Sometimes the desert yawns and awakes, strong wings fanning across the land, spreading dust so fiercely the sky seems to glow red-orange, the outlines of the world turned ghostly, distant mountains vanishing from the horizon.
Kavita Raj lies on the floor of the infirmary. The manual says we should keep injured workers there. But Kavita is not injured. She’s been dead for a whole day and none of us know what to do except wait.
The comm device was damaged during the explosion and the backup has never worked. There’s nothing to do but wait because we are gan and that is what we do. Aeli says someone from Extended Frontiers will come and check on us.
Roger told me Extended Frontiers let those miners in Mikhailovic die. They didn’t rescue them when they could have. Kavita said Roger didn’t know much about anything and Kavita must have been right because Roger left last year when they did the personnel cut. I hope she was right.
I’m scared. I’m really scared, but when Lete comes in I straighten up and look towards the desert, which is gleaming quietly under the sun. It is not always so. Sometimes the desert yawns and awakes, strong wings fanning across the land, spreading dust so fiercely the sky seems to glow red-orange, the outlines of the world turned ghostly, distant mountains vanishing from the horizon.
illustration by Mike Linkovich
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” I say.
Lete stands next to me and squints, watching the sky and the desert. It’s not a good sky. The storm season is approaching. We can both feel the desert vibrating, getting ready to swallow us whole. What will we do without the shields? With half the facility in tatters and our supplies lost?
There are six young ones that should be undergoing their final ecdysis this winter. Lete is one of them. I’m afraid of what might happen if the people from Extended Frontiers don’t show up before that. The little ones need dark and quiet warmth to sleep through the winter and emerge in the spring. They will not be able to undergo the ecdysis in a building that has been torn in half, full of shattered glass and walls that will rip like china paper under the pressure of a strong sandstorm.
The older ones, we might make it. But the younger ones will never live through it.
Lete would not live through it.
“Aeli says you should come and eat with us,” Lete tells me.
“I’ll go. Soon.”
The word Kavita used to describe us is eusocial. I hate the other word they use.
I wish the gan weren’t eusocial because maybe then we wouldn’t have to sit and wait, staring at the sky. But that’s the way it is and Lete and I see the clouds pass. We pray for a gleaming transport to swoosh by.
Eventually Lete grows tired and goes with the others. I am not hungry. I stay with Kavita.
I don’t know that much about human customs, but I think we ought to bury Kavita and say a prayer for her, even if it isn’t the correct prayer. It’s presumptuous of me to even consider this, but Kavita was good to us. She wasn’t like Roger and some of the others. She treated the gan right, never called us “hiveminders,” and she didn’t overwork or cheat us. There’s lots of people who will cheat you blind. You sign for a three-year assignment at one rate, then you get there and it is half pay.
Kavita even taught me how to play Mahjong and read some Spek. I was really bad at the Spek because the gan do not have a written language, although we have three different dialects and we know lots of stories and songs in each of them. Kavita didn’t mind that I was slow and could not even recognize a dozen letter forms. She had patience and she taught both me and Lete, though if I am honest Lete is much better than me at it and she can read and write, while I can only string a few words together.
Kavita didn’t have to teach us and she did it. I’ll never forget that.
Roger and the others did very little for us. They’d just order us around and make jokes that weren’t very funny, like when Roger called us “brainwashed bugs,” which is silly because we are not bugs. Comparing us to a termite or an ant is a gross simplification. We are not insects. We are not mammals either. We are gan. Kavita tried to explain it to Roger, talked about how we had evolved into a “highly stratified eusocial” species.
Roger snickered and he made some more jokes.
I’m glad they cut personnel down and it was only Kavita left with us.
But I also feel bad and I think maybe if Roger and the others were around they could have saved Kavita when the blast happened, or they could go get help.
At least they would bury her body, I’m sure.
I think we’re better than Roger and his friends, so I tell Aeli we ought to dig a hole and bury the body.
“Extended Frontiers wouldn’t like that,” she says. “We wait for the supervisors to arrive. It is in the manual.”
This, of course, is the way of the gan and I know it is silly of me to ask for a burial because we are of the worker caste and we cannot make such decisions, especially when the Extended Frontiers book clearly explains our specific obligations: Follow the supervisor’s lead and comply with company directives. There is no autonomous decision-making. We gan understand this.
