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Journey to Darrall Bader
By Jenny Hor
It’s past noon when we finally reach the valley where Darrall Bader village stretches along the muddy banks of the same-named yellowy-brown river, named after a hero long forgotten by both our peoples (or was it named after the house where he lived?), and already the shadows of the western buttes are rising over the mud-brick houses stacked on one another like stepped pyramids and the thin circular towers standing among them. We think these shadows arch over the village to shield it from our approach and warn us to turn around and go away. Can’t we see the aliens, the last of their kind, have suffered enough from the horrors we inflicted on them? For over three years the Darrall Bader villagers have lived in isolation and survived well enough before our government lifted the ban on inter-species contact in the last two months, so why are we re-establishing contact other than to massage our own consciences? We say to ourselves: well, why not? The ban has gone. Someone has to be the first to attempt contact and we may well be the only group to contact these aliens for a long, long time. Darrall Bader is far from the cities, the forests and the grassy plains – its location beside the snaky long river in the badlands made it ideal as a prison for the original settlers marched there by our soldiers.
Our pack animals have all climbed to the top of the valley and we survey the narrow stony tracks that zigzag all the way down to the village. On the far side of the valley from where we stand, we see terraced fields and groves criss-crossed by irrigation channels but we won’t be travelling on that side. We have a limited time here: one day only. One of our guides points to a track just ahead of us: “We go down here.” We walk along the rim of the valley and descend the trail in single file, kicking up fine clouds of yellow and orange dust. In spite of their loads, the pack animals are sure-footed; their feet have tough soles which are also sensitive to minute variations in ground texture and sand grains. The animals make their way down the track carefully and slowly. Rough and rocky country this may be but we’ve yet to lose a load or part of one.
As we approach, we call out to the village and announce our presence and peaceful intentions. Some villagers come out of their homes to see us. Men and boys armed with spears appear, followed by elderly men in baggy clothes. A few elderly women clad in black tent clothes appear as well. We know a little about the villagers’ customs, or at least those customs that applied in the pre-isolation days: then, it was not usual to allow women and girls close contact with outsiders. Maybe that custom still applies. After what we’d done to the alien females in the notorious experiments, that would be no surprise. The villagers had expected a visit – we had sent advance notice – but some of them still seemed surprised and wary. The sinister women in black glide through warily through the small crowds of young men and boys, clutching at the smaller children and holding them close to their drapes with their knobby claws. Everyone is inspecting us as we descend.
We stop at a natural platform near the end of the track. We’re close to the villagers so they can see what we’re offering them. It’s still necessary to observe an appropriate distance between our two species. The wars and massacres are still fresh in our minds and no doubt in theirs as well. The villagers’ suspicions vibrate palpably through the air between us. We need to be aware of the mood but not let it affect us. We start to unload the animals’ burdens. We take the protective covers off the loads and spread them over the ground. This area of dirt is smooth. The villagers don’t flinch. Our animals remain calm, gazing at us and the aliens with half-shut eyes. Two animals nibble nearby vegetation. These creatures have served us well, carrying their burdens with no complaint, and their senses and instincts for finding water, berries and leaves are excellent.
All the covers are off the loads and we start unloading and unpacking carpets and blankets, spreading them out without saying a word. The villagers hold their breath. Green, blue, aquamarine, mauve: we know these colours soothe the aliens so these colours dominate. Bright curved patterns, pictures of flowers, birds, butterflies, fish and mice festoon the carpets and blankets. We had selected these items with great care: red, black and white, the colours of death, are absent. Gasps, whispers, murmured conversations and gestures ripple through the crowd. The mood is uncertain and confused, a little fearful. Are we genuine? Is this a trick?
From one animal’s back we unload cloth, threads and yarns for spinning and weaving. From another animal’s back we deliver clothes, especially winter clothes for babies and children. Winters in these badlands can be hard. Everything is laid out over the coverings on the ground. We keep our heads low and concentrate on our work. We say nothing to the villagers. After the years of conflict, followed by slaughter, separation and isolation, we wish not to appear hostile by doing or saying unconnected to our trip. The villagers themselves are wary of talking to us. We move from animal to animal, we bring out food and water containers and pottery, leaving the other piles of unloaded goods unguarded so the villagers can examine these, which they do. They inspect them closely, run their hands over the warmth and textures of the items, sniff them, wrap their bodies in them. The old matriarchs, the most suspicious of the villagers, stand back with the young children and mutter amongst themselves.
