Featured Story • September 2016
The sky was yellow-brown-green, filled with dangerous particles. Soon it would start raining chemicals. Ahh looked up through the glass of its helmet and thought bitterly of its twin in hostage.
Now, the pebble. It sighed. The Pebble.
The helmet got in the way, when the fox had to catch the faint shimmer of the Pebble. If only it could take this ugly thing off. Its gloved paws, though the gloves were shaped and programmed to work like human hands, didn’t move as delicately as it would have liked, when chasing a pebble which tried to retreat deeper and deeper into the sea of other pebbles. Because of the heavy helmet, Ahh was forced to walk on two hind legs, and it didn’t like that position, even though the suit was engineered to make that easier for the fox.
The Pebble, now.
Ahh looked about. It had failed to find the Pebble for three weeks now. The humans would start to complain.
* * *
Made of stone, polished by weather and human touch, Ahh and Mmh the twin foxes guarded the path to the shrine for the Earth Lady. But they saw the visiting humans more often than the god; the Lady had more important, complicated matters to attend to than the guardian foxes could ever understand, and so was often withdrawn behind the doors of the main building.
One morning, after an especially long retreat, the Lady came out of the doors, chuckling, steps unsteady, obviously very drunk. “Foxes,” she said. “This world is ending!”
The foxes looked at each other and then at the Lady. “Pardon?”
“Didn’t you hear me?” She sat herself down on the top of the long stone steps, between the pedestals on which the foxes sat. “The Moon guy found another nice little universe, around that corner behind the cluster beside that nebula across the First Star . . . ”
“Lady,” Ahh interrupted; it couldn’t help it. “Why would that mean this one is ending?”
“Why? Because we gods are all going to move into that one! If we gods deliberately abandon this universe, it would lose its conventional balance and topple down, of course!”
The two foxes looked at each other again and then at the Lady again. “But . . . humans?” said Mmh, whose mouth was carved shut and didn’t do much talking except with its twin.
“What about the humans?”
“How would they survive that?” Ahh complemented its twin’s point.
“Why are you worried about humans? You’re not humans!”
Ahh shifted uncomfortably. “But . . . aren’t we supposed to be here for the humans, after all? The humans carved Mmh and me, anyway. Can’t we take the humans to that new universe, too?”
“They won’t be able to follow us.”
“But . . . ”
The goddess abruptly stood up. “Why are you two so concerned about them? You’re supposed to be my guardians!”
The Earth Lady shrieked something unrecognizable and then ran into the main building and banged the doors shut behind her. The two foxes looked at each other again.
“I don’t think it’s quite fair if we don’t warn the humans,” said Ahh.
Mmh nodded. “Agreed.”
“And it’s not like the humans can stop the gods even if they tried. They will have to figure out what to do on their own, and if we don’t help them figure that out, then it’s not like we are betraying our goddess.”
“ . . . Agreed.”
So the first person who visited the shrine after that, the priest’s wife, had to be the messenger.
* * *
The message, that the gods were leaving and the world was ending, spread like a fire through a dead forest. It burnt the tongues of people, scorched researchers’ and politicians’ bums. One day some of the world’s very important persons came to visit the foxes. They wanted to talk to the goddess, of course, but she wouldn’t meet any human at the moment, so.
“But why?” one of the persons said. “Is the new universe so much better than this one?”
“They have better soil, hence the better rice.”
“Then . . . ” The foxes could see the person’s throat making a nervous move. “If we develop a better rice . . . ?”
“You mean you’d start enriching the soil—now?”
The person said nothing.
So the world slowly collapsed, and the humans started running away into the space. The humans, it seemed at first, adjusted quite well to the new environment they’d created on their own. But then after a while, they realized something was missing.
They knew they didn’t actually need gods’ protections or blessings to survive, to thrive, in this place they had created without the gods’ help. Still the hollow the gods had left in people’s minds were unbearable. But science, engineering and programming made it so much harder for them to now create new gods, new altars, from scratch.
So they called to the shrine guardians. With the gods’ altars still under construction in their new universe, without any path to guard, they had been loitering around the vast nothingness between the two universes. Ahh and Mmh, detecting the call from the humans, went into one of the most important space stations.
