Kalpana huddled in a corner of the transport, her hand firmly wrapped around Ticka’s paw.
“Ticka, what’s going to happen to us?”
“We are being sent to the city, to Paddy’s brother. What will happen after that I cannot be sure.”
“What about all the others? You think they got away?”
“Yes, I am sure many were able to escape. The scat cats were effective in getting the message out and releasing many of the animals from their cages. Most I am sure got away, others that could not be sold, others simply destroyed. You must not worry about them now. You must focus on your own survival.”
It was a hard reality, but Tikka was only capable of speaking the truth. Paddy, her beloved Paddy was dead. He’d gone without saying goodbye. She’d managed a kiss on his peaceful furry face before the transport soldiers had dragged them out of their home. Only Paddy’s designation of “semi-intelligent” had saved her from the indignity of being forced into a cage. Even so, she’d been shackled to the ship, unable to take move more than a few feet in any direction. Tikka and Ursa had suffered a similar fate.
Others were not as lucky. Friends from the village had also been corralled into the transport ship. She’d watched as too many familiar faces were designated as either livestock or meat stock, then locked up like animals for the remainder of the trip.
“I think I saw Sandy. They put her in a cage. Does that mean they’re going to kill her?”
“There is nothing you can do for her now. Try to sleep.”
The loud roar of the engines made sleep nearly impossible, but the strain of the past day had taken its toll. For all of the chains and cages, the transport was warm and Kalpana drifted in and out of consciousness.
Several hours later, Ursa nudged her awake.
An ant-like soldier unlocked their shackles. “You three, follow me.” it chittered.
Ticka translated his words into text and transmitted them to her sublime inter-corneal implants.
Kalpana followed behind Ursa and Tikka, swinging her body between her arms at a quick pace to keep up with their escort. As they moved out of the transport she was blinded by the brilliant glare of the city. Glass, crystal, metal and polished rock covered every surface. Dozens of Ruska moved about the street. They wore fancy head dressings and tail markings. Unlike her Paddy who had much preferred to appear simply as he was, the city dweller’s furs had been dyed in all sorts of colors and patterns.
Kalpana drew in a deep breath, hoping to catch a whiff of something familiar in the air. But the city’s air was thick with the scent of dry, dead flowers. What little plant-life existed within the cold, sterile cityscape was quiet and inert. She missed the trees back home that clapped in the wind. She longed to hear the melodic voices of the flowers as they sang to birds and insects.
“I don’t think I can live here. Everything is so fake,” she whispered to Tikka.
The ant-like escort jabbed Kalpana’s back
“Ow,” she cried out.
Ticka quickly stepped between Kalpana and the soldier.
“Just keep moving,” he urged Kalpana. “I think we might be almost there.”
The escort stopped in front of a large multi-story building that floated on a large, round pond. Kalpana stared at the water. Something was wrong. It did not sparkle in the sunlight. She dipped a finger into the pool and drew them into her mouth. Like everything else in the city, it tasted flat and artificial.
The transporter behind her grunted and shoved her forward grumbling something about the water being only for decoration and not for drinking.
Kalpana chanced a glance at Tikka, and he put up a finger on his lip, urging her to silence. She hand walked close enough to rub against Ticka while walking. Ursa was forced to walk behind, but she could feel its warm breath on her back, so that helped. Only her right side where for years Paddy walked on his six paws, was missing. It was a huge space to fill and reminded her of the fact he was now dead.
The guard pressed a button to summon the freight elevator and then grunted and pointed when the car arrived.
Small piles of rotting food scraps littered the corners of the small space and gave off a rancid odor. Kalpana hid her nose in her sleeve to keep from gagging, ignoring yet another disdainful glance from the soldier.
They traveled up more than a dozen floors before the door opened. The quiet hallway offered only a single door. The family crest emblazoned on the glass surface was familiar. An exact copy hung in the front hall of Paddy’s home.
The soldier knocked loudly and the door opened almost immediately. A bright orange furry face with yellow lips looked out at them. At first, there was the friendly pant of greetings, but as they heavily-hooded yellow eyes took in the three of them, the creature let out a low hiss. Slamming the door shut. Ursa, Ticka, and Kalpana stood there in a pocket of worry. When the door opened again, a sadder, older version of Paddy appeared in the doorway and whispered a command that sends the orange faced creature scurrying off to somewhere inside.
The Ruska before them was the spitting image of his brother in looks, his eyes, however, were void of the joy and peace that had made Paddy who he was. The Ruska opened the door and waved them in, then dismissed the escort.
“I have no idea what my brother expected me to do with you, but I suppose we’ll figure it out.”
He sighed, and turned, motioning with his tail for the three of them to follow him further inside.
