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Akin to an Onus

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“I have returned.”

Croach the Tracker waited patiently for the reply from Barlok the Wise, chief of his tribe. Barlok was watching as Woldop the Soap Maker and a half dozen other denizens of G’loot Praktaw were rending the fat of the Air Whale (K’rloth m’nopo, Croach reminded himself) to create soap. It smelled terrible, and was messy work. Perhaps another two dozen denizens were nearby performing other tasks related to the stripping of the whale, and Barlok, as always, made sure all the tasks were going as planned.

Croach waited for two short increments of time for a reply, but when none came forth after what he designated a much longer than comfortable time span, he cleared his esophageal tracts.

“I have fulfilled my onus to Sparks Nevada,” Croach said. “It has taken several cycles, however-”

“Welcome home, Croach the Tracker,” Barlok said. “Perhaps you may now continue to fulfill your onus to the tribe by assisting in the rendering?”

“I am Croach the Tracker, not Croach the Fat Churner,” Croach reminded Barlok. He had never been required to assist before. Once his part in finding the whale had been complete, had always been free to do other tasks, or to retire for the day. He had not assisted in finding this whale, however.

“As we are not in need of tracking at the moment, you will assist the tribe as you are required.” Barlok stated. Croach found himself speechless at Barlok’s tone, so he simply nodded.

As he found a safe place to store his quantum bow and techno arrows, Croach realized he had a feeling. He did as he was told, being a “general help”, as Sparks Nevada had once said. His onus to his tribe would have increased had he not. He soon found himself assisting with rendering the fat and the other work of cleaning and preparing the Air Whale. But as Croach did what was required of him, he attempted to process his feeling.

He thought of and discarded a dozen words for the feeling. Anger? No. Disappointment? No. Shame? No. All of those emotions were similar to what stirred within him, but it was something more elusive, something that felt more like a physical wound before the anesthetic buzz of Nah Nohtek healing commenced.

The only experience of remote similarity was that of the decision to leave the company of the Red Plains Rider. Then, he had been torn, but the decision was ultimately clear: Nothing would come of their union and his onus to Sparks Nevada still stood. He had left, making a choice as logical as the one he had made to return to the tribe now that his tribe’s onus to Sparks Nevada was fulfilled.

It had taken him much time beyond his leaving to process his emotions toward the Red Plains Rider, then the ones stirred by time spent in Sparks Nevada's body. She had wed Cactoid Jim in the time between then and now, rendering his emotion for her superfluous.

His feeling now was dissimilar enough to remain elusive, and this feeling-made-of-other-feelings was too complex to quantify, like attempting to reassemble a shelf of shattered pottery. The origins were obscured, the shards failed to match, and it was a painful thing to do.

Croach’s return was welcomed by many that night over the evening meal of whale meat. He was asked to relay a story of his time away, and so he spoke of stopping the A'pokk'alip-sss with the help of Sparks Nevada and The Red Plains Rider.

There was no tent designated for him, so Croach slept the first night he was returned to his tribe not in a tent in the manner of his people, but next to the campfire. Croach did not mind, as he found he now preferred sleeping under the open sky.

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“Barlok the Wise,” Croach said as he approached the Chief the next day, “may I ask, who tracked the Air Whale which the tribe has been preparing?”

Barlok tilted his head and paused before answering. “A youngling who came of age while you were away proved herself adept at finding what is needed. She is Olep the Finder. She found the K’rloth m’nopo and has found many other items for use by the tribe.”

“I see,” Croach replied, trying to ignore the heaviness in his stomach, as if he had swallowed a rock. “Is there anything you wish for me to track this day?”

Barlok the Wise again took longer than Croach would have liked to answer. “You may… watch out for enemies, metal or otherwise, near the camp. That would be useful.”

Croach nodded, and another broken piece was added to the feeling he had. He almost objected and pointed out that he could sense any enemies coming for many large units of distance away. He could have reminded Barlok that he knew where every creature the size of a hatchling was within three human miles. But he did not.

He soon found he preferred spending the day on his hoversaddle, riding large, lazy circles around the camp.

Near the end of the day, however, he saw a female, only a few cycles past the age of her B’at-mit zvah, leading a small group of other denizens into the camp. They had a gamma-ray deer (t’loth rungan’p, Croach reminded himself) hung from its feet between two hoversaddles.

That night, the tribe ate from what Olep the Finder had found.

