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art by Jeffrey Redmond

My People, My People

Stacey Lepper writes from Whakatane, New Zealand. This is her second story published in Daily Science Fiction.

Open Letter to the People of Te Ao:
Friends--for you are all my friends. Even those who think of me as your enemy, as one who would speak against what you believe in, to try to destroy the very foundations of your society. You are all my friends. You just do not know it yet.--
Friends. It has been twenty long years. I have been in this cold, dark, and dank hole for twenty years. It has not been without trial and tribulation. It has not been without despair and madness. It has not been without grieving and anger. It has not been without agony and heartbreak.
It has not been without Hope.
I still Hope and I pledge to you all that I will always Hope.
As I pledge to you, so too I request a pledge of your own. If it is getting hard out there--and I do not know, I have heard no news--pledge to me, nay, pledge to yourselves that you will keep to the Code.
I cannot stress this enough. It is the only way forward for Te Ao.
Respect. Non-violence. Satyagraha.
It is difficult. It will be difficult. You must remember that you will one day shake the hand of the man who strikes you.
Remember Ghandi of Earth, Forynch of Pelsilon, and Tulatiah of Delta-6679. Take solace in your remembrance, friends. The time for Te Ao is coming.
Peace unto you all.
With love,
Amua Mirai.
Amua set down the stylus beside the tablet. He would have preferred ink pen and paper, something lasting, but as scarce a commodity as they were on Te Ao--the vintage LCD tablet would have to suffice. He wrote and wrote. Open letters to the public, letters to his wife, letters to his children. When the letter was done, it would sit on the tablet for hours, sometimes days. And then he would erase it.
He fiddled with the stylus. Making certain it was in exact parallel with the edge of the tablet, which in turn was in exact parallel with the edge of his stark metal desk. Twenty years had made him meticulous and obsessive. Or had he been meticulous and obsessive before he had been imprisoned? Perhaps, but to a much lesser degree, diluted by the vastness of the outside world. In here, it was concentrated and in full effect.
He stood. Slowly. He did everything as slowly as possible these days. Filling in time. Walking across the small cell, he stopped in front of a wall, blank but for thousands of rust-colored lines. He pricked his finger with a needle fashioned from an old broken stylus and added one more line to the wall. 7122. He repeated the total of the tally to himself three times. Once, they had washed the wall.
"Amua. Exercise time. Stand back from the wall."
Amua glanced up at the grate that acted as his ceiling to smile at Guard Edouard. He always smiled.
"Hey Ed. How's your day going?"
"None of your damn business," Edouard said. Always the same answer. Always with the same hostility.
Amua ignored the request to stand back from the wall. He liked the feel of it as it slid past him. Closest to feeling wind he could get.
The labyrinth was blue today. The twists, turns, and dead ends felt vaguely familiar, but it was different every day. He had not completed the same Labyrinth since starting fifteen years ago. He trailed his fingers along the textured wall, savoring the difference from the too-smooth surfaces of his cell.
All too soon he was back in his cell, having completed the labyrinth circuit. He stood with his back to the wall as it slid shut behind him. His eyes closed as he remembered the blue of the labyrinth. Who knew such happiness lay in a single primary color? He refrained from trying to imagine too many colors at a time these days. It was too overwhelming.
He heard the clanging of footsteps above.
"Thank you, Edouard. That was lovely." He smiled up through the metal lattice.
"Don't thank me. I have nothing to do with the damn labyrinth. More than you maheni deserve, if you ask me."
"Perhaps," Amua said. "Cheaper than catering to an insane man, though."
"True enough. It'd be much easier if we could just leave you to die."
The only things Amua could see beyond his ceiling were the dark heavy soles of Edouard's scaled feet. How he longed to see the man's face.
"It would be much easier for me also, Edouard." Amua murmured quietly.
The clanging footsteps stopped directly above his head. Edouard knelt down and put a beady blue eye to the metal lattice.
"That is the most intelligent thing I have ever heard a human say. It can be arranged, Amua."
"It was just something said in passing. I won't voluntarily die for your convenience."
"A shame, maheni, a shame."
"Do you know the true meaning of 'maheni,' Edouard? Smooth. Unscaled. It does not bother me. I am smooth. I do not have scales as you do."
"No. You are wrong. That is just the definition. The true meaning of 'maheni' is stupid. Unintelligent. Inferior. Unclean. Not worthy."
"It is you who is wrong, friend," Amua smiled up at the piercing blue eye gazing at him from above.
Edouard sighed and stood up.
