Skywalkers

 

Kiya heard the regular sounds of footsteps echoing down the hall outside the library and glanced up, willing for any distraction from her attempts to translate her botany assignment into understandable English.

At this hour of the night, the bored-looking librarian and herself were the only ones present, and she was curious as to who would arrive a few minutes before closing. A young man pushed through the swing doors and approached the librarian sitting at the desk. In the emptiness of the room, Kiya easily heard his quietly voiced request.

"I'm looking for any information you might have on the Skywalkers of Lexisa." The librarian looked up, and Kiya was surprised at his brusque answer, considering how helpful he had been a couple of hours earlier when she had needed information.

"There aren't any." The young man didn't seem put off by his uncompromising manner,

"There must be something, even if it's only legends or myths. I just want to have a look at some old histories."

"I told you, there aren't any. Skywalkers don't exist." Kiya watched this in fascination, her preparation for her studies the next day completely forgotten. The younger man had straightened slightly at this continued insistence; "They did once though, so there must be something." The librarian rose to his feet, anger suffusing his face.

"They're all dead now. They died of poisoning and disease on that horrendous planet of theirs. We don't have any information on them and I don't want to hear any more." He turned away and went into some inner office, leaving the young man standing at the desk. As he turned, he caught her eye for a brief moment before Kiya dropped her head back to her work.

She tried to apply herself to the problem of eukaryotes and their effects on the ecosystem, but kept being distracted by what she could see of the man out of the edge of her vision.

First, he typed brisk commands into the computer and when that didn't seem to lead him anywhere, he rummaged through the old-fashioned card files in the corner of the room. Kiya risked an another glance at him, deciding that even though he might not be conventionally handsome; there was something about his face, the set of his jaw, the curve of his lips, the bright flash in his eyes that deserved a second look. He wasn't tall, probably standing no more than half a head above her, but he carried himself well, moving with well-muscled grace and an athletic litheness that Kiya found much more attractive than the feigned, loose-limbed walk that was currently popular among the young people.

He slammed the little wooden draw shut with a frustrated noise and swung back around to face the room, catching her eye again. Kiya blushed, but managed what she hoped was a nonchalant nod and not the embarrassed smirk of someone caught staring. He nodded back politely, then turned and strode out of the library, leaving Kiya feeling a little alone. She shook off the feeling; surprised at her reaction to a man she had only seen face on, once and turned again to her textbooks.

A few minutes later she sighed heavily and dropped her pen onto her notes as she realised that all she had done was doodle a pattern of lines over the paper. She took another look at her design and her eyes widened with shock as she recognised it and hurriedly scribbled a few more lines to change the pattern.

"Excuse me, we're closing now." The librarian had come back and Kiya jumped as he spoke from her elbow. "Right, thank you." She closed her books hastily and the librarian whisked away those she wasn't allowed to take with her.

Outside she pulled her scarf up to cover her nose and mouth as a blast of icy air blew against her. The walk back to the college complex wasn't normally one she enjoyed in such weather, but tonight her thoughts were occupied with the young man she had seen, and the information he had wanted.

Kiya shrugged her shoulders up against a particularly strong blast of wind and wished herself back home. The pattern she had drawn had surprised her by the pang of homesickness it had brought on and a reminder of how alien this city life was. She stopped and looked up, imagining lines of ropes criss-crossing between the buildings that in her mind's eye had become the sturdy, welcoming forests of home.

A jarring noise from a passing autocar broke her concentration, and her dream vanished, to be replaced by claustrophobia at the press of people and buildings. She looked back up at the stars, trying to locate her home planet, but the glittering dots were lost in a blur of tears.

She would have to pass her final exams soon. She couldn't stay here much longer and go back sane.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Kiya balanced easily on a broad branch several hundred spans from the forest floor. Reaching up, she snagged yet another of the busu fruit and placed it gently in the bag hanging round her neck. Glancing down she noted that she had picked as many of the fruit as she could easily carry down to her baskets on the Purple level and secured the flap before scrambling down through the thin, upper branches to where she could clip her harness onto the ropes once more.

Emptying the fruit into the basket, she paused to breathe in deeply, shutting her eyes to better enjoy the sounds and smells of the forest around her. The pure, green smell of home.

