Please enjoy the first three chapters of The Old Goat and the Alien! As the book has not yet been proofread there may be errors.
Humans often say that they are made of stardust. Perhaps that’s why we cosmorans feel a kinship with them, because cosmorans are made of starfire. It sits above our brows, vari-coloured balls of ever-burning flame. It is our soul, our intelligence, and it powers our world. It gives us life and shape. From the moment we hatch, it ignites, and it does not go out until we die.
Sometimes I wondered whether there was dust in my core instead of fire. If my flame was illusory, lacking in some essential way. I never wondered more so than when I was with my family.
Now, I tuned my family out. I focused only on the world passing through the canopy-glider’s green-tinted crystal window. Four-winged musebirds darted curiously around the glider’s broad solar wings. I couldn’t hear them, but I knew the vibration of their long tail-feathers would sing a sweet song. Below, I caught a glimpse of the spines of a large volleybeast through the thick golden canopy, its six legs all equipped with heavy claws that let it dig burrows as easily as it climbed trees. It was early yet, and the heartstar had barely begun its ascent into the sky, the horizon tinged pink before bleeding into its customary purple. The floor of the canopy-glider hummed beneath my hooves.
‘Avari?’ My little brother, Lur, pawed at my natural foreleg, short claws scraping against my cloven hoof. His eyes, amber brown and sparkling with starlight, were concerned. ‘We’re here.’
‘Huh? Oh.’ I shook myself, my thick fur ruff spinning. Where my brother was a blue fox only a head shorter than me, I was a tall, fat goat with chestnut fur and large horns that swept to the sides and up, and where my brother’s starfire tended to rest on a warm yellow flame, mine rested magenta-pink and flickered anxiously at the edges.
The canopy-glider landed with a slight judder, causing me to stagger a bit, though none of my siblings had such problems. I used my starfire to adjust the positioning of my prosthetic foreleg. It was always a bit slow to react, but I couldn’t help but think if I placed it slightly better, the connection might speed up. The blue lights between every join blinked cheerfully at me, the forgetech clearly functional. Just not as functional as I’d like.
We all bustled off the canopy-glider and down the ramp. One of my mothers, Teera, inclined her head in thanks to the gull-shape pilot, who waved a friendly wing in return.
Our family were the only passengers but we’d crowded it out regardless. There were my mothers, Teera and Nova, a large blue lizard with a ponderous pace and a griffin with night-black feathers respectively. It had been a century at least since they’d had to actually supervise any of us, and as the eldest I’d been a mature adult for a hundred years, but I still noticed Teera watching the twins anxiously, as if she expected them to run off and get lost.
It wasn’t an entirely unreasonable concern. Though Lur and Bloom had both long been adults, whenever they met up they seemed to get into trouble. Teera always blamed them being born under The Split Tail, but most people knew that starsigns as personality was nonsense. Studies had proven, again and again, that the stars only affected our shapes.
Now, Bloom, a silver-grey raccoon with a resting white starfire, whispered something to Lur. They both giggled and threw a sly look at Nova, who was already marching ahead, her feather-tufted tail sweeping the leaf-litter as she walked.
The forest around us was thick. Vines climbed the trees, just starting to luminesce in the fading light. Through the clearing in the canopy we’d landed in, I could see the lesser moon, Crystallo, bright and glittering as it made its slow way toward the enormous shape of Profundus, the twin planet to our own.
Auspicious sky for a fateful night. I knew I should feel pleased—and I did, I really did—but anxiety still curled sickly in my belly. I took a last look at the canopy-glider as it folded its webbed forgetech wings and then I took off after the rest of my family.
We picked a lazy path through the trees. We didn’t need any better guide than Profundus, blue and familiar in the sky. Lur and Bloom laughed and bumped shoulders, always pleased to be reunited. Teera talked animatedly to Nova, who nodded and smiled shyly, as if they hadn’t been partnered for centuries beyond memory.
The families that made this journey were rarely as large as ours. Nova and Teera had been extraordinarily blessed to have four kits. It was almost unheard of; most partners were lucky to have a single kit, if they ever did. It was a mystery of the Flowering Ancient that they’d been chosen for more. And with another on the way…
‘Cheer up, Avari. Anyone would think you’re going to a funeral, and not your sibling’s hatching day!’ The last of my siblings, Frost, nudged me with one of their heads. Frost was the eldest after me, and a chimaera besides. They were a plural system of three interdependent people—Storm, the goat head, Night, the snake head, and Illusion, the crow head. They were even taller than I was, with long necks and elegant leonine-and-deer-like legs. They had a single starfire which rested blue and hovered above Night’s head.
‘I am cheerful,’ I told them, though I wasn’t completely convinced.
Storm flicked one ear back and raised their eyebrows, but none of Frost contested it out loud. I was sure their inner commentary was something else entirely.
They kept me company for the rest of the journey, pacing comfortably at my side. At times my mothers would come to speak to me and I would tell them I was excited, and nod and bare my teeth in a smile. Lur, full of energy, raced ahead and then back to us repeatedly. It made me tired just watching him, but he showed no signs of slowing down even though he was making the journey several times longer in pawsteps.
Something heavy landed on my back. ‘Bah!’ I jumped, stiff-legged, and craned my head around.
Bloom waved at me, laughing softly. ‘Gets you every time.’
‘Aren’t you too old for rides?’
Bloom shrugged and leaned forward, resting her chin atop my head and draping her arms across my horns. ‘You can take it.’
She was nearly as big as I was and heavy to boot. I grumbled under my breath but didn’t try to unseat her. For one, she would absolutely try to cling on, and as she had hands she had a pretty good chance of doing it. Lur had always been much easier to unseat. For another, I could take it. Goat-shapes like me could take a lot of weight, and for all my forgetech leg could be a little unreactive sometimes, it was just as sturdy as the rest of me.
I flicked my tail dismissively. ‘We’re supposed to walk to the hatching ceremony,’ I said. ‘It’s a whole tradition. Supposed to bring us closer together with each other and nature or something.’
Bloom tugged on my ear absently and I resisted the urge to bite her. ‘I already have leaves in my fur, so I’d say I’m pretty close to nature, and it’d be hard to be any closer to you than riding you.’ She yawned and slumped against my neck. ‘Doesn’t this remind you of when we were kits?’
Memories flashed through my mind. Bloom and Lur climbing all over me while I ran and leapt, making them shriek with glee. Bloom tying Lur to my back with a rope. Leaping up a tree to get Bloom when she climbed too high to get back down.
It was a long time ago, now. They were good memories. And they’d started with a hatching ceremony journey to the Flowering Ancient, just like this one.
‘It does remind me of that,’ I said. I’d been anxious during that journey as well, and look how it had turned out. Two new siblings and we’d all made it to adulthood in one piece, more or less.
We lapsed into silence. I couldn’t quite stop my ears twitching nervously, and it wasn’t long before Bloom slid from my back and ran off to pester Nova.
‘You’re anxious,’ said Frost, falling in beside me. It was Illusion physically speaking to me, her sparkling crow eyes shrewd, but I could usually tell when it was all of Frost talking to me. The others threw casual looks my way but seemed content to let Illusion be their voice.
‘And what else is new?’ I said. ‘I’ll cope.’
Illusion’s eyes crinkled in a grin. ‘If you’re well enough to snap at me, you probably will,’ she teased. ‘Storm wants to go play with Lur for a bit, but if you need us, we’re around, okay?’
‘Yeah. Thanks.’ I tried and failed to smile, but at least managed to settle my ears in a more hopeful position and steady my starfire a bit. ‘Have fun.’
‘I will,’ said Storm. They winked at me. ‘You should try it sometime!’
Before I could retort, they bounded off after Lur.
I tried not to brood on that. I knew it had been jokingly meant. But it had to be said, I wasn’t a very playful person. I liked to have everything in its place and know exactly what I’d be doing in a day. And while I had played with my siblings when we were younger and loved doing it, that felt like a very long time ago. Lur and Bloom might be only a decade into their adulthood, but I’d been an adult for a hundred years and I was starting to feel it.
