12 Epiphanies

vii. We have a need for magic.

Early one morning, when taking the recycling to the shoot, Kate found a stack of brightly colored storage boxes beside waist-height figurines of a nutcracker and snowman beneath the bulletin board in the foyer on her floor. A note on the board read:

Need some cheer? We were going to toss these out, but thought someone might have use for them! If you need some Christmas spirit, help yourself!

–Your neighbor

A big arrow drawn in wide red felt-tipped pen pointed at the storage boxes and statues.

Kate looked around, saw no one, and lugged three of the boxes, the nutcracker, and the snowman back into her apartment.

She found shiny glass ornaments that looked like they dated back to the 1940s, the kind her grandparents had on their tree when she was a little girl. She hadn’t decided if she’d set up a tree, but these would sparkle in a bowl.

A paper chain smelled like elementary school–that closed-in stuffiness of old paper, paste, and rubber cement. She felt flooded with contentedness. How funny that the memory of a smell could bring her back like that, to a feeling of home, of childhood? Of carols and excitement?

Untangling the string of lights, Kate felt her mind settle. Her mind was like this–little spots that lit up when fired, and connections that sometimes grew twisted and tangled. What strange things we are, people, with such complicated pathways within us! And how magical, really, when these pathways become clear, the synapses fire, and we light up from within!

We were made to do things! To create beauty! To appreciate! Even if Kate were the only one who would see the decorations in her home, the simple act of taking out each decoration from the box, appreciating it, loving it, and finding a place for it, that, in and of itself, was enough. That was joy. There was something magical in it.

She had a tiny corner of loneliness, still. But she also had much more. Candles sparkled from her table. The giant nutcracker watched, as if he would keep her from feeling too alone.

And she had time. She had weeks off from work. She had time to do the things that she couldn’t during the busy year. She could remember, for example. She could wonder at the flicker of light from the candles. She could feel gratitude towards her unknown neighbor for the kind gesture of sharing the boxes of decorations. She could speculate about whose hands, tiny or large, had glued together the strips of paper that made the chain hanging above her head.

It was still early in the day after she’d finished decorating. She sat at her keyboard, something she hadn’t done in many a month. She played Bach first, for every practice should begin with a prelude, and before she finished, her mind was completely untangled and lit up. Her fingers found their ways to carols, and the apartment filled with magic.

There is something that we need, to be fully human, and it has something to do with magic; and music, sparkles, and bright decorations sometimes fill that need.

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Lighthouse: Up a Creek

Note: This chapter picks up after “Intruders“, written by For_Eorzea/SMNerd and featuring siblings Refiltre and Shintu. I suggest reading it first!

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The bus broke down in Willow Creek. The driver told us we’d have a few hours, at least, before repairs were complete. I wondered what to do for the afternoon with a child who couldn’t understand me.

I wanted to get us home. I missed Sept. I was nervous about traveling with Santi at a time when the AAC was sparking riots. Her disguise was good, but I wasn’t sure it was good enough. No matter how blonde her hair, how blue her eyes, she couldn’t hide her other-worldliness.

Nevertheless, it didn’t do any good to stay in the cramped bus station. We’d passed a park driving in, so Santi and I walked the short way there.

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The humid air draped rain clouds over the foothills. We smiled in the sun, in spite of my worries.

Santi looked about her, then ran off toward a bed of winter flowers.

The park seemed deserted, so I tried to convince myself I had no reason for concern. Yet something felt off. I was anxious. Maybe it was just the bus’s mechanical failures, I reasoned, or the disappointment of delay.

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Across the street, I spotted a familiar blue bandana. It was Ritu. I had a sudden panicked flash that she’d come for Santi, followed by guilt at the panic, followed by the rational thought that I should hand Santi safely over to her, so she could deliver her to whatever home she’d lined up for her.

I wasn’t ready to part with Santi, and that made me feel worse–both that I’d grown attached over such a short time, and that I felt selfish enough to want to keep her with me when Ritu probably had a secure place waiting.

Then I realized that Ritu had no way of knowing we’d be here. We were supposed to be on the road, heading towards home, and the plan was she’d pick up my temporary charge at Culpepper Monday morning.

