QSFer J.S. Fields has a new FF sci fi book out:
The Charted Systems are in pieces. Mercy’s Pledge is destroyed, and her captain dead. With no homes to return to, the remaining crew sets off on a journey to find the mythical planet of Ardulum—a planet where Emn might find her people, and Neek the answers she’s long sought.
Finding the planet, however, brings a host of uncomfortable truths about Ardulum’s vision for the galaxy and Neek’s role in a religion that refuses to release her. Neek must balance her planet’s past and the unchecked power of the Ardulans with a budding relationship and a surprising revelation about her own genealogy.
Ardulum: Second Don blends space opera elements and hard science into a story about two women persistently bound to their past and a sentient planet determined to shape their future.
This is a Galactic News Network special report. Aid agency reports coming in outline a new species found on Risalian ships in the aftermath of the Crippling War. Our Risalian sources confirm the species as ‘Ardulan,’ a non-sentient beast of burden. The bipeds resemble Terrans and Neek in appearance but have unique subdermal bruising. All specimens thus far recovered have been dead; however, the newly appointed Markin request that should a live one be found, it should be turned over to the Council immediately.
—Excerpt from wideband news broadcast in the Charted Systems, December 2nd, 2060 CE
It was his Talent Day. His day to be here, in the old palace. His day to meet the Eld and complete his metamorphosis.
Arik pushed a sheet of black hair from his face—streaked with red from a summer tending andal trees—and began a slow, deliberate procession towards the Talent Chamber. He passed under a high andal archway built in the traditional encased knot style, reliefs carved into each aborted branch. Reaching out as he passed, Arik ran a finger over one of the knots, noting the texture created by chisels and pyrography. He picked his way over andal floorboards, worn to unevenness from generations of youth making this same journey. The lustrous, black heartwood reflected the sunlight falling from the glass ceiling, but Arik didn’t turn his eyes from the glare.
Four more steps and a turn brought Arik around the final corner. He faced the door to the Talent Chamber and paused. His heart rate increased, so Arik rested his back against the andal wall paneling, digging his nails into the soft, white sapwood. It was comforting to be so close to Ardulum’s native tree, reassuring to embed himself in it, if only slightly. His pulse calmed. His breathing slowed. Arik took another two calming breaths and pushed off the wall. He nudged the door ahead with his foot, and it slid silently open, revealing the room inside.
As with the receiving hall and throne room, natural light filtered in from the glass ceiling. Here, however, it was muted. Outside, the canopy of several large andal trees swayed in the breeze, casting patchwork shadows on the floor. Arik stepped forward, trying to keep to only the darker, shadowed areas, and approached the rulers of Ardulum.
In the center of the room, the three elds sat on ornate, wooden thrones, each watching him with reserved amusement. Arik supposed humor was a good sign. Perhaps the Eld had a soft spot for young second dons on their Talent Day. Perhaps being the only one present meant the Eld were not tired from numerous ceremonies, and Arik would get their full attention.
Arik stopped when he was within an arm’s length of the Eld and then let his gaze flicker around the hall. Towering sculptures of past elds, carved in great detail in the black andal heartwood, loomed over the thrones and stared ominously at Arik—their freshly polished faces glistened in the baronial light.
A deep male voice broke the silence. “You come before us, Arik of the second don, fresh from metamorphosis. What do you bring?” The male eld, who looked to be the oldest of the group, stared unblinkingly at Arik as he stroked the worn wood grain of his throne seat. His two Talents were carved into the throne base, easy for Arik to see: Hearth and Mind. It wasn’t a bad pairing to have. The Eld were the only ones on Ardulum to have more than one Talent, of course, but Arik liked the balance created when the Talents encompassing protection and construction intertwined with the Talents surrounding critical thinking and mathematics. The male eld was likely an excellent architect, which, if the palace suffered any ill effects after the next move, would be a key skill to have.
Arik’s stomach growled loudly, and the youth sheepishly placed a hand over it, hoping that somehow the Eld hadn’t heard.
“Arik?” the male eld prompted again, his tone gentler than before. “What do you bring to offer to us, your Eld?”
Arik closed his eyes tightly for just a moment and brought his mind back to the present. Andal help him, he could smell wood cooking, the sweet odor wafting from the kitchens. Arik’s stomach growled again, and his mouth started to water.
Focus! he scolded himself as he fumbled momentarily through his tunic pockets. This is the biggest day of your life. Stop thinking about lunch! Finally, his fingers came across his offering—the form of a small child whittled from andal from his parents’ plantation. The carving was crude and made only from sapwood—Arik had never had great fine motor skills, but the figure had visible appendages and a reasonably detailed face. Arik hoped it was enough.
“I bring you this gift,” Arik said slowly, his voice wavering and squeaking to a higher pitch on the last word. “May it show my devotion to my spiritual journey, so I can leave my childhood and discover my Talent. Please accept this offering and guide me onto my new path.” With shaking hands, Arik knelt on the mat and held the carving up over his head. The coarse weave of the andal fibers dug into his knees, and Arik had to stop himself from reaching down to scratch.
