And here we are… halfway through Erik Weck’s 10-part serial story, Gravlander. Jo is definitely in a tight situation, and if you read last week’s post then you know she is completely unwelcome in her new locale.
Are you just discovering this story? The good news is you’ve only got four episodes to read to catch up, so just click on the links below to load up any episodes you’ve missed:
Gravlander is a story that takes place after the events of The Far Banks of the Rubicon, Erik’s latest novel in his Pax Imperium universe. Erik and I have been having some fun conversations in a new video series we record each week… Novel Ideas. We’re up to episode 17 where we discussed this serial story and how Erik is plotting it out and developing an A and B storyline. You can check out the video here if you’d like to hear some backstory for Gravlander, but be aware it might have a few spoilers from Episodes 1 to 4.
Okay, so let’s get to Episode 5. As I’m writing this post, I haven’t yet read the story and I’m curious about what’s going on with these Timcree. I guess we’re about to find out…
Episode 5: Kree Pa
Six weeks into her apparently futile efforts to train Ardo Tanith in the basics of using nanites to heal, Jo’s hands started to shake. She was desperately lonely, and she chided herself as she and Tanith sat invisibly in the corner of an ancient med bay, watching a Timcree healer. The healer worked on a young, male patient who groaned, while leaning on the Timcree who had brought him into the examining room. What did I think was going to happen? Was I going to waltz in here and become the pirate queen of the Timcree? The unquenchable loneliness of the last six weeks had given Jo time to think—perhaps too much time. Reminiscent of the void outside, her thoughts were dark and vacant, with only the smallest pinpricks of light. Jo shifted uncomfortably in her seat. In her most difficult moments of lucidity, Jo recognized that when she agreed to this trip, she had dreamed of coming to the Timcree as a conquering savior who would provide the answers to their every medical need. It hadn’t exactly worked out that way.
Tanith seemed to be an eager student—although even that was hard to determine for Jo. He certainly made an effort, but the language barriers between them drove Jo to distraction. They seemed to have made little progress on teaching him anything medical, and Jo had no hope things would improve anytime soon. Most of their time was wasted on trying to help Tanith understand the basics of English. If Jo were honest, he was making good progress, but it was slower than she would have liked. The work exhausted her.
After her violent and chilly reception, Jo had been kept confined to the derelict freighter on which she had lived for almost four weeks.
As soon as he had healed enough to walk, Commander Kolas had returned to his ship and departed on his next voyage of trade and discovery. He had yet to return. No one else in his clan spoke effective English. That left Jo with Tanith, six weeks of frustration, and unbearable isolation. All she wanted was a simple, easy conversation. Finally, two weeks ago, after Jo had completely melted down during a particularly frustrating attempt to communicate, Tanith had finally begun to take her outside the confines of her new home.
At first, Jo had worried about some kind of dramatic response to her presence in the public spaces of the mashed-together ball of Timcree ships that they called Korg Haran, but she had been completely mistaken. At least on the surface, no one threatened her at all, and as far as she could tell, no one threatened Tanith, either. Whatever had happened when she first came aboard had apparently been left behind. Now she just felt invisible, as most of the Timcree ignored her completely. Those few who did acknowledge her existence examined her with brazen curiosity, staring openly. She had yet to dare to talk to any of them.
As far as Jo could tell, the Timcree had little government of any kind—there was certainly no ruling authority who could have given Kolas orders. Of course, that didn’t mean there weren’t rules. The Timcree followed a strict code of conduct that was one part religion, one part superstition, and one part implicit social contract. Men like Kolas gathered to themselves other junior men—and their associated women—to form a clan. Within the clan, the head male acted as the ‘lord and master,’ dispensing justice and favors to all. The Kolas clan seemed to consist of nearly thirty Timcree.
In general, Timcree life appeared highly gendered to Jo. The women made the food and ‘kept house,’ such as it was. This only added to her frustration. She was never allowed to participate in such things, and never allowed to be alone with the women. Unless she were bathing or relieving herself, she always had some sort of male escort. The best she could tell, she was considered some kind of male outsider, not fit for women’s work and not a true Timcree man, either. Uncomfortable with the Timcree distinctions between men and women, Jo was surprised to find herself frustrated with her lack of acceptance by the females of the clan. She would have happily made food just to be able to feel not so alien—and even this realization irritated her more as she recognized in it a complete compromise of some of her core values.
It didn’t help that Kolas’ pregnant wife seemed to rule in his stead, and she clearly had no use for the newest member of her home. Hers was a reign of terror. Even Tanith, who appeared to be Kolas’ chief lieutenant, seemed cowed by her. It took Jo several weeks to even figure out her truly Timcree name, as it was spoken so infrequently by the clan. Zonezeh Gehgik was still a mouthful for Jo.