“Ritu!” I shouted. “What are you doing here?”

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“Hey, Mal!” she said. “I’m here on Collective biz. We got wind of protests. Here to keep it all peaceful, if I can. Or at the very least, step in should anybody need it. You know I’m certified in non-violence? Plus, first-aid and CPR.”

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I hadn’t known protests were scheduled for Willow Creek. I thought it was only the more conservative communities like Oasis Springs.

Maybe that was why I felt so nervous. I was picking up the hostile buzz. If only the bus would get fixed quickly!

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“But what are you doing here?” Ritu asked, just as surprised to see me.

“I’m here with Santi,” I said. “Do you want to take her, since you’re here?”

Ritu felt it was better not to. She had work to do, and it might not be safe. We’d stick to the plan. I’d take Santi home with me, and Ritu would get in touch about permanent placement later.

“You want to meet her?” I asked.

“Sure!” said Ritu.

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Santi raised her arms to me when I approached.

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I wrapped her in a hug, and she let out a musical sigh.

“It’s OK, Santi,” I said. “I was just over there, with our friend, with Ritu. Ritu will become one of your friends, too. She’s the one who sent me to fetch you, after all, she and Xirra and Sept!”

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Santi simply held on.

After Ritu headed off to the river path, I realized we hadn’t used the restroom since we embarked on the bus early that morning. I walked Santi to the park facilities.

In the lobby, a man in shabby clothes scolded a small extra-T boy.

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“Why would you paint your face that way?” the man said, his voice a sharp edge. “No amount of fingerpaint layers will save you from the space mutants.”

“Well, actually…” said the boy.

“What?”

“Nothing. Have a good day.”

“Everything OK here?” I asked.

The man shuffled out, and the boy looked up with a quick smile.

We saw the boy with his sister shortly after. My anxiety had increased with the arrival of more people at the park. A scowling teen approached the two kids.

I lingered nearby, listening in, while Santi played on the climbing bars.

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“What are you doing here?” the teen said. “Taking up space.”

“We’re… taking a walk. In the park,” the boy mumbled.

“One does not simply ‘take up’ space, or so I thought”, the girl pointed out. “Do you mean you’re building a rocket?”

“A rocket. Now that would be a stupid idea. What would I need a rocket for. Get lost, twerps.”

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“Do you still have something to say, or…”

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“Damn aliens!”

I approached quickly.

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“Why, hello!” I said to the boy. “Fancy meeting you again!”

“Hi,” he greeted tepidly.

“Is she… you’ve met?” his sister asked hesitantly.

“You know,” I said, with a nod towards Santi, “I’ve got a girl over there who’d love to play with you.”

“Alien lover,” said a teen girl who’d joined us.

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If they only knew. “The term is extra-terrestrial,” I said. “And if you want to be really PC, you could say, ‘other living being.'”

“PC, my ass,” said the girl. “Shove off and move on. Go somewhere there are other living beings like you. Not here. This is our planet.”

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“Damn right,” said the young man. “I was born here.”

“Oh? You didn’t coincide to do so in the town hospital? We’ve more in common than you’d ever imagine,” Shintu’s sister argued.

“Like what? You’re nothing like us!”

The siblings shot each other a look.

“You’re half right. And a half of me wagers you would want to leave it at that,” they said in tune with each other, half smiling.

The teens shot us their evil eyes, in unison, and marched in step to the plaza, where the crowd gathered.

During the exchange, Santi had hopped off the bars. I felt a moment’s panic before spotting her playing chess.

While keeping an eye on the other two kids, I moved closer to the chess table.

“I feel sorry for them,” one guy was saying. “I mean, who comes here–here?–by choice? Likely they got some kind of disaster back on their home planet, so, like any refugee, they’re looking for someplace safe. That’s all it is. Just looking for a safe planet.”

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“One never knows,” said Santi’s chess opponent.

“And what timing. To come to this planet just as it’s entering into its darkest time. Ecological collapse. Economic collapse. Societal collapse. Frying pan, fire. I’m telling you.”

Santi looked at him and began to sing softly, without words.

