by Wesley Williamson

(SF Short Story exclusive to BookLoons)

She wandered lonely through the wood, a human child.

The Hybroxi chattering over their tasks in the high branches heard her, and came leaping down to gather in the family bundles, each tangled into a lumpy brown mass, like a Christmas pudding dotted with huge black raisin eyes.

They watched till she passed and then, exploding into random fragments, bounded over and under and past each other from branch to branch to cohere again in front, until they reached the boundary of their allotted territory, where another tribe waited patiently.

Then there was such a dance, a splitting and spinning and bounding from forest floor to sky ceiling, from the food trees to the sleep trees to the work-a-day dream trees; such a singing, such a storm of whirling sounds that swept together and then ripped apart, a shred of sadness left clinging to the ragged edge of joy, a whole nugget of fear embedded in a matrix of awe.

A human child in the wood alone, and a she-child too.

High, high above, Falkenhyr hung balanced on the circling tide of the world wind. Lonely in the distance sailed his brothers, one and one, and beyond them, though he could not see, he knew that others lifted and sank on the swell of the invisible ocean which was their element, knots in the gossamer web stretched by the Shining Ones around Their world.

He saw the commotion in the wood below, and reluctantly withdrew a small portion of his mind from the tapestry of logic, spun thread by abstruse thread around its premise, and being woven now in intricate inevitable designs, to form a symbolic universe that would earn him honour among his peers at the next gathering.

The Hybroxi were unusually excited, yet this was no holiday. As he watched, the disturbance spread from tribe to tribe and the pattern became clear. Something was moving through the wood, a Hyrka perhaps. He pictured - coldly, he had little emotion even for his own kind and none for the earthbound - the gaudy terror rippling over the grass.

The Hyrka too were part of the design - like the Hybroxi, like the Falkentribe, even the Shining Ones themselves, who wove their own lives into the world's woof - but the Hyrka pattern had a discordant element; there were too many of them, and they were becoming too bold. It was of little personal interest to him - he had already explored all the logical
possibilities of the real world - but it was his part to watch and record. He let himself swing down in a great looping spiral till he was gliding just above the topmost leaves, and his interest quickened. The Hybroxi were not dancing fear this time; their excitement was linked to a new creature on the world, one of those who had come from the stars.

His great shadow swam before him over the foliage, heaving up over the crests and sliding down in a spreading stain over the hollows, and where it passed the dance ended and the families clung together in quivering, fascinated bundles to find what the Watcher for the Shining Ones would do.

Back on the grass covered meadow (split by a stream and ringed by the forest) where the colonists' ship had crashed, Emma's mother was being comforted by a small group of the other women. Her hysterics had quietened into moaning self-excuses for leaving the child alone.

John Hirst, the nominal leader of the colony, keeping a tight grip on his jangling nerves, turned away. It only needed this; they had been plagued by misfortune. First in space, when most of the officers had died in the same explosion that destroyed the instruments that should have led them to join the established colony on Centaurus III. Then, when by a miracle they had chanced on this Earth-like world, continual squabbles had split them into sullen factions, whose hostility only grew more bitter when an exploring party was torn to bloody shreds by something in the forest.

His mind veered hastily away from that nauseating memory, and he turned his eyes to the fields, painfully cultivated, where the remains of their first crop rotted. He would have to try again to make them see that they must clear and replant them; maybe ditch around and divert the stream into it, that might keep the monkey-creatures away, or a high fence.

"Come on, Hirst, stop dreaming. It'll be dark soon. Let's go, boys." Some of the men started off with Carter, but the majority hesitated, waiting for Hirst.

"Wait, men!" He knew his voice was shrill and tried to control it. "Carter, you can't just go barging into that forest without a plan. We'll have to split into small parties, go around the edge and try to pick up her tracks, then at dawn we'll organize a search party to follow her in."

"In the morning?" Carter looked at him with contempt. "The kid's only seven years old. Are you going to leave her alone in there all night? Have you forgotten what happened to Evanson?" He turned to the others. "I'm going after her whether any of you are coming or not." He started off without looking back, and this time all but a few of the older men followed him.

Hirst's shoulders slumped, and suddenly he felt old and helpless. What was the use, they were none of them qualified to be the first explorers of a new world. They were farmers, shopkeepers, schoolteachers like himself, not specialists, and too high a proportion were women and children. This world might look like Earth but it was not. Those huge birds, or whatever they were, hardly moving in the sky; the monkey-things in the trees with their continual chattering and sometimes that weird, broken piping; the sparkling incandescence drifting over the hills at night, which Lieutenant Evanson had started out to investigate; whatever monstrosities had left him and his party a pitiable scrabble of torn fragments; no, this was not Earth. He did not like to think what would happen when their food supply ran out. They might be better off dying now, at least Evanson had been killed quickly.

