Uma

People were fainting from the heat and the stench. After two years the toilets were beyond disgusting. I had been on five journeys where our home bay was as crowded as this. My first, nineteen years ago when I was ten years old, according to the calendar on the ceiling. Like everyone else I couldn’t wait to arrive, get the hard work done and settle to the supervision of Tajat slaves and use their hygiene facilities as well as whatever style of clothing they wore while they cleaned our uniforms.

The reminder of my filth and my uniform had me looking down to my sweat-soaked, stained, skin-tight, ruby-red suit, knowing I was a component in the source of the stinking heat. I’d been standing with my husband, discussing the probability we’d not be allowed a breeding season any time soon when the command to prepare for landing ricocheted through this vast, crowded space. We all scrambled for a place on the floor next to a handhold. So tightly packed were we that there was hardly enough room for everyone to sit. We scrunched up our knees and, failing to get my own handhold, I clung to my husband who shared his grip with another. On the other side a friend, seeing my predicament, linked arms with me. As always, on the whole we helped one another to survive the rocky journey into a planet’s atmosphere.

I had another concern. The youngsters from the last breeding season had reached maturity and my happy anticipation of soon being clean and possibly even cool again, evaporated. It would be my job to decide which of them in my group would be implanted. It was the knowledge of the fate of those I’d be forced to reject that played on my conscience. We didn’t speak of it. Ever. The vast majority being lower-ranked than me, younger and so less experienced, had no idea what disaster awaited the non-implanted.

Entering the atmosphere was even rockier than normal. With gratitude and relief I felt other hands getting a grip on me as we thrashed and banged into each other both from the external buffeting and the fluctuating gravity.

I could hear my husband shouting, ‘Hang on to Kindra!’

I could hear other loud demands to help favoured leaders. No one wanted me or any of the others to be replaced by a Guard.

I heard cries of pain and begging adding to the general noise and panic. Nobody spoke of it but those of us to whom this was nothing new were aware it would soon be over. And that this was not the worst part of arriving at a new planet.

The racket lost some volume as the floor beneath us calmed. It finally ceased entirely at the simultaneous sliding back of four sets of doors around the huge circular perimeter of the bay. I watched the First Echelon Guards line up at the other side of the doorway closest to me. Some covered their mouths and noses, trying to block out the terrible odour. All stepped back, waiting in their nice clean clothes. Big men and women wearing turquoise suits, comfortably looser than ours, with golden armour. And they didn’t have to shave their heads. Their silver blonde hair was cropped to a centimeter. Our bristles were in the toilets. Naturally their golden skin, being clean, gleamed and shimmered. But it was their eyes, the same emerald as ours, that had our attention.

I looked firstly, for emotion. Only one seemed angry. Holding my husband’s hand I walked a little slower than the rest knowing that Guard’s temper would have him hurrying the first group of Tendanny down the corridors. I also felt a stab of guilt when I heard two of my fellows cry out as that Guard, some way ahead of us, slapped them. I knew how hard that rinjinjin enhanced strike had been and that they would need help to keep walking. Which would aggravate him further.

The First Echelon Guards who took up my group, leading us down the long corridors in turns and directions we’d long-since forgotten, was stern as always but not ill-natured. Eventually we arrived at the outer bay where I took the driver’s place in the nearest flatback while my husband took the next. Our comrades automatically climbed on to the flat bed, mostly choosing to sit cross-legged.

We lifted our vehicles to low-level hovering and headed for the huge exit with our Guards marching alongside. All of this was repetition of many a landing, but it was a new world.

I had a rebel aboard. Someone I feared would cause trouble for what would become our new small community for as long as our stay here lasted.

I heard him whispering, ‘This world is Uma.’

That meant he’d listened in on Guards’ conversation. There was no other way he could know that. My dilemma was, as leader should I do my job and shut him up or, if our accompanying First Echelon hadn’t heard him, should I castigate him later? I slid my eyes sideways, checking out the Guard. He seemed to have something else entirely on his mind. He marched stoically, hardly bothering to look ahead. I did.

So did my comrades. Some gasped, getting the attention of both Guards. Again I realized how lucky we were with our superiors. They both chose merely to command our silence.

