Nine Thousand Four Hundred Ninety-Four Days
by Vylar Kaftan
Innocent, proved today: nine thousand four hundred ninety-four days on the planet Khrokh am I. Warden told me, he standing in front of the giant window. Overlooks the mines, my people drilling and aching on the red soil for metals. Hot sun burns through clear dome, and beyond is yellow poison in atmosphere. I look through window at my people so far below. Like tiny dots they are on the soil, from here, in Warden’s office. I am a dot, no more, almost twenty-six years now. These are Earth years that keep time, not Khrokh years or my years. “Words cannot express the magnitude of the mistake,” says Warden, all formal. Sets papers before me. “You’ve been a model prisoner. But you never should have been here.”
Two days, I think. Two days left to my sentence, and now, now they realize I not belong here. “What error is made?” I ask, voice cracked. My feathers quiver and my wings tingle. I am filled with misunderstanding. Here I am proved today free. Examine cracks in claws from mining. Leftmost claw near unusable.
“Well, apparently the Judge doesn’t always work on alien species. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time it’s infallible. It’s supposed to be calibrated to handle any physiology for most known species in the galaxy. But every once in a while…” He clears his throat. Coughing noise, in my language is flirting. I imagine to mate with Warden much like toying with food. “But in your case it was wrong,” he says.
This I know, reliving moment that day when instruments attached to my head. I just come to consciousness, unknowing moments before, told I had murdered a city. City I know of, having heard in my unconscious dreamings, but not seen. In humans are children, who do not know what they see. So it is with us before we come to consciousness. I am told I murdered humans on my home world, that I destroyed human city. I am not understanding my crime, but it keep me on Khrokh.
Yet I know my innocence. Humans had taken me, questioned me. Fear in me, when instruments probe my memories not-yet-solid. Fear in me, when questioned. Instruments say I am guilty, and I am sent to Khrokh. Here, where sun burns me, and I must stay awake so long in every day. Earth days are twice longer than my own. Nine thousand four hundred ninety-four days are so many more, to me. I am old now. My people do not live past thirty Earth years, and most of mine gone now.
“I am innocent,” I say again, scratching claws into floor. I have said these words before and they are of no matter to humans.
“Yes. You are free.”
“Free!” This word I remember from unconscious dreamings. What does one do when free?
“Yes. Unfortunately, the shuttle won’t be here for two days — it had already left Earth long before we realized what had happened. I’m afraid you’ll be here for your last two days. But now you are free. You can walk around the complex as you like,” this said as he looks at my legs, so much more graceful than his. “You’ve behaved perfectly during your stay here — all of you birdpeople have, of course.”
“I am not knowing what to do.” I am puzzled, lost: do not know what I am doing. I feel as I did before consciousness — vague, uncertain. Perhaps I be accused again.
“Well, amuse yourself,” he says briskly. I know this of Warden: emotion worries him and he hides himself. Many humans are so. This why they are jailers. I stare at him with head twisted sideways. He looks at me, mouth relaxes: “I’m sorry. It really is unfair.”
Unfair, this word a human word. No translation to me. I know it, but it is of no sense to me. Closest I come is “dhrianya not currently obvious.” Humans do not see the justice in events like we do. If your feathers dry and fall off, it is dhrianya for sins committed in childhood. If your brood is born blind, it is dhrianya for resenting your parent. Or if there is no sin committed in past, then the dhrianya will come. Bring balance. Great joy comes to those who suffer most, for all balance in end. “Unfair,” I repeat, tasting the word.
“Unfair,” he continues, “that you served a sentence for a crime you didn’t commit.”
“Dhrianya,” I say.
“What do you mean?” He fears. He questions. Red sun pours in through window and fires the room.
“Shall become obvious.” No use to tell humans. They do not understand.
Eyes shift now. Papers on desk interesting. “Take your papers. Enjoy your two-day vacation on the lovely penal colony of Khrokh.” Warden looks up again. Tone changes: I know humans mean otherwise when tone changes in this way, but do not understand how. “You can’t be saying that this is fair,” says Warden.
“How?” He slams book, I jump sideways in startle. He up and paces in red light from window. Warden thinking, talking, seeing me. “How can this be fair?”
“Unknown.” How are humans so violent?
“Look,” he says, “Believe whatever delusions make you feel better, but this is bullshit. You’re the victim of a cruel fate, and it’s just not fair. I’ve been in this job thirty years, and this is the most ridiculous, god-awful miscarriage of justice I’ve ever heard of. It’s not your fault the Judge screwed up — hell, it’s a human invention anyway — and not your fault that it sentenced you to twenty-six years of hard labor. It’s not your fault that the human race screwed you over because we were scared to death of the birdpeople, all those years ago. Now you’re dying — and your whole life was wasted here, in this prison. All of this, for no reason at all. You have suffered more than any creature should — and there was no point. You were innocent, and you suffered. Why aren’t you bitter? Why aren’t you angry?”