A cool hand touched Arik’s wrist briefly before removing the carving. “We accept your offering, Arik of the second don.” The female eld reached down and put a small finger under Arik’s chin, lifting his face up. “Rise and receive your Talent.”
Arik got to his feet, suddenly hyperaware of these mystical individuals. He’d never been this close to the Eld before and likely never would again, so Arik took a moment to study their faces. They were old, older than the oldest third don Arik had ever seen—and yet, their fingers were elegant, their bodies strong and well-muscled. The male eld looked to be from one of the southern provinces. His hair still had dark streaks shooting through a mass of silver, and his skin was closer to olive in its translucency. The female, blessed with Talents of Mind and Aggression, was tall, her sharp chin well above the other elds’ heads. Her hair was uniformly cinnamon save for at her temples. She, too, looked to be from the south. However, the gatoi, of Science and Hearth, was much paler, zir skin containing next to no melanin. Zie was from the farthest northern province, then, where sunlight rarely penetrated the thick andal forests. The birth rate was skewed in favor of the third-gender gatois in that region, although Arik wasn’t certain whether that was a natural phenomenon or whether it came from parental selection.
The male eld cleared his throat, and Arik again snapped back to the present. The Eld were still staring at him, unmoving. Was his offering not enough? Was there another component he had forgotten? His mother and talther, his gatoi parent, had helped him carve it, staying up late each night since Arik’s emergence and guiding the young man’s wavering chisel with steady hands. A week wasn’t much time to construct an offering. Did others bring more elaborate gifts? Should he have done something in line with what he hoped his Talent might be? Dizziness threatened to topple him, the smells from the kitchen confused him, and he had to work to control his breathing. His mind wandered. The increasingly saturated smell of cooked andal spun through his head. Was he in the kitchens? It certainly seemed that way now. How had he ignored the intensity of the smell before? It was almost like standing in the rotisserie himself, the scent of sweet spice invading his nostrils.
The female eld smiled slightly at the male, who gave a knowing wink. Arik teetered in a near panic, vision straying between reality and his wandering delusions.
“Peace, young one,” the gatoi eld said as zie stepped forward. In zir hands, zie carried a small wooden bowl filled with a pale mucus. Zie dipped two fingers into the bowl, coating them, and then held zir hand out towards Arik. “Step forward to begin your journey.”
Arik’s empty stomach rolled. He knew the mucus was synthetic, but what it represented brought the taste of bile to the back of his throat. Determined to not embarrass himself further, Arik took a confident step towards the gatoi eld and closed his eyes. For the past year, he’d been instructed in the ritual that was about to take place. He would not mess things up now—not on his Talent Day, no matter how strange and ostentatious the performers or how heavily the air hung with the smell of food.
“I am Eld,” the gatoi eld said steadily as zie outlined Arik’s face with the mucus. “I am the vessels that transport power.”
“I am Eld,” said the female, taking the bowl from the gatoi. She swirled her smallest finger in the mixture and then coated Arik’s nose. “I am the fibers of strength.” She handed the bowl to the male, who had stepped forward as well.
“I am Eld,” the male said, pinching Arik’s chin between two mucus-coated fingers. “I am the rays that store our knowledge.”
Arik counted silently to fifteen in his head as he’d been instructed. The tingling at the mucosal contact points radiated from his face down to his neck, absorbed into his skin, and congealed into a tight, painful lump just above his heart.
“I am Arik of the second don,” he said when he finished the count. Gently, slowly, Arik moved his consciousness into himself to where the lump lay just under his skin, pulsing in rhythm with his heartbeat. He watched it for a moment, external stimuli forgotten. He was both slightly revolted and slightly in awe of this thing, this synthetic chemical compound that would, in just a few seconds, stimulate his adrenal gland and cause the production of a massive number of hormones—hormones that would determine how he would spend the rest of his life.
Arik let his mind touch the lump. The mass dissolved, its components seeping into his bloodstream and heading directly for their target. Arik’s body became warm—and then hot. He broke out in a sweat, the salty liquid beading on his yellow skin and reflecting in the bright overhead lighting. He shut his eyes and was forced to his hands and knees when the chemicals hit his adrenal gland and the hormones began to affect his other cells.
Cells changed. Cells morphed. His blood circulated in the normal direction, paused for a fraction of a second, and then reversed. His metabolism increased, and his internal body temperature shot up even more. Veins bulged in his wrists and began to burst, blood seeping under the skin and forming bright violet bruises. Arik felt like he couldn’t breathe anymore. The heat was too intense. He began to pant and fell onto his right side, curling into a fetal position.
As abruptly as it began, the heat began to back off. Arik could feel his cells calming, the veins in his wrists closing. Sweat stung his eyes, seeping past his eyelids, and Arik brought his left hand up to wipe them clean. When his vision cleared and he brought his hand away, Arik saw his new markings for the first time—three linked, black circles on the inside of both of his wrists surrounded by a bruised haze of extra subdermal blood. His smile grew slowly as he moved into a sitting position and looked up at the Eld.
“I am Arik of the second don,” he said clearly, his voice resonating, crisp and strong, throughout the chamber. No wavering. He could be proud of that. “I am of Science.”