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The other two kids had jumped off the bars and were making their way towards the drinking fountain when an angry young man intercepted them.

“Facilities for people only,” he said.

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I stood between the children and the man.

“Hey, kids, are you thirsty?” I asked. “I’ve got a few juice packs if want some. You like strawberry-mango?”

“Try blueberry,” snickered the man.

We ignored him.

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The siblings followed me to the bench where we’d left our stuff, and I shared some of our juice packs.

The boy spied a graphic novel tucked in the top of one of my bags.

“Excuse me, but is that one of Chimaera Thrawn’s books? Wow, I had no idea Bow-TIE Scooters had a sequel! Mind if we take a look?”

I listened as the boy read aloud to his sister.

“‘Gimme the space tape, Lamio!’ her aunt called out from the controls. Annoyed, the girl dropped her sketchbook and stood up.

“‘Why should I care where you left it, Lhiiver?’

“‘I mean, sure, you’re in this same ship, and something in the generator is about to fall apart. If I was my nosey niece, I’d do what I’m told to, maybe just to save my own skin.’

“Aunt Lhiiver was on the right track, Lamio knew. She scanned the shelves for a roll of tape, but with no avail. A curse escaped from her lips. Just then–“

“–the lights went out, as a wailing sound could be heard from the distance, somewhere outside the ship. The engine of an older Bow-TIE fighter model.”

“How could you know… hey! Refi! I said no peeking! I’m getting a headache!”

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In the distance, from the river path, we could hear chanting. The protesters were coming closer.

“What do we want?”

“OUR EARTH!”

“When do we get it?”

“RIGHT NOW!”

“Keep the planet great! Keep the planet pure!
Alien microbes HAVE NO CURE!”

The sister flinched.

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Santi’s chess opponent walked past us, and I called Santi to join us.

She ran over with a smile and grabbed her violin from its case.

The chanting grew louder. The vanguard rounded the corner, approaching the plaza.

“Shove off! Move on! Shove off! Move on!”

Santi began to play her violin.

“Keep the planet pure! Make the planet great again!
This ain’t no place for little green men!”

Her music grew louder, strange strains that pulsed like water through stream, magma through earth, blood through veins, light through space.

A pattern lay beneath the sliding sound, but it was too complex to consciously identify or recognize when it came around again, unless one listened with a quiet mind, and then, it sounded like cadences heard a million times before. It sounded like the music of the spheres.

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Individuals broke off from the crowd and wandered over to listen.

I lost track of the chanting. I didn’t know if it stopped, or if the music overpowered it, or if the protesters moved on.

I only knew that I joined the gathering cluster of silent listeners.

Ptolemy wrote that the movement of the planets created music, but what was the energy that moved the planets? Love. The love of the created for the creator.

In years past, when I’ve remembered this moment, I’ve thought of these lines from Merchant of Venice:

Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

But we could hear it. Santi’s violin stretched wide the fabric to let the music in, and it bathed our ears, our minds, our bodies, our spirits in the memory of what we’d left behind when we stepped from stardust to mud to take this form.

I became aware that the chanting had stopped. The silent crowd silent gathered round the small violinist.

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The boy and his sister stood with us, part of the group, as the music entered Santi and came out her violin to wash over us. The lines of sound connected us.

The boy looked up at me. His face shone in a bright smile, and I wrapped my arms around him.

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“Thanks, Mallory. It’s been nice meeting you and the Lightriver-of-Melodies. It’s a very bright light we’re getting to hear.”

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“I don’t have any words,” I said, hugging him tighter. Then I noticed it was growing dark, and the small boy and his equally small sister were here in a park full of people. “I don’t have a car,” I said, “or I’d drive you and your sister home. It’s getting late. Is there someone I can call for you?”

He said I could phone his mom.

I stepped outside the circle of listeners and dialed the number he gave me. A warm voice on the other end said she’d come pick them up right away.

We turned back to the music, smiling at each other, now and then.

Santi played on.

“There she is!” he said, when a car pulled up to the park entrance and honked.

He and his sister ran off.

“Bye!” I called. “Be safe!”

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I watched them run to the waiting car, get in, and drive off. The car honked twice as it pulled away.

