< The Snake, the Bald Man, and the Baby
The Snake, the Bald Man, and the Baby


Greg Guerin

Two of the great fissured trunks among the dense stand of wood were not tree-boles but the legs of a man. The tufts of white silk were not flowers but patches of hair, the hardened sap not amber but great gobs of earwax. Newen Newenfoun's body was creviced and ridged with age, tufted with thickened hair everywhere but the top of his head -- which was bald, polished silver. He stood nearly equal to the wind-twisted swamp trees, gazing over the brown fluid of the marshes, shadowed by building evening cloud.

Those stinking waters were undrinkable yet a close enough parody of the real thing to torment his thirst. It was imfastibulously infuriousnessing, as they said back in New Zealand, Sirianus Major. There was no water or food a man could stomach on this world. He maintained fluid uptake only by laborious distilling of the unpleasant atmosphere, forcing the tainted product down his throat like good medicine. The unclean mixture left his throat dry, dissatisfied. His lungs -- retrofitted catalytic processors -- burnt with the acrid tang of the air.

For once, Newen had something else to worry about, promise of an end to the dull monotony of his existence. He'd received the signal he'd waited two years for; his compatriots were on way to collect him, reunite him with New Zealand and civilization.


Newen's first waking sensation -- a terrible pain on the side of his head, a raging ache through the rest. He drifted in and out of unconsciousness, finally woke himself up. The bed felt damp, lumpy. He wondered what was wrong with him; had he come down with a bug? Slowly, sensation reached him from a battered body. No bug, he realized: an accident.

Opening his eyes, he realized he wasn't in bed. The ground was spongy, a mat of vegetation and grit. He sat up, coughing blood and dirt, squinting in near-darkness. A penlight flashed in his face, something moving towards him, staggering -- or crawling -- over the ground.

"Newen..." came Jern Jernfoun's gasping voice. He could see nothing but the bright point of the torch. "Thank God you're okay. Does it hurt?"

He grunted, in assent but dismissive. "What's that smell?" His faculties hadn't fully returned -- perhaps concussion -- and the burning smell was abhorrent.

"Quell II is afire," Jern snorted, crouching near him, a steadying hand on his shoulder. He pushed her away gently to look about. Smoldering flames and a dark, broken mass were all that remained of their vessel.

Newen held his hands around his head, shaken by the sight. He had been asleep, remembered nothing. "What happened... where's Muren?"

"Muren Murenfoun and Birn Birnfoun were doing some maintenance to the main tethered-hold. The malfunction prevented them re-entering the cabin."

There was no need to elaborate. Newen knew they'd have burnt up in the atmosphere. His relationship with the men was professional, but he mourned them in both a personal and patriotic sense. "Two worthy expeditionists, lost," he murmured, "their expertise lost with them..."

"The impact-buffer system saved us," Jern went on, perhaps not wishing to dwell on the tragedy, "and I had enough time to get properly harnessed. I found you and dragged you out before the fire got to you."

Newen grunted again to dismiss the importance of the point. "What was the malfunction? Quell II was in immaculate shape. Christ, we'll have lost track of them now."

"There wasn't time to run an analysis, so I can't answer. But Newen, forget the Ingos. We have no means of getting off this planet. I doubt any of our equipment is in one piece."

Newen blasted out air like a boiling kettle. Blasted Ingos, a squalid human race that filled in dregs of worlds other races had left behind; scavenging detrivores, rats that followed civilization wherever it went without contributing anything useful to it. The New Zealanders had chased them across cold interstellar space in Quell II to a dark gas giant accompanied by this small, out of shape satellite. The irony of New Zealanders chasing Ingos had not escaped him, yet it had been the only sensible direction to take. Word was, the Ingos were onto something that could launch their economy, bring them into competition with higher races. An Ingo crew sent out at great expense across the galaxy was not something to be ignored, especially when Vinse Declusiac, the closest thing they had to an innovative expeditionist like Newen himself, was involved.