The generosity of the Timcree toward Jo belied the coldness of their reception. The Timcree clan plied her with gifts, and kept her comfortable and well fed. Tanith had moved out of his quarters and given them to her. At first it felt small to Jo, but then she saw the spaces others inhabited, and she recognized it as palatial by comparison. Tanith insisted on paying for his English lessons and nurse’s training. At first, Jo hadn’t objected because of her conversation with Kolas about Timcree taboos. A gift from a Gravlander—like English lessons or nurse’s training—brought with it a curse of dependence on the outsider, a taboo the Timcree couldn’t accept. However, as the gifts piled up on a daily basis, Jo worried that she was taking far more than was fair, considering the poor circumstances of the Timcree’s existence. Once she had tried to object. It was the only moment where she had seen Tanith visibly angry. Leaving his gift behind, he had stormed out of her quarters early and didn’t come back until the next morning, when the event seemed totally forgotten. Jo didn’t make that mistake again.
In front of Jo, the Timcree healer threw funny-shaped dice on the table. He picked through them, muttering to himself before prescribing a treatment for what looked like a painful but obvious burn, which he then treated with a comparatively modern dermal regenerator. In any contemporary hospital, the device would have been shunned, but compared to the chanting, it seemed cutting edge.
As she watched this display of superstition mixed with reasonable medicine, Jo wasn’t sure how much further she could go in her attempts to train Tanith, but even as she faced an inevitable defeat, her will hardened. Long ago, when she was four, her mother had been killed. She had watched her die. Jo had survived then, and she knew that she would survive now. She would make sure she survived, no matter what it cost her. She would help the Timcree babies. No mother deserved to lose a child, and certainly not to some rogue nanite.
The Timcree healer’s chant broke Jo’s dour trance. One thing that she had learned from her six weeks in Korg Haran was that the Timcree loved their chanted prayers. They had a chant for every occurrence. When done, the healer pronounced his judgement and treatment plan—at least that’s what Jo suspected from the few words she could comprehend. Then he reached over and took the hand of the caregiver and placed it on the raw newly grafted skin created by the generator. The burned Timcree winced but held his cry, as the caregiver was admonished by the healer. The caregiver nodded respectfully then answered with a short, “Pa.“
Jo leaned over to ask a whispered question to Tanith when he quietly stood, even as the healer continued to admonish the patient and caregiver. Tanith signaled for her to follow.
Half an hour later, Tanith and Jo sat together over a broth-filled bowl of noodles, which had been served to them by a young Timcree woman whom Jo suspected as having a thing for Tanith—a guess further supported by the dark look she gave Jo as she left the room.
As Jo twirled her noodles around her chopsticks, she tried carefully to articulate her question so as not to offend Tanith. “If your healers use Gravlander medicine to do the work of healing, why do they cast lots and pray?”
Tanith looked at her with his usual blank look for a moment. Then he purposely turned his eyes to the broth in his bowl. Lifting the vessel to his lips, he said, “Life is more than the psychics.”
At first, Jo wasn’t sure what Tanith meant, but then she had a guess. “Life is more than physics?” she asked.
“Yes, yes, physics.” Tanith nodded at her correction of his word.
Jo had no desire to argue metaphysics with Tanith, but with the Timcree, something other than the physical world seemed to lurk around every corner. So far, Jo had done her best to avoid those dark corners, to keep her opinions to herself, but this time, she couldn’t help herself. She decided to draw Tanith out. “Wasn’t it physics that healed that Timcree’s arm?”
Tanith put down his bowl. A slight widening of his eyes told Jo that she had intrigued him with this conversation. “Can you say this? Physics healed? Physics or healer, who is to say?”
Jo warmed a little and ventured an opinion of her own. “I think I can say for sure that physics regenerated the skin on that man’s arm.”
“This is a difference besides Gravlander and Kree. Life is not so for Kree. We do not experience life as only physics. Life is the…” Here Tanith struggled for words. He thought for a moment and then shrugged his shoulders just a little. “For Kree, life is the Kree pa—the altogether, the everything. Life is physics—Yes. Life is healer—Yes. Life is Kree—Yes. Life is Korg Haran—Yes.”
Clearly, Tanith desperately wanted Jo to understand what he was trying to communicate. She had never seen him so animated, and Jo thought she understood what he was trying to say—she just didn’t buy it. “I don’t know, Tanith. I’m not sure that I agree with the Kree way. It seems to me that everything we experience and feel has a physical explanation. All of it comes back to physics.”
The comment seemed to deflate Tanith, and Jo regretted it almost immediately. He picked up his rapidly cooling noodles with his chopsticks and said, “You miss your Ghost Fleet, pa?”
Jo nodded, acknowledging her ever-present loneliness. As difficult as it had been, Jo had to admit that right now she would even be grateful to see some of her fellow nurses again.
“This not physics. With physics, Gravlander think she no longer need trust and hope. She think that physics and her all she need. Gravlander need Kree pa—physics, yes, and healer, yes. You see?”