I should not be bothered by Aeli’s words.
Nevertheless, I stay awake all night thinking about Kavita’s corpse lying in the darkness of the infirmary room.
In the morning we all eat and sit in the main hall. Normally we would be heading out, mining uru under Kavita’s watchful eye. Without Kavita, we will not venture out. We sit in the main hall, as we’ve been instructed, waiting for the transports to arrive with the people from Extended Frontiers.
There is a watch post to the north and they should be able to reach us quickly. That is, if they know something has gone wrong. The alarm should have been triggered after one of the generators exploded. But many things are old and battered around the compound. Abundant naked wires and banged up metal plates collide in every room.
The place used to be nicer and there used to be more workers here, but not in my time. There are photos hanging in the main hall showing 150, maybe 160 people lined up together, grinning and posing. Kavita is there, standing to the left and looking very young.
She told me she joined the mine when she was nineteen, when uru was worth more money and workers still had dreams of striking it rich with a hefty commission. Those days are long gone. Uru still fetches a price, but there’s only twenty of us gan mining for it, panning the dirt and cracking the rocks. Gan are cheaper than humans and more docile. Extended Frontiers often assigns us to projects like this: distant planets, harsh environments and few luxuries. We gan accept it as we’ve grown to accept many other things.
I look at Kavita’s face in the picture and think about the stories she told me about the old mine, how one worker swallowed an uru crystal one time, hoping to smuggle it out and was caught; the supervisors gave him an awful beating. She told me about the good times when they organized dances. She also told me about the time she had to walk through the desert, all alone.
Kavita had gone to town. She’d taken one of the heavily armoured patrol cars. Back then there was still patrolling and a town, not just a tattered watch post. There were also many marauders in the area. You had to go around, guns ready, and kill them. That’s not the case today. Extended Frontiers culled them a decade ago and the ones that survived stay in the deep desert, away from Extended Frontiers’ sight. They remember full well the kind of penalties they may suffer if they attempt to attack its property.
Some officials cut the hands of a whole town of marauders; burned the wreckers who plundered a crash site. They did awful things. Kavita didn’t tell me this part. Roger told the other humans about that stuff when they were eating in the hall. I shouldn’t have listened, but he was speaking very loudly.
Kavita never talked much about the patrols and the marauders, how they did things back then. I’m not sure if she was patrolling that day when she went alone to town and on her way back an unexpected storm blew her vehicle over. Kavita got out, but the vehicle was damaged. She decided to walk back to the town, risking dying of thirst and hunger.
It was a long walk and she thought she might not make it. But she kept on going.
“One step at a time,” she explained to me. “All it takes is one step at a time.”
It took many steps but she survived, one long scar on her arm the only reminder of the trip.
I wonder how long it might take for us to walk to the watch post. We are more resistant, faster and stronger than humans. We could make the trip without suffering great harm. The cold nights might be problematic. We are not creatures of the cold. Our home planet is warm, great big trees hugging the sun and fast rivers cutting the earth.
I do not want to think about our homeworld because then I will think about mother and the look on her face when we were leaving; when she told me to take care of Lete.
How can I protect Lete now that we are alone? How can I keep her safe if the humans have forgotten us and do not send help?
I miss working. I miss the uru. There’s an art to smashing the large white rocks. You can’t use big machinery to find the uru. Machines will break it, squash it. So you have to haul it up in baskets, grab a hammer and crack the rocks where it is embedded so the uru is not ruined. You tap the rocks at the right angle and they split. Then you have to chip away and strain the larger chunks, until you are left with little pieces of uru.
I am good at swinging my hammer and Lete is good at finding the pieces of uru among the useless fragments of rock and dust. She’s got a sharp eye and it is always a joy to see her toss her uru into the padlocked boxes.
Without our work routine we grow restless and glum. My hands ache for the hammer; Lete wants to fish for gems.
She sits and taps the metal table with a fork, glancing away from me. I look in the same direction she is looking, towards the other young ones.
“Kiv is not eating. She threw up this morning.”
“Could be she’s sick,” I say carefully.
“Could be,” Lete says, but I know she’s thinking it might be Kiv’s time to undergo the final metamorphosis.