“Do you think,” the important person, now Earth-less, asked by way of greeting the two foxes, “the gods will, at least, let us have their seed, so to speak? Any fragment of them, something around which we can build new altars, work out new myth systems. We’ll even develop a rice that can be harvested up here, to offer the first grains to not only the newly grown gods, but the old ones, too.”
Ahh tilted its head. After a moment of silence it nodded, and Mmh followed.
* * *
When the two foxes talked to the Earth Lady, she, as they had predicted, cried hysterically. “What are you saying? Are you betraying me for the humans?”
“Um, no, my Lady. We just feel sorry for the humans, is all. Nothing much. A lock of your hair, perhaps? So they can build a new altar around it.”
The Lady banged the tiny sake cup onto the floor in front of her, spilling most of its content. “You would sacrifice my precious hair for the humans!”
“No, not that, my Lady. It’s just . . . we could shut them up if we show them a little bit of your favor, perhaps? They might even offer you some sake made from their new rice, developed and grown on their earth-less place? You aren’t very happy with the new universe’s drink, as I remember your complaining?”
And that, finally, made the Lady shut up and think.
* * *
But gods aren’t that simple. In order to have a lock of the Lady’s hair, the humans would have to go through an ordeal, the Lady decided. Of course they would; how else could they praise an easily accessed god seriously enough?
“And the ordeal is?” the important human asked the foxes, frowning.
“To gather the Pebbles on the Lady’s shrine premises.”
“Pebbles? But the shrine grounds are mostly covered with pebbles. What do you mean?”
“Not just any pebble,” said Ahh, tapping the floor behind it with its tail. “The Pebbles. They are pebbles collected from every planet, one from each, eight in all. Then they were washed for a thousand years in the Heavenly River, polished and rounded, and then dried on the Riverside for another thousand years. When your ancestors built the shrine for the Lady, we scattered them over the grounds, as purification and protection for the land. But then, your ancestors misunderstood and thought that we wanted just ordinary pebbles on the grounds and brought in bags of countless ordinary pebbles. Opened them onto the grounds, over the Pebbles. It would have been such a painstaking trouble to find the Pebbles among the tens of thousands of ordinary ones that we just let them be.”
“ . . . And?”
Another tap of its tail. “The ordeal. Is to find the Pebbles among the ordinary ones. There is a lot the Pebbles can do, actually. Only the Pebbles can build a bridge between universes that you humans can use, too, for example.”
Ahh made a slight wrinkle above its muzzle. “So, once the ordeal is complete, if we build the bridge, you can even make a pilgrimage to your old gods. Your sake will keep them happy, and if you use the bridge to deliver the sake to them, then they won’t block the path—”
The important person raised a hand. “Can we just exchange our sake for a lock of a god’s hair?”
The wrinkle above Ahh’s muzzle got so slightly deeper. “No.”
“But think about it.” The important human folded and unfolded their fingers. “We don’t know how to distinguish the Pebbles from ordinary ones.”
“You surely have some spirit readers left, don’t you? We can teach them how.”
“Well. Sending astronomically untrained spirit readers would be too dangerous. But astronauts wouldn’t be able to see the pebbles clearly enough even if you teach them, would they?”
“Of course, we’ll need someone with at least a bit of seeing.”
The important human unfolded their fingers again, crossed the arms. And then, looked at Mmh, who had been quiet the entire time.
* * *
And so, here it was, in its cheap, hand-me-down human space suit. The humans had kidnapped Mmh, whose mouth had been closed ever since it was first carved out of a rock, and therefore didn’t have sharp teeth like Ahh, to slice human throats. They trapped Mmh in a cell with no sunlight, and that was making both of the twins weaker by the day. Ahh called for the Lady’s help, but the Lady only snorted: “Well, you do love the humans, don’t you?”
Soon it started raining chemicals.
Ahh was too tired, without Mmh at its side, to care about the chemicals now. It knew if its suit leaked, it would suffer serious damage to its stone fur, and there was no mason in this universe now who could or would repair it.