Declusiac had an uncanny knack of unearthing things the Ingos had no right dipping their filthy hands into. Newen would have jumped at any chance to get one up on the little runt. Their rivalry, warming over years of direct competition, had reached boiling point when Declusiac attempted to woo Jern Jernfoun into the Ingo camp. Bah. Did he think a good New Zealander like her would betray her countryfolk so easily?

Now they'd lost track of their quarry, no way to locate them. They had to discover what the Ingos were up to.

Newen and Jern sat huddled together for a time, in shock, nibbling a half-eaten nut-bar Jern had found in her pocket. The system's gas giant was cold, but when it rose over the horizon, its dull chemical luminescence bathed them in half-light. Newen got up and motioned Jern towards the vessel. Together they searched the wreckage by torchlight for salvage. An hour later they had piled two nuc-battery food-converters, a water distiller, a case of clothes and blankets, an emergency communicator, and other odds and ends next to the wreck. They hadn't found the emergency tent or much needed medical supplies, much to Newen's chagrin. Jern picked up a Remote Mapping Handset but the power failed at random intervals; without tools, unfixable.

"That Ingo base you picked up during pursuit. How far are we from it?" Newen queried.

"The recorded way-point is roughly eight miles from here, why?"


She handed him the handset and he looked briefly in the direction it gave as it flickered on for a moment. Immediately, he began scooping up supplies and lugging them forward. He dragged them fifty meters then came back for the rest.

"Newen. Talk to me. We're in this together. What are you doing?"

He paused, only for a second. "Heading for the base, of course. We're not going to find anything out sitting here, are we?"

"Oh, Newen. That crack on the head's impairing your thinking. It's miles away and we have no idea what sort of terrain we'll find around here. It could be dangerous. Besides, the base is evidently abandoned, no traces of powered devices or communications. It's pointless."

"Not at all. It might tell us what the Ingos are doing here. Since you haven't suggested an alternative, I assume you haven't thought of one." Before she could delay him with further questions, he moved forward with the rest of the gear.


Newen almost wished he'd let Jern Jernfoun put him off the idea. They'd waded through miles of waist-deep slosh, their supplies smothered with it, difficult to keep afloat. They were only halfway -- if they were heading the right way. Newen's sore head thumped with pain and he labored for breath, his catalytic processors in need of adjustment, something he wasn't in a position to tinker with.

They were both fed up, but a proud New Zealander would never admit defeat, and they pushed on in silence.

Hours later, Jern's scanning torch picked out what looked like a copse of withered trees on a rising bank, their leafless branches slowly wriggling, and they headed towards it, if only for the opportunity to get out of the muck. The mud thinned but great sheets of dirty water lay on top, equally unpleasant. Finally, they stepped onto higher ground and lay panting. Clearly, the 'trees' could not be plants. There was not enough light here for photosynthesis. They were perhaps sessile animals of some description, fed by a heat-based food chain. The branches dangled blindly towards them as if sensing food but unable to precisely locate it. Then, perhaps detecting alien biochemistry, they backed away and resumed their crown-dance.

Newen didn't feel he could rest. The 'trees' made him uneasy and he wanted to know how far he and Jern had come. He was already on his feet and climbing the hill through a gap in the trees. The base was on the other side; a tiny clearing with a few abandoned pits, a crumbling hut at the center. He called out for Jern to join him and strode up to the tiny dwelling, ducking his head under the doorway and searching the damp interior distastefully using the torch.

Outside, he found Jern preoccupied with the emergency communicator, fiddling with it until it began to send out its repeating distress signal. They'd left a small relaying device in the system, and the message would soon reach New Zealander territory.

Jern had fixed the broken switch on a high-power lamp and the clearing was made somehow safer, the surroundings less intensely alien, by its clear white light. Newen allowed himself a sigh of gratitude.


Just days ago, a reply had come, coded-text messages, scrambled at first. Once he managed to fine-tune to the incoming beam, it came through: Rescue team on way. Rescue team on way... The accompanying code provided a likely date.

