The nessa are on the prowl. If you’ve never encountered these beasts yourself, be glad. They’re nasty little creatures, to say the least. I’ve heard stories of them swallowing humanoids whole. They could just be stories, but you never know. Anyway, it’s best to avoid them, except here such a thing is impossible. You learn to make peace with this quickly, or you meet a bad end. It’s just that simple. Which again, because you’re here, such a fate is around every corner. Still, better to be forewarned, right?
“Here” is the city of Zulu Kendi, where young Emma Haskell has lived for the past few months. She’s hated every minute of it, but then she doesn’t have much say in the matter. She’s seven years old. Her parents decided to emigrate here because of the turmoil on Earth, still struggling to make sense of life in an intergalactic community. Emma’s parents chose a strange world to move to, however, because it’s Danab, home of the Danab, most famous on Earth as the enemy in the Danab War. You see where I’m going with this; the operative term is “enemy.” Still, hard times make strange bedfellows.
Emma is braving the nessa because her older brother has gone missing. She adores her brother, idolizes him even, and has just proven that she will do anything for him. He’s twelve years old, which for some siblings would be a lifetime’s difference, but as I’ve said, Emma has chosen to view things differently. Elmer (were she a different sort, Emma would probably spend most of her time making fun of her brother’s name) is such a good student that even when they relocated to Zulu Kendi, where most of the students are typically high-achieving Danab, he still managed to excel, inserting himself effortlessly into the lifeblood of the student body. Elmer fancies himself a writer, and as such immediately signed up to be a journalist for the school paper. That’s actually where the trouble began, believe it or not.
Elmer vehemently disagreed with their parents’ decision to relocate to Danab. He believed it was essential to remain on Earth and take part in the rebuilding process. When they talked about it, he told Emma he thought it was probably because their dad was an unrepentant idealist, who argued throughout the war for peace, and who no doubt thought bringing his family to Danab would be a gesture of reconciliation between their two peoples. It’s not that Elmer is racist (Danab are in fact human, taken by the Tikanni in ancient times into space on some wild scheme no one yet comprehends), but that he’s kind of an Earth-first proponent. Secretly Emma still thinks that makes him racist, but she never felt like arguing the point. At any rate, their family was hardly alone. In Zulu Kendi, which like every city on Danab looks like a large cluster of military barracks, there’s a growing population of humans, all of them struggling to adapt to their new life, in the hopes of sharing in the general prosperity of the Danab, a generally far superior culture, at least as most people describe it. Emma has never been sure about that. She sees a lot of value in the books she borrows from her brother’s library.
The problem is, Elmer took his position at the paper to mean something different than what the editorial staff might have expected of it. They had tasked him with representing the human perspective in an opinion column, but instead he took a more investigative tack. He became more and more secretive as the weeks went by, until Emma had to beg him for even a hint of what he was up to. “Ghosts,” he would tell her with a mischievous grin. “Ghosts and goblins.” She wasn’t sure if that was a symptom of his personality, or that he might be cracking under the pressure of life in his unwanted new home, but she had already resolved to stand by him, right up until the moment he disappeared. That had been days ago.
Officials had come by the Haskell residence, a cramped flat in a tall building like everyone else’s, telling Emma’s parents something she couldn’t quite overhear. She’d been told to wait in her room. After the officials left, she’d been told not to worry, that everything would be fine. Her father always looked on the bright side, and her mother supported him; it was that simple. Emma didn’t for a minute rest that easy. She disagreed with her brother about how to accept their situation, certainly. Even at her age she already understood calm resignation, whereas Elmer frequently exhibited flashes of a temper that was always threatening to get out of control. Still, she couldn’t just sit there and do nothing.
That was why she snuck out one night and went in search of the one friend she’d managed to make since they came here, a funny little boy named Fax. Fax was a Puck, a species generally considered spineless, less interested in exerting themselves and more in assimilating whatever cultures they happened to come across, so obsessively they seemed to lose their own identity in the process. Puck had bug-eyes and pale skin, which to humans could appear disconcerting, giving them an almost pleading, wounded puppy look. The Haskell family used to have a dog, but dogs weren’t allowed on Danab, something about environmental contamination. (As far as Emma could tell, the Danab themselves had no pets.)
As usual, she finds him loitering in the exercise field, watching as Danab athletes (which describes all of them) practice various physical-contact sports, with a few enterprising humans in the mix. Fax never plays; he’s too frail for something like that. As usual, he has a book with him, a personality quirk that had first led Emma to introduce herself to him, a common interest that allowed her to indulge her curiosity. On Earth, in her small Maine hometown, there were few enough aliens running about, and none Emma had ever met personally, certainly not at school. “Welcome to Voodoo Kendi,” he’d said at the time, a pathetic grin plastered across his face. “I’m sorry,” she’d replied, “I thought it was Zulu Kendi?” “Oh it is,” he’d said, “but some of the locals like to call it Voodoo Kendi. The humans, anyway. My name’s Fax. I’m a Puck.” They’d become fast friends.