Her mind's eye traced the pattern of ropes between here and the settlement and she smiled to herself as she remembered how, suffering badly from homesickness, she had found herself doodling that pattern again and again round the corner of her notes. In the end she hadn't even bothered to change the pattern to confuse anyone who might look at her notes, and it was then that she had realised how desperately she needed to get back to the forests and away from the cold stone, glass and concrete of the city. Life on Rinatha had made her physically ill and it had been several weeks before she had returned to her healthy, cheerful self.

Distant whistle signals made her start guiltily and open her eyes, but she relaxed again when she realised that it wasn't a call for gatherers. Bending to rearrange the fruit more securely, Kiya absently listened to high-pitched signalling and heard that the hunters had managed to corner a yavaa bird. If she managed to get the fruit back quickly, the chefs might consider making busavaa stew for dinner. She pressed the lid onto the basket, secured the ties, clipped it onto the rope and gave it a solid push so that it's own weight would hopefully carry it to the first intersection. The large basket sailed quickly out of her sight, pushing between the dangling fronds of a teriaca plant, sending purple flowers and leaves showering down towards the ground. Grinning to herself at the imagery the fat basket brought to her mind, Kiya reached up to grab a swing seat so that she could travel more comfortably.

A piercing alarm whistle sounded, quickly echoed by the horn at her home settlement as two people proved their alertness. Kiya's head shot up in an automatic reaction to the alarm of something or someone falling, but could see nothing through the leaves of the trees above her. Dropping the seat, she moved her harness clip from the horizontal rope to the vertical climber and scrambled upwards, scraping off moss in her hurry.

Breaking through the top layer of leaves, she blinked in the bright sunlight, her eyes anxiously scanning the sky above and around her for what had sounded the alarm. Behind her, someone blew directions on the horn and she turned to scan to her right. She spotted a line of rapidly descending cloud: a smoke trail.

It took all of her self-control to stay motionless and track the trail with her eyes until she could see the tumbling vessel and where it crashed through the trees. The horn behind her blew the call for all-to-aid and she moved then, dropping down the tree with reckless haste to the horizontal ropes, clipping her harness onto the first pulley and pushing herself off in the direction of the crash site.

"Don't let it be breached," she muttered to herself as she hurriedly switched from pulley to pulley, one hand keeping the brake fully off. Branches whipped at her in her speed of passing and she pulled her legs up to her stomach as much as she could, bending her head to protect her eyes. She wasted several precious seconds at the long rope over Dead Drop Ravine trying to pull her mask over her nose and mouth with one hand and transfer her harness clips with the other and fumbling both. Finally, with a mutter about her own idiocy, she dragged her mask up, pulled her hood over her hair, the clear cover over her eyes and grabbed a pulley.

The rope over the ravine dropped very quickly from Blue level, which she was currently on, to Orange and the bumps as she passed over the thickened places for each level jarred her as she went over them at speed. From Orange level, she rappelled down to Red and the foul smell of decomposing matter and poisonous gas assailed her, even through the mask, as she paused to gain her bearings.

She had very little time, the gases on this side of the ravine also burned any exposed skin, and she tugged her gloves higher reflexively as she forced herself to turn slowly to find the little ship. Spotting an unnatural shape through the haze of mist, Kiya made her way through the trees, unable to force herself to ground level until she absolutely had to.

It was the ship. Not even as large as the shuttles that her people used to get themselves from one planet to another. It was lying on its side in the mud, half-buried and she dropped lightly from her branch onto it before lighting a flare to guide the others in. She stamped with her foot on the hull, trying to determine if anyone was still alive, but there was no response from inside.

Peering cautiously over the edge towards where the front should be, Kiya stared in dismay at windows that had withstood the rigours of space, but hadn't survived the crash. Anyone inside was probably already dead from the gases, but her conscience couldn't allow her to just make that assumption and ascend to the safety of the upper levels. She went back to the door on the side and bent to the lock, but her gloved fingers, which were normally so skilful in preparing a belay and footloop, or tie any number of intricate knots in slender ropes, fumbled the simple controls.

Recognising the affects of the gas, Kiya paused a moment to breathe through her mask, impregnated with antidote and then tried again. The controls flashed from red to green and slid open with a swirl of gas and disturbed air.

Kiya dropped inside, unable to resist the urge to hold her breath against the gas, despite all the training and lectures she had received to the contrary as a child. Three figures could be immediately seen, one with the oddly bent head that told Kiya his neck was broken even before she looked into the dull, staring eyes.