At first he couldn't believe in it. Why wait two years then send someone now? Did they expect survivors? The continuing emergency signal meant nothing. It was automatic and the batteries of the communicator would out-last Newen no matter how long he battled on. For a time, he convinced himself the transmission was a false cueing of the communicator by cosmic radiation. But the transmissions had repeated at regular intervals -- every twenty-four hours. They could only have come from a human post.

By his endlessly accurate watch, the date given for the rescue landing had arrived, his ordeal about to end. He cursed them. How dare they leave him to rot two years? In his home nation of New Zealand, Sirianus Major, named after its analogous rugged terrain and bizarre faunas, lives of fellow countrymen were cherished; important expeditionists such as Newen Newenfoun were not to be left for dead. Any hope for quick answers to his brooding questions had turned stale, becoming deep-seated anger. Still, every morning he clasped the silver snake amulet that hung from his neck and swore allegiance to his homeland.

Newen turned at great length, careful not to catch his leathery feet in the mud and fall as he had done so many infuriating times, and strode back towards the hut. His usual route took him past Jern Jernfoun's grave.

He cursed -- the holes were back. When he first saw the burrows in the grave-mound, he'd grinned in delirious excitement, foolishly hoping there was some mole-like creature on the planet he could hunt and eat, a much-needed addition to his monotonous and not very sustaining diet. Of course, there was no such creature, and had there been it would undoubtedly have been indigestible, if not poisonous. Similarly, his fancy that he himself had dug at the grave during his sleep, desperate to bring back his lost friend, was delirium. Newen stooped, wincing at the sting of pain in his stiffened back as he hefted one of the stones and began hammering away at the roots that had burrowed through the soft soil. This world was a harsh, impoverished place, and it seemed the marsh-trees sought Jern's decayed flesh as a source of nourishment. He would die before he saw his final companion devoured so.

Back-filling the hole, the bald man dusted off his moistened hands with nil effect and continued on. For the millionth time as he approached the hut, he saw it exactly as he had the first time, two years ago. It still seemed an oddity in this untouched, wild land, a reminder of how little reign intelligent life had over the marshes and plains, worse, a reminder the Ingos got there first.

He ducked inside and waited.


Newen and Jern spent several weeks huddling in the ring of light surrounded by dark, scratching out an existence. The food-converters provided them with a limited variety of meals synthesized from molecules sifted from the dirt and air. They slept alternately on the old cot left in the hut. Newen had learned nothing from the base -- the Ingos had taken just about everything with them -- and there was little to do or say.

Unexpectedly, the day of blinding light came.

As ever, when anything happened, Newen was napping in the hut when he was jolted alert by Jern's cry. He braced himself on the cot until the dizziness of sleep passed, then lunged out the door, scraping the top of his head on the low frame. "Cursed Ingos," he muttered, then saw the sky. Across it was splashed dazzling color, forced red through the atmosphere.

He crouched by Jern's side in the mud outside the hut as the sky grew brighter on the horizon, streaks reaching nearly a hundred and eighty degrees. A few lightning-like flickers spread across the cloud, followed by a looming, sourceless glow. Newen didn't protest at Jern clasping his hand, all ligaments and vessels, but his attention was elsewhere.

The display escalated with an explosion of light and heat, reaching them, it seemed, instantaneously, burning their skin. They shielded their faces, all too late, and wished they'd had protective suits with them. Jern huddled next to Newen and he listened to her fearful whimpering with discomfort.

The initial explosion dimmed but the great light remained. With tentative peaks they saw the source, a ball of fire several degrees across. The cold gas giant had been brought to life, somehow sparked into reaction, now a star.

When the surprise and worst of the explosion had faded, they regarded each other gravely in the new light. He tried to read her expression but made nothing of the confused combination of fear, anxiety and relief he read there. Without sensitivity, the way he'd touch an inanimate object, he laid finger-tips to her chin. Her eyes dipped, then returned to his, bleary with moisture -- but then so were Newen's, smarting from the heat.