Each patient pack animal is relieved of its load. The guides round up the ones freed of their burdens and move them up the track to where there’s stubbly vegetation growing. The guides communicate amongst themselves and with us with sets of signals and gestures which the villagers cannot see or hear or smell. To the villagers, everything we do has to look natural, even accidental. We can see they suspect nothing as they sift through the gifts. The only thing that appears calculated is the selection of things we brought for the village. Everything being laid out was chosen with the aliens’ needs in mind. We are only too aware of the irony involved: what we know about the aliens so we could bring them gifts, we acquired at their expense. From what we hear of the villagers’ conversations as they go through the piles, the irony seems lost on them; they seem glad, they are excited. We can hear children’s voices singing. The adults call to one another as they jostle. We don’t look at the people directly; we move ourselves some distance away and sit watching them from the corners of our eyes. More villagers, some of them women, come out of their houses to see the piles and gather what they want. Arguments, disputes and fights break out. When one fight involving several young men over some carpets causes a man to fall to the ground, his mouth bleeding, one of us signals to guides guarding the pack animals and the guides begin stroking the animals’ necks. Glands in the pack animals’ necks release a sweet perfume that wafts gently into the air and settles over the villagers. The fighting stops, the villagers calm down and begin to feel ashamed that their first inter-species contact in over three years should be marred with violence. The man who was punched is taken away to be healed. We could have treated his mouth but the villagers are suspicious of us. It was they who dictated to our government that although we could bring them useful things on this first inter-species contact, we had to keep a safe distance from them and not communicate with them directly at all.
The sun is setting behind the buttes, turning them red and pink and orange in turns. We take our animals with their guides up the track, abandoning the gifts, and make camp in a flat though narrow area found by one of the guides. Some of us put up the tent – though it’s packed in a bag small enough to fit in a pair of claws, it’s highly elastic and stretches out to protect all of us. No knife can break its fibres which are partly made of gossamer. The pack animals are organized into two groups, one at each end of the camp. As the animals huddle together in their groups for warmth, they will take turns to rest and serve as guards and lookouts for the night.
Once we’ve settled for the night and shared our rehydrated food, one of us peeps under the tent flap at the scenery outside. Only the lights in the village towers shine, everywhere else is dark. We can hear a lone man’s voice chanting and singing from one of the towers. The crowd has disappeared – we hear no shouting or children yelling and singing. In the early days of its isolation, Darrall Bader was known to have imposed a strict nightly curfew starting at sunset. Groups of young men had been allowed to patrol the streets and fields and fruit groves according to a strict ritual that included singing to frighten intruders, and which was policed by the village elders. Troublemakers in these patrols were sometimes imprisoned in huts on the edges of the fields for up to a month depending on the seriousness of their wrongdoing. As the night wears on, we can hear faint male singing from the far distance, singing that promises defiance in the face of death with harsh flute accompaniment. The curfew may or may not be still in place but some of the habits and customs associated with it obviously linger.
We need less sleep than the villagers do and before sunrise we are dismantling and folding up the tent. We allow the pack animals to sleep on. By the time the sky over the eastern horizon turns pink, we are having a light meal and the pack animals are active. They sniff the ground for water. One animal gets up, trundles along the track and up some stony ground, stops and starts digging a hole with its horns. Water soon seeps out. The other animals follow in single file and all take turns to drink. The guides later go among them to fill our water bags. When the bags are full, the guides retreat and the animals cover up the hole as is their usual instinct.
We survey the platform below us and see that everything we brought and laid out – even the coverings – has been taken away. We’re not surprised; we had expected the villagers to take everything. We had even expected they might invade our camp during the night which was the reason why the pack animals were posted as they were while we rested and slept. The villagers had obviously respected what we had done for them.
