The boys surrounding Querrl cheered as one of them nailed the leather target on its post, sending it bobbing and spinning like a maple seed. Querrl cheered, too, a few seconds too late to be part of the crowd. Then a splash from the river sent her heart pattering against her ribs.
A boy nudged her. Querrl met his golden eyes, set just below the nostrils on his brow, and he grinned at her, all sharp white teeth. “That’s just Mama. We don’t have river monsters here. No taloned cullers. No fleshers.”
“Of course not,” Querrl said. She glanced towards the small stone house that nestled by the water. Maybe this was all a mistake. Maybe she shouldn’t have come. She could flee now, before their mother saw her, and be home by dinner.
Grass rustled. Querrl froze as the boys’ mother stepped out of cattails, water still dripping from her streamlined flippers. She spotted Querrl and planted her feet wide as her flippers spread, an ominous sign. She stood like a queen, flat chest thrust out.
The two female lorn stared at each other. They both had fur-topped heads, high-browed nostrils and golden skin. They both had eight limbs — two legs with three-toed feet to walk upon, two arms capped in six-fingered hands, two pairs of furred flippers. But that was where the similarities ended.
The mother was smooth and plump; Querrl was bony. The mother’s small flippers joined delicately above and below her arms; Querrl’s jutted like deformed arms. The mother bore no weapon; Querrl could never lose hers.
Querrl hid her claws behind her back, and wished she could hide her stick-like figure. Proper females were fat, to keep them warm and afloat in the water.
A son said, “Mama, a helper boy’s come to play with us from upriver.”
“No,” his mother said. “This isn’t someone to play with.”
She shooed them into the family’s cottage but kept Querrl pinned under her glare. Querrl shifted from foot to foot.
The mother sighed. “Your mama will be worried about you, girl. Go home.”
“I don’t want to go home. May I stay?”
“No. You are not welcome in my waters.”
Those words were ritual. Custom demanded Querrl leave without further comment. “Why not?”
“Besides your unpardonable rudeness? I don’t want my children to get attached to a scrat.”
Scrat. The dreadful word made Querrl’s eyes tear. Even her biggest brothers weren’t cruel enough to call her that. “I’m not a scrat. I’m a girl, and there’s nothing wrong with me.”
“Nothing that should matter.”
The mother folded her well-padded arms and stared down her golden muzzle. “Your fur alone is a bad omen. Bone-white. You’ll die young and violently.”
Querrl took a step back.
“Your eyes are so pale they look sun-bleached. Blue eyes go blind.”
“They won’t,” Querrl protested.
The mother snapped a hand out, tugged a lock of Querrl’s head-fur. “Soft. Fluffy. Oil-less. Hardly waterproof.”
Querrl tore away from her grip. “It’s warm enough.”
“You can’t even swim. You’re as land-bound as the boy you look. That’s what your grandmother told me when she passed through last year.”
Mention of Grandmama was enough to pulse the blood behind Querrl’s eyes. Grandmama had shown up only a month after Querrl’s rebirth, her attending sons in tow. The old lorn had gawked, unspeaking, when Mama had presented Querrl, still stumbling on unfamiliar legs, as her newest pup and a fry no longer. For the rest of the visit, she’d peered over Querrl’s head, past her narrow shoulders, behind her lanky form. At anything, in fact, but her granddaughter.
Words forced themselves past Querrl’s lips, though she knew the minute they escaped that any chance of staying here was lost. “I don’t know what she told you, but it doesn’t matter. Girls are rare, so rare you don’t even have a daughter. It’s lucky to host one. I shouldn’t have to beg for you to take me.”
“You’re no more a girl than my helper sons are.”
Querrl’s hands clenched. That was the crux of her dilemma. Any other girl her age would’ve been packed off to live with another family months ago.
“Leave,” the mother said, her voice as unwelcoming as a feeder’s snarl, “Or I will send my partners to carry you off. You will never bear healthy fry, and I’m not going to waste a son on you.”
Querrl stamped away from the house, which had blurred into a watery streak in her vision. Staying with that greedy mother would have been a pain, anyway. Mama had only one partner, because she said Father was enough for her. Mama wouldn’t have hoarded her sons. She walked south until she could no longer see the cottage. Then she sat on the bank and threw a rock into the water, rubbing tears from her eyes with the back of a flipper.
Querrl stuck her limbs out where she could glare at them. The first pair came off her shoulders, right above her arms, and the third attached below, near her waist. Her flippers were long, jointed like her arms, and fluffy with white fur. All wrong. Worse, each ended in a broad expanse that bore six large claws. Even when she retracted them, the tips peeked from her fur. Unless she wanted to cut herself and drown, they were useless in the water, just like a boy’s.
She glowered at her scattered reflection. If she’d gotten to be strapping, like her brothers of the warrior caste, with claws the length of her arm, it wouldn’t have bothered her so much. But the water revealed a scrawny, golden-skinned boy. She looked like a helper, and they were practically neuter. It was the worst caste of all.