Instead, I focused on the world around me. The journey was about connecting with nature, wasn’t it? I took in the forest. It was very different from Lost Circle, the city I called home. There, the largest of trees might have been shaped to hold a shop, or a café, or a home. There, the fireflies made the sunset sparkle, and each building glittered faintly with forgetech like jewels among the canopy.
Here, there were no buildings and no sign of civilization but the muddied forest path we walked, in the same hoofsteps as countless cosmorans before us. This was the Elder Grove, the blessed forest of the Flowering Ancient, and I could see the touch of the Ancient everywhere from the warm golden sheen of the tree trunks and leaves to the large roots that briefly surfaced here and there in shining arcs. It was humbling to witness, even if I’d done so a handful of times already. I wondered how long it would be until the Ancient itself came into view.
The wildlife, at least, was uncaring of the sacredness of the occasion. I heard musebirds calling to each other in long, swooping trills. Cloudmice darted across the forest floor in twos and threes, their cheeks full of nuts and fruit. And there were eyes watching us from the trees, too—three-eyed birds and six-legged squirrels and big, beautiful insects with wings like flowers, chirping to each other and swaying from branch to branch in the hopes of convincing predators they were no more than the plants they resembled. All starfire-less, of course—only cosmorans had the flames that marked us as kin of the Ancients.
And there would be a new starfire kindled today. A new member of our fire’s line. Maybe a new friend, as the others had been. I felt a sudden surge of hopefulness, powerful enough to force the anxiety back just a little. Heady with it, I bleated and kicked up my hooves and plunged deeper into the Elder Grove, just a little off the path, just enough to feel the Flowering Ancient’s life-giving power all around me.
It felt surprisingly good to have the tall grass and shrubs brushing my fur. Those that bore flowers sent up clouds of glittering spores at the touch. I breathed in the smell of it, the fresh, sweet floral scent. This was good.
A small lizard skittered to a stop in front of me and up my forgetech leg. I paused, not wanting to crush its tiny toes in the machine-work. It was bright blue and had six legs and two pairs of eyes, a tiny, delicate thing.
I know I can be grumpy and set in my ways, but I was content in that moment just to look at the small creature choosing to use me as a tree to cling to. I didn’t mind that it was slowing me down. It was easy to become desensitised to wildlife but right now I wanted to really take it in.
The lizard shifted so that its toes were free of the joins of my leg. I smiled down at it, ears perking forward, and lifted my leg slightly to get a closer look. ‘Hello.’
It blinked at me, head tilting to one side, but didn’t flee. Maybe it was very brave, or maybe I didn’t bear much resemblance to any of its predators. I wasn’t worried that it was venomous; very little could envenom cosmorans. Our cores ran too hot and fierce.
I wondered if it would let me pick it up properly with starfire, but I didn’t want to frighten it.
There was a loud crunching of undergrowth being rushed through. Nova burst from between the bushes, looking stern. The lizard fled, disappearing into the leaf mulch of the forest floor too quickly to follow. I frowned after it, my ears falling.
Nova strode over to me, shuffling her wings. Her tufted tail flicked a little too tensely for my liking. ‘Avari. What are you doing off the path?’
‘There was a lizard,’ I said. I looked at the ground where it had disappeared, but there was no flash of blue or rustle in the leaves.
Nova came up beside me and laid a wing over my back, pulling me close. She bumped her beak against my muzzle affectionately, but her nearness was overwhelming. I tried to pull away, but her wing had me pinned. ‘Are you all right, darling?’ she asked.
‘I’m fine.’ I tried to pull away again.
She leaned close. ‘You’re not going to have another…episode?’
‘I’m fine,’ I repeated.
‘Don’t ruin this, darling,’ she said. ‘I don’t think Teera could take it. Everyone’s noticed you aren’t smiling.’
I wasn’t a smiler, truthfully. My emotions crashed within me. I didn’t know how I had gone so quickly from that brief joy and sense of wonder to this painful smallness. Why did everyone think I would ruin everything? Why did my own mother feel the need to press me like this?
I felt tears well up at the unfairness of it. Voice thick, I said, ‘Mum, I—I—’
She released me. ‘I don’t want to fight, darling. You should get back to the group.’ She wouldn’t look at me, already pretending she hadn’t caused this. She disappeared back through the undergrowth and onto the path.
My heart thumped in my chest. I could feel my starfire raging and ragged. I felt the powerful urge to flee, or to scream. Tears ran down my cheeks.
I didn’t do anything wrong, I wanted to say. But my mother had already left, and if I brought it up to her, if I tried to seek closure, she would cry and say I was ruining this important day.
Was I? Ruining the day? Would my sibling be hatched into tension and bitterness instead of welcoming joy, like they deserved?
I huddled in on myself, my chest tight, my pulse racing, feeling a desperate urge to run but also being completely rooted to the spot. I had been right to be anxious. It was as bad as I could have imagined.
There was a loud crash and a strange cry like no animal I’d ever heard. My anxiety shifted, and I tensed. There were plenty of large forest-dwelling creatures that could hurt a cosmoran. I needed to be careful. But there was something about the cry that struck me; I could sense distress in it. And I couldn’t bring myself to return to the path where my mothers waited.
I went toward the sound. Cautiously, though I couldn’t exactly sneak. People with hooves tend to struggle with that sort of thing, and it’s only worse with leaves crunching with each step. I pushed through the bushes and peered around a tree.
A bald, brown face stared back at me. It screamed, baring flat white teeth; I screamed in return and scrambled back, the bush scratching my fur. I stumbled in my haste, landing on my rump. The animal in front of me tripped and landed on its back. It was breathing hard, clearly just as panicked as I was. I got a hold of myself and stood back up, heedless of the dirt and leaves streaking my fur. It was wearing clothes. It wasn’t an animal, it was—
The human sat up, pressing a hand to their chest, and met my eyes. There were no stars in their gaze, only a warm, dark brown with surprising depth, as earthy as their planet was named. They said something, but I didn’t understand the words, which came through to me as static over noise.
‘Keep talking,’ I encouraged them, trying to keep my voice steady even as my core pulsed with leftover panic. My starfire would translate this human once we’d made a proper acquaintance. I’d just never encountered a human before.
They couldn’t possibly understand me, but they swallowed hard and said something else. ‘—here—a portal—’
‘You came through a portal?’ Ahh, the visa program. There weren’t so many humans on Viridus yet that it was common, but I’d heard that was going to change. ‘Can you understand me?’ I asked them. Her, actually. As the connection grew a little clearer, I understood that this was a human woman.
She had something clasped in her other hand. I hesitated, then nudged it with my nose, encouraging her to show me. It was a small black com-gem, the starfire inside it a faint, swirling glimmer waiting for activation.
She was watching me carefully, her eyes wide with shock or fear, but she didn’t pull away.
I picked up the com-gem with starfire and inserted it gently into her ear. She flinched and cried out, but it was fixed in place now.
I cleared my throat. ‘Can you understand me now?’ I asked.
Her mouth popped open. ‘I—yes! Oh thank god—I have no idea where I am. You’re cosmoran, right?’
I thought about the unused com-gem and how far we were from the nearest settlement. What was a human doing here? Why had she taken the com-gem out? ‘Where did you come from?’
She stood up and I backed up a few steps. She brushed leaves from her blue dress. She wore leggings underneath. Her dark brown hair was in a long braided tail that came down across her shoulder, and her skin was a golden brown. She was a round human, fat like me, I guessed. When I had learned about humans, all the images of them had been much leaner than she was. ‘I came through…I can only describe it as a portal,’ she said. ‘A swirling, starry light appeared in the split trunk of an old tree, and when I touched it, it pulled me through and put me here. Maybe…I don’t know. Ten minutes ago? Twenty? I didn’t know where to go, but then I heard you and saw the light.’ She gestured to my flame.
She was a new immigrant. I ground my teeth from side to side, working through what that meant. The first and most obvious thing was that it made her my responsibility, and that was definitely not something I wanted to deal with right now. No wonder she hadn’t been wearing her com-gem…
‘That’s the current immigration protocol for Earth,’ I said. ‘I don’t remember why, but it was decided portals were better than space travel.’
