Wheels

WHEELS

By L. Jayde Holmes

 

There just weren’t enough wheels to go around. For the third straight spring the great trees had been stingy, and for both tribes of the Flatland the seedpods that allowed them to travel the dried lavaflows were hard to come by.

Malis of the Yuli greeted his counterpart from the Taldon tribe beneath the shade of the Great Tree. Here was the end of the Flatlands; beyond the Great Tree were the impassable circular rocks and cliffs littered with bones of those who had tried to leave.

Behind them were the smooth slopes and mountains that divided the two tribes; they were decorated with paintings from a long time ago, that until the time of Malis’s father had been taboo to talk about. With the passing of the Wise Ones though, people from both tribes had been examining them. Malis had looked a few times, but he didn’t know what to make of the flat wheeled creatures that were drawn with his ancestors.

The Great Tree provided the only real color in this setting. It was tall with bright green leaves on a red trunk. Hanging off the branches were red seedpods with flecks of green in them.

It was the last tree in the land that hadn’t weakened. Malis’s wheesl were smaller brown seedpods from a sickly tree in the garden. Even Bossman Jhani wouldn’t touch a perfect wheel anymore; they had to be saved for the hunters or else the whole tribe would starve.

As ratty as Malis’s wheels were though, his friend’s wheels was worse. Iltas of Taldon had small, spherical wheels that were almost blue in color. A wheel from a lesser tree which the plain-sailors used. Malis had tried using them last winter; he cringed at the reminder. They had almost shattered the keratin that covered his axels.

“It is good that the Yuli still have some wheels to spare for non-hunters” Iltas said.

“Barely” Malis said. “I’m holding these together with treeblood glue. I do not think they’ll last much longer.”

“That’s a shame. How do your people fare?”

“We survived the winter” Malis said. “Although our children’s limbs grow deformed from walking on their toes constantly. It is cruel that even when we are starving, we are still too heavy for unwheeled legs.”

“It is the same for us” Itlas said. “We are having trouble finding even enough lesser wheels for our people. Despite this we feasted over the winter; only the slopeclimbers are still wheeled, so our hunters were able to slaughter plain-sailors and skaters. We might give the few remaining wheels to the gatherers, since the hunters are chasing slower prey and the plant foods are getting further apart.”

“We’ve been thinking of that too” Malis said. “However, the way things are going, the slopeclimbers may end up the only prey worth catching. We’ll need the fastest wheels we can get to catch them.”

“We have more meat than we can eat before it goes off at the moment” Iltas said. “However if we don’t want to starve after that, we’ll need wheels. We’ll trade half our meat to our Yuli friends.”

“For wheels?” Malis said, trying to remember how many wheels the tribe had decided they could spare.

“For saplings” Itlas said.

“Saplings?”

“Both tribes have people who know how to move saplings and make them grow in other cracks. We’ll trade ten plain-sailors and twelve skaters for three saplings.”

Malis thought about the three saplings that were just starting to grow around the village. Two of them were looking rather healthy, and next season might bear small wheels for the young. The third one was already near death. Out of last year’s saplings only one had grown to bare wheels and they were weak, flimsy things.

“How many trees do the Taldon have in their lands?” Malis asked.

“Not enough” Itlas said.

“Neither do we” Malis said. “We might be able to give you one sapling. One is all we can afford. However, we will offer some large wheels as well.”

They haggled for a while, but eventually found a good compromise. Malis was happy with the deal, and he could tell that Itlas was too. The Yuli would have enough meat to tie them over until the surviving herds gave birth to the next generation of prey, the Taldon had enough wheels to fit to their gatherers to keep them going, and both would have a sapling which hopefully would grow and provide them with wheels.

Once the deal was made, the two turned to the Great Tree and begun to prey. Neither of them considered plucking the wheels that grew on it. The Great Tree was as unapproachable as the paintings next to it had been. Its spirit kept harmony between the two tribes and prevented the jiggered rocks from advancing. It would be sacrilege to also expect such a generous tree to give them wheels.

As they were praying, a branch with four large wheels broke off and fell to the ground next to them.

“The Great Tree has given us a gift” Itlas said.

Malis moved closer to the fallen branch, picked it up and examined the wheels.

“The Great Tree approves of our deal” Malis said. “Let us break the branch in half and take the wheels back; our tribes will be happy to see such a sure sign that our misfortune is over.”

“Yes” Itlas agreed. “This miracle, and the news of our deal will surely lift the people’s spirits.”

They each took two wheels back to their tribes. Malis’s wheels were fitted to their best hunter, who was so unaccustomed to decent wheels he had to keep his toes on the ground even after he had built up speed. No-one laughed at his poor balance though; the rest of the village was just overjoyed about the new wheels and the deal with the Taldon. Even Malis’s daughter Danu, who had been without wheels so long her axels drooped to the ground, spent the night following her father, asking him about the miracle of the Great Tree, and telling him that she loved him for getting so much food for the tribe.

When Malis went to bed with his daughter nuzzled against him, he felt more hopeful than he had in a long time. The Great Tree had approved his deal; surely now their suffering was over.

 

***

 

Radomondo didn’t seem that interesting from orbit. Yes, there was almost an entire continent of mostly flat terrain and lava-flows that looked like big roads, but that was about it really. Otherwise it was just a regular planet. Of course, Aliza Feldstein knew that Radomondo was a very special place. Special, because it was the only planet known to humankind that had produced wheeled lifeforms. Unfortunately, Feldstein was having a tough time explaining why it was so special to her colleague, Henrietta Jones.

“it’s not like they’re animals that evolved wheels as part of their body” Jones said as they looked over photos of the native Sentients in the lab.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship” Feldstein said. “The trees grow seedpods that the animals spread around by – “

“I know what a symbiotic relationship is” Jones said. “I’m the biologist here, remember?”

“Then you know that symbiotic or not, the existence of an ecosystem that has many animals and plants in relationships that lead to wheels is pretty special.”

