art by Alan Bao
by Deborah Walker
It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog.
--Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Ma was taking an awfully long time to read the letter. "Who's the letter from, Ma?" said Samuel, peering over her shoulder at the entangled-ansible screen. Nearly instant communication from Earth. Samuel would have liked an ansible for himself, but Pa said he'd have to start doing odd jobs around the farm to pay for it, and Sam hadn't quite gotten around to doing that, yet.
Ma instantly minimized the screen. "It's from Pasha."
"Aunty Pasha? Can I read it?" asked Sam. He'd always liked Aunty Pasha.
"It's private," said Ma.
"Well, what does she say?"
Ma sighed. "If you must know she says she's sorry that she persuaded us to come here."
"She is?" asked Samuel. "Why?" This world was great. Sam looked out of the metal-glass window where the sun hung, low and red in the sky. He could see the township's metal houses glinting in the distance. There was space to breathe on this world.
"You like it here don't you, Samuel?"
"Well, yes, for sure, it's much better than Earth, isn't it? I mean Pa's happy. He's got his job, and we've got a nice place here, and you can look after us, and everything. Who wouldn't like this world?"
Tell me, Ma, tell me what's wrong." He patted her shoulder.
"It's not what I expected. The gravillers here, they're not like Aunty Pasha, or any of our friends on Earth. Pasha was very sympathetic. She was embarrassed."
"Do you miss your job, Ma?"
"It's not just that, Sam. This whole set-up is so old-fashioned. The colonists are more traditional than the people on Earth, or on Gravillton, for that matter."
"But, it's better than Earth isn't it, Ma? We'll get by."
"Yes, I suppose. We don't have much choice. We spent all our savings getting here." Ma snapped the ansible shut. "Where's your sister?"
"Well, go and look for her."
"Okay," said Samuel. "And Ma, I'm sorry."
"That's all right, honey. Like you said, we'll get by. It's just not what I expected." She sighed again. "Now, go and play."
Samuel saw Veronica, sitting in the dirt by the vegetable patch. He really ought to do some weeding if he was going to get his own ansible. Although his friends would be too old to want to talk to him. Maybe he could hook up with some girl. Some Earth girls would probably be interested in talking to someone off-world.
"Samuel, look what I've got," shouted Veronica, breaking into Samuel's interesting line of speculation.
Samuel's heart beat fast in his chest. She'd gone and done it. He'd only asked her to catch one an hour ago. All thoughts of Earth girls forgotten, Samuel ran over. He crouched down beside Veronica, peering at the small creature nestled in her arms.
Disappointment slammed into him. "It doesn't look very impressive."
"She's a girl, Samuel. All the veoles are girls, you know that." Veronica stroked her small hands over the creature. "I think she's lovely. Hey! Don't grab her!"
"I wasn't," said Samuel. "I just wanted to roll her over to check out her claws."
"Well, don't," said Veronica. "You've frightened her." She picked up the veole and began to make crooning noises to it. The veole's nose twitched in response and it made some chattering noises.
"Look, Samuel. She's talking to me. Ain't she just darling?"
"Be quiet, Veronica. Someone's coming over."
Samuel squinted into the hazy light until he recognized Berick, leader of the graviller boys. Berick walked with his usual confident strut. His wrinkled, moist skin glistened in the dying red-light of the afternoon sun. Gravillers were humanoid, or humans were gravilloid. It depended on your perspective. Berick's okay, thought Samuel. He's friendly enough.
The gravillers just did things a little differently from the people back home. Samuel looked at his five-year-old sister who was still babbling nonsense to the veole. "Berick's coming over. Don't show me up." The only other kids on this planet were Berick and his gang. If Samuel was going to have any type of fun here, he needed to fit in.
Veronica put down the veole, which scuttled between her legs. "Okay, Samuel."
She could be a good kid--sometimes, thought Samuel.
"Hey, what you doing?" asked Berick.
"Not much," replied Samuel.
"Looks like you've got yourself a fighting veole." Berick bent down to examine the creature. When Berick's three primary fingers prodded the veole, Samuel was glad to see that Veronica kept quiet.
"Yep," said Samuel, playing it cool.
"Your sister catch it for you?"
"Yep. Seems they like human females, too."
Only females could catch the small creatures. Samuel had found this out for himself in one frustrating afternoon scouring the swamps behind the house. Veoles were native to this world, unlike gravillers or humans. The veoles were on home territory: if they didn't want to be caught they were able to evade even the most persistent hunter. It was annoying that Veronica had been able to capture one so easily. It only took her an hour. That was girls for you: they were different.
"You going to fight her?" asked Berick.
"Are you challenging me?" asked Samuel. He was surprised.
"Well, that's what they're for ain't it?"
"I suppose." This was fantastic. As the only human boy in the colony, Samuel had never dreamed that Berick would challenge him to a veole fight. Berick was top dog, the leader of the kids. Yep, the gravillers were an okay species, no matter what Ma said. They were fair. They didn't discriminate. "Tomorrow suits me," said Samuel, ignoring Veronica who tugged on his arm.
"Yep, suits me, too," said Berick. "But are you sure that she's up to it? She looks kinda small."
"She'll do fine," said Samuel with a confidence that he didn't feel.
"See ya tomorrow, then, at noon?"
Berick ambled off.
Samuel turned to his sister and whispered, "Did you hear that, Veronica?"
