They were called ‘books.’ Ananais Stone laughed the first time she saw one, a thin curiosity her father brought back from the salvage. He also brought more exciting curiosities for her and her sisters - dolls in human shapes and animals from the new planet - so it was nearly bedtime before she remembered it. She put aside the soft and pliable toy (a bear, with an ovoid body and a long snout and little black beady eyes) to pick up the book.
The shell was rough but cool under her palm. She set the bear up against her headboard and opened the front part of the shell. She flipped a few of the flat leaves to run her fingers over the shapes inked onto them. The markings were bizarre and unfamiliar, so she didn’t realize she held the book upside down until she got to a picture. She wasn’t embarrassed as she flipped the book to the ride side; she was simply learning.
The picture showed a human being with very long and slender limbs and a bulbous forehead bent forward at the waist with one arm extended toward another human. The other human was lying supine on a flat surface with cloth drawn up over his body, and she realized it was a bed much like her own. How odd to see something so familiar in such an alien setting! She held the book closer to her face. The standing person was the only one drawn clear enough to have details. His head was round like a stone and his nose was long and beaklike. His face was smooth and hairless, showing he was an adult. The body in bed was cast in shadow, but one wide eye was left white indicating it was open and staring.
Ananais reached up and touched the russet strands of her own cheeks. The Tauzetti had large eyes like the supine man, round like moons but black like the sky. Their faces were covered with a fine fur that some older people cut into aesthetic designs. She wasn’t allowed, like most children, to cut hers until she finished with schooling. She wet her lips with her tongue and turned the page, trying to figure out where the story began. She ran her fingers up the blocks of black marks until she reached a row that was set off and much darker.
A vertical line with a bar across the top. T. Three of them: T T T, with other marks in between. The last big letter was two verticals connected at the middle. H. T T T H. She saw others T and another H elsewhere in the code. She narrowed her eyes and leaned closer to the book as if identifying the shapes would help her discern their meanings.
Words made sounds. The symbols indicated what the sound should be, and each block was separated into a language she had only heard spoken on rare occasions when her father sent back messages on Earth Tech. “Transmission in Progress. Please Stand By.” That she knew. And when she had to enter her information: “Please Enter Your Haven ID and Password.” These messages appeared on the screen and she had absorbed them subconsciously.
So she sounded it out: “Tuh. Tuh. Tuh. Hahh.” The first word was a TH together. “Tuh-hahh. Te...” Long and thin. Long and thin. Like in “please,” the long and thin made “lah.”
After an hour of feverishly piecing together nonsense sounds, she focused again on the large black marks. She skipped the marks she didn’t know what they sounded like and gave a little breathy cough in their place. “Tuh hah... tuh ah ell ell. Tuh-ah-ell-ah. Huh-ah-ah-ar-tuh.”
The traced the lines of the mysterious phrase. THE TELL TALE HEART. Just four small blocks of sounds. As she strained to figure out what the A and the R sounded like, she flipped through the rest of the book to examine the other pictures. The stuffed toy her father had brought back was forgotten, and she focused instead on the cryptography of the leaves.
How could she waste time on a toy when there was so much waiting to be discovered in the book?
“True!” Ananias said. “Nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”
The book in her hands was but a prop; she had the entire text of the tale memorized by now. The little ones crowded around her, furry faces tilted up to listen to the story. She was always particularly animated when telling a story, when she could see their little faces giving away their excitement. She transported them all to the dark bedchamber of the old man with the “hideous” eye. She translated that section slightly when she read it. Many elderly Tauzetti had eyes like the one Edgarallan Poe described and would be insulted to hear them described as disgusting. Instead she left it up to their fertile little imaginations to fill in the blanks.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” was just one of many stories Ananais had memorized once she had learned to read the English. Once her father recognized where her interests were, he began bringing her more salvage. Sometimes the whole book was a single story, and it took her a year or more to make it through. Other times were quicker. She soon learned to identify words by sight and that sped up the process. Sometimes her father brought her odd books that she couldn’t even begin to decipher. They used the same marks but very few of the letters were used in the right way. Some had unusual marks over them that she’d never seen before. Did they indicate a change in pronunciation? Or did the marks have some other esoteric meaning that she couldn’t hope to understand without a native speaker?
When she asked her father he looked at the pages and apologized. “Earth people have different languages depending on where they live. I must have gotten a book from the wrong place.”
She didn’t mind. Usually even those books had pictures, and she could interpret her own story based on the pictures. She liked Sherlock Holmes and his partner Watson. She enjoyed Poe, although he could be a bit dreary for her tastes. Through these tales she created her own ideas of what the Earth planet must have been like. She imagined a vast craggy shoreline that was assaulted by crashing waves day and night. Near the cities were docks where boats brought supplies from far away, and in the country the shore was home to mysterious castles that housed monstrous men and women who had lost their senses.
Earth was a dark and frightening place full of monsters and madmen and women who wailed and gnashed their teeth. It was a horrific world of death and mystery, and she was grateful Tauzi didn’t have any more contact with them than absolutely necessary.
But the children certainly enjoyed hearing tales of the anarchical planet. She watched their faces as she mimed reading from the page, remembering her own gasps of horror and wonder when she read the stories for the first time. She hadn’t had red hair on her face for nearly twelve years, the roots shorn away in a family ritual that exposed pink cheeks and a smooth forehead. Her eyes were smaller now, having adjusted to her adult face, but she could still widen them when she reached the spooky parts of the story.
The story time took place in the front of her shop. Long ago she spent her Seeking Years hunched over a reading tablet to transcribe the Earth stories into the Tau language. She altered the locales and descriptions so the situations would make sense to Tauzetti audiences. Each story maintained the original creator’s information even if she didn’t understand exactly what it meant. Names like Poe, Dickens, Austen, and Wilde were transcribed on the front page so no one could miss the fact Ananais had merely copied the works rather than writing them herself.
Not that anyone would believe she had written them all on her own. No one was so prolific to fill the shelves of a small shop with story drives, no one had such a wild and varied imagination to span humorous tales as well as dark crime stories, epic works that focus on both urban and rural settings and characters that ran the entire gamut. She found herself amazed at how similar humans were to Tauzetti, and at the same time their brutality, savagery, and sheer violence toward each other was distinctly un-Tauzi in the extreme.
But oh! How she loved the tales and their dialogue. Sometimes it broke her heart to take out something because her peers would find it confusing. She changed commonly-referenced places like London and New York to Tauzi cities like Elchif and Tiirnu. Professions that didn’t exist on Tauzi had to be changed in exchange for clarity, and sometimes it was nearly impossible to preserve the story intact when she was forced to make such jarring changes. She doubted anyone who knew the originals would ever question her theft of their works, but she felt the distinction was necessary. If she ever began to write her own tales, as she dreamed she would one day, she didn’t want the audience to be confused.
She closed her shop when the first sun touched the horizon and began the long walk home. Her shop was located in the Commerce ring of the Grand Tower, a wide promenade that extended out from the body of the edifice to look out over the surrounding city. The Grand Tower rose from the center of the city and stretched high enough to see the walls that formed their perimeter. As she rode the sinking platform down to the ground, she turned to watch the ships swooping in for a landing.
They were shiny and black, curved at the top and flat at the bottom so they looked like one of her fingernails had snapped off, grown in size, and gone off for a quick trip. In reality they were transports carrying soldiers from the front lines to the medical facilities on Tauzi. Their planet was neutral, but they offered compassionate services to both sides of the war raging in a nearby system. Her city - Sikaar Kakae, or the City of the Tower - was host to fighters from the Amarim Coalition while the Vyrr forces were given quarter by the fine people of Adyt Bluffs.
She watched as the Amarim transports sat down in various parts of the city, a few of them swinging toward the Grand Tower to dock on the Celebration and Enjoyment Rings. She wished she had known they were being granted leave; she would have kept the store open longer in case anyone was interested in books from the faraway Earth.
On the streets she passed those in casual dress - the linen trousers and lightweight tunics open under the arms to show the bare skin of their sides. She wore the wrapped blue gown of a merchant that draped her waist and left her legs exposed so her stride wasn’t impeded. She wore a purple-and-red skirt slit up the side to reveal her muscular thighs as she walked.
She arrived home as the second sun, the smaller of the two, began to sink and cast their part of the world into night. The moon hung heavy in the sky, twice as large as the two suns combined, and its light made the streets and buildings appear grey. The filament over Ananais’ eyes slid into place to mute the glow. She lived in one segment of a large block structure, a honeycomb of rooms that was separated from its identical neighbors by a series of elevated walkways. She lived on the third level three sections back, and the third finger of her right hand provided the pad with her identity.
Ananais undressed and hung her uniform on the wooden rack. In the morning a girl in a white gown would come and take it to be laundered. She changed into her own casual attire, clothing that matched the people she had seen on the street, and ran her dark fingernails through her hair as she went to see what kind of food she had on hand.