Shuddering, she moved to the next, lying on his face, unmoving. Her questing fingers found a strong pulse that she could detect even wearing her gloves. She pulled a rope bag from a belt loop and with shaking fingers tied a temporary harness around him and dragged him underneath the door. Securing the end of the rope to her own harness, she clambered back outside and up into the trees to the nearest pulley, where she tied the rope off so that it wouldn't roll back when she pulled on it.

Even prone, the man had looked heavy and she doubted that her weight would be enough to move him quickly enough through a one-way system into the trees, but with no one else to help she had no choice.

On top of the ship once more, she began the laborious and back-straining work of pulling the man up through the doorway, managing barely an inch at a time after she had slowly sat him upright. She knew her breathing was too hard for the antidote in her mask to work efficiently, but refused to abandon him.

Strong hands suddenly took the weight from her, supporting her as she almost fell, and a group of hunters rapidly hauled the man out of the ship and up into the trees.

"Up, up!" a masked, hooded figure called in her ear. Kiya nodded, but held back a moment to tell them that there was still one more inside and then, arms trembling, she made her way up to Red level, where two more people were securing the man onto a stretcher prior to moving him up the levels.

"Kiya! How much gas did you breathe in?" She shrugged vaguely, noting with gas-poisoned detachment that her vision was dimming, and felt the sharp sting of the needlespray against her neck. She winced at the feel of the cold metal on her sore skin, but welcomed the normality the antidote brought with it.

"Taid!" The medic grabbed the arm of another arrival, "take Kiya back to Akatera, she's not safe on her own." The young man nodded and Kiya saw his eyes crinkle beneath his clear head cover, his smile hidden beneath his mask.

"Come on, Squirt." He clipped a length of rope between them for safety and helped her up out of the gas-poisoned air.

"I hate it when you call me that," Kiya grumbled wearily, feeling the burns on her wrist and neck where the gas had managed to seep past her clothing. Taid didn't reply and kept her moving until they reached Green level where he let her rest while he pulled off her mask and hood and poured water onto the burns.

"I'll call you the hero of the hour, then, shall I?"

"I was nearest, that's all. What do you think they were doing here?"

"Nothing to do with nearest," Taid pulled a tiny pot of salve from one pocket and dabbed it gently onto her skin, "you saw where the ship came down, managed to find the fastest way through the ropes to the crash site, located the shuttle and had already started a rescue attempt."

"Some rescue," Kiya flinched, "ouch! If you lot hadn't come along, we would both have been dead." "There is that," said Taid with consideration, pulling off his mask and hood. Kiya dug him in the ribs with one finger, "You're not supposed to agree, you wretch." He grinned at her, relieved that the antidote the medic had injected her with seemed to be negating the effects of the gas poisoning.

"Right. Come on, Cayt is going to want to see to those burns properly." He reached past her to clip her onto the first pulley and pushed her off as she protested at his taking charge of her harness. He laughed, "Stop fussing and move!" Once moving it would have been foolish to stop herself, so Kiya contented herself with a threat thrown over her shoulder at her friend, "Just you wait!"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

As Kiya had expected, Cayt scolded her roundly for her part in the rescue, but her hands were gentle as she dressed the burns which had crept up her arms as far as her elbows, and up her neck to her chin. Her smile had also been warm when she had sent Kiya on her way with strict instructions to stay on Green level or above the next few days.

After reporting to Samme, the settlement's leader, Kiya had somehow found herself assigned to peeling the busu fruit she had picked and that a youth had collected from the junction she had pushed it towards. Picking up the last, she fervently wished that she had never gathered so many of them and it was with a great deal of relief that she flexed her fingers in an effort to regain feeling.

"Kiya?" Ashya poked her head around the door and Kiya smiled at her friend, "All finished, thank the trees." Ashya grinned, "And you wonder why I decided to become a Ropemaker." "Are you trying to tell me that twisting innumerable strands of fibre to make a length of rope is interesting?" "It takes skill."

"So does this!" Kiya protested, in the time-honoured teasing of their friendship, "after all, if I didn't have skill, I'd cut my fingers off." Ashya snorted, "Sure. Come on, Samme and Cayt want to see you."

"Me?" Kiya looked startled and hurriedly wiped her sticky hands, "what for?"

"I don't know," Ashya took a hold on her friend's upper arm and pulled at her, exasperated, "I'm only the lowly messenger."