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“I see you have many younglings, Pelek the Tent Mender,” Croach said. It was good to see Pelek again. He and Pelek had shared the same B’ar-mit zvah, as they had matured together.

“Indeed, Tignk’t the Arrow-Charger and I have been five-times blessed by mighty Nah Nohtek,” Pelek replied. Tignk’t was nearby, reading Bushwackers of Neptune to their younglings and the ovum Pelek was currently carrying.

For a time, they watched Pelek’s younglings and listened to the familiar story. When Pelek spoke again, he spoke cautiously. “When will you be joined and begin to reproduce with G'rop N'go-goth, Croach the Tracker?”

It was Croach’s turn to be quiet for a long moment. He had long dreaded being asked by his tribe about The Red Plains Rider.

“We are not… physically compatible. She has wed a human.” Although it was not unheard of, there was great shame in not wedding one’s betrothed, unless the betrothed had died. To lie to Pelek and the tribe, however, would have brought down more shame upon him.

A long silence passed before Pelek spoke again. “Have you approached Molec the Betrother about finding a new betrothed?”

“No,” Croach answered simply. He watched the younglings play for another small increment of time, and then went back to his patrol.

Another piece was added to the broken feeling. Croach spent most of the afternoon out on the plains, analyzing the feeling, but he still could not name it.

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Molec the Betrother found him first, and he had brought along Haulpt the Glovemaker. Her betrothed had died accidentally just before going through the rite of Nah Nohtek. That was several cycles ago, and as of yet she had not agreed to a betrothal to any other mate.

Croach and Haulpt spent the evening together, seated at the fringes of the encampment as they ate their meal and discussed their designations. He told several stories of his time together with Sparks Nevada, though he avoided stories in which The Red Plains Rider was involved. It was, Croach decided later, not an unpleasant evening. Haulpt the Glovemaker said as much when she left to return to her tent.

But that night, as Croach again slept alone by the campfire, the fractals in his dream formed into delicate pinkish skin, surrounded by long red hair. The triangles rained down nearby in a perfect crystal clear waterfall. He tasted the minerals of the water and the pheromones on human lips until the entropy of the fourth dimension broke down. He floated in a sea of human voices, - Sparks Nevada calling him “buddy”, The Red Plains Rider greeting him with a familiar “Howdy”, the human designated Felton calling for aid, and then the fractals formed again to the human Barkeep passing him the cool liquid the humans designated beer. He tasted the beer again in his mind as Rebecca Rose Rushmore read aloud from one of her novels, and Cactoid Jim told a tale of his bravery, giving the credit away to Croach, and to Sparks Nevada, and The Red Plains Rider, sitting at the table with them, drinking their own beers.

Croach awoke with the unnamed feeling still growing inside of him.

He did not seek out Haulpt the Glovemaker again.

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Several days later, Croach was called upon to track a human enemy who had come into the camp and stolen a large pile of stylish jackets that were to be sold in the human town later that week. Barlok explained that this was one of many such offenses by this outlaw in the last year.

He had been sent along with Brelth the Archer, S’leth the Trapper and Y’ggovth the Hoversaddle Tow-er, who was there to escort the outlaw’s rocketsteed after the criminal was secured.

Finding the outlaw was simple. By the end of the morning, Croach had tracked him, riding slowly across the plains, the bundle of goods stuffed into oversized saddlebags on the human’s rocketsteed.

“I see your skills have not faltered in your time away from the tribe,” S’leth, the Trapper noted. “Now, stay behind whilst we reacquire the goods.”

“I may be of use,” Croach began to explain.

“You are Croach the Tracker, not Croach the Capturer of Outlaws,” Brelth the Archer reminded him.

“In my time with Sparks Nevada, I assisted with the capture of many outlaws. One hundred and twenty seven, in fact. I believe my experience will assist with the capture of this outlaw, as well. I would even escort him to town to allow the new marshal to punish him, in the custom of humans.”

“This human has stolen from us, Croach the Tracker,” Y’ggovth the Hoversaddle Tow-er explained. “Why would we allow the humans to punish him?”

“I suspect the reason that the three of you volunteered to assist with finding the outlaw indicates that you have little desire to capture him alive. However, I must remind you, this human has not killed a member of our tribe. He does not deserve death,” Croach said.

“He will steal from us again,” Y’ggovth the Hoversaddle Tow-er insisted.

“Not if he has been punished by the humans by being secured in their jail. Then he cannot steal from the tribe.” Croach retorted, though he was beginning to feel slightly unnerved by the attitudes of his own people.

