The sun seemed to slow, inching toward the horizon till it set, revealing a glory of stars which no-one cared to mark. Anxious and antsy with a need to be doing something, Eni and other stouts souls volunteered to clear the fallen from the field. It proved a long, difficult task which left them hot and covered in sweat. As Eni crawled out a second time, a shot rang out. Her heart stopped a moment. She realized it hadn’t been her, she hadn’t been hit and she sighed in relief. Then she continued on her grim task. The night had grown hours old, nearly day when the finished.
Upon returning, they discovered a fool observer from the capitol had tried to view a map with the lighter he then used to light his pipe. Eni could hardly feel sorry for a man who hadn’t know his actions would cost his life. She wondered though, what family he had left behind, who would be donning black and crying tomorrow. The second revelation had been that they were not the only ones who had crawled across the field last night. A canteen had gone missing and a few pieces of fruit. Such meager treasure for the danger Stento or one of his comrades had courted that night. Everyone expressed shock and outrage, fearful that they had seen or heard no sign of the natives, yet branding them thieves and savages. Eni thought this just strengthened their right. This planet, which they called Div’shon had always been their home and they had proved their worthiness to be the top of the food chain. Their mottled, chameleon skins could blend with loam, rocks, or trees. They’d been the prey once of a fearsome beast, Tee’pos, and they had adapted before they were wiped out. Even the Eg’glis’ heat signatures could be masked, damped down to nearly nothing. This had allowed them to survive.
As an ever-present reminder, each village contained the bones of at least one of their ancient enemy. A jaw bone, larger than a human body, weighed over a ton and had sharp, serrated teeth as long as an Eg’glis’ arm. These nasty predators had been eliminated before the settlers arrived, but the natives honored their enemies who fought well. Fighting well became a standard they lived by. How else could it be decided if you belonged in the game. Any easy victory or flight in the face of danger, branded you as unworthy of respect, companionship and home. Eni wondered how many of the people here realized that their prey might have simply disappeared any night since they’d been trapped.
Even now, their neighbors had not revealed the names of the boys who had joined Stento, but the search for the renegades, as they’d come to be call would live on until the planet or the Eg’glis vanished forever. They had led these strange beings on a mighty hunt, revealing themselves and then disappearing, showing a bravery rarely seen. The way that they died would have great meaning. All life died in the season’s turning. On Arcadia as throughout the galaxy seasons turned according to a planet’s axis. When winter came and the world became cold, fires would be banked and stories would be told of the three warriors. All Eg’glis would know the names of Stento, Jobas and Thon. They would lose their lives and win the game, players of the first rank in this game of life. No risk could be too great. And having played so bravely and so well, they might, henceforth, never return to the flesh, but play as themselves, the very essence of their being.
Eni had tried to learn as much as she could about her new neighbors and friends, but she knew she didn’t really understand them. She waited with the others, new mortars laid down a barrage of fire at the cliff. Waited as scouts moved closer, but were not seared by fire, not killed. When the orders came to advance, Eni’s heart cried at in alarm, even as she checked her gear, clicked off the safety on her rifle. Such thunder and pain visited upon three young men, two far too young to reach their change. They joined the scouts and moved in, many firing as they moved forward to search the mock bramble torn by shells but not burning. More than one of them swore, stabbed by the five-inch thorns. They found their quarry dug in at the base of the cliff, prepared to withstand an assault, but not the mortar fire. Each lay dead, riddled with bullets and shrapnel, sharp and tearing, until no one might determine the killing blow.
The younger two looked shocked, yet fierce in death. Stento had made the change that for his people came with age and wisdom. Stento, who would never reveal her change name now, lay with arms outstretched and staring eyes. Her unsaid name cried mute witness to this horror, this tragic travesty. Her people would never know this name or the wisdom this new person might have brought to the tribe, but she would still be remembered and honored. They would call her Birco, the name of the horse, Stento’s first move in the game, Starlight, may it ever shine down upon her. Her head propped at the base of the cliff wall, she lay, her eyes cast to the heavens, as if this were all she would ever see or need.