Pack up your Troubles
A M Soto
A M Soto is a New Zealand-based multi-genre writer. She is also a mom, cook, knitter, and sports fan. Her poem ‘ Northland’ was published in Pulp Literature Issue 10, Spring 2016 and more of her work can be found at adamariasoto.com.
Pack Up Your Troubles
“What are you humming, sir?”
Dav turned to the lieutenant. He was too young for the rank, his vestigial gills not even fully closed, but no one was who they should be anymore.
“It’s a song from Earth.” He hadn’t even realized he was humming. One of many habits he had picked up on Earth. At first it was mimicry to put the humans more at ease. Then it became something he didn’t even think about. “You must have been on Earth a long time to learn human music.” “Eight years, almost 25 of theirs.” He shifted around. They were huddled in the remains of a small municipal communications office. Two walls were blasted open to the elements, while rubble covered the floor. The rain hissed as it pelted against their portable energy shield. He was sure the rain never used to fall that hard, but there never used to be the particulates of 500 ships burning up in the atmosphere. He shifted again and felt the last apple in his pocket press against his leg.
He took another bite of apple. The hyperspace com showed him Isaa drinking scotch, looking so much older than when they had first met, his hair having gone white in the human fashion. “Go easy on that apple. I won’t be able to send you more for a while.” Dav took another bite. The apple was starting to go to his head. His face was going numb, and he swore he could see moon vines growing up the walls. “I tried to stop them.” He heard the hiss in his voice badly accenting his English. “I tried to talk them out of it. They didn’t understand. I couldn’t make them understand. They said you were too primitive to put up a defence, that they would take Earth before the third moon eclipses the fourth.” “Home by Christmas. Do you know when?” He shook his head. Another human gesture that had become habit. “I’m out of the loop, as you would say. The council said I was too fond of you, of Earth.”
Isaa poured and drank another glass. “Well, if your people do take Earth, I guess you’ll get to come visit.”
“Earth won’t let itself get taken, at least not for long. I tried to tell the council that.” He took a large bite of apple, sucking down the juice first and enjoying the cool numbness that bloomed through his body at the sweet taste.
“Either way, save those apples.”
“I hear humans will eat their young, and each other, and you can chop off their limbs and they won’t die,” a sergeant sitting next to the lieutenant added.
Those were some of the more mundane rumours he’d heard about humans since the war started. The moons only knew what the humans were saying about his people. “They don’t eat their young. They will eat each other if all other options are taken away.” The dozen other huddled young soldiers flushed yellow. “And if they get to a doctor quickly enough, they can
lose all four limbs and survive. The doctors will even give them new ones.”
“That is impossible and … unnatural.”
The hospital was clean and bright for the tour. He stopped by a large window that looked down into a room containing a few particularly small human young. All of the children had at least one limb with a metallic sheen. Doctor Isaa Francis stopped with him.
“Now this we are very proud of. Every one of these children were born missing at least one limb or lost one within the first six months of their lives. With adults we’ve found that grafting on a cloned limb works better. However, for children who never had them, we get excellent results from these fully artificial ones.”
Two of the children attempted to toss a ball between each other. They missed almost every pass. “It does take slightly longer to learn to work the limbs in tandem, because they are connected to different parts of the brain, but by the time the children start school you’d never know the difference. We cover them with a skin match polymer, and they can function as well as any other child. Better in some cases.”
A child of darker complexion, like Doctor Isaa Francis, was attempting to walk the length of a thin beam on two artificial legs while holding the hand of an adult.
“Of course at this age they grow so fast they need constant recalibration and upgrades every six months.” The child walking the beam reached the end and jumped into the arms of the adult. “I’m sure what you have is much more sophisticated, but we’re still pretty proud of this.”
Dav nodded because it seemed an appropriate gesture. His people had nothing like this. The thought of losing a limb and surviving was incomprehensible. To lose anything more than a finger, maybe a hand at most, would result in shock
that would instantly shut down the brain while the body frantically tried to pump blood to the missing limb. They had never researched limb replacement, because no one had ever survived losing one. “You should be proud of this, Doctor Isaa Francis.” “You know, Ambassador, you’ve known me a month. I think you can call me Isaa.”
Dav found himself humming again.
“What is that song?” someone asked from the far side of the group. A civilian, if it could be said there were civilians anymore. Even he had been drafted in, in these last days. “It’s a song about war.” “Humans sing songs about war?” “Yes. I think half their songs are about war. They sing about war being good and war being bad. They have songs about people going to war, and about the people they leave behind, and songs about coming back from war, or not.”
“You cannot go to war with Earth,” Dav pleaded to the Grand Council. It never used to be like this. The high arches of the debate chamber, meant to show the light of the five moons, now felt like the fingers of a giant hand squeezing down.
“We have read your reports, Ambassador. They have only had slip technology for their ships for ten years.”
“That’s 30 of theirs. They can do a lot in 30 years. They already have dozens of colonies.”
“Poorly defended. Physically they are weak. They are prone to injury and illness. They have no personal armour. Their weapons are based on either lasers or small bits of metal projected through the air.”
“Our battle leaders are projecting we can take over Earth in less than a year,” said one of the few remaining councillors not in a uniform.
Dav wanted to crack his own head against the council members. Drive some sense into them. They simply didn’t understand. “They sing songs about war,” Dav shouted. “What does that have to do with anything?” “Everything! They wage war on each other at every possible opportunity then sing songs about it.” “They are weak barbarians.” “They are highly adaptable survivors and rapid breeders.” He pressed the flats of his hands together, a human gesture never seen on his world. “They sing songs about war.”
Dav shifted and felt the apple in his pocket. There was another flash in the sky. It may have been lightning or a ship exploding in the atmosphere. It was difficult to tell. He wondered if Isaa was on one of the ships in the rear, grafting on new limbs. He thought about giving the apple to the lieutenant. He may as well get used to the numbness and visions they brought his people. Isaa had laughed and called it shit-faced drunk.
The humans would land soon. They would cut down the ancient orchards of the Highlands and plant apples in the soil. The young of his planet will eat them and become numb. The humans would make them learn an Earth language, probably English. Their priests would try to drive away the old gods and replace them with a singular God who was said to be both cruel and kind.
A small piece of burning metal hit the edge of their shield causing it to crackle. But still the shield held.
“I’ll teach you that Earth song if you like.” There was nothing better to do, and they might as well begin to learn the language. He only remembered half the words, though the tune had been lodged in his brain for days. “Private Perks went a-marching into Flanders, with his smile, his funny smile. He was lov’d by the privates and commanders, for his smile, his funny smile.”