“And what happens once the human is released from jail? That is, if the humans even would decide to punish a criminal for stealing from ‘marjuns’? Will this one not come and steal again?”

“He will face justice! The new marshal-” Croach began, but was quickly cut off.

“Croach the Tracker, are you displaying the human emotion designated anger?” S’leth, the Trapper inquired, his antennae twitching with curiosity. “We have heard that Croach the Tracker had become much like the Earthens after being betrothed to one, and being sent away to live amongst them, but I did not believe it.”

“I am not displaying anger, S’leth, the Trapper. I am merely trying to communicate that-”

“Why, he is becoming just like the humans, most interesting.” Y’ggovth cut in. “Tell me, do the humans have a designation of their own for you? What do they call you?”

“The Human-Martian Treaty of 2974, section 3 subsection F, ordinance 28.3 states that criminals caught doing harm against one species should be returned to-,” Croach continued, trying desperately to reason with them.

“Enough,” Brelth the Archer said, her voice loud enough to interrupt Croach. “This is an outlaw who has stolen from us before and shall steal from us again. He will pay for his crimes. Croach the Tracker, you will remain here.”

Croach found himself gritting his teeth, an act Sparks Nevada often did when he was angry that Croach had always found the sound of vexing. But now, watching his tribemates ride off, presumably to kill a human, he found himself understanding the act.

He knew he had a choice. He could stand by and watch his own people violate the treaty, possibly causing an incident between his people and the humans, or he could intervene and face the repercussions from his tribe.

There was truly only one thing that crossed his mind before he made his decision: if Sparks Nevada had to choose between obeying his people via inaction or standing in between three humans trying to kill a Martian, what would he do?

Croach swallowed hard, and powered on his hoversaddle.

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“Croach the Tracker, surely you realize that I am Brelth the Archer. My skills with the quantum bow are superior to yours in every way,” Brelth explained slowly. Her bow was drawn, pointed right at Croach’s forehead. S’leth the Trapper and Y’ggovth the Hoversaddle Tow-er had their own quantum bows similarly pointed at him.

Croach refused to move, or lower his bow. He had placed himself between the human outlaw who designated himself Laser Holmes and his own three tribemates. Holmes’ weapons were emptied as he attempted to run from his pursuers. Croach had nearly been too late to save the human’s life after he had been cornered in this shallow canyon.

“We merely need to release our weapons and you will fall, and then we will release our weapons at the human outlaw,” Brelth the Archer spoke, with almost eerie calmness in her voice.

“Or, as I explained before, I will take this human to town and ensure that the human’s marshal keeps him locked up for one very long unit of time. I will also explain to this outlaw in his own tongue what will happen if he steals from our tribe again.”

“He has stolen before-”

“If he has stolen before, why did you not alert Sparks Nevada, or myself?”

“The human marshals before Sparks Nevada did little to help us.” Brelth the Archer said.

“Sparks Nevada would have helped you. As would I. I am a member of this tribe, and it is still my onus to protect it.”

“Is it, Croach the Human?” S’leth the Trapper cut in.

“Do not misdesignate me!”

“You are as angry as a human. Perhaps you should return with this human to the human town. Perhaps you should stay there with your human betrothed and your human friends as well.”

“My onus to Sparks Nevada is complete. I am now again solely under onus to the tribe-”

“Take the human then, Croach the Human. Do not return to the tribe.” Brelth the Archer said, lowering her weapon, and motioned for the others to do the same. “Stay with the humans, whom you do so love. That is what the humans designate what you feel, is it not?”

Croach did not lower his weapon, but he also did not allow the anger welling within - for he was angry now, the emotion clear and sharp and quickly processed - to consume him.

“I will take the human outlaw to the marshal in order to not increase my onus to the tribe, and also so you will not be under onus to the humans for killing this man.” Croach was sure to not make any mention of returning to the tribe as he spoke. He would not promise such a thing as to never return.

Once the others weapons were stowed, Croach turned his quantum bow back on the human. His tribemates began removing the stolen items from Holmes’ saddlebags while Croach spoke in human English.

“I have saved your life this day, human designated Laser Holmes. You will return what you have taken from our tribe and come with me into the human town to face judgement from the marshal. If you do not agree, these denizens of G’loot Praktaw will kill you.”

Holmes’ agreement came readily.

