The Dawn of Hope
Author: Gingerspark (formerly known as niennaainur)
Pairing: original non-canon characters
Rating: PG-13 –
Summary: In the beginning there was chaos, and from chaos emerged dreams and hope…
Warnings: none, this is a bit tame… and possibly mildly introspectively emo.
Disclaimer: All the pretty Wraeththu, as well as the world they live in, were created by, and belong to, Storm Constantine, who (bless her!) is gracious enough to allow fans like me to take them out and play with them occasionally. No copyright infringement is intended.
Beta read by: bigunen & louiscypher2000
Human death came in quick flashes from the muzzle of the gun. The echoes continued to reverberate around the old garage for longer than it took for the bodies to fall; some gambles don’t pay off, we should have known we were pushing our luck. We’d gambled and we’d lost.
Civilization had crumbled to the point of non-existence; civilization wasn’t very civil anymore. The city was a burned out war zone; a shell. Those humans with means or influence had fled to safe fortress-like gated communities and we, the lost and disenfranchised, found safety of sorts in gangs that fought for survival against other gangs of humans; and we all fought ‘Them’. We all feared ‘Them’ – they called themselves ‘Wraeththu’, but we had other names for them. They were strange terrifying beings: faster, stronger, wild and unpredictable, and far more deadly. Sometimes they made their presence known, winning strategically impressive assaults against human strongholds and sometimes they appeared out of nowhere, silently dispatching their victims and then disappearing without a trace.
We’d lost this one; we’d fallen into a trap set by the group of these strange creatures that our gang had been harrying for a few months.
More shots rang out; one by one more bodies fell. I felt nothing other than a hopeless sense of resignation. These were not my friends, these were my fellow gang members; humans thrown together as there was strength in numbers. In this part of the city it is almost certain death on your own so membership is a gang was essential and I feared them as much as we all feared these strange creatures. I was last and being held firmly by two of them. I hadn’t fought; it seemed pointless.
Their leader approached me, sneering. “Been watching? If you got anything to say – Better say it now.”
“Goodbye cruel world?” The insolence of my tone and words certainly didn’t match what I was feeling.
He threw his head back and laughed. “You’re a pretty thing. You’d make a good little plaything.”
He grabbed my hair and kissed me roughly. I fought then. I know what happens when they “play”; I’d rather be shot.
There were a lot of them, kicking and punching, one of me – I lost, fast; balled in a fetal position, I prayed for a quick end.
The leader rolled me onto my back and placed his knee on my chest as he drew a knife from his belt. The knife was big, silver, and cruelly serrated. He drew the blade across the heel of his palm; blood spurted up immediately and he licked the wound.
“Sharp!” He laughed spitefully. “This’ll do some damage.”
I swallowed hard and closed my eyes, but it didn’t do any good, I could still see the blade.
I held my breath and when I felt him shift his weight a bit I bucked hard and rolled.
My bid for freedom didn’t get me far; I ended up face down on the garage floor; my face pushed into the oily floor reeking of old car grease and gasoline. They had my arm twisted so far behind my back that I held my breath afraid that even the slightest movement would snap it. I could feel their leader’s weight on me, pinning me to the floor.
“I like a fighter.” He growled, his face near enough my ear that I could feel the heat of his breath.
The knife sliced into my left shoulder. The leader grabbed the wound roughly, pressing hard into my shoulder, twisting the wound until I yelled.
He lowered his face again, close enough that his lips were touching my ear. “Now you are mine.”
“They know we’re here!! Let’s go! Fast! Move out!! Go! Go! Go!!!”
The creatures reacted to the alarm immediately. I was dragged to my feet and shoved at a tall creature in a leather jacket.
“Don’t lose him.”
They moved quickly and silently. I was dragged, shoved, and hustled along with them; out into the night street.
There were some yells and a popping noise. Something whizzed past my face. I heard a grunt from the creature dragging me and he fell – I dove for cover; crawling through a small hole in a chain linked fence.
Then I ran until the first dark doorway arch I encountered – it smelled of urine and decay. I pressed myself as flat as I could and waited. It seemed like forever before the shouts and the running feet faded; still I waited.
Dawn found me under a rusty fire escape hidden behind some old garbage cans. I’d been woken by the sound of a squeaky wheels and shuffling feet. I waited silently until they passed; it was two old men pushing an old shopping cart loaded high with junk. They muttered to themselves as they passed by.
I weighed my options. I couldn’t go back to my old ‘hood; I was alone now and I’d be marked for revenge from all those with grievances, real or imagined, against those I’d relied on. I couldn’t stay out alone – you didn’t survive alone. I’d have to squirrel my way into another area and try and work my way into another group.
I felt awful this morning; a heavy queasiness accompanied by the chills and my shoulder really hurt to move. I was weak and shaky. Daylight in the city was safer than night, but I still moved cautiously through the streets; it never paid to draw attention to oneself.
I felt sicker as the morning wore on; I felt nauseous and my stomach cramped. Around midday my head was swimming; I felt so sick and dizzy. I stopped to wretch a few times.
The earth began to rumble and a mechanical throbbing filled the air; a warning that motivated me to find safety behind a burnt out wreck of a car. I huddled there as several army patrol tanks and armoured cars rumbled slowly down the street.
I’d often toyed with the idea of flagging one of these patrols down and throwing myself at their mercy, but they worked for those humans who existed in the fortress-like communities; there was no room in those safe communities for disenfranchised hard-luck stragglers.
By late afternoon I was fairly sure I was dying; whatever disease I’d picked up was progressing rapidly. I could barely walk by the time I crawled into a rusty, crumbling dumpster. I huddled there scared and feeling beyond miserable.
“Ewwwww. He’s a mess.”
