Muses Note: Icarunite is a short story written by one of our guest writers, R.K. Brainerd. We are so pleased to welcome her work to our blog and excited for your reactions, too. If you want to learn more about her, check out her personal blog, which also discusses the debut of her first novel, coming out in 2018.
By: R.K. Brainerd
Malakai looked up as the pale young woman quickly ascended the hill that he’d placed himself upon. She had returned with two companions; a younger girl and a man about the same age. They moved silently, despite the fact that the cavern around them seemed to echo with any noise.
Malakai straightened and set aside the journal he’d been writing in, unable to stop the smile at her approach. He wasn’t sure why she’d left, but after he’d asked permission to sketch the fascinating plant crawling up the stone sides of the cavern, she’d disappeared.
The hair and skin of the three people who approached were nearly translucent. Their people had lived their entire lives underground, with no contact with the sun; even the people in the ice nations up above didn’t get as pale. The scientists didn’t know enough to assign an exact date yet, but the rough guess was that these people had been down here for a hundred generations. From the evolutionary perspective, it had to have been thousands of years.
So far the experts hadn’t figured out much about how the ecosystem worked. Partially because they were trying their best to be respectful, asking permission to study anything, and not removing samples for study. Of utmost interest was why segments of the rock glowed, different colors cutting across the ceiling, sides, and even the floor in lightning-like shapes. The plants, the insects, the tiny creatures that also had evolved down here – each of them were fascinatingly different, yet carried echoes of what Malakai and his people were used to in their world above.
The pale woman smiled at him as she approached, the awkward smile that all of her people had taken on, likely picked up from Upperworlders as a greeting. There was something in her hand; she offered as she reached him. Malakai blinked, and dipped his head as he accepted the gift. It was a soft, pale grey, almost fruit-like object. But it was wet – perhaps it had come from the water.
She sat down in front of him, watching expectantly. So far he’d only been able to communicate through gestures, in the brief chances he got to interact with them. Why had she given him this… fruit thing? Awkwardly, he brought the ‘fruit’ up to his mouth and mimed eating it in an attempt to understand. Alarm crashed over her features. She hissed at him in their whispering language, jolting forward to pull it away from his mouth.
Okay, no eating.
She murmured a few things which he had no clue how to interpret. Her face scrunched up as she stared at him, yet her eyes were piercing, especially in their pale color that reflected back in the dim light. It was a little unnerving, if Malakai was truthful. The two people behind her, who’d been very quiet up until now, murmured. Her expression cleared and she made a gesture with her head, an almost nosing gesture.
She took the ‘fruit’ from him and, making sure she had his attention, took the quill from his hand and pierced it gently. A purplish black liquid welled up. She shifted forward carefully as she took the journal he’d had spread out on his lap, and made a series of delicate, fluid strokes on the corner of one of the pages.
Sitting back with a grin, she offered both the quill and the ‘fruit’ back to him. Malakai’s chest filled with ecstatic lightness. She had given him ink. This was incredible – why would a living organism develop with an ink sac like this? And whatever she’d just written, that was the first steps in their written language.
His hand almost shook as he reached for the offered gifts, unable to ignore the stark contrast between their skin: hers, pale moonlight, and his, russet from the sun. He paused before taking the objects.
“Can you show me more of your writing?” he asked, knowing she didn’t understand him but speaking anyway. He gestured at the corner where she’d written, and then to the quill in her hand.
Her head cocked a little, and she looked at him …. Well, she looked at him like he was a little slow. But she took the quill, and began to sketch rapidly down the page. Avoiding the marks he’d already made she wrote downwards, in a meandering pathway that didn’t take away from its precision.
Her writing moved in the same direction as nations to the East – had her people originated from there, long, long ago? Malakai glanced up to the cavern, remembering the dozens of stalagmites and stalactites, and the etchings that scrawled up and down their shapes. Ah.
She looked up at him, pale, nearly colorless eyes solemn. Handing back the quill, she gestured at the page with her chin as her eyes flicked down to it.