"I thought you everything," Kiya teased. Ashya gave her a push, "Almost! Now, come on and stop dawdling." Kiya grinned, recognising her friend's barely hidden curiosity and followed her over the wood and rope bridges that linked the homes and work areas of the settlement.

"Do you know anything about the people you rescued?" Ashya threw the question over her shoulder as they eased past a group of young children being taught the rope safeties.

"No, I've been stuck peeling those fruit all day. I heard that two men were rescued and that one is in a bad way."

"That's the second one, rumour has it that he's suffering from more than the effects of the gas. You were burned as well, weren't you?" As if in answer to this question, Kiya felt her arms begin to throb, "It seeped past my gloves and mask." Ashya dropped back to squeeze her hand sympathetically, "Tough break. That will keep you on the upper levels for a while."

"Green and above," Kiya sighed, "and the brommel harvest is completed and Cayt won't let me climb above Purple for the busu. Which means that I'm going to be stuck doing jobs like peeling and chopping and grinding."

"You could always twist rope, or card fibre," Ashya offered generously. Kiya twisted her mouth; "I wouldn't deprive you." Ashya grinned, "No, really, no problem." Kiya laughed, but was saved a reply by their arrival at the medical centre. Ashya waved her in with a flourish and then disappeared round the side of the building, obviously heading for her workshop.

Inside, Samme and Cayt were waiting and broke off their low voiced conversation as she entered.

"Kiya, how are the arms?"

"A little sore," she admitted, flashing a curious look to the beds at the far end of the room where medics could be seen quietly moving between two patients.

"I suppose you will have heard that we managed to rescue two of them." Kiya nodded.

"Yes, Ashya mentioned that the second one to be pulled out was in a bad way." Cayt nodded, "He's overweight, unfit and was wearing the worst possible clothing. The other one is in a lot better condition. He was wearing a shipsuit and the way he fell meant that his face was fairly protected. He's awake now, actually."

"Oh?" Kiya shot another look at the beds, but couldn't see any faces at the angle she was standing.

"We thought that since you're going to be on light duties for a few days, you might like to show him around, answer his questions. He's very curious. Very curious indeed," said Samme. Kiya hesitated and Samme quickly added, "All we want is for you to be his guide. You're the best person for the job. I can't really spare anyone else who can give him the time to answer all the questions he has. Especially at this time of the year with harvesting still going on."

Kiya was silent, considering. Being a guide to someone who had no idea how to climb, or knew nothing about basic rope safety or answering a host of questions about her way of life wasn't that appealing. On the other hand, being stuck with food preparation or carding rope fibres ranked even lower on her 'fun-to-do' list.

"All right," she said grudgingly, "but only until I'm fit to climb again."

"Then you can show him the upper levels as well," suggested Cayt, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. Both her and Samme laughed out loud at the look of horror that passed over Kiya's face, "He would be worse than a baby as far as rope safety is concerned. He'd do himself an injury."

"Teach him," replied Cayt, and then prevented further argument by stepping towards the beds, smiling as she made the introductions.

"Kiya, this is Joss Carey. Joss, Kiya has kindly agreed to be you guide while you're here." Kiya shot Cayt a glare for this blatant extension to their agreement, and then hurriedly replaced it with what she hoped was a welcoming smile as she moved close to the bed.

Her eyes widened as she recognised his face, even under the patchy red of the burns. His eyes met hers with equal surprise, "I've seen you before," he blurted out and then flinched, whether from pain or embarrassment, Kiya wasn't sure, but she nodded, "Yes, on Rinatha. In the public library in Rishara." Some of the confusion in his eyes cleared.

"Yes, I remember. You were there when I asked that librarian about Skywalkers." He slumped back onto his pillows, amazement written all over his face, "Was he wrong!" he muttered. His eyes suddenly flicked back to hers and held them disconcertingly, "why didn't you say anything?" Kiya was vaguely aware of Cayt moving quietly away, but externals had faded at the strength of those clear grey eyes fixed on hers.

"We don't advertise ourselves."

"Why not?" he demanded. Kiya's eyebrows shot up.

"If you knew enough to ask about the Skywalkers of Lexisa, then you must surely know the reason we don't light a flare to our position." He relaxed back again without answering, his eyes clouding over as his strength suddenly left him. Kiya sympathised, she knew what gas poisoning felt like, and the unpleasant effects that seemed to linger long after any burns had healed. She was also uncomfortably aware of the heat in her arms and neck and wanted to find Cayt for some pain relief.