She ran a hand down her hair-tail. ‘Some warning would have been nice.’
‘You didn’t apply for a visa?’
She shrugged. ‘I did. I just…didn’t expect it to work like this.’ She hesitated, then stuck out her hand toward me, the other still crossing her chest. ‘I’m Jenna, by the way.’
I wasn’t sure what to do with the hand. I didn’t know much about humans.
‘It’s a handshake,’ she said, her hand starting to fall. ‘Sorry…that’s probably not how you greet people here.’ She looked embarrassed. And as annoyed as I was to be saddled with a newly-arrived human, I didn’t want her to feel bad or anything.
I extended my natural hoof and touched her hand with it. ‘I’m Avari,’ I said, a little gruffly because this whole situation was ridiculous.
She laughed and gave it a gentle bob up and down before releasing it. ‘How do cosmorans greet each other?’
I sniffed toward her, extending my neck and bobbing my head very slightly so she could clearly tell what I was doing. She smelled of strange air and chemicals and also an oddly floral musk. It wasn’t unpleasant, but was unlike any scent I’d come across before.
Well. She was an alien, I supposed.
She frowned. ‘You sniff?’
I nodded. ‘Just the air, toward each other.’
She bobbed her head toward me, nostrils flaring. It looked quite ridiculous. ‘Like this?’
I snorted. ‘Close enough.’
‘So,’ she said, shifting from foot to foot. ‘Do you know where I’m supposed to go now, or…?’
‘Avari!’ Three voices called. Frost emerged from between the trees. Beside me, Jenna audibly sucked in her breath. Was she going to be surprised by every cosmoran? Were all humans like this?
‘Avari, Teera’s noticed you’re gone and is starting to fret, so—wait.’ Frost stopped. Each of their heads held a different expression; Storm looked delighted, Night wary, Illusion shocked. ‘Is that a human?’ asked Storm.
‘Evidently,’ I said, unable to keep the sarcasm from my voice.
Jenna gave a tiny wave. ‘Hi.’
‘Well, introduce us!’ said Night. All three heads sniffed toward Jenna, who sniffed a little dramatically back.
‘We only just met,’ I grumbled. I nodded from Jenna to Frost. ‘Jenna, these are my siblings, Frost. They’re plural. Humans can be plural, right?’
Jenna nodded, still staring at Frost with something I was starting to think might be awe. ‘It’s…it’s a pleasure to meet you,’ she said.
Storm beamed at her. ‘Likewise! Well, we’re actually in the middle of something right now, so I’m afraid I must take Avari from you—’
‘Frost,’ I said tiredly. ‘They’re a new arrival.’
Frost blinked three pairs of eyes. ‘How new? Like new, new?’
‘Ten minutes lost in the Elder Grove kind of new.’ I said the words a little begrudgingly, knowing it would only tie this human to me until I could get her to the proper authorities.
‘Oh. Oh!’ Illusion leaned forward and studied her more closely. Jenna looked a little nervous—I suppose Illusion’s long, sharp beak might have made her look like a predator to something as small as a human. ‘Well, you must come with us, then! This is a fortuitous meeting, don’t you think, Avari? A traveller met on the road to the hatching ceremony?’
‘Hatching ceremony?’ Jenna asked uncertainly, but Frost curved their necks around her and ushered her back to the path.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Storm. ‘We’ll sort you out very soon. Avari, come on!’
Jenna threw me a pleading look over her shoulder.
I sighed heavily and followed them back to my family.
There was a lot of fuss over the appearance of a human. Bloom immediately attached herself to Jenna, rapid-firing questions about her planet while Lur watched them raptly, his eyes alight with interest. Nova and Teera both welcomed Jenna with what I thought was genuine warmth; a boon traveller met on the road was generally seen as a good omen on a hatching day. For that traveller to be a human was, as far as I knew, completely unheard of. I could see Nova puffing herself up with pride over it. Both mothers promised Jenna she would be settled as soon as the hatching ceremony was over.
Jenna, for her part, seemed more than a little dazed but happy enough to have found herself among an excitable family.
I walked a little behind the group, watching them all talking and laughing but not feeling able to join in myself, or even sure how I would.
Frost nudged my shoulder. ‘Don’t abandon her,’ they said.
I shrugged and flicked an ear back. ‘I’m right here.’
‘You’re the first person she met on Geminus,’ said Frost. All three pairs of eyes watched me reproachfully—even Night, who usually took my side on things like this. ‘She’s just had everything she knows change rapidly. She needs consistency for a little while.’
Frost was a guardian, a career that focused on legal proceedings. It was very like them to insist on responsibility and care, which was a large part of what they did.
I put both my ears back. ‘I’m right here,’ I repeated, and Storm blew air at me while Illusion rolled her eyes. They trotted ahead to walk with Teera, their tail raising a cloud in the dirt behind them.
I brooded for a bit—I didn’t like people telling me what to do, and I was used to Frost taking my side—then reluctantly moved up to join Jenna and her admirers.
‘Are all humans as small as you?’ asked Bloom. Bloom was only a little taller than the human when standing on her hind legs, but was significantly broader. It had to be said that Jenna did look small. A spindly thing compared to most cosmorans, even with her healthy padding of fat.
‘I’m average height,’ she replied. ‘So…yeah, I guess! Though some are shorter. And a lot are thinner.’
Bloom hooted her delight at this and ran a quick circle around Jenna to let out her feelings, striped tail trailing like a fluffy pennant. ‘And I heard Earth has starsigns too,’ said Bloom. ‘Is it true you are all the same shape no matter what stars you’re born under?’
Jenna looked a little surprised. ‘Well—some people think that starsigns affect personalities, but no, it doesn’t change how we look. Does it change how you look?’
Bloom clapped her hands together. ‘Some people think that here as well!’
Lur asked quietly, ‘Do you have any siblings?’
Jenna stiffened, her shoulders going tight. ‘Uh, well—’ She stopped, seeming to struggle to find the words. Lur and Bloom watched raptly.
I shouldered between Bloom and Jenna. ‘Let me talk to Jenna for a bit. Go bother Frost or something.’
‘We already know Frost,’ said Bloom, her ears completely flat against her head. ‘I want to talk to—’
Lur nudged her shoulder. ‘I think maybe she wants space, Bloom.’
‘Come on.’ He herded his twin away.
I looked at Jenna. Her chin was down, her mouth trembling. She was a little hard to read, without mobile ears or a tail or even any feathers, but I didn’t think she was comfortable. I decided to change the subject. That usually helped me when I got caught out like that. ‘So,’ I said. ‘You’ve met my siblings.’
‘Cute kids,’ said Jenna, giving me a faint smile. She still looked a little lost.
‘Oh, they’re adults,’ I said. ‘They’re sixty years old. Bloom is just a terror, that’s all.’
‘Sixty?’ Jenna chewed her lip and looked away. ‘How old are you, then?’
‘Me? I’m a hundred and fifty-ish. Eldest sibling. My mothers, Nova and Teera over there? We’re not even sure how old they are. They can’t remember; the fog, you know. That happens after a certain point, for cosmorans.’
‘A hundred and fifty!’ said Jenna. ‘So you’re an old goat!’ She suddenly clapped her hands over her mouth, eyes widening.
There was some meaning there that was missing me. ‘Old goat? But I’m not old.’
‘It’s a human saying,’ said Jenna. She looked…embarrassed, maybe? ‘It means cantankerous. Grumpy. But old, too, I guess. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it.’
Sometimes I felt old beyond my years. Especially when Bloom was pulling on my mane. Something about the idea pleased me, in spite of its technical inaccuracy.
‘How old are you?’ I asked.
She crossed her arms and looked thoughtful. ‘I’m forty,’ she said. ‘You must think I’m a child.’
‘Not really,’ I said. ‘Well, maybe a little? But different species mature at different rates, you know? It’d be unfair to call you a kit. Forty is adult for humans, too, right?’
‘Some people even call it “middle-aged”,’ she said. The word had static around it and I couldn’t quite hold onto it.
‘What was that word again? What people call it?’