I miss several thoughts but catch the point. “Balance will come to it,” I say. But Warden’s words find uncertain quark in atoms of mind. Will take great joy to bring dhrianya. Cannot imagine what joys will come to balance these nine thousand four hundred ninety-four days. So many days of suffering and pain, burning in blazing heat of Khrokh. Is hard to say how dhrianya will come in future. Or was this dhrianya for sins of past? I am just come to consciousness twenty-six years ago and not remembering all of before. How can commit so many sins, if this balance for past? How can joy be so great, if this balance for future?
Warden stop pacing, stare at me. He lets long breath from mouth. “I’m glad you think things will even out. It’ll help you feel better. Go. Go enjoy your freedom.”
I leave into white hallway. Guard scan me, my inner code sequence changed — now they stand aside and nod. No thrown down, no leg held. I am amazed. This freedom: to walk alone. Surely this dhrianya is now that I am innocent, they treat me well. But then I think, I was innocent always. Why no better treatment? Trouble in my mind. I must think. Where to go? Back to mines, sleep in nest, walk around to new places? I stop in hallway, try to decide. Try to think. Cannot think clearly. Buzz in head demands: sugar needed.
I go to eat. Two halls in complex on Khrokh: hot open tent for my people, and this other one. Never I go to cool hall for guards and Warden. Now I am into cool hall and guards eat there. They scan — know me — nod, get on. All whispering near me. I accept full tray and drink gloriously of sugar. I drink lappily, quickly from straw and dish. Energy and I am thinking clear, and thoughts I do not like.
Justice is absolute. Like matter, not destroyable. Every action has an equal reaction say humans. Do not see why they are blind to its application to all systems. Actions between sentience create reaction. Where then is justice for me? My claws cracked from scratching stone in mines, my voice dried with wind (on vocal cords is painful), and all this I am told is mistake. I remember fear of machine too clear, the worry that here I am just awoken from consciousness and I do not remember anything of before except impressions, terrors that could hurt an undeveloped thing like me. Then machine say that I have killed the human city. I am told this I had done with others of my nest, who were older. I do not even remember this much. I do not know how this is, but if machine say so, it is absolute, like dhrianya. So here I be in Khrokh.
Here I suffer in this place and for what? How do I know why deserve this?
Big guard sits next me, eats food, gone. I look up. Many humans stare at me, whisper. I continue to drink. Another sits, says, “Hey, I heard what happened. That’s the biggest load of crap ever, that they do that to you. What kind of compensation are you demanding?”
“Compensation?” This word I taste too. Is word of balance, for humans. Attempt to force dhrianya. I tilt head sideways at the human, red in his uniform, red like planet Khrokh.
“Yeah. For your suffering. What sort of compensation are you demanding? The Interplanetary League would love to argue your case in court. You’ll make trillions. How much are you asking for?”
Trillions of what, I wonder? But I do not ask. “Not needed. I ask nothing.”
He amazed, gaping. Drops spoon in soup. “What? You’re crazy.”
Am I? My hide itches where feathers broken, infection three years ago. Sun on Khrokh hard on me. Many itching welts. I scratch under wing and speak. “Explaining. Every action has a justice occur. I imprisoned for almost twenty-six years. But now free because truth discovered. So justice found —”
“You’re insane. You’ve lost twenty-six years that could have been yours, all for an idiotic mistake. Explain to me how there’s justice in that.”
“May not be visible, but happen. Always if a bad thing is done, something bad will happen to one who does it.”
He pick up spoon from soup, and set it down on table. “Like a giant karmic hammer that crushes people? That’s ridiculous. Where did you get that idea?”
“Truth. Taught by elders. Part of universe, is. Law of physics.”
“You can’t apply a law of physics to human behavior! I mean, any behavior by anyone! No wonder it was so easy to conquer you.”
I consider. Elders tell me we signed treaty because dhrianya would come to humans, to balance the killings they did. That before I come to consciousness, years ago. How long dhrianya take? “Dhrianya absolute. Cannot be altered or denied.”
He grunts. “There’s not even that many of you left, what with all the pollution we’ve dumped on your planet. Most of you who are still alive are here on Khrokh.”
“Is hard to understand dhrianya,” I confess. My mind flutters.
He says, “Look, there’s no such thing as karma. Sometimes, shit just happens, and that’s the way it is. I’m the first to admit that humans are violent, cruel creatures. You birdpeople got framed for all sorts of horrible crimes — but that’s the standard in human civilization. We’ve been doing it for millennia. The winners write history, and all that. But come on — has anything bad ever happened to us because of what we did to your people? Anything at all?”
Quiet I anger. “Justice will happen. All will balance.” But inside I think of my people dying on strange worlds, in zoos, in experiments, before they treated us better. That was not so long ago. It was before I came to consciousness, but I know of it because my people tell me stories.
