This week’s author has a brilliant talent for envisioning non-humanoid sentient life and bringing them to life on the page. Not only are his races diverse, but they are also relatable. I am in awe of his skill. I hope you enjoy this brief taste as much as I did. This is the title story from Jeff Young’s solo collection Written in Light, which is scheduled to release August 1, 2021. Follow the link to pre-order.
Written in Light
For a moment, Zoi’ahmets stood as still as the tree the wickurn resembled, watching as the unknown creature stumbled backward from her. Perhaps it was the fact that Zoi’ahmets rose twice its height, her triple conjoined trunks, or the orange eye that she swiveled in its direction. Two podia, how could it manage like that? So inefficient in dealing with gravity, unstable surfaces, and even the strain over time on such a small surface area, certainly nothing like Zoi’ahmets’s designs. She had so little time to be certain that everything remained prepared for the Diversiform Dispute judging, and what in Winter happened here? The cognition engine finally linked with the translator nailed to her bark. Only then did she grasp that the sounds striking the translator were attempts at communication.
Amazingly, the intruder turned its back completely on Zoi’ahmets and began to dig through the grass—a very anti-survival trait in an unresolved situation. Perhaps it lost something. She fed its image into the cognition engine, which identified the creature as a human. Trying to imagine what it might be searching for, the wickurn cast about with all her eyes looking over the thick verdure of the pampas and nearby bushes. There. Something black and lumpy with a short set of straps hung in the top of a shrub nearby. One branch reached for it as another gently spun the human around and faced it toward its property. The human awkwardly trudged through the grass. Zoi’ahmets gently handed it the case. It spared a moment to eye its benefactor thoughtfully and then dropped gracelessly to the ground to open the case. The human quickly extracted a silver device which, when clipped behind its ear, opened up like a flower. The shiny metallic petals spun and clicked restlessly in the afternoon sunlight. Another device fit about its neck and a third nestled in the center of its hand. Then Zoi’ahmets finally heard the human begin to speak.
“_____ wickurn ______ about 3 meters ______ seems to be looking out for me. ______ see why it’s here. Since I’m as far into the Disputed zone as I am ______ ______ _______ _________. Can’t understand why it hasn’t ___________ with me yet.”
“Communicated?” Zoi’ahmets offered as she pulled herself slowly to the human.
“Yeah, actually,” the being stammered.
“You were not exactly making intelligible sounds until just a moment ago.”
“And you were pretending to be a tree! No, I’m sorry, you are a tree. You can’t help that. I guess I just never expected you to move.”
“Why would I require help if I am in my natural state?”
“Look, this isn’t going well. You’re one of the workers on this Diversiform Dispute, and I’m obviously keeping you from your job. I apologize for startling you, if that’s what I did.” It took a deep breath and continued, “I’m Kiona. I’m … a student of the art of photography. I rode the ground vehicle over there until it stopped. Then the flight craft following us crashed into a tree. I’m so sorry to disturb you. I only wanted to learn more about the Disputed Zone.”
It bowed slightly in Zoi’ahmets’ direction, focusing two green eyes on her.
Zoi’ahmets raised a branch, and its eye could see there were fragments of debris at the base of a windrake tree. Flight craft? That could simply a result of the inaccuracy of the translator. In fact, now that Zoi’ahmets looked at the wreckage, it bore a resemblance to an automated sampling drone. The small craft hung, entangled in the net of branches, its weight dragging down the tendrils and breaking them. Looking where indicated, she could see a surface sampling rover. A makeshift seat mounted to the top of the six-wheeled drone sat directly over the solar panel. Kiona must have ridden the sampler until it ran out of power. The aerial drone would have lost its guidance and then crashed. Could it really be that stupid, or could this be deliberate? Zoi’ahmets wondered.
She turned back to the human in front of her. Perhaps an introduction, “I am Zoi’ahmets Calinve, chief architect of the Wickurn Diversiform entrant in this Dispute.” Gently tipping forward, she returned the bow as much as she could manage. Kiona backed up another step.
“I am so sorry. I had no idea this is your environment. I never wanted to harm it.”
Zoi’ahmets cocked a lower eye toward it. “But you had no problem entering the contested area to gain images of the Dispute—did you? You appear to have subverted a sampling drone to carry you. It’s surprising the drone made it this far.”
With that, she began the typical spiraling walk of a wickurn toward the drone. All the while, she thought to herself, I must find a way to get this thing out of here as quickly as possible. She’d heard that humans were allowed onto this Dispute World and didn’t know how she felt about the imposition. Now she had one interrupting her work. For a second, she considered that her opponents might have put the intruder here to hinder her.
Kiona started after her, but the wickurn found herself waiting as the human pulled at one of the coverings on its feet and set to work on something lodged in an ankle. When it held the annoyance to the light to look at it, Zoi’ahmets dropped a branch eye to view it as well.
“Caltrop seed,” she said. “Something I designed that will allow animals to transport seeds. Helps to propagate various bushes. Basically, harmless, but in your case perhaps annoying.” Also, a distraction, thought Zoi’ahmets, instead let’s find out why you are here. “Let us have a look at your conveyance.”
Her eyes studied Kiona for a moment as her branch, vane leaves unfurling, drifted across Kiona’s shoulder to urge it along. She pushed aside rising annoyance and moved forward.