‘Middle-aged?’ she said again, but I still couldn’t make sense of it. ‘It means half-way through your life.’
I nodded, but I didn’t know what to say to that. There was a time limit on human lives? For a sentient species with stardust in their bones? ‘Humans live eighty years?’
‘Well…not any more. We typically live to a hundred and twenty now, and they’re developing something to stop ageing but…well, it was middle-aged for a long time so I guess it stuck.’ She shrugged.
I considered this. ‘You do kind of look like a kit though,’ I said. ‘All bald and round like that.’
About a second after I said it, I realised it was probably a rude thing to say, but Jenna laughed, a hand going to her mouth. ‘I guess I do,’ she said. ‘Humans don’t even think we’re bald if we have hair up here.’ She touched her head.
It was, I had to admit, nice to make somebody laugh. Especially somebody who’d looked pretty panicked a little while ago.
She stumbled and I immediately reached out with starfire to catch her and help right her. A magenta glow suffused her and leaned her back onto her feet.
She stared at her hands as the starfire vanished. ‘Woah. That was you?’
I nodded. ‘Just starfire. All cosmorans can move things like that.’
Her eyes went to the flame above my head. ‘It’s like magic,’ she said quietly, as if to herself.
‘Not magic,’ I said. ‘Just nature.’
She still seemed a little awed. It made me feel uncomfortable, like someone was stunned to see me take a step or pick a fruit. I hadn’t done anything noteworthy.
I lapsed into silence, not sure what to say from there, but Jenna didn’t seem to mind. We walked in silence apart from whenever Bloom got away from her brother’s watch long enough to pelt Jenna with a new question. At last, the Elder Grove opened up. Luminous butterflies fluttered past as we gazed up at a golden tree so large its canopy blotted out the sky like a vast golden crown.
Jenna inhaled so sharply I could hear it. ‘What’s that?’ she asked.
I heard my mothers cry out in excitement. Several of my relations started running.
‘That’s the Flowering Ancient,’ I said. ‘That’s where we are hatched.’
And where soon, I would meet my new sibling.
My chest felt tight with anticipation, but for once I felt more wonder than anxiety. I bleated a cry as well and kicked into a run.
The Flowering Ancient. The eldest and largest tree on all of Viridus. Its bark was smooth and golden, its leaves shining and veined with light. It was itself almost large enough to house an entire city, but no-one had ever shaped the Flowering Ancient for such a purpose. It was entirely wild and of its own power, and every one of us owed it our lives. The vast roots that snaked out from the base to plunge into the rich soil were said to run through the core of the planet, and investigation had shown that they went far deeper than our technology could allow us to safely follow.
Seeing it, my heart filled with joy and…peace. A sense of completeness that had been lacking for the rest of the journey. Perhaps even for the rest of my life.
I heard Jenna yell behind me. She was trotting after us uncertainly; with no wings and only two legs, she couldn’t keep up with our pace, and she stumbled often on the uneven ground. While my family raced ahead, I slowed to allow her to keep up with me, though my heart yearned to bound forward toward the Ancient and to bask in its light.
‘You’re…so fast…’ Jenna panted when she caught up with me.
I shrugged, one ear flicking back. Since she already seemed to be out of energy, I matched my pace to hers, still gazing up at the Ancient. Perhaps there was solace to be found in this slow journey as well. To the anticipation of resting beneath its canopy.
‘So…what is the Flowering Ancient?’ she asked.
I glanced at her, too surprised to be irritated at further interruptions. ‘You don’t know it?’
She shook her head.
I ruminated on that a moment, a hint of unease flickering through me. Jenna had been granted leave to travel to and settle on Geminus. That she hadn’t bothered to learn anything about us didn’t speak well of her. ‘The Flowering Ancient is one half of god,’ I said. ‘It gives life to cosmorans and nourishes the land on which we live.’
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘And that’s why you hatch here? What’s the other half of your god?’
I snorted, my irritation growing. ‘The Starfire Ancient, whose name is beyond knowing by cosmoran minds. The Starfire Ancient resides on Profundus, and gave us starfire and knowledge. It feeds the waters which allow us to learn, grow, and change. You really ought to know things like this.’
Jenna looked stricken. ‘Oh. Sorry, I—’
‘Nevermind.’ I looked away from her, irritation and guilt making an unpleasant mix in my belly. She was the one in the wrong. I didn’t see what right she had to be upset at me pointing that out.
I tried to focus on the Flowering Ancient, on its light and presence. On its beautiful, relaxing scent. Jenna fell silent, and I was able to put her from my mind, though I remained at her side.
As we approached the base of the trunk, I saw my family fanned out and waiting for us. Two figures in hooded white cloaks waited with them: the Flowering Servants. Indeed, as we approached I could see the moss and flowers that sprung from their fur and scales as if it had grown there, their cloaks not quite obscuring the changes their role had brought on them.
‘Is this the last of your party?’ asked the first Servant, a tiger with grey fur and silver stripes.
‘These are the last,’ said Teera. ‘My kit, and a boon traveller met on the road.’
‘A boon traveller?’ The second Servant, a brilliant orange-and-black gecko, approached Jenna and sniffed politely toward her, tongue tasting the air. Jenna hesitated and sniffed back toward him.
‘Uh. Hi,’ said Jenna.
‘You are most welcome,’ said the gecko Servant warmly. ‘Now, come.’ He turned to face the group, his thick tail sweeping the ground. ‘The path is not easy, but the fruit is very sweet.’
The pair set off up a narrow whorl of wood against the trunk that formed something like a path, and my parents followed, with the rest of my siblings behind. Frost hovered at the back. ‘Jenna, can you climb?’ they asked. ‘You don’t have claws that I can see, and it must be hard to balance on two legs…’
‘Oh. Uh. A bit, I guess,’ she said. ‘How much climbing is there?’
‘It’s just a bit steep,’ I said. ‘You might have to scramble up a few ledges, depending on where exactly we’re going.’ To Frost, I said, ‘She has hands. She’ll be fine.’
‘That’s a big assumption,’ said Frost. To, Jenna, they asked gently, ‘Are you tired? Will you need any help? You’re quite big, but I think together we could lift you with starfire over anything too high. And if you like, you can wait at the base of the tree, but we’d love to have you at the hatching ceremony.’
‘I’d like to come,’ said Jenna. ‘And I think I can go up this path all right.’ She didn’t look that confident, though. In fact she looked really tired, and maybe a bit ill. She hadn’t been so ashen and sweaty when I’d first met her. ‘I’m just surprised you want me at the ceremony. Why is everyone so excited about a “boon traveller” at what seems like a family event?’
I snorted. ‘It’s an old superstition.’
‘But a beloved one,’ said Frost. Storm and Illusion shot me warning looks, though what they felt like they needed to warn me about I couldn’t guess. ‘Come on. We’ll catch up with the others. Jenna, you follow me, and then Avari will come up behind, so you’ll be quite safe. You can hold onto my fur if you need to.’
We started up the path. The others hadn’t gotten very far, the Servants setting a sedate pace that even Bloom was forced to follow. The bark of the Ancient clattered beneath my hoofsteps, but Jenna’s steps were surprisingly light.
The woody path spiralled up the tree. It seemed to grow smoothly from the Ancient, though none had ever shaped it. The ground fell away as we climbed but I was sure of my footing and surer still of the warm peace and belonging the Ancient radiated. As we went higher, the Ancient started to branch, vast boughs that bore heavy fruit or the gleaming flowers of cosmorans past.
Staring at the back of Jenna’s head, separated from my family by a stranger, I reflected bitterly that the ‘boon traveller’ tradition was a useless one. Why did we want a stranger at the hatching of the newest member of our family? Someone who knew nothing of us or what we’d been through—or in Jenna’s case, anything about cosmorans at all? Did she even understand what an honour it was to be present at a hatching ceremony?
‘Avari?’ Jenna glanced back at me. She walked with one hand on the trunk of the Flowering Ancient, trailing her hand along it like it was keeping her stable. She swayed a bit on her feet. Was she tired? Scared? Ill? ‘Is there anything I should know? About the ceremony? I don’t want to make an awkward mistake.’