“Okay, let me rephrase that. I don’t think it’s so special that we need to risk our non-interference laws by making contact with the Sentients down there. They aren’t any different to the other wheeled animals, and their population is so small that we can easily avoid them.”

“You explained why they’re so important yourself” Feldstein said. “The population is so small they’re almost extinct. This could be the only chance we ever get of studying a society that has natural wheels.”

“Our best guess is that they’re responsible for the mass extinction sweeping through their area” Jones said. “If we wait until you’re ready to talk to them, then there might not be any wheeled fauna to study.”

“You can’t say for sure that the Radomondons are to blame for the extinction. Besides, you’ve got plenty of specimens to study in the meantime.”

“Not in their natural environment I don’t. They’re not worth all this hassle!”

Jones stormed out of the lab, and Feldstein was left to once again contemplate the photos of the Radomondons. There were a number of nicknames the crew had given the Radomondons; Mulefa, Wheelers, Bicycle Jackals, but Feldstein was careful to avoid any slang terms.

The Radomondons used two seedpods that were held in place between their middle legs and back legs with modified dewclaws close to their ankles. The toes on these feet had elongated and become covered in keratin claws, allowing them to stand, walk their wheels or tiptoe around wheeless for short periods of time. The forelimbs ended in clawed fingers and were often held up in such a way as to give the Radomondans a preying-mantis posture.

They were about a meter tall from wheel to ears, but Feldstein had seen them rear back on their hindwheels, making them much taller than a human. They had canine-like faces and flaglike tails that satellite footage suggested helped with steering and balance.

To learn more about how they rode and how their unique locomotion shaped their society, they’d have to observe them on the ground. Aliza just hoped there would still be Radomondons for her to study when they got there.

 

***

 

The past year had been filled with despair for the entire Yuli tribe. Especially for Malis.

It had started when they got halfway through the meat from the Taldon. One night the whole tribe came down with the familiar stomach ache associated with badly preserved meat. Malis looked over the meat and found that most of what they had left had spoiled; something that should not have happened so soon if the Taldon had salted it properly.

The hunters were also having problems. The prey animals were crippled by the wheel shortage as much as them, but they were also becoming fewer in number. Worse, they seemed to be migrating over the slopes and into the Taldon lands.

The gatherers worked hard bringing plant food in for the tribe, and there were still plenty of craproller bugs and seawheels to be found; but not enough. The cracked gardens were also becoming barren. They had to keep eating the meat.

During an unbearably hot summer, Danu was laying in Malis’s medicine hut; one child amongst many. Malis was scrambling to get potions and herbs to everyone, but he made sure he spent every spare second at Danu’s side.

It wasn’t enough. As she slept Malis went to tend to another child. When he returned the slow breathing of mere sleep had ceased. She was gone. He took her to the Dead Village alone and buried her next to her mother.

He still met with Itlas throughout the year, but never again were they able to make a deal.

“You lied to us about the meat” Malis would say. “It made our children sick.”

“You lied to us about the sapling” Itlas would say. “You said it was healthy, but it died without giving any wheels.”

“The sapling was healthy when you took it.”

“Is the one you kept still healthy?”

“Yes.”

“How convenient. Now you have wheels while we don’t.”

“And you’re getting fat while we starve. Not only did the meat you give us go off too soon, but the prey animals are being lured into your territory.”

“Getting fat? We can barely hunt without our wheels. We can’t grind the crumbgrass or weave the fur. Not only that, the wells are drying up. How are we going to travel gather water? That sapling was our last hope, and you cheated us!”

“We cheated you?” Malis asked, raising his claws and grinding his wheel. “That meat was meant to keep us alive until the walking beasts came here for the leaves-falling season. And now you’re taking away our prey.”

“We don’t control how the herds move.”

“I cannot accept that their movement is all coincidence. You’re going to kill us off and become the only Peoples of the Flatlands!”

Such arguments were all that happened during Malis and Itlas’s meetings. There were no more trades, no more deals, and no more brides exchanged. Only accusations and eventually, threats. The Bossman soon gave up giving Malis instructions for the meetings. Not long after that, Malis and Itlas begun to meet less often, and the Yuli men begun sharpening their spears not for hunting animals, but for hunting people.

Malis could see that both peoples of the Flatlands were heading for death but he no longer cared. They were dying anyway; maybe if they destroyed the Taldon the remaining children could survive.

 

***

 

In the end, it took just under a year for Feldstein to get prepared for first contact with the Radomondons. They landed on a beach south of the Flatlands just as Winter was ending.

Despite the fact that the Sentients were facing extinction, the Beagle’s commanders still insisted that the non-interference protocols be followed. The drop point was somewhere where the Radomondans couldn’t possibly see the shuttle. They would then drive to the Flatlands in an all-terrain vehicle that had all its metal parts disguised by wood and stone. Once there they would do their research with equipment that had been disguised to look like simple wood and stone items that the locals would most likely assume to be magic. After all, every society humankind had encountered had supernatural explanations for the world around them; adding more magic was seen as lower risk than hinting at high technology.

For her part, Feldstein loved all the pretending that came with her job. Jones however had just looked at all the camouflaged equipment with rolling eyes as they had prepared for the landing.

Feldstein was not alone with Jones for the whole trip. Ania Lesperance was the technical support person, and Feldstein had worked with the older woman many times before. Lesperence seemed like a sweet old lady most of the time, but she could play a convincing angry demi-god.

The geologist Park Se-yeon completed the contact team. He was a young newbie amongst the Beagle’s science personnel whom Feldstein had only recently met. Her first impression of him had been marred by her instinctual disapproval of ear spikes and multicolored hair.

As they drove from the landing site to the mountains Feldstein’s gaze wandered as Lesperance drove. They weren’t in the Flatlands, but even here dried lava flows formed occasional natural roads through the rocks. They stuck to the roads as much as possibly, but frequently Lesperance had to negotiated over hills or around plants.