“And there your Talent shall lie,” the female responded. “Stand, Arik, and leave this palace. Return to your home and begin your apprenticeship.”
Arik’s face broke into a broad grin. He clasped his hands behind his back and stood, his previous discomforts forgotten. Arik took a moment to straighten his tunic before bowing to each eld. “I thank you, Eld, for showing me my way.”
The Eld smiled back but remained silent. Remembering that he was to leave promptly, Arik turned and took several confident steps towards the door. Pride filled his chest—pride at his Talent, pride at the way he’d conducted himself, and pride that he could go home and apprentice to a Talent that would not take him away from his family or his andal saplings. With the Talent of Science, he could stay and work his ancestors’ andal plantations—could tend the young trees he’d grown up with. His entire family was of Science. They would be proud of him.
Several steps into his departure, the smell of the cooked andal began to waft towards him again. What should have been a pleasant, understated smell was pungent and slightly curdled. He tried to ignore it, quickening his pace. The soft slack slack slack of Arik’s bare feet hitting the polished andal floor was suddenly joined by the deep sounds of a heartbeat.
Slack du-dumn, slack du-dumn, slack…
Arik spun around, confused, and looked for the source of the noise. It took another three seconds of du-dumn du-dumn before Arik realized that it was his heart he was hearing, the beats becoming more rapid in his agitation.
Arik swallowed, his throat dry. His muscles twitched under his tunic, the fibers itching his skin. He glanced at the Eld, a peculiar expression on their wrinkled faces.
“I…I don’t feel well,” Arik said, mostly to himself. He cringed when his own voice sounded too loud in his ears. His heart was trying to escape out of his chest, and no amount of controlled breathing seemed to help. The smell of the andal wound through his head and down his throat, causing Arik to gag. Thoughts of simultaneous choking and hyperventilating filled his mind. Unsure of what else to do, he moved his consciousness back inside himself, trying to find the cause of his distress.
What he saw shocked him. This wasn’t the body he knew—did not resemble anything of his. Here, capillaries burst just under his skin and leaked perpetual blood out of his circulatory system. Hormones raced everywhere, transmitting across his chest and up into his brain. Something was happening near his throat, too. Loose blood pushed ligaments around, unwrapping and changing their positions, and pooled just under his larynx. Cartilage scavenged from around his thyrohyoid ligament sidled closer, surrounding the blood.
Arik opened his mouth in an effort to call over the Eld, but was shocked when all that came out was a gurgle. He tried again, forcing more air out through what had once been his larynx. Again, only gibberish.
He grew hot, a red flush surfacing not just on his cheeks, but across his entire body. Arik watched in stunned horror as the purple veins that had always been just slightly visible under his skin—the veins that had already started to fade after his time with the Eld—darkened to black.
Once more, Arik looked to the Eld, desperate for guidance. They’d moved closer. The gatoi reached a bony hand out to Arik, zir expression unreadable.
Help? Arik sent frantically on a telepathic thread. It was unacceptable to speak to the Eld in such a manner, but he was in trouble. They had to know!
None of the Eld responded to Arik’s mental query. The hand remained out and open, all elds staring at Arik expectantly. Not knowing what else to do, Arik reached out. His whole right arm was covered now in arcing black veins that grouped into geometric patterns just under his skin.
I’m dying, Arik thought to himself. The smell of the andal is actually going to kill me. He let his fingers touch the tips of the gatoi eld’s hand, and his mind cleared. The contact sparked through Arik, and he snapped his head up, eyes wide. The gatoi eld stared back, unblinking, as pieces of emotion began to filter into Arik’s mind. Discomfort, unease, disappointment… That didn’t seem right. He hadn’t done anything wrong—something had just misfired, that was all. He was still Arik, still of Science. A healer could fix his larynx, he was sure of it. He wasn’t quite sure why all of this was happening, but surely the Eld knew. Surely others had had this same problem.
The intensity of the connection became uncomfortable, but when Arik tried to pull his hand away, he could not. The gatoi eld had a tight grip on Arik’s wrist. The male eld moved behind Arik in two fluid steps and placed his hands on his shoulders, pushing down to keep Arik in place. The female grabbed his other hand around the wrist, her longer fingernails digging into his skin.
Time seemed to be slowing. Arik felt his heart rate depress, the blood in his veins decrease in flow rate. His mind became muddled again. Something was wrong, and he needed to speak to the Eld about it. Why couldn’t he speak? Why wouldn’t the words come out?
Dark spots began to swim before Arik’s vision. His heart didn’t seem to be beating anymore, and Arik thought that was wrong somehow. The blackness increased. Arik slumped. The male eld backed away quickly, and Arik’s body hit the wood floor with a thump, his head bouncing once after the initial impact. Words leaked across the darkness: defective, unsuitable, terminate.
Arik opened his mouth to make a sound to indicate his distress, when his brain, starved of oxygen, finally shut down.
J.S. Fields is a scientist who has perhaps spent too much time around organic solvents. She enjoys roller derby, woodturning, making chainmail by hand, and cultivating fungi in the backs of minivans. Nonbinary, but prefers female pronouns. Always up for a Twitter chat.
eMail: [email protected]