Beneath Kalpana’s hands, the stone floor was cold and slick. She recognized the stones immediately. They were known as “singing stones” and had been harvest from one of the many strange and wonderful Islands she had traveled to with Paddy. Each stone made created its own unique sound when pinged or gently vibrated. A small singing stone had occupied the center of the main room of Paddy’s home and Kalpana had danced on it many times. Though she could not hear the sounds as others might, she could feel the vibrations of the sound in the air. Sometimes the ocular device would pick up some of the lower tones and she could hear that. They tickled. She paused and gently tapped the corner of one stone, but she felt no vibration. the stones were fitted so tightly together there was no joy in stepping on them to make music. Instead, the stones had been reduced to nothing more than a dull brown slap manufacture and polish Kalpana reached out and touched the wall. They were made of wood, but they didn’t sing as the walls of Paddy’s house had done. The wood around her came from speaking trees, she could just barely detect their woody scent. It was customary to only harvest old trees, those near the end of their lifespan, but the planks that lined the wall had been taken from young trees not yet ready to leave their roots. Among her gifts was the ability to smell emotion. She could smell their anguish and loneliness. Kalpana’s worry had magnified ten fold This place was void of any warmth, of love, of caring. It felt only empty.
“Tikka,” she whispered, “this cannot be our new home. We’ll die here. I want to go home.” she whispered
Tikka shook his head, “We cannot go back.” he texted to her. Which ran a line of text on her implants in her left eye
The hard reality of her current situation brought tears to her eyes. Such emotion was frowned upon by the Ruska, but she didn’t care. Too much had happened and she had lost too much. How could Paddy send her here?
They followed their new master to the back of the house, through a door into dark, dank space.
“These are the servants’ quarters, your new home. This is the only place you may roam freely. Should your assistance be needed, you will be summoned to the main house.”
In quick order, he pointed out the food receptacle, litter box, and power stations, and the one place they could sleep. Kalpana moved forward and looked up at the Ruska who looked so much like her Paddy.
“Excuse me, sir, what should we call you.”
He raised a hand as if to strike her, but did not follow through.
“You may also not speak to me or any member of this household unless you are spoken to. Is that clear?”
Kalpana nodded and moved back behind Tikka and Ursa. “Stay quiet and we may find a use for you here. Cause problems and I’ll send you to the meat markets without a second thought.” He turned and closed the door behind him.
Kalpana’s tears fell freely.
It had been hours since their arrival, but Kalpana felt no more welcome than she had when they first arrived. The servant area was cold and boring. As they had done many times, when it was too cold or too hot to go outside to play, Ticka and Ursa took turns tossing her up into the air. The sensation of flying and falling always made her laugh.
“Again, again,” she said every time she landed in the middle of her sleeping cot. With every toss, her laughter grew louder and more full.
Heavy steps echoed from down the hall and Paddy’s brother appeared, a thick frown on his face. Kalpana smiled at the Ruska. “Paddy said you were always a great brother. What can I call you?”
The severe furrow of his brow softened and the corners of his mouth turned up in a small smile. His slumped shoulders pressed back a little. He reached out for her hand. His paw was warm and furry like Paddy’s had been.
“That my brother spoke so highly of me, speaks to the caliber of his character. It seems then, little one, that you do not remember me?”
“We’ve met before? When? Where?.” Kalpana said using her best speaking voice which had a nasal quality.
The Ruska smiled. “I was the one who found you and your friend Sandy in the animal hole and took you to my brother. I ferreted the two of you out in my pocket, but neither one of you could be still or quiet for very long, so every time a guard came I would squeak to mask the sound of your crying. “So, please, call me Squeaky. I am so very happy to see you again. I am sorry I spoke so harshly to you. It was necessary to do so for appearances.”
Kalpana hadn’t thought of her time in the animal hole in a long time.
Her life with Paddy had almost erased it from memory.
“What do you think you are doing?” A tall imposing female Ruska screamed at them from the end of the hallway.
“You do not speak! Especially to these, abominations. “ She moved forward and pushed Paddy’s brother away from Kalpana.
“My poor pathetic excuse for a husband only took you in because of family obligations.” Ticka quickly sent a text message telling her what the creature in front of her was saying. Disgust covered her face. “You’re as useless as he is.” She glared at her husband. “It’s bad enough you’re a sterile and incapable of producing eggs, but now you expect me to feed and house these things? We’ll see how long that lasts.” She whirled around and stormed back out into the main house, slamming the door behind her.
Kalpana reached out and took her new master’s hand back into her own. She pulled a blue stone from her pouch and placed it on his palm. A shimmering blue light enveloped his entire body. He dropped to his knees, near tears, his fear evident on his face.