"My mind is lost," he said. "That planet had not the mass to spontaneously ignite, it's impossible. And there's not the mass of dust in the system to warrant gaining of mass by gravity over the threshold. Yet this can surely have nothing to do with the Ingos. Their technology is far too primitive to manipulate something of such proportions. Even New Zealander astro-engineering is in its infancy."

Jern laid her head on him as if too exhausted to hold it up. "Well, we just saw it with our own eyes. Maybe the Ingos predicted it and came to take data."

"Bah. The Ingos have never showed any inclination to study natural phenomena. They only interest themselves in ways to increase their numbers, inject more civilizations with their wretched presence.

"Still, it's a coincidence I don't like. Blasted curse we can't signal Sirianus Major direct."


Newen was restless, unable to stay still or hold a coherent thought. After another unfruitful search of the sky, he returned to the shabby single-room hut, dumping himself on the edge of the bed so he didn't have to stoop. The springs creaked and gave way, and the filthy sponge mat that adorned it gave off an offensive dust-brown puff. He would perhaps not even spend one more night here. Glad as that made him, it would be difficult adjusting to a new life. He'd slept within those damp, leaning walls for two years, the last months alone. The stained bed was the only reminder of his occasional intimacies with Jern, those heated episodes when he dropped his brooding guard enough to let her in.

He stared at the wall, biting his thumb. Directly level with his eyes was a small chip where he'd once thrown a mug at the wall. Funny, he'd never noticed before that in its shape, the way it caught the light, it looked like a teardrop clinging to the wall. Perhaps it had been waiting there for two years, too afraid to let go and fall to unknown depths. Well, it wasn't exactly tear-shaped -- too irregular, the thin part at the bottom instead of the top. Still, it was a tear to him, today.

Why was he thinking of tears? He hadn't cried since childhood; not when they'd crashed and lost most of their equipment, not when he'd buried Jern. Why did the urge make itself felt now? Perhaps the cloak of control he'd wrapped around himself in order to deal with his lot had been torn by hopes of belated rescue. Was it a shame? No. Let great men cry and leave cold emotionlessness to the Ingos who would fight among themselves for a scrap. Was he a man carved from a block of wax, a carbon shadow? No, he was a living, breathing New Zealander, not ashamed of his intrinsic human nature.

The moment for which he'd waited came. He heard rumblings of atmospheric disturbance through the open door and cracked walls of the hut. He leapt to his feet, cracking the back of his head on the low roof, and stood rubbing the spot as though he'd forgotten how to operate his towering legs. With effort, he willed his limbs into motion and rocked out of the hut into an outside world roofed by a sky slick with the white trail of the ship.

Tracing the billowing cloud, he located a ball of orange light bursting through the air. Newen's hands trembled as he watched, and he bit his lip to stop it from doing the same. The shriek of the ship whined higher whilst the rumbling muddied, reflected back from the horizon.

The orange ball lowered and skidded into landing, careering straight towards the hut. He fought the urge to dive behind a clump of trees for shelter and stood shielding his eyes.

The approaching object was no ordinary ship. The nose, visible through a haze of light and smoke, was bulb-like, glassy. He squinted as it slowed, the smoke trail dissipating, gasped as he saw the pilot. Inside the machine, a doll trapped in a paperweight, was a human figure surrounded by a sphere of slightly frosted glass, making furious hand gestures.

The crystal cabin hit the ground sliding, scalding the dirt, slewing balls of mud at Newen as he cowered by the side of the hut. The last cloud of exhaust gases blew past and the crystal walls of the ship disintegrated with a tiny tinkling sound and vanished from sight. The occupant stood before him, a midget compared to Newen, dirty-haired, pot-bellied, unshaven, flashing a quirky grin that ate at Newen. Anger burnt in his parched throat, to intense to become a growl. He knew the man all too well, and Vinse Declusiac, Ingo expeditionist, was the last person he wished to be rescued by.