Unsure if he understood her, he flipped to the next page in his journal, and began to write.
I have so much hope for our people – it is unbelievable where our different evolutions have taken us. I cannot imagine the depth we can learn from each other…
The glow from the rock stretching across the cavern was almost enough to see by, but he was definitely going to get eye strain if he made it a habit to write and draw in this place.
The pale woman had her bottom lip between her teeth, staring at his writing. Her two companions edged closer, peering at the paper. He motioned them to come closer, smiling in reassurance. They grinned widely back, and moved to stand behind him so they could see.
His heart beat fast in his chest.
The others – of Malakai’s kind, not hers – hadn’t been very permissive of his interactions with them. Despite the fact that he’d been the one to find them — the ‘Underworlders’ they were calling them for now – he had no real skills to help facilitate the relationship going forward. That wasn’t about to stop him though. It didn’t matter that he’d been on a mining exploration mission, that he’d only found the Underworlders because he’d been trying to find one of the most sought after minerals in the world on the orders of the Prosperous King. Malakai felt an overwhelming sense of protectiveness and awe.
Now that there was a chance… he wanted to communicate. He wasn’t a diplomat or a linguist or any of the dozens of people down here qualified to try to establish communications. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t give an honest attempt.
He cleared his throat, feeling a little silly already. He placed his hand on his chest. “Human. Errr… Upperworlder.” He pointed upwards.
She gave him a puzzled look. “Yes. Human.” He almost jumped at her voice, though there was no reason to; she spoke in soft whispers that blunted the edges of his language. Then she put a hand on her chest and said something in her whispery speech. He tried a few times to repeat it, butchering the soft elegance of their language utterly.
Malakai shifted where he sat. He pointed towards the city sprawled out across the massive cavern and repeated her word, then pointed to her, and then to him.
Did the word mean ‘human’? Or something else?
She waved her hand, almost dismissively, saying several words in succession. With quick, almost impatient sounds, she gestured to her and her companions with another word, then relayed the first word again, gesturing everywhere. He could barely keep up as she very clearly explained the difference between her and her people, and his, and the words used. Then she gave the words for this cavern – their world – and whatever word they had for the Upperworld.
Either she was already several steps ahead of him, or the Underworlders had already covered this language bit. He felt his face heat. He was probably a little behind in understanding. The fact that he was allowed to come to the Underworld on these missions was a miracle in itself; disapproving frowns accompanied him when the experts saw him on these trips.
The woman studied him carefully. She brought three fingers to her chest and said one word – “Vamshi.” Then pointed to the younger girl; another word – “Shishone.” And the man – “Hashil.” Malakai straightened.
“Malakai,” he said, touching his chest.
She grinned. “Mayla-shai.”
Her companions erupted into giggles.
Uh oh. What did his name mean in their language? Vamshi looked around, scanning the cavern with humor on her lips. Then she made a noise, which seemed loud only because it was at a normal volume, and then was darting down the hill. Her companions didn’t leave, just watching Malakai with that humor all over their expressions.
Their two people laughed the same; only good things could come from that.
Vamshi ran back, lithely shifting between rocks as she returned with yet another thing in her hand. It looked to be a plant. An uncomfortable sensation crept up Malakai’s abdomen: all that she was showing him and he didn’t have much in return. He wanted to bring things down, to show their people, but the scientists absolutely forbid the introduction of anything foreign. They could accidentally introduce something harmful and devastate everything down here.
As it was, the experts said it was amazing the ecosystem had survived the exposure to the surface air when the drill had come through the ceiling. If the ecosystem had been completely isolated, the introduction of surface air and bacteria would have caused a cataclysmic reaction.
Since that hadn’t happened, they were convinced that this cavern wasn’t completely cut off, and that somewhere, there was new air or water filtering in. Beyond, of course, the large hole now in the ceiling.
Vamshi reached Malakai and sat down, a new plant in her hand, which was moss-like with odd black flowers. She mimed eating it, and then tapped her forehead, murmuring. She crossed her eyes, made a ridiculous face, and then flopped over, making a long drawn out noise.