This was only a taste of the Flatlands; bushes and ferns grew everywhere though large trees were rare. It took only half an hour of driving to reach the step strip. This route around the coast was apparently the easiest way through the mountains and into the true Flatlands, but barring an all-terrain vehicle like theirs, Feldstein doubted that anyone would find it easy to get through here on wheels. She took out her tablet and made a note in her observation journal; maybe the Radomondons hadn’t been driven back into the Flatlands. Maybe they were confined there by the mountains and these steps.

“These basalt steps are amazing” Park said, making Lesperance stop the vehicle so he could take a closer look. “Jones, you should look between the cracks.”

Jones was already examining the cracks from the ATV; Feldstein followed her gaze towards one particularly wide gap with a small shrub growing out of it. It wasn’t particularly unique either; there seemed to be rivers of ferns and other small plants flowing around the steps. Everywhere they looked determined plants took root in any soil to be found.

Following Park’s lead though, the whole team got out and examined the steps more closely.  The tops of the hexagonal steps were barren rocks, but between them miniature forests flourished. Just a few meters away from where they’d stopped was a tree almost Feldstein’s height. She walked towards it, and saw that its roots were wrapped around the steps beneath it without deforming the ground at all.

Feldstein soon went back to the ATV and waited with Lesperance for Jones and Park to finish writing notes and taking photos. Eventually they were on the move again. At times they would find the steps turning into large basalt columns, while at other times the ground would flatten out and they’d spend hours driving along clifftops or beaches.

At one such cliff they decided to set up camp, and spent the evening documenting their new discoveries before turning in for the night.

They woke with the small dull sun – a dwarf with visible sunspots – and broke camp in good spirits. Being out in the field seemed to thaw Jones somewhat, and she and Feldstein happily compared photos of different planets they had visited as they drove onwards.

Not long after leaving the clearing they were back on the basalt steps, but here their progress was blocked by an unexpected obstacle; a forest. Here the steps were strangled by tree roots, which must have been champion water and nutrient finders, since many of the trees they fed towered over the humans in an eerie blue canopy. From within the grove a waterfall could be heard, as well as the cries of small animals.

Jones stayed in the forest, documenting everything she could. Meanwhile Feldstein, Park and Lesperance searched for an alternative route. The best one they could find was over a path of rock pools down below, which separated the forest and ocean by the barest margin.

They spent two long hours navigating over the pools; their fascination with the wildlife not enough to overcome their fear of getting the ATV stuck or the high tide catching them off guard. High fives were exchanged all around when the forest thinned out enough to return to the main path. After that the next few hours were completely uneventful.

Uneventful that is, save for the sounds of drums in the distance that was getting louder as they got closer.

 

***

 

Malis and Bossman Jhani stood in front of all the armed men of Yuli. Opposite them, Itlas and his Bossman stood before all the armed men of Taldon. Just under a hundred men shook their spears in view of the Boundary Tree, while the few old men who still lived beat the drums and blew the trumpets from behind the warriors.

This was all that was left; there had once been clans of both peoples all over the Flatlands – and other peoples as well – now only the populations of the largest villages were left.

“We could all die” Jhani said. “We could kill each other off completely.”

“We could” Malis said. “But it won’t be today. A few champions will die, some threats made; just like last moon. When it comes down to the final fight, it won’t be here on equal terms. It’ll be after one side sneaks over the mountain and advances on the village while we sleep.”

“It probably will” Jhani said.

“We should be the ones going over the mountain” Malis said. “Tonight.”

“We should” Jhani said. “But not tonight. We may still be saved; we should wait.”

“By then we’ll be too weak to win.”

“Then the strongest tribe will survive.”

Malis was furious at Jhani’s decision, but he didn’t say anything. Jhani’s wife Haa was Taldon, and she was a beautiful, thoughtful woman. Maybe to Jhani it really didn’t make any difference who won, as long as there was a winner.

Maybe that was a wise idea, but who won the war mattered very much to Malis.

“The Taldon tribe demand a new sapling, to replace the defective one you gave us” Itlas shouted. “We will not be appeased by cast off wheels any longer. We also demand to be allowed to use your wells.”

“The Yuli demand food and wheels” Malis shouted back. “And we demand to be allowed to follow the herds into your lands.”

Itlas stepped back and consulted his Bossman. Malis did the same, though he already knew what Jhani would say.

“They’re not getting a sapling” Jhani said. “Last year’s sapling has survived to treehood and blessed our children, but we can have no guarantee this year’s saplings will make it.”

“I know” Malis said. “I don’t think they’ll be able to give us wheels even if they wanted to though.”

“Demanding wheels for ourselves will make it clear that we’ve got no more for them though” Jhani said. “What do you think about their demand for water? Shall we let them draw water from our wells?”

“I’m not sure. True, they would be desperate after a year with so little rain, but our village well is starting to go down too.”

“We have other wells in our lands. And the river still has some water on our side.”

“Then they’ll ask for fresh wheels so they can get to those far out wells and back with enough water for their village. And while they’re here they’ll want our food. And they may even use it as a chance to steal a sapling.”

“You’re right, too dangerous” Jhani said. “Maybe we should just bring them gourds of water instead.”

“We don’t have the energy or the wheels for that” Malis said.

“You’re right. Maybe we can give them a one off offer. I wish we could do more.”

“Don’t worry” Malis said. “They have fresh meat. The blood will keep them going.”

Itlas was done talking to his Bossman, and stepped forward to state his tribe’s reaction to the Yuli demands.

“We won’t waste any more of our food on the Yuli” he said. “However if our demands are met, we will allow the Yuli to hunt in our lands.”

“We won’t give any saplings or wheels to the Taldon” Malis said. “And we will not allow the Taldon into our lands to find water. However, we will give you gourds of water here before the boundary tree. Once.”

Itlas looked back towards his Bossman, who crossed his claws; a definite no.

“We will not meet the Yuli demands” Itlas said.

“And we do not accept the Taldon demands” Malis replied.

With no further words exchanged, an armed champion from each side stepped forward. Both had the best spears and wheels their tribes could provide. The Yuli champion had a worn down wheel, while the Taldon champion had a fresh but uncomfortable looking lesser-wheel.

