Enjashek by Mik Wilkens
by Mik Wilkens

 

“Enjashek do not die.”

Rella Abris blinked hard to switch her focus from her optic data-implant to the creature who had spoken.

Tully met her blue eyes, his dark-muzzled head tilted to one side. His sinuous, half-meter-long body lay curled on Rella’s desk, tufted tail twitching idly. Sunshine from one of the room’s skylights shimmered from his spotted, gold-green fur.

Rella sighed. She had hoped she and Tully understood each other well enough by now for him to answer her questions in a helpful manner, but with a statement like that . . .

She shook her head. Maybe a different approach would work.

“Everything dies, Tully.” She glanced meaningfully across the small prefab hut that served as her home, office, and laboratory on Dion 3.

Atop a narrow table on the far side of the single room, a number of containers held the dissected remains of one enjashek. A preservation beam bathed the carcass of another in pale blue light.

Tully’s large, dark eyes swept the table. “Enjashek—” He paused, his muzzle working to form sounds nature never intended.

Gentle fingers brushed Rella’s awareness. She took a deep breath of the humid forest air that drifted through the hut’s open doorway and allowed Tully’s consciousness into hers. The familiar bond enveloped her like a warm blanket, and the rich, sweet, loamy smells of the forest took on a comforting feel.

Enjashek bodies return to the forest. Tully used a combination of sounds, mental images, and feelings to get his meaning across and then spoke again, “The heth lives.”

“What’s a heth?”

Tully cocked his head; another series of pictures and feelings swam through Rella’s awareness, but only the images of Tully’s forest home made any sense. The remainder were confused dream-like impressions, oddly detached, more emotional than physical. Spiritual, perhaps?

Rella’s eyes widened. Was Tully referring to some form of enjashek religious belief?

Her preparation for this assignment had included data injections containing all of the current research on enjashek. The information made no mention of any sort of spiritual belief system. In fact, according to United World Exploration, the corporation that had discovered and now owned Dion 3, enjashek were only proto-sentient, barely capable of self-awareness, let alone religion. UWE had clearly paid someone to classify the creatures that way, ensuring the corporation’s ability to treat them as items of commerce. Getting the classification would have been easy. On the surface, enjashek seemed very unlike other sentient races. The intelligence and self-awareness contained in their supple, fur-covered bodies suggested evolution had skipped a few steps and made a sentient, thinking animal.

Thoughts of the classification and UWE’s use of it sent a spur of irritation through Rella. Yet when UWE recruited her as a lead xenobiologist (or, in the case of this assignment, the only x-bio) right out of school, she couldn’t very well turn them down, not if she wanted to make a name for herself in the scientific world.

She forced away her bitterness and studied Tully, intrigued by the idea of an enjashek belief system.

We’ll see how well UWE’s proto-sentient classification holds up when they find out enjashek have a religion, she mused, and then forced that away, too. She would follow up on it but not until she got to the bottom of the mystery UWE had hired her to solve.

“Tully, I need to know why your people aren’t reproducing, not what happens to your . . . heth after you die. Do you understand? UWE has introduced chemicals to the air, water, and soil simply by being here. They fear they might have inadvertently done something to hurt your people.”

“Nothing has hurt us.”

Rella blinked her focus back to the data on her implant and studied the numbers that hovered in the air before her. “According to UWE estimates, they have removed almost half of the enjashek from Dion 3 over the past several years. They thought that wouldn’t hurt the population since enjashek females are almost always pregnant.” She blinked again.

Tully watched her, ears pricked.

She met his gaze. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Soft tendrils laced through her consciousness like the caress of loving fingers. “I understand, Lella.” Tully had never been able to pronounce the “R” in her name. “I remember when the UWE humans came in their flying lairs. Many of my people were drawn to yours, as I came to you when you first arrived.”

Rella nodded. “That’s why UWE took so many of your people away. They sell them to the humans they bond with.” Despite the fact that enjashek possessed no system of commerce, Tully had picked up the concept quickly. Fortunately, enjashek also had no notion of slavery, so the idea of his people being sold did not bother him. It bothered Rella, but she knew that any human who bonded with an enjashek treated the creature well. They couldn’t help it. Still, the idea of UWE putting a price on something so special irked her.

She stroked the short, stiff crest of dark green fur that ran the length of Tully’s body. The rigid hairs tickled her palm, and a blanket of ease and comfort settled over her, as warm and caring as a mother’s embrace.

Gentle, questing fingers stroked her consciousness. “Lella, what is wrong?”