Our team’s youngest member, Zoort, ventures back down to the platform to take in one last look at Darrall Bader before we leave. Our government is keeping a close tab on how long we can spend here. It would be well for us to leave early. Zoort stands on the platform looking down at the village and its surroundings and seems awed by the sight. It is quite a beautiful sight: the square boxes huddled together along one side of the slow-moving mud river, the fields on the other side rippling with gold and green colours. A young girl emerges from one of the boxes and stares up at Zoort. The girl’s shawl is draped over her head and shoulders and covers an object she holds with both arms. She leaps over rocks and gravel with nimble grace and runs up to Zoort. They look at each other and the girl thrusts the object at Zoort. Surprised, Zoort takes the pot with both claws. The girl mouths something to Zoort and then quickly runs away back to her home. Zoort remains rooted to the spot as if frozen. She looks at the pot, then in the direction of the girl, then back at the pot. Sighing, Zoort turns and comes back to camp.
The pot is filled with berries, dried fruits, nuts and flowers of the sort we enjoy eating. After everything that has passed between our peoples, we are touched that a villager of her own accord on behalf of her people has given us a gift.
We resume our packing. The villagers come out to watch us. When we’re done, the guides lead the pack animals back up the track to the valley rim. Some of us linger to look back at the villagers. Zoort inspects them through magnifiers but the girl in the shawl isn’t among them. The people wave to us and we wave back. A few children even approach us and tug at our robes. We’re not supposed to but we pat them gently on their heads with the tips of our claws. One child even hugs me around my legs and I stroke her soft brown hair. The adults shout excitedly and the children run back. It’s possible the people are inviting us to stay and enjoy their hospitality but unfortunately we don’t have the time. A few men caper about playfully dressed in the clothes we brought. An elderly woman shouts something to us, presses her fingers to her lips and thrusts her arm out at us and waves. We’re not sure what this action means.
We have to be on our way. We wave to the villagers as we go. We try to imitate some of their actions if we can. Zoort is the last to realize we’re moving and has to run after us. Behind her is the villagers’ laughter.
On our journey home, the village girl’s gift helps to sustain us. The flowers, sweet and juicy, are the first to go. We tease Zoort about what the girl might have put in the pot that we don’t see or smell. Zoort turns a bright shade of blue all the way to her antennae. What did the girl say to Zoort, we ask. Zoort tries to remember the girl’s whispering and says, “I think the girl said something like “Peace on you from Darrall Bader.”
Peace on us indeed.
We had to spend a long time in quarantine as a result of the unexpected close contacts we had with the children and Zoort spent the longest of us all there. Even so, after coming out of quarantine we immediately started talking about making a second trip. We discussed bringing extra pack animals to carry more supplies. Someone made up a list of the new things to take. We even considered bringing along images of our new life in the rebuilt city to show the villagers.
Unfortunately a new civil war broke out and quickly spread to the rest of the country. We should have known. War among our people happens every 150 – 160 years when a new generation of queens, drones and their young followers challenges the old and the old, as always, refuse to give up power and privileges. Does it always have to be this way? We pride ourselves on being more civilized and rational than the humans huddling in Darrall Bader, descendants of the species that ruled this planet before we usurped them. Yet our power cycles continue without fail. Our knowledge and wisdom, no matter how much we acquire, provide no solution or defence against our primitive instincts.
Now, years after our journey to Darrall Bader, entire hive complexes and networks, some encompassing huge areas of land from one end to the other, are smouldering ruins poisoning the air, soil and rivers with toxic chemicals and radiation. Dead zones stretch over land and ocean and keep on growing. Bacteria and micro-organisms die in these vacuums. Food shortages, starvation, sickness attack our people. Water becomes too acid and poisonous to drink. Fungi attack our young in their pupae. We have to watch them decay from within – it’s heartbreaking. Extinction beckons.
After defeating the humans and nearly wiping them out to claim their heritage as ours, who could have imagined that we would turn our weapons on ourselves and commit collective suicide? Would the humans have done the same, we ask ourselves. Perhaps. Perhaps not.
And when we die, who would our heritage pass onto? Would it pass onto Darrall Bader, home of the last surviving humans on this planet? Some of us hope so, others aren’t so sure. Has the village remained untouched by our wars? Some of us who went on that journey hope the village has survived. The villagers are the last of our kind as well.