"It's late. Why don't you get some rest and I'll come and speak with you tomorrow." His eyes were already closing, but he struggled them open again, "You'll answer my questions?" Kiya smiled at the childish way he voiced his curiosity.

"Yes, I'll answer your questions. Sleep, Joss Carey, I'll see you in the morning." He mumbled something, still struggling against the inevitable darkness, but Kiya had already turned away and didn't hear him.

"I belong here."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When Kiya entered the medical centre the next morning, Joss had obviously been waiting for her because his eyes were fixed on the door. Cayt stopped her first and drew her aside to have her dressings changed.

"How are the patients?" asked Kiya, wincing as Cayt removed the bandages.

"Are you asking after them both or one in particular?" Cayt tried to look innocent, but a teasing sparkle in her eyes gave her away. Kiya rolled her eyes, "Cayt!"

"Sorry," the medic smiled, "Joss Carey is getting on fine, though I want to keep him here today for further observation. The other man is still unconscious."

"Is he going to make it?"

"I don't know." This was obviously a painful admission for the medic to make and so Kiya changed the subject.

"Do we know why they are here, Cayt?"

"Didn't you hear that bit?" She looked surprised; "the gossip must have been on a go-slow yesterday."

"I didn't go to the fire-side yesterday evening. That's where all the discussions were and I was too tired." Kiya replied, obediently lying back as Cayt pressed her, so that the burns on her neck could be dressed.

"They're tourists," Cayt sounded amused at this explanation, "though perhaps a little more serious than most of those who come in the liners to stare at the planet."

"Morbid fascination," remarked Kiya. Cayt made a sound that might have been agreement or not.

"Anyway, the men on the shuttle were the pilot, and his two passengers. Joss says that he and this other man, Oren Follet, had put their money together to buy a closer look. Down through the atmosphere and fly over the trees that sort of thing. It seems there was some sort of malfunction and they were forced to crash land. It's the pilot and Joss who survived." Kiya frowned, "What about relations? Is anyone going to try and find out what happened to them when they don't come back?"

"Joss says that he doesn't have any family, and we'll have to wait and see for the pilot."

"Friends?" Kiya sat up as Cayt finished.

"Another wait and see. I think that Samme is going to talk to Alimos." Kiya nodded at the reference to their contact on Rinatha who dealt with the secret communications between the two planets.

"All finished. You can go and talk to Joss now." Kiya slid off bed and gingerly fingered the bandage round her neck. Cayt glared at her and pushed her towards Joss with a firm admonition not to fiddle.

During the night Kiya had managed to play down her reaction to the intensity of his grey eyes on hers, but as he smiled at her in greeting, she found her heart jumping peculiarly in her chest once more.

"Hello."

"Good morning, sleep well?" He looked a lot better, and his greeting was bright and cheerful, making her feel cold and reserved by comparison. "I understand I have you to thank for my life," he added, suddenly solemn. Kiya hesitated, "Not really. I answered the call for all-to-aid after your ship was seen tumbling through the sky. I was just first on the scene and lit the flare, that's all."

"From what I hear, it was a wonder you found us so quickly, and then started a rescue attempt as well." Kiya looked away, uncomfortable with her role as hero.

"Sorry," he spoke quickly, as if to get it over with, "I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable, but I wanted to thank you."

"Then you should thank everyone else associated with your rescue as well," she replied, unable to completely remove the note of reprimand. He grinned, seeming not to take offence, "Tell me their names and I will." Kiya let her breath out in a soft sigh and changed the subject abruptly, "You said you had questions?"

"Yes. About everything." He sat up even further, his eyes lit with enthusiasm. Kiya wondered if she could still give this task over to someone else, and perhaps escape the odd feelings that this man seemed to create inside her.

"It might be easier if you tell me what you know about us first, and then I can go on from there." He nodded and was silent as he thought. Kiya turned away to regain some composure and patience and pulled up a chair. She had a feeling that it was going to be a long morning.

"I should tell you that I actually know very little, most of what I've been told were in the form of stories from my babysitter. I always had the feeling that I wasn't supposed to know the tales. I remember," his eyes became slightly unfocused as he became lost in his memories, "she always wore strange clothes, layers of odd materials and colours." Kiya shuddered. By the very nature of their home and the way they got around, the Skywalkers always wore comfortable, fitted clothing, so that there was very little risk of anything getting caught in ropes or clips. Flowing skirts and floaty scarves made her nervous.