“Don’t look at me! I haven’t done anyone in weeks…”
I could hear voices.
“Well get him out of there! We can’t have him hollering like that out here. He’ll attract too much attention.”
I tried opening my eyes, but it was hard; they didn’t open all the way – my face felt swollen. I could make out several figures. My stomach lurched; they were Wreaththu. I closed my eyes again and sank away from the pain.
The next time I opened my eyes all I felt was tired.
“Welcome to the crew newbie,” a voice drawled. “You are done – you’re one of us now.”
Mouse and I scavenged together. We usually set out in the mornings and hauled our treasures back to our home in an abandoned warehouse by now unused train tracks in the mid-afternoon. I was one of them now; I was Wraeththu. There was not much difference between being human and being one of them; life was still harsh and violent, we still struggled for territory and dwindling resources. My life had settled down to a dreary routine of scavenging, helping to maintaining our territory, sleeping, cleaning, and trying to attract as little attention to myself as possible. Dawson, our crew leader, wasn’t terribly fond of me; I didn’t fit in.
Today’s scavenging had been successful; we’d found a bag of old clothes and we’d managed to steal a case of canned peas.
This afternoon was different from most. Our clan weren’t the only ones in the warehouse; Dawson appeared to be entertaining.
“You’re late,” Dawson barked.
“Sorry,” I replied. “We had to be careful – wanted to be sure we weren’t followed.”
“Tanks! Bunches of them!” Mouse supplied, nodding enthusiastically.
Dawson waved his hand autocratically. “Come over here and meet my guests.”
Mouse moved forward grinning, I followed more slowly.
“This is Mouse!” Dawson said beaming at Mouse proudly. “He’s one of our best! He can sniff goods out anywhere, and he can liberate them like a pro.”
Mouse nodded vigorously and grinned more.
“And this,” Dawson said with considerable less enthusiasm, gesturing in my direction, “is Nolan.” He paused a beat. “He’s new”.
I nodded to the newcomers. There were seven of them and they were like nothing I had ever seen before. They were beautiful; they wore clean colourful clothing, jewelry, and their hair was long and styled. There was something else too, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. They not only looked different, I was sure they were different; they seemed to radiate something – self-confidence? Power? Authority? Serenity?
By comparison we were loutish, grimy riffraff stuffed into layers of ill-fitting scavenged clothing.
“And I am Maelduin,” said one of the newcomers, a tall tanned har whose dark blond hair hung in a neat braid down his back. “These are Acorn, Aydenn, Osiris, Zekki, D’rik, and Inari.” He flashed a disarmingly charming smile; Dawson was clearly bewitched.
Our guests were all easy on the eyes. I will admit to being fascinated by them as well. The one that piqued my interest the most was the dark-haired swarthy beauty with big dark eyes, and a slightly aquiline nose, who’d been introduced as Inari.
Someone had started the fire in an old metal crate, and our crew members sat around the fire with our guests listening to Dawson talk about us – actually he talked more about himself and how wonderful his plans were and his gripes about the world which constantly failed to recognize his genius. He seemed pathetically desperate to impress our guests, but to me he sounded even more of an unimpressive braggart than usual. Most of our crew egged him on, flattering him, and encouraging his antics; Dawson was a garish caricature compared to our guests and their composed self-assurance. I gave total credit to our guests who managed to remain flawlessly gracious; their smiles never wavering.
“Dawson you are unbelievable! A genius to be reckoned with!” Maelduin chuckled affably.
From my vantage on the outside edge of the circle gathered around the fire I was pretty sure that several of our guests exchanged a faint smirk but no one else appeared to notice.
“That story, my friend, deserves a toast,” Maelduin went on. “Allow us to offer you and your hara some drink so that we can offer up a toast to your continued success.”
The suggestion was met with whoops of approval by members of my crew. Our guests began producing green bottles and fanned out among the twenty or so of us in Dawson’s crew. There was one of them who didn’t; Inari did pass a bottle along to the eager hands of one of my gang with a smile but he stayed seated next to Maelduin. I observed him for a moment, he seemed withdrawn, resigned, tired – to me he was the most intriguing and beautiful of them. I kind of identified with him, or at least I identified with him by projecting my own feelings of discontent onto him.
I watched my crew squabble over the bottles; each one grabbing and taking a swig before it was grabbed from them. It seemed when one bottle was emptied another appeared. If these strangers had as much booze as they seemed to, I really needed to make myself scarce; no good came from bullies like Dawson and his ‘favourites’ when they got drinking. My attempt to slip away would have been successful but for the visitor named Acorn.
“No! Don’t go tiahaar! You mustn’t go!” He called out. “Stay! This is good stuff! I promise!” He grinned at me as he playfully grabbed my wrist and flicked his long brown curls over his shoulder– his manner was playful and openly flirty.
I was caught and Dawson had noticed. He glared at me as he got to his feet.
“Where were you sneaking off to Nolan?” Dawson demanded. “Being rude to my guests?”
“I was going to go see about starting dinner.” It was the first thing that popped into my head; the wrong thing. I should have just said I was going for a pee.
Dawson froze for a moment and then his eyes narrowed. We had precious little food. The case of peas we’d found today would be barely a mouthful for our own gang – sharing would only mean less for everyone. Dawson wasn’t generous. He wouldn’t think twice about accepting their offer of alcohol, but he’d not voluntarily offer food to these strangers.
“You were, were you? How … thoughtful.” His voice was low and dangerous; he took a few steps towards me.
Acorn reacted; smooth and lightening fast. He dropped my wrist and slid his arms around my waist and in a dancer-smooth move had swung me out of the way inserting himself between me and Dawson. With his arm still firmly around my waist, Acorn fairly oozed ‘sensuous soume’ at Dawson placing his hand lightly on Dawson’s chest.
