Borda-Sorokin Files, Book One: Space, Lies, Syndicate – Chapter One
The kon piset on Harmony Home have always lived in peace, and Speaker For The People has been one of them, even if she seemed… different somehow. They are her family and she would fight to the death to keep them safe.
But soon the Others return—creatures from the old stories and legends, aliens that used to kidnap the People for their own mysterious purposes. Speaker is their next victim, imprisoned aboard their alien craft, being carried away from her home. She must find a way to protect all the kon piset… except, the Others resemble Speaker more than her own family ever had, and they have proof that Speaker is not of the People, but human, like them.
Now, faced with the Others’ plans to enslave the kon piset and every other alien planet in what they consider Syndicate Space, Speaker will learn to fight hidden threats and pervasive lies instead of tooth and claw as she battles for a better world—not just on Harmony Home but throughout human-controlled space.
Coming of Age
Faint unease and the smell of baking bread prodded me awake on the Day of Challenge. By the heat baking the bread—and me—inside the clay dome, I knew the white sun had climbed high in the algae-green sky.
Today everything would change.
Or not, if I didn’t complete the challenge.
I had to succeed.
Despite missing the tail, mid-limbs, and ten-centimeter claws of the kon piset, the People, I would succeed. If I wanted to finally be granted adult status, I had to. And I wanted adult status so badly my chest ached.
Someone scratched politely at the bit of skin which served as my door. On this day, the Day of Challenge, and at such a late hour for rising, it could only be one person. I rolled to my feet, jerking my shirt down to my thighs. The bread baking in one shadowy curve of the dome received a wistful glance. I had slept too late for a solitary breakfast, and a kon piset almost-adult does not eat in front of others of the People.
Blinking in the sun, I stepped out of my dome and looked up at my first-mother. “I see you, Moonslight Dragon-Triad.” I raised my true-hands, empty palms out, to show my intent of peace.
“I see you, Stranger it-child,” Moonslight replied, raising both her true-hands and her false-hands, the tiny scales on the palms of her hands glinting as silver as the vertical stripe running from her ear holes to the tip of her tail. She blinked her copper eyes and grinned at me with thin lips stretched across her wide mouth.
I admired her colors and thought that she was the most beautiful of the kon piset, from her emerald head to the delicate tip of her amethyst tail. And the ten-centimeter claws at the end of each of the three fingers and thumb on her true-hands and false-hands and toes. I envied those claws, my nails being neither so sharp nor so strong.
“Are you ready for the challenges?” She preened my hair, trimming the already short strands even shorter, carefully catching only hair between her claws and avoiding scalp.
I waited until her true-hands stilled, fingers resting against my cheeks. She was nervous. I took her true-hands in mine, a gesture of trust on both our parts. “Let me get my claws,” I said, “and I will be ready.”
I ducked back into my dome to mask the flush of my own fear. She would scent it, but without a visual confirmation we could both ignore it. I snatched up my gloves, woven from supple, pale purple ka grass and tipped with the sharpest, longest claws I could steal from dead kanam gawan. River dragons. Fitting, as one would be my foe today.
When I emerged into the sun again, she caught me in an awkward hug.
I had never seen one of the kon piset hug, outside of our clan. I suspected my family picked up the habit from the Others, before they were destroyed. I didn’t think of the Others often. They were a taboo subject. But today, as my kanam-gawan-skin shirt rubbed against the scales of my first-mother’s belly and her four hands clasped me gently, I remembered that I was different and I wondered if I was Other. I pushed the thought away. Today, more than any other, I needed to be kon piset, one of the People. For that, I needed to focus on here and now.
I drew in a deep breath of ka grass, sweet herbs, and kon piset that smelled of home and mothers, and then I stepped back. I drew on my gloves and laced them around my wrists, flexing my fingers to ensure that the kanam gawan claws functioned correctly. I slung a small bag around my hips, then nodded my head in the properly aggressive manner. “I am ready.”
We followed the path of crushed pink ka grass through the larger clay domes, between fields of hip-high purple ka grass and thigh-high maroon sen grass—almost ready for harvest—down to the red clay of the river bank. The river ran slow and shallow here, twenty tail-lengths across and only three deep.
My second-mother, Song On Water, preened my brother’s crest in a rare moment of motherly fear and affection. When she saw us, she snatched her true-hands away and turned to face our father. Often, three or four youths took the challenge together, but this time, there were only us two.
