By Becky Kinge.
GALACTIC CO-ORDINATES: 96-05-04-01
Reik’lin watched as the rest of the Uuen village worked. He was in a foul mood despite the serenity of the sunset hours. Music, gentle and rhythmic, surrounded his clan; against his will, Reik’lin’s feet started to move in time with it, before he caught himself and stopped.
The quiet thrum of the drums sounded like hail dancing cautiously upon tin. It pirouetted through candle-lined pathways, uniting the villagers as they prepared for nightfall. Beyond the twinkling tap of percussion, only the shuffle of fabric and whispers between neighbours could be heard.
Two of the Uuen girls, with lilac skin fading into apricot hair, tiptoed between their neighbours, relighting any flame that had perished. One, whose eyes were as porcelain white as a new-born’s, smiled sweetly at the drummer. The drummer jerked his chin in warning. The Uuen were a species of professionals and he held the most important role: his tranquil beat maintained a constant hush, a noise-level akin to waves lapping at the coast, and could not be disturbed.
During the evening, noise tempted curious spirits to exit the forest. During nightfall, it angered them.
Reik’lin grumbled to himself as he collected his supplies; no-one ever flirted with the lantern boy.
Stuhn, a soldier in charge of surveying the perimeter, approached the Eye. She sat, eyes closed, in an aged armchair surrounded by piles of textile. Reik’lin paused in his preparations and homed in on the conversation. Stuhn was a stickler for the rules and never interrupted the Eye as she meditated. Something must be wrong.
“There’s a human in the forest,” he said. The village halted.
The Eye nodded. She knew, had seen it – had probably known of its presence near their clan for hours – but had not spoken. She only spoke of danger. They were safe. One-by-one, the villagers returned to their tasks, slower now, glancing intermittently at the forest edge as if expecting it to pounce. The drums grew quieter, and the villagers followed suit.
If the human entered the village and saw mistake in their decoration, they would be shamed. If the human entered the village and spoke loudly, as they tended to do, they would be killed.
Reik’lin kicked at his lanterns. His mother heard the smack of paper and wood and shot him a warning glance. Lighting the lanterns is an honour, his family had told him, to have individual responsibility is a mark of respect. Reik’lin didn’t care about credit, he didn’t want a solo role, he just wanted to stitch stars into the patchwork gazebos with his friends, if only to have a few more hours of conversation before silence became mandatory.
Besides, illuminating a path straight from the ancient woodlands back to the village seemed incredibly counterproductive. The same, he thought, as painting an arrow straight to their home with the words oh great feared spirits, demons of Vvent’un soil, this way, we’ve got three spare cots and plenty of running water.
He reiterated this, in a sharp whisper, to his mother, who took a break from her weaving to listen to him moan. When he finished with a flap of arms in place of an audible sigh, she clucked her tongue and pushed him towards the perimeter, signalling for Stuhn to follow.
“Untath quihip grai,” Stuhn whispered to the Eye, ‘grace protects us,’ and then walked smoothly, almost gliding, to where Reik’lin was collecting his things.
“You heard what I said?” he asked. Reik’lin huffed.
“No,” he said, “try talking a little louder next time.”
“You shame us, Reik’lin. Such ignorance is beyond your status.”
Reik’lin clucked, a jolt of irritation causing him to tear a hole in the lantern he was constructing.
“It was a joke,” he said, “I heard you. But the Eye said there’s nothing to worry about, right?”
“Not in as many words, no,” Stuhn mumbled, and Reik’lin was taken aback by the subtle disdain that lined his words. Stuhn, protector of their clan, was sworn to revere the Eye’s near-omniscience. “It’s true that it may bear no ill will, but that does not mean it won’t disrupt the spirits. It is nearing the perimeter, now. If you see it approach when you are laying the lanterns, be careful, and be sure that it is careful, too.”
“Wha- be careful? It’s not gonna shoot me, is it? Why am I on the front line, here, Stuhn? I’m just the lantern-kid.”
“You are the front line, Reik’lin,” Stuhn said, “your lanterns lead the spirits back to the depths and decorate our land so that no being dare harm it.”
“Yeah,” Reik’lin said, poking the broken lantern, “can you believe I don’t get a uniform?”
