Clef had always been embarrassed by the house growing out of the top of his head. His friends and better-off relatives carried houses with pleasing asymmetries, graceful curves, and airy chambers. His home formed hodgepodge from generations of mistakes and regret. The mixing chamber from his maternal grandmother that leaked solvents throughout the entire upper story. The ‘porch’ his uncle had sculpted on both sides of the home that created openings for predators.
He deserved a new home, one that didn’t remind him of his family’s failures.
But low-caste had few options; the best he could find was a mission to the southern archipelago, lead by a Prime named Tenuto.
Tenuto was infamous, even to Clef’s long-dead relatives, and they begged him in deep-speech to reconsider. He ignored them. Even as a glorified porter, Clef nevertheless stood to reap his weight in dream sediment, enough to remodel his entire home.
Barely three months later, he found himself straining against the leads, fighting the current to haul the supplies up the long slope to the surface of the Atoll of Crushed Lilies. The sand and fines of the beach gave way to a dark and towering forest along the spine of the island, tall fronds reaching towards scraps of clouds.
Leaving the waves he found the advance team already establishing a beach head, the pushpiks forming a skirmish line around the camp’s perimeter, their calcified lances brandished at the threatening surface plants. The air stung his eyes and joints, and he flexed his claws to keep them supple.
They felt the predators before they saw them, the vegetation offering the creatures a convenient screen for their movements. Clef could sense the tension in the advance party as he brought the supplies to the center of the camp. Everyone was shallow-speaking, moving as little as possible. Some succumbed to prey reflex, withdrawing completely beneath their homes.
At last one of the giants appeared, its fearful symmetry lumbering through a brake of trees, long grasping arms pulling aside the vegetation with sickening ease. It looked down at them from a vast height, tiny eyes blinking from within a spherical shell, its predatory bulk swathed in white armor, clanking and whirring as it moved. The pushpiks shook their lances but retreated at its approach.
Tenuto was having none of this. He stalked between the members of the team, shouting orders, rapping the shells of the cowards with an ancient staff. As the pushpiks rallied to advance on the giant, the predator fell back, disappearing once more behind the trees and thundering away. Tenuto wasn’t satisfied.
As the sun began to dip towards the horizon, he arranged for a shell swap with some of the senior staff, both to trade deep-speech observations of the first day ashore but also to prove a point – he would not be cowed.
Clef drew close as the scientists, technicians, and paramilitaries began sizing up each others’ shells for trades. One of the pushpiks spotted him lingering and chased him off. “No one wants your ragged, old home,” came his ancestors’ deep-speech. “Only your family would want this shell.”
Humiliated, Clef withdrew to the edge of the camp, almost to the edge of heat from the mobile torches. There in the sand, near where the alien had emerged, he spotted something. Bending over, gently brushing away the grit with his palps, he discovered the outside edge of a buried shell. Tugging it free he discovered a home almost perfect for his head. He was tempted to conduct the swap right there, but had heard certain rumors.
The scientists bent their eyes in amusement. “Yes, we’ve seen this before,” one said. “They observed our shell swaps and began leaving things for us. They’ve gotten better at copying homes, almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Just leave it be. Tomorrow we will march on their craft, scare them off as easily we did the one this afternoon.”
Clef left the light and heat of the camp thinking about the giant. Just outside of the picket line dozens of the fake shells dotted the landscape. He could still feel the faint rumbling of the predators just over the ridge-line but couldn’t escape his curiosity. He wandered back to that shell by the break in the trees. Lifting it, he admired its shape and weight, running his palps over the manufactured grooves along its outside. It wasn’t made of dream sediment but something else, an aggregate of tiny pale grains, artificial and faintly aromatic.
An question came to him, a scary one. What if these creatures, knowing about the houses they carried on their heads, also knew of the deep-speech they held?
Once more swiveling his gaze through the panorama, Clef shed his home and laid it gently on the sand. The voices of doom and reproach silenced and he basked in the curious sensation of being alone with his thoughts. Then the cold settled into his nakedness. He drew the alien shell and placed it over his head, letting his scalp find grip within its subtle, too-perfect cavities.
Words of deep-speech filled his mind, words from things that were alien but not predators. Things so terribly alone they’d travel across the stars just for the chance to meet someone else.
Ghosts had shaped his entire childhood, filling him with a sense of loss and regret. This new home demanded nothing and spoke only in questions. It didn’t belong to him but neither did he belong to it. Clef stared up at the vast cold spaces between every point of light, considering the aliens’ strange gift. He had a thought and held it for as long as he could, knowing that it would have to be shared, but not yet. For the moment it was enough to have and to have alone.
Morgan Crooks grew up in a hamlet in Upstate New York and now teaches ancient history in Massachusetts. Links to his stories are available on the Ancient Logic website (www.ancientlogic.blogspot.com) or through his Facebook Page (Morgan Crooks). He lives with his wife, Lauren, near Boston with a professional cat and an amateur dog.
Image by Clarice