“I told you. Your people aren’t replacing those UWE took from here. They’re not reproducing well on our worlds either. UWE has tried everything to breed enjashek. They created what they thought were the exact conditions present on Dion 3 when they first arrived, kept a large, healthy population of enjashek with plenty of pregnant females, removed any that showed even the slightest hint of ill health. Most of the pups that were born had something wrong with them. They aren’t like the enjashek from here. They aren’t intelligent like you. And they don’t bond. They’re just . . . animals. UWE thinks there must be something wrong with the environment, and now the same thing’s happening here. I need to find out what’s causing it.”

Tully stared at her. Curious tendrils tickled her awareness.

“You don’t understand, do you?” she asked.

“I understand, but I do not understand.” He glanced into the forest, then looked at her again. “The others you speak of, the ones you call animals, they are not wrong. They are enja.”

“Enja? What are they?”

“They are . . . enja. Like enjashek, only not. They share the forest with us. We were all enja once.”

Rella frowned. “Tully, you’re not making a lot of sense. Are enja young enjashek?”

“Enja are enja. Young and old.”

Confusion clouded Rella’s thoughts, some of it from Tully. A smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. They were doing quite a job of confusing one another.

“Enja are born to enjashek?” she asked.

“Enja mothers are enja or enjashek.”

Rella’s temples tightened and an ache throbbed behind her eyes. She massaged her temples with her thumbs.

“Did Tully hurt Lella?”

“No, it’s not you, Tully. Too much thinking, I guess. And frustration. I’ll be all right.” She scratched his ears. “I thought this was going to be easy—come to Dion, run some tests, find the problem. But in three months none of my tests have shown anything. I may have to call UWE and admit defeat. Maybe they’ll send a team to help me. I guess they thought it was going to be easy, too.”

A sensation like a light breeze swirled through her head.

“How do my people live with humans?” Tully asked.

“Easily. We’ve found enjashek to be very adaptable to the worlds we live on.”

Pressure spiked behind her eyes, and she winced.

“I do not understand worlds,” Tully said. “Where do your people live?”

Rella gave her forehead another quick rub. “Just about anywhere we want. The ‘flying lairs’ the UWE people came in can take us to any planet. The stars you see at night are like your sun, only far, far away, so they look small. Some of them have planets—worlds—like Dion 3 around them. Humans can live there with any enjashek or other friends or pets they bring. By building special lairs, we can live on very different worlds as well.”

Tully sat up. A wave of unease swept from him. “Different worlds?” He looked up, as if imagining the stars and planets of which Rella spoke. “How many? Are they far away?”

“Very, very far away. Farther than you can imagine. Farther than I can imagine. And there are lots of them, all over the sky.”

Tully jerked his awareness from Rella’s mind. “I will return to my village.”

Rella pursed her lips. What had she done to Tully’s image of his world, his view of the cosmos? Did it fit into whatever he believed about such things?

She scratched his side. “You’re okay, right?”

“Tully okay.” He rubbed the length of his body along her hand and bounded out the open doorway.

She watched him disappear into the forest. “Poor little guy.”

 

***

 

After Tully left, Rella went to her lab bench to continue her analysis of the enjashek bodies he had helped her find in the forest. Enjashek took little interest in the bodies of their dead; an unusual reaction from a sentient, or even proto-sentient, race. But a belief in some form of after-life might explain their disinterest.

Rella’s first specimen, a young male, had apparently died in a fall from a tree. That surprised her, for enjashek could navigate the trees of Dion’s forests with the grace of Terran jungle cats. Then she found evidence the little male had been shot with a stunner, doubtless by one of the poachers who operated on Dion, hunting the enjashek and other creatures, trying to take a few of them alive. UWE security had located a poachers’ camp days earlier and taken most of them into custody. The drone of security flitters patrolling the area for those who escaped occasionally interrupted the forest sounds.

Rella’s newest enjashek specimen, a pregnant female, may have been the victim of a poacher as well. Although cause of death was a scratch from a poisonous chentsai thorn, her attention must have been on something else for her to have blundered into such a well-known danger.

Rella worked for several hours, running new tests and repeating many old ones on both adult specimens, on blood samples Tully had helped her collect from his people, and on the full-term fetus she removed from the dead female.

Few enjashek gave birth as soon as they came to term. Instead, the pup entered a sort of in-utero stasis that lasted from several weeks to several months. Researchers suspected the ability had developed as a way to control the population or time births to the availability of food, mates, or some other necessity, but no one knew what triggered a pup’s birth.