“Dawson, you treasure!” Acorn purred. “How generous to offer us dinner! I might have known you’d try to do such a sweet thing. Hospitality like yours is a rare treat these days. You are to be commended! But we can’t let you!! No! No! No!” he shook his head emphatically.
Dawson looked confused for a moment but then swaggered smugly at the flattery.
“Of course not!” the har called Osiris laughed. “It would have been rather rude and pushy for such a large number of us just to descend on you unannounced and expect to be fed. We’re trying to make a good impression on you, so we brought you and your hara dinner.”
A murmur rippled through our crew and attention shifted away from Acorn, Dawson and I as the clan anticipated dinner. As I met his eyes, Acorn gave my waist a slight squeeze. I mouthed the words ‘Thank you’ and he responded with a slight nod and a ghost of a smile.
Dinner was not fancy, there were no table clothes or cutlery, no plates or crystal but it was divine. These hara had brought sandwiches, chicken sandwiches –huge chunks of juicy tender chicken, chunks of plump tomatoes, crisp lettuce, in enormous crusty bread rolls. It was bliss. When Osiris passed around enormous chocolate chip cookies for dessert I wanted to kiss him, but I didn’t.
Later, much later, I was still sitting by the fire; full, content, and after several drinks, feeling mellow and sleepy. I was staring into the fire trying hard not to think of how long it had been since I’d eaten food like that and trying even harder to think about how long it might be until we ate that well again.
The box of books landed with a loud bang startling me out of my reverie. Mouse took a couple of paperbacks and tossed them into the fire.
I love reading. I love books. I had been taught to respect books. Burning them just seemed so wrong but I had given up trying to teach my fellow gang members a love of books. I sat mutely watching the cover of one of the cheesy romance novels with its buxom woman in a pale mauve gown swooning into the arms of a shirtless muscular man, a castle visible in the distant back ground, begin to bubble and then darken as the flames took hold.
‘Don’t let Nolan see you burning those books,” Dawson sneered. “He’ll cry.”
The crew guffawed loudly; I did my best not to react.
“Do you like books Nolan?” Acorn asked brightly.
“Yeah…” I mumbled self-consciously. “Love ’em.”
“And burning them bothers you?” Maelduin asked, his eyebrow arched.
The dark one called Inari was suddenly alert and focused; roused and now focused on the conversation.
“Well,” I said carefully, “I understand why we have to burn them, fuel being as scarce as it is, but…. I dunno, it just seems wrong… and sad. It’s such a waste.”
“A waste?” Maelduin cocked his head to one side.
“There is so much art in them, so much information, and so much to learn from them. They represent most of the knowledge and ideas that the world has ever had. If we burn them, that information and those ideas are gone.”
“Who cares? It’s just human knowledge. Humans are finished. We’re Wraeththu – we’re a million times better,” said Mouse as he threw a few more books into the flames.
“But, we were human. All of us. We can’t forget that. How are we going to know we’re better unless we can prove we’ve gone farther than humans did?”
I pointed to one of the books he’d tossed into the pyre, Basic Math and Pre-Algebra “Basic Math isn’t going to change just because we’re now Wraeththu, nor will other basic facts…”
“Humans are stupid fucks,” Mouse pronounced darkly.
“They weren’t always,” I insisted – this was a subject I felt strongly about.
“Humans were around for thousands of years. They invented all sorts of brilliant things; they put people on the moon, created great works of art, and built strong civilizations… Humans weren’t always like they are now. I know there were always wars and conflict, empires rose and fell, but there were always groups, and individuals that were trying to make things right… until something happened and all of society fell apart; civilization failed completely and Wraeththu emerged.
“If we don’t preserve the written human record, we may never know who we are and why we are the way we are. If we want to understand today, we have to understand yesterday! Learning about all of humanity will help us know what the things we must do and things we need to avoid; we’re moving out of human history into our own history…”
I was over the moon when I saw Inari’s swarthy face break out into a wide grin; he appeared more engaged at this moment than he’d appeared to be all afternoon. He leaned over and grabbed one of the paperbacks. He held it up for me to see – it was another romance novel – one whose cover depicted a muscular man with a cowboy hat staring stoically off into the sunset as a woman with long hair clung to him.
“And what, pray tell,” Inari asked with a mischievous grin and a twinkle in his eye, “will be learned from this… literature?”
I grinned back, thoroughly delighted. “Perhaps, some day in the future, a Wraeththu scholar will want to compare…”
“SHUT UP!” Dawson roared.
I shut up immediately – damn the booze for having sent my inhibitions and instincts for self-preservation packing!
“SHUT UP!” His voice was a shrill shriek, his face was red and his limbs flailed like those of a child before a tantrum.
“No one gives a fuck what you think … you’re just a fucking piece of shit …”
“SHUT THE FUCK UP!!”
I ducked and rolled backwards out of the circle; the empty bottle Dawson had hurled at me glanced off my shoulder and skittered across the floor.
Dawson’s abuse continued as I retreated behind the rows of stacked pallets; howls of derisive laughter followed me as I stepped out into the freshness of cool evening air; crews are ‘substitute families’, my ass. I swung myself up onto the broken bit of fire escape that still clung to the warehouses’ wall and climbed to the expansive flat roof. I heaved myself up onto one of the vent outlets that peppered the roof – huge aluminum boxes that used to help cool the building below; now they provided me a spot to sit. I came up here often; to think, to escape, to cry, to dream. This evening it was to escape.
I hugged my knees and rested my chin on them. I hate my life. I hate Dawson. What purpose did any of this serve?
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
It was an ancient quote from an ancient book called The Tale of Two Cities and it played on an endless loop in my head. In it Charles Dickens writes of revolution; peasants rebelling against aristocratic cruel oppression. While the storyline is full of chaos, violence, and repression there is also a belief in the possibility of transformation, both personal and societal. The author had supported his revolutionaries ‘cause’, but he had also pointed out the evil of fighting cruelty with cruelty; it is a slippery slope from being the oppressed to being the oppressor. Perhaps we were now facing this same plight; humans had treated wraeththu cruelly, and now that humanity was failing were we in danger of merely becoming the new oppressors? Same shit, different day? Maybe we stood at that point where foolishness became wisdom? When despair became hope? Or, I sighed with resignation, maybe I’m just a fucking piece of shit that spent too much time thinking and trying to make sense of things that just ‘were’.
I’d been sitting on the roof brooding for some time, long enough for the sun to have sunk below the horizon on the other side of the river. The sky above me was now a dark indigo. Across the river lights had begun to appear, they twinkled in the darkness. A few moments later the flood lights in the tall armed-guard towers burst to life and began their ceaseless roaming vigil; guarding the human occupants of the gated community from threats, from Wraeththu, from me. Ironically I felt like the most helpless creature on the planet. On our side of the river there was darkness; the army had cut the power ages ago in a vain attempt to subdue both human and Wraeththu insurgents.
The crunch of gravel drew my attention. He crossed the roof casually and hopped up on the vent box next to me. He didn’t say anything as he stared out across the river to the prowling searchlights. His dark hair has a slight and regular wave to it and it hung loosely over his shoulders.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Inari stated.
“Ha!” I sounded bitter. “You’re right I shouldn’t, but all life’s a crapshoot isn’t it? My Grandmother shouldn’t have gotten sick, but she did. She shouldn’t have put me on that bus, but she did. There should have been someone there to meet me at the bus terminal, but there wasn’t. I shouldn’t be here, but I am.”
“Sounds grim,” Inari agreed evenly, “How old were you then?”
“I dunno… fourteen, almost fifteen?”
“And how old are you now?”
“About twenty… almost twenty-one, I think.”
Silence returned and we both stared out across the river.
“Was it your Grandmother who taught you to love books?”
“Yeah. She worked in a library. It was a ‘ginormous’ old fortress of a building with an old broken down fountain out front. As they closed down schools, colleges, and smaller libraries, they’d bring all the books there. I was too little to stay home alone, so she’d always take me to work. They were all old people at the library, and I was quiet, so they didn’t mind having me around. I learned letters and numbers helping to sort books by call numbers. I could sit for hours with books. There weren’t any other kids – just books. By the time I was old enough to go to school there weren’t any left in our area. So I just kept getting reading tips from the others and discussing stuff I read with them. When I was 10 I decided to read the whole library – I was going to work my way through every single book…”
I saw a flash of white teeth in the dark.
Inari asked me a lot of questions; at some points it felt a bit like an interview, but I didn’t mind too much – I was ridiculously flattered and way too eager to answer, too eager to please; no one had ever expressed any interest in me or my story. Have you ever heard yourself saying way more than you intended too? That was sort of how it was. I did try to reciprocate but he was quite skilful at deflecting my queries about him and his friends. I told him about my life from the library to the human gang, and after I’d described the events surrounding my inception the conversation fell into a lull.
“Was Dawson your first?” Inari asked.
“Yeah,” I acknowledged finally after an awkward pause. “He’s everyone’s first.” These were not good memories. “He’s the first and then it’s open season for anyone who wants a go.”
“Not a good situation,” Inari observed, his voice was carefully neutral.
“It’s over.” I shrugged. “They got tired of me pretty quick – I don’t have to do it anymore.”
“You don’t like aruna?” He sounded bemused.
“Pain and humiliation? What’s to like?” As soon as I’d said that I wondered if aruna was why he’d followed me up here; after all the food and the booze his group had offered us it would probably be rude to refuse him if that’s what he wanted.
“Bu,” I added hurriedly, “that doesn’t mean I won’t. I mean… I will, if that’s what you want…”
“No … but thank you,” he said, his voice solemn. “It’s been a long day and I’m too exhausted to be any use to a partner.”
I couldn’t see his face clearly in the dark, but it sounded like he was smiling.
There followed a few minutes of silence that felt very awkward to me. I was racking my brain to try and figure out what to say when he broke the silence.
“That’s human territory across the river isn’t it? So what are they guarding? It looks like quite the operation. Something rather valuable it would seem? Weapons perhaps?”
“Something even more valuable.” I sighed. “Their loved ones. It’s a family compound.”
“Ah…. A truth that some humans never understood, until it was too late. So tell me Nolan, how far did you get when you tried to read the whole library?”
I found myself back in my grandmother’s library, running through the stacks, desperately trying to find her before the tanks and soldiers that prowled through the building did. Along the way, I was trying to grab and rescue as many valuable books as I could. I was panic-stricken because I kept dropping so many of them, but there wasn’t time to stop. I burst through a door and into an old storage room. I was overjoyed to find the fountain that had stood derelict in front of the old library for as long as I’d been accompanying my grandmother, was there in the storage room fixed and functioning; but as I barricaded the door to stop the tanks the fountain changed into an old disheveled silver Christmas tree that disintegrated when I touched it.
My eyes flickered half-open and the dream faded; I saw nothing but blackness, there was no sound – the warehouse was still.
Inari and I had talked about reading and books for quite awhile. We’d come in together but we’d parted ways; he’d headed back to the fire-lit circle and I to my sleep spot along the wall farthest from the main area. I began to drift back to sleep.
I was suddenly wide awake; I’d heard my name but not with my ears – I’d heard it in my head.