------------

Croach rode with his hoversaddle tied to Holmes’ rocket steed, which Holmes rode while secured with Croach's rope. Croach had his bow ready to be drawn the entire journey. It was late that night when they arrived at the human town. The Marshal station was closed, and Techs was nowhere to be seen.

It was easy to convince the Marshal Station Artificial Intelligence to allow him to enter. After all, Techs had merely specified to not allow Sparks Nevada or “his deputy” access anymore. As Croach was never officially Sparks Nevada’s deputy, the AI did not argue with the logic that Croach was still allowed. Holmes was placed into the cell, and Croach left a detailed accounting of what had happened, and a list of the statutes Holmes had broken.

While in town, he learned a little from overhearing the human conversations from those passing nearby. It was the holiday designated Christmas. Sparks Nevada was in the residence newly acquired by Cactoid Jim and The Red Plains Rider. Cactoid Jim had just been elected Mayor of the humans of Mars. The human Barkeep, Felton, the Widow Johnson and many other humans that he knew were also at the Jim domicile, along with, surprisingly, Techs.

Croach had not been invited, of course, as he had not been nearby to invite. He was unsure if he would be welcome. He was even more unsure if he wished to see The Red Plains Rider with her new mate, despite how much he respected and admired Cactoid Jim. He could hear everything that went on at the human party, even from several small units of distance away in the marshal station. His name was not mentioned.

Another shard of the feeling fell into place, and he left town.

Soon, he found a camp that he and Sparks Nevada had used not long ago, and slept.

------------

The next evening, he returned to the tribe.

He waited until most of the camp had retired to their tents before making his way to the dwelling of Barlok the Wise. Barlok’s mate was asleep, but Barlok agreed to walk with him just outside the camp.

“Brelth the Archer, S’leth the Trapper and Y’ggovth the Hoversaddle Tow-er… they were going to kill the human. Barlok the Wise, were these your orders?”

“They said that you drew your weapon on them, is this true?” Barlok asked in return.

“I drew my weapon solely to prevent them from killing the human.”

“It was not my intention for the others to kill the human, only to explain why it is unwise to steal from the tribes of G’loot Praktaw and retrieve what was stolen. They will be punished. However, Croach the Tracker, I also sense that you have been not at ease about returning to the tribe.”

“I have ridden with Sparks Nevada for many cycles. I am sure I only require time to re-assimilate.”

“Are you content with your position?”

Croach balked. “What position do you mean? I am here to track for the tribe to fulfill my onus.”

“There is a reason I sent you to assist Sparks Nevada the Human, Croach the Tracker. You were more curious about their people than any other denizen in the tribe. We ascribed this first to your betrothal to the human girl. But even when you were a youngling, you inquired more about humans than we thought necessary. Once your betrothed left the tribe, you rode with her for a time and grew to learn more about them. I believed, perhaps, if you spent many cycles living among them, your curiosity would be sated. Was it?”

Croach did not answer for a very long time. “My curiosity is sated. However-”

“However you enjoyed your time amongst the humans, did you not? You wish to still live among them?”

“I… found much purpose in catching enemies and outlaws with Sparks Nevada. I assisted in saving the lives of many humans and native denizens of G’loot Praktaw. I met several humans worthy of respect and whose presence I appreciated. Assisting Sparks Nevada was… fulfilling.”

“And relations for the tribe with the humans who have come to this world have been more peaceful in the cycles you were gone. It seems knowing a human and denizen of G'loot Praktaw were working together to keep the law had an impact on both our peoples.”

“Brelth, the Archer, S’leth the Trapper and Y’ggovth Hoversaddle Tow-er did not seem to think so.”

“Again, they will be dealt with. Many are still not content with our place on the planet since the humans have come. There is still much anger, and much of it justified. But this is not about them, Croach the Tracker. What is it that you wish?”

“I am under onus to the tribe-”

“As are all denizens of the tribe. But have you considered your onus may have been better fulfilled by living amongst the humans than anything you can do here?”

Again, Croach's stomach was heavy, and it took him a short unit of time before he could answer Barlok the Wise. “I… had not considered such a thing,” he admitted.

“If I find that you have returned to work with Sparks Nevada again, I would consider all that you would do to help bring peace to the planet as part of your onus to the tribe. But, it is your choice.”

“Sparks Nevada is not currently the marshal, as he has lost his badge to a robot named Techs. He was injured, and humans take much longer to heal without Nah Nohtek.”