"I'm not your friend, Amua. No one here is your friend."
As the clanging footsteps faded into the distance. Amua kept smiling. It was the longest Edouard had ever interacted with him. The success made him tremble, and he sat down on his white bed and smiled and smiled.
Dear Sigele,
I thought I had been through the grieving process. I thought I had tricked my mind, tricked my body--it remembers also--that I had lost you forever. You can stay like that for hours, months, I have even been years. Then suddenly the veil is lifted, the illusion shattered, the memories recalled. I hate those days.
But I love those days too.
When it hits you so hard, how much you have lost, how much you have loved, how much you love. Today, I remembered the touch of your palm and grieved for an hour. So smooth, so cool on my face.
I will see you again one day.
I promise you.
I love you, I love you, I love you.
"Amua! Exercise time. Step away from the wall."
Amua looked up from his tablet. The letter to his wife lay slammed on the screen. He did not even feel as if he had written it, it was more like he had pulled up handfuls of himself and slapped and smeared them on the screen, and the words were a consequence of that. Today was a bad day.
The wall slid open. He had not even marked the day today. The black Labyrinth appeared. Fitting, that today should be a black day.
Edouard stamped his feet on the ceiling. "Amua. Exercise time. Do not test me."
"And what if I should test you, friend? What then? Will you come down here? You must know that I would welcome a beating, at least pain is something."
"You still call me friend as you call for me to inflict pain on you, Amua. Strange maheni. However, no. I will not come to your cell. There is no need."
The depression hung upon Amua, like a man carrying his own tombstone.
"I do not feel the need for exercise today, Ed. Please. Let me be."
He turned his attention back to his letter, absorbed in his own grief.
"I'm afraid I can't do that, Amua. This is your last warning."
Amua ignored him. Silence reigned.
But what was that sound? A faint hint of laughter. Amua shook his head. He strained to hear it. The softest sound he could imagine, right on the edges of his hearing. He couldn't even be sure it was truly there. The laughter came the slightest bit louder and faded out again. So like his wife. And yet, so like his children. Without thinking, he stumbled off his chair and into the labyrinth. The laughter taunted him. Growing ever closer and ever further away. The rational part of his brain told him that they would never allow him to see another person, not even the vid of another. The irrational side of his brain told him that he might round the corner and find a video on the wall of his wife and children playing together. How he longed to see them again, how he longed to be assured that the images in his memories were correct. He knew this was a ploy to get him up and exercising, but could they be doing a reward system whereby he got to see an image of his family in exchange for cooperation?
Amua turned every corner, full to the brim with anticipation. Finally, he turned the corner back into his cell and the wall slid shut behind him. He could no longer hear hints of laughter. He stood in the middle of the room in disbelief. He should have known. What use was Hope?
He shakily walked to the bed and sat down on the edge of the bed. His face stony, impassive. Slowly, he lay down on his side and covered his face with his hands. Silence.
At first, his body only shuddered slightly and his crying was barely audible. Soon, the bed shook as loud sobs racked his whole body.
"You bastards, you bastards."
His ceiling clanged with footsteps, stopped directly above him and then walked away again.
Even after Amua fell asleep, tears continued to course down his face and soak into his white mattress.
My People, My People,
How I long to hear assurance that you are well. That there has been progress. That my imprisonment has not been in vain.
Was it too much to ask, too soon? Humans colonized Te Ao over five hundred years ago. Have we not paid our dues? Are we not worthy of citizenship yet? Of equality?
Of course we have. Of course we are.
I falter.
It is growing hard to maintain Hope in here. What do I Hope for anyway? I hardly remember Te Ao. Madness is close. I dip my feet in the shallows. Deeper in, deeper in. Anywhere is better than this white cell of despair.
Shall I stay treading the waters of madness? Or shall I slip my head under, inhale, see how it goes?
If I do, will you forgive me?
Will I forgive myself?
Amua Mirai
He scrambled to his feet. Not wanting a repeat of the torturous laughter. Too sweet, too wanted. More than he could handle.
The wind of the door ruffled his hair and Amua closed his eyes and stepped through. Two seconds of imagining that he was stepping through the door to the outside. He reached out to touch the textured wall. The bark of a tree? The rough surface of stone? He can feel himself almost believing.
"Amua," Edouard barked from above. Amua startled out of his mind and began walking. He had a sudden vision of himself breaking the surface, gasping for air and frantically treading water once more. He laughed. A hollow laugh that mockingly echoed back at him. He waded through the laughter. The labyrinth was red.