Newen preferred to think, not that all good things must come to and end, but that tragedy reaped tragedy, despair: despair. Jern had been bed-ridden with fever for weeks, no sign of improvement, making no apparent attempt at recovery. What her ailment was, how to treat it, he had no answer. Jern withdrew herself from him because he was the only tangible reminder that she'd given up. He didn't know how to brace the issue with her. Such an attitude was shameful, and to bring it up would be to humiliate her.

He mused that, since their arrival, she'd lacked just about everything physical and spiritual she needed, including Newen's compassion. He'd been preoccupied with his own anger over the lost mission, spared little time for her. Yet, rather than change now, try to force a connection between them, he found himself disappearing from the hut for hours-long walks, so full of tension he barely noticed were he was heading.

Today, the winds that had arrived with the sun were blustery and unpredictable, the gusts making his ears sore. He hadn't grown used to being surrounded by mud, doing everything on it, covered by it, the only way to wash leaving it to dry and scraping it off. He hadn't walked far but already felt tired, so he headed back. The hut lay in a silence only interrupted by the flapping of a blanket tied up to the door frame.

He stooped in and noticed the change immediately. Jern's face was utterly white, frozen with the mouth dropped open, the eyes open, staring blindly. He crouched by her and felt for vital signs -- found none. He bent down to kiss her forehead but allowed himself no other show of grief. If he gave in now to despair, her fate would be his.

He dug a grave and buried her in a ragtag mound of sodden earth weighed down crudely with stones he'd scavenged, marked only by Jern's walking pole, protruding crooked from the dirt; a poor end for any New Zealander, never mind expeditionist.


"What are you doing here?" he finally bellowed shakily at Declusiac.

"I should perhaps be asking you that very same question," he replied.

"Where is my rescue party?"

Declusiac burst into giggles, holding his beard as though to control the convulsions of his mouth. He held out his arms. "It's here."


"Surely better me than no one?"

"I'd sooner die than have you rescue me. Where's the New Zealand crew?"

"My, my, we are choosy for someone in something of a delicate situation, aren't we? The messages you received were mine, Newenfoun. We've been controlling your signals ever since you landed, deflecting them from Sirianus. It was we who made sure you became stranded here in the first place."

"You what?" This was more than he could bear, not only the insult of the act, but to be defeated so easily by an Ingo. "How did you sabotage us? What gave you the right?" he demanded.

"You sound rather surprised," Vinse commented calmly. "You needn't be. We Ingos have friends of great power, a thriving technological development industry of our own."

"Thuh," Newen spat, "Ingos are barely human! You're insane if you're implying you're superior to Sirianus Majorites."

A twisted grin split the shorter man's features as he pointed out, "It seems to me, sir, that you are living a rather shabby existence here and that you are relying upon a simple hut made by us Ingos."

Newen turned around, as much to hide his embarrassment as look at the hut. The cursed small man had a point. Did he think he was a great man living here, on Ingo real estate? Maybe not, but the blood of his race ran deep in his veins; he would rather be a New Zealander living in a slum than an Ingo in a palace. He would not be here if not for the Ingo's tricks.

Regaining composure, he turned back to glare down at the dwarf from his superior height. "Tell me this," he said. "If you knew I was stranded here, why in hell did you not come earlier? Send supplies? I could have died."

The anger in Newen's voice seemed to simply wash over Declusiac. He replied, "And you, sir, do you believe you would have gone out of your way to aid me if our situations had been reversed? I think no.

"Is the dear Jern Jernfoun still here with you?"

Newen quivered with rage. "No. Dead. Nearly six months," he sputtered. "I blame you for that. Had we not been left here to starve, Jern would have had access to all manner of medical treatment."

"I truly am sorry to hear that," Declusiac said with careful emphasis. "Still, we cannot always make allowances for individuals in these carefully balanced equations. Jern knew she'd acted as she must."

"Don't talk in riddles man. What do you mean?"

