Tag Archives: #greatstorytelling

Decameron 2020: The Taste of Brown

The Taste of Brown
By Nancy Bach

This White-Breasted Nuthatch in its tree-hole nest has nothing to do with the story. Stories just seem to get more attention with photos.

Crouched in the humid, smothering darkness, Magda Zeller examined the dead thing. It lay buried in a shallow trench at the base of the newly set foundation wall of the administration building. Or what would be Admin when her crew finished construction.

It was a windem, one of the tree-like, tribal, semi-intelligent beings that inhabited this world, and its presence on site made acid churn in Magda’s stomach. It would likely mean a delay. A delay could mean no bonus and no bonus meant a late loan payment to the Garicola brothers. Her palms sweat. Would they just kill her, or torture her first?

In the east, an alien god brushed fat fingers across the horizon, painting dawn’s purplish blush across the bottom of the sky. Compared to that, and the glow of a trio of moons, the stabbing, slashing beam of her flashlight felt heretical. Magda shrugged off the transgression. She had bigger problems. Besides, it wasn’t her god.

She squatted by the foundation and scowled at the thing in the trench, while her crew chief, Jared Montgomery, paced behind her. The windem had been interred so close to the foam-crete that it had become partially encased in it as the foam hardened overnight. Seeing it here, stuck in her wall, Magda relived the argument she’d had with the site surveyor about the wisdom of building a settlement this close to the forest. From everything Magda read before accepting this job, relations with the windem had been benign. That was in part, Magda thought, because the Governor was a smart man, keeping human activity to the broad, grassy plains that covered great swaths of Baeder IV.

This new intrusion butted up against the shore of the purple, leafy ocean of a forest that washed in rolling, hilly waves over the top third of Baeder’s one enormous continent. The activity could be construed by the indigenous creatures as a move into windem territory. Magda reasoned that although the windem had shown no signs of violent behavior over the thirty or so years Baeder had been colonized, it didn’t mean they weren’t capable of it.

The first day the crew started digging, a handful of the windem showed up. They stood at a distance, in a cluster like a miniature wooded glade, watching. Sometimes they gestured with their branch-arms, although whether to the workers or to each other was anyone’s guess. Each successive morning, more appeared at the edge of the forest. Just standing. They never stayed long. Magda would look up from some task and they’d be gone.

She peered down at the thing melded into her foundation, a scant ten centimeters from her maker’s mark, a small seashell from Earth she placed in the foundation of one structure in every colony she’d helped build. The shell was a tradition, started by her father, and continued after she’d taken over the family business upon his retirement. A little piece of her, a little piece of the place where humanity started, now resided on every far-flung outpost Magda worked on.

She hissed out a breath. Hell’s bells.

The windem in the trench was an old one from the look of the patchy gray, bark-like skin. The young ones were green, with limbs like vines, moving through the canopy of the forest like excitable monkeys. As the windem aged, they grew stiff, more earth-bound and sedentary. Cal Martinez, one of the team’s explorers, said he’d seen some that were rooted to the ground, like real trees. This one, the one in her foundation, had root-like growths at the base of its six lower limbs to which clung dirt and dead leaves, like it had been uprooted before being brought here.

Behind her, Montgomery cleared his throat. “Is it dead?”

Magda held her breath and gently poked the thing, fully expecting to be grabbed. The body felt cold, but she’d never touched a windem before. Maybe they were always cold. When there was no reaction, she laid her hand on the creature’s bark-covered torso, felt for a heartbeat or signs of breathing. Did windem even have hearts?  Probably not.

The thing didn’t stir, and it hadn’t moved since being placed here, or it wouldn’t have gotten trapped like a bug in amber when the foam-crete hardened.

She frowned up at Montgomery. “I sure as hell hope so. If it’s alive, I have no idea how we’ll excavate it without hurting it.” She played her light over the form, looking for some sign of how it had come here and who had brought it. Other than her and Montgomery’s boot prints in the ocher-colored soil, she saw nothing. “This is how you found him?”

“Yep. He was covered over some with dirt and a bunch of leaves. I cleared a little away so’s I could figure out what it was. When I saw it was one of them, I called you.” He ran a shaky hand across his closely shaven head. “What should we do?”

Magda stood. “Rouse the crew. Get Halloran and Coretti to stand guard here. Issue them weapons but keep it quiet. Then question everyone.” If it were some fool’s idea of a practical joke, Magda would have their ass sent to the worst job site she could think of, and she knew some real hell holes. “I want to know if anyone saw or knows anything about this.” 

“On it, boss.”

 Montgomery loped away towards their camp, a cluster of habidomes situated on a small rise a couple hundred yards from the construction site. He’d be glad, she thought, that she hadn’t assigned him to stand watch. The faceless windem gave him the willies.

The first rays of a ruddy sun spilled across the denuded, dun-colored ground, setting off sparks of light from the mica-like flakes bound into the substrate. Beauty wasted, Magda thought, on aliens who had no eyes.