‘No,’ I said, and caught the harshness of my own voice. I tried again, ‘Just stand back when we get there. It’ll be fine.’
Still pretty gruff, but Jenna seemed mollified. That only irritated me more. She shouldn’t be part of this. It wasn’t fate that we found her on the road, it was nothing more than random chance. Obviously the portal she’d taken from her planet had malfunctioned in some way, or she’d gone in the wrong direction. Why did that make her our responsibility?
A small part of me noted that perhaps I was taking out my anxiety about the ceremony on Jenna, but I squashed that thought real quick. This was about having to kit-watch a random alien, not about me or any of my problems.
At least, it certainly felt better to be angry at her about it than it did to think otherwise. You might think that I shouldn’t be able to hold that knowledge and still maintain my annoyance with Jenna, but denial and stubbornness were always two of my most powerful traits.
We started out along a branch. It was wide enough for two people at a pinch, but still significantly narrower than the path along the trunk, and with no walls to either side. The Servants guided my family along it, but when it came to Jenna, she hesitated.
Frost paused, and Illusion glanced back at her. ‘Something the matter?’
‘Oh. No,’ she said. She flashed a smile. ‘I’ll be fine.’
Illusion nodded, and Frost followed the rest of the family.
I heard Jenna murmur, ‘Come on, Jenna.’
I flicked one ear forward and one to the side, unsure what she meant with all of this. Annoyance still simmered, but a new anxiety had joined the mix.
She took one step, then another. Her arms were held slightly out to each side—for balance? She swayed as if caught in a strong wind.
‘You okay?’ I asked. I took a few tentative steps forward.
‘Totally fine,’ Jenna said, but her voice seemed a lot higher than usual.
I hesitated, unsure of what to make of that contradiction.
Jenna whispered, ‘Come on, Jenna,’ and took a few more awkward steps. I followed uncertainly. And then Jenna was falling forward, her legs slipping out from under her, a strangled cry ripping the air.
I lunged forward and caught her dress between my teeth and yanked back. She was heavy, but I was a goat-shape and plenty strong enough. I reached out with starfire to pull her as well, taking hold of her shoulders.
Thanks to me, she landed on her ass and not her face—or the roots of the Flowering Ancient, far below. I released her and trotted around to face her—I had no such trouble balancing on a sturdy bit of wood. ‘Fog take it! What was that?’ I demanded. I stomped a hoof. ‘This isn’t a tightrope but that doesn’t mean you can mess around! If you slip, you haven’t got anything to hold on with!’ I eyed her clawless hands and flat, hoofless hindpaws.
Her eyes were watery. Her mouth trembled as she looked up at me. ‘I fell,’ she said. Her voice didn’t sound right—was she shocked?
I took a half-step back. I felt utterly unprepared for any of this. Maybe I was a mean old goat. ‘Look, don’t—don’t cry. I’m sorry I scolded you. You probably wouldn’t have slipped off.’ I wasn’t sure that was true, but her mouth was still wobbling like a bar of sweetfruit jelly. Stars, why did humans have such mobile faces? I didn’t think I’d ever been as upset as she looked.
‘Jenna?’ Frost’s heads swivelled around to look at us and then they hurried over. ‘Avari, what did you do?’
‘I didn’t do anything!’ The accusation stung. It felt like an echo of my mother’s earlier words. Did everyone in my family think I ruined everything? Even Frost? ‘She slipped. She’s a bit shocked, that’s all.’
Illusion and Storm leaned in to get a better look at her. Storm gently nudged her shoulder with their muzzle; Illusion studied her quizzically, her movements sharp with nerves. ‘She looks all right,’ said Illusion.
‘Hey,’ said Storm gently. ‘You’re fine. You take as long as you need.’
Jenna nodded, her breath hitching. A tear slipped down her face.
I wanted to point out that we didn’t have an infinite amount of time—the others were drawing still further ahead, unaware of our hold-up. And I knew that just like Frost, my mothers would blame me for interrupting the journey, and they would not be as gentle about it either.
But Jenna looked so small and so frightened, and her face was so wet, so I found the words wouldn’t come. After a moment’s hesitation, I bent my knees and settled down in front of her, to let her know that I wasn’t in any rush either. It was a little awkward getting down—my forgetech leg was slow again, and rubbed a nerve unpleasantly. But nothing I wasn’t used to.
Jenna’s eyes seemed drawn to my movement; she stared at me for a moment, her hitching breath subsiding. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking, but then I struggled to read other cosmorans at the best of times, let alone an alien. Frost continued to say soothing things, an entire support network all in themselves. Jenna nodded occasionally and eventually even managed a shaky smile. But her eyes returned to me often. As I had no soothing words, I just continued to sit with her.
When Bloom came scampering back along the path to ask us if everything was okay, Jenna took a shuddering breath and stood up. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I guess I’m not as good with heights as I thought. I won’t hold you up any longer.’
Frost offered to walk beside her, but she only shook her head and said she’d be fine on her own. I thought I understood her decision, a little. I wondered if, like me, she worried about being seen as a burden. And besides which, Frost was quite broad and would make the path for her even narrower.
I let her pass me again and followed, keeping a wary eye on her. She didn’t put her hands out this time, though I often saw them flex and clench as if she was thinking about it. Sometimes she would glance back at me, her jaw tight and eyes bright.
We caught up with the rest of my family, ranged out across the branch. A large fruit hung just above them. It was beautifully gold, like all the Ancient’s fruit and flowers, but this particular one had a faintly pink sheen to it. My pace quickened. The fruit was maybe four feet in diameter, clearly at the height of ripeness. The skin was perfectly smooth, almost metallic, but it was segmented by the petals of the flower it would become.
The tiger Servant asked, ‘Are you ready?’ She addressed this to my mothers. Nova put a wing around Teera, drawing her close. Teera nodded. ‘We’re ready,’ she said. Her starfire burned a little brighter, her excitement clear.
The servants bowed to the fruit and then lowered it to our branch using starfire, their flames mixing and shifting in a rainbow of colours. The moment the fruit touched the branch, the skin split and started to crack. The shape of it bulged, as if something inside was shifting or pushing on the edges of it. In spite of my anxiety, in spite of all the strangeness of the day, I felt my own breath catch at the sight of it.
Liquid seeped from between the cracked petal segments, sticky and golden, like honey. And then the skin separated out into petals which peeled back, allowing the inside of the fruit to slough out onto the branch. The Servants released the flower, which sprang gently back, opening into a gorgeous bloom still dripping with nectar.
Beside me, Jenna breathlessly whispered, ‘Oh.’
The mound of goo on the floor stirred. My mothers lurched forward and started to clear the nectar with paws and starfire. Between them, I could see flashes of a tiny figure. Narrow hooves, short brown fur. A flash of feathers.
My parents shifted enough that we got a clear view. On the floor, fur still wet with nectar, was a tiny fawn with a faintly pink sheen to her light brown fur, a paler version of my own. Her flanks were speckled with white, and two small wings—brown and white—were folded on her back. Her eyes were closed, and the smallest white candle-flame of starfire hovered above her brow.
Nova preened her ears with her beak while Teera nudged her little flank. Her eyes flickered open and she started to bleat.
‘And what name do you give your newborn kit?’ asked one of the Servants.
My mothers stared at the little fawn with open adoration. ‘Journey,’ said Teera, without looking away from her.
The Servants bowed. ‘Welcome to Geminus, Journey,’ said the other.
As my family crowded in to greet our newest relative, my gaze lifted to the flower shining down on them, still dripping nectar. Just one of many aspects of the Ancients.
I hoped Journey would grow up to be as loved as she was in this moment.
The journey back thankfully lacked the tension of the journey out. Bloom and Lur walked beside Nova, cooing at the kit, who alternated between staring blearily at them and bleating plaintively. Frost, too, jostled for a chance to walk beside Nova, whispering sweet things to the kit and congratulating our mothers again and again. As for our mothers, they walked with obvious pride and delight, radiating joy in the set of their feathers and the proud tilt of their heads.