He snorts. “No. It won’t. We’ll eventually find an excuse to kill all of you birdpeople. Sorry to say it, but it’ll happen. It’s already started.”
I anger more. “Conversation done,” I say. Leave table, leave guard. Towards outside, hot sun, go in shade where I never go for those years. All my solid memories are here in red planet, everything before now a vague dream.
Here I sit and watch the prisoners work, drilling holes and searching for mineral. Sweating, pouring rivers are humans. My people shedding feathers on hot soil, claws dug into rock — they get hard work. Told that we are stronger and therefore got harder work. I do not know that this is true. But I know I am stronger for work. All the work here, and I am stronger.
I stare up at clear dome, and yellow swirl atmosphere outside. It is kept outside to keep humans safe. Inside dome, humans are safe, but my people not. My people dying. True. This I know from earlier, vague memories of war and I am unconscious but still remembering. My people dying for surrender. Some of my people say we must have done very bad things, to have this brought to us. I cannot believe this so. How my people done things worse than humans, who force us work and die on Khrokh?
Where is justice? Where is justice in nine thousand four hundred ninety-four days? In my people dying for actions of other race? Always I learn to believe in justice, that dhrianya would balance and we would equal. This truth. But what they say, why. I look out at hot plains and people working. Some humans, mostly my people. Many die on this planet. Hot, dry, hopeless.
Through evening I sit and anger in the shade. I have not more years to my life. I am old now. Do not see what justice ever can come of what happened here. How something balance out? To balance something great must happen to me. To balance needs more than I think possible.
I do not sleep that night but stare at wall, in box with my nest. Unfairness finally perceived. Unfair means uncertain. Not sure something good to come to me, maybe being bad forever. Nothing good may come. I do not know. This I fear: that bad things happen without reason.
Terror into me and twitching wings I roll. In morning I wake and go out. Here in the field are humans pushing my people. Unfair! My people burdened under huge loads and human pile more on. Unfair! I rage at treatment, no answer in me. Lean against wall and watch. Hot sun baking feathers of my people. Slaving over rocks desired for humans.
I see one of my people stand under burden and throw load to ground. Rock flies everywhere. And I see that this understanding I now have: this is the balance. Now I know unfair. And now I can stand against humans. Who live unfair and know from start. Now I understand and fight against the way they fight. I will unfair back to them.
Rage I against the wall I lean on. Claws tear through stone. Section of wall break, sound of yelling. Alarm. I lift the wall and crash it on humans, that order my people to work. Scream from humans, I am not caring. I shred the humans, bloody claw. Strong they call us, do not know how strong. Until now we are blind, and dumb with our strength. We do not know unfair until now. Unfair makes me stronger, passion runs through veins and strength hundred times more.
Rage I on the mines, tearing the entrance. Rocks fall and trap humans inside. My people watch me, confused, frightened. They are not yet awake. I am living, call to them, “Unfair,” and dumb they watch me.
Rage I to light beams fired at me. Guards anger, aim, kill the youngling next to me. I wheel in air, spinning; they not know that these wings fly because never have my people been strong enough. But so many days on Khrokh and the power of unfair give me new strength. I dart to ceiling of dome, speeding up, aiming for surface. Know they not that this dome never held us, that never we leave because we are silent, sleeping. We do not leave because we do not know unfair, because we believe that dhrianya come to us. Now I know dhrianya requires action, to cause reaction. I make my own dhrianya. Smash the dome I quickly through, fragments flying behind me.
Instant leak of yellow swirl atmosphere, poison to humans but safe to us. I pierce again and again until dome is like the part of me that died when unfair known. Light beam severs my wing as I burst out of the dome and I fall, fall, land on top of the dome. Here I bleed, red over clearest surface, trail of blood dripping to crushed mine below. Alarms and I watch, humans dying, over all I watch fall quiet.
Unfair is empty. I am filling with misunderstanding. Unfair feels like a sadness. Here I am watching my people, moving in confusion not knowing what to do. Around me is the yellow swirl atmosphere, below me bodies of humans lying. I am remembering the dreams of the city they say I murdered. Below me is destruction, torn walls, bodies. I lie on shattered dome. Perhaps those dreams were future, the present now which I am seeing. And bleeding alone, I understand.
All nine thousand four hundred ninety-four days I brought on myself. I crack with grief. Sharp sound of rage from me, and bleeding I roll, off the dome through a hole. I fall to ground dying. Surface rises to meet me.
Now is my dhrianya for suffering. For sentence I serve was for crime I not yet commit.
Vylar Kaftan’s work has appeared in Strange Horizons, ChiZine, and Vestal Review. She’s a graduate of Clarion West, and lives in northern California. Her website is www.vylarkaftan.net.
This story, ‘9494 Days,’ has just been published in Argentina!
NUEVE MIL CUATROCIENTOS NOVENTA Y CUATRO DÍAS (9494 Days)
Story © 2006 Vylar Kaftan. All other content copyright © 2006 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish