Edition 29: From the Ashes by Tyra Tanner
Sri, left stranded after an accident she believes her fault, lives a meagre existence, attached by need to the Haree she calls Chit by her need to breathe. Tyra Tanner leads us down a path of blame and retribution, alone on an alien world. -SY
Three years she’d waited for this.
Sri touched the tender sprout with the reverence of one witnessing a miracle. Under her fingernail, the small green gemstone glowed in the membranous bark. Unlike trees from Earth, the trees here on Jau grew from the seeds of gems, their luminous veins pulsing with uncontested signs of life.
Sri rose and followed behind Chit—always behind Chit. The remainder of the forest was nothing but burnt stumps: the trees inner gemstones sat exposed and dim in piles of hardened ash. She weaved carefully through the stumps, lest she accidentally step on a young shoot growing from the ashes of her mistakes.
Three years ago, she’d burned this place. Everyone she’d known had died.
Some evenings, when Chit and Sri rested in the village among Chit’s kind, the Haree, Sri would pick up a stick and draw in the dirt. She’d write the equations over and over again. Her numerous degrees and professional accolades proved to be of little worth in explaining the failure of her oxygen generator. In fact, her past taunted her. How could she know so much and yet so little?
Lost in her thoughts, Sri hadn’t noticed Chit stop near a blackened stump. Luckily, he’d thrust his arm out before she stepped past him.
“Chit, chit.” He pointed a long, bony finger at the ground. Another young shoot had sprouted, its inner gem glowing with a steady light.
“It’s beautiful,” Sri told Chit, though she knew he couldn’t understand her. Sri sometimes wondered what Chit’s real name was, if he even had one. She’d named him because of the sound he made when he called to her.
“Chit, chit.” He beckoned her to follow. He tapped one of the flat hard plates on his back. His huge black eyes snapped at her. Sri got the message. If he could speak to her, she imagined he would say something like this: Pay attention, huh? It’s only your life on the line. As long as she’d dwelt among the Haree, she’d never been able to decipher the subtleties of their language, and her attempts to explain her own had been largely unsuccessful.
Chit emerged onto a barren plateau that overlooked the remains of more dead trees, their shriveled stumps stippling the landscape as far as she could see. Chit sat on the red dirt, Sri behind him. He withdrew a floppy bundle of leaves and a round purple fruit from the pack that hung around his midsection and passed them to Sri. She muttered a thank you and ate her lunch in silence.
Her old life was but a memory that lived on in the presence of ash and waste. There was no hope of rescue. Her ship had been destroyed with the oxygen generator; she would die of old age before any other humans arrived on Jau.
Sri swallowed a hunk of pulp and coughed. The thin air that streamed into her lungs was barely enough to keep her alive. Chit heard her cough and tapped the wide plate on the back of his shoulder. Sri scooted closer to him, leaned her head on his back, and breathed.
The Haree didn’t have lungs like humans. They absorbed nitrogen through the membranous tissues between the chitinous plates on their chests. Then they emitted oxygen from similar tissues between the plates on their backs. The constant discharge was just enough that if Sri stayed within three to four feet of Chit’s back at all times, she could breathe on this planet that didn’t have enough oxygen for her to survive.
Three years had passed this way, and still she didn’t know why Chit had dived into the burning ruins of the oxygen generator to pull her out. His plates had been smoking, his large glassy eyes weeping from the heat of the flames.
At first, she’d thought it was revenge. She and her crew had come to Jau, built the oxygen generator to make the planet suitable for human life, and then accidentally blew it all to hell. Her crew burned. The uncontrolled surge of oxygen lit the forests.
In those first months, after her burns had healed, she’d tried to run away from Chit, knowing it would mean her death, but he’d tied her to the plates on his back and hauled her around like a child. She’d screamed, wept, ranted. She wanted to die. Chit assigned some of the Haree to watch her when he slept. At length she accepted it. She would suffer for her sins. They would keep her alive out of spite.
In time, small kindnesses changed her opinion. The Haree women made clothes for her from the hide of the Gallui beast. None of the Haree wore clothing, as their bony plates and thick skin shielded them from the weather. Haree younglings curled up against her at night to keep her warm. And despite the inconvenience to himself, Chit never wavered in his commitment to keep her alive.
Chit passed her the waterskin. She gulped a few swallows, and then wheezed out a shallow bark. It would be easier to leave her in the village with the younglings, but Chit took the burden of her life on himself alone. When Chit stood, he tapped his back again. Sri climbed onto his bony plates, locked her hands around his neck, and rested her head against his flat shoulder.
She always tired before him. Carrying her around on his back was the solution. Not only did it allow her to rest, but this close to him, she could breathe deeply without wheezing. They may not share the same language, but there was much Sri understood from observing Chit these past years.
And one thing she understood was that she was a burden.
She tried to help Chit the best she was able, but she was weak compared to him. Sometimes she grew so tired that she fell asleep on his back. She would wake to find one of Chit’s four multi-jointed arms wrapped behind her, holding her up. His kindness spurred her to face each day anew.
There was no privacy in her life anymore. That was something of past days and past lives. She peed and defecated with Chit’s back in view. He waited on her whenever she had the need. Jau’s winters were mild and yet cold enough to harm Sri, and when she rolled her palms together, Chit would snap a fire diamond against his hard plates to make a fire. The explosive red stone looked like a small hunk of bark, but she’d seen what a pile of them could do when sparked. The Haree used them to clear their fields after harvest.
One day, she would figure out how to repay Chit.
Yet, she could neither regrow the forests nor turn back time. In fact, there was nothing she could offer him except the useless burden of her language-restricted companionship.
That night they slept under a hollow at the base of a cliff while the sky poured. Fat drops beat against the ground, splashing muck onto Chit, who’d pushed her into the hollow behind him. In the morning, Chit and Sri walked for several miles when they came upon a seasonal pool.
Chit lowered himself into the water and rubbed the mud from his skin and plates. He kept his back exposed above the surface. Sri undressed herself and sunk into the pool. The morning sun didn’t have the strength to warm the water. Sri shivered and speedily washed. She finger-combed her knotted hair as best as she could, then retied it with leather strings the Haree made for her. Then Sri hugged herself in the chill water, her teeth chattering, and waited for Chit to finish splash bathing.
Sri looked up to see a wad of mud land on her shoulder and slurp down her chest. Chit opened his mouth. A sound like snapping fire filled the air.
“Ha. Ha. Very funny.” Sri washed the mud off with several handfuls of water.
Abruptly, Chit’s guffaw ended. As he eyed Sri, a shadow ghosted across his eyes. Sometimes, when he craned his neck to look at her, it seemed as if he desperately wanted to say something.
“Chit, chit.” He exited the pool. As always, Sri followed.
And though she didn’t know the words that hung behind Chit’s harrowed eyes, she knew that today was not a day for joking or laughter.
Before them, a red hill dropped onto an empty plain. She knew the way. It was the path of sorrowful memories. Every year they came here, to the site where it all went down. Or up. It went up, the flame and the smoke and the ball of toxic gas that hung for weeks like a gray blanket in the atmosphere, clogging the sky and slowly killing a third of the planet’s vegetation.
Through the empty plain, they walked. To the edge of the devastation, where the land sloped downward into a wide, shallow crater, then finally, to the hole in the middle, where the charred remains of the oxygen generator lay several hundred feet below the surface.
As in years past, Chit led her to the hole and sat down at the edge. Sri sat behind him and leaned her head against the plates on his back to catch her breath. While she panted for air, Chit wrapped a long arm around her.
The past had held so much hope, untested and anticipatory. Sri had inhaled it daily while she and her crew built the generator, their smiles hidden behind their oxygen masks. A new world. A place with water and life. The future was a blank page she would write her name upon.
Sri pressed a finger into the rich red dirt, the iron-oxide rich dirt that should have released its oxygen upon being heated, and drew the equations yet again. Chit craned his neck to watch her.
It should have worked.
Her fingernail bit into the red soil, her nailbed coated as if with dried blood. The blood of her friends. The blood of her crew.