Malakai let out a bark of laughter, even as he was alarmed. That plant did what again?
Vamshi sat back upright, murmuring to her companions as she tapped the moss to his chest twice and then placed it in a small pouch at her waist. He wasn’t sure exactly, but he was pretty sure his name was a butt of a joke now.
Malakai had to show something in return. He turned to his journal and flipped another page, quickly sketching the first thing that came to mind. The palace for the Princes and Fertility Daughters was massive, needing to house the entire family many times throughout the year. It was the center of their culture, their life, their prosperity. Drawing this probably broke a dozen “protocols” that the military and scientists had created, but he didn’t care.
The three Underworlders – he needed to ask what their name for their people was again – crouched around him as he quickly outlined the castle, made exaggerated trees, roads, people.
Vamshi tapped a tree he was sketching. “Tree.”
Malakai grinned and turned towards her. “And your name for it?” He tapped it and then gestured at her.
There were trees down here. Strange trees with even stranger flowers; leaves and branches evolved much differently in an ecosystem without sunlight.
“Reesh,” Vamshi said to his question.
She frowned, tapping the drawing of the palace. She murmured a word, her pale frown on him now. He shook his head once in incomprehension. She gestured all around them again, saying the same word, and then pointed at his drawing of the palace.
Malakai shook his head. “No, it’s not a cavern, it’s a… palace.” He looked around, trying to find something to equate to it.
The Underworlders lived in a series of dwellings carved into the rock of the cavern. Some of these cave-like residences were set hundreds of feet up; particularly elders or those with greater authority seemed to live there. The entrances to these places were connected by a series of ladders and pathways, made from a reed that grew in the marsh-like area on the floor.
When Malakai’s people had first arrived, after the first very shocked and startled interactions, they’d all mutually made a camp of sorts on the dry section of the cavern floor. The Underworlders had created a giant tent of sorts, out of some unknown cloth-like material supported with those reeds.
They knew and even utilized buildings on the ground… they just didn’t use them permanently. For whatever reason. (The reason might have had something to do with the fact that the water level from the two interconnected lakes had been rising slowly over the past few days.)
Malakai picked up pieces of rock around them, stacking them up into a wall to start describing a stone palace. But Vamshi’s attention swiveled away from him. Malakai stopped – there was an older Underworlder making her way up the side. Vamshi and the others were on their feet before Malakai completely registered it, swiftly heading towards her.
He awkwardly got to his feet, wondering what he was supposed to do to be respectful. The man – Hashil – had stayed behind with Malakai; he touched his arm before his hands moved in a series of gestures and he hitched his chin at the now three women approaching.
Malakai stared blankly, but didn’t get another chance to clarify the gestures before they were there. Out of the corner of his eye he watched Hashil make the movements again, much more quickly and fluid than how he’d shown Malakai. Malakai stumbled through the motions himself, sweat forming on his back as he watched the serious, sharp eyes of the older woman.
She began speaking, and Malaki felt his stomach drop a little. He didn’t have a clue how to understand her. Then Vamshi responded back to the elder, though the older woman didn’t stop staring at Malakai.
Vamshi took a breath and turned towards him. Trepidation filled Malakai’s stomach. There was seriousness there that hadn’t been there before.
Vamshi gestured, aiming Malakai’s attention down the hill, out towards the floor of the cavern and the temporary encampment that his people and hers had set up. Then she motioned in another direction, towards a fairly unused part of the cavern, where the glowing lightning stone was sparse, an area that Malakai’s people had been showing express interest in…
Malakai’s stomach cramped. He was pretty sure he knew what Vamshi was talking about… or trying to talk about. The old woman’s gaze was like a weight, pinning him in place. He struggled to even know how to explain it to them.
“Upperworld want,” Vamshi said.
Malakai swallowed and nodded. Vamshi said a word, cutting sharply with her hand.