They circled each other, bodies low to the ground and spears held up high. They were ready to fight to the death. The winner would repeat his tribe’s demands; the loser’s tribe would either give in, or send out another champion. Eventually, one side always gave in.

Except this time, the Yuli would not be giving into the Taldon’s demands. Malis suspected that the Taldon were equally desperate; maybe the one-on-one fights would today give way to the final battle to the death.

The champions stopped, and looked towards the Boundary Tree. Malis looked that way too, and saw something that at first was incomprehensible to him. A large wooden platform was moving over the steps, coming towards them. On top of it were four strange creatures the likes of which Malis had never dreamt of before.

Underneath it were six wheels in a tough black covering, moving towards them at a steady pace despite the terrain.

 

***

 

They hadn’t expected such a dramatic first contact. All the Radomondans had gathered at the end of the steps in fierce opposition. The Beagle‘s surveillance satellites had suggested that there were two tribes and that they were both struggling, but now the reality of that situation was driven home.

The two tribes were facing off against each other with two champions in the center of the clearing. The Radomondans were all skin and bones, and most of them were either wheel-less or were using ill-fitting wheels from trees in symbiosis with other animals. Many had lost their fur. The translator program which had taken almost a year to compile and was now running from Feldstein’s wrist computer revealed that the alien crowd was throwing around threats and insults, which slowly turned to awe as the humans approached.

The surveillance had told them a lot about these Sentients already, but there were some things you just could not imagine based on far off images and snippets of recorded conversations. Like how shrill the Radomondans were when they talked. Or how smelly they were. Or how desperate they were.

Feldstein only appreciated how aware they were of their imminent extinction after she had stood before them and started giving the standard primitive contact speech. As she spoke her wrist computer turned her words into Radomondon chirps and shrieks through little speakers that now seemed inadequate.

She explained that they were travelers from a faraway land, that they had powers that the two tribes didn’t, but that they meant them no harm. That was when the begging started.

“Please, make it rain over the Taldon Lands with your powers.”

“Please, use your powers to bring food back to the Yuli Lands.”

“Please, help us grow more wheels!”

“We cannot help you” Feldstein said. “Our ways are not your ways; we are here only to watch.”

At this the anger began. The warriors were moving in closer, raising their spears. Feldstein gestured towards Lesperance. The technician stood up and shot fire from her hands into the air. Her long sleeves hid the mini flamethrower attached to her arm.

The Radomondans stepped back, and Feldstein decided to ram the point home. She retrieved from the ATV what looked like a wooden staff and slammed it into the ground. Electricity shot straight up so quickly it looked she was creating lightning. Jones and Park also joined in the spectacle, pulling magic balls – toy orbs designed to hover above the hand and glow like auras – from their pockets and waved them around.

The Radomondans got the point. They backed away, and all weapons were dropped. Feldstein dropped her staff too, and her crew ceased the demonstration.

“We come in peace” Feldstein said. “Do not test us. We have come only to observe.”

After that, first contact went somewhat smoother. They soon made their arrangements; Feldstein would spend a fortnight with the Taldon, learning more about their way of life. Meanwhile Jones would go to the Yuli, learning more about their biology, and that of their prey and the plants. Then they would switch. During that time, Park and Lesperance would set up a base at the Boundary Tree. From here Park would do his studies, and Lesperance would keep in contact with Beagle. And here also, the ATV would stay.

 

***

 

The traveler had been living with the Yuli for five days now. True to their leader’s words, she just observed them. This traveler was definitely a she. She had made that clear, although Malis wasn’t sure what made her female.

She seemed interested in them; asked a lot of questions about their wheels and the trees mostly. She – Henrietta she had asked them to call her – spent a lot of time with the planters, learning how they grew their edible grasses, fruit bushes, and of course the wheel tree saplings. Iona the head planter said that Henrietta had seemed fascinated by the garden at first, but since yesterday had been unhappy with it. Malis asked Iona how she knew Henrietta was unhappy. Iona just scraped her claws along the ground and said she didn’t know; she just knew that Henrietta’s body language was different, and she had a feeling it was because of disapproval.

“Do what you can to make her happy” Malis had said. “Maybe if we make the travelers happy, they will help us. Or at least, they won’t do anything to make things worse.”

“How could things get any worse?” Iona had replied.

“They always do.”

Henrietta also went out with the hunters, gatherers, and fishers once each. Her lack of wheels was apparently no disadvantage on level ground and she was able to keep up with them by moving at just a bit over her normal speed. On the slopes however she had to turn back; there was no way she could chase the rockclimbers without tripping. Not that she was interested in doing so; Jandal, the lead hunter, told Malis that she had been much more interested in looking at the horned animals through a strange mirror.

She showed a lot of interest in the Yuli and their animals; but practically none in the people or their culture. That had only changed this morning.

The village had been awoken at dawn by screams from Iona’s hut. Her son Koly had died in the night. Malis had quickly determined that the cause of death had been starvation. He had been a young man, going through the rituals of manhood; he had seemed strong, but obviously not strong enough.

The whole village gathered for the funeral, and now Henrietta had been full of questions.

“What’s with the knife?”

“It is the weapon of a young boychild attempting to grow into a man” Malis explained.

“So he was a juvenile. And what’s that his parents are drinking?”

“It is medicine. It’ll make them sleep without dreams tonight. They take it tonight to show Koly’s spirit he can’t come back through their dreams, but I’ll give it to them every night until the pain goes down. Or until I run out of medicine.”

She had spent the rest of the day asking Malis questions. About Koly, about the Yuli, and about him. He told her about Danu, and about the betrayal that led to her death. Henrietta was different after that. He was no better at reading traveler emotions than Iona, but he thought he knew what the change was. She felt sorry for them.

This was what Malis was telling the others now. He, Bossman Jhani, Jandal, Iona’s sister and fellow planter Taro, and Mak and Yasa – leaders of the gatherers and fishers respectably – were gathered in Jhani’s hut, sharing their observations on Henrietta and the other travelers. The travelers were not the only ones who were watching and learning.