Stuhn gave him a confident pat on the shoulder, barely grazing the fabric of his tunic (out of fear, Reik’lin presumed, of the resulting clap alerting enemies of their movement). Reik’lin saluted him, waved to his mother and to his friends, and slumped out of the village.
There, in the arched silhouette of lavender trees, the human looked small.
Reik’lin had only ever seen humans from a distance; they had been taller than even Stuhn and twice as muscular. This human was short, lean, with a protruding chest and long, light hair bunched back in a thick strap. Their hands were on their hips, and they were shouting into the bushes.
Reik’lin climbed the nearest tree, lit a lantern from his basket, and placed it on a branch. He crawled along the treetops, leaving a trail of light, until he was rested between the leaves above the human. It was a girl, glowering.
“Buttons,” she said, “get out of there.”
“I’M STUCK,” something said, “STUCK IN THE MUD, MELISSA!”
The human pinched the bridge of her nose and poked at the bushes with a stick. Reik’lin heard a whir and a rustle, then the incredibly loud and somewhat distorted voice spoke again.
“MELISSA. I AM STILL STUCK.”
“There’s nothing I can do, Buttons,” the human said, “dad said you need terrain training.”
“YOUR FATHER WAS MISTAKEN. I AM FINE ON ALL TERRAIN.”
“Then why are you stuck in a bush, Buttons?” she said, crouching down and spreading the branches of the push to peek inside.
Reik’lin looked towards the sky; it was almost dark and he was yet to start placing the lanterns on the opposite side of the path. Irregardless of how often he dismissed his role and the village’s traditions, the growing shadows of the forest made him uneasy; roots curling like demons’ fingers clawing out of the ground. He had to move
“Researching what, Buttons?”
There was little to no sound as Reik’lin’s feet hit the ground. The human, now reaching for their friend, hadn’t even noticed him land. In the distance, there was rickety howl. Reik’lin fought every impulse to the human out when she started laughing at whatever was happening within the bushes. It was a piercing sound, impulsive, and the spirits were stirring.
With one struggled heave, the human fell onto her back; a strange, square, metallic being followed. It was a robot – Reik’lin had never seen one, before, but he’d heard stories.
“THERE IS SOMEONE HERE,” the robot, Buttons, said. The human jumped up and twisted, pointing a twig at Reik’lin’s chest.
“Who are you?” They said, and Reik’lin flinched at the volume.
“I am Reik’lin of the nearby Uuen village,” he replied, softly, before aggressively miming zipping his lips shut, “who are you?”
“I am Melissa,” she said, “we’ve travelled from the City, and did you just tell me to shut up?”
“Yes,” Reik’lin said, “so would you?”
“Why? Because I’m human? What do you plan to do with me, Uuen?”
“Sew your mouth shut if possible,” Reik’lin mumbled.
“HE SAID: SEW YOUR MOUTH SHUT, IF POSSIBE.”
“I heard him,” Melissa said.
“Really? Because you’re speaking so loudly that I assumed you were deaf,” Reik’lin said, “our Protector warned me about you, you know. That you’d break the silence and wake the spirits!”
“The … silence?” Finally, she spoke with caution, glancing at Buttons.
“YES. HE SAID: THE SILENCE.”
“The silence that protects us!” Reik’lin said, “that leads the spirits from our village.”
“Then what’s with the lights leading the way, huh?”
Reik’lin glared. Even the ignorant human thought that the lanterns were a stupid idea, but it was his role – an important one – and seeing someone else insult his people’s stubborn sentimentality flicked a switch; only he was allowed to call his job stupid.
“The lanterns guide the spirits home and highlight the beauty of our land so that no demon dare tarnish it,” he said, “duh.”
“THE UUEN PEOPLE FIND SILENCE SACRED,” Buttons said.
“Oh,” Melissa said, looking sheepish. “Then I should probably tell you –”
“THERE IS A SPIRIT BEHIND US. OH BOY. LOOK, MELISSA. A SHADOW DEMON.”
Reik’lin whipped around. There, seeping out of the trees, was a demon; oil dripping from its slender body, eyes glowing orange and mouth widening to a grotesque size as it moved slowly towards them, leaving shadows in its wake.
“IT’S COMING CLOSER,” Buttons said, and the demon glitched nearer at his words, eyes flaring. “NOISE APPEARS TO AGGRIVATE IT.”