"I didn't care what she was or did, all I knew was that she had marvellous stories to tell. For a little boy, she could weave magical worlds. For a long time I thought the Skywalkers were another product of her imagination, it was only a chance comment that made me realise that you might be real." His eyes moved back to hers and he smiled briefly.

"There isn't much information on Lexisa. I realised that as I got older, and my search revealed very little, that someone had done a very good purge on what had been available. There was nothing on your lifestyle, at least, no more than what Jara, my babysitter, had told me, and only snippets of your history. What I heard most of, was the war." Kiya was quiet for a little.

"There's a lot more to our history than just the war."

"Of course, would you tell it to me?" His enthusiasm was infectious and Kiya smiled slightly, "Yes, I'll give you a brief overview first and then you can ask questions on what interests you." He nodded, his eyes eager and she took a deep breath before starting.

"Lexisa was originally colonised by environmentalists from Rinatha who had become a little too vigorous in their protests against the government and the industrialists who were polluting that world. They broke laws, lots of them, and the Rinatha council of Ministers gave them a choice between exile on Lexisa or imprisonment for so many years. I can't remember how many now." He waved this away, "Go on."

"Most chose the exile, seeing a way of escape and a new start. They determined to live in accord with their environment. Once they landed, a separate group decided to make their home in the trees."

"The Skywalkers!"

"No, not quite. They didn't call themselves that until later. When I was on Rinatha, I saw an old news byte about them, protesting about the destruction of a forest; they were clambering about the trees, most of them with no harnesses or ropes tied around them that couldn't possibly hold their weight. It was frightening to watch, and those trees they were in were babies compared to ours now." Kiya shook herself out of the memory.

"Sorry. Anyway, they had split into two groups, one in the trees, the other on the ground. They lived quietly for a long time, learning how to get the best from their new home, how to feed and clothe the children they had. By the time three generations had passed those in the trees had come to be called Skywalkers and those on the ground called themselves Lexisans." "Unimaginative," murmured Joss, obviously not meaning for her to hear. Kiya smiled.

"Better than the Ground Pounders or Dirt Plodders which the Skywalkers called them." Joss chuckled and Kiya felt something heat inside her. She hurried on, "It was the Lexisans that really ruled the planet, the Skywalkers refused to become involved in politics. They claimed that since Rinatha still had ultimate control of everything that went on, more red tape was unnecessary. On Rinatha, after the span of three generations, the planet was suffering badly from the effects of the pollution that the protesters had first warned them of. People began to be afraid and look towards Lexisa for help. The Lexisans refused, you can probably guess their arguments."

"You exiled us when we warned you, sort yourselves out," said Joss.

"Basically. You probably know as much as I do about this next part." He shook his head, puzzled, "No, what you're telling me is all new." Kiya's eyebrows went up in disbelief, "It is? But surely... oh, I see. The Rinathan government never released this information to their people."

"Obviously not," Joss was frowning, "please go on."

"Anyway, the Rinathan government obviously didn't appreciate that response and the two planets argued back and forth for several months, with the ecological situation becoming steadily worse. Finally, the Rinathans took the matter into their own hands and landed a shuttle near the main town where the Lexisans lived. The officials who disembarked were taken prisoner and the shuttle pilot was sent back with a message, 'we're holding your men, if you try and land another ship, we'll kill them'." Kiya trailed off; she didn't like this particular part of the tale, but then continued before Joss could say anything.

"The Rinathans declared war, and said that if the officials weren't released and flown back on the next shuttle that landed, they would take punitive measures. The Lexisans ignored them, didn't return the officials and so the Rinathans made good on their threat."

"What were the Skywalkers doing at this point," Joss interrupted her narrative.

"Not much. The Lexisans lived a fair distance from the first trees on the Great Plain. It was a beautiful, fertile area of green far south of here. Their location isolated the two groups quite effectively and, I think, the Skywalkers pride in their non-interference made them look the other way at all the shuttle activity."

"I see. What measures did the Rinathans take?" Kiya took a deep breath; "They bombed the Lexisans, using biogenic weapons, flooding the area with a poisonous gas. It affected the nerves first, paralysing the Lexisans very quickly, then burned their skin, then killed them from the poisons." She trailed off again and this time Joss didn't push her on immediately.