“I always thought wheel-less creatures were slow and tired easy” Jandal said. “But Henrietta keeps up with us, and she can walk over bumpy ground easier than we can, and can even climb.”

“I’ve seen one of the others climb a lot” said Mak. “Se-yeon, the male. He is interested in rocks the way Henrietta is interested in plants and animals. I’ve watched him climb hexagon steps and cliff faces just to chip away at the rocks and look at them. He climbs good.”

“They are powerful despite being walkers” Malis said. “They can climb, they have that moving platform, they can speak to each other through shells, and their huts fold up. Not having wheels hasn’t hurt them.”

“But they do have wheels” Jhani said. “They just don’t put them on their bodies; they put them on that platform they arrived on.”

“It’s a genius idea” Yasa said. “We could do that to make fishing easier. We could get a bigger basket; one too big to carry, and then if we put wheels on it we can pull it along. Then we could bring back more water creatures. We’d be able to bring back more food with less trips to the ocean.”

“If we had enough wheels to waste them on baskets” Taro said. “And if the trees would let us attach their wheels to baskets.”

“I think they would allow it” Jhani said. “in fact, I believe they allowed it in the past. The traveler’s platform looks somewhat like the wheeled creatures in the paintings by the Great Tree. That’s what made me think of putting wheels on other things.”

“But we don’t do it now” Malis said. “Maybe that’s why we weren’t allowed to talk about the paintings before; because the Wise Ones knew we’d try to put wheels on objects and the spirits would get angry.”

“That’s what my father would have said” Jhani said. “But he was the last of the Wise Ones, and growing up, I sometimes thought that some of his wisdom was more to his benefit than the benefit of the tribe. The spirits were never angry with actions that made sure Wise Ones got more food or wheels than the rest. Maybe, maybe we were lied to about what the spirits want.”

Silence followed Jhani’s admission. Malis felt as if the world was falling apart beneath him. He knew the importance of pleasing the spirits… but what if he didn’t really know what they wanted? Maybe that was why the travelers were here; to remind the people of the correct way to live. Or maybe that was just Malis trying to justify an action he knew could cause problems. He kept quiet, and the group begun discussing ways putting wheels on baskets could help them.

“We’d still need to find more wheels” Malis said at one point. “Or maybe, oh we’re stupid.”

“What is it Malis?” Jhani asked.

“Baskets and tables don’t have axles” Malis said. “So we’d have to make our own axles… and we could make them to fit any wheels; not necessarily our wheels. We could use lesser wheels.”

“Even lesser wheels are getting scarce now” Mak reminded him.

“But there’s enough around that we can do these things” Malis said. “And right now getting more food is the most important thing for us. We know the spirits of those trees don’t mind us using their wheels.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that” Talo said, holding up her axle to show the blistered skin the juice of the lesser wheel and given her.

“I wonder if the traveler’s wheels would fit us?” Jhani said. “Given their powerful nature, I’d say they’ll either fit perfectly, or curse us forever.”

 

***

 

Jones and Feldstein met at the Boundary on the second last day of their first week with the Radomonons. Lesperance and Park were also there, and the four of them spent quite a while talking about their experiences with the people.

“They’re making a mistake in the middle of a drought” Jones said. “They’re trying to put too much in their gardens. There just isn’t enough water. Plus with all the different plants growing so close together, the wheel trees need a lot of space and rely completely on long cracks to guide their roots. I just don’t understand how the Yuli could not know that. I mean, they’ve evolved alongside these trees, they’re basically a part of them.”

“Going by what the Taldon have said, I think they used to understand how to look after the trees very well” Feldstein said. “Itlas said that long ago, they used to ride across the land. Until they learnt to make gardens and settled down.”

“A nomadic lifestyle would suit their biology better” Jones said. “On the Flatlands, there aren’t many areas suitable for a wheel tree to grow. If the Radomondans were traveling all over the land, then that’d be better for the trees.”

“What gets me is that they don’t make any carts” Lesperance said. “You’d think having natural wheels – and being nomads not long ago – that would be an obvious invention for them.”

“They do make carts” Park said. “Or at least they did. There are pictures of them on the rocks.”

“But how could they lose that technology?” Lesperence said.

“Itlas said there used to be a class of Wise Ones that forbade examining the rock paintings” Feldstein said. “If I had to make a guess, I’d say that once agriculture made them a settled population, these Wise Ones tried to control the people by limiting their knowledge. I can see a wheel shortage letting the ruling caste horde wheels and gain power by dictating how they get distributed.”

“Why would any society do something so stupid?” Jones asked.

“You know about our history, don’t you?” Feldstein asked.

“I suppose. But we can’t let this continue. If we just helped them find wild gardens and told them to plant single seeds in – “

“No!” Feldstein said, feeling that familiar dread that always came with seeing an alien society destroy itself. “We mustn’t interfere. That’s the first law of contact missions.”

“I think we’ve already interfered” Park said. “Whatever they were doing when we got here, they stopped when they saw us.”

Whilst Feldstein was glad they had managed to save the Radomondons from mutually assured destruction, she was still a professional.

“Yes, we’ve already interfered too much” Feldstein said. “We shouldn’t make things any worse.”

“Any worse?” Jones said. “They’re going to go extinct; either from starvation or war. We can’t just sit by and let them die.”

“What happened to hating them for destroying the most unique ecosystem you’d ever seen?” Feldstein said.

“They’re still people.”

“And they have a right to choose their own destiny. Even if it leads to their death.”

“You can’t really claim that they have an informed choice about the issue” Park said.

“You two have never been on a pre-civilization contact mission before have you?” Lesperance asked. “No? I didn’t think so. It’s hard, but we cannot interfere. We never know what will make things worse. For us or for them. Most Sentients go extinct at about the time of their agricultural revolution. It’s natural.”