Querrl stood and brushed the dirt from her seat. She turned south.
A voice nearly startled her into the river. “Where are you going?”
Querrl spun. “Enar? What are you doing here?”
Her brother folded his arms. “What am I doing? You really thought Mama would let you wander off alone?”
Enar was all legs and flippers, but Father said warriors always were at twenty. His flippers were arm-like, just like Querrl’s, but packed with muscle and bone. And, unlike hers, they were supposed to look like that.
His skin was as golden as her own, but his fur was proper rosy brown, same as his claws. Sheathed, those claws were almost unnoticeable. Unsheathed, his blades were half her height. Next to him, her own looked no larger than thorns.
Querrl said, “Mama told you to follow me?”
“I would’ve anyway. You’re too little to be out alone. You know there’s dangers in the grass here.” He swept an arm towards the golden plains of Inith, which surrounded the river in all directions.
Her face scrunched with resentment. She’d felt trusted, almost adult, when they let her pack a bag and leave. It had been a trick all along. They’d sent her brother to drag her home.
Enar said, “I thought I’d let you get here and back by yourself, since you seemed to want that. But you’re going the wrong way. Did you forget how to find north?”
Querrl crossed her arms and lifted her chin. “I’m not going home yet.”
“You all thought I’d get a day’s walk away and come back. But I’m going to keep going until I find a family to foster me.”
“You are not. Mama would kill me.”
Querrl crossed her flippers, too, and stared up at him.
“Fine. But only as far as the next family.”
She beamed at him. He was her favorite brother.
“Here. You forgot this at home.” He held out a hand, and a blue crystal lay on his palm, cradled between his two thumbs. “For luck, remember?”
Querrl flushed. “I didn’t forget. I didn’t want the other pups to think I was a baby, wearing change-charms.”
Enar didn’t put it away. He’d given it to her before her rebirth, when everyone was still excited about her change to childhood. “They wouldn’t think that. You’re walking around on land, not breathing water.”
She stared at her feet. “I thought you could trade it. You wanted a new belt, you said.”
“If we’re not going back, we’ll miss the traders anyway. Besides, I’ve got a red rock with leaves in it. They’d take that. Here.” Enar shoved the stone into her hand. “Luck can’t hurt.”
She tucked it in her pocket reluctantly. “It’s never brought me any.”
“You didn’t drown when your lungs came in. That’s pretty lucky. Some lorn do.”
They walked south, accompanied by the gentle rustle of the grass and the burble of the river. Beady-eyed squeakers sang and stared at her, clinging to shrubs and stalks with eight tiny feet. Querrl picked up a stone, and they fled back into the undergrowth.
She kept the stone and hit the next squeaker that ventured from hiding. Enar nodded approval. She bit the head off first, because that part was always best fresh.
They walked until the sun sank beyond the distant mountains. Querrl’s loose wrap and leggings didn’t keep off the chill.
“Here,” Enar said. “Let’s stop. Food will heat you up.”
As they ate, he told her, “Going home won’t be that bad, Querrl. Fostering is just a tradition, and it only lasts for a year. You would be home before you knew it, even if you found someone to take you.”
“I want to be normal. Like Sister.”
“Sister hated her fostering. Why do you think she still lives with us? Besides, we’d miss you if you went.”
“Some of you might.”
“Look, Father and our brothers love you. They just aren’t happy with how your rebirth turned out. Tor and the other warriors are offended for the honor of the family. The helpers… you remind them of the disappointment when their own change didn’t go right. But it’s not your fault. Everyone knows that.”
Querrl said, “I don’t care what they think. I have Mama.”
“Yes. Mama and Sister and me.”
Querrl was silent.
“Querrl, it doesn’t matter if you’re not normal.”
She squeezed her knees to her chest. “Yes, it does. Of course it does. How can you even say that? If I don’t get fostered, I can’t go through the rites. If I don’t do the rites, I’ll never be a real full-grown female. I’ll be a child in the eyes of everyone. Forever.”
He shifted, folding his flippers across his chest. “I know. But all your warrior brothers are in the same boat: we’re Mama’s sons until we find a mate. And most of us never will. And the helpers? They don’t even have that chance.”
She swallowed. Helpers never left their families, unless their mother gave them to a daughter starting out on her own. And Querrl could not bear to be one of them. She said, “I’ll take you with me, when I start my own family. You won’t have to slave for Mama and Father. Everyone will know you’re special. Some neighboring female will snap you up.”
His smile was small and sad. “Thanks. But I don’t know if either of us will ever found our own families.” He shook his head. “I’m a fourth litter son. The rest of the litter was helpers. I won’t be the first son Mama and Father put forward if anyone comes looking.”
“You’re the best one.”
He hugged her. That night, he let her sleep curled against him in the grass.
Days passed. Querrl’s muscles grew sore, and her dried meat ran low. Enar gave her more without comment, but she blushed to be so unprepared. Still, she wasn’t turning around. Not until they tried another family.