Declusiac sighed lengthily. "Jern agreed to help us disable the New Zealander expedition, damaging the ship's navigation systems. She realized it was necessary for the greater good."

"Liar. Mole! You dare blacken the name of a dead New Zealander? I would expect better, even from you. I bet you found great delight in sending her to her death. What disappointment that I linger..."

Newen stepped forward aggressively but Declusiac held his ground, holding up open hands in defence. "There are far greater reasons for how you've been dealt with here, reasons that go beyond personal vendettas or prejudice."

"I doubt that," Newen mumbled derisively, "Ingos are selfish little creatures. For them there is no greater reason."

"That is the propaganda you've been force-fed your entire life, nothing more," Declusiac said, "when in actual fact that description seems better suited to your race. However, this hopeless debate is irrelevant."

Newen was on the edge of clobbering the runt with his bare fists. It would take a single satisfying blow to defeat him and it would save him from conversing any further. Two things stopped him -- as far as he knew, Vinse was his only chance of escape and, secondly, there was a sudden resparking of the chase, a chance to belatedly find out what the Ingos were up to, do something about it.

"I am here," Declusiac continued, "to aid the Helmians in a great feat of industrial engineering which will bring them to full maturity as a galactic economic force."

"The who?" Newen gurgled. He'd never heard of such a race and it was his job to know. New civilizations did not spring up from the dust overnight.

"The Helmians, named after the Helmii star cluster, where they were first discovered by expeditionists. Don't tell me you haven't noticed?"

"Noticed what? Get to the point."

The little man sighed with great sorrow, as though only now disillusioned. "What do you think we're standing on here? A planet, a moon? It's neither, and if you'd cared to take note of what's around you, you would have noticed."

"Noticed what?" growled the taller man.

"This world is an intelligent, genomic organism. Yes, rather big compared to most, but there you have it -- alive."

Newen looked down at the soil as though he expected it to swallow him. "B... but it's not flesh, there's soil, stone..."

"Exactly. I didn't say it was entirely organic. Most of what you see is just the framework. The bulk of the important stuff is hidden deep below the surface. Only some sensory and energy gathering appendages are kept in the atmospheric layer. The organism's similarity with a planet seems purely coincidental."

Newen grit his teeth, trying to grasp this. Then he understood. The 'planet' had sensed his presence from the start, possibly as a mangy cat did a flea. Cutting timber, he'd damaged sensory probes, perhaps caused pain. He was no crude Ingo; New Zealanders respected higher life. He was awe-struck. Declusiac was sincere -- he had not the intelligence nor the guile to invent such convoluted lies.

His mind was triggered back in time. "The sun," he thought out loud. "It came to life..."

"Yes. With our help. It was too small to begin fusing alone. We had to destabilize the natural repulsion of the particles. The Helmians thought out the process and we implemented it."

"Why?" Newen asked soberly.

"Because the Helmians now own a forge hotter and larger than any created artificially, yet not large or hot enough to make industrial use impractical. Now they can arrange manufacturing contracts around the galaxy, supply vast quantities of special alloys. And it's just the beginning, the trial run.

"That's why we were forced to nullify you New Zealanders. We couldn't afford you spying and returning with information that could make the Helmians obsolete in this before they got the project off the ground."

Newen shook his head, in surprise rather than negation. He couldn't deny, given the chance, he and his colleagues would have returned to Sirianus Major with all the information needed for the New Zealand government to replicate the process, fill the market first. However, the crux of the matter, the Ingos didn't have an unselfish bone in their bodies. That went double for Declusiac. He would have sold his own grandmother if the price were right.

"What's in this for you, Declusiac?" he asked suspiciously. "The chance to steal the technology?"

"No, Newenfoun, you don't get it do you? You are grossly mistaken about my race and its motivations. I am no different to you, I suspect, in essence. I had a young family which I was forced to leave behind to come here, leaving a dark place in my heart. I, too, love my nation, but not at the expense of all else. You must see that -- you must make your people see that, or there will be great conflict in times to come. The Ingos will no longer play second fiddle to the races that have dominated for so long."

