As Yet Unread – Book 2

Travel broadens the mind; time-travel stretches it. I heard somewhere that “the past is like a foreign country.” Quite relatable; I often get lost and the local cuisine is better. Everything happens there, including this: my second selection from the Library of Life.

~ * ~

The youngling wouldn’t stop crying. That was the word Spencer would have used, though he knew the greenback natives had their own. They called it kahleeng and reached their ear nodules as a mild wail, the “merest distress” as the briefing had described it. To any other race, including Spencer’s own, it was ear-splitting and shrill, a near ultra-sonic tone which seemed to threaten his head exploding. He had rammed his noise-cancelling protectors down over his ears but somehow the noise was still drilling into opposite sides of his head.

Issue two was how to carry the ugly thing; greenbacks were multi-limbed, slimy yet spiky, green-backed as their label suggested and – in this case – incredibly fidgety. The only features to match Spencer’s own were a pair of eyes (though admittedly pupil-less and marbled with black outlines) and a wide mouth, from which came its lament. The latter wasn’t the main problem; as much as Spencer thought his brain was turning to liquid, infant greenbacks weren’t strong enough to kill with their wail. Spencer’s main problem, he would soon discover, were the eyes. As he ran, the youngling cradled awkwardly in his arms, its eyes were screwed up under four-part eyelids, adding effect to its state of upset. It didn’t seem to be paying attention to where it was going, except that it was away from its parents. They were some distance behind, no doubt being torn apart by the rest of the extraction team. Five minutes ago, Spencer had pounced and snatched up the child. Now he was leaping mounds and marshes of the planet’s swamp environment, eyes locked on the departure point, behind the next ridge. Between him and it was a dense forest of blue/green trees and further, inconvenient plant life designed to suck him down into a muddy, watery grave. It could take the child too, but greenbacks could swim in the bogs before they could walk them.

The treetops leaned forward as if in welcoming, as the military ship skimmed over the top, preparing to land on the opposite side. Seeing familiar technology gave Spencer a quick burst of hopeful adrenaline, open which lasted all of three seconds. A very large thing shot over Spencer’s head and collided with the starboard side of the ship. Its colour and shape suggested they’d shot a piece of the swampy landmass itself. Whatever it was, the weapon, it dragged the ship down below the treeline, into a fresh inferno caused by the fuel tank rupturing. Spencer yelled, cursed, roared in fearful anguish but still kept running, didn’t even think to stop moving which would solve precisely nothing. Enemies and enemy territory lay behind him, salvation could only come from beyond the settlements. Spencer adjusted his grip on the mewling child and disappeared among the trees.

After several minutes running, but several more minutes emphatically struggling against the thick ground, Spencer found a near-flat clearing, bordered by hanging vines trailing across moss-covered rocks. He slowed to a stop, trying to maintain his breathing, and placed the child in a crook between the rocks. It opened its eyes at the movement, or lack of it, but its mouth remained wide and emitting its piercing cry. That was when Spencer’s trouble really began, when the youngling’s gaze met his own.

There was a lot behind those eyes, a lifetime’s worth of fear, with a weighted expectation the child could never comprehend. Perhaps it did, but if so, it wasn’t crying hard enough. Spencer still had the brief fresh in his mind. Here was Tarkub: child of an infamous warlord and destined successor of several generations and a thousand years of conflict, between the greenbacks and the metals. Here was Tarkub: the removal would not end the war but would certainly weaken it, an opportunity which could not be overlooked. Here was Tarkub: ready to grow up like its father, and find itself looking down on soldiers much like Spencer, unless the chain could be broken.

Spencer had his eyes on the weakest link. He glanced up as a noise ahead of him cracked the silence. There was a frigid pause, followed by a heavy, nature-sounding crash. The remains of the rescue ship clearly weren’t done with the forest just yet. Breaks in the treeline were illuminated by the dancing orange glow of distant flames, marking the rescue mission from this point a total failure. Without a ship, the child couldn’t be extracted to safety. Without that, time could only pass until he was discovered, heir to the war found safely and passed back to the parents.

Then again…

Spencer reached past the child and picked up the nearest hand-sized rock. The child’s eyes never left him, as he drew his arm back and upwards. They locked onto his, shining with fear while burning accusation and fear into the depths of his soul. It expression begged where it could not.

History seemed to hold its breath in anticipation, patient until a decision was made and events could react accordingly.

Here was Tarkub…

~ * ~

I threw the book away in disgust. It never landed. In a few moments it was back on its designated shelf, with no input from anyone.

Yet another happy ending, better off shelved.

I slumped into my chair, rubbing my temples under thumb and forefinger of my right hand.

It’s like that old question. Could you kill baby Hitler, when you knew what he would do?

“I swear there has to be one good life story in here somewhere.”

Your unrelenting obstinacy is almost praiseworthy. You are trying to find a rich, utopian landscape through tunnel vision. No life is entirely pure; no chapter precisely matches the one before and after it. You cannot expect to prove faith in existence by finding one random extract from one random book.

“How profound.”

Your words, not mine.

“Will you stop reading my mind?!”

I’ll stop when you start. You need to see the reality of this exercise and what’s worse, you know you do.

I stood, a little too heavily, my shoes banging down onto the hard floor. “I’m not giving up just yet. Find me one more book and this time I’ll read it from the very beginning.” No pick-and-choosing, no tunnel vision, no narrowmindedness; just one more optimistic stab in the dark possibility that not all life is cruel. I can’t shake the severe idea that what I’ve added to my ship and my own story isn’t so much a Library of Life, more an Archive of Atrocities.

And I’ve already got one of those.

HH

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