Once, human children had lent their umbrellas to the foxes, it remembered as it heard the rain patter onto its helmet. Once children laughed as they jumped around the grounds, amused by the pebbles clinking at each other. Once, even adults talked to the foxes.
The rain slowly seeped through the layers of pebbles, making their colors vivid. The usually dull-grey shrine grounds were full of colors: black, white, cream blue purple yellow brown. Green. Green was dominant, which was inconvenient, because all of the Pebbles looked a bit like jade.
bit like jade.
Ahh gasped but stopped itself, with a rather painful effort, from rushing and making an unnecessary, awkward move. It blinked and moved its eyes, to make sure the glint was actually there.
And it was!
Careful, careful, Ahh told itself. It breathed deep. And then, slowly, slowly pushed its gloved paw into the pool of pebbles in front of it. Its glove-fingers caught a smooth, round stone, though Ahh couldn’t see it with the glove in the way. The fox closed its eyes, and then painfully slowly again, lifted the stone off the ground.
Ahh opened its eyes.
A fox stone!
Wincing, it let out a frustrated sound, and realized it’d been holding its breath. Ahh panted a little. “Fox stone” was a term often used by jade-hunter humans. When wet, the fox stones wore colors similar to jade, which deceived and disappointed the hunters. When dry they were just ordinary, dull-looking rocks just like the twin foxes themselves.
In many old tales foxes deceived humans, and that was why the humans named these stones that. But now, here, it was the fox being tricked, pushed into this suit in a human-like posture. Perhaps it was too late now; Mmh was too weak, and Ahh had lost its seeing eyes to find the Pebbles. Perhaps Ahh would never see Mmh again. The thought grabbed at Ahh’s heart, shook it violently from inside. Ahh stared at the fox stone in its gloved paw, unable to do anything else.
But then, a glimmer, at the corner of its eye.
For a long moment it stared on at the fox stone in its paw, because perhaps it was just its own tears. When Ahh was sure the tears had dried, for the first time, it moved its eyes and looked properly into the glint.
Green of a river just after a heavy rain, polished and rounded by its own history; slight, slight glow only when it’s seen out of a corner of your eye. It’d been there all along, right beside the fox stone Ahh was now holding. Fearing its clumsy glove-fingers might lose it again, the fox crouched low, resembling its old position of when naked. That made its back ache a lot but it didn’t care.
With a finger Ahh gently pushed the stone in question until it was on top of all the other pebbles. The Pebble. It caused explosions in your mind, while at the same time soothing your hand touching it. There was no mistaking it.
Ahh sighed, relieved that one was at last in its paw. It put the Pebble into the small compartment near its chest. There were still seven of them left for it to find, but now that it remembered the way the Pebbles felt, finding the rest would be a lot easier.
* * *
As it hoped, Ahh found it much easier to search for the remaining seven Pebbles. Now that it had one of them inside its suit, it could feel the Pebbles resonate, giving it bearings. But it did have to dig up a lot of ordinary pebbles, with its clumsy gloved paws, and in all it took almost one-and-half-months to collect all of the eight Pebbles. It called to the humans, clicking in the connection, told them it had all the Pebbles in its suit.
“Well done,” the human said. “Will now remote-control the shuttle. You’ll be home in no time at all!”
* * *
“What do you mean I can’t see Mmh now?” Its stone teeth glinted inside the helmet.
“Well, first we need to cleanse and sterilize you, your suit, and the Pebbles, too. It might take a few days; we don’t know what’s on Earth these days.”
“But I’ve been there, with the Pebbles inside my suit!”
“Well . . . you’re a guardian fox, right? Made of stone.”
Right, it was a guardian fox, but what did that have to do with its being treated like this? It called to the Lady, and the goddess immediately called back. “Oh Ahh, does that mean you have collected all the Pebbles?”
“Yes, my Lady; please tell the humans that I—”
“Good! Now we have a good excuse to reward them with our blessings and have their sake! Tell them never to forget to bring us a lot of sake!”
The telepathic connection died before Ahh could say another word.