“Why,” the old woman said.
Malakai froze for several seconds as his mind raced, trying to figure out what he was supposed to do. Cal, head of strategy operations for their missions down here, would probably kill him if he gave information like this to the Underworlders. As far as he knew, they weren’t hiding their interest in the largest quantity of Icarunite they’d ever found, but …
Malakai had overheard conversations, the way they spoke about the Underworlders and how to get around them to get at the mineral. He knew they didn’t want to hurt them, but…
Who was he kidding. It was why he continually insisted on coming down here. Because he didn’t trust his own people to do the right thing in the face of what fueled their entire economic system.
Malakai dropped to his knees, snatching his journal off the floor as he began to sketch. He forced himself to slow down, take time and draw details. He kept glancing up, scanning the encampment of both of their peoples, dreading the moment his own people saw him up here. He tried to reassure himself that it wasn’t a big deal, that there were probably plans already in place to tell them, that it was all fine…
Malakai drew faster. When he was done, he snatched his drawing off the ground, tapping the airship he’d drawn on the page.
“Airship,” he said.
Vamshi and the elder in front of him nodded.
What came after was the most excruciating experience of miming he’d ever had to play out. With maybe a dozen words of which he could be sure they mutually understood, he had to explain how the mineral located in the southeast wall of their giant cavern was the beginnings of the biggest ore deposit they’d ever seen. It would fuel their airships, the machine that allowed the transport of their entire economy, for a thousand years.
The mountains that surrounded the Prosperous Kingdom, cutting it off from the rest of the world, were nearly impossible to traverse, requiring a round-about route that could take up to a year on horseback. With airships allowing them to get over the giant formations, they’d turned the prosperity of their nation into an economy that could feed the world. The magic of the Fertility Daughters never ended; they simply harvested more, created more, planted more to flourish.
How did you really explain that to a people who didn’t have a sky, let alone mountains, or distances so long it took entire seasons to travel?
By the end, Malakai was so frustrated he could cry, and he wasn’t even sure he’d gotten it across.
Vamshi and the elder turned towards each other once he’d stopped talking, and spoke quietly. He glanced around at the faces of Shoshone and Hashmil, who were absolutely still and their faces a near-mask of emotionlessness.
Vamshi turned towards him, and with something unrecognizable in her eyes, touched her fingers to her lips and then to his chest. He was pretty sure he understood what that was, and then really was fighting not to cry.
“I don’t think they’re really going to hurt you,” he blurted. “They can’t, that would be…”
His heart still hammered.
The old woman made a gesture with her hand. Then she gestured with her arm, a wide circle, encompassing everything around them in her movement before bringing it back to her abdomen.
“Us,” she said.
Malakai swallowed, and nodded quickly, though his mouth tasted like metal. Oh great fertility, what if he scared them, put them on the defensive, ruined everything? He had to get across they simply would trade for it, or buy it off of them. There was so much their two cultures could learn from each other – there had to be a way.
Besides, it was his own culture that came needing something, right?
Exhausted already, Malakai spent the next half hour trying to explain trade. Then he was shown the fool again when the old woman muttered something, and then said: “Yes, trade.”
Vamshi and the two others looked a little eased by this, glancing among one another. But the old woman never stopped watching Malakai, her expression near-unchanging.
Malakai heard a shout, by one of his own people, calling for him. They had broken off from the conversation with the Underworlders, clustered and moving back to the airship. The Underworlders weren’t a big fan of loud noises, and Malakai’s accompaniment made faces before dispersing silently. Vamshi touched his arm before she slid away, giving him one of those big grins.
Malakai felt his chest ease. This had to be okay. They had to make it work. He still felt like he was going to throw up.
He picked his way slowly down the hill, to the figure with his hands planted on his hips. His mouth was set in a tight frown, and made a sharp gesture for Malakai to get on the airship. Malakai followed instructions, seating himself and trying his best not to look guilty.