And the reason for the gasping? Ahead of us stood hundreds of extremely tall, delicate and beautiful buildings. Delicacy and beauty were, however, irrelevant. What each one of us was questioning was whether or not they had powered elevators. If so, were they working? If not, would the Second Echelons be sent here to get the technology up and running?

We soon learned the answers to both questions. No. As we approached we saw other Tendanny crews emerging from a building sweating in the early morning sun, carrying bodies on their shoulders. They were not working in pairs therefor they were climbing whatever the people of Uma used to get from one floor to the next.

Our Guard, on foot as always, led us to the building we were to clear. It was deeper into the town. He broke open the door at the base of the tower and proceeded in ahead of us. There was some relief on seeing stairs some way past the gaping doorway. I had been in one place of tall dwellings where the people who once lived there used narrow, steep ladders with very wide rungs. It became evident by the stench and conditions that they had rarely moved from floor to floor.

We never throw the bodies down, or even try rolling them down steps. There are always enough that will break and bleed thus giving us the extra job of cleaning up blood and gore. Obviously the Guards are not personally bothered if we make a mess but our people don’t have rinjinjin enhancement. We can catch the local diseases and we know how to avoid them. Our hygiene is perfect. Except on the ship of course. But then the air is medicated.

Also there was the fact that the Second Echelons would be angry if we became sick. They’d have to bring down the second contingent of Tendanny and begin an early breeding season once the work was done. I recall one world where First Echelons were furious with disease spreading amongst us when I was young and in the second contingent of Tendanny. They had to weed out and round up surviving Tajats to collect the bodies of their own kind. And they were of a rebellious nature. Oh how I laughed that night. The Guards couldn’t express their anger because they couldn’t risk damaging the few of us or the feeble Tajats and so have to collect the bodies themselves. Also, they loathe having to have any contact with Tajats.

Buoyed by that humour I led my team into rooms on the ground floor that the First Echelon Guard pointed to as safe. So we began with ease, removing the bodies in pairs and saving our strength for later in the day.

As always, I couldn’t quite ignore the reality of it. These people, like most we came across, sleep during the night. That’s why they’re gassed then. There’s no resistance. They simply die in their sleep. I took in the appearance of another new race. They all had light hair, not as light as the Guards and duller, cut to varying lengths. Their skin was fair and their eyes bluish. Occasionally we see a mix of races but as the day went on I discovered that was not the case on Uma. Also, like ourselves, these Tajat were humanoid with one head, two ears and eyes, one nose and mouth, two arms and legs. Very much like us in fact other than in their colouring and culture.

We were up to the third floor, once more in the same room as the Guard, when my husband nudged me. I immediately realized why. I did not wear the expected detached expression on my face, as I looked down to the child in her bed. She had been afraid. She had woken, unable to move far. Her now sightless blue eyes and plump little mouth were shaped in the remnants of fear. Her golden curls were knotted and the pillow dented where she’d shaken her head from side to side. The covers were in disarray. She’d fought and thrashed; probably called out to her parents in the next room.

My husband deliberately bumped into me for another warning, on his way to the other child’s low little cot. I required no third warning and so lifted this girl from her bed.

The Guard watched me closely as I blanked my emotions and pulled the girl’s body to my shoulder to carry her down to where the other First Echelon stood guard over the area. I was glad of him then. I had experienced the attack of surviving Tajats on one world. They can be savage.

Even with only the weight of a young girl’s body this was very hard work so I was pleased to see my flatback fully loaded. Our Guard watched as I took my place for driving, turned the flatback and aimed slowly towards the landing craft. While I relaxed into the journey I thought about the rest my husband and crew would be getting as they carried and stacked bodies at a more sedate pace the Guard wouldn’t complain about.

I continued my holiday looking around the wide area of land the ship had settled on while other Tendanny finished unloading the bodies from other vehicles on to the conveyer belt before beginning on mine. I once arrived at this process towards the end of a body-clearing stage and saw the huge piles of ash left from the ship’s incinerator. Now that was an eerie sight telling a story too close to home.

The sun was high in the sky by the time we’d cleared that building and sat on two flatbacks in the blazing heat, awaiting our next orders. I’d seen other teams moving further into the town and was expecting to do the same when a Second Echelon Guard joined our two First Echelons. They both spoke through their distant communicator implants to a third party. Because they had no care that we could hear them I picked up the gist of it.