I sat bolt upright. There was no mistaking it that time; someone said my name in my head – but the whole warehouse remained still and silent. I sat there tense, alert; peering into the darkness. A pale blue light appeared around a corner of boxes and seemed to float towards me. My heart was pounding as Inari crouched down in front of me.
Nolan, we have to be leaving now. Come with us.
I was frozen – this had to still be part of a dream; his lips weren’t moving yet I could hear his voice in my head. As my eyes were drawn to the light in his hand, my blood ran cold – this didn’t make sense to me – I could see no source for the light– there was just an orb of light floating just above the palm of his hand.
Nolan? I looked up at him. Even in that light the confusion and fear I was feeling must have showed on my face.
Don’t be afraid Nolan! The last thing I want to do is hurt you. This kind of communication is called mind touch and the light is a pretty simple trick. You’re Wraeththu – you will learn to do this too. We’ll teach you how. There is so much more to being a har than what your life is here. Come with us Nolan. Please.
I opened my mouth to say something but he put his fingers lightly on my lips.
Shhhh. Quietly! We don’t want to wake anyhar. We want to be miles from here before Dawson and the others wake up. Do you have any belongings to collect?
I shook my head slowly.
He moved his fingers from my lips and I felt a feather-light caress of my cheek.
We’d moved steadily, but cautiously, and by the time the sun began to rise we were miles past the bridge that spanned the river marking the territory between Dawson’s crew and the territory next door controlled by a harish band of ‘nightwalkers’.
There wasn’t much conversation as the day wore on. Everyone was on high alert, but so far I’d seen no one. We were halfway along a block of boarded-up and burnt-out shops when Zekki stopped suddenly signaling the rest of us to halt.
“What’s wrong?” I whispered.
Danger! Aydenn replied into my head. Can you feel it? Try. Let your mind feel, let it go… trust what it tells you.
I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant but I took a good hard look at the intersection we were approaching; it was as unremarkable as any other with cracked pavement, weeds, and more boarded-up store fronts. Then I’m not sure what happened, I suddenly felt something; I felt jumpy and panicky – there was something wrong.
Zekki advanced two steps, stopped, then suddenly spun on his heel signaling madly.
D’rik grabbed me and hustled me into one of the sheltered store entries between the now non-existent showcase windows. The rest of them crowded in after us.
Don’t move. Don’t breathe.
All of us were motionless as a heavily-armed human patrol slowly came around the corner; alert – their guns at the ready.
Maelduin stood in front of us all at the edge of the store front alcove, closest to the street. He was standing tall and straight, his eyes closed, his arms hanging down at his side, palms facing out to the street. His body was relaxed and he seemed completely focused inward.
The soldiers moved slowly, their guns at the ready; we were sitting ducks. There was no way they’d miss eight hara crushed into a tiny store entranceway. I closed my eyes and waited for the bullets but nothing happened; nothing happened for what seemed like ages.
I opened my eyes. A soldier stood not ten feet from where we were. He was scanning the area slowly. He was so close that when he turned his head and his gaze travelled over where we huddled I could see that his eyes were blue. How could he not see us? How could none of the patrol members see us?
D’rik was directly in front of me. His body suddenly became relaxed and his breathing deepened and he was staring hard at the alleyway that cut between two derelict shop buildings across the street. Suddenly his body went rigid, his breathing stopped, his eyes closed and almost simultaneously all hell seemed to break loose down the alley; it sounded like metal trash cans were being bashed around.
Several yelled orders had the patrol moving briskly into the alleyway. We waited a few breaths after the last human had entered the alley and then we ran; we ran until I thought my lungs would burst.
“I don’t understand how they didn’t see us.”
The sun was setting and we’d taken shelter in a small garage that stood behind a tiny old house stripped of its siding and whose roof had caved in.
Maelduin smiled “I created a kind of psychic veil … a metaphysical barrier… between them and us. It clouded their minds enough to keep us hidden. You know ‘out of sight out of mind’? Well this is sort of an ‘out of mind, out of sight’ thing.” He chuckled at his own little joke. “We hara have so much potential – you’ll learn. We’re all still learning.”
I mulled over some of the ‘potentials’ I’d already been witness to that day.
“D’rik? Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” he nodded. “As long as you ask in mind touch.”
I frowned. “I can’t.”
“Try. Think it into my head.”
I tried; I thought hard about my question but D’rik just sat there patiently. I closed my eyes and tried again; still nothing.
“Nolan.” Acorn leaned forward. “You’re just beginning, so start with your eyes open and look at D’rik. Picture your words going into his head.”
He reached out to place his index finger on my temple. “Visualize your words going from here to here.” He traced an arch toward D’rik’s temple. “Focus and try again.”
I took a deep breath and focused on the question, I repeated it several times to myself and then looked at D’rik and thought it at the same time as visualizing the arc Acorn had drawn with his finger.
“Try again,” Inari encouraged.
I did; this time I sort of ‘shoved’ the thought out of my mind towards D’rik.
“Yes! I did!” D’rik grinned. “I made that commotion in the alley this afternoon. More Wraeththu conjuring – I knocked some garbage cans off a fire escape.”
“He did it? Wow that’s awesome Nolan!” Acorn exclaimed.
“Yup Nolan asked if it was me that had caused that hullabaloo in the alley.”
After almost three full days of walking we’d left the dismal ruin of the city behind; we were now following the crumbling network of highways and byways of the open countryside. The sunshine, open fields and the fresh air were uplifting. I had not seen this much nature in my entire life; it was exhilarating. The tensions of the city seemed to melt away, our group chatted and laughed as we trekked.
Inari and I had spent many hours talking about books and authors we liked, debating literature styles, and discussing the exciting possibility of books that could be written about Wraeththu, for Wraeththu, and by Wraeththu. When we’d left the city we had started out on wide multi lane highways that had once seen thousands of rumbling cars and trucks but now were desolate empty spaces where once smooth asphalt was now riddled with potholes and cracks in which wild flowers and grasses had taken root.