While the human trotted beside Zoi’ahmets as the wickurn’s three root clusters rolled through the thick grasses, Zoi’ahmets took a moment to access the cognition engine and review the biology reports for humanity. Just to be thorough, she’d made certain to download a full bio-summary of all the judges’ species and anyone who might be visiting the Dispute. Thank Summer, there were no immediate concerns regarding her bio-system.
Looking briefly at Kiona, Zoi’ahmets suddenly realized this was a female of their species and estimated her age at about twelve winters. At first glance, Kiona appeared to be in good health. However inappropriate, one of the humans may have decided to take a firsthand look at the entrants to the Dispute rather than waiting as tradition dictated.
Zoi’ahmets looked briefly down at Kiona, considering her again. Humanity had joined the galactic community later than most, and there were concerns among the established species. Humans bred faster than most galactics and still had not modified themselves to limit their numbers. In a community where the primary means of gaining additional planetary growing room was based upon the ability to create effective complete environments for the Diversiform Disputes, most participants learned by modifying their homes and themselves first. Humanity had done a remarkable job of terra-forming numerous worlds, but the issue of their unregulated propagation still remained.
Because Zoi’ahmets’s contemplation slowed her pace, Kiona darted ahead of the wickurn toward the crash of the airborne sampling drone. With a quick glance, Zoi’ahmets noted that it was made of tensioned monomolecular fabric. The remains of a nearby wing swinging overhead seemed to be mostly gas cells with monomole struts. Looking back toward the ground sampler, unease made her stomachs churn. Zoi’ahmets studied Kiona for a moment. Was the human not telling her everything? What was going on here? Did she have time for this?
Zoi’ahmets paused in consideration and looked up at the sky. Reflexively, she called up a weather survey. The cognition engine brought up a real-time satellite map displaying the relatively calm but cloudy current weather and a storm front moving toward their location. Perhaps Kiona hadn’t intended to be out for long, or perhaps being trapped here was all part of the plan. The transmission faded out as Zoi’ahmets became lost in her own considerations.
In the meantime, the human walked about the surface drone. Kiona pulled out another strap-bearing bag from the grass and rummaged through it. Her hand showed through a hole in the bottom as her face skewed, and she murmured something that the translator box didn’t quite register. She turned to Zoi’ahmets.
“Something ate my food, and the only thing left is a snack square. Hopefully, it wasn’t anything of yours that might be poisoned by it.”
That briefly perplexed Zoi’ahmets. It certainly wasn’t the type of comment someone with a nefarious purpose would make unless Kiona’s intent was to deliberately mislead her.
Zoi’ahmets watched as Kiona crawled further among the pampas, where she found a round container twice the size of her palm and pushed that into her black bag. “The rover is ruined,” Kiona commented.
Sadly, the human appeared to be right. Slipping into a gully after it lost power and communication with the satellite grid, the drone snapped two of its three axels.
Zoi’ahmets noticed that the base of Kiona’s leg where it emerged from the grass was no longer the same color as the rest of her. It was the same foot from which she’d withdrawn the caltrop seed.
Zoi’ahmets reached into a mouth. Probing gently past her gullet into one of the xylem spaces, she pulled out a round cylinder. She shook out the tiny arrow-shaped chenditi that clung to the sides. They landed on her lower trunk. Zoi’ahmets’s large orange eye watched as the chenditi absorbed enough solar energy to fill the lift cells in their small bodies by splitting moisture from the air into hydrogen and oxygen. Separately, the little creatures were mere animals. A small swarm equipped with send/receive components acted as a collective intelligence.
Kiona stopped her scavenging to watch as the swarm lifted into the air. One half of each arrowhead was dark black, and the opposite canted at an angle covered with a shiny prismatic surface. Zoi’ahmets noticed that when Kiona stood up from the rover, she favored her left leg.
At first, Kiona shied as the chenditi flitted about her but was apparently familiar with their ability to do chemical and medical diagnostics. They quickly surrounded the human, and she held her arms out from her body as they spun about her. “Like a cloud of butterflies.” Kiona laughed at the image. She drew her gaze back to Zoi’ahmets. Her glance was quick, and her lips slid to one side, a slight breeze lifting her shoulder-length blonde fur. “I do know what they’re for. What do you think is wrong with me?”
“That is what they will tell us.”
Jeff Young is a bookseller first and a writer second – although he wouldn’t mind a reversal of fortune.
He is an award winning author who has contributed to the anthologies: Writers of the Future V.26, By Any Means, Best Laid Plans, Dogs of War, Man and Machine, In Harm’s Way, If We Had Known, Afterpunk, In an Iron Cage: The Magic of Steampunk, Clockwork Chaos, Gaslight and Grimm, Fantastic Futures 13, The Society for the Preservation of C.J. Henderson, TV Gods & TV Gods: Summer Programming and the forthcoming Beer, Because Your Friend’s Aren’t That Interesting. Jeff’s own fiction is collected in Spirit Seeker and TOI Special Edition 2 – Diversiforms. He has also edited the Drunken Comic Book Monkey line, TV Gods and TV Gods –Summer Programming and now serves as the CMO for Fortress Publishing, Inc. He has led the Watch the Skies SF&F Discussion Group of Camp Hill and Harrisburg for more than eighteen years. Jeff is also the proprietor of Helm Haven, the online Etsy and Ebay shops, costuming resources for Renaissance and Steampunk.