I wasn’t sure how to manoeuvre in amongst my crowding siblings, though I did want to meet Journey properly. Unable to insert myself beside her, I found myself walking beside Jenna instead.
She was lagging more than ever, her footsteps heavy and shuffling, her gait swaying. Maybe humans found walking difficult? Even with a prosthetic leg, I could keep going for hours on land, but then I had three other legs. Jenna only had two, and no wings or lighter core to compensate.
‘Congratulations,’ she said breathlessly. ‘On the new sibling, I mean.’ She hesitated. ‘It was an honour to be present.’
I inclined my head, not really sure how to deal with the awkwardness of this conversation. I had no script for discussing the hatching of my sister with an alien. I wasn’t sure I had one for cosmorans, either. I suppose I probably should have said ‘Thank you,’ or something like that, but those small niceties often evaded me when I was anxious. And I was more anxious than ever now, even without my parents judging me. I felt like an outsider among my own family, and that hit all the harder because my family were all I had.
She looked like speaking had taken a lot out of her. ‘Are you…okay?’ I asked her.
She smiled like the smile pained her. ‘I’m not,’ she said. ‘I’ll just have to manage though.’
We lapsed into silence. She’d been so chatty earlier, so full of questions, but it was like a spark had gone out in her. We fell further and further behind my family. I hated to see my chance of meeting Journey get away from me, but neither could I leave a lost alien alone on the path. I wondered if I should offer to help somehow, or ask more questions about her condition, but I couldn’t see how to do so politely when she’d already said she’d manage.
Eventually, Frost got closed off from our hatchling sister by our enthusiastic younger siblings and made their way back to us. At first, they were smiling, their flame a warm and content orange, but as they neared all three of their gazes fixed on Jenna and their tail started to lash. ‘Is everything all right?’ asked Illusion. ‘You look terribly tired.’
Jenna nodded limply, then, almost as if that motion had wrung the last scrap of energy from her, she sank to the ground. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she said. ‘I just…I need a minute.’
‘Of course, take all the time you need,’ said Illusion, while Night glared at me.
My ears went back. Why be angry at me? I hadn’t made Jenna collapse!
‘I’ll let the family know to wait at the glider for us,’ said Storm. Illusion added, ‘Look after Jenna, okay?’
I snorted as Frost turned away, and stomped a hoof to let out my frustrated energy. My mothers hated it when I stomped but something about the motion was really soothing to me. I stomped a few more times because the repetition was nice, then considered Jenna.
If she had any feelings about me stomping, they were lost in deep exhaustion. She stared blankly at the ground from where she sat, legs crumpled, skirts askew, utterly still. She looked like she might melt into a puddle at any moment.
Frost quickly returned. ‘They’re waiting further up the path,’ said Storm. ‘Nobody’s in any rush.’ Illusion lowered her head to peer worriedly at Jenna. ‘What would help? Should we stay here awhile? Or do you need to talk? Or healing?’
Jenna took a shuddering breath. ‘Sitting her for a bit would help,’ she said. Her words were a little sluggish, like she was falling asleep. ‘I don’t need healing. I just can’t move…any more.’
‘Okay,’ said Frost. ‘You take all the time you need.’
Night flicked his tongue at me and gestured for me to step aside. I sighed and followed Frost.
Night glanced at Jenna. ‘Do you think she can hear us?’
I considered her. She still looked pretty out of it. ‘No idea,’ I said. ‘How sensitive is human hearing?’
‘She looks absolutely done in,’ said Storm. ‘How long has she been struggling?’
I hesitated. ‘She started looking pretty tired as we got to the Flowering Ancient.’
‘That long ago? Ughh.’ Night hissed and shook his head.
‘The canopy-glider won’t be able to stop here,’ said Illusion. ‘There’s not enough room. Avari, you should let her ride you.’
My fur stood on end. ‘What? No!’ I stomped a hoof.
‘She’s your responsibility!’ said Storm.
I ground my teeth from side to side. She was a random human I’d stumbled across. A stranger, and an alien besides. ‘She can’t ride me.’
‘Well, we don’t exactly have a hoverseat for her or anything,’ snapped Night.
‘Then you let her ride you,’ I said, knowing Night would hate that almost as much as I did.
Night glared at me, but Illusion shook her head at him, something silent passing between them. Storm said, ‘It can’t always be like this.’ Then Frost turned around and strode over to her. They spoke quietly for a moment, and then Frost gently lifted Jenna with starfire and placed her on their back. She draped there like a blanket, not even enough strength to sit up.
‘Come on,’ said Frost, walking past me with smooth, careful steps. I snorted and followed.
We easily caught up with the others, who gave Jenna curious looks but didn’t have much to say, thankfully. Jenna herself seemed to be fast asleep. I couldn’t imagine falling asleep while riding on the back of someone else, not to mention someone she’d only met a matter of hours ago, but whatever had so thoroughly exhausted Jenna seemingly couldn’t wait until she had a nice nest to rest in.
I still desperately wanted to meet Journey but she was also asleep, nestled between my mother’s wings, and Bloom and Teera were still on either side cooing over her, so there wasn’t really a good opportunity and anyway, I didn’t want to bother her while she slept.
Frost didn’t speak to me at all, though sometimes I caught Night’s eye and he shook his head at me minutely. It was extremely unfair. And Frost was usually on my side!
Though I had to admit a certain discomfort knotting my insides. I might not accept that Jenna was my personal responsibility, but she had been really ill, or tired, or something, and I hadn’t helped her. But even watching Frost carry her seemingly easily—perhaps humans were not as dense as cosmorans—I couldn’t imagine carrying her myself. Touching anyone made my skin crawl. I had learned to tolerate my siblings, but even that wasn’t always easy for me.
At length, Jenna stirred. For a while, she still rested with her cheek pressed to Frost’s back, awake but with a haze to her sight that reminded me of when people tried to remember something the fog had taken. But eventually, she asked to be let down, saying she thought she could walk a little while longer. She didn’t look much better to me, but Frost knelt to let her slide off and she did walk, falling into step with me where I trailed the rest of my family.
‘Sorry about that,’ she said.
I shrugged. ‘Can’t help it if you’re tired,’ I said.
She smiled, and I thought maybe it looked a bit bitter. ‘You have no idea,’ she murmured.
Ahead, Bloom exclaimed as Journey woke up. She started covering her eyes with her hands and then suddenly moving them and squeaking at her.
Jenna watched her. ‘Do you think it would be all right if I asked to meet her? Journey?’
I flicked one ear back. ‘Yeah, sure.’
She nodded. ‘Would you come with me?’
Dread curled in my stomach but I said, ‘Okay,’ because my mouth is a traitor that does nothing but get me into trouble.
We caught up my mothers, and all the while my mind was full of static as I tried to work out how to ask permission to greet my own sister without seeming like a total weirdo or getting in the way of my siblings. It was a tie between, ‘So. Journey?’ and ‘Mother, might I please meet my kit sister?’ but I was ninety-percent sure my mouth just wouldn’t work. I knew it was ridiculous; that there shouldn’t be any reason I felt this way. But I did, and I couldn’t help it, and I couldn’t change the fact that although I very much wanted to meet Journey, my body felt like it was rusting into place.
My mothers both looked at me as we arrived, Nova’s ears pricking forward, Teera’s head canting to one side. My mouth felt terribly dry and I couldn’t help my ears from flattening slightly. But before I could so much as open my mouth, Jenna said brightly, ‘Thank you so much for allowing me to witness the bi—the hatching of your baby. Kit. I would love to say hello to her?’ Any awkwardness was erased by her wide, winning smile. It was so bright I felt like I needed shades.
‘Oh, of course!’ said Nova, absolutely glowing with motherly pride, her starfire bright and shimmering.
Jenna thanked her and started to walk on the side. My siblings gave way to her, but she gestured for me to come stand beside her. I took my opportunity to get close.
On my mother’s back, semi-obscured by her folded wings, was Journey. I had seen kits before but was still awed by how small and fragile Journey looked. Her limbs were so thin and gangly, her wings little more than twigs with pin feathers. She blinked at me, staring like she had no idea what she was looking at—and I supposed she didn’t. Her eyes seemed too large for her head—dark eyes, as black as night, and studded with stars.