She only let them stop, days later, when the river emptied into a larger waterway. This new river was broad and opaque, but fallen debris moved swiftly across its surface.
Oaks blotted out the sky and sun, their gnarled roots running down the bank to suck water from the river. Mottled animals scurried in their branches, leaping between trunks without pause. Querrl stared up at them.
“Tree-squeakers,” Enar said.
“They don’t have enough legs.” Six limbs were just unnatural.
“I bet they’d taste fine.”
The thought of sinking her canines into something fresh, of tearing meat with her sharp little molars, made her drool. “Can we stop? You could make snares.”
“Me? Don’t you remember how I showed you?”
“Yours are less lumpy.”
“Go find me materials, then, if you don’t want to practice.”
The bank yielded reeds. She cut an armful with a slash of her flippers and brought them to Enar. Watching him weave was calming. The snare grew under his fingers, thin and smooth.
“Can you get me something for the pegs while I finish this?”
Querrl rose to search. Fire had blackened the trunks of the trees here, and some had tumbled into a deadfall down shore. One enormous dead tree still stood among its living relatives, its branches worn away and roots exposed. She reached the tangle of branches and snapped off one brittle piece thick enough to hold a snare in the ground. The crack of separating wood was echoed on the other side of the deadfall, and Querrl straightened.
A flesher loomed over the bushes at her, twice her height and balanced on three sets of stick-like legs. It had no fur, only ugly pebbled hide. She dropped her branch. It blinked glistening eyes, each the size of her fist, and long arms waved towards her. Its face was like her own.
Querrl backed away. “Enar?”
The flesher’s mouth stretched open, revealing an army of fangs. Its arms spasmed and sprouted a dozen claws. It stepped forward.
Querrl turned and bolted down the bank. The monster lashed out. She rolled beneath its blades. The claws nearly pinned her to the earth like a bug, but her loose wrap caught on a bush and brought her up short. The blow went past her head. A second swipe cut down a sapling and came to rest in the trunk of the old dead oak.
The tree twitched. It toppled and bounced off one standing neighbor and then another, before it fell to the ground and rolled into the river. Its impact rattled Querrl’s teeth in her skull.
The flesher shook its claws and head as though the blow had stung.
Thorns pricked her fingers and drew blood from her arms as she tried to untangle herself. Then her brother pulled her free, and she clung to him. “Enar, what is that thing? What–”
He pushed her away. “Querrl, run home! Run! I’ll catch up with you!”
He shoved himself between her and the flesher and spread his massive flippers in a threatening display. The sight of her brother had always made Querrl feel safe before. Right now, it didn’t. His claws were long, but the monster’s claws were longer.
She ran along the bank, flippers tucked flat against her sides in terror. The flesher crashed through the undergrowth towards her brother, and the sound of Enar’s cry turned terror to anguish. She spun towards him, but before she could see if he was hurt, her foot caught in the roots that tangled the bank. She tripped and fell into the river.
The water knocked the breath from her and soaked her fur in an instant. Her clear third eyelid snapped up to guard her eyes, but the shock of cold water against them still burned. The river stung her sinuses before she could close her nostrils.
She flailed as the weight of her flippers dragged her under. One caught on the dead tree that floated half submerged. She draped herself over it, clearing the water from her airways with a snort. It ran down over her eyes.
Up on shore the monster stalked, growling and making scuttling charges towards the river. Enar was nowhere to be seen.
The log drifted downstream, and the monster followed as Querrl cried and wished she’d never left home. By the time the monster gave up, the banks were cliffs that grew ever taller as she floated south. They were stained red, like Mama’s precious metal bowl had been when Querrl left it out in the rain. The trees that topped them dwarfed the trunk she rode. Querrl stared up at the shadow of them against the sky, hoping to see her brother among them. But he never came.
The satellite had been there a long time.
For far longer than its designers had ever intended it to exist, it had orbited above the blue world below. It was an earth-like planet, after the first treatments, with six moons and a yellow sun. Scans showed the planet now met the specifications the designers had programmed. The satellite monitored the world and waited. Someday, its makers would request its data.
Self-repairs grew unreliable over time. Scanners failed. Data still had to be gathered. It sent out the last of its functioning probes.
The probes buzzed the surface and returned. They brought back a puzzle. The life forms the satellite had seeded onto the planet had been flightless invertebrates, fish, and wind-pollinated plants, embryos easily deep-frozen and thawed. Not eight-limbed terrestrial vertebrates.
It ran self-diagnostics and found damage to both software and equipment. Both probes reported no major malfunctions. The creature in their recording was bipedal, almost humanoid, with three pairs of arm-like limbs, although only one had anything resembling hands. The other two bore long projections of bone or nail: weapons. It stood over two meters tall, far larger than any animal the satellite had brought to the planet.
The satellite thought. Repairs had been inadequate. The probes had not been serviced since they left Earth. The recording was, perhaps, nothing more than another error.
Systems slept while the probes recharged, and the satellite swept along its orbit, conserving energy it would need to send its message, if its makers ever called.
Down on the planet below, life went on.