Dahni was working the fields when the spaceship flew overhead.
He dropped his reaper and sprinted for the farmhouse. "Pa! Pa! The Zercati are here! Pa!" He banged open the door and ran across the old wooden floor to the back room. "We're going into the city. Right, Pa? There's sure to be festivals and feasting. A Pinon tournament, too."
Dahni came to a halt by his father's side. The old man sat on his chair, staring out the window, his eyes watery.
"Is it your heart again? Let's get you to doc."
"I'm fine." He pushed Dahni's hand away. "Just you stay away from the city."
"You can't be serious. You can't keep me away from a Pinon game."
Pa was gruff. "Those city folk are bad enough, with their grand ideas. They lack the sense of a well-bred horse. The Zercati" He whistled. "Boy, they'll pollute your mind. Fill it with all sorts of impracticalities, promises of riches, and a life of ease. And then they'll leave." He coughed, clearing his throat. "They'll take little bits of Quoraya with them. And you'll never be the same."
"Pa, what are you talking about?" Dahni asked. "The last Zercati ship to come to this part of Quoraya came about fifteen years ago. They left with the husks of our Gorid plants. Sure, it cost us low-grade compost, but hardly too high a price to pay for the blueprints to the reaper. The cities got kahrs. They'll be selling them out here soon as well."
"We don't need a rotten kahr. What we need is to be left alone." Pa turned his head away. "You're not going. That's final."
After Pa went to bed, Dahni climbed out of his bedroom window. He rode with his friend Varius into the city. After hours riding through the countryside, the noise of the city's street celebrations hit Dahni like he'd smacked into a wall. Varius jumped down at the first free post they came to, in a dark corner under cover of trees, and tied his horse. He patted the horse's rump. "He'll be spared the worst of the city noises here. He's sturdy in the field, but skittish near a crowd."
Dahni slid off his own mount. He slapped Varius on the back. "The Zercati are returned to trade! They might hardly notice back home, but the city folk know what calls for a celebration. I bet there'll be nonstop parties for weeks." Every since he'd been old enough to learn about the interstellar traders, he had dreamed of being one, flying from world to world, bringing ideas and goods where they were needed. What a pleasure it would be not to be stuck on this one, boring world, working row after monotonous row of frongo every day of his life.
"There may be weeks of this, but meet me back here two hours before dawn. I've got chores to do." Varius pointed at him. "Besides, there's no reason for your Pa to know you've disobeyed him."
Dahni rolled his eyes. "The old man has to learn I'm old enough to make my own decisions. Anyhow, let's not think of Pa. I won't let him ruin all this."
They ran through a gap in the tent that had been erected in the city square. Several Jiebonists made music, pounding low notes on the gourd bases to keep time beneath the melody they blew upon the narrow necks. Everyone danced, oldster men twirled their women around, their robes swirling. Kids who barely reached his waist danced carefully, concentration evident in their every movement. Dahni hopped to the deep resonance of the Jiebons. There, in the corner, a cluster of young men and women danced, all wearing pants and floral shirts. Dahni spied Karoan among them.
He danced up to her side. "Hi."
"Hi." She flipped her hair, blocking her eyes.
They danced next to each other for a time. Then, Dahni grabbed her hand. He ushered her out of the tent to a spot where he could hear her soft, sweet words. But they didn't talk at first. He pushed her black hair gently back from her face.
She smiled, and then pursed her lips, closing her eyes. It was all the invitation he needed. Their kiss lasted past the end of the Jiebon song in the background, and well into the next.
Then Karoan gasped for air. She wrapped her arm around him and leaned her head on his shoulder. "I missed you, Dahni."
"Pa has kept me working nonstop. We expanded our plantings, but the drought has made a difficult harvest for us." For Dahni. Once Pa's heart had weakened, he had gone from being a proud patriarch to a broken-down old man overnight. "If he knew where I was, I'd be in the next pot of frongo wine." If Pa didn't let Dahni hire help soon, a fair portion of the pulpy frongoes would rot on the stalk, not good for much but wine or feed.
Her eyes widened. "You didn't tell your Pa?"