Shyly, I sniffed toward her. She didn’t reciprocate—one of many things she would learn as she grew. And hopefully more easily than I had. ‘Hello, Journey,’ I said gently. Her ears twitched—over-sized ears that dwarfed her narrow face. I perked my ears toward her and smiled. ‘Hey,’ I said. ‘We’re going to be friends. I know it.’
I wasn’t overwhelmed by fraternal feelings, or any rush of protectiveness or anything like that. I knew some of my siblings were—Frost had mentioned it before, and Bloom. I had fretted about that when Bloom and Lur hatched. That I was lacking the emotions required to be a good sibling to them, to make a connection. But we had become close. It was only that they were strangers when they hatched.
Journey was a stranger to me now, but she was also family. And if I made an effort, there was no reason we couldn’t be as close one day as I was with any of my siblings.
Jenna watched our interaction with a smile. She said, ‘Nice to meet you, Journey,’ and sniffed toward her as well.
I leaned forward and touched my muzzle to Journey. It felt like a very forward thing to do with someone I just met, but as Journey was a hatchling kit, I couldn’t see her complaining. Her muzzle was very soft; she had fruit-fur, velvety and not yet grown coarse and protective like mine.
I didn’t want her to grow up alone. She would need her siblings to show her the world, to be friends and guides in ways my mothers could not. I felt a little at a loss for how to do that now. Frost had hatched only a decade after me, and Bloom and Lur only a handful of decades after that. We had been a mature family for so long now. But I was determined to try.
I stayed with Journey for a little while, but when Bloom started hovering at the sides, clearly wanting to spend more time with her, I said goodbye and Jenna went with me.
‘She seems like a lovely kit,’ Jenna said. ‘I don’t completely understand how cosmorans relate to each other yet—compared to humans, you all look very different. But her fur reminds me of yours.’
I felt my starfire pinken, pleased that she’d thought so as well.
When we got back to the canopy-glider, Jenna inhaled sharply. I watched her gaze sweep the ship, from the smooth, ovular body painted an earthy brown, to the webbed green wings folded at its sides. ‘So you do have ships,’ she said. ‘I thought, when the portal appeared instead of a ship…’
‘Well, that’s a canopy-glider,’ I said. ‘They aren’t equipped for space travel. That’d be a cosmo-swimmer. I think, when we first made contact with humans, it was in space.’ Honestly, I probably should have paid more attention. It was a little over a century now and the fog of time made it hard to hold onto details like that. I seemed to be particularly prone to it; I knew there were some people who could remember almost everything and were very little affected by the fog.
‘Does it flap its wings?’ Jenna asked.
‘A little,’ I replied, and her obvious delight made me more excited to fly on it than I’d been in a long time. The gull-shape pilot waved a wing at us as we approached. She’d been lounging outside, feathers puffed and legs tucked beneath her.
‘Hello!’ she said, and sniffed toward us politely. We all returned the gesture, even Jenna. ‘I see your group has grown by more than one.’ She strode forward, her movements deliberate, her small talons scoring the ground. Her pilot’s badge, with a silhouette of a canopy-glider stitched onto it, was worn on a buttoned collar around her neck. ‘I’m Lirri,’ she said, bowing to Jenna with a flourish.
Jenna giggled and made an awkward bow in return. ‘Jenna.’
‘And how did you become part of this trip?’
‘She’s just arrived,’ said Frost. ‘She was present for our Journey’s hatching.’
‘Journey?’ Lirri looked around excitedly, feathers rising. ‘Where’s the new kit?’ She excitedly rushed over to Nova and Teera.
Jenna blinked in surprise, then laughed. ‘I’m an actual alien but a kit is still more exciting than me,’ she said. ‘Truly, there’s no hope for me.’
I snorted and gestured inside the canopy-glider with a hoof. ‘I wouldn’t take it personally,’ I said. ‘Kits are very rare, and very loved.’
Jenna raised her eyebrows. ‘You have four siblings! Or…maybe six? That’s a lot on Earth!’
‘We’re…a very unusual family,’ I said, a little uncomfortably. I didn’t know how to explain hatching rates among cosmorans.
Inside the canopy-glider, it was exactly as we’d left it. I ushered Jenna over to a low cushioned seat and, because I didn’t see how I could go sit somewhere else without being rude, took the seat beside her. Frost ambled in a moment later and took the seat on her other side, their long tail curling around to tap on the floor while they sat.
‘So…where are we going?’ Jenna said. ‘I haven’t seen an embassy, or…or greeter, or anything. I have no idea where I’m going to stay, or how to pay for it…’
I flattened my ears at that. I knew our diplomats had been advised to be close-lipped about the specifics of our worlds and their geography, but to tell a traveller nothing at all and expect her to start a life here seemed like a step too far. Several steps.
‘You won’t have to pay for anything,’ said Frost. ‘We don’t expect trade from travellers until they become settled, and even then all essentials are exempt from trade. We’ll talk to the local Travellers’ Union about getting you a house and supplies.’
‘We’re going to Lost Circle,’ I said. ‘That’s the city Frost and I live in. The others will be travelling on from there, but Lost Circle is big enough that there are probably already humans living there, so it shouldn’t be too awkward to get you settled.’
‘Probably?’ Jenna repeated.
I flicked an ear at her. ‘I haven’t actually met another human,’ I admitted. Although it was possible that I had, and the fog had taken it. Chance encounters were some of the first memories the fog would claim.
‘I have,’ Frost said. ‘Don’t worry. We’ll make sure you get the help you need. As a new arrival, you’re our family’s responsibility until you’re established.’
Jenna looked startled. ‘Oh. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be a burden—!’
‘Not a burden, an honour,’ Frost interrupted her firmly.
I dunno, she was a little bit of a burden. She seemed nice, but all I wanted to do was go home now and curl up with my cosmorb, not take a human to the Travellers’ Union.
The canopy-glider started to lift, the wings unfolding and starting to gently vibrate, the glow of them shining through the windows.
Jenna gripped her seat uncertainly. ‘Will this be rough?’
‘A little,’ I said. ‘You can activate your safety gem if you’re worried.’ I demonstrated by touching my hoof to the gem beneath my seat. Glowing threads of crackling energy wrapped around me, fixing me to my chair, as the canopy-glider beat its wings for the first time, sending us swooping up into the air. Jenna lurched forward so I activated her safety gem with starfire. The harness caught her and eased her back into her seat.
‘Oh. Thanks,’ she said.
I flicked an ear by way of response.
I didn’t have much to say for the rest of the trip, so I just listened to Jenna and Frost chat. Storm talked about our family and how long it had been since the last hatching ceremony, and Illusion cut in to talk a little about the magical study of the Flowering Ancient’s fruits and their connection to Cosmorans. Nothing particularly interesting, but they seemed to enjoy it.
Jenna in turn answered questions about Earth, and what had brought her to Geminus Viridus. She seemed sort of evasive to me—lots of talk about ‘needing a change’ and ‘not fitting in at home’ but no real explanation of any of that. Not that I blamed her; for all my family had rushed in to claim responsibility for her, we were still recent acquaintances. She did mention she was a gardener though, which was interesting. Gardening was a very respectable skill, though I couldn’t imagine what it might look like on Earth, or without the use of starfire.
It was a long flight, the canopy-glider skimming the top of the forest and then soaring above open meadows. The heartstar set, turning the sky a deep purple-black, and then the stars became visible, mimicking the flowers twinkling at us below. I took off my safety guard and went to look out the window, resting my chin on the sill. At times like this, when the world was rushing past in all its beautiful shapes and colours, I fancied I could understand what it must have been like for the cosmorans in aeons past. Nomads who hadn’t yet learned to shape the trees, for whom all the land was home. It was a strange feeling; a nostalgia for something I’d never experienced.
I looked to Jenna, expecting her to be excited about her first aerial view of Geminus, only to see her slumped in her seat—not asleep, but clearly too tired to do much.