The book Fax has with him this time is one of the mysteries he loves so much, a Florian Linden, something Emma had introduced to him, obscure enough on Earth that even the Puck wouldn’t have heard of it, no matter how much scouring they’d done of human culture. She doesn’t have much time for it, but her mother had enjoyed the books, and always has them around. The one Fax has now isn’t one of theirs, but rather something he must have found on his own. It’s exactly this trait that Emma now hopes to exploit.
“My brother’s in trouble,” she says without preamble. Puck tend to be impatient, so it’s something Fax will understand.
“The ghost story,” Fax says knowingly.
“Don’t call it that,” Emma says. “This is serious. He could be in real trouble.”
“We’re all in trouble here in Voodoo Kendi,” says Fax. He’s learned to grin with more authenticity. Puck don’t usually grin. It’s something he’s taken up to try and impress Emma.
“Stop calling it that!” Emma nearly yelps. She finds him endearingly exasperating. Many of the things they say to each other are somewhat ritualistic, as with any friendship. She doesn’t really mean to scold him, and she hopes he understands. Thanks to him, she feels much older than seven. She’s spent a lot of time trying to decide if he’s seven, too, or just looks it. “You need to put your helmet back on, Fax.”
At this point it should be noted that the Danab, and everyone who comes here to live, wear battle helmets all day long. Even the children are required to wear them. Emma thinks they’re horrifying; the tops of them have what someone being generous might call a crown, but she’s always considered horns. They cover the entire head, and when she wears it, outside of her home, she feels like a monster. Fax calls her “the Princess of Voodoo Kendi,” which is one of the many endearing things he does, and it at least makes her feel better about it. However, he always slips his off, even knowing the regulations aren’t above going one step above reprimanding him for doing so. They’ve speculated what “one step above” means, whether it means prison, or worse. Fax always insists the Danab would go easy on immigrants, but Emma isn’t so sure. If anything, she fears they’ll be worse, which is her brother speaking, and she knows it.
“It itches,” he says, unconvincingly, for the hundredth time.
“Put it on,” she insists, for the hundredth time.
“Sure thing, your majesty,” he says, for the hundredth time. Emma only just notices that he’d been sitting on his helmet. With all those spikes, she can only imagine how. She wonders, not for the first time, how horrible she looks in hers.
“Ready to play football!” he laughs as he slips it on, which is another thing frequently uttered between them. The Puck have no concept of football, and would never be able to play it even if they did. The old human game’s too gentle a sport for the Danab, so he’s not likely to see it played in Zulu Kendi, either.
“Okay, down to business,” Emma says. “Tell me what you really think. No more joking around. Should I really be worrying?”
They both take a moment to witness a vicious takedown between two Danab players. Neither has a clue what’s actually getting played. Neither player’s helmet falls off, at any rate. Emma reflects for the hundredth time that she’ll never get used to these Danab helmets, no matter how ubiquitous they are. She wonders if she would even be able to identify her brother if she saw him, which she supposes is half the point. She adjusts hers again. She can barely see out of it.
“You worry about everything,” Fax says. “That’s one of the things I like about you! Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re very human that way.”
The only response she can think to make to that is a curtsy. She imagines that she looks stupid, or very grave, like any Danab.
“It’s not uncommon for this sort of thing to happen,” Fax continues. “I’ve been here longer, remember? I know these things.”
“That’s not very reassuring, though,” Emma says. They watch as the Danab who was crushed into the ground gets back up, without a helping hand from his opponent. No one else is paying them the slightest attention. “I’m just so lost, Fax,” she finally admits. For once she’s grateful to have the helmet. It hides her tears very well. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Do what I do,” Fax says.
“That is literally the least helpful thing I’ve ever heard,” she says.
“I bet your brother says that all the time,” Fax says.
What might otherwise have come off as an insensitive comment actually helps relieve the tension they’re both feeling. They’re seven, after all, one of those ideal ages. All things are possible, in ways that might never happen again.
“Prowl the streets, Emma,” Fax says. “That’s what I do. That’s what all Puck do. We’re constantly absorbing information. Most of the time it seems pretty useless, I know. But sometimes you learn things.”
“What about the nessa?”
Somehow they still go through with Fax’s idea. They can hear the snarls all around them, and Emma has to stop herself from snatching Fax’s hand, fearing that if she did she might crush it. She has to be brave. Her brother is no doubt depending on her. They’re headed in the direction of the Zulu Kendi security checkpoint. The Danab take security very seriously. There’s a reason why the war never reached here. As always, it gets hot under the helmet. Since neither of them has ever needed, or wanted, to go to the security checkpoint, they don’t really know where it is. Emma’s mind begins to wander. What if the Danab consider the nessa to be pets? What would that say about them? She’s never seen a nessa, only heard the stories about them. Danab schoolbooks surprisingly talk very little about wildlife. Most of this world seems to have been developed into the kind of city that leaves very little of nature left to it. Certainly there are no parks. The exercise field doesn’t have grass. Emma hasn’t seen grass, or a single tree, since she’s gotten here. Strangely, there are flowers sprouting in odd locations. Her mother used to be a botanist. She still keeps a vase on the dining room table, which if their home were inspected would probably be considered a violation.