The blonde people calling themselves Humas had set up a conservation area on the planet which, strangely, was designed to allow a different race of people to live on undisturbed by the Humas technological progress. These people, the Tarpan, weren’t interested in technology of any kind. What they were interested in, though, was of huge interest to the Guards: jewels. Specifically, purple lekka. That was hard come by. As rare as a compassionate Guard, in fact.

Our next job, clearing Tarpan bodies, while Guards saw to the loading and unloading of cut and uncut stones. That meant we’d have Second Echelon Guards with us as well as First. All I really wanted was to get passed this period of the operations. It upset me to the point of physical nausea because although we never spoke of it, never, not even my husband and I in private, I knew these Tajats were fundamentally the same as us. Except that prior to the slaughter most had led easier, happier lives. There was something very wrong in our society where not only Guards but also most Tendanny, had no regard for any life ranking lower than their own. How could they be so selfish, so blasé, while I was riddled with guilt every time we arrived at another place.

In this next phase I, as always, guardedly studied my fellow Tendanny. They cared that the Tarpan lived in a deep canyon with sheer cliffs because our flatbacks occasionally stalled when travelling up and down such a great height. They feared landing in the bottom of the water and drowning. What did not seem to concern them was that we’d be collecting the bodies of people who had been so carefully protected in their unique way of life.

Neither would they bother about the suffering of live Tarpans we were sure to discover either in their caves or their mines.

As I settled the flatback onto one of the ledges by the river, my husband again pushed into me, warning that my regret for Tajat suffering was on show. He needn’t have bothered. All Guards’ faces were pointed in another direction, astonished at the sight there. I could almost see the bejeweled heads of their implants pulsating with excitement. I’m afraid it reminded me of what their sex lives must be like, biologically enhanced as they were. As a people who partnered for life we secretly scorned their promiscuity but in that moment I felt to have a little more understanding of their need for it.

This smooth, rocky gallery only a half metre above the fast-flowing river, where the Tarpan made their homes, was bedecked with artifacts made out of something I had never before seen. Neither had these Guards. There were slabs of cytrel carved into monoliths, hollowed stone bowls on stone pedestals and in niches carved into the water-eroded backdrop containing unrefined emerald, ruby, sapphire and onyx. Above all, most astonishingly great lumps of unpolished purple lekka were artistically arranged by the entrances to their caves.

One of the First Echelon Guards recovered his wits first and began giving orders. We were to methodically check each opening and he would accompany us while the other First Echelon took up sentry duty outside. While one of the Second Echelons rallied, taking a flatback to return to the landing craft I imagined this was the first time ever she’d had the need to go and fetch crates because the bags they normally used for recovering jewels were woefully inadequate.

My curiosity waned quickly. I had to take point for my people, two paces behind the Guard who was now entering the first cave. He began, as I knew he would, at the one closest to the river’s edge in order to work methodically around the semicircular overhanging wall of the small eroded area of the canyon.

I could tell by the marks on the rock that this one-time home was hand carved. When the First Echelon called for more light I summoned two of my most experienced people to light their torches. Safety was quickly assessed by us all. This was a shallow dwelling containing a few artifacts, and five bodies.

The Tarpan differed dramatically from the rest of the Humas in colouring and in clothing. In fact they seemed to possess none of the latter. They had died in their naked state with their long brown hair flowing around their heads. Only one had not been sleeping. This man had tried to stand when the gas reached him but had fallen, cracking his skull.

I brought my husband forward to cover the wound and stop the blood spreading, while two gathered his body and another scrubbed away the mess. There was no need for me to allocate jobs on the whole. We all knew very well what must be done and we all wanted to get it done as quickly as possible. Those four continued to clear that cave while I and the rest of the Tendanny followed the Guard to the next home. And so the day wound on. With the other flatback now being used to ferry stones we were afforded several rest breaks. Although the slow progress annoyed the Guards they didn’t push us beyond our the endurance. For now, they needed us.

During one of those breaks a storm seemed to blow up along the river, causing eddies, surf and waves to crash and flood the ledge, threatening to wash away blocks of precious stones. It took us several moments to realise the nature of it.