Jo thought about explaining to Tanith that both the Timcree and the humans had little circuits wired in the ancient parts of their brains that rewarded and punished them. Her loneliness was only a byproduct of her brain deciding that her life with the Timcree wasn’t nearly as safe and beneficial than if she were with her own people, thus it punished her for her choice to be here instead of there. If she went home, the same circuitry would reward her for her choice. She decided better of it. Feelings and emotions were physics, after all.
Since she didn’t speak, an animated Tanith went on. “For Kree, Pa means more than ‘yes’. Pa means ‘trust.’ Pa means ‘hope.’ Kree pa. You see?”
Jo didn’t quite yet understand what he was driving at, so she didn’t answer at all, and Tanith went silently back to his noodles.
Nanite treatment for Zonezah Gehgik began shortly after Kolas arrived back on Korg Haran. Jo had her doubts that Tanith was ready, but the birth was approaching rapidly, and if the infant were to survive, it needed treatment. The infant decided to make its appearance in the world only four weeks thereafter. Jo wasn’t at all sure of its chances. It had lived such a difficult life in the womb, and while Tanith’s treatment had been adequate, it needed more time to be optimal. Without an imager, there was really no way to tell how healthy the child would be, except to wait and see.
The birth itself was a community affair with large numbers of people in and out of the room until things began to get serious toward the end. Then Jo was shunted out with the men, and they waited, while Zonezah wailed her distress. This didn’t seem to faze the men at all, except perhaps Kolas, who appeared even more stoic than usual, if that were possible. One of the younger men even commented on the strength of her cry. Every cry made Jo wince. She couldn’t share the men’s apparent laissez faire attitude. Quietly, she slipped out for a walk.
Jo’s steps eventually carried her down to the market near Kolas’ berth for his freighter. Recently she’d taken to walking without one of her ever-present minders. She’d been to the market a few times and even purchased a thing or two from one of the stalls that would do business with her. She wouldn’t exactly call her reception warm, and she had no doubt she paid a Gravlander tax on everything she bought, but no matter what, it felt good to be on her own doing what she could for herself.
Today she wandered in part of the market she hadn’t yet visited—racks of used clothing mixed with brightly colored cloth. Around her, a few women haggled with sleepy vendors. She was just about to turn around and walk out of the area when something caught her eye—a bright, white jumpsuit with all its patches missing hung in the back of one of the stalls, and Jo noticed several of her personal items lay in trays on the counter. All of it had been left behind on the ship at her arrival. In the weeks that followed, she hadn’t been able to go back for any of it.
How her things had ended up here she wasn’t sure, but she doubted that Kolas would have sold it to the vendor. First, that didn’t strike her as something Kolas would do, and second, it would have meant that Kolas would have taken something of hers without payment. Jo thought that in the context of their relationship that would have been a problem. However, theft among the Timcree was a funny thing. She had no doubt that a Timcree wouldn’t consider it theft if they took something from a Gravlander they didn’t know. That would simply be good business—and a great story to tell when you arrived back in your clan.
Looking up from her seat in the stall, the Timcree vendor momentarily recoiled when she saw Jo looking at her own things. Jo savored her discomfort while she considered whether or not she would begin haggling to purchase back her personal effects. The injustice of that idea frustrated her, but seeing her sealed personal beacon still lying in the tray, she decided she would do what she needed to do in order to recover it. She was just about to ask for a price on the object when she hit upon an idea.
Feigning disinterest, she asked casually in halting Kree, “How much for the jumpsuit?” At least she hoped that was what she had said.
Here, the Timcree vendor had a choice. She could by all rights pretend not to have heard Josephine, but Jo had noticed that speaking Kree made this a much more difficult ruse for many of the Timcree to maintain.
The vendor chose to negotiate. “Six hundred Jen.”
Even Jo knew the price she offered was ridiculous, and she scoffed openly.
Jo started the slow process of wearing her down to something reasonable. It was a dance she had by no means mastered. The vendor always had the upper hand on Jo.
Casually, she asked, “Where did you get these?”
The vendor lied brazenly. “My brother brought them in on his ship.”
Jo reached down and picked up the personal beacon. “This looks interesting. What is it?”
The vendor stammered. “Oh, that? That’s nothing. It’s not worth much.”
Josephine put the beacon back down and suddenly looked the vendor in the eye, an action she knew made the Timcree uncomfortable. “Actually, it’s worth more than your whole booth, and I give it to you. Tell your brother, it’s a gift to you from the Gravlander. In fact, all the things he stole from me—I give them to you.” Allowing her no time to react, Jo turned and started to walk away from the stall.
She knew her words had achieved their desired effect when from behind her she heard the vendor exclaim, “Gravlander, no. Take them. They are your things. Take them.”
Jo smiled to herself.
Several of the other vendors who had been feigning disinterest stopped pretending to be straightening the clothes in their stalls.
Jo was just about to turn around and go back to collect her belongings when a hand upon her shoulder caught her attention.
Tanith stood there looking down at her, something of a grin on his face. He spoke loudly enough for all to hear. “Gravlander, Zonezah has given birth to a girl, and she is healthy.”