I stood at the back of the viewing platform and watched my fifteen tourists stare at the Fairy Falls of Mallu. Low murmurs of appreciation arose from most of my people. Images of Fairy Falls were often included in collections of Year’s Best Pictures on interstellar substreams, but the reality was better.
Under a warm blue sky, small, brilliant clouds of colored light drifted in and out of the sheet of water that fell from the top of a jagged black cliff to thunder into a pool below. The lip of the cliff towered three stories above us. Rainbow mist rose from water pounding into the pool at the base of the cliff.
The lights were some sort of Malluran life form, or maybe they were gaseous emissions from a cavern behind the falls. Sometimes there were many of them, and sometimes only a few. What I knew as a tour director was that the fairy presence was a reliable phenomenon as long as CampTours paid a fee.
I glanced at Imlaka, the Malluran Fairy Falls guardian. She nodded a knobby head. She didn’t look or smell human. She was more like a stack of rocks, with three tentacular arms banded in gold ending in small nests of tentacles. She smelled like sun-warmed burlap.
The older child darted toward the edge, and I ran to stop him. There were no guardrails here, not even invisible ones. I pulled out my null-grav field spinner in case he plunged over, but one of his parents gripped his shoulders before he fell. “Koro, what did we tell you?” she said. “No running up here!”
“They’re so pretty,” said the younger child. She walked slowly to the edge and peered at the little clouds of light. “Do they talk? Will they come to us?” She reached toward the nearest fairy-cloud and almost fell over the edge, but by then, I was close enough to grip her shoulder and tug her back.
“Bo!” said one of the other parents. “I’m so sorry, Fra Jukia,” he told me as he came to pick up the girl. “We explained the rules to them.”
“I understand,” I said. “They’re children.” Usually we didn’t let preadolescents on our tours. The family had begged, and offered better tour fees, and my boss had consented. I needed to keep better track of the children. I wasn’t used to them.
“Seen enough,” said TriChip, the streamer, the person I liked least on this tour. He switched off his link, turned away from the drift of fairies in the flood, and stalked toward the stairs that led back to our bus, muttering about second-class attractions and bad connections.
I knew he’d pace back and forth in the shade of the bus, creating worse and worse reviews to share with his followers, getting more and more lurid the longer the rest of us stayed on the viewing platform. I didn’t want to let his impatience make my decisions for me. I glanced from the fairies to the faces of my charges. The children were still staring at the fairies, and so were all the others. Most were capturing images or vids. The three retired sisters got the single, older man to image them in front of the fairies.
Opal, the woman I was most concerned for—she came on the tour alone; she was an independent contractor, a spacer who almost never came down out of the sky, and she was not used to being with other people, didn’t know how to dress or make pleasant conversation—watched the fairies with her mouth half-open and her eyes wide. Wonder lit her dark face. At last she turned to me, then looked past me at Guardian Imlaka. She said something in a language I didn’t know, something with gravel in its undertones, and Imlaka, who on all my previous visits to Fairy Falls had stayed in one spot and not interacted with any of my tourists, moved two steps forward and replied.
Smile lines creased the skin at the outer edges of Opal’s eyes. She blinked slowly at Imlaka and touched her fist to her chin in a salute of Malluran respect I had only recently learned. Imlaka raised her arm and touched her squirming fist to a knob on her head.
Opal turned to me. “The fairies are people,” she said, and I returned her smile.
“Thanks for asking about that,” I said. “I wasn’t sure.” The other tour directors and I at CampTours had wondered whether the fairies were beings or just some kind of local weather or geologic phenomenon. Imlaka understood Standard and could speak it, but she didn’t usually answer questions.
I felt like I’d been given a gift. I wanted to ask more questions. I didn’t want to push Opal, or upset the connection she had made with Imlaka.
“Everyone,” I said in a louder voice, “let’s go down to the bus. It’s time to head to our next stop.”
The rest of my group took a few final impressions and then went down the stairs. Opal rumbled something to Imlaka and followed me down.
Everyone loaded into the bus, and Kase, our driver, checked that everyone was strapped in. Next stop on the itinerary was the Mallu ruins, and we would be hovering over some rough ground on the way there.
