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Home Fires Intertwining Trees

A Short Story by Chris Riker

Slider HomeFiresAmong the smoldering stumps of the Ancestors Grove, Meilin set out a midday meal furnished through her own hard work while watching little Xinyi tackle her twin brother, Bingrui, and nip his tail. Meilin must teach her cubs to keep these embers hot. One day, her pride would bore down to the deepest entangled roots and pluck them out. One day.

A green shoot pierced the scorched ground, its buds struggling to open. Alignment was coming round again. She ripped the sprout from the warm soil and tossed it onto a small brazier. Her mate, Weichen, ever the politician, was visiting other families in the grove, making sure they were doing the same.

“Why don’t you like the flowers, Mommy?” It was Xinyi, pinning her yowling brother’s head underneath her body.

“They remind me of Grandfather Li; they’re appealing enough, but they cause problems,” she said, freeing Bingrui and stroking the girl’s golden coat as a reward for her boldness.

“Tell us the story, Mama! Tell it to us!” Xinyi jumped about, excited to steal another telling, knowing her mother would never refuse this demand. Bingrui plopped down on his hind quarters and flapped his arms. He was not nearly as talkative as his sister, but he welcomed story time.

“Very well, my cubs. This is the story of the time your Grandfather Li came to visit us.  

“The grove comes into alignment at irregular intervals, because the ecliptic plane of Emdee’s system doesn’t line up exactly with that of old Sol’s. Even so, it comes around far too often, if you ask me. They’ll teach you all about this in school. You must study hard.”

Xinyi yipped, “Oh, I know all about sympathetic quantum DNA encryption and… I know all of it!”

Meilin was delighted with her oh-so-proud daughter. Xinyi knew the big words. Her teachers would fill in the details soon enough. It was important that they understood the broad outlines before they focused on details that could lead in many confusing directions. They responded to the exciting bits, so they got those in generous portions in the first lessons.

“You know this story, too, young shīzi,” she gave them both a stern scowl, ears back, one fang bared. The cubs quieted down and pivoted their ears forward to assure their mother they were listening.

“Now, this was some years ago,” Meilin began. “You two were still in my belly.” Her voice took up the storyteller’s lilting delivery which bonded generations and worlds.

“I was working in my garden at home; back then, it was much smaller than you see it now. I had just tamped down the soil along the final line of umberwort seedlings, pulled a clutch of tiller grubs from an apron pocket, and sprinkled them among the rows, except for one I popped in my mouth. Mmm, it was tart! There were vreelings skittering all around, stopping to gnaw the weeds with their terrible rodent teeth. I told them, ‘If you chew up my crop, I’ll eat you instead!’ And I meant it; pets or food, it all depends on how they behave. We designed vreelings to consume invasive plants and insects, but they’re stupid. If they’re hungry enough or get a certain wild herb in their nostrils, they’ll devour anything. Remember that, children. No matter the planning, everything in life comes down to chaos and teeth.

“Bot-Kem and I shooed the vreelings out the garden gate and latched it. My back hurt from carrying you two all day. It wasn’t going to be much longer. By harvest time, I was going to have two little assistants.

“I wanted your father to help me expand the grib nut grove and add in a few more hectares of arlong trees. I needed help; I’m just one she-shīzi with a worn old bot. Weichen — Daddy — was busy with the provincial council. I remember wondering whether you cubs would ever get to see your father in person, rather than on the optivu.

“Kem-bot has always been a good sentry. It alerted me to Daddy’s arrival, and I rushed to meet him, carrying a basket of his favorite arlong fruit. I ran straight past the shīzi standing at the gate. He was skinny, not very healthy looking, with a mane that badly needed grooming. Despite this, it was his gaze that drew my attention. There was a fierceness there, a predatory hunger beyond the usual. This shaded his demeanor with a quality of intelligence, but it also gave me a chill. After a moment, I realized this shīzi was a senior council member whom Daddy worked with.

“‘There are my beautiful ones!’ Daddy roared in his big masculine way, his eyes meeting mine and scanning my huge belly. Your Daddy is very handsome, with his lustrous mane of ormnut-colored fur growing down his back. It keeps Mommy warm on cold nights.”

“Mommy! Skip the gross stuff!” chuffed Xinyi while Bingrui gurgled and licked his paw. Meilin ignored her and continued:

“Fine. I kidded him, saying, ‘Have you politicians solved all of Emdee’s problems? Is that why you’ve finally decided to visit the mate who’s carrying your litter?’ The provincial council reports to the Emdee Assembly, though neither is much in the habit of solving problems.  Mostly, they impress each other with speeches or get into tooth-and-nail confrontations.

