"

Autumn shook her head. "He was in so much pain, Toro, more than he ever showed. At the end, I gave him what I could, what I had, but I let him decide how much to take. I let him decide . . . when to let go."

Cerna's stomach clenched as if he had been shot in the gut; he might have fallen to his knees if not for Autumn's hand in his.

"And laid him down with a will," he said.

Alluvium rotated, and its sun set behind the far mountains. Cerna put his arm around Autumn, and they stood together for a long time as the wide sky filled with stars.

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