Dahni laughed. "Don't worry so much. I couldn't miss the arrival of the Zercati or the Pinon matches. He'll understand." Eventually.
She pulled away from him. "So you didn't come to see me?"
"Seeing you is best of all."
"Sure." She shook her head. "You better get back before he knows you're gone."
Dahni knew she was right, but it wasn't fair. He deserved to be out here with everyone else. He'd been working nonstop since the middle of the growing season, and needed a break.
Besides, the Zercati had come. The last time they were here, Dahni was too young to remember. They were traders who traveled from star to star, trading among all the human worlds. With the time dilation of near light speed travel, some of them were almost as old as interstellar civilization itself. The tales they could tell! He couldn't be expected to stay home, harvesting row after monotonous row of vegetables.
Karoan gave him the pleading expression he could not refuse. "Promise me you'll go home before dawn."
"Okay." He patted her hand. "But only if you'll come with me to the ship and see if we can catch a glimpse of the Zercati."
Her eyes narrowed. "Is there a girl on that ship, Dahni? From the last time the traders came? It is the same ship back again."
"Yeah," he laughed. "I had a romance when I was three. Come on. Let's go steal a look."
The landing field on the edge of town was cordoned off with red and purple strings. A couple of Guards walked the long perimeter, chatting to each other about the festivities. Dahni and Karoan easily slipped past them.
"C'mon." Holding Karoan's hand, Dahni ran up close to the massive landing legs. The ship shimmered from black to silver - it was unlike anything Dahni had ever seen. He touched the leg. It was cool as ice, but somehow different. His fingers tingled and the hair stood on his arm from wrist to shoulder.
Karoan pushed his hand away. "Stop that. You're scaring me."
"The girl's correct."
Dahni jumped nearly out of his skin.
A crack had appeared in the hatch beneath the ship. A lady stared out, wearing the uniform of the Zercati, green with a dense pattern of white squiggles. "We picked up some electrical charge from an ionized cloud we passed through before reaching Quoraya. It is why we haven't joined in the festivities yet. It will dissipate by morning."
"Oh." Dahni backed away.
Karoan followed. "Close your mouth, Dahni" she whispered. "You'll swallow a skeetblurt."
"Wait. Dahni, is that you?" The woman descended through the hatch, ignoring her previous explanation.
He stared at her high cheekbones, her pale skin, the white-blond hair piled upon her head. He felt weak in the knees. "Ma?"
She nodded. Tears welled up in her eyes. She held back, then came forward with a rush and crushed him against her chest. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
He hugged her until he couldn't breathe. Then pulled away. "You aren't dead." Didn't even look any older.
"Is that what he told you?" She clucked her tongue. "How very irresponsible of him."
"Irresponsible? Him? Pa was there when you abandoned me!" Dahni tore her hands from his arm and stalked off, into the darkness.
The horse looked at him with uninterested eyes. It lowered its head and ripped off a mouthful of grass.
"C'mon boy. Let's go back home." Dahni took hold of the rope. He tugged, but he couldn't get it apart. He couldn't see what he was doing well enough through his blurred vision. He stopped trying. Dahni leaned on the horse's neck.
"Hey!" Karoan caught his arm. She panted, out of breath. "I was looking everywhere. Why'd you run off like that?"
"I have to go."
"It's not morning for many hours yet. Come back to the party."
Dahni hung his head. "No. I need to get back to Pa." It would take him 'til morning to recompose himself so Pa wouldn't suspect he'd come here against orders. And there was a full day of harvesting that needed doing. "I'm sorry, Karoan."
She looked in his eyes. "Seeing your Ma freaked you, didn't it? Like seeing a ghost."
That was exactly what it was. As far as he'd known, she died fifteen years ago. Then there she was. He had grown from a tot to a man and Pa had aged so much, but Ma was unchanged. She had no life on Quoraya; she was a ghost here.
"Listen. I've gotta tell my parents, then I'll ride out with you to your farm." She gripped his arm so tight it hurt. "Promise me you'll wait."
He leaned forward to kiss her cheek. She met his lips with her own. He squeezed her to him with all his might.