Somewhere above, a human was instructing Ahh to take the Pebble compartment out of its suit. They’d process the Pebbles first, and when they were done with that, they’d move on to take the suit off Ahh and ready it for the meeting with its twin. Ahh looked up and then down. Did they think the fox was so stupid as to believe them and willingly offer them the important Pebbles? It withdrew its slim front leg out of the oversized sleeve, into the chest of the suit. It opened the compartment from inside, and took one of the Pebbles out.
From above, a human yelled, “What the fuck are you doing!” as Ahh popped the Pebble into its mouth and swallowed.
The Pebbles went down surprisingly smoothly. Only one out of the eight stuck a little in its throat, but Ahh forced it down.
With a huge teardrop at the corner of the eye, it looked up again and said, “Search Mmh. You’ll find the Pebbles with Mmh.”
* * *
In its isolation cell, Mmh was vomiting.
At first one of the guarding humans heard the noise of coughing, coughing, coughing. They knew Mmh was getting weaker and weaker, so at first they didn’t pay much attention. But when the coughing turned to throwing up, finally one of the humans went to check up on it.
Mmh was vomiting the Pebbles Ahh had swallowed, wet and glistening in its bile. Its mouth was weirdly twisted, because after all, the outlet hadn’t existed moments before. The humans froze at the sight.
“You see what we are to each other,” Ahh said, when all the swallowing and vomiting had been done. “Now let us go. Let us be the twins that we should be.”
* * *
The humans refused to touch the Pebbles after they had come through the two bodies of the guardian foxes, thinking the Pebbles were somehow contaminated. When the two foxes had opened a portal between the Earth-less humans’ space stations and the gods’ new universe, the humans finally set them free. Ahh was still in the cranky cheap space suit, because no human had wanted to touch it to help it take the suit off. Still standing on two hind legs, Ahh, with Mmh, left the humans, and when they were safely behind a planet out of anyone’s earshot, Ahh produced a pebble out of its glove.
One of the Pebbles.
“Knew one of the eight was a fox stone.” Mmh grinned with its new, twisted mouth.
“Yes. I didn’t want the humans to inspect them closely. That’s why I transferred the Pebbles into your stomach. Sorry I had to force open your non-existent mouth. Did it hurt?”
“A little. You gambled.”
Mmh sniffed at Ahh’s gloved paw, which smelled faintly of the chemicals. It sneezed.
“Let’s go to some place where no human can tear us apart,” Ahh said.
Mmh looked up at its twin. “Heard a rumor.”
“Rumor? From the guarding humans?”
“Yes.” Mmh shifted, not used to their difference in height. “There’s another universe, a bit closer to the Earth-less humans’ than the gods’ new one.”
“There are people there, too?”
“Yes. At first the Earth-less humans thought they were the ones who took their gods away. The Earth-less ones bothered these new people because of that, but then they realized these new people didn’t have their own myths and had no idea what the Earth-less humans were talking about.”
Ahh tugged at its suit, feeling a little hopeful. “Do you think we can ask them to help us take this thing off?”
“Perhaps. Sounded as though they were very curious people, poking back at the Earth-less humans and wanting to continue their communication even after the Earth-less cut their line off out of disinterest.”
So with the power of the last Pebble, they flew through space to meet these curious people.
* * *
The curious people stared curiously at the twins. “Do you speak?” one of them asked.
“Yes.” At Ahh’s answer there was a great commotion in the people surrounding the foxes. By the looks of it these curious people seemed very advanced, perhaps more advanced than the Earth-less humans, in terms of technologies. Their buildings, infrastructures surrounding them, all looked organic, close to trees of the Earth-less humans; but the foxes could see very minute, complicated mechanisms incorporated into those organic systems. Probably the Earth-less people deemed these curious people “primitive” just because of the way these systems looked on the surface, not worth continuing communication at a large expense.
Still, these curious people seemed very awed and horrified at the same time by the presence of these strange foxes. “Are you . . . the thing that those people called ‘gods’?” one of the crowd hesitantly asked, when other people’s voices were a little lower.
Just when Ahh was about to answer no, commotion erupted again. “God!” an especially loud person exclaimed. “We have a god, in strange armor, with a ferocious guardian at its feet!”