It jumped again.
“Then stop making noise!” Reik’lin said.
“That’s what I was trying to say!” Melissa squealed, “his –”
“MY VOLUME FUNCTION IS BROKEN.”
“THEN STOP TALKING!” Reik’lin shouted – he hadn’t shouted in years, not since his schooling had finished, and the roar summoned a second spirit to spawn. He clamped his hands over his mouth, taken aback by his own power.
“What do we do?” Melissa whispered, backing towards the village, “we should run, right?”
“And lead them to the village?” Reik’lin said, struggling to keep quiet now that he’d rediscovered what noise felt like to release, but every word continued to jolt the demons closer and it was either they die (and endanger his village) or they ssh. Buttons had other ideas.
“MIGHT I SUGGEST YOU LEAD THEM SOMEWHERE ELSE,” Buttons said.
“How?” Melissa said. A cool wind jingled the basket at Reik’lin’s hips, and he gasped.
“The lanterns!” Reik’lin said, “the lanterns guide the spirits home!”
“We don’t have enough time! Every time we speak, they inch closer.”
“We need to distract them,” Reik’lin said. Melissa bit the inside of her cheeks in thought, then grabbed his wrist and pulled him backwards. Reik’lin’s impulse was to complain but, before he could, Melissa stuck her leg out and kicked Buttons back into the bush.
“WHAT WAS THAT FOR?” Buttons said. “HELLO. I’M STUCK, MELISSA, AGAIN, IN THE SAME BUSH. SAME MUD. I THINK.”
The demons paused, flicked in between a state of being and a state of not, and then turned towards the bush instead of Reik’lin and Melissa.
“I UNDERSTAND NOW,” Buttons said, as the spirits approached him. “I AM THE DISTRACTION. I SHALL KEEP MOVING FURTHER INTO THE FOREST, OKAY?”
“Quickly!” Melissa said, “they can’t hurt him, but I still feel bad. You get those lanterns and light the path away from the village, and I’ll extinguish the ones you’ve already put up. Deal?”
“Deal,” Reik’lin said, dashing past the demons and towards the shadows as Melissa leapt into action and climbed the nearest tree, blowing out the candle of its lantern.
“I AM SLIGHTLY FURTHER AWAY,” Buttons said, “BUT I AM STILL QUITE TANGLED AND THEY ARE GETTING CLOSE.”
Reik’lin bit down his reply and prayed Melissa would do the same; she was slowly becoming enveloped in darkness, and the path to the village was disappearing. Reik’lin had never been this far into the forest before, and the more he climbed, the more spirits he could sense. They were slipping from the roots of the trees, gliding towards his home, limbs clicking and dripping.
He kept on working: climbing, lighting, climbing, lighting. The spirits began to take notice, reaching towards the light as if it would heal them. But it wasn’t enough. They needed more. They needed noise.
“HEY!” Reik’lin shouted, “DEMONS. LOOK OVER HERE!”
They did, and began advancing towards the path he’d lit.
“WHAT DID YOU SAY, UUEN?” Buttons called from the opposite end. They turned, again.
“BE SILENT, BUTTONS,” Melissa shouted to him, and the demons turned on her.
“BOTH OF YOU, PLEASE, JUST SHUT UP FOR ONCE IN YOUR LIVES,” Reik’lin screamed, and the demons set their mark. They slid towards the light, away from the village, and Reik’lin used their slow movement as his opportunity to dip behind the branches of the furthest tree and crawl down. Buttons, thank the Gods, remained quiet.
When he reached Melissa, she was grinning.
“We did it,” she whispered.
“Shut up,” Reik’lin said, and they set to work heaving Buttons back out of the bush. Using the faint glow of his torch and the blue hue of Button’s eyes to navigate back to the village, the three teetered on the outskirts and looked nervously to where the clan had gathered. The entire village was staring, aghast, at the pitch-black forest that should have been shining, and the shouting beings that should have been silent.
“What happened?” Stuhn asked from the front-line.
Melissa gulped, slapping a hand over Button’s mechanical mouth.
“The lanterns led the demons home,” Reik’lin said, stepping forward, “the human helped.”
Stuhn looked to the Eye for confirmation; she smiled and nodded once.
“When the sun arises and we can sing again,” Stuhn said, “you will tell your tale.”