Did Chit know the price of regret? The sensation of mournful nostalgia? Or was it only thoroughness that brought them here, year after year, as they toured the forests checking for signs of life?
She whimpered against his back. Whenever she came here, it sent her back to the first few months of her life after the explosion, when she wished for death. Even now, the longing for it pinched inside her throat, like a fist shoved past her mouth.
Suddenly, Chit stood up.
Sri tumbled forward, having been leaning on him, her elbows slow to catch her. Chit looked back.
Sri forced herself to her feet. The sooner they left the better.
But when Chit moved toward the blackened shaft that led into the hole where the remains of the oxygen generator lay, and thrust his foot hard against it, to see if the shaft would hold his weight, Sri shuddered.
“What are you doing?”
This was different. He never did this. Each year, he brought her here, they sat at the edge, and then they left.
“What the hell are you doing?”
Chit stepped onto the shaft and jumped up and down. He pulled at the cable that would lower them into the pit.
“No. I’m not going down there. I’m not.”
Tears leaked from Sri’s eyes. Their bones would be down there. Remains long abandoned. Sri remembered the shaft. She remembered Chit’s smoking plates when he pulled her from the wreckage and brought her up the shaft. She remembered the choking pain of the burns, the stink of her own flesh.
Chit stopped jumping and turned his eyes upon her.
“Please,” Sri begged.
Chit grabbed her with two long arms and wrapped her onto his back. She pounded her fists against his plates. With his other two arms, he engaged the pulley system on the shaft.
They fell into darkness.
The shaft landed at the base of the pit with a thud and a grinding squeak of metal. Sri panted against Chit’s back, her exhalations labored with anger. Her eyes adjusted slowly, and though part of her wanted to close them until they were on the surface again, the other part demanded she witness the cost of her mistakes.
Absolution would never be given. Not by her or by the dead. But the punishment, the observation of her sins, was due. Forced upon her, she would observe.
The bulk of the explosion had occurred on the surface, where the large dome had detonated and formed the crater that now encircled the remains of the generator. Down here, the heat, flames, and smaller explosions had finished the job.
Shattered glass crunched under Chit’s plated feet, sloshing with the char-colored puddles of rainwater. Things lay in the murky sludge. A shattered oxygen mask. The rod of an office chair, legs torn off, back shredded. Plastic tables had melted and congealed into passable works of modern art.
There were other things. The ones she didn’t want to see. The ones that she imagined at night, when the chill that sent shudders up her spine came from within, not the air.
She identified only one. The necklace Jon always wore, a square pendant with the words Wormholes are Man’s Best Friend sketched on the front, hung around the neck of a mutilated skeleton, the words blackened.
Chit pushed to the back of the cavern, deep into the inner chamber of the destroyed oxygen generator. Sri’s heart stabbed with each pulse, grief incapacitating her. The lock of Chit’s two arms burned into her back. Her vital need for Chit had never felt more like a prison than now.
Chit halted in front of the ruined oxygen generator. The consoles were gone, blown to bits. The cylinder that held the heating coils was missing its lid, the coils inside crisped to brittle husks. Chit kneeled down and began digging through the shrapnel with his two free hands.
“What now, Chit? Why are you…” Her voice sounded hollow, empty of life, but when Chit lifted a small rough stone from the remains, Sri ceased speaking.
He pressed the stone into her hand. The jagged shape and unique red lines in its surface made the stone look like a hunk of bark, but its heaviness and its heat betrayed its true nature.
A fire diamond.
Chit extracted another fire diamond fragment and added it to her palm. Then a third. A fourth. As Sri looked down, she realized there were hundreds of fire diamond fragments in the sludge. How had fire diamonds come to be here? At the site of the destruction? Had others of the Haree been down here? Why had they brought the explosive stone? Everything down here was already destroyed. Unless…
Unless the stone had already been here. Unless someone had brought it down before the explosion.
The truth slammed into Sri.
Her dizzy mind pushed her back to that day, that morning when she’d drank a mug of freeze-dried coffee—flavor not the best but still invigorating—and she’d sat by Arralise, her Gareese friend from Plata 8, a freezing cold planet that Arralise missed terribly on account of a certain male Gareese who had wanted her to stay, and who wished her good morning as Sri swiped a finger over the console monitoring the temperature of the coils.