I called the bus station next, and the repairs would be done within the half-hour.

I didn’t want to ask Santi to stop playing. I wanted to let her play until the music stopped, until we could no longer hear the energy that flowed through her.

But she lowered her bow of her own accord, smiled up at me, and put her violin back in its case.

As we left the park, the chanting resumed.

“Move on! Shove OFF!”

I couldn’t wait to get us home.

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Author’s note: So many thanks to the Great Eorz (For_Eorzea/SMNerd) for writing this with me! (We had lots of fun!) She wrote all of Refiltre and Shintu’s dialogue, many of the speaking cues, and the excerpt from the Bow-TIE Scooters sequel! Our stories, and several of the other collab stories, will become increasingly integrated with For_Eorz’s stories, so I encourage you to give yourself the treat of reading them! 🙂

Lighthouse: Magic

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Santi sat before the platter of veggie burgers I’d grilled up at Rachel’s.

“Why doesn’t she eat?” I asked Rachel.

Yo paya, yo jisu. ‘No sing, no eat.’ She thinks she needs to play for her supper.”

“But you’ve explained that’s no longer the case?” I asked.

“Only a million times!” laughed Rachel. “When she’s hungry enough, when no one’s looking, she’ll sneak a bite.”

I thought I’d try to convince her she could eat without performing.

“You’re not a servant anymore, Santi,” I explained. She looked at me as if she comprehended.

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“You’re free! Doxni! You’re safe! Sanghi!”

Yo doxni, yo sanghi,” she said, very quietly. “Squeegee. Payazi?”

“All right! Sing!” I replied. “Then we’ll feast on veggie burgers!”

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She sang very softly, with her mouth barely open, and I couldn’t tell if she sang in words or simply sounds and syllables, and slowly I felt a channel of energy, or maybe it was light–in particle and wave–flowing down from the sky, entering my body through the crown, and coursing through me.

“What is this?” I asked her. I had never felt music enter me so fully.

Ontsi molsuravensiku,” she said. Made of love. No wonder her music was considered subversive.

After Santi finished eating, I was ready to head back to the cabin. I figured, if we walked quickly and didn’t get lost, we’d get back before dark.

But Rachel wouldn’t hear of it.

“You have to stay here tonight,” she said. “And for as long as it takes. You cannot leave with the child until you’ve bonded. It’s not safe otherwise. She needs that to be able to travel with you.”

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I resisted. Frankly, I was afraid to bond with this strange, magical child. I had already started to fall in love with her, and I feared that if we truly bonded, I wouldn’t be able to separate with her when Ritu found her a permanent home.

But Rachel convinced me that this child needed connection, if she was going to go with me. She’d be lost otherwise, and I had the impression that Rachel did not mean this metaphorically.

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I didn’t know what to say to her that first night. My Vingihoplo was so poor that I wasn’t able to express much, and she hadn’t yet learned any of our language. So, instead, I simply talked, without worrying whether she understood or not. I told her all about Sept, about the crash, about brave Situ who rescued the 144 pagotogo, about Sebastion, Octy, Mop, and the new baby. I told her about meeting Sept and falling in love and pledging ourselves to each other. I told her about how, now, his cause was my cause, and how I would do anything for him, his family, and Xirra.

She brightened when she heard Xirra’s name. “MoXirra!” she said, meaning that she loved her like a mother.

“MoSanti,” I said, for by then, I loved this child.

Rachel wanted us to stay another day, but I felt it imperative that we get home before the weekend. The Anti-Alien Coalition had posted on social media that they were planning protests that weekend, and I wanted us to be safe at home before they started.

The next morning, we left for the cabin. Rachel had packed us a lunch and snacks, and that turned out to be a good thing, for walking with a small child went much more slowly than walking alone.

We arrived after sunset.

Santi was so tired she fell asleep on the sofa while I fixed soup and sandwiches for supper.

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She ate without singing this time, looking at me with a conspiratorial smile. I took this as a sign that she was beginning to trust me, that she identified me as something other than her mistress or owner.

“You can take off your disguise when you’re inside,” I told her.

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She didn’t understand.

