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the question: ai image of a clearing in a forest with a treehouse built into one of the trees

12 Short Stories – The Question

Not the type for robes and chanting

Part 1 of my “12 Short Stories” for 2023

Eto pulled the door shut and made her way through her family’s backyard. She left through the gate and took off into the forest.

She waited underneath the tree they had climbed up so often through the years. They would probably not have the time to meet like this for much longer, now that they had graduated from school. Time to be adults now. She rolled her eyes. Still, the air was warm and fragrant, and there were birds chirping all around this wild piece of land.

When Adu arrived, she was out of breath from running. “Sorry, dinner took longer than usual. Ato is home for a visit, so we had to listen to his long winded stories about some financial success or other before we even started eating.”

Eto laughed and pulled down the rope ladder. “I am glad my first sibling lives far enough away. I am sure Eki’s stories are even more tedious.”

They went up the trunk and settled on the roof of the treehouse they had built together. There they reclined to observe the dark blue sky turning a deep purple and to listen to the insects’ song.

Adu stretched lazily. “I am glad my parents never found out about this. ‘Nothing good comes from up there! Keep your head where things are real and your eyes forward on your task!’ If they knew, they would explode!”

Nobody knew where this tradition had come from, but it was the way things were. Stay on the ground where things were solid. Be realistic and do your duty. Even the treehouse was pushing it, and Adu had not been easy to convince that it was a good idea.

When it was so dark that they could hardly see each other anymore, Adu took a small lantern from inside the folds of her jacket and lit it. She laughed: “So like you to forget to bring a light! By the way, my parents want me to join the order. They did not tell me in so many words, but I just know that’s what they want. You know?”

Eto sighed. “I know. My parents are the same. They have been on about how it would be a great honour for the family.”

“It would be an honour for you and me too, I guess. Perhaps we should tell the recruitment cleric that we have been friends for years, so we would love to stay together when we join?”

Eto sat up, frowning. “Don’t you mean ‘if we join’? I am not sure it’s right for me. And not only because of the robes clashing with my complexion.” Her grin fell when she saw Adu’s face.

“You know, I think it’s time to be real, Eto. I didn’t get grades as good as yours, and being a member of the order helps in getting a respected place in society. Besides, you are a second, just as I am. It’s kind of trad-”

“Don’t remind me. It really does suck to be second. Eki was allowed to even leave town, what about my choices?” With her long, grey arms, Eto gestured back towards the lights of their little town. “Is this all there is going to be in life for me?”

“Why does there have to be more? I mean, it was fun, when we were kids, but we aren’t any more. And I can’t see myself joining without you. Please, just this once, can’t we do something I want?”

“You just said it yourself, you don’t actually want it. You just follow along! And you want me to follow along with you? So I have to chant all day and make others obey stupid rules? I thought we were friends!”

Adu’s voice rose in pitch as well as volume: “So did I! So what if just this once I decide to go along with tradition and my parents’ wishes? We are not the only ones on this planet! There is something like contributing to community! Also, we have been waiting here for long enough now, and honestly? I kind of agree with my parents: If you ask me, nothing will come from up there, good or otherwise! Take a good, honest look up there, even the last remaining bright spots have long disappeared from the night sky! So maybe we should stop waiting and start joining everybody else and just live?”

They scowled at each other until Adu grabbed her lantern and went to climb down the ladder. Eto scrambled after her.

While she ran after Adu, she called out, “Wait! I am sorry! Come on, wait for me!”

Adu stopped but did not turn around, her shoulders drooping. In a very small voice she said, “I have always looked up to you. But I am not like you, Ets, I am not that good with opposition.” She turned around at last, her purple eyes shining with tears.

“Perhaps we can talk about this tomorrow? Let’s just enjoy school being over tonight, okay?”

They hugged and Adu whispered against Eto’s shoulder, “Okay. For the record, watching the sky with you definitely wasn’t a waste of time.”

Eto sent one more longing glance upwards, only to find that the last remaining bright spot had, in fact, not disappeared. She blinked twice, then elbowed Adu and pointed up: “You see that too, right?” Adu actually took a look and nodded wide-eyed.

“What? How? It went dark ages ago!”

Eto’s face lit up “This can’t be the last bright spot. It’s in a totally different place. This is something new! Erm, wait… Is it just me or is it getting bigger?”

They watched with open mouths as the previously tiny point of light grew into a fiery streak across the sky. Soon they could hear it screeching downward, louder and louder, until it hit the ground behind the ridge in an explosion of blue dust and white flames.

The two of them stood very still, then looked at each other. They started walking at the same time. In the light of the lantern, they made their way through the undergrowth and up the incline to reach the crash site. There they found a heap of hot metal shards and bent rods with little boxes still halfway attached to them. A gleaming yellowish rectangle lay on the crater’s rim.

They walked closer taking small steps. Even though it had been warped a bit upon impact, the markings on the rectangle could clearly be seen: To the left a couple of lines intersecting in one spot, to the right two strange bipedal beings, one of them lifting their right arm. At the bottom was a row of circles, one of them big and nine smaller ones. An arrow connected the fourth circle from the left with something that looked like an image of this thing that had fallen from the sky.

Eto knelt down and traced the alien images with her long fingers hovering above the plate. She was quiet for a while, then glanced up at her friend, a new sparkle in her eyes, and asked: “So what do you say now? What should we do with the rest of our lives?”

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