He broke through the circle of women who had gathered around him, ignoring their complaining questions, and walked heavily to his hut, a makeshift affair like the others, thrown up as a token protection, without plan or pride.

"Late - late in the evening Kilmeny came home,
 For Kilmeny had been she could not tell where,
 And Kilmeny had seen what she could not declare

There was laughter and an antiphonal chorus of comments from the humans spread at ease up the cropped grass slopes of the meeting place. The quotation had been delivered at every birthday celebration for Emma for the last nine years, and they greeted it as an old friend.

Hirst beamed around at them, and waited tolerantly for the Hybroxi gransers to scold the childer back into the wait-watch-listen bundles on the branches overhanging the hollow.

"Emma didn't know where she'd been either. Remember, Carter, what she said when you found her asleep that next day back at the edge of the forest?"

This was part of the ritual too, and Carter looked up grinning with his arms still around his mate. "Said she'd been carried off by the stork to see fireworks." This year he varied the customary response, and added as he patted his woman's swollen belly. "Stork's had a long holiday, but he's goin' to be kept busy now, eh, Hirst?"

There was a shriek of laughter - many of the younger women were in various stages of pregnancy - which was joined by the deeper laughter of the men when, very much on cue, one of the Falkentribe swooped grandly over the clearing and away.

Hirst held out his hand for quiet and they settled back again, the thick grass warm against their flesh, ready to enjoy every minute of their holiday.

"Yes, this year we have many things to celebrate. Emma's birthday, the child she had last month, the first to be born here, all the other children soon to be born. But we should remember also how we were when we first came home, how ignorant we were, how foolish."

They were listening quietly now though none of them, even Hirst, really remembered. He was using words which had become tradition and though essentially meaningless were still respected. "That is why Emma's birthday is kept as a holiday by all of us. From the time she came back to us, even then, our luck changed. and later, who was it who learned how to communicate with the Hybroxi, who persuaded them to help us? Emma!"

He flung out his hands to where she stood smiling with her mate's hand on her shoulder, her naked brown body dappled by the late afternoon sun, striking through the leaves and twinkling in her baby's eyes until he scrambled higher up her back to avoid it.

Hirst was getting old and beginning to feel the coolness as the sun went down. He shrugged the cloak of Hyrka fur closer around him and went on. "It has not been easy for us, many died before we learned how to deal with the beasts." There was a low unconscious growl from the younger men as they stiffened instinctively into the fighting crouch and hands tightened on spears. "But it grows easier every day, and when Emma's son is grown this will be his world, a human world."

He stepped off the tree stump and the clearing dissolved into a welter of spinning bodies, as the young men in one ring, and the young girls not yet with child in another, began the birthday dance, the words of their song blending with the excited piping of the Hybroxi as they slowed the tempo of their own dance to form a counterpoint through the human movements.

High, high above them Falkenhyr hung balanced on the circling tide of the world wind. With a small part of his mind he thought of the Humans and Hybroxi dancing below, with detached admiration for the Shining Ones. They made mistakes, as they had with the Hyrka, but they corrected them ingeniously, with whatever material came most readily to hand, however unpromising it might at first appear.

He wondered briefly - now that the Hyrka were no longer a problem,what would the Shining Ones use to control these new Humans? Ah, yes, of course. He felt a moment's strong sardonic amusement before he turned his mind to more interesting matters.


The three lines of verse in the story are from an old Scottish poem called Kilmeny by James Hogg (1770 -1835).  An extract from this very long poem follows ...

    When the ingle low'd wi' an eiry leme,
    Late, late in the gloamin' Kilmeny came hame!

    'Kilmeny, Kilmeny, where have you been?
    Lang hae we sought baith holt and den;
    By linn, by ford, and green-wood tree,
    Yet you are halesome and fair to see.
    Where gat you that joup o' the lily scheen?
    That bonnie snood of the birk sae green?
    And these roses, the fairest that ever were seen?
    Kilmeny, Kilmeny, where have you been?

    Kilmeny look'd up with a lovely grace,
    But nae smile was seen on Kilmeny's face;
    As still was her look, and as still was her e'e,
    As the stillness that lay on the emerant lea,
    Or the mist that sleeps on a waveless sea.
    For Kilmeny had been, she knew not where,
    And Kilmeny had seen what she could not declare;
    Kilmeny had been where the cock never crew,
    Where the rain never fell, and the wind never blew.
    But it seem'd as the harp of the sky had rung,
    And the airs of heaven play'd round her tongue,
    When she spake of the lovely forms she had seen,
    And a land where sin had never been;
    A land of love and a land of light,
    Withouten sun, or moon, or night;
    Where the river swa'd a living stream,
    And the light a pure celestial beam;
    The land of vision, it would seem,
    A still, an everlasting dream.