“Tell me a story,” Emma says, her nerves starting to get the best of her. Howls echo through the air.
“I couldn’t do that,” Fax says. “I’m not any good at storytelling.”
“What’s the point of collecting cultures if you can’t tell stories about them?” Emma says.
“I didn’t say no Puck at all could tell stories,” Fax says. “Just me. That’s not the way my brain works, I think.”
“It would have been helpful,” Emma says, after a moment. Every street looks exactly the same. The Danab don’t value architecture, or at least the art of it. Everything is made to follow a single aesthetic: to be imposing. Emma definitely feels imposed. Then she sees her first nessa.
She could feel their presence all around them the whole time they’ve been walking (slinking around like cowards, she’d call it), but it’s one thing to know they’re there, and another to finally see one. They’re deceptively small. They even look completely harmless. The nessa are hairless, it turns out. They look not unlike cats. Then she sees it open its mouth, and two jagged rows of fangs reveal themselves. If it were a cat, there were only be a few fangs, but this is a mouth full of fangs, no doubt about it. Then she realizes another key difference between nessa and cats: Emma has just looked at the paws, and saw that the claws are longer and sharper, too, and they are no doubt permanently extended. So: a nightmare after all! These can’t possibly be pets, not even for the Danab!
She slowly slinks away, realizing that she’s inching behind Fax, and all at once Emma feels miserably guilty. Little human girl that she is, she’s still more capable of defending them than a frail Puck boy, who might as well be made of wind right now. She screws up her courage, slips off the helmet, and then lets loose a mighty scream. It’s the only action that comes to mind, but incredibly, it works. The nessa stalks away, licking its chops suggestively.
A hand immediately clamps itself down on her shoulder, and Emma jumps. She slowly turns around and sees the imposing figure of a Danab security officer. The hand digs into her, and she becomes aware that the officer would like her, and Fax, to follow him. After a short, almost embarrassingly short walk, they’ve arrived at the security checkpoint.
For several silent moments, after the officer has let go of her, Emma and Fox are made to stand (not sit!) nervously as they await whatever verdict for their unauthorized activities they’re about to get. Finally, the officer turns back to them, and hands Emma’s helmet back to her. “One size fits all, young lady,” he says, his tone mirthless. “Try not to lose it.”
She hadn’t even realized that she’d lost it. Everything happened in an instant. Emma blinks back her confusion. “I was looking for my brother,” she stammers. “Elmer Haskell. Twelve-year-old human male. Was looking for ghosts,” she adds, stupidly.
“We know all about Elmer Haskell,” the officer says, his tone remaining neutral, dull, somehow threatening (but that could just be her imagination). “We found him, too, wandering the streets. He’d been bitten. He wasn’t as lucky, or resourceful, as you. Lost quite a bit of blood, according to the medical reports. He’s fine. He’ll be returned home shortly.”
“You could’ve just told us!” she finds herself shouting. “You don’t have to be so cruel!”
“Cruel?” the officer says. “Sorry, allow me to introduce myself: Truant Officer Antenor. We find a lot more strays these days,” he adds to no one in particular. “I wonder if you even asked your parents about your brother’s whereabouts? Sometimes the answers we seek aren’t so mysterious, young lady.”
“Told you,” Fax whispers in her ear.
“You did no such thing!” Emma says, shouting again, for reasons that are now beyond her, possibly for consistency’s sake.
“Run along,” Truant Officer Antenor says. “Try to be careful. Try to convince your brother that we aren’t the enemy, when he returns. And tell him ghosts aren’t real, on this or any other world.”
Emma and Fox are already trotting out the door when the Puck, again whispering, says, “That’s not true. I can think of a dozen worlds off the top of my head!”
“Good for you,” Emma says. She’s crying again, but it’s okay, since she’s also slipped her helmet back on in the meantime. “Do you think that man was right? Was my brother wrong?”
“War isn’t the only thing that makes enemies,” Fax says. “We can do it in peacetime, too. How do you think wars happen?”
“It was totally unprovoked,” Emma says, almost in a whisper.
“Maybe,” Fax says. It’s the most thoughtful she’s ever seen him. She takes little comfort in it.
When they reach the exercise field again, Fax begs off, claiming there was a game he wanted to watch, but Emma knows he’s hopeless with sports even as a spectator. It’s just not something he understands. She doesn’t protest. Instead she finishes the walk as she began it, alone, and spends the rest of it lost in thought. Such things don’t normally come easy to seven-year-olds, you understand. The world is supposed to be uncomplicated, for the last time, at that age; innocent. Right?
Later, when her brother at last shows up, Emma throws her arms around him in the warmest hug she’s ever given. Things are changing. They changed years ago, but she’s only now starting to catch up. Suddenly it doesn’t matter what Elmer believes, but she’ll still love him anyway. In the distance, she hears nessas, but for the first time she doesn’t even flinch.