“Aren’t we natural too?” Park asked. “If a hunter gatherer society is natural, why not a space-fearing one? Where do you draw the line?”

“It’s a huge difference” Lesperance said “I know it’s hard, but we cannot interfere. We could ruin their culture, we could seriously compromise their ability to form their own identity, we could cause huge social unrest – “

“They’ll be dead if we don’t do anything” Jones said.

“They could also come into space and resent us for ‘controlling’ them” Lesperance said. “We don’t know well enough to make the best choice, and we don’t really have the right to make such choices. Whether we’re natural or not, we shouldn’t interfere, no matter what the consequences are.”

“I suppose you’re right” Park said.

“No, that’s a cop out” Jones said. “We can help them, and we’re the only ones who can. They don’t know enough to save themselves. And we don’t have to control them to do it; we just need to point them in the right direction.”

“Don’t know enough? Feldstein asked. “They’re smart; they’re already questioning the old taboos. They’ll figure things out for themselves.”

“Maybe if they weren’t facing a severe drought they would even be able to do it before they went extinct” Jones said. “They think we’re magical travelers. We could just tell them.”

“I suppose we could also tell them how to fight infections and make electricity” Feldstein said. “No. The laws are for our protection as well as theirs. If I find you’ve broken the laws, I’ll have you arrested once we’re back on the ship. Now I need to go back to the Taldon; We’ll switch places tomorrow and I don’t want to hear any more on the subject.”

Feldstein did hear more about the subject that night, but not from her fellow humans. On the way back to the Taldon village Feldstein met Itlas. Itlas was the village’s medicine man, but that position also seemed to involve a diplomatic role, so she spent a lot of time talking with him. This time he asked if she could use her powers to fill up the wells.

“I’m sorry Itlas” Feldstein said. “I can’t.”

“Can’t or won’t?” Itlas asked.

Of course, Feldstein couldn’t fill up the Taldon wells. But admitting weakness was dangerous. It could lead to the locals testing their powers.

“We mean you well Itlas” Feldstein said. “However we have very strict rules about what we are allowed to do here and what we can tell you.”

“So you’ll let us die?”

“We’ll let you live your lives without imposing our will on you. If that means you’ll all die, then I’m sorry. But we must let your people decide your own fate.”

“Could you give us the option to not die? We don’t seem to have much choice at the moment.”

“I’m sorry Itlas. But that’s the way it has to be. I’m really sorry.”

“Very well” Itlas said. “I was also wondering; could you tell us more about your wheels?”

“We don’t have wheels Itlas. We’re walkers.”

“You have wheels on your platform.”

“Ah yes, those wheels. I’m sorry, but we’re not allowed to tell you anything about them.”

“I see. It’s a shame… they look almost the same size as our wheels.”

 

***

 

The next day while all the travelers were gathered around the Great Tree, Itlas and the Taldon lead hunter and fisherman came over the mountains and approached the Yuli village with a branch of peace. They arrived after a full day of hard travel as the sun was going down, and ducked into Jhani’s hut once they were sure no travelers were about. Once again the leaders of the Yuli were there.

Once they started talking, Malis soon realized that they too had been thinking about the traveler’s wheels. They had many of the same fears as the Yuli had expressed, but Itlas pointed out something else.

“We have nothing to lose” He said to the gathered Yuli and Taldon. “If the travelers hadn’t intervened, we may have all died at the last confrontation. As things are now, the best case scenario is that one tribe destroys the other; and then unless the rains and the wheels return, that tribe will die as well.”

“We don’t know what they could do to us if we do what you’re proposing” Malis said.

“My children are dying Malis” Itlas said. “Please, you know what that’s like. Please Malis… please all of you. We need to take the risk. We’re dead otherwise.”

“Don’t you dare bring my daughter into this” Malis said. “She died from your poisoned meat – “

“We gave you the best kills we could spare” the Taldon hunter said. “We did not cheat – “

“Enough Hartis” Itlas said. “Yuli children died because the meat spoiled too fast, Taldon children died after breaking wrists because the sapling didn’t grow. We were both cheated, but not by each other.”

Everyone in the hut was silent now, but still Itlas waited before he spoke again.

“We’ve been cheated by the land; by the spirits maybe. Now we have a chance to fix that; a chance to even the score. If we fail, then we just die faster. If we succeed, then both Yuli and Taldon can live again. We won’t have to watch our children die like this.”

“My daughter,” Malis said, “Died because – “

“Malis” Jhani said. “It’s a tragedy, but one that is happening to everyone. Itlas, I like your plan.”

“We’ll have to do it tomorrow” Itlas said. “While Se-yeon is out looking at rocks and Henrietta and Aliza are at the villages. Then it’ll just be Ania at the platform.”

Malis was still fuming, but he had to admit Itlas’s plan made a lot of sense.

 

***

 

Something was wrong when Feldstein arrived in the Yuli village. She wasn’t sure what exactly, but something was off. Maybe it was the fact that the Bossman, Jhani, had begged her to leave her ‘magical instruments’ in the hut she would be living in while he gave her a tour of the village, citing his own fear. Feldstein convinced him to let her keep the ‘sacred bracelet’ that held her translator device, but her magic balls, scanners, and the shell-shaped wireless communicator she left.

She didn’t like being incommunicado, but she thought she would be alright for a few minutes. After all, the Taldon had given her no problems, and they had spoken well of the Yuli’s hospitality despite their pending fight to the death. However, the tour stretched on. Only as it drew to a close did Feldstein realize what was wrong.

“You’re not the medicine man here are you?” Feldstien asked. “I heard that your medicine man was a man named Malis.”

“Yes, Malis is our medicine man” Jhani said. “I am the Bossman.”

“Right. I was a bit confused; at the Taldon village their Bossman mostly stayed in his hut while their medicine man showed me around and taught me about life in the village.”

“Well of course” Jhani said. “The Bossman is the strongest, so he leads the people, but the medicine man is the smartest, so he teaches, and learns what outsiders want.”

“So… Malis should be the one guiding me?”

“Malis isn’t here today” Jhani said. “He is busy.”