Once all of the Upperworld people returned to the small airship that could travel up the narrow tunnel to the surface, Malakai brought out the journal again, staring at the sketches he’s drawn and the marks that Vamshi had made.
He felt the ship slowly begin to rise, tilting as it aimed for the surface and began to travel upwards.
“I saw you talking with a few of them,” the man from before, Cal, said. He was seated across from Malakai, dark brown arms crossed over his chest. “What were you saying?”
Malakai could feel the suspicion. Most of the men in the room were watching him.
He made himself smile easily. “Oh, mostly talking about the plants. The flora and fauna is amazing – the bioluminescence by itself is evolutionarily incredible. It’s hard to really communicate, of course, but we’re managing.”
“I thought you weren’t a scientist.”
Malakai’s smile turned brittle. Cal already knew he wasn’t a scientist. “Not officially.”
Cal’s eyes narrowed. “Remember you’re not exactly needed on these trips. Don’t do anything to jeopardize.”
“I wouldn’t. I found it, after all.” He couldn’t help throwing in the dig whenever he could.
The man grunted and turned his attention away, obviously dismissing Malakai.
Malakai turned back to his journal and fixed a faintly pleasant look on his face; anything unsuspicious. He needed to write down as much as he could. He couldn’t write down everything; he wouldn’t describe anything that could give reason for barring his transport back down below. He probably should burn the pages where he drew the palance and the airship. But he would write the truth about what was happening, everything he could think of that might be worth something.
It felt vitally important. He didn’t really trust anyone else to do the same, to be honest, though he wasn’t sure why exactly… except that deep in his gut he knew that the people seated around him on this airship would never leave that amount of Icarunite alone. They wouldn’t be able to see anything clearly through that perspective.
Malakai wrote quickly, on a page past the drawings and scribbles he’d written earlier when trying to communicate with the Underworlders. He wrote furiously about what he’d seen, what he’d experienced, what the Underworlders were like, omitting the conversation they’d half-had about the Icarunite mineral. It was the longest entry he’d ever written.
* * *
What Malaki didn’t know was that within days the strategy team gave the Prosperous King a plan to forcibly extract the mineral.
The Underworld people reacted as any people having their land trespassed upon would react. The Upperworlders were taken off guard by the ferocity and intelligence of their defense… before it eventually fell, through sheer numbers alone.
Malakai didn’t hear about any of this until days afterward.
No one paid attention to the reaction of the explorer who’d found the Underworld. Only his aunt noticed that he locked himself in his house for days, simply staring at the ink stains still on his fingertips.
When Malakai emerged, he spent his life trying to change attitudes and policy towards the Underworlders – the ones that remained, now forced to mine the Icarunite for the Prosperous King. He gained audience with powerful voices and even sympathetic Fertility Daughters, earning a reputation as a man who could bend the ear of nearly anyone. When it was discovered that the mining was poisoning the Underworld, he spearheaded the program to send food and medical supplies. When the Underworlders revolted, he talked and petitioned and raged until the Prosperous King himself promised that there would be no punishment.
He was both admired and abhorred, for never allowing Upperworlders to forget the price of the mineral that fueled their wealth.
And the journal – the one that began with bland exploration of underground minerals and ended with the exploration of two civilizations taking their first steps in understanding each other – that was never written in again. He died swearing his next entry would only be when the Underworlders were free.
It would be over a hundred years before she picked up where he left off. She’d be there to help Vamshi’s great-grandson lead his people to revolution.
About R.K. Brainerd
Rebekkah has been living in her own little world and writing it all down since she was itty bitty. Having grown up devouring fantasy, sci-fi, and anything weird, she naturally gravitates towards that in her writing. She also went and got a degree in politics, so you can bet she ends up writing about that too. Her characters are pretty much always yelling for attention, and if she doesn’t listen, she’s plagued with intense dreams until she starts writing again. She also raises goats, the evidence of which can be found on her Instagram. She also tweets random things here. Her debut novel — an alternate-history fantasy — is set to come out in 2018. You can find out more at her blog: awakedragon.wordpress.com.