“Daddy said, ‘We’re finalizing the carbon accounting system. We can then begin growing the next generation of bio-designs, including paunchideer, with enough left over to allow us to increase the crop yields and improve distribution. We’ll all be fat before you know it.’

“I said, ‘We’ll scamper through somehow without giant dens and noxious vehicles and trying to outdo each other with bright shiny things.’ Then I caught myself. Looking over to our visitor, I asked your father to introduce us.

“‘Lao, this is Meilin, my mate. Meilin, this is… was… council member Lao.’

“‘You say, this was Lao?’

“‘Yes. Things are changing,’ said the shīzi. ‘Lao went to the grove and tasted a blood pear.’ One or two shīzi had gone to the grove as if summoned each time an alignment came round. I’d heard stories from the other prides, but those who were changed never… lasted. I had never spoken with anyone who had tasted one of the pears. ‘Lao is a suitable host, but not my preferred one.’

“‘I do not see council member Lao when I look at his face. Has he gone? Why would he agree to this arrangement?’

“‘You might be surprised,’ said the shīzi who had been Lao, a cryptic grin on his face. ‘The important thing is that my place is with your growing family.’ He patted my round middle then straightened his slouched back and said, ‘You see, I am your Grandfather Li from Earth.’ I do not know how many generations journeyed in that word, grandfather; perhaps a thousand distant voices spoke through his, calling for me to show proper respect. And yet…

“My hackles went up, just as yours do every time I tell you this story, Bingrui, Xinyi. This shīzi seemed harmless, but there was something in his eyes, the way his muzzle quavered. He was in the form of the Shīzi of Emdee, but carried something older inside, something alien.

“Your father took me aside and explained that Grandfather Li had made quite an impression in the Council. He took Lao’s place at the gathering, but instead of watching, Grandfather Li puffed out his chest and took charge. He said he was the leader of a great consortium of businesses and proceeded to name them off, though the names meant nothing to anyone there. He promised great rewards for the members of the assembly, and that held their attention for a while. Then he called for more detailed quarterly reports and surveys on all natural resources. ‘This world is ours,’ he chuffed. Some grumbled, but no one challenged him. Then, Grandfather Li demanded major changes. He wanted the largest of the males to form a new, higher house of government. There were low growls in the back. Lastly, he called for ‘all true Shīzi’ to attack the lesser prides of the next valley, tear out the throats of their males and offspring and impregnate their females. This prompted a furious, claws-out debate. Several members left bloodied; one lost an ear.’

“Grandfather Li, who had been nearby with eyes closed but ears alert, said, ‘The fools do not see the plan… yet. I will shape them into useful servants.’  

“‘The Council members told me outright,” Daddy whispered to me later, ‘to never let Grandfather Li come back to White Rock. They found him condescending, divisive,’ Daddy huffed, ‘and pathetic.’

“Grandfather Li moved into our den and asserted himself as patriarch. He was soft-spoken but unyielding. Suddenly, his sleeping chamber was ‘too small even for a cub,’ so I spent a day digging it larger. He found the grounds insufficiently grand, so I promised improvements. He complained about the meals I laid before him… and I held my tongue and gave him large portions of arlong wine. Each day, he issued new instructions on every detail of my home management. If I tried to object, he would narrow his eyes as if my act of speaking back violated some sacred law. Grandfather Li.  

“Late one morning, Grandfather Li rose from a night of drinking. He stepped from the den into my garden with his tail out straight, a look of disapproval on his muzzle.

“‘We stretched our hand across an ocean of stars and planted our seed here on MD-1433. We touched the grove, and it touched the primitives infesting this rock. We raised you up to be our heirs, rulers of this world. You receive our brilliant gifts, Little Plum, yet this is what you do with them? Plant roots and play with bugs?!’

“‘The Shīzi are one with Emdee. We learn her ways, and she nourishes us. Besides, I love my garden,’ I said as meekly as I could. The vreelings roamed about restlessly, you two were restless inside me, and I was restless too.

“‘You were born to be master, not partner,’ he spat out this last word and continued, ‘just as we were lords over the Earth. With our will and our machines we defeated nature. We raised armies with promises of heaven and crushed inferior men who dared oppose us.’

“‘And what has become of the Earth?’ I demanded.