There’d been a preliminary explosion. It had been nearby, had knocked Sri from her chair, the coffee dripping down the console. She remembered that image: coffee coating the bright console in black liquid, dripping onto the floor.
She’d barely had a moment to right herself when the ground shook and her ears filled with thunder and her eyes clouded with smoke.
The next thing she knew was a man carried her. A man with hard plates for a back and four arms.
How had he gotten to her before the fire had completed its work on her skin?
When they’d landed on Jau, before building the oxygen generator, they’d tested the soil, the plants, and even the Haree. It was Intergalactic Law that her crew make certain the generator would not harm the native inhabitants of the planet.
The black-eyed, four-armed people had been astonished by Sri’s species, as well as the others in her crew. They’d fondled Arralise’s snake-like hair like she was an exotic pet. They’d played with the crew’s tablets and cooperated with their testing. Sri had been delighted to discover that a few extra bouts of oxygen in the air would not harm the Haree or their world.
They could all coexist.
Maybe the Haree weren’t as happy about that possibility as Sri had supposed them to be.
Maybe one of them had entered their base (they hadn’t thought there was a need for locks or security), and maybe that someone had brought fire diamonds. Fire diamonds inside the generator chamber would catalyze the heating coils to overproduce at dangerous levels. Explosive levels. Maybe that someone had already been inside when the explosion went off.
And after Chit had destroyed their machine, he’d thrown her on his back and carried her to the surface.
“Oh my god.”
Sri dropped the fire diamonds as if burned.
Chit fell to his knees. He unlinked his arms from around her. Sri staggered to hold her own weight. From his pack, Chit withdrew a blunt blade he used for cutting fruit and offered it to Sri.
She hadn’t destroyed her crew or the forests. Her equations hadn’t failed. It was Chit. It had always been Chit.
She took the proffered blade. She raised it high above her head in both arms. Chit lowered his head, opening his neck for the kill. The one who had caused her suffering was the one who had saved her and hauled her around for three years.
Three long years a prisoner, in pain.
And now her sentence and her suffering could end. She could finally join her crew.
She inhaled a great breath. She must strike true and firmly, as Chit’s skin was tougher than human skin. Her heart pounded in her ears. A series of hiccoughing gusts shook her chest. She realized she was sobbing.
He hadn’t kept her alive as revenge. Instead, she was his penance. He must have resented their arrival on his planet. Maybe he’d hoped that if he destroyed their machine, they wouldn’t be able to stay here. The intruders would leave. But he couldn’t have known what would happen.
When the fire diamonds had catalyzed the generator explosion, he must have seen immediately that he had done far more damage than intended. He had pulled her from the flames. Then the trees had died.
His somber dedication to roam the forests for signs of new growth was now unveiled as an act of silent grief.
They had traded places, Chit and Sri. She knew his pain, his regret. For three years, it had been hers. For three years, he’d been trying to find the courage to tell her.
Life grew from the ashes of the forest. But the ashes of her heart would never fully heal. Too much had been lost. And yet, she’d wondered how she would repay Chit for his constant care of her. She knew what he needed. It was something he could not grant himself, something as vital as air, as water, as plants to eat and shade to enjoy.
It was forgiveness.
She threw the blade into the hole where the coils lay.
Sri dropped her head against Chit’s back and wept.
An astonished cry came out Chit’s mouth. It was a sound she’d never heard before, a howl of pain expunged, of unexpected deliverance granted.
She lay on his back and shuddered against him. He wrapped all four arms around her and continued his mournful cry.
When the light grew faint, and Sri knew the day was coming to a close, she whispered in his ear. “Let’s go home.”
He carried her out of the wreckage once again.
Tyra Tanner is a stay-at-home mom with a not-so-secret obsession with the written word. It all began when she read Ender’s Game as a youth, and since then, her love for speculative fiction has only grown. Her short fiction has been seen in Aphelion and 365 Tomorrows. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys gardening and slacklining. Learn more about Tyra at tyratanner.com or @tyratrix.