Yes, I’ve been AWOL lately. I didn’t have a guest this week, though I have more coming in the next couple of months! I’ve been racing to complete touch-ups on “Running from the Gods” before surrendering it into the skilled hands of a professional editor in early June.
The other day I worked on one of the lighter chapters in “Running.” It gave me a much-needed chuckle or two, so I decided to share it today. In the chapters leading to this one, 16-year-old Akuleh (aka Ku) barely escaped with his life from a pack of exiled criminals and managed to persuade the local military recruiters that he’s a legitimate conscript. In this chapter he begins both a friendship and an enmity that will carry through the entire series.
Thirteen: The Challenge
I dashed through the door into the corridor, feeling like Machitew had appeared at my shoulder. What did I just sign myself up for?
I shoved my qualms away. I just did what I’ve been wanting to do ever since Huk left. I reminded myself, What I have to do to protect my family.
Hanuk and I had both dreamed of joining the Qaletaqa, the Chalca Territorial Militia’s Special Missions branch, from the time we could pronounce the name. But you had to put in at least two years of military service before you could apply for the Qaletaqa.
This is the first step. Then I thought, No more shegruls. No more Istas. I laughed out loud. She’s going to be furious!
Halfway down the corridor I stopped to shift my helmet enough to rifle through the brown packet until I found the room key, a plastic tab with 512 printed on it. Up three floors.
I decided to take the lift this time. Maybe I’d ride all the way to the top first for a good look at the aviary. You couldn’t see much from the lobby, except prism-split flashes of greenery inside the crystal enclosure. Was the foliage artificial or real? I’d heard of air-breathing vines and mosses that grew in jungle canopies on other worlds. Maybe the hotel owners had imported some of those along with the birds.
A chime, announcing a lift car’s arrival on the second floor, interrupted my speculations. When its door hissed open, I faced four guys dressed like the kid in the recruiters’ office, though they were normal Chalca height. “Going down?” asked the square-jawed one nearest the door.
“Up,” I said.
They stared at me, and the same self-consciousness that had pulled me up short before the recruiter in the corridor crashed down on me like a rockslide off a mesa.
“Only conscripts are allowed on the fifth floor,” a second guy said. He had an ax-narrow face, and he smirked, “If you want your big brother, you’ll have to call him from down in the lobby.”
My hands tightened at my sides. “I am a conscript.”
They glanced at each other and chuckled. “Yeah, right!” the square-jawed guy said.
As the door began to close, one of them muttered in a derisive tone, “Shegherders from the desert!”
“He even smells like a shegrul!” another chortled.
Their laughter reverberated up the lift shaft as the car sank away.
When the next car arrived empty, I stomped inside. “Five,” I snarled.
As I exited the lift my key card lit up, displaying a miniature grid with an LED sequence running across it, directing me to the right. I turned, and the light sequence led me down the corridor, left into a cross corridor, and to the second door on the right.
I hesitated before I touched the key to the lock pad. What if one of the guys in the lift has this room?
His problem. I set my jaw and keyed the lock. The door slid open.
The tall kid, the other late arrival, sat cross-legged on the nearest bed, a remote in his hand. He grinned when he saw me. “You’re just in time to order dinner.”
My face still burned from the remark that I smelled like a shegrul. “I need to wash,” I said.
“Come and order first,” he urged. “It’ll take them a while to deliver, and I’ve got the menu up.”
I dropped my helmet on a small table just inside the door and strode into the room, far enough to see the display filling the wall opposite the beds, but keeping a distance from my new roommate. He flicked through nine or ten choices, and pictures of laden dishes appeared, one after another. An hour or two ago, entering that filthy transit stop restroom, I’d thought I’d never be hungry again, but now my stomach growled.
“That looks good.” I pointed with my chin.
“Ribs of equatorial wild boar. Great choice!” my roomie said. “Yeah, I think I’ll get ribs, too. Where’s your meal card?” As I fished it out of my packet, he added, “I’m Odakota of Anoki clan, from North Gate Enclave, but call me Kota.”
“Akuleh, Masou clan,” I said, handing over my card, “from Red Wash Enclave. I go by Ku.”
“Red Wash?” Kota focused on entering our card numbers via the remote. “Do you know the guy who—” He stopped, glanced around, and his eyes widened. “You are the guy who landed that bird-struck Darter! Yuma’s breath!” He stared at me, open-mouthed.
“If you tell anybody . . .” I mock-threatened.
“I won’t! I promise!” He pretended to cower in front of me.
“Yell when the food comes,” I said, and headed for the bathroom. I needed a long, hot soak, my standard practice after a day of shegrul partitioning or combatives training.
The bathtub had once been a block of black-veined marble from which a perfect oval had been carved, smoothed, and polished. An oval wide enough for two people to sit side-by-side, and shoulder-deep. It had a headrest at one end, a touch-panel to control water temperature, and massage jets! It made the pump-filled corrugated trough in Istas’s dwelling look completely primitive, which it was. I sighed in anticipation, started the water, and reached up to pull off my backpack.
No straps hugged my shoulders. No backpack. Had I left it in the recruiter’s office? On the transport from Old Trade Center? I tried to remember the last time I’d seen it. At Chavat’s hardware post? Elder Macawi’s store? The bank? I’d had it there. Then I’d put it . . .
I had put it in the compartment behind the seat of my straddlejet. My stolen straddlejet! I groaned aloud. So loud it came out in a bellow.
“What’d you do, scald yourself?” Kota yelled from the other room.
“No.” I moved to the doorway. “Those reeking crims even got my clean underwear!”