"A magnificent speech," teased Newen, "but words are like dust in the wind. It is by the actions of the Ingos that we will judge them."

Declusiac nodded as though in agreement. His foot scuffed at the dirt like an animal marking its territory, unwilling to back down. "Then let the first action of our proposed union be judged."

He turned and faced the sky and Newen, following his gaze, saw it too; a second streak of white cloud and light circling towards them, its thunder gradually becoming audible.

"What is it?" Newen asked, fighting off sudden twinges of anxiety.

"A gift from me to you, Ingo to New Zealander."

They stood together and watched its path before the clouds, the rumbling making Newen's weak ear ache.

A sphere of frosty glass appeared at the head of the cloudy tail. In that sphere was a dark shape, no bigger than a dog, not the shape of a man, even an Ingo.

"Come see," offered Declusiac, quite openly.

Pausing for a stubborn moment before giving in to curiosity, Newen followed the smaller man across the mud, keeping his distance in case Declusiac was leading him into a trap. They walked a short distance, passing pools of hissing brown liquid and flat stone-outcrops.

The craft landed a short distance away under Declusiac's direction. The two men approached as shrill tinkling signified the fracturing of the fragile shell. There on the ground lay a black case adorned with microchip plates and gas canisters. Newen recognised it, although the term-transporter he had been stored in on the journey here had been much larger, of the finest New Zealand make. Declusiac released the seals and the lid squeaked open, revealing the heavily cushioned and wired passenger.

The baby was no more than a few weeks old. It stirred, its face wrinkled with protest, little hands wrestling within the delicate restraints.

Somehow, the anger that had permeated through Newen had found an outlet, a gushing tap. He felt cold and tired. "Why have you brought a baby?" he whispered, at length.

Standing beside his squatting form, at eye level, Declusiac replied, "This baby is the gift of which I have spoken. It is to be taken back with you to New Zealand where it will be raised as ambassador to your race until the day it dies. A family has sacrificed their child in the name of peace, in our world the most powerful of all gestures."

Newen was surprised. He'd thought Ingo's incapable of giving up something rightfully theirs, however small. Either he'd misjudged them, which he doubted, or they were at least trying to mature as a people. Could this be what Jern had really wanted?

A momentary urge to release the child from its bonds and hold it was defeated by the knowledge the baby was not for him. It held a greater purpose, one almost certain to fail but, he begrudgingly admitted, rather noble. Besides, it was an Ingo.

He couldn't see it though, Ingos and New Zealanders sitting across the table from one another, shaking hands. It wouldn't happen in a thousand years. If the Ingo nation grew to be a serious threat to the prosperity of his race, there would be war. But it was no longer his battle and he had earned a voyage home.

Declusiac replaced the seals and checked that the system was again functioning before he turned his attention from the case. The little man distanced himself some few meters, making rapid hand signals. In seconds, Newen found himself enclosed within a glass capsule with the case. Instinctively, he clawed at its inner surface, but the wall was solid and he soon rested his arms.

Beside them, Declusiac enclosed himself in a bubble and lifted from the ground, giving a brief, half-hearted wave of goodbye as he departed. Newen sensed the same feeling of inevitable defeat in that wave he himself was contending with.

He started as his own bubble drew steadily into motion, struggling to balance. He stilled himself and watched the surface rapidly recede, the stunted forest of the marsh edge barely more than stubble.

He placed a dirt-callused hand on the precious cargo as the atmosphere turned to black vacuum and he saw, for the first time in clear view, the burning embers of the forge. He clutched the silver snake amulet in his free hand and prayed.


Greg Guerin has contributed a number of stories to Aphelion and among other publications appeared in the latest issues of Aurealis and Borderlands (the Australian one!). Greg lives in Adelaide, South Australia, where he is (still) a PhD student enjoying the last few months of his twenties.

E-mail: greg.guerin@adelaide.edu.au

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