Veronica looked at her brother. Her eyes were wide with accusation, "You're not going to fight with her are you? She might get hurt."
"That's what they're for. They're fighting veoles."
"Look, I'm glad you got her for me, but what did you think I wanted her for?"
"Don't worry, Veronica. Veoles fight for fun. They never really get hurt." Another thought occurred to Samuel. "Pa's going to be so pleased. He wants me to fit in here."
There were tears in Veronica's eyes. "But she's so little and cute. I'm going to tell Ma." She scooped up the veole and held it against her chest. The veole wriggled until it found a comfortable position. Its ears twitched.
"I'm doing it. It doesn't matter what Ma says. That's the way it goes here." Why didn't Veronica understand how important this was? Berick had challenged him.
"I'm going to tell Ma what you just said."
Samuel ignored his sister and scrutinized the veole. It did look awfully puny. "Couldn't you have captured a bigger one?"
"She's lovely." The veole uncurled, revealing a small, pink face. It was about the size of a guinea pig. It regarded Samuel with bright, black eyes. Its claws waved in the air. They looked mighty thin, not like the solid looking, blade-like claws that Samuel had admired on Berick's veoles. Samuel wondered if Berick had challenged him just to make a fool of him.
Samuel turned away and walked towards the house. He began to mutter, "Some fine fighting veole my sister finds me. I'm going to be a laughing stock."
Ma was standing in front of the stove, stirring a pot of unsavory smelling food.
"Not graviller grub again, Ma," said Samuel with a scowl.
"If you helped with the vegetable patch, we might have something else to eat."
"Earth vegetables don't like the soil," said Samuel.
Ma whirled around to face him. Her voice, when it came, was tight and controlled. Had she been crying? "Samuel, you'll just have to get used to it. We've nearly finished all the Earth food we brought with us. Graviller food is fine for humans. It's nutritious."
"It may be nutritious, but it sure smells bad." Samuel sniffed the air. "Yuk!"
"Just get used to it, okay? There's a lot of things we've got to get used to. The food's the least of our problems."
"But, Ma, can't we just have...?"
"What's all this? What's all this? Can I smell dinner cooking?" Pa walked in. He was a tall man, dressed in graviller leathers which hung off his lean frame. He hitched up his trousers as he came into the kitchen.
"Food's nearly ready," said Ma. She stirred the pot viciously. Ma wasn't a great cook. Her job as a nano-biochemist had taken up most of her time. In fact, Pa had done most of the cooking back home. But women weren't allowed to work on this graviller colony. Graviller females took care of their kith and kin. Pa said that they were guests of the gravillers and ought not to rock the boat. That was the reasonable thing to do. It was a Co-operation rule to follow the customs of the founding species on a colony. And whether Ma liked it or not, this was a graviller colony.
He didn't like to think about it much, but Samuel thought that it was as if something had withered inside Ma. Something else had taken its place: something hard, and something angry. Some days it was so bad that Samuel and Veronica were too frightened to say a word around the place.
Pa was thriving, though. He was an engineer, and the gravillers respected his unique alien perspective on technical problems. Pa fitted in real well here. Samuel meant to fit in, too. Now that he'd got a fighting veole he'd be able to take part in the veole fights with the other kids. And Berick had challenged him. It was wonderful.
The front door opened. Veronica walked through the hall and climbed the stairs to her room.
"I'm going upstairs to see Veronica. She's caught me a veole." said Samuel.
Pa smiled and nodded, but Ma said, "A veole? What do you want one of those for?"
"For fighting, of course. Berick challenged me."
"You're going to fight those little creatures, while you boys all stand around and watch?"
Ma was going to say something else, but Pa put his hand on her shoulder and said, "Let the boy be, Sarah."
Samuel wanted to check on his veole. Funny how only females could catch them, that's about all females were good for. He looked at his Ma stirring the stew, and he bit his lip.
Pa said, "Get yourself upstairs, son. Ma will shout you when supper's ready."
"Whatcha doing?" Samuel asked his sister, as he walked into her bedroom.
"Just talking to Chit Win. I think she likes me."
"You've named her?" Samuel looked at his sister incredulously. "That's ridiculous. You know she's fighting tomorrow. She's a fighting animal, and you've given her a pet name?"
Veronica didn't seem worried. "The name just came to me. Popped right into my head. I think she's cute, don't you think?"
Cute was not a word that Samuel would have applied to Chit Win. Bedraggled was more like it. She was a skinny rat with strange bags of thin grey skin flapping around her back. She was four-legged, each limb ending in a cluster of sheathed claws, in Chit Win's case probably ineffective claws. She didn't look like much of a fighter. But, what the hey? At least his sister had got something for him. Samuel shuddered to think what would have happened to him if he hadn't got a sister. He would never have been able to catch one of the veoles. It wasn't quite fair: all the graviller kids had at least a dozen sisters, all running around getting veoles for them.
"...never wanted to come here in the first place." The voice of their Ma rattled upstairs.
"It's better here than on Earth. There was no space there. And no work for me. Anything is better than that," Pa's voice joined Ma's. Veronica and Samuel sat in silence listening to the sounds of their parents' argument.
"What about me? What about the children?"
"They'll be fine. They speak good lingo now. They're fitting in fine. We'll build a new life here as a family."
"What about Veronica? What about her life?"