Kalpana spoke softly hoping to soothe him. “Don’t worry, this stone will not hurt you, it only helps me to see the truth of things.” Kalpana closed her eyes and the let the stone’s energy fill her tiny body.
“She lies,” she whispered. “You are not sterile. Your wife took your seeds while you were sleeping and sold them! Go to seed dealer at the back of the marketplace in the square, your seeds are there.”
The vision and the light faded and Kalpana dropped the stone back into her pouch.
Squeaky’s large eyes filled with tears as he hugged her and stroked her cheek.
“I married her because she is royalty. It was all arranged and it was designed to bring honor back to my family. But I fear it has done nothing but destroy everything good we stand for.” He bent and kissed the top of Kalpana’s head. “I always knew you were something special. Thank you.” With one last listless smile, he turned and then walked quietly down the hall.
Ticka and Ursa replied in unison.“As do we.”
A short time later a small parcel fell from a delivery chute that was usually reserved for dirty laundry. It was wrapped in plain brown paper with a hand-written note attached.
Sleep and eat well, my friends. – Squeaky
Inside were several clean blankets and some upgraded rations.
“Maybe it won’t be so bad here after all,” Kalpana wondered aloud as they settled onto their cots to sleep.
Ursa shook his head.
“I agree with Ursa, “ Ticka said as he dusted off a charging port and plugged in for the night. “Squeaky’s wife does not seem trustworthy and she does not have our best interests at heart.”
“Paddy always said we should look for the good in people. Maybe she’s not as bad as she seems? Maybe we can show her how useful we can be?”
Ticka said nothing further, as he tucked her into bed. Wrapped in a clean blanket, Kalpana fell asleep thinking of home and of Paddy.
“Kalpana! Wake up!”
Kalpana’s eyes snapped open at Ticka’s frantic shaking. The pull of exhaustion instantly evaporated as her eyes focused on the shock-prong stick that hovered just inches from her face. Animal gatherers! It was at the hands of such degenerates that she had experienced her first taste of despair. Memories of the darkness of the animal hole, once faded by the love Paddy provided, rushed forward.
Kalpana jumped from the cot and fell prone in front of the orange-faced one. She clasped her hands in front of her, her eyes pleading for mercy. But all she got was a hiss and a kick for her efforts.
Squeaky’s wife stood watching the entire scene. “Take them all. And good riddance.” She pointed at Kalpana. “I don’t know how you found about my mate’s worthless eggs, but know that his disobedience will cost him his life as soon as he is found. He is as good as dead which puts your fate in my hands.” A dark, twisted smile spread across her face. “Good riddance.” The animal gatherers moved in closer, the tips of their prongs glowing with a current.
Ticka rushed across their small area and jumped onto Ursa’s shell.
Pulling out the stone Paddy had given him, Tikka pressed it into Kalpana’s hand as he pulled her up beside him. “Go!”
Kalpana heard a strong voice call out to her. “Come now!”
She reached for the voice as if going through a door.
In a flash, the hallway full of animal gatherers disappeared, replaced by freezing cold and the blinding whiteness of snow. Ticka hopped off Ursa and push Kalpana down closer to Ursa for warmth and safety.
“Ticka, where are we? What’s happening?” She could see nothing but walls of ice. Was it morning or afternoon? She had no idea. “I’m so cold.”
Ursa chirped beneath her and Kalpana snuggled down onto the furry surface of Ursa’s shell, trying to hold onto some fleeting warmth. Within minutes her arms and legs had grown numb from the cold and she could feel her body drifting towards sleep.
“Ticka, Ursa, it’s too cold. I can’t hold on…”
Kalpana awoke to the smells of familiar food. Gone were the snow and biting cold. She lay on a cozy coat, wrapped in warm fleece like blankets. Ursa lay on the floor a short distance away, munching quite happy on fresh grub. She climbed down from the cot and moved over to Ursa. “Where are we? Where’s Ticka?”
Ursa sent a stream of images almost too fast for her to understand. They’d been rescued, but by whom she couldn’t tell. Curious, Kalpana inched away from Ursa and approached a heavy wall hanging that covered an opening in the room’s stone walls.
Outside white ice and sharp mountains stretched as far as the eye could see. Shuffling back toward the center of the room, she scanned the rest of the space. Greatly polished glass globes hung at various heights from the tall, cavernous ceiling. The walls shifted from shades of soft gray to black and brown. Some surfaces were painted with intricate patterns in bright colors The deeper she moved into the cave the stronger the smell of food grew. A thick fur hung over the opening of a large alcove. She could hear movement on the other side and the distinct sound of Ticka’s internal mechanisms as they ran through his regular diagnostic routine.