We’d veered off the main highway to follow a variety of smaller routes, always skirting old towns “just in case”. Late in the afternoon of the third day Aydenn suddenly turned off the narrow winding country road we had been travelling along and began walking up a gravel drive that wound between the trees.
“Wow,” I commented. “I didn’t even see this driveway until you walked up here!”
“I know.” Maelduin smirked. “Thank you.”
He laughed good-naturedly at the confused look I gave him.
“It’s another one of those magic veils – we leave it here at the entrance. That way, unless you know it’s there and are looking for it you don’t see it. It cuts down on unwanted visitors and snoops!”
At the end of the long drive was a large flat two-story building that, judging by the truck bays must have been some sort of business with a warehouse on the ground floor and office space above. I could also see some smaller buildings back farther. What was most surprising was that this place, hidden out in the woods, bustled with activity. There were hara loading a wagon, others digging in a ditch, and others moving purposefully bound for somewhere carrying tools or boxes.
My companions were greeted warmly with big smiles and waves and calls of ‘welcome back’.
Maelduin turned to me.
“Welcome to your first ‘home’ Nolan. Make yourself at home, pitch in, make friends, and I’ll see you at dinner.”
“You two,” he pointed at Aydenn and D’rik, “are off to find out about the next convoy. You two need to come with me,” he continued, pointing at Acorn and Osiris. “We’ve got to check in with our fearless leader.”
Maelduin pointed at Inari. “You go get Nolan checked in and then join us.”
“You…” Maelduin pointed at Zekki.
“I,” announced Zekki, “am going to have a bath, and nap until dinner.” With a grin and wink he was off.
Inari guided me into one of the open truck bays where a harried looking har with straw coloured hair twisted up into a bun was sorting papers. He looked up as we approached.
“Inari! You’re back! Good to see you.”
“Good to see you too Buzz,” Inari said with a grin. “I’m signing in a new addition.”
Buzz’s eyes flickered over to where I stood and he nodded quickly. “He’s already har? Ok, good. Name?”
“Nolan,” I said. He wrote that down.
“Ok ok…” Buzz grabbed a large clipboard “… ummmm… let’s see.”
He began to chew on the pencil. “You see we’re realllllly crowded – the convoy that was supposed to leave yesterday didn’t because the wagon wheel fell off… OY! What a mess… I can find you a temporary spot… and I’ll move you into a real spot when the convey leaves…”
“He’s bunking with me,” Inari said.
Buzz stuck the pencil into his bun and looked me over with a bit more interest than he had initially. “Ok then. Since you’re probably expected to check in with the boss – I’ll take care of Nolan.”
Inari nodded. “See you at dinner,” he said as he headed off.
“Right then,” Buzz said. “A bath, some new clothes, and we’ll get you settled. Hiko!!!” he yelled over his shoulder.
A lanky pale har with a shaved head and four gold earrings ambled out of one of the old office spaces.
“Hiko, this is Nolan. He’s just arrived. Can you take him and get him set up?”
The bath had been divinely warm and soapy; I felt reborn. Hiko seemed very determined to ‘transform’ me; he’d found me some fabulous clothes, new boots, and a flashy jacket, and he’d produced a citrusy liquid he’d applied to my hair which allowed him to almost painlessly brush out the tangles.
When he triumphantly stood me in front of a mirror I didn’t recognize myself. The last time I’d had a proper bath and clean clothes I’d been an adolescent in my grandmother’s tiny apartment; a scrawny pale shy boy with short cropped hair – an awkward ugly duckling. Now a slender exotic creature with large brown eyes and brown wavy hair that hung down the middle of his back stared back. I ran my fingers through my hair; I was a swan. I smiled at my reflection and was instantly struck by the resemblance between my reflection and an old dog-eared photograph of my grandmother I’d found in one of her old books; my grandmother lived on in me.
Just how complete a transformation Hiko had achieved was evident when we reported back to Buzz. Buzz had glanced up in my direction in a quick distracted acknowledgment of my presence, and had done a startled double-take, knocking over a pile of carefully stacked papers.
An eyebrow rose as he looked me over thoroughly.
“Well… wow! That’s quite the cleanup,” he said.
Hiko laughed. “Ok. Apparently you approve. I’m going to show Nolan the compound. See you at dinner.”
There were storage areas, horses, and wagons. There was a blacksmith and an expansive cultivation area that grew vegetables. There were chickens and goats. There was a recycling and repurposing area and more. I was impressed – thoroughly.
“We try to be as self-sufficient as possible,” Hiko said proudly.
As we walked back towards the main set of buildings, I caught site of two smaller buildings set well apart from the others.
“What’s in there?”
“The smaller cottage is where we house any humans that come through. They’re refugees we help on through. Those wanting to be incepted are coached and prepared for the process. That’s where I spent about a week when I first got here. The other bigger building is where they hold the inception ritual and care for newbies until the change is done. Then they’re brought to the main buildings and there is a welcoming ceremony before they get to go off for the fun bit…” He grinned at me and winked. “Inari was my first.” He seemed to catch himself and shot me a rather self-conscious look.
He cleared his throat. “That doesn’t bother you does it?” he continued rapidly. “’Cuz sometimes we still think of sex and aruna as the same and having the same rules, right? But they don’t, right? I just don’t want you to feel weird ‘cuz … shit! … I shouldn’t have said anything,” he finished somewhat sheepishly.
“Oh… no… Inari and I have never… you know – done it,” I said hurriedly “I … don’t…” I felt my cheeks flush.
“You don’t?” He looked at me as if I had two heads. “Why?”