Our father, Kills Dragons, was a taller, broader, darker version of our first-mother. He stood near the edge of the river as the tribal leader and witness to the first of our challenges, not as our father. We did not exchange greetings. He simply clenched his four fists, and when he opened them, we sprinted for the water.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched my brother run. There was a reason he was named Runs Fast. At a sprint, he bested all the youths and all the adults in the village. With his tail whipping out behind him for balance, he was beautiful to watch. He hit the water several tail-lengths before me and ran across the top, his toes splayed wide. I thought for a moment that he would continue across, as a child, but then he deliberately slowed, and sank to face his challenge.
Unlike the rest of the People, I could not run on water. My feet sank into the red clay and after a few strides I dove into the slow-moving river. Almost immediately, I saw the kanam gawan. The river dragon had been lured downstream a moon ago in preparation for our challenge. The speckled green and blue of the dragon’s scales made it difficult to see when it lay still against the river bottom, but now it attacked my brother.
Runs Fast taunted the river dragon with an underwater tik flare, burning incandescent. The dragon sped toward him, all six legs churning against the current and tail whipping for added thrust.
Please, Father Sun, First-Mother Moon, and Second-Mother Moon, help us. The dragon’s thick tail swirled past my thighs and I struck, digging kanam gawan claws deep into its hide. It bellowed—odd resonances under water—and turned on me, giving my brother the chance to strike. For a brief moment, while I clung to the river dragon’s tail, I doubted Runs Fast. We had been rivals for years, but I always believed there was an undercurrent of love. The mouthful of teeth—each longer than my forearm—snapped at me. I prepared to release the dragon and fight for my life. Alone.
The teeth disappeared in a swirl of green blood. The tail whipped me out of the water. I took advantage and sucked in a deep breath before smashing into the river again. The force cleared the water of dragon blood long enough for me to see Runs Fast clinging to the dragon’s shoulders with his false-hands and feet, ripping at dragon hide with his true-hand claws, grinning like a maniac. I stifled a chuckle and loosened one hand preparatory to slicing the spinal column.
The river dragon thrust hind-feet claws into my thigh.
I screamed, then clenched my teeth together to keep from sucking in water. By the Triad, that hurt. I could give up… and leave Runs Fast to fight the river dragon alone? Would a warrior give up? No. And I am going to be a warrior.
Bony protrusions, similar to those of the male kon piset, protected the spine of the river dragon. I stabbed my kanam gawan claws into the side of its scaly hide, just under the fin, and dug for the spine. Its tail wrapped around me, pinning one arm to my body. I clawed more furiously. Black spots filled my vision.
With one final, desperate thrust and yank, I succeeded. The beast’s tail loosened and the claws slid out of my thigh. I pushed off the thing and broke the surface of the water.
I blinked tears and river water from my eyes. Dragging in a huge breath, I dove again. I’d paralyzed the rear legs and tail, but the dragon still flailed with its four remaining legs and snapped at us with sharp teeth. I latched onto the tail and climbed up it to the body near the mid legs. My brother kicked off, slashing his feet across the face of the beast. His claw sliced one giant aqua eye. The dragon bellowed and whipped its head away. I held on to the mid fin and dug into its hide, searching for the spine again.
Faster this time, I found it. I curled my claws and ripped. Teeth clamped down on my upper arm, but then Runs Fast slashed his true-hand claws across the beast’s other eye and it released me. Thanks to my brother’s quick actions, it hadn’t cut my arm, nor eaten it whole, but merely squashed it.
The river dragon clawed furiously with its front legs. Now blind, it thrashed in the water, sensing its doom. The gods-be-dammed dragon clung to life with a disturbing tenacity. My left arm floated next to me in the water, useless. A cloud of green surrounded my brother. He was bleeding. We needed to finish this quickly.
I surfaced, gasped, and dove. My claws caught on the river dragon’s front fin. I bared my teeth and dragged myself to its back. It still thrashed. Runs Fast latched onto the beast’s neck just in front of the fin and nodded to me. I had just enough feeling in my left hand to stab my claws into the dragon’s neck. It swung its head toward me. I drove my right-hand claws into the soft scales at its jawline. It dragged its head to the right and met my brother’s true-hand claws. Together, we ripped out its throat.
