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.
elements and hard science into a story about two women persistently bound to
their past and a sentient planet determined to shape their future.
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
the Charted Systems, December 2nd, 2060 CE
here, in the old palace. His day to meet the Eld and complete his
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
“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.
youth sheepishly placed a hand over it, hoping that somehow the Eld hadn’t
tone gentler than before. “What do you bring to offer to us, your Eld?”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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
male, who gave a knowing wink. Arik teetered in a near panic, vision straying
between reality and his wandering delusions.
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.”
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.
as zie outlined Arik’s face with the mucus. “I am the vessels that transport
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.
chin between two mucus-coated fingers. “I am the rays that store our
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
clearly, his voice resonating, crisp and strong, throughout the chamber. No
wavering. He could be proud of that. “I am of Science.”
female responded. “Stand, Arik, and leave this palace. Return to your home and
begin your apprenticeship.”
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.”
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.
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Meet the Author
J.S. Fields is a scientist who has perhaps spent too much time around organic solvents. She enjoys roller derby, woodturning, making chain mail by hand, and cultivating fungi in the backs of minivans. Nonbinary, but prefers female pronouns. Always up for a Twitter chat.