They fell into the shadow of the nearest tree. Karoan lifted her top, and placed his hands onto her breasts.
He felt goose bumps over every centimeter of her firm skin. "We shouldn't. Not like this." Not the first time.
"Sshh." She knocked him back on the ground. The roots scratched his back raw, but he didn't notice that for long.
"Ah-ha. I found you!" Ma stood over them. A smile on her face, which faded as her eyes adjusted to the dark under the trees.
Karoan scampered around the side of the tree trunk. Dahni hurried to adjust his clothes.
Ma shook her head. "Pa hasn't raised you well."
He rose to his full height and looked down at her. "What would you know about that? Go back to your ship and leave me alone."
"Don't you see?" She trembled under his gaze. "I came back to get you. You'll become a Zercati."
He opened his mouth to respond, but no sound came. Hiding his confusion, he ducked around the tree to find Karoan. "Let's go."
She stared at him, wide eyed. "Dahni. It's what you've always dreamed. You have to go with her."
He took her hand. "I have to think."
In the morning before Pa awoke, Dahni and Karoan tiptoed out of the house. He hoisted her up onto his horse, his fingers dwelling on the lithe muscles of her legs.
"Won't your Pa notice it's gone?"
Dahni shrugged. "Probably." He was past caring what Pa noticed.
"I'll be back as soon as I can." She leaned forward to kiss him goodbye.
He watched her disappear beyond the horizon, then threw himself into the harvest.
He ran the reaper nonstop all day long, without a break. Finally, as the sun disappeared behind the treetops, he stopped. He was drenched in the sweat of a long day's work. He grimaced, his lips cracking. His back stung with sunburn, even through the thin cloth of his shirt. His limbs were weak and stiff.
He could avoid it no longer. He had to go in. He had to face Pa.
Dragging the reaper behind him, he trudged home. His feet barely cleared the rise of the doorjamb. "Hi, Pa." He went to grab a glass of water.
"Where have you been?" Pa sat by the wooden table in the kitchen, his face hardened. "Your lunch has been waiting for you."
"Harvesting." He pointed outside with his glass. He avoided Pa's eyes, hating himself for doing so. It wasn't Dahni who should feel guilty. "A lot to get done."
"I'm not a fool. What's eating you?"
Pa's words were overshadowed by an unnatural screech. The house shook. Both men rushed to the window.
Abruptly, the noise stopped. Outside, a contraption that looked like a kahr with wings bounced down, crushing frongo vines in its wake. Ma stepped out, straightening her white and green uniform.
"Oh." Pa turned to Dahni, his eyes accusing. "You went to town last night?"
"You lied about Ma!"
He didn't answer that, just turned back to the window. "She looks so young." His voice cracked.
"Time-dilation, Pa. She's the same age as when she left."
His mother opened the door as if she owned the place. "Hi, Lort." She flashed him a smile.
"No you don't." Pa's lip curled into a snarl. "Your home is on that space-can you deserted us for. Get out of mine."
"But, Lort, I asked you to come." She reached out to Pa.
Pa tottered backwards. Dahni steadied him. Pa said, "And desert the homestead we labored so hard to create? The land I made my own with these two hands?"
"I'm wealthy now." She spread her arms. "We're wealthy. Come with me. I'll buy us all a country estate on Myrius, complete with manicured grounds and a fishpond."
Dahni stared from Ma to Pa and back. He'd always wanted to leave Quoraya, more than anything. Visions of other worlds and other societies had occupied his dreams since he'd been small. If forgiving Ma was the price for that dream, it shouldn't be too high. Yet, he couldn't. Not yet. He backed away.
Pa glared at him, freezing him in his tracks. He spoke, his voice weary; "I lived here, and here I'll die, but take the boy. He has your wanderlust. Dahni never loved this land like he should."
"Pa, I couldn't-"
"It's an order," he snarled. Then calmly, softly, "This is what you want. Do as I say for once in your life."
Karoan clung to him, her body sticking to his. "I'll miss you."
He shifted so the hay wouldn't poke into his bare skin. They'd locked the barn from the inside. Their privacy was assured. "Don't. Come with me."