As she passed through the common space, she glanced toward the large window that gave her a view of the neighboring building. The light was on in the apartment across the way so she changed direction, walked toward it and rested her hands on the windowsill. A wooden platform stretched between their windows and she waited until she saw movement before she pushed up the glass and leaned out.
After a few seconds Constance Kaasyn appeared in the window. She smiled, waved, and pushed up her window as well. “I bought a new bottle of Sykaa wine. Do you have the flatwheat?”
“I’ll get the bag.”
Constance nodded and ducked out of sight while Ananais went to the cabinet for their snack. They had met by accident one evening when the temperature was hot enough that they both opened their windows. They sought refuge on their respective sills and began to talk, then began to pass things back and forth. Ananais tossed dried figs into Constance’s apartment, while Constance devised a padded parachute invention to throw wine to Ananais. In the end they decided it would be much easier to just extend a small platform between the two apartments, and they hired someone to build it.
She returned to the balcony at the same time as Constance, and they crawled out into the cooling night air to take their seats. Constance was Meallara, a foreigner, and she spoke Tau with a lilting and melodic accent. Where Ananais had crimson skin with dark eyes and red hair, Constance was pale blue-gray with black hair streaked with white. She raised her bottle of wine and Ananais held up the flatwheat as she settled back in her chair. Constance poured them both a drink and tapped the side of her glass against Ananais’.
“T’syy,” Ananais repeated as the echo from their glasses resonated. They each took a sip and Ananais leaned back to put her feet up on the safety rail. The view wasn’t as impressive as it was from the Grand Tower, but she could see all the way to the wall straight ahead, and to either side she had a view of the rich district. She liked to watch their transports rise and fall, loved the halo of blue, purple, mauve, and taupe light that spilled out from underneath them. She let the crushed berries sit on her tongue for a long moment before she swallowed and sighed.
“Delicious. Thank you for sharing.”
“There is none other I would prefer to share with. Thank you for the flatwheat.” She had taken one of the large doughy discs out of the bag. She folded it into a tube and tilted her glass to moisten the wheat with her wine. She let the juice soak for a moment, then folded it again and took a bite. “Mm.” She rolled her eyes back in her head and rocked from side to side as she chewed. “Exquisite. Thank you, An.”
“It is my pleasure.” She licked the droplets from her lips. “How was your day?”
Constance jutted out her chin and closed her eyes, rocking her shoulders back in a ‘good-and-bad’ gesture. “I was grateful my shift ended before the soldiers started showing up. I heard the first transports start to land and turned in my smock before my manager could ask me to stick around.”
“Shame you’ll miss out on their gratuities, though.”
“Small price to pay.” Constance took another bite of her soaked flatwheat and looked out over the city. “I don’t like serving the Amarim soldiers. They stick of sweat and grease. Their eyes have seen violence and when they meet my gaze I can feel it pressing against me.”
Ananais reached out and touched her friend’s hand. “I know, sweet. Let the berries soothe your mind, yes?”
“Yes. But today it was not so bad. Tomorrow may be, if these soldiers don’t head back to their war before I’m due back at the café.”
“If they do not, then I will be here tomorrow night, and we will share more of your delicious wine.”
Constance laughed and raised her glass. “T’syy!” Ananais toasted her again and they both took a drink. When she lowered her glass she was smiling, and she rested her head against the pillowed cushion of her seat. The night was falling and through the gathering clouds they could see a thick smattering of starlight. Some of the pinprick glows were actually satellites and monitoring stations where forces from both Amarim and Vyrr monitored their forces on the ground to ensure the neutrality was respected.
Elsewhere in the city bells were chiming to announce Amarim soldiers were on the ground. Security vessels rose and began their spiraling routes to ensure no demonstrators or war protestors would molest the soldiers on their leisure times. The Amarim operated on their own timeframe, so occasionally they would arrive in the dead of night and other times they showed up when the suns were doing their daily pirouette in the sky. There was no way for those on the ground the predict their arrival; the natives could only watch for the transports descending like fireballs streaking through the atmosphere and hope they were prepared for the influx of alien soldiers looking for food and entertainment.
It could be exhausting, but there was a reason Tauzetti was known as Haven to outsiders. If they were forced to occasionally host violent and raucous men in exchange for keeping the violence away from their system, they were willing to put up with a little inconvenience from time to time.