Kota burst out laughing. “I’ve got to hear this tale!” He slid off his bed to squat by the large pack sprawled at its foot. “My Ma must’ve got me a dozen new pairs,” he said, rummaging through the pack. “I think you’re close enough. Here.” Before I could reply, he’d hooked a pair of shorts on his forefinger, stretched the waistband, and let fly.
I snagged them out of the air before they hit me in the face. “These had better be clean!”
“Never been worn, but I sure don’t want them back!” Kota said.
I mentally inventoried the contents of my lost pack while the massage jets pummeled away my fatigue. Socks, shorts, hygiene kit, and that outdated ear tab. Nothing I couldn’t replace, except I only had three rels left in my pocket. I’d be washing stuff by hand every night until uniform issue.
Clad in Kota’s loaner shorts—he was lankier than me so they were a little snug at my waist—I washed my own shorts, shirt, and socks in the basin and hung them around the bathroom to dry. I had to use one of the bodywashes from the wall dispenser for laundry soap, which gave them a greenery scent. Better than the fruity or floral options, and definitely better than puke!
A chirp sounded in the other room, and Kota called, “Chow’s up!” I emerged in time to see him heft a stack of plate-sized containers from the vacuwaiter tube running up through one corner. Water welled in my mouth at the rich aroma of seared ribs.
The meat, smothered in spicy red sauce, practically fell off the bones, and I practically inhaled it. A mound of roasted and seasoned tuber wedges filled my second dish. I made short work of those, too.
“This sauce isn’t bad,” Kota said between sucking it off his fingers, “but I like the stuff Pa gets on Satha better.”
Kota’s father was Sathi, he told me, which explained his height, lankiness, and brownish hair. He had been his father’s apprentice, learning the merchant trade, before he got his conscription notice.
“I’ve gone with him to Solienne and Satha a few times, and once to Och,” he said. “I have a pilot license, but I think I’ve traveled by vortex more than Darter.”
Derry appeared in my mind, with her storm-gray eyes and small freckled nose. “Have you been to Ardonar?”
“No.” Kota licked another finger. “But Pa says they make the best sausages.”
And the prettiest girls, I thought.
After Kota turned in I retrieved my link from my discarded trousers. I had a message to send. I had spent the last few days mentally composing it but my thumbs hesitated on the touchpad.
“Gram, I joined the Soliennese Defense Force. I can’t go home. You know why.”
Gram had been there when my father performed my Birth Chant. She knew as well as everybody else in the clan what it said.
“I’m sorry for lying to you,” I wrote. But then I added one more lie. “We’re leaving for Solienne in a few minutes.” A guilty pang jabbed my soul, but I knew if Gram thought she could stop me, she’d come out to the hotel and hunt me down. She might try anyway. I ended with, “I’ll contact you when I can. Akuleh,” and tapped SEND.
A strident, brassy tune ripped me from sleep. I shot upright. Across the room, Kota sat up with a gasp. Outside the window, predawn pink arched above the horizon.
We scrambled into our clothes. Dampness lingered in my socks and my shirt’s underarms, and they had stiffened.
Once dressed, we collected room keys, links, and our brown packets and joined the human river in the corridor.
“There’s a mob at the lifts,” Kota said through a yawn as we rounded the corner.
“Emergency stairs.” I pointed the way with a jut of my jaw. “That’ll be faster.”
We clattered our way down five levels, and burst into the lobby as the first wave of bleary-eyed, tousled guys stumbled from the lifts. The uniformed recruiters stood waiting, ranged across the lobby and pointing kids to specific groups.
“Pilot conscripts over here!” someone shouted. “All conscripts with pilot billets over here!”
Kota and I eeled our way through the growing crowd and emerged before a recruiter wearing pilot’s wings on his chest.
We weren’t the only ones. From my left a snide voice said, “Look, you guys, it’s Sheggy-boy!”
I wrenched around as the foursome from the lift drew up. They wore shiny gray crewshirts with green-and-black symbols on the upper left chest, and smug expressions.
The evident alpha of the group, the square-jawed one, said, “Still looking for your big brother, kid? What does he fly, one of those desert crates with skids, held together with shegrul spit?”
Beside me Kota stiffened, his expression indignant. “This is—” he began.
I shot him a warning glare. “I fly a Darter one-eighty-six Quad,” I said. “What do you guys fly, shiny little remote-controlled fighter models?”
“Ku,” Kota began, “they’re—”
The grayshirts snorted, almost in unison, and Alpha Male drew himself up. “We are the Hevovitas Aerial Performance Team. I’m Huritt. Hevo Lead to you. This is Hevo Two.” He indicated the kid at his right, whose head resembled a badly carved wooden block. “And Hevo Three.” He pointed at the ax-faced kid on his left. “And Hevo Four.” He waved toward a wiry guy left of Three. “You’ve never seen our show?” His question bore disbelief.
“It wasn’t on my required viewing list,” I said.
“You haven’t missed anything,” Kota told me.
Huritt swelled like a bull sniper lizard during mating season. “If you’d seen it,” he said, “you’d already know that the only competition for Distinguished Graduate will be among the four of us.” His circular gesture included his buddies. “So don’t waste your time, Sheggy-boy.”
I yawned. It was completely involuntary, but I made the most of it. Then I smiled. “I’ll remember that,” I said, “when they’re pinning the Distinguished Graduate medal on me.”
There you go! I’m having fun with this. Please let me know what you think. For more information about the Seventh Shaman series, check out my website at www.diannthornleyread.com.