“Inception wasn’t my choice, and I spent most of my ‘change’ alone, in a dumpster. The next bit was pretty awful too, so….” My voice trailed off and I shrugged.
“Oh wow… I’m sorry,” he said awkwardly.
We walked a bit in silence.
“Nolan?” There was a long pause. “I know you’re bunking with Inari… and I just want to say…” He was struggling with the right wording. “You know…. If the opportunity comes up… you know … for you and Inari to … you know…” He fixed me with an intense look. “Trust him, okay?”
We stared at each other for a moment, and then a sly smile crept across his face.
“Trust me,” he said. “You will not regret it.”
A loud cacophony of banging pots and pans and hollering announced dinner; Hiko and I headed back at a jog to join the mess hall line.
I’d found the table with my travel companions and had endured (and thoroughly enjoyed) the compliments and teasing about my make-over. I had blushed and beamed and noted with a startling degree of satisfaction that Inari kept stealing sidelong glances in my direction despite being in deep discussion with a beautiful blond sporting a red leather jacket.
Three days of travel on foot with not much sleep, the newness of this place, my relief at being here, combined with a full belly was catching up with me; I was struggling to keep my eyes open.
Acorn and Aydenn had escorted me up to the sleeping quarters as Inari and Maelduin head off for more meetings.
The sleeping quarters were on the second floor of the building; up here, the open-concept space had been divided into smaller, more private spaces using an eclectic array of materials and methods. A few tents had been set up, and blankets and old curtains had been strung up between pillars. Inari’s ‘room’ was at the far end of the space, in a corner. The space was marked by the corner walls and an old office cubical wall; with an old curtain panel that proved privacy. Most of the floor space was filled with a large mattress. A bed and privacy, to me it was luxury. I kicked off my boots and sat down on the edge of the mattress. For the first time in a long time I felt like things were good; I dared to begin to hope.
I don’t remember lying down, and I certainly don’t remember falling asleep, but I must have.
Gentle shaking roused me.
“Nolan! Wake up. There’s a welcoming ceremony this morning. Six new hara are being welcomed to the tribe. I want you to come. Maelduin and I are assisting the hienama this morning.”
I had stumbled after Inari into the freshness of the pre-dawn air, yawning. Acorn had linked his arm through mine and we watched as the Hienama, assisted by Maelduin and Inari, prepared for the ceremony in the semi-circle of lit torches on a raised dais.
At a signal, a procession entered the space parading the new hara in to stand before the three officiates who stood waiting on the raised dais. I probably should have been watching the procession like everyone else, but I found my gaze drawn to Inari. He looked very solemn and regal in his pale robe, his dark hair hanging loose about his shoulders. Beautiful.
“They’re naked under those robes,” Acorn whispered in my ear.
I felt my face flush and was thankful the sun was still below the horizon.
The six new har looked excited but at the same time terrified. The Hienama, a rather forbidding looking creature with his head shaved save for the long braid that fell from the back of his skull, raised his arms and called us to silence.
He offered words of thanks for their safe transformation, then he told them of the great potentials they now had, but he told them that while they must put it aside, they were not to forget the past, but instead bring the new understanding that is Wraeththu to their new path. The great potential of Wraeththu he said was a gift of great privilege, and that with this great privilege came a great responsibility. He spoke at length about transformation, hope, belief, and the future. His words were moving and profound. I wish I could have paid more attention and remembered them all, but some of the things he said resonated deep inside of me; kindling thoughts, stirring my soul; I felt more than I heard.
After the Hienama’s speech, a chosen har from the tribe would go and stand on the dais and a new har would be called forward. The chosen har would speak to the new har for a time. We were too far to hear what was said but the words always seemed to make the new har beam; part of me envied them. The new har was then given his new “harrish” name by his chosen har; and then those gathered would repeat the name solemnly; sealing it to the individual. Then the two would walk to the side of the dais and wait, sometimes holding hands, some linked arms. It was very moving.
By the time all six new hara had been welcomed, the sky in the east had lightened considerably, and the hara gathered had begun to murmur, sensing that the ceremony was all but over; breakfast smells were beginning to drift out.
The Hienama raised his arms again and silence fell once more.
He turned his head towards me and beckoned me. “Nolan.”
I froze and Acorn had to give me a gentle shove to get me moving towards the dais. When I got there the Hienama looked down at me solemnly.
“Nolan, your inception was marred by violence and brutality. It should not have been so, but becoming Wraeththu is not only a physical transformation. We are reborn by new thinking, new choices, and new beginnings. The past must be the past. Choose the future, begin again. It is time to rise like the phoenix reborn.”
He acknowledged me with a slight bow, stepped back and motioned Inari forward.
Inari smiled gently. I imagine I looked as nervous now as some of the new har had earlier.
“I had spent quite a few months trying to rescue hara from the violence and chaos in the city, but we only found those who embraced violence and reveled in their ignorance – they lived like the humans. I admit to being pretty discouraged, but finding you restored my faith, it gave me hope again to trust that there still are those out there that believe in our future. I have a dream, Nolan… Finding you in the city rekindled my hope, that I,” he smiled, “or rather, we can achieve that dream.”
He pointed to the eastern horizon where the sky was now a rapidly expanding band of pale blue light.
“You are my dawn of hope,” he said solemnly. “Hope for my dream, hope for the future. Out of the ancient language of my ancestors I give you your new name, Amal Sahar, literally ‘hope dawns’.”
Behind me there was a murmur of many voices repeating the name. I felt tears well up. It was an emotional moment; I truly felt different, like I was no longer Nolan-the-outsider- from-the-city, and I was now one of them – I belonged.