We’d been on the tour two days already, and everyone had assigned themselves seats except TriChip, who changed seat partners after every stop. People wanted window seats, of course, though the screen up front would show the best feeds from multiple cameras mounted on the roof. The bus’s main cabin had clear plasteel sides we could opaque as necessary if the sun was too bright or people felt like resting. Five pairs of luxury recliners upholstered in beige and turquoise lined each side of the bus, with a wide, carpeted aisle in the center that led back to the snack bar and the bathrooms. Our camping pods attached to the back of the bus. Kase and I popped them off and deployed them each night at our chosen campsites.
Kase had set the air temperature to moderate in the bus, and the enhanced air inside—a little extra oxygen to keep people energized—smelled like desert aromatics, the small-leafed plants on Mallu that reminded me of sage, an herb my mother had used on my old world before we had to flee. My mind stuttered, tripping over a childhood memory of our pale, egg-shaped kitchen in yellow morning light, my mother alive, smiling, making morning cereal over a brazier by the open back door, tinting the air with the mouth-watering scents of grains and spices and fruits.
I blinked and returned to now. TriChip had seated himself by Opal. Something pinched in my chest. Did she know how to handle toxic? I’d already seen him smiling and saying something to her at breakfast, his tone gentle, and yet she had wilted. I’d seen him do this to the exuberant three sisters, too, some remark in a sweet voice that made them look at each other, lose their smiles and their sparkle. He’d tried it on the kids, but they ignored him. Go, kids.
We had three more days of tour. I didn’t want him ruining it for anyone.
Everyone on the tour had accepted a chipped wristlet that let me keep track of them on my pad. If anyone wandered off or was taken by a rogue or had some other disaster happen, I would at least know where they were. What we never told our travelers was the bands had other functions. We could knock people out with the touch of a screen in case of actual physical fighting or someone doing something forbidden. TriChip hadn’t even approached the maximum penalty. He hadn’t started any fights. I still wanted to press the red dot on my pad to knock him out and stop him from spreading any more poison. But I’d lose my job.
As Kase sealed the bus and engaged the engine, I took my stand at the front and touched the collar tab that would amplify my voice just a little. “The next place we’re going to is Emiala Mellu,” I said, “one of the ruined cities left after the tech wars two centuries ago, after which civilization on Mallu took a different path.”
Koro, the older child, raised a hand from where he sat beside one of his mothers. “What was the first path?”
I had sent everyone material they could study before the tour, but some people never looked at the info-packs. And this was a child. Did children his age even know how to read or access content? Probably they did, but I could repeat the information anyway. I always did.
“Their first path was like many of our human paths. Expanded use of resources until the resources were gone. Expanded population, expanded technology, expanded wars, shrinking survivability.” I pointed out the window at the burnt orange desert we were hovering across. “The final war left much of the landscape like this. Not many survived. Those who did chose to alter their genotypes to exclude, as much as possible, transmissible traits involved in competition and fighting. They chose different priorities. That’s why there’s now a green belt girdling the planet and making the air breathable for the Mallurans and for us.” Wait. Would a kid understand what I was saying? Probably not in a gut sense, if he even knew the words. I hadn’t had a meal with the family yet and didn’t know enough about them.
“The Malluran was that rock pile at the Fairy Falls?” asked the younger child.
“Bo!” said one of the mothers.
“What?” said the child.
“That was Imlaka,” I said, “and yes, she is one of the Mallurans. There were three Mallurans standing guard at the International Market yesterday, and some Mallurans had booths there, selling relics and cloth and seed boxes. Did you talk to them?”
“I didn’t know they were alive,” she said. “Not until that one talked to Opal.”
Yep, no info-pack reading in the family, I guessed. “That is what the Mallurans look like now. Before the tech wars, they were very different. We’ll see some images at the ruins.”
“Will there be any Mallurans there?” asked the older child.
“Yes, there will.” Mallurans guarded all the sites we visited. I’d never seen one do anything. I didn’t know if they could. But their presence made us all aware that we were being monitored. Sometimes that helped.
“Can you help me talk to one?” asked the older child.
“I can try,” I said. “Opal, would you help us?”
Opal glanced up. Her dark face was flushed. TriChip’s quiet voice had been talking as I spoke, I realized. He had already been at work.