“It is still your choice, Croach the Tracker. You may stay with the tribe, ro return to work with Sparks Nevada, or the new marshal. But Croach the Tracker, we found a way to survive without a tracker-”

“Yes, 'Finder’ is a convenient designation. It differs just enough from ‘Tracker’ as it does not not insinuate we have the same designation, but yet Olep the Finder performs the duties which were once mine. It appears I am no longer needed.” Without realizing it, Croach found himself using a tone of voice he had never used with Barlok the Wise before, but one he often used with Sparks Nevada. He watched Barlok's reaction carefully, wondering in the long pause that followed if punishment was forthcoming.

“We required a tracker, and you were not here,” Barlok replied. Croach wanted to point out that he had not been with the tribe because Barlok had sent him away with Sparks Nevada, and he should not be punished for an absence of which he had no choice. However, he did not.

Croach, instead, took his time before speaking again, the meaning of Barlok's words and intentions becoming all the more clear to him. “I... understand. I will take my leave.”

“You are welcome to stay. You are a part of this tribe.”

“I am superfluous.”

“I have told you how you can best serve the tribe.” By Barlok's tone, Croach understood that he was not outcast nor banished. However, Barlok's wish was for him to go.

He knew that he could choose to stay. He knew that he would find ways to be useful to the tribe, and he would bear out his onus quietly for the rest of his days. Perhaps not shunned or shamed, but still, an oddity. Or, he could leave, and bear out his onus in a way no other denizen of G'loot Praktaw ever had before. He could be welcomed back as something of a hero, in the times he wished to return.

He was a member of this tribe, and always would be, but perhaps, as The Red Plains Rider before him, he no longer truly belonged.

There was nothing left to be said to Barlok, so Croach merely nodded. He returned to the camp long enough to eat and restock his supplies, then found a new place to sleep, half a night’s ride away from the tribe.

------------

Tracking Sparks Nevada was easy, though Croach took his time. It was two nights later when Croach caught up to him.

From far away, he could see Sparks Nevada, sitting near a campfire, humming quietly to himself. There were three hypercattle nearby, and a space-wagon. An adult human male and female human youth were inside the wagon. Sleeping near the campfire was the Barkeep.

Croach tried to not think about the renewal of the feeling in his stomach, the one as if he had swallowed a large rock.

Sparks Nevada had already found a new companion. Croach would, again, be superfluous.

He considered going to speak to Sparks Nevada, but decided against it. Sparks Nevada would ask him to stay, but there would be little for him to do here, as well.

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Despondent. The word came to him on the second day after finding Sparks Nevada.

Perhaps despondence was not the feeling which vexed him upon the first days of reunion with his tribe, but it was the feeling he currently possessed.

Croach rode the plains of Mars for three days before finding himself in town.

The last time he had felt despondency, Croach realized there was one thing that had made him feel better.  It seemed to have the same effect on many humans, as well, and he longed for this feeling he had to lift.  

There was only one saloon left in the human town, and so Croach had no choice but to go there to drink.  O’Toole greeted him as Croach took a seat at the end of the bar.

“What can I do yah for, Marjun’?” O’Toole asked.  He was wiping the bar down with a rag, and seemed genuinely curious in Croach’s presence.

“I would like to acquire one beer, human designated O’Toole.”

O'Toole cocked an eyebrow at him.  “Never had a marjun' ask for a drink before.  How are you gonna pay for that? You got any money?”

Croach considered for a moment. When he had been riding with Sparks Nevada, most things he required had been given to him, presumably paid for from the marshal station’s budget. Now, he would require human currency.

He had none.

“I would be under onus to you, should you give me a beer,” he answered.

He watched O’Toole consider Croach’s proposition. He had never had to barter with humans for goods before, and was not sure of the protocol.

“Afraid I can’t pay the bills with onus, marjin’, but I hear that the Widow Johnson’s fence needs whitewashing again. She’ll probably pay you for it.”

“I am Croach the Tracker, not Croach the Fence Painter.”

“Well I ain’t O’Toole the Free Drink Giver, so if’n you want to drink here, you better be able to pay. Tell you what, though. You promise to go paint The Widow Johnson’s fence tomorrow, and I’ll open you up a tab today.”

“A tabulation, that is… akin to an onus, but with currency?”

“I suppose it is.”

“Then I shall bear the onus of a tabulation.”

A short unit of time later, O’Toole had placed a beer in front of him. By the time Croach was halfway through the drink, his despondency had already begun to lift.

“Human designated O’Toole, are there other fences to be painted in town? I find that I might need to acquire much more human currency for my tabulation.”