Breakfast had been delicious. Zekki had me in fits of giggles, inventing new nicknames and rhymes for me based on my new name. I had been hugged and congratulated; my smile muscles hurt from grinning so much.
Now as Inari ushered me into our sleeping quarters I started to feel slightly nervous and bashful.
‘Trust him.’ Hiko’s words echoed in my head.
Inari pulled me gently into his arms and pressed his lips against my temple.
“Look Amal, we don’t have to share aruna if you’d rather not – you’re not a new har. But I just thought that …”
I didn’t let him finish, I pressed my lips against his. He looked surprised – pleasantly so.
“I trust you,” I said. “I want this to be the first time.”
The rest of the morning, and much of that afternoon passed, without Inari or I even noticing. We explored each other’s bodies. We shared aruna. He taught me how to let go and truly surrender and he coached me through my first attempt as ouana. We lay together and dozed, reveling in the closeness and intimacy, and then we did it all over again.
It was sometime in the mid-afternoon that I woke up alone on the bed. I looked around the tiny cubicle and observed Inari standing at the window staring out; one arm leaning on the sill and the other braced on the casing. I sat up.
“We’re going to do it,” he said in a dreamy voice.
“We’ve been doing it since we came up here,” I chuckled.
“I mean you and I are going to build a library. A Wraeththu library. The First Ones are already building a city. It’s going to be a real city! A great Wraeththu city! They’re organizing and mobilizing. They’re putting together experts and a government. I’ve already mentioned that a capitol city needs a library and the First Ones agreed. We will go and build the most beautiful library ever! It’ll rival the Library of Alexandria – we’ll archive everything! We’ll have stone tablets, old children’s books, government archives, technology books, poetry, reference books and … and … romance novels.” He laughed. “And we’ll document all of Wraeththu too, our poets and story-tellers, our philosophers and scientists, our thinkers and our dreamers – because we will have them!”
He turned towards me. “Close your eyes! Can you see it?” he entreated.
I closed my eyes and conjured up the only library I knew. In my mind the grey forbidding building became massive, the barbed wire and the security fences disappeared and the once empty planters were filled with flowers. I could also see the old fountain.
“Yeah, I can see it,” I said. “Can our library have a fountain out front?”
Inari laughed. “Absolutely! We’ll put a beautiful fountain outside our library! Believe it!”
I closed my eyes again and in my mind’s eye the fountain, which had fascinated me for as long as I can remember, came to life as clear sparkling water bubbled from it.
I sighed contentedly as I pulled my consciousness back into the room. The years had changed so much, and yet… not.
Inari still stood by the window staring out of it; one arm leaning on the sill and the other braced on the casing, but he was not naked now. Pity. Nor were we in a cubicle in a repurposed human warehouse.
The fine leather of the divan creaked beneath me as I rose and crossed to where Inari stood at the window. I slipped my arms around his waist and rested my chin on top of his shoulder.
From here at the window of my well-appointed office in the administrative wing of Immanion’s great Central Library I had an impressive view of Immanion. The main library building looked nothing like I’d imagined it way back then. It was white and gleaming: it rose, tall and airy, from its surroundings, full of inviting spaces and light. Behind the library rose the rooftops of the Hegemony administrative buildings where the day-to-day running of most of Wraeththu-dom occurred.
Beyond those governmental edifices rose the crowning jewel of Immanion, of all of Wraeththudom in fact – Phaonica, home to not one, but two Tigrons and their beautiful Tigrina. From here I could also see the rooftops of the rest of Immanion spread out below; some with terra cotta tiled roofs and some whose flat roofs that had been converted into a shady garden oasis.
“Did you ever think this was possible?” Inari asked softly.
“You did?” He sounded skeptical.
“Of course. You told me it was.”
“And you believed me? I didn’t believe me!”
“I trusted you, and look… the library! Exactly as you promised – I even got my fountain.”
“Indeed,” chuckled Inari. “And you even got your fountain maker.” His chuckles turned into giggles. “Oh Amal,” he said breathlessly. “We’re all still laughing about it. You should have seen your face that first time you met that fountain maker!! Your jaw dropped and you just gaped – and speechless! You were speechless!!” He mimicked the face he claimed I’d made. “It was so funny.” He dissolved into giggles again.
“Yes… almost as funny as a few months later when you met that fashion designer from the east. Your jaw hit the floor and you must have tripped over it since you tumbled down those two steps from the rostrum to land in a gormless ungainly heap at his feet. Luckily for you he was completely charmed…”
“He was indeed!” Inari grinned.
We stood together in comfortable silence. The view from my window was both inspiring and comforting; Immanion was an impressive achievement. We Wraeththu were no longer angry youth fighting for survival and thinking that we held all the answers. We had ascended the throne of power and were aware of how little we actually knew; an age of wisdom had dawned. We had weathered political storms, war, and uncertainty and had come through more tempered and more mature. We had emerged from the season of darkness into one of light.
Inari sighed contentedly. “The fountain-maker and the fashion designer have been good to us, haven’t they? We’re both blessed. Did you ever think we’d have families?”
“We’ve got five sons between us,” I laughed. “I’d say our chesnari have been good to us. And no, back then Nolan had no designs on a family.”
“When are you and your fountain maker going to have a third?” Inari needled with a grin.
“Speaking of our beloveds,” I said, ignoring him and crossing to the office door, “if we’ve got to stop at the florists on the way to your place we’d better get going. It would not do to be late. Your fashion designer takes a dim view of tardiness.”
“True. It’s not every day that one’s eldest son celebrates a chesna bond – especially with Acorn and Zekki’s son. How did that happen by the way?” Inari mused. “When did they stop arguing long enough to produce a treasure like that son of theirs?”
“Beats the hell outta me.” I laughed as I held the door open for Inari.
We were most definitely now living in the best of times.