I can hear the wind blowing outside, soft now, but it will grow stronger tonight. The storms are nearing. Our time is running out. I am restless, which is not like me.
“Do not worry,” I say and touch her shoulder.
“What will we do?” she asks.
“We’ll wait for the transport.”
“Nai, what if the transport does not come?”
“It will come,” I say.
But I am not certain. I fear I may have lied and it saddens me.
Kavita tried to stop the fire from spreading by manually activating the fire suppressants that had failed to go online and Aeli says she’ll get a medal for it when the transport arrives. She says this to us as the sun starts to sink, trying to convince us that there will be a transport, there will be a rescue effort. However, the eyes of the gan around me are dark and dull, resignation seeping in.
I do not think anyone believes Aeli. The humans would have already come, if they were coming.
I gather all my courage. I ball it tight and feel it in the pit of my stomach. Then I go towards Aeli.
“We should make the journey on foot to the rescue post,” I say. “It’s the only solution.”
The only working vehicle was configured to respond to Kavita’s voice command and she is dead. Besides, it has not been refuelled in three years. There was no need to maintain an expensive fleet of cars now that nobody was patrolling. There was no need to go anywhere. We got our supplies every three months, when the collectors came.
“We are not supposed to leave the compound. It is dangerous.”
“It is a four day walk,” I say. I have carefully calculated it. “We could do it.”
“We would die,” Aeli counters.
“We’ll die anyway.”
“We cannot go.”
“You are our elder,” I say. “You are valki.”
She’s right. Aeli is only one rung above us, one tiny fraction above us labourers. She is not a human supervisor or a kam. She cannot make decisions of her own. Like us, all she can do is follow the directives.
It is, like Kavita said, the way we have evolved.
Lete sleeps. Everyone is asleep behind their own partition. I can hear their steady breathing. I am the only one who remains awake, thinking.
Kavita is in the infirmary, rotting away. All alone in the dark while we sleep and we wait.
I turn around and stare at my partition. The wind has picked up tonight. It could be weeks until a crew comes, if they choose to come. We could run out of food. The little ones could perish during their ecdysis.
The desert is no place for a gemmer.
Inside here there is only death. Like so many other things, death should be easy to accept for a gan. Yet I find myself thinking very hard, of Kavita with her confident smile, and the desert with its storms that blot the sky, and the ships that shall not arrive. We shall be like the people of the Mikhailovic, nothing more than a story for humans to tell in the dining halls.
I miss our mother tonight. I miss our world.
Lete finds me outside. She doesn’t look surprised. She slowly circles the grave I’ve dug and looks up at me.
“I’m heading off to the outpost to get help,” I say.
There’s supplies piled behind me. Food, water, a thermal bag and thermal clothing for the nights.
“The outpost is four days away,” I tell her.
I nod and hand her one of the bags. She slowly puts it on her back. I give her a pouch and she ties it around her waist. I’ve got the heavier gear, can carry six times my own weight. Lete glances at the sky and frowns. It looks clear, a brilliant blue. No reddish-orange clouds heading our way to shroud the compound.
“We don’t have a directive.”
“I know,” I say.
“We can’t go, can we?”
The gan wait. The gan follow. The gan do not do. It is the way we have evolved.
I stand outside, my feet glued to the ground. It’s one thing to bury Kavita. It’s another thing to set out across the desert. Something deep and old holds me back, ties chains around my ankles so that I can not move.
“We can’t,” she tells me.
The storms are coming. The ecdysis will be upon the little ones soon. Death will smother us gan; the desert will swallow us and blanket everything in its path.
I cannot allow it.
“We can’t,” she repeats, and she is shaking, eyes wide and terrified.
It is against ourselves, against our caste and our mind, to make autonomous decisions. I feel my own limbs trembling and my mouth tastes of bile.
We are gan.
“We will,” I tell her. “Come.”
Lete shakes her head. She does not believe it. I do not believe it myself. I squeeze my eyes shut so I will not see and I press forward. One step. Another. I open my eyes and keep going. I hear Lete following me, slowly imitating me. I do not dare look back at her for fear I will stop.
I shift the pack on my shoulders. A slight breeze blows sand in my direction and I brush it away from my face.
We walk to the outpost.