This made Ahh feel uncomfortable, but when it looked down, Mmh was grinning.
“We have a god! A warrior god! We’ll never lose a battle!”
The curious people built a small house for the foxes, which the curious people called an altar. Everyday there was a visitor, and this pleased the foxes a lot. They were cute people, these curious ones, easily surprised and cheered with the little tricks the foxes did with the help of the Pebble’s power, even things the curious people would have easily achieved with their own technologies.
But when, one day, an important curious person came to visit them, a chill ran across the twins. It reminded them of the day one of the important humans came and the end of the world started. The curious important person sat in front of the foxes and said, “We have something we want back from the Earth-less humans.”
Still nervous, Ahh said, “You sent them something?”
“Yes, we sent in an AI in the hopes of continuing communication with them. We’re sure it has reached them, the signals from the ship indicate as such. But we have heard nothing from the AI itself. We’re really worried.”
“About them stealing your technology out of the AI?” asked Ahh.
The curious important person blinked. “What? Oh, that, too, perhaps. But not just that—all the AIs are like our children. They even have names, like ‘Future’ for this particular one that has been sent. They are all built to their purpose, and every gear, every screw is made with intense care, just for that one AI; every word of its program the poetry dedicated to it. For many engineers that care can be even called love.”
Ahh and Mmh stared on at the person with a knot in their chests, like the heavy fox stone.
The person looked down, but the foxes could see something shimmer at the person’s eye. “Future was—it was my creation.”
Ahh looked at Mmh, who looked back at it. Ahh then looked back at the person. “Being from that universe, we have the feeling—it might be possible that—” Ahh swallowed, feeling its own eyes stinging. “That the Earth-less humans captured Future, disassembled it to look into it. They sometimes treat non-human beings badly. Future as you know—”
“Might as well be dead, yes.” The curious important person rubbed their face with a hand. “But in that case, I want its body back here. I won’t waste a single part from Future and will certainly build something again. Because that is the proper thing to do.”
Ahh nodded. These curious people had wanted to know about gods, they had welcomed the foxes as their gods. But all along, their technologies had been their god, their engineering their myths.
* * *
Ahh and Mmh knew that the curious people, with their technologies and their patience to tailor their technologies to any purpose, didn’t really need the foxes. But the curious people believed they needed the foxes because the curious people thought Ahh and Mmh were their warrior gods, on their side. The people’s faith let the foxes exert the power of the Pebble to the full, and together, they established a huge fighting space ship that could carry all the fighting AIs on board, with the highest velocity the curious people had ever achieved.
When the foxes poked the Earth-less humans, told them that the curious people wanted their AI Future back, the Earth-less humans sneered and said they didn’t know what the foxes were talking about. When they poked for the second time, this time with a serious warning, the Earth-less humans didn’t answer, but the curious people realized the Earth-less humans had set a shield around their stations right after the first poke, using Future’s knowledge they had robbed. The curious important person, the one who had created the beloved Future, sobbed upon realizing Future had mostly been consumed by that shield. But at the same time, the person was proud that Future had turned into such a robust, flawless shield.
The foxes told the curious people that there must have been a very vulnerable spot in the portal to the gods’ new universe. Because, after all, one of the Pebbles used to build the bridge was a fake, and the foxes knew exactly where that spot was. From that spot they could sneak into the bridge between the universes, and eventually, into the Earth-less humans’ space.
And so, a war began.
Yukimi Ogawa lives in a small town in Tokyo where she writes in English but never speaks the language. She still wonders why it works that way. Her fiction can be found in such places as Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons and Clockwork Phoenix 4.
About “Left Behind,” she writes, “I’ve jade-hunted a couple of times, on beaches covered with pebbles, but never found anything noteworthy. Not even a fox stone. I myself enjoyed the experience, the sense of meditation, with the sound of the sea quite soothing.
“Around the time I was writing this story, I was somehow haunted by the idea of ene-me, that I encountered somewhere on the internet. The term refers to one who ends up being the enemy to the self, and I loved reading about how they snap awake and stop being it. I have no idea how I decided to put jade hunting and an ene-me into one story, though.”
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