A while later, Jenna seemed to rally a bit. Teera laid out a picnic on the floor for us to enjoy. Bloom took Jenna’s hand and guided her over, walking awkwardly on her hind feet like she was impersonating a human herself. ‘If you’re sure?’ Jenna said. ‘I’ve…never had cosmoran food before, but I’m starving.’
I knelt on the floor beside my family. They’d dragged a floral-patterned blanket across the floor to make a nice eating area, and Teera had opened up the various packs she’d brought and pulled out various containers of soups, salads, and even some rather exciting looking pastries, the crusts still a bright, fresh green.
‘Can humans eat our food?’ I asked. I addressed the question to Frost, more because Frost always seemed to be the knowledgeable one than anything. ‘Cosmorans can tolerate quite a lot of toxins compared to other organisms, and—’
‘I think it should be okay,’ said Jenna. ‘That’s one of the first things I learned about Geminus. Apparently we have similar diets, in some ways. Humans can tolerate a lot of toxins too.’ She smiled nervously. ‘And I’m a big fan of spicy food.’
Lur stuck out his tongue. ‘Ugh. I hate spicy food. It makes my tongue hurt.’
‘I like spicy food,’ I reassured her.
Frost snorted. ‘It’s about all Avari eats. Our mothers bring along a pot of yellow chutney just to make sure they won’t turn up their nose at the picnic.’
‘I’m not as bad as that,’ I said. I pulled over a little wood-worked bowl and tossed a pastry and a bunch of salad into my bowl. The flowers made the whole thing look much brighter and tastier.
‘Oh, that’s quite nicely presented,’ said Lur. ‘If I had my cosmorb, I’d try to get an image of it—’
I opened the pot of yellow chutney and dropped a big dollop on top.
‘Nevermind.’ Lur wrinkled his nose and turned back to his own bowl.
‘So…what is all this?’ Jenna asked.
I scooped up my pastry and a pinch of salad and took a bite. The yellow chutney was sweet and angry, burning my tongue in a pleasant sort of way. ‘Salad, soup, pastry,’ I said and took another bite. It was a little too much too soon and I coughed at the aggressiveness of it.
‘Serves you right,’ said Lur, sticking out his tongue at me.
‘This is sweet soup,’ said Bloom, picking up the pot with her hands. ‘It’s…ah, you won’t know the ingredients. Fruit and leaves, lightly spiced. Like a hot thick juice. And this is salad, it’s all flowers and leaves, I think…and this is a blissfruit pastry. It’s sort of savoury…the filling is blissfruit and songflower and…sungourd seeds?’ She perked an ear at Teera, who inclined her head in assent. ‘The pastry is made from ground up seeds and leaves to make a sort of flour. It’s nice with preserves.’ She side-eyed my pastry, smeared with yellow chutney. ‘But not yellow chutney unless you want your mouth to cry.’
My mouth was crying but I liked it. I took another bite and Bloom grimaced at me like we were kits.
‘I’d like to try a bit of everything, if I may,’ said Jenna. She looked a little worriedly at Teera, and I wondered if she was thinking about how awkward it would be if she didn’t like it—which seemed almost inevitable considering it was all flavours and textures she’d probably never encountered before. Personally, I hated trying new food. Although I hated new things in general, and since Jenna had decided to move to a new planet, we were perhaps very different in that regard.
‘Is it okay if I use my hands?’ she said. ‘I don’t have…’ she gestured at Bloom’s flame.
‘Starfire,’ I supplied.
‘Starfire. Just hands.’ She held them out and wiggled them demonstratively.
‘Of course,’ said Teera. ‘Help yourself. We made plenty.’
Jenna filled two bowls, one with soup and one with salad and pastry. After consulting with Bloom again, she added a bit of the two chutneys my mother had brought—one that was blue and bland and boring, and of course the delicious option of yellow chutney.
She looked eager to get started and around us everyone started chatting. Teera and Nova tempted Journey with some kit mush, but Journey wasn’t having it, turning her head whenever they tried. Lur and Illusion started up a conversation on forgetech applications I frankly couldn’t follow, but that was nothing new. While those siblings were firecrafters rather than technicians, there was a lot of overlap in the fields and it wasn’t uncommon for them to talk about it.
I finished up my bowl and glanced at Jenna. She was poking at the food, looking worried, but hadn’t tried any. I leaned close to her. ‘Not sure about it?’ I asked in a low voice. ‘It’s fine, Teera won’t mind.’ Not from the precious ‘boon traveller’ anyway. If I had fussed about the food, it would be quite a different story.
‘It’s not that,’ she said. ‘I just…I notice you’re all using starfire to eat it. I can’t pick it up like that. On earth, we have utensils for that. I can drink the soup from the bowl, I think. Would that be rude?’ The word ‘utensils’ was a little fuzzy in my mind, but I recognised it as ‘tools for eating’.
‘It can’t be rude if it’s your only option,’ I said, and meant it. ‘I don’t mind it. Go ahead.’
She lifted the bowl. I thought she would lap at it, as a kit might, but she put her lips to the edge of the bowl and sipped it delicately. Her eyes widened at the taste, and she continued.
‘Good?’ I asked.
‘Different,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t really taste of anything I’ve had before, it’s hard to describe. But I like the sweetness.’
That seemed reasonable.
The salad and pastry, she struggled over, and I understood why. Her hands would get dirty. I’d never really thought of any of this before—all cosmorans had starfire. Not all of us could manipulate objects with it, but we had aids available for people who couldn’t. Ought I to think of Jenna as disabled, in that sense? Would a starfire amplifier even help her, considering she had no starfire at all?
She ate it with her hands, though the chutney stained her fingers. She gasped aloud when she tried the yellow chutney and started breathing in and out really fast, like she was trying to cool the spice through pure airflow.
‘I told you it was awful,’ said Bloom, but Jenna grinned.
‘It’s perfect,’ she said. All of my family members were aghast, but I chuckled.
‘Want more?’ I asked.
I picked up a dollop and floated it over to her and at her consent, added it to the pastry. I noticed she didn’t ask for more blue chutney. It was funny to think I might share more taste with a human than with my own family, but kind of nice as well.
She made her way through the salad and pastry. ‘These were all delicious, thank you,’ she said to Teera, who was delighted.
‘Teera’s a great cook,’ said Storm, while Illusion continued the conversation with Lur. ‘We’re always pleased to enjoy her food.’
Frost’s thick tail whipped around to slap me on the rump. I startled. ‘Yeah, thanks, Teera,’ I said. I wasn’t very good at remembering to say thanks, even though I had really enjoyed the meal. Things like that often evaded me. You might think my mothers would be used to it, but Teera could be very sensitive. I was glad I had Frost to remind me, just like they had when we were kits.
We chatted for the rest of the meal, and Lirri even had a bit as well, as there was plenty to go around and the skies were clear over the meadows.
We settled down to rest for the rest of the journey. Nova and Teera curled around Journey, already dozing, while Bloom peeked over them and waved at a bleary but still awake Journey. Lur curled up on his seat, poking his nose under his tail. I’d always been envious of how small Lur could curl up; fox-shapes were much more flexible than goat-shapes.
Frost talked to themselves quietly and stretched out on the floor. That left only me and Jenna really awake—well, and Lirri at the controls. I expect she’d gotten her sleep while we made the journey to the Flowering Ancient.
‘You can sleep, if you like,’ I said. ‘Do humans curl up? Or I could get you a blanket if you want to stretch out like Frost?’
She gave me a tired smile. ‘We can sort of curl up, I guess? Not as well as Lur, though.’ She looked at my brother where he formed a perfect little fur puddle. ‘I don’t think I could fit on this seat comfortably. But I never fall asleep on flights anyway.’
‘Me either,’ I said. They’d always made me anxious, though I didn’t say that.
‘Well, let’s stay up together then,’ she said.
So we did. And when the heartstar rose, we went to the window to watch it, me standing, Jenna sitting on the floor with her knees drawn to her chest. The sky was red and beautiful with dawn, the horizon taking on a vari-coloured gleam. ‘Wow,’ she said, watching it. And looking at her eyes in that moment, they were full of stars, just like mine.
I hope you enjoyed the first three chapters of The Old Goat and the Alien!