“Sorry, Jukia, I didn’t hear.”
“Koro and Bo want to speak with a Malluran. I’ve been living on Mallu for ten years, studying their culture and their history and everything else I can, but I haven’t learned much of the language. Linguists say it’s one of the most difficult to learn. I practice some phrases every day, but when I say them to Mallurans, they don’t acknowledge me. I’ve had conversations in Standard with some of them, but I don’t get very far. Could you help us speak with a Malluran at the Ruins?”
“Sure okay,” said Opal. She looked up at me. My breathing quickened. I blinked slowly at her, wondering if she would understand it as an expression of my interest in her, or if that was just a thing from my previous life that didn’t translate. I had studied many cultural customs to be good at my job, but I couldn’t always remember which gesture belonged where.
Opal smiled, and that was better than seeing the flush TriChip had left her with.
The Emiala Mellu rose in black iron spikes and spires against the red desert and blue sky. Many of the buildings had fallen. Some still stood, shells of their former selves. The sky spikes had once carried communication networks with other cities and satellites. In most of the ruins, the spikes had been first targets, but Emiala Mellu had mounted the most successful attacks, destroying other cities before they could retaliate. Still, one of the other cities’ satellites had succeeded in striking Emiala Mellu. The underground labs there had survived long enough for the Malluran scientists to modify genes in viral form to spread among the survivors, and shepherd four generations through the changes. Then they had self-destructed.
“Ground rules,” I said as Kase brought the bus to a stop in our designated parking spot. “Stay together, everyone. We have permission to walk a strict route through the city. Do not stray. Agreed?”
“Aye.” “Okay sure.” “Yes, Fra.” “We’ll leash the kids,” said one of the mothers.
TriChip didn’t answer, but I knew he heard me; he imaged every lecture or admonishment I gave so he could tear me down on the social substreams. I used to read him before I met him. He could be amusingly cruel. Sometimes even hilarious. He was a genius at editing his clips to make everyone around him look foolish and incompetent, silly, and unchic. He had many followers.
When I saw his name on my manifest, I stopped reading him.
We all got off the bus except Kase.
I felt cold every time I visited these ruins, even if the sun was shining and the air was warm. They were so dark, with so many sharp angles, as if they could cut open the sky to a darker dimension.
Three Mallurans stood on the path inside. I had met Yuntill before; his head knobs had streaks of pale green among the brown, and his tentacle arms bore thin jade bands. I didn’t think I had seen the others before.
“Greetings, honored beings,” I said. “We are here to see and not to disturb. All are registered visitors. May we pass?”
Silence for what always seemed like an hour. The children shifted. Their mother had actually put harnesses on them, with leashes attached. That gave me some comfort.
“One may not pass,” said Yuntill. His arm rose and pointed at TriChip.
“Oh, no frikking way,” said TriChip, who was imaging already, pointing his lens at the Mallurans, then at me. “I paid for this. I’m going in.”
“There’s a contingency in the contract you signed with us,” I said. “If you offend the Mallurans, they can refuse you entrance anywhere.”
“How have I offended them? I’ve never even talked to them.”
I glanced at Yuntill. He said something in that gravelly language. Opal came to stand beside me. She touched her fist to her chin, then spoke to Yuntill. He touched his hand to his facial knob and answered her. She turned to TriChip. “Some of them are following your stream,” she said. “They say your ideas are poisoning the planet, and they want you to leave.”
“What? They can’t do that! Words and pictures are all I deal in!”
I got out my tablet and looked at the marker for TriChip, then cocked my head at him. The red dot was right there.
Yuntill spoke, and Opal translated. “Words and pictures can be weapons. Your words aren’t welcome here.”
TriChip took a deep breath, opened his mouth, then deflated and marched back to the bus.
I put my tablet away and dropped my hand to my side. Somehow, Opal’s hand was there to meet mine. We turned together to face Yuntill.
“Thank you, honored elder,” I said. “Will you speak with these children?”
“I will,” he said, and Bo and Koro came to stand with us, dragging their mother after them. The rest of my group crowded around to hear what the Mallurans had to say.
(Editors’ Note: “Travelers’ Unrest” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 49B.)
© 2022 Nina Kiriki Hoffman