He rounded a bend. A nice curve in contrast with the short, sharp, ninety degree angles of the previous corners.
An open door appeared on the red Labyrinth wall.
Not his door.
His door had been opened on a straight hallway today.
Amua's chest compressed. His head spun and he pressed his palm firmly against the wall as if to keep himself grounded. He looked away from the open cell for a moment. Dizzy, he felt like vomiting. Would he meet another being? How he craved the sight of someone else. There was no time to waste. Edouard might discover his mistake any minute. Amua hurried toward the open door. A few meters away, the door began to slide shut.
"No!" Amua gasped.
He broke into a sprint. The sliding door seemed to taunt him. Moving ever so slowly, but fast enough that he would not make it. A sob escaped Amua's throat. He pressed his feet down as fast as he could. If only he had run the labyrinth every day, instead of walking the corridors aimlessly. He reached the door and slipped sideways through a too small gap into the room.
The door closed on his hand. He snatched it away before it was crushed and severed between the heavy metal edges. But not before enough pressure had been put upon his hand to scrape away a large flap of flesh from the protruding piece of muscle below his thumb. Skin had peeled over the back of his hand and knuckles. The tip had been sliced off his middle finger.
Shocked, Amua cradled the bloody mess to his chest. One hand supporting the other.
The room was empty.
Another wall was open. Amua had never seen the equivalent wall in his room open before. Stairs led upwards. He slowly ascended.
On the ceiling, the metal lattice bit into his bare feet. He stared through the gaps into the white room. Crimson dripped between his fingers, dripped through the ceiling and stained the cell floor below. He felt sluggish, his mind working through quicksand.
The creak of a hinge caused him to slowly look up. A gate made of the same metal lattice as the ceiling opened at the other end of the room. Edouard stepped through. Amua could have embraced the unahi. It had been twenty years since he had seen any other living creature. The unahi still looked like unahi, he hadn't forgotten.
Amua took a step toward the guard.
"Maheni," Edouard snarled.
Amua stared at him foggily. The door was still open behind Edouard. He could rush him. He could get out. He could be free.
He could go where?
He didn't know how far it was from here to the outside. He couldn't go outside without a UV suit on.
Did it matter?
Amua took another step.
Edouard just watched. Why wasn't he trying to stop him?
"You made a mistake, my friend," Amua smiled at his guard.
"I don't make mistakes."
Amua considered this for a moment.
"You.... You wanted me to try to escape?"
Edouard continued to watch him. Tensed. Ready.
"Why would you want that?"
The room was swaying around him. He looked down. The cell below had a lot of red in it. Realization hit him and he shifted his feet to keep his balance.
"To kill me. You want me to try to escape so you can kill me."
The scales on Edouard's face slid beneath one another as he smiled.
"Perceptive, maheni."
I could still rush him. Amua thought. I could still try.
Amua laughed through a red haze. His voice sounded muffled in his ears. "Of course, of course."
He smiled at Edouard.
"I thought about it. I did. I'm not ashamed. I am merely human. Not only would you kill me in 'self-defence,' you would kill everything I ever stood for. Everything I have spent the last twenty years in prison for."
"You flatter yourself too much, maheni," Edouard spat through his mouth scales. "You stood for nothing. The people of Te Ao don't remember you. You changed nothing. Twenty years have been for nothing."
Amua didn't have the strength to cradle his mutilated hand anymore. His arms fell to his side and blood continued to drip, drip, drip into the prison.
"I don't believe you," he whispered. "They remember me. I made a difference. I made a difference."
His legs gave way and Amua dropped to his knees. Edouard continued to look on, a sneer fixed on his face.
"I think unahi are beautiful, you know." Amua said, verging on incoherency. He hardly understood the words coming from his own mouth. "When your scales glow in the sunlight... All we want is to be equal. Not because we have a false sense of our own importance on Te Ao. But because we love you."
Amua's head dropped onto his chest.
"I love you." He murmured.
He closed his eyes and fell forward, waiting for the bite of the metal floor on his face. He no longer cared. A cloud scooped him up and lifted him clear of the prison. Clear of Te Ao. He felt safe. Cocooned.
"We love you too," the cloud said, its warm voice penetrating his every pore.
Amua smiled. Free at last.
People of Te Ao,
Have you forgotten me? What is happening out there? I must know. It drives me insane.
That is an exaggeration. I know what insane is.
Twenty years. Should my resolve falter now? Should I lose all Hope now. No.