We both surfaced and waited. The river dragon’s body bubbled to the surface of the water. Each snagging a limb, we swam for the shore. We dragged it just far enough up the river bank for our mothers to wade out and sink their claws into its hide. All the kon piset would butcher the beast; Moonslight would save the claws for me.
I crawled the last tail-length of clay to where the grass started. With my teeth, I untied the laces and pulled the glove off my right hand, then slid two fingers into the pouch at my waist and pinched a cloth made from the white minta flower petals. The four punctures on my thigh oozed. I set the damp cloth on the punctures and then wrapped a strip of woven sen around the whole thing. Bleeding temporarily slowed, I flexed my left hand. It hurt, but it moved. Good enough.
I put my glove back on and forced myself to my feet. Kills Dragons made pushing motions with all four hands, telling us to get on with it. I glanced at Runs Fast. He had a makeshift bandage on one shoulder and shallow, seeping cuts on his legs. The tip of his tail was gone.
“It bit me!” He sounded offended, but he flexed his claws over and over in pain.
“I thought for a moment—” I looked at him sideways and offered him the side of my neck in submission.
He hissed at me. “Come, it-who-would-be-warrior.” Then he pushed his hands at me. “Let’s do this.”
The next challenges were easier, except that we were exhausted and bloody from our encounter with the kanam gawan. We staggered into the fields of sen and searched for clumps of grains ready for harvest. Then we did the same in the fields of ka. Arms full of aromatic grains harvested by our own claws, we moved into the center of the village. We took turns grinding our ka and sen with the mortar and pestle. Our mothers—as had mothers before and would after—had been permitted to lay out a handful of sea salt and a nup fish, rich in oil but poor in taste. I cut a slit in my nup and pressed out just enough oil to form the ka and sen into dough. Then I added a claw-full of salt and kneaded everything together.
It was not my best effort. The loaf was lopsided and lumpy, but every time I eased my belly back from the waist-high circular slab, I swayed and saw stars. Giving the loaf one last pat, I removed my gloves, and looked up.
While I’d made my loaf, the circle had filled with kon piset: the eldest, gone silvery all over with age, to the youngest, just able to cling to their mothers’ stomachs. The People stood quietly, waiting for us to finish, waiting for Father to make his decision. My brother finished his loaf and came to stand with me, my shoulder to his mid-shoulder.
Kills Dragons spoke. “I see you, Runs Fast he-child. I see you, Stranger it-child.”
Runs Fast offered his neck. “I see you, Kills Dragons he-chief.”
I lifted my chin and offered mine. “I see you, Kills Dragons he-chief.” My breath came faster and I fought to control it. A warrior. I was going to be a warrior.
“I am Kills Dragons,” our father said. “I see you, my kon piset.”
The adult members of the tribe replied. “We see you, Kills Dragons of Dragon-Triad, he-chief.” The children were silent.
“Runs Fast he-child and Stranger it-child have completed their challenges. Today they leave behind their childhood names and become adults. Runs Fast, step forward.”
My brother did as he was told, his toe-claws scraping the flattened pink ka grass. My shoulder felt cold without him beside me.
“You shall be known as Windstorm he-adult,” Kills Dragons said. “You are named farmer, and may seek your mates to form a triad.”
Windstorm clasped his true-hands, palm over fist, and his false-hands, palm over fist. A simple gesture with complicated meaning: gratitude, pride, and excitement. He took his place in the circle of kon piset.
“Stranger, step forward.” Kills Dragons found my mother in the crowd of the People. His shoulders tightened and my gut clenched. He already said I completed my challenges. Why the delay?
The chief spoke slowly. “It-child, you have proven yourself capable of your own defense, in killing the river dragon. You have proven you can provide for yourself, in gathering supplies and making bread. Today you take your place as an it-adult of the People.”
Instead of relaxing, my stomach clenched tighter. More than ever, I felt my lack of a tail, my missing mid-limbs, my borrowed claws. But I had done what was asked of all youth of the kon piset. I had faced the kaman gawan and bled in the river, though my blood flowed red, not green.
My father’s voice pulled my attention back where it belonged. “You shall be known as Speaker for the People it-adult. You are named warrior, and may seek other it-adults to form a triad.”
Before I could rejoice, Kills Dragons continued. “You are to raise a child.”
Horrified, I stared at him. I was an it, genderless and now a warrior. Not destined to raise a child.