“The second skin?” I said. “Refijotu pi?”

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I mimed pealing off my skin.

“Show your real self, if you want,” I said. “Yada baska.”

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She looked at me a long time. Something about her eyes melted me. She looked like she had seen so much, horrors and joys and terrors and beauty and wonder. She looked like she had lost and gained and lost again.

Sanghi,” I said. “MoSanti.”

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Wa!” she shouted. “Baska! Sanghi!

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Then she stepped out of her disguise-skin.

She was moon blue, like Sept, with ears like his.

Falazi Mallory,” she said.

“I know you, too,” I said.

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“We have a big trip tomorrow,” I told her. “You’ll wear your disguise, refijotu pi, when we travel, OK? But then once we get home, you don’t need it anymore.”

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Gotukoda mokiya?” she asked.

I remembered that gotukoda meant “home,” but I’d forgotten what mokiya meant.

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She showed me. She closed her eyes, and I closed mine, and then she sang, and waves of happy love tickled me until I laughed, and when she sang, it felt just like home.

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Wa,” I said. “Gotukoda mokiya. Our home is happy.”

We were sleepy. I tucked her into bed, singing her a song my grandmother used to sing me, “Mares-eat-oats, and does-eat-oats, and little-lambs-eat-ivy, a kid’ll-eat-ivy, too, wouldn’t you?”

She sang back, first simply, “Marezeedotes, and dozeedotes, and liddlelamzeedivy, a kiddleetdivytoo, woodnyoo!”

Then, in a sleepy, happy voice, she began improvising on the tune and the lyrics, and by the time she fell asleep, still softly singing, “dunyoo,” she had invented something worthy of Bach.

I woke in the middle of the night. Her bed was empty.

My heart raced into my throat, and I ran outside. There at the edge of the forest, having remembered to slide back into her second skin, she stood before three colored lights.

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I can’t tell you what they were. They weren’t insects. It wasn’t phosphorescence. It wasn’t some optical trick.

Maybe they were fairies.

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All I know is that the magic in this world was drawn to this magical girl.

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Lighthouse: Too Early Spring

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I had some trouble finding my way in the back country, in spite of my self-professed talent with topographical maps.

I had to follow deer trails up there, generally not a problem, but I hadn’t counted on them criss-crossing quite so much.

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When the ranger had stopped by the night before, he’d warned me about this.

“I can take you up there myself,” he said, “but not until Saturday. Can’t leave my post before then.”

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His connection with Ritu and the refugee program was personal, not professional, and he didn’t want to risk alerting anyone to the transfers that had been happening across federal property.

“I’m not sure I should wait that long,” I said. We’d heard reports of AAC riots planned for the weekend, so we wanted to be home well before then.

“All right,” he said. “Just use common sense, then. Don’t get hurt. Don’t get injured.”

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I gained confidence when I spotted Finger Rock. Below it was a crevice through the granite, and if I could climb through it, I’d come out in the high meadow where Ritu’s friend lived, just beyond the national park border.

This was the first winterless year we had. It was February, and already, what little snow had fallen in late December and early January had melted from all but the highest peaks. Bird song broadcast an early breeding season, and wildflowers bloomed two months too early.

In spite of my better wisdom, I got caught up in the excitement of early spring—-the sun, the songs, the blooms, the whispers of warmth, it was hard not to feel alive and vibrant, though I knew that this disruption of normal patterns signaled nothing good to come, even for those very chickadees and warblers now celebrating spring.

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The significance hit me when I arrived in the high country to see the shrubs already in leaf.

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A tidy cabin with a well-cared-for alpine garden stood at the far end of the meadow, across from the sign marking the park border.

This was where Ritu’s friend lived. This was where I’d meet the refugee.

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There was no one home.

Tired from the trek, I lay down in the meadow, near the cabin. I’d hear them when they came back.

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A peregrine flew overhead. It was early for them to be in their high country range.

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I heard a child’s laughter. When I looked, there stood a little girl, who looked like a fairy dressed for a camping trip. She must be the daughter of Ritu’s friend, I figured. She ran off through the meadow and behind the trees before I could ask her where her mother was.