“‘You dare ask such things, child!’ Grandfather Li thundered. ‘The Earth is gone to ruin and dust. But men still send their seed into the dark reaches through recorded transmissions. We send our knowledge. The grove allowed you to fill your libraries and schools, is this not so?’ He said it rhetorically. Of course Earth had sent its history into the receptive fruit that grew in the Ancestors Grove. A bite from a blood pear provided raw knowledge, though little wisdom. Grandfather Li continued, ‘We transmitted the essence of humanity to promising worlds such as MD-1433. Men planted the human spark inside beings born to these kingdoms. But, these were frameworks only, the essence of humanity. What you do not know is our final triumph. Even as the Earth cooled in her grave, we learned how to transmit… ourselves. Each of us distilled his memories and passions into a single thrust of energy that in time found its way into the blood pears of the grove. In this way, we mock death itself. Like the gods of old, we have become immortal!’

“He said it as if no Shīzi had ever surmised this. We had. We knew Earth was not done with Emdee, a world worthy of a name rather than some astronomer’s uninspired designation. I looked Grandfather Li straight in the eye, which seemed to surprise him. ‘You crossed the ocean of stars to live again as a withered old shīzi.’ The respect had drained from my voice, and I knew it.

“‘We came here to begin an empire that one day will fill every corner of existence. We will raise nation upon nation on world after world, taking what we wish as we rise higher and higher.’

“‘You ruined Earth trying to do that, reduced it to an unlovely stone.’

“‘We made mistakes, Little Plum. We will learn and go forward. That is our destiny spelled out before us. An unquestionable plan.’

“Now, I was angry. Here was my Grandfather Li, smelling of stale arlong wine and standing in stolen skin while boasting of his greatness. I wanted to honor my ancestors, for it is right to do so, but I had had enough, and I dared speak my mind. ‘How will that work, old shīzi?’

“‘I will lead the men who are to come. The machine back on Earth will send more during each alignment, though it may take many years.’

“Looking at his frail host body, I said, ‘You clearly do not have many years.’

“‘And so, I come to you. The blood pears from the grove have another, special quality.’ He held one of the fruits up for me to see. It was translucent, like an amber-hued crystal. ‘Little
Plum, bite down, and I will bite down.’

“‘You would take my life, Grandfather Li?’

“‘No, Little Plum. I would take ownership of the lives you carry.’

“With a jolt, I saw it all clearly. He had no interest in heading up our family. He had only been waiting until he could get me alone with that blood pear. He wanted to put himself inside you cubs, take you from me and change you until you were not the Xinyi and Bingrui I knew you should be.

“This, I could never allow. My vision went to blood. That’s when – ”

“That’s when you roared and gobbled him up!” bellowed Xinyi, her pupils grown wide as saucers at her favorite part of the story.

Bingrui too squealed, “Gobbled him up!” and bounced about on all fours.

“You two! I did not eat him or roar – a she-shīzi does not roar. I stared him hard in the eyes. ‘You made us, old… man,’ I snarled. ‘You wanted the Shīzi to be like you. Now see how human we can be.’ I reached into a pocket of my apron, drew a pinch of a certain herb, and blew it all over Grandfather Li.

“Realizing what was happening, he cursed and whimpered pleas for mercy. It was much too late for that. The smell of the herb and of fear drove the vreelings mad, and they pounced, pinning him and gnawing at his belly flesh. I thrummed and sank my fangs into Grandfather Li’s neck. His howls died in his severed throat, and he was still.

“His blood smacked of astonishment and musty self-pity. I spat it out and let the vreelings have their fill.”

Like the story, the feast Meilin had prepared from the bounty of her gardens and ranch was done. Nothing wasted. Shīzi prides throughout the grove were packing up and heading home. Wisps rising off numerous braziers carried the scent of blood pear buds. Gathered, incinerated. Weichen lay curled up, gorged and sleeping; useless, but so sexy. Time for another litter, she thought with a lilting hum. She’d earned it.

Meilin drew her cubs close to her, and they looked over at a mound that bore no marker. “He is here. We will remember Grandfather Li, and we will keep these fires burning. We will learn to dig deep enough, to the core if needed, to find the deepest roots and destroy them.”

To ones so young, these were words and words. They loved the story but did not grasp its full meaning. That was fine. Meilin loved her cubs, all chaos and teeth. She would teach them well, and whenever they misbehaved, which was often, she would warn them with a growl: “Be good, or Grandfather Li will get you!”