I know what Hope is. Some days my mind tricks me into thinking that I Hope for my saviors to come crashing through the Labyrinth wall. War won. Enemies killed. I am saved.
That is not Hope. I do not Hope for that.
I Hope for peace. I Hope for the desegregation of all unahi and human in Te Ao. I Hope for human and unahi to one day be able to walk hand in hand down the streets of Te Ao. To rejoice in one another. Enough of discrimination.
Equality for all,
Amua Mirai
Amua set down his pen beside the tablet. It was difficult to align the tablet and pen properly. His right hand was thick with bandages and strapped to his chest, allowing the broken bones and torn flesh to heal in peace. He liked having his hand there, feeling the thud of his heart. Reminding him that he was still alive. It did make writing on his tablet harder though.
He walked to the other side of the room and pricked his finger holding the stylus shard in his mouth. Drawing a scarlet line down the white wall, he repeated the day number to himself three times. 7140. He sighed.
He stepped back from the wall, waiting for the labyrinth.
The voice was behind him. He turned slowly to see Edouard at the bottom stair of the opened wall.
Tears coursed down his scaly cheeks.
"You are free, Amua."
Amua started to back away, eyes wide. He felt the pressure of the labyrinth/calendar wall behind him. No way out.
"Amua. Did you hear me? We won. We won. You are free. It's over."
Edouard spread his arms wide, a welcoming gesture.
"I don't believe you. They don't remember me. Nothing has changed. You said so yourself," Amua slid down the wall until his good arm rested on his knees.
"They remember you, Amua. You are the reason Te Ao has changed."
He pointed at the tablet.
"Every letter you ever wrote, Amua, we leaked to the public. They have been passed around. I don't believe there is a single person on Te Ao who hasn't read your letters. The public weeps when you weep. We rally when you rally. We despair when you despair."
He stepped toward Amua.
Amua flinched at the word. A word he had used many times. It was too strange, coming from the scaly lips of an unahi.
"Friend," Edouard said, "You need never despair again. It's over. You did it. We leaked the security tapes to the public of the day you might have escaped. That sealed the deal. Years before it was supposed to have happened. It was on the cards, Amua; you did that with your letters. But your speech that night accelerated things."
Amua stared at Edouard. Understanding dawned on him.
"You don't make mistakes," he said.
"I don't make mistakes," Edouard repeated.
Amua put his hand on his head and cried. Tears of joy, though the pressure of his heart in his chest felt no different to when he was crying tears of despair.
Edouard slowly came closer and knelt beside Amua. He lifted his hand and placed it on Amua's knee. Amua brought his hand down on top of Edouard's and grasped it tightly in his fingers lifting it to his forehead. He sat, rocking and crying with two hands pressed to his head for a time.
Then he smiled through his tears.
"Can you help me up, friend?"
"Of course," Edouard smiled and pulled Amua to his feet.
They walked through the wall and up the stairs.
Amua did not look back.
The time for Te Ao is here.
Amua set down the pen beside the scrap of paper on the desk. He aligned them both with the edge, meticulous as ever. Then he folded the paper three times and added it to the pocket in his UV suit.
"Ready?" Edouard asked.
Amua wasn't.
Would he ever be? How absurd to want to go back to his white cell now, to sleep on his white bed, to walk in the colored, textured Labyrinth. To banter and smile with a man who hated him and his species.
He squared his shoulders and they advanced on the sliding doors. To the outside. Amua fought the urge to run.
Bright, natural sunlight burst through the doors and blinded him. Guided by Edouard's hand on his elbow, they stopped at the top of the steps. He blinked and white noise roared in his ears.
The scene, blurry at first, became a heaving ocean of people stretching as far as he could see. Unahi and human alike. So many colors.
The white noise in his ears was chanting.
Ariki. Ariki.
Lord. Master. Chief. It wasn't him. That wasn't his intention.
But they were chanting in unison. Behind the barrier, he glimpsed unahi and human with hands clasped to each other over their heads, as if they had won a fight. Unahi scales glowing between human fingers.
He reached back and curled his fingers, clammy with sweat around the scaled hand of Edouard and slowly lifted them above his head until his arm was stretched as far as it could go and then shook his hand. Victory.
The crowd roared and roared.
Finally, Amua let go of Edouard and held up his hand for silence. Hands dropped to sides and the people hushed, straining to hear his unamplified voice.
"Friends," He began.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 31st, 2012

Author Comments

Many of what may be unfamiliar words in this story, I have borrowed from the New Zealand Maori language.

- Stacey Danielle Lepper
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