Kiya swallowed and spoke first. "Someone among the Lexisans set off a warning flare. Obviously they didn't have one for the gas, so they used one for infectious disease and some of the Skywalkers came to investigate. Most managed to escape before the gas affected them too badly when they realised what had happened. A few of the Lexisans from nearby villages also managed to outrun the gas, if that's the right word, to get to the trees, where the Skywalkers took them home with them. The biogenic gas was, is," Kiya amended, "of a 'self-replicating' kind. It took the Skywalkers thirty years before they were able to find a way to neutralise this aspect of the weapon, but by then the gas had covered the ground level of this continent."

"That's a lot of gas," murmured Joss when she didn't immediately continue.

"Yes. Since then, no one has been able to find a way to neutralise it entirely. It's heavier than air and so never rises above 35 spans or 35 feet from the ground, and it doesn't dissipate out to the ocean because this continent is ringed with hills and mountains."

"What about the other continents?"

"There is only one other and it's too far south, too cold, to be practical. The small island chains are too small for the whole population to move to and," Kiya paused, "this is our home. The Skywalkers were never interested in the ground, it's the trees that we love." Joss frowned, "And there was no thought of going back to Rinatha?"

"As prisoners? Convicts? The exiles coming home?"

"I see. The Rinathans would have had them completely in their power."

"Better a contaminated home than a contaminated prison," added Kiya softly.

"No longer a paradise that the Rinathans would wish to escape to, though."

"It is still beautiful," replied Kiya, "but no one goes down to ground level. You wouldn't survive for more than hour, depending on the gas."

"What about the ground fauna and flora."

"All dead. The trees survive because their root systems go down so deep and thus escape the poison. We live on what there is in the trees. There is a whole ecosystem up here that relies on the trees, rather like you rely on the soil. Epiphytes, mosses and fungi are only a fraction of what there is."

"Yes, of course. Like rainforests," mused Joss.

"Yes. Anyway, to get back to the history; the Rinathan government put a quarantine on Lexisa, forbidding anyone to come here, they think the planet is dead."

"But it isn't. How do you get to and fro?"

"Like you did. We charter a shuttle with a pilot we know we can trust to say nothing."

"You sneak past the defence screens?"

"Easily. Rinatha's space defences look outwards, not in towards us. Besides, they think Lexisa is a dead planet, or at least, nor one to worry about."

"We weren't told any of this at school. It isn't even in the history books and law records."

"I should imagine that it wouldn't be safe to let such information out. Even now."

"So you stay here, but why keep it secret?"

"A decision made by our leaders a time ago. We don't want Rinathans thinking they can take advantage of us again as they tried to do before." She could see he wasn't entirely satisfied with that, but he let it pass, "So why do you go to Rinatha?"

"Education. Selected ones from among the younger ones are sent to Rinatha to learn the newest methods of farming, building, biology, botany, metalworking and so on."

"Only the younger?" Kiya smiled slightly, "The older ones don't seem to be able to adapt to the entirely different environment of city or town life. It's hard for us," she admitted, remembering how claustrophobic and imprisoned she had felt in the city. Joss nodded, was quiet for a few minutes as he thought over what had been said and then looked up.

"Thank you for telling me that. So," he began, "about those questions." He gave her a mischievous grin that lit a spark of dread inside Kiya as she saw how her day was to be spent.

"Go on," she said finally.

Kiya let her breath out in a long sigh as she left the centre. She felt as if Joss had wrung every last piece of information out of her on the history of the Skywalkers. Even her final examinations at school hadn't been as gruelling, and history had been a subject she had enjoyed.

She was also disturbed by the hold this man seemed to have over her. Her first impression of him from the library on Rinatha had been one of attraction, but nothing more than a woman looking at a man she found handsome. Her reaction to him face to face unbalanced something inside her that she hadn't been aware of until their eyes had met. It was unfair of any man to have such a magnetic appeal, such brilliant eyes and such an infectious laugh.

Kiya struggled to throw off her mood, knowing that Ashya would walk up any moment and, seeing the look on her friend's face, demand an explanation.

She must have been successful, for apart from a few doubtful glances and the occasional pause in their conversation; Ashya didn't go any deeper than what they had spoken of.

Kiya however, felt as though she was struggling against the inevitable.

 

© 1999 Copyright held by the author.

 

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