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I walked until I came to a circle of boulders enclosing a mountain herb garden. Tending the wild mustard was an older woman, dressed in well-patched clothes. This was Rachel.

Sometimes you can tell when you first see someone that they will become your friend. That’s how I felt with Rachel.

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I didn’t even have to explain myself. She knew who I was and why I’d come. Ritu had left word once Sept and I made our plans.

“They usually don’t stay,” she said, “when they’re arrive here. This is a good landing place, you see. No one to notice the distant lights, no one to see them being dropped off, except maybe the back country ranger, but then, he’s one of us, isn’t he?”

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Rachel had helped about half a dozen refugees by that point. Usually, she kept them for a few days, long enough to acclimatize to the atmosphere, to help them adjust their disguises, to brush up on their language skills, and to review a few safety points and cultural conventions. Then, she walked them back to the park to where the ranger met them, and he arranged their transport back to one of Ritu’s pick-ups.

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“But this one’s different,” she said. “This one needs a special touch.”

The little fairy girl joined us. I decided she must be Rachel’s granddaughter or great niece, not child, after all.

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Rachel turned to her and began speaking Vingihoplo. I caught the word gotukoda, home, and sanghi, safe.

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“This is Santi,” Rachel said, and I understood then why this refugee could not travel alone.

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Sintuliyu dastaliyu!” Santi said, using the traditional rebel greeting: peaceful day.

Sintu!” I said back.

The concept of sintu doesn’t directly translate to what we think of as “peace.” If peace were active–the making of peace, the partaking of peace, peace as the condition for life and energy and harmony, then it would come closer. I thought of the old hippie Super 8 films I’d seen shot at peace rallies, with “Peace,” as a greeting, shouted like a call to action. That was closer to what sintu expressed.

Santi raced off again.

“She’s happy here,” Rachel said, “but she knows she can’t stay.”

We walked slowly back to Rachel’s cabin.

“What do you know of the girl?” she asked.

I admitted I knew nothing, only that she needed safe escort to a sanctuary. We didn’t know then where she was headed, only that we’d bring her to our home, and from there, Ritu and Xirra could arrange for her to get to where she’d be staying.

“Do you know why she’s here?” Rachel asked. “Why she had to leave?”

I repeated that I knew nothing about her.

“She was a minstrel–in the medieval sense, not the Vaudeville sense–a court musician. She’s a clone of a type of extra-terrestrial that’s almost preternaturally talented at music, and she was created to provide a form of living entertainment for the elite.”

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“Was she treated alright?” I asked.

“Oh, yes!” said Rachel. “Like one would treat a high-tech stereo. A valuable piece of property.”

“She had no freedom, then?” I asked.

“She was bizoo,” said Rachel. “You know what that means to the Mainstreamers, don’t you?”

I know now. Most of my life has been spent in the cause of bringing freedom to bizoobi, and I’ve heard more stories than I’ve let myself remember. But at the time, though Sept had told me what fate would have awaited him if Situ hadn’t taken action, I hadn’t yet integrated what I’d heard with my construct of reality.

“She was found to be dangerous,” Rachel said, “subversive. So she was scheduled to be decommissioned–slaughtered, with others no longer fit to serve.”

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“What is subversive about that little girl?” I asked.

“Her music.”

Santi had begun to play on a small white violin. The beauty of the violin is that it’s not inherently diatonic–it’s not bound to fixed tones or scales. Santi played music like I’d never heard before, dancing in between tones, sliding up and down pitch. The music followed its own sense and pattern, and as I listened it unwound feelings and emotions within me.

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“But it’s beautiful!” I said.

“Exactly,” said Rachel.

“It’s soulful.”

“Precisely,” Rachel replied. “And you know what Mainstreamers believe about bizoobi.”

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“That they have no soul,” I answered.

“Exactly,” said Rachel. “And so how could music like that come from a being without a soul?”

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Author’s note: Who is this child and what tribe does she come from? You’ll have to keep reading to find out more, but to catch all the harmonies, you might want to also be sure that you’re reading SuperKyle’s We Belong to the Song. Many thanks to Kyle for the Sim that Santi comes from and for the ideas that she embodies.