Studying the dead pup, Rella remembered what Tully had said about those born different. Would this pup have been enja or enjashek? What was behind the difference? Did it have something to do with the timing of the birth?

Rella sighed. More mysteries. If she could solve just one of them, she felt certain the others would fall into place.

Darkness descended. A cool, crisp bite rode the air that drifted through the open doorway. The cold sharpened the scents of the forest and carried the creaks and chitterings of night creatures. Two of Dion’s five moons rose; thin, pale crescents that provided little light.

On a hunch, Rella called up the moons’ cycles on her implant, wondering if they had entered some rare period of activity or inactivity that could account for what was happening with the enjashek. She found nothing out of the ordinary.

Discouraged but not defeated, she straightened her lab bench, went to the door, and called for Tully. He almost always spent the night curled on the foot of her pull-down cot like a larger version of Cinsi, her childhood cat.

The night noises fell silent at the sound of her voice. She strained to hear the gentle rustle of foliage that signaled Tully’s approach, but the forest remained quiet.

She tried to shrug off her concern. He’s probably sitting at the top of a tree, staring at the stars and thinking about other worlds. He’ll be here eventually. She left the door open a handspan for when he did return.

Rella awoke to morning sunshine flooding through the skylight. She slid her legs along the foot of the bed under the covers—her standard method of rousing Tully—but he wasn’t there.

“Tully?” She went to the door and called for him, to no avail. She frowned. Had their discussion yesterday upset him that much?

She hoped he remembered this morning’s plan to fly the skitter up to the head of the local river to collect water and soil samples. Such trips were always more enjoyable with Tully along.

She ate breakfast and straightened the hut. Still Tully did not return. She stepped from the hut to call for him again.

“Hey, pretty lady, you and me are gonna take a little ride.”

Rella jumped at the unexpected sound of a man’s voice behind her. “Who—?”

Strong fingers clamped onto her upper arm and spun her around.

She tried to pull away, but froze as an energy pistol thrust toward her face.

Narrow, dark eyes regarded her from a dirt-smeared face. “You’re the one studying the spotties, right? You’re gonna take me to them. I need a few more to pay my way off this rock before those UWE security dogs find me.” Small and wiry, the man wore a tattered green jumpsuit. Lank strands of yellow hair dangled from beneath a tight leather cap, and several days’ growth of beard shadowed his chin.

Rella’s breath caught in her throat. “Oh, gods. You’re one of the poachers.” Her words came out as little more than a choked whisper.

He sneered and shoved her toward the forest. “Poacher’s an ugly word. I’m a businessman. I provide a product.”

She spun on him. “Bastard! Half of your ‘products’ die before you get them off-planet. As for the rest—” She snarled, anger overcoming her better judgment. “I won’t take you anywhere.”

He thrust the gun into her face. “You don’t have a choice.”

Rella swallowed hard, her defiance shattered. Shaking with fear and rage, she stumbled toward the forest.

A few meters into the trees, a battered two-seat skitter rested on its ground fins. A dozen dark green canvas carry-alls of various shapes and sizes hung from the sides of the cycle-like vehicle. Most of the containers were limp, empty, but one of the large ones stretched tight over a horrifyingly familiar shape.

“Tully!” Rella dropped to her knees beside the skitter and wrenched open the bulging carry-all. Inside lay a male enjashek with a coat darker than Tully’s. She recognized the coloration; he came from a tribe higher up in the mountains. His breathing was shallow, but at least he still lived. She released a relieved breath.

The poacher stepped up behind her.

She whirled around, angry words forming on her lips.

He held the energy gun leveled at her. “Just get on the bike and take me to the spotties. I only need a few of them, a half dozen or so, then I’ll be on my way and you can get back to your studies. And nobody gets hurt.”

She glared at him. “Nobody but your ‘products.’ You can’t stuff a living creature in a carry-all and expect it to survive!”

“Enough of them make it.”

Rella glared a moment longer and turned back to the skitter.

Then it hit her. The man said he would let her go, but could he really afford to? What was to stop her from calling the nearest UWE base after he did? Which left him only two options: Take her with him. Or kill her.

Rella’s heart clenched, and her throat constricted on a terrified gasp.

An instant later, the fierce hunting cry of an enjashek pierced the air. A streak of gold-green fur and dark spots sailed over the skitter from a neighboring tree.

“Tully!” Rella gasped as his presence zinged along the pathways their bond had etched in her mind. Terror flooded her. Not her terror—Tully’s.

He feared for her, feared the poacher might take her away or hurt her; feared their bond would be forever shattered and he would be alone.