“Busy with what?” Feldstein asked.

“He is in the Village of the Dead, tending the graves of his wife and daughter.”

“Oh, right” Feldstein said. “Sorry, I did not mean to pry.”

“That’s alright” Jhani said. “I’ll take you to your hut now. Then I’ll leave you to your observations.”

“Thank… what’s that?” Feldstein said, as she saw Lesperance and a Radomondan coming down a steep ramp carved into the cliff east of the village.

“What could she possibly want?” Feldstein said, heading out to meet Lesperance with Jhani rolling slowly behind her.

“There you are” Lesperance said as she and Feldstein reunited. “I’m sorry, getting over that path took forever. Are you alright?”

“Yes I’m fine” Feldstein asked. “What path?”

“The path to the village” Lesperance said. “Oh thank god you’re alright. When I couldn’t reach you over the wireless, I thought something bad must have happened.”

“Nothing’s happened, I just had to put my gear aside” Feldstein said. “I’m fine, really; if you thought I was hurt, why didn’t you just take the direct path over the plains?

“Malis said that was the quickest route” Lesperance said, pointing to her Radomondan guide. “He said there had been an accident and he didn’t know enough about traveler bodies to fix you. And when I couldn’t contact you…”

“There wasn’t any accident” Feldstein said “But if that’s Malis the medicine man, and he isn’t at the graveyard… Ania, is Se-yeon at the campsite?”

“No he’s out… oh shit.”

They looked first at each other, and then at Malis and Jhani, who were crouching with their claws extended. Both were pawing at the ground in a gesture Feldstein thought meant discomfort.

“What have you done?” Feldstein asked.

“Please forgive us” Jhani said, lowering his body. “If we didn’t do anything, we would have died. And so would the Taldon.”

“It was the Taldon’s idea” Malis said. “But we agreed, and we helped. Because we had no other option. It had to be done!”

They couldn’t get any sense out of the Radomondans after that, so they ran back to the campsite, this time taking the shorter path.

“Why did you leave the campsite?” Feldstein demanded as they ran. “Regulations state we mustn’t leave our camp unattended.”

“I thought you were dying!” Lesperance said. “How was I supposed to know otherwise? You disobeyed regulations and abandoned your communication devices. Why would you do that?”

“I didn’t think it would matter. Why didn’t you call one of the others over to guard the camp, or send them out to check on me.”

“You weren’t answering my calls. I thought you were dying! There wasn’t any time to wait for the others to get back!”

They arrived at the campsite expecting the worst, but as Feldstein surveyed their tents, computers, and box of gear from a distance she couldn’t see anything amiss.

“The ATV!” Leverance said with a gasp, before jogging towards it and shouting at the Radomondons gathered around it. Feldstein’s heart sank. The treads were ripped to pieces, and all the gathered Radomondons were working away with spears and hammers, doing whatever they could to destroy the metal wheels that had been forcibly removed from their axles. Most of the six wheels looked beaten and bent beyond repair.

They were stranded.

 

***

 

The plan worked perfectly. Except that they weren’t able to get seeds from the traveler’s wheels. The wheels had been made of strong metals and no matter what they did they didn’t crack.

Malis was disappointed in that failure, but also relieved that they had not been punished by the travelers.

Although now, as Malis and Itlas watched the travelers fixing their platform from a distance, he had to wonder if the travelers really were that big a threat after all.

“So what do you think it means?” Itlas asked. “What they were saying before they took off the bracelets and lost the voices that speak our language?”

“You mean them asking why we did it?”

“Partly. I mean, I would have thought it would have been obvious. But remember what Ania said before they sent us away? ‘They think our wheels are seedpods’?”

“That was strange” Malis agreed. “How can a wheel not be a seedpod? If the wheels don’t have seeds, then how do they get more wheels? Unless…”

“Unless what?”

“The other day we were talking about how we could make artificial axles and use them to put wheels on baskets and tables. Why not go further? If we can make axles out of sticks and stones, then why not wheels?”

“Is that even possible?” Itlas asked.

“The travelers did it” Malis said. “Though, they did have magic. Maybe it would be impossible for us, but we need to try it.”

“You know, maybe they didn’t use magic to make their wheels” Itlas said. “We know now that they are not all powerful; we can damage their platform. But I just remembered something else Aliza said to me. She told me that they weren’t allowed to tell us about their wheels. Which I thought was strange.”

“Why?”

“Well why wouldn’t they be allowed to tell us about their wheels? The reason Aliza said they couldn’t help was because they couldn’t change us; they had to let us have our own destiny. Telling us about wheels wouldn’t change us. Unless there was something different about their wheels.”

“I guess so” Malis said.

“I wonder what else they can do, that we can learn to do too?” Itlas said.

 

 

***

 

“They’ll have to send a shuttle” Feldstein said. “The red tape will delay it, but it will be here before we run out of food or water.”

None of the other three spoke. They were sitting in their camp as the moons came up. The remains of the ATV were beside them. Lesperance had declared it broken beyond all repair.

“You know, there are some wheels around that we could use” Jones said, pointing to the Boundary Tree with its healthy red seed pods.

“No. the tribes consider this tree sacred.”

“We could talk to them about it” Jones said. “Maybe the taboo doesn’t apply to travelers.”

“I’d rather not” Feldstein said.

“It’ll be less interference than them seeing our shuttle.”

“I don’t feel comfortable taking their wheels” Park said. “They need them more than us.”

“They won’t use those wheels anyway” Jones said.

“We only need six wheels” Lesperance said. “That tree has almost twenty.”

“Amazing how big they can grow when they aren’t competing for nutrients in the gardens” Jones said. “Feldstein, we should really ask them about using the wheels.”

Feldstein didn’t like the sly grin that formed on Jones’s face as she said that. She was planning something, but she was right; it would be worth asking the Radomondans for help. Despite the regulations against breaking local taboos, it would have less of an impact than landing a shuttle in the Flatlands.