Live Tarpan were in the river, moving horizontally as naturally as sea creatures I once saw, while others were being marched out of the mines by First and Second Echelons. All was accompanied by a deafening cacophony. Tarpan were screaming in terror. The ones in the water had probably escaped from other clearing crews on other flat living areas along the canyon, just as these ones in our mines ran for the water, trying to escape in the same manner.

We needed them alive. That is, we Tendanny wanted slaves because without healthy Tajats guess who’d be doing all the work. I wasn’t kept waiting long for the order to pause in the job I’d been involved in and help catch the survivors but that was easier said than done. I quickly loaded up four of my people and took the flatback to hover over the tumultuous river, thick with panicking Tarpans moving in all directions. Eventually we developed a method which began by stunning a child with a punishment rod and pulling him from the water before another Tarpan could snatch him from us. And before he drowned.

Up and down the river our patrols showed that all Tarpans had been rounded up before nightfall. That we could be certain of because the river entered the canyon in a sheer waterfall at one end and exited down a swirling sinkhole at the other. There was no way in or out other than by craft such as ours and the only technology the Tarpan had was in the form of stone boxes pushed on stone rollers to carry gem ore through the mines. And that was all created by stone tools. One thing was certain: they’d know what hard work was like. I imagined the work we’d require of them would seem easy compared to their mining.

This time it was live bodies we conveyed to the new amber enclosure. We stood by the gate watching in torchlight as they regained consciousness in a small area of housing they didn’t previously know existed. To them this was an entirely alien world. They huddled together, naked like their dead relatives but with their long brown hair elaborately plaited in tall styles high on their heads. Brown eyes gleamed in fair faces as they each looked to others, appalled by the lack of jewels that the Second Echelon Guards had picked out of their once beautifully adorned coiffures.

My crew were ordered to stay there with the Tarpan survivors. Because their work was light, so was ours. The land here was no good for rinj so there was no planting to do. The Second Echelons erected only one factory for the recycling of Huma metals and plastics; materials new and frightening to the Tarpan. They did not sleep on the soft platforms inside the dwelling within the amber enclosure, though we did. We had them wash our clothes by hand because they knew no other way while we luxuriated in domestic facilities. Until the Second Echelon Guard turned the power off.

That was how we knew the end of the harvest was near. Second Echelon Guards were transporting loads of new components and panels leaving us with a contingent of only First Echelons. For a moment, while most of them were inside the enclosure killing the last of the Tarpans, I wondered why we didn’t at least try to run. As always the answer was the same, and multifaceted. We’d be killed by our Guards before we made even two steps, unless we all ran at once, which we didn’t because only a few of us would be culled. Who would take the chance of losing their life when you might not have been marked for the culling? And of course, where would you run to when all they had to do was stop you in your tracks by activating your punishment implant?

I expected to die this time. I had performed my tasks well but there were younger and stronger people ready to take my place, including my husband. It was a well-practiced routine. There was no need to line up. They already knew which of us would not be taking one more breath in this life. As I imagined our quarters on the ship, the back-breaking scrubbing we’d do to make it as hygienic as possible, my nice clean suit gradually becoming filthy, the hunger and the thirst, I began to relax a little. Anticipation of a quick and painless death in fresh air was almost welcome.

What I was not prepared for was the murder of my husband. I adored him! I needed him! Only he made my life bearable. I did not behave as was expected, but cried out and fell to my knees by his body, kissing his still warm, loved face, while those around me somehow remained standing, staring stoically into the air behind the Guards, as their husbands, their wives, their sisters, their brothers and the ten youngsters I had not put forward for implantations crashed to the hard, arid ground.

Minutes later I realised this was not the worst thing that could happen to me. A First Echelon Guard now wearing red had been demoted to our group of Tendanny. That automatically pushed me out of my customary supervisory role and he had no idea yet just how disgusting his new conditions would quickly become. I in particular would suffer his spite. He’d want a mate and to take one even at my social level would humiliate him. He would discover what it’s like to be dirty and expect me to get him clean. When in the next harvest his old fellows sneered at him, I would be the one to pay the price. He would hate us all and he’d focus that hatred mostly on me. And my fellows would fear me in case I killed myself thus causing the First Echelon Guard to kill a dozen Tendanny as a deterrent against any hope of relief for the one to replace me. They noticed enough about us to take care to make that one a person with loved-ones still alive. There was no way out for me. There was no way out for my fellows.