She staggered back as Tully slammed into the poacher’s chest. His gun went flying.

Two more cries split the forest; two more streaks of bright fur, sharp teeth, and needle claws shot from the surrounding trees and struck the man, driving him to the ground.

The poacher screamed and thrashed, trying to dislodge his three attackers. Rella picked up his gun and pointed it at him, holding it in shaking hands, but she couldn’t find a clear shot in the mass of writhing fur and flailing limbs.

With a roar, the man threw out an arm, sending one of the enjashek spinning away.

The creature twisted in mid-air, supple as a cat, trying to get its legs under it before it hit the ground. A tree stood in its path. The enjashek struck the thick trunk with a sickening crack.

Pain exploded in Rella’s skull, the bond shattered, and she was alone.

“Tully?” She stumbled toward the fallen enjashek with slow, disbelieving steps, eyes wide. The gun slipped from her hand, forgotten. “Tully!”

His body lay at the base of the tree, back and neck twisted at an unnatural angle. His eyes, once so bright with life, stared at nothing.

Rella fell to her knees beside him and reached toward his soft coat. She froze with her shaking hand halfway to its destination and jerked back in horror.

“Enjashek don’t die,” she whispered, as if saying it would make it so.

It did not.

With a sob, she gathered Tully’s limp form into her arms and held him against her, rocking back and forth as sorrow overwhelmed her and hot tears flowed.

After a long while, her tears ran dry. Silence hung heavy in the surrounding woods. She gazed around in the dappled sunlight.

Two enjashek—both females, based on their large size and rounded bellies—sat close behind her, their sleek coats groomed clean of the dirt and blood that covered the poacher’s lifeless body.

Rella recognized the larger of the two as subject T9, the huge matriarch of Tully’s tribe, whom she jokingly called Tiny. The other was T14, Torry.

Why were they here? Tully had never brought any of his tribe to her in the past.

Tiny met her eyes, and an unfamiliar presence grated along the pathways of Tully’s bond. Strange, dizzying sensations and blurred images swirled through Rella’s mind. Was Tiny trying to communicate?

Rella tried to open herself to the impressions, but the too-fresh pain of Tully’s death threatened to overpower her.

Finally a few of the fractured, confusing images congealed into fleeting thoughts.

Tully tell . . . enjashek alone. Humans . . . forest . . . return heth. Gone forever.

An ache formed in Rella’s temples and built to a sharp, stabbing pain. Tears threatened again.

“Not now,” she sobbed. “My head  . . . ” She turned away and forced Tiny’s presence from her mind.

Something touched her arm. She blinked away tears and looked back.

Tiny’s front paw rested on her sleeve. The big female met her eyes again. Come . . . village. Soon.

Rella flinched as the words burned into her awareness, doubling the pain in her head, but she nodded. “I’ll come. Soon.” She forced the meaning of her words through the agonizing false bond, then glanced at the poacher’s body and the carry-alls that hung from the skitter. “After I take care of things.”

The two enjashek disappeared into the underbrush with a quiet rustle of leaves. In seconds, the sound of their movement vanished. Rella let the sorrow come again.

 

***

 

Three days later, Rella walked into the enjashek village. She had buried Tully beside his favorite sunning rock outside her hut, turned the poacher’s body and skitter over to UWE security, and treated the enjashek the poacher had captured. After returning him to his tribe’s territory, she started walking toward Tully’s village.

She stopped after only a few steps, unable to imagine the trip—or the arrival—without Tully at her side. Twice more she started for the village only to turn back. Finally, after another full day, she found the courage to complete the journey.

As usual, she saw no enjashek when she entered, and detected no evidence of the dozens of dens and bowers where they lived.

Swallowing the sorrow that again threatened, she sat down on a log in the center of the village and waited for the enjashek to decide it was safe to reveal themselves.

A small female appeared first. She crept out from beneath a stand of heavy brush. She looked familiar, but it took a moment for Rella to identify her. T16, Tessa.

Once Tessa fully emerged into the open, Rella realized why she had not recognized the enjashek immediately. Tessa had given birth; her normally rounded sides were as smooth and sleek as a male’s. An instant later, a pup appeared beside her.

The tiny creature, no more than a couple of days old, peered around its mother with huge, dark eyes. Rella held very still so as not to frighten it.

Tessa chittered softly, and the pup took another step forward.

The sight of the pup reminded Rella of the reason for her presence on Dion. For the first time since Tully’s death, the plight of the enjashek overrode her loss.

She unclipped her datapad from her belt to make note of the birth.