The next day they brought Malis and Itlas to their camp. It seemed the two were getting along much better than before. Feldstein didn’t know if this would make things harder or easier. She got straight to the point.

“It’ll be very hard for us to get back home now that you have damaged our wheels” Feldstein said. “If we could get six healthy wheels of yours, we can leave without summoning others to help us.”

“We are willing to help” Malis said. “We want to atone for our mistake, but neither the Taldon or the Yuli have wheels to spare.”

“We know that” Feldstein said. “But there are still wheels around; wheels that belong to neither the Taldon or the Yuli.”

She pointed to the Great Tree, and could tell the medicine men were uncomfortable with the suggestion.

“Aliza” Itlas said. “The Great Tree has watched over us for generations.”

“And what do you think the Great Tree would like in return?” Jones spoke up. “Most trees try as hard as they can to get their seeds spread – “

“Enough” Feldstein said. “Itlas, Malis, we will not take any wheels without your permission. Without permission from both of you. We assure you that any anger the tree has, we’ll take that. We’ll take the responsibility; not you. If we can.”

Feldstein was expecting the Radomondans to protest, but instead they just asked for some time alone with the tree. The four humans watched from a distances as Itlas and Malis talked in hushed tones at the base of the tree, and ended their talk by bowing to it. When they came back Feldstein thought they would refuse. Instead, they both gave their approval.

 

***

 

Feldstein woke up in the middle of the night feeling that something was wrong. She tried to tell herself that it was just nerves; that she was just worried about whether the ATV would get them to the extraction site tomorrow.  Yes, she was sure that was all it was. Still she decided to go outside for fresh air.

Once out of her tent she saw Lesperance, Jones and Park all crowded around the ATV. Feldstein didn’t make a sound until she had heard enough of their conversation to know what they were doing.

“No” she said, marching towards the group. “We cannot interfere.”

Lesperance and Park were shocked at Feldstein’s sudden appearance, but Jones stood up to her.

“Do you want them to die?” She said.

“No” Feldstein said. “But we don’t have a choice.”

“Of course we have a choice” Jones said. “We can let them die or give them a chance. That’s all we’re giving them; a chance. We’re not directly interfering.”

“You said yourself that they’ve been causing the problems that plague them. What if this just draws out their suffering? Or what if they survive and become a warlike space-faring civilization that threatens the galaxy? We. Cannot. Know!”

“I think it’s worth the risk” Park said. “They deserve a chance.”

“This means a lot to all of you, doesn’t it?” Feldstein said.

“Of course it does” Lesperance said. “How many missions have we gone on where we’ve seen Sentients doom themselves? Besides, we aren’t technically interfering.”

“We don’t know what this will do to them” Feldstein said.

“You said yourself they were smart enough to figure this out themselves” Park said. “We aren’t interfering. we’re just helping nature along.”

“Besides, we’ve already interfered” Lesperance said. “Who knows how a close inspection of our wheels will affect them.”

“That wasn’t intentional. But what you’re planning – “

“Is still too late” Jones said. “We already did it. Are you going to have us arrested?“

Of course Feldstein knew it wasn’t too late. They could just get more wheels, or call in the shuttle.

“You’re all willing to get yourselves arrested over this?” Feldstein said. “Even you Ania? Even after all the other missions we’ve been on?”

“I think it’s because of those missions” Lesperance said. “We have a unique opportunity here to bend the rules for these people. I would have thought you’d be eager to do this too Aliza; I know you’ve had problems with the non-interference policy in the past.”

“Yes but still, you know why it’s there.”

“Yes I do” Lesperace said. “But we’re still human; we still have compassion.”

Feldstein looked at the ATV. It looked as if it hadn’t been tampered with. If she hadn’t caught her team in the act, she never would have known. If their modifications worked as planned, then the Radomondans would have an opportunity to exploit a natural resource they had been using for millions of years. No new technology.

“I won’t say anything about this to anyone on the Beagle” Feldstein said. “I suggest none of you do either. Officially, I stayed in the tent.”

That was the last they ever spoke about the tampering.

The next day they left, with both the Yuli and the Taldon tribes seeing them off. With every bump along the way, Felstein looked down and saw tiny seeds fly out of the holes the team had drilled in the wheels last night.

Were they interfering? Yes. Had they found a legal way to do so? Feldstein wasn’t sure. Was she glad they were doing this? Yes; legally dubious or not, Feldstein was glad the others had talked her into it. Would this actually help the Radomondans?

She had no idea.

 

***

 

It had been a hard year since the travelers left, but both tribes still lived. There had been some rain, but that was not the only thing that saved them.

Lesser wheels were used on baskets and barrels, allowing them to harvest and transport much more food and water. These bounties were now easily shared between tribes. Malis and Itlas were also making wheels. They weren’t very good, but some were good enough to go on their new carts, freeing wheels for people.

Today members from both tribes were at the Great Tree, watching their children wander onto the steps beyond, where saplings were shooting up as far as the eye could see. Some were already producing their first, tiny wheels.

“We almost destroyed ourselves last year” Itlas said. “Now look at us.”

“We can make it” Malis said. “Another year, and then we should have enough wheels. Then we can chase the herds further north.”

“Our hunters have come up with a crazy idea” Itlas said. “They’re going to try and tie ropes around a plain-sailor’s horns and see if they can control where it rides.”

“That is a crazy idea” Malis said. “But speaking of crazy ideas…,”

He looked towards the steps, following the path of saplings until it curved around the cliffs.

“What do you think is at the end of those steps?”

“You want to follow the saplings?” Itlas asked. “Follow the travelers?”

“Yes” Malis said. “Do you think we could do it?”

“Not with these wheels.”

“What if we can make better ones? Or a wheeled platform? Do you think we could follow them then?”

“I have no idea.”

Malis didn’t either. But as his gaze followed the saplings over the steps, he felt something that he hadn’t felt in a long time.

He felt hope.

The people of the Flatlands had a chance. A chance to cross the final frontier and survive. It was the greatest gift Malis had ever received.

 

THE END