"I can't leave home." She wiped a tear from her eye. "Not even for you."
"We'll come back. We'll trade across the human worlds. Eventually we'll buy our own ship. Then we can return to Quoraya whenever we like."
She laughed without joy. "Even if we managed to come back after one trip, my friends would be much older, my parents dead."
"Yeah." He felt the weight of her on his chest, an anchor, a tether to Quoraya. "I'll stay."
"No. You belong out there."
"But Ma left us, when I was little. How can I forgive her for that?"
"Don't. Go anyway, for you." She rested her head on his shoulder. "Don't forget me."
Dahni straightened his Zercati collar. He had been training with the Zercati for several months during their trade mission, watching and learning how to conduct interstellar commerce. There had been so much to learn, he hadn't even seen much of Karoan. Afterwards, Ma took Dahni to the farm to say goodbye. They would meet up with the ship in space. "Pa."
Pa looked away. "Go on. When you get back this way again, the land will be waiting for you."
"Sell it to Varius, Pa. In exchange for his help with the harvests while you're still living here."
He cracked a brief smile. "Perhaps I'll do that, unless Karoan would rather keep it in the family." Sentimentality had overcome Pa. He had never referred to her as family before.
As if on cue, Karoan emerged from the house. "Surprise."
Dahni rushed over and gave her a passionate kiss. He fought past the folds of her loose robe to take her hands in his. "Goodbye, Karoan."
"Remember me," she whispered.
He turned away. "Let's go, Ma." He would never forgive his mother, but Karoan had been right. This was his one chance to leave Quoraya behind.
She nodded. They entered the shuttle.
Ma operated the controls. "I like that Karoan of yours. I'm sorry you couldn't convince her to come with us."
He didn't respond. "I won't talk to you about her." Ma hadn't earned the right.
"You were such a darling boy. It wasn't easy leaving you, but I had to. Now that you've made the same choice, I thought you'd understand."
"I was a little kid, Ma. Completely dependent on you. Leaving Pa. Even Karoan. It isn't the same."
Ma raised an eyebrow. "Let me ask you a question. When has Karoan worn robes before?"
"Never, that I can remember. Why?"
She patted his hand. "Honey, it's exactly the same."
Dahni lay on his chair. Twelve hours until they docked with the spaceship. Half a day and he'd start the rest of his life. He couldn't sleep.
He popped the seat upright. "Ma. I gotta go back."
She looked at him for a long moment. "Quoraya isn't such a treasure trove. There won't be a ship here again for many years. Maybe not in your lifetime."
He knew. He also knew that another Zercati ship would be unlikely to take him on. Traders didn't often accept outsiders into their ranks. "Take me back."
"Honey, she didn't tell you for a reason. Karoan wanted you to go."
He saw his mother, sitting upright in her Zercati uniform. She was proud and strong. He wanted to be like that. He remembered the pain of missing her. The way Pa would stare at her picture when he thought Dahni wasn't around. He remembered being jealous of Varius and other children who had mothers. He felt the anchor of his unborn child pulling him down, heavier than gravity. "It doesn't matter."
Ma shook her head. But she turned the shuttle around.
Looking through the ultra zoom, Dahni caught a glimpse of the fields that would be his prison for a while, maybe forever.
By the house he spotted them. Karoan, standing with Pa and Varius, holding the reaper. Her hair glistened in the morning light. The reaper flew out of her hands, and fell, harvesting the air. Pa laughed. Varius ran over to shut it off. Karoan took hold of the reaper once again. Even from this distance, her determination was apparent.
It wasn't such a bad jail.
Jonathan Laden has worked in, started, and run bookstores, specializing in everything from used books to college texts. If it's printed on a page and bound with glue, he's your man.
Jonathan is a graduate of Clarion 2003. His story, "Seeing Connections" has appeared in Neo-opsis Magazine. "Monkey See, Monkey Deduce," will appear in Writers of the Future Volume XX this August.
Visit his website for updates and to read his ongoing series of "Idiomocracies."
Published by permission of the author.