Her movement attracted the pup’s attention. Its eyes locked on her position, intent, its body rigidly alert. It bounded toward her awkwardly, lacking the coordination necessary for an adult’s supple, flowing movement.

Rella stared at the pup as it approached, uncertain of its intent. Curiosity? Friendliness? False bravado?

The pup reached her and scrambled into her lap. Its huge eyes met hers. An impossible, unforgettable—undeniable—presence slid along the empty pathways of Rella’s mind.

“Lella!” The pup squeaked her name.

Rella’s mouth dropped open. “T—Tully?”

The pup wriggled in her lap. “Is Tully.”

She leaned away from the creature. She wanted—needed—to stroke the soft fur and tiny crest, to feel the warmth and comfort of the bond, but she feared that touching the pup would shatter this impossible dream.

The pup put its paws on her chest and thrust its muzzle close to her face. “Is Tully!” he said again, almost comically stern.

“But . . . how? You died. I—buried you.”

Familiar images and feelings flashed into her head. Enjashek bodies return to the forest. “The heth lives on.”

“You mean your—heth, your . . . spirit is in here?” She dared to touch the small body. The familiar calm of the bond settled over her.

He nodded, a gesture picked up from her. “Tessa’s pup was birth-ready. It needed only a heth to be born.”

Rella glanced at Tessa, wide-eyed. “That’s what triggers a birth? The death of another enjashek? The . . . release of a heth? Then all those we’ve taken away  . . . ” She frowned as the implication struck.

Other enjashek appeared around her, emerging from the treetops and beneath the undergrowth. Tiny appeared high up in the foliage of an ancient tree and bounded down the slanting trunk. With a graceful leap, she landed on the soft mulch before Rella.

Tully glanced at the big female and then met Rella’s eyes. “We came to tell Lella. We did not know what was happening before. UWE must not take our people to other worlds, away from the forest, away from other enjashek. To die alone, away from our home, is to be gone forever.”

“I’ll take care of that,” Rella said. Cradling Tully’s new form in one arm, she stood. “This is just what UWE needs to know. They’re not going to believe it, but it should be easy enough to prove.” She frowned at the thought of the enjashek who would need to be killed for that proof. Yet in the long run it would not matter, as long as their heth survived.

“Why will they not believe?” Tully asked.

She smiled down at him and stroked his head. “Enjashek are unique, Tully. On all the worlds humans have been to, we’ve never found any creatures with the ability to come back in another body after death.”

“What of humans?”

“No one’s really sure. As far as we know, when we die, we’re gone.”

“No! Lella stay on Dion and bond forever.” Tully leaped from her arms, landed gracelessly on the ground before her, and scurried into a stand of bright-flowered raka bushes.

“Tully, don’t—” She dashed after him, horrified to have upset him.

He reappeared a moment later and ran back to her. She picked him up, stroked his short crest, but sensed none of the fear or sorrow she expected. The bond carried only contentment.

“Look,” he said and turned his head to watch the raka bushes.

A female enjashek slid from beneath the leaves. T15, Tife. Like Tessa, Tife had lost the roundness of pregnancy. She halted at the edge of the bush and looked behind her, making soft cooing noises. After several moments, an enjashek pup appeared. No older than Tully, it had none of his animation as it crept into the open.

“What’s wrong with it?” Rella asked. “Is it enja?”

“No,” Tully said. “He is enjashek, but he is new.”

Rella glanced from the hesitant pup, to Tully, and back again. “What do you mean, new?”

Tully looked up at her. “He was human. His body died and freed his heth. Tife’s pup was birth-ready. It needed only a heth to be born.”

Rella’s knees weakened, and she sank back to the log, staring at Tife’s pup. “He was . . . human?” She looked at Tully. “The poacher?”

Tully nodded.

“But that means . . . if a human dies in the forest on Dion  . . . ”

Tully rubbed his cheek against her hand. “Lella stay on Dion, bond with Tully forever.”

Rella glanced at him, overwhelmed, then gazed into the forest, her mind spinning. To live forever . . . as enjashek.

What was she going to tell UWE?
 

END

 

Enjashek by Mik Wilkens
(Originally published in Ray Gun Revival,
Issue 15, February 01, 2007;
Double-edged Publishing)

 

>> Index <<

 


 

Copyright © 2010- by Mik Wilkens    All Rights Reserved.
All contents on this site are the copyrighted works of Mik Wilkens and may not be reproduced in any form (including electronic) without permission. Any redistribution or reproduction of any materials herein is strictly prohibited unless otherwise specified.