Kalpana pushed through the furs and smiled. She recognized the group that sat before her immediately. They were the old ones, those given the power of foresight and the memory of their entire species. Their long, slender bodies bore no legs, instead, they moved in a gentle swaying motion from side to side, like the garden snakes that had frequented Paddy’s garden. Each had several sets of long slender arms with hands, not unlike her own, save a shiny black claw that extended from each fingertip.
Half a dozen of them sat in a circle around a golden fire. They all turned to look at her, then one nodded in her direction and held up a small plate of food, inviting her inside with a wave of his other hands. From the smell of it, there was berry paste, lentil sweets, and even some meat. Needing no second invitation, she hurried towards the promise of a meal and settled on the floor next to Ticka.
Kalpana signed her thanks before accepting the plate and taking her first bite. She remembered from her studies with Paddy the customs of these ancient peoples. Their voices were subsonic and too low for most other species to hear, so they had adapted and learned to speak with quiet and calm gestures. When she was done eating, the same one who had given her the food, signed to her.
“We felt your touch upon the mountain. We knew it was the time. Your Paddy, he is gone now?”
Kalpana simply nodded. “And then he sent me to his brother, but we were not as safe there as he had hoped, she signed back.
The heavy furs covering the alcove entrance parted and Ursa trotted into the room and settled next to Kalpana.
The old ones leaned in closer together. Kalpana could not hear their voices, but it was clear they were discussing her situation. After several moments, they returned their attention back to her.
“Kalpana, my name is So Tall. We have known of your coming for many years, though we were not expecting you so soon. We have a gift for you. This is a stone from the mountain that sings to the stars.” He offered her around red stone hanging from a thin leather string. “It was carved out long, long ago, before the Zebu colonized this planet and brought the Ruska here. I suspect many had forgotten that fact, but your Paddy had not. This stone is yours now. It will sing you to the stars of your new home. Trust in this gift.”
Kalpana reached for the gift, but finding it warm to the touch, hesitated to take it from him.
“Will this poison me? Warm stone usually means it can hurt us.”
The old one smiled. “Do not worry,. The warmth comes not from radiation, but because it matches the temperature of whatever environment it is in.”
Intrigued by the stone, Kalpana slipped it around her neck and let it touched her skin. The gentle warmth grew but was not painful. The colors on the surface of the stone began to swirl. Seconds later it began to sink into her skin. Kalpana yelped, drawing Ursa to his feet in alarm.
The old one reached down and lifted the stone easily from her skin with a single claw. A smile stretched across his face. “Be still, little one, you are in no danger. This stone is so special, it hides wherever it is placed.”
Kalpana took a deep breath, and lifted the stone from his claw, dropping it back down onto her skin. As before, the stone soon disappeared. She pulled at the thin leather cording away from her body and watched as the stone rematerialized.
The group of ancient ones muttered in unison, and though she could not hear their laughter Kalpana could feel their joy.
“Forgive me for not warning you about the stone. I am old even for an old one. I am the leader of this tribe. Soon, we will go to the sacred place in the mountain and sing to the stars ourselves, as we fade from this place to the next.”
“Old one, why did you bring me here? Will I go with you to the place?”
“No. You have much left to do, little one. But first, you must wait for the Aim Mee.”
“What is an Aim Mee?” Kalpana frown as she signed the last two words like a tossed stone hitting a wall.
“They are a people like you, with hands and skin like yours. You must go with these people and help them. They will be here soon, but until then, you must not allow yourself to be captured.”
“Can’t we just stay here with you, old one? I miss our home. I miss my Paddy.”
He did not reply to her question but continued with his instructions. “Once you are with these people, you must destroy the snow stone, the white one that brought you here. It will no longer bring you help, only death if you return to this place. We have done our service and it is time for us to leave.”
“I don’t want you to die. First Paddy, and probably Sandy. Please don’t go, old one!”
“There, there little one, we do not die, only fade. One day, you will return here, even without the stone. You will be very old, but when you come you will finally understand. For now, trust us. When in doubt, turn to Ticka for answers for he has the story of our people in his memory banks.”
The old one reached out and petted Ursa.
“Ursa, soon you will return to your own home. Kalpana will take you there. This stone will help.” He pointed to the stone around her neck.
The Old One stood and carefully lifted Ticka in one hand and Kalpana in another before placing them gently on Ursa’s back.
“We will send you to where the Aim Mee will come. You must watch for them. Remember you can trust them and do not be caught by the animal rustlers.”
He smiled down at them, then taking a stone similar the one that had brought Kalpana to them, he placed a hand on each of them. In an instant, Kalpana found herself in the shadow of a dirty city, Ursa, and Ticka at her side.