The trials of the day ahead made her head throb. She’d need to call Dr. Ramanujan, the local Exo-Anthropologist, stationed in Rewey on the far side of the planet. Magda had studied all the lit about the indigenous lifeforms on Baeder before accepting this job, but nothing she read told her why a dead windem was lying in a trench on her building site. She didn’t have much faith that the Exo-Anth would know, either, but that was the logical place to start untangling this mess. And it needed to be untangled, fast. She had two weeks to get the priority structures built. It wasn’t just her reputation on the line, although that was critical to getting future jobs. Her bonus hung on that accelerated timeline, too. Without that payment, the financing partners–okay, call a spade a spade, the loan sharks–who had helped her replace her outdated and glitchy diggers and material synthesizers, wouldn’t get paid.

In the growing heat and humidity of the morning, Magda shivered. Then she tapped her com, calculated what time it was in Rewey, and hoped Indira Ramanujan wasn’t doing anything with her night she didn’t mind having interrupted.


“What do you mean you can’t get over here?” Magda paced the yellow-brown ground, cupping one hand over her ear to silence the whistle of the wind in the earpiece implanted there. “I have a dead alien in a hole and about three dozen of the live variety standing a dozen meters away watching me jackhammer the dead one out of a foundation.” She smeared dirt across her sweaty forehead as she pushed up her short bangs.

The anthropologist huffed in what sounded like frustration. “Well, this is great timing.” There was a moment of silence, then a sigh. “I doubt they will do anything but watch you, Ms. Zeller. In the thirty years we’ve been here, they’ve never done anything else.”

It had taken Magda two hours to get hold of the Exo-Anthropologist. Meanwhile, she’d re-questioned everyone on her crew after Montgomery had finished with them, slammed back two strong cups of coffee and a pain reliever for a burgeoning migraine, and arranged for a work crew to start breaking down the section of foundation so they could repour the foam-crete. Now she stood and supervised while they carefully excavated the windem’s body from its concrete cocoon. The air, as thick with humidity as a milkshake, tasted tangy and sour when she sucked in a breath. “And if they do?”

“Do what, Ms. Zeller?”

She flung a hand up. “How the hell should I know? You’re the bloody alien expert!”

She winced at a squelch of interference. Mankind had been traveling the stars for ten generations but somehow still couldn’t get intra-planetary communications to work. “Listen, I’m desperate to come out there, but I have one shot to meet with someone who’s only passing through the system. My grant, the money that will help us learn more about the creatures, depends on me keeping that appointment.”

Money, Magda thought, it always came down to money, no matter who you were.

There was more background noise, some distant, tinny announcement, and Ramanujan continued, puffing a little as though she were out of breath. “I’m sorry, I have to go. My flight Upstation is boarding. Document the incident and call me if anything changes. I’ll be back in a few days.”

God damn it, the woman was leaving the planet. “Wait! You can’t go. This is–”

She nearly ripped out the earpiece, and to hell with the nanofiber circuitry, when she realized Ramanujan had hung up. She spun, wishing she had something to throw, nearly ran into the tall, rangy form of Montgomery.



“It’s done. Had to use a hammer and chisel at the end there. Can’t get any closer to the thing without taking off bits of him. It. What do we do with it now?”

Magda frowned down at the dead windem, then across to the live ones, standing in their silent, motionless vigil. “How heavy is it?”

“Not very. Probably weighs about what you do. It feels sorta, I don’t know.” Montgomery shrugged. “Dried out. Like maybe it’s been dead for a while.”

Weirder and weirder. She cursed the Exo-Anth and climbed down the slope. “Good job,” she told her crew. “Montgomery, you take the roots, I’ll get the, uh, arms.” She gestured at the six ropey side appendages.

Montgomery looked like she’d just asked him to roll in a pit of fire ants.

She narrowed her eyes. “Just do it, Monty.”

He swallowed, stared down at the windem. “And then what?”

She gripped the body underneath the branches that she equated with arms and hefted it. If she had to, she figured she could just drag it herself, but it felt disrespectful to do so. “Do you like your job, Monty?”

His lips twitched. “Most of the time.”

“Then grab its legs and help me carry it. We’re gonna give it back to them.”

Montgomery’s eyes widened like a frightened horse. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea, boss.”

“Fine. Guess you don’t need a paycheck.” She tugged the body backwards a few feet and Montgomery finally picked up his end.

They moved toward the group of windem. Magda’s plan was to place the dead creature close its live brethren and back off. As they neared the windem, reflux acid burned her throat.

“Lower it to the ground, Monty. Carefully. Don’t just drop it.”

Montgomery followed her lead. Then with his eyes glued to the aliens, he murmured, “Now we go back, right?”

She sighed. “Yes, go. I’ll be right behind you.”

His heavy boots thudded against the ground as he ran back the way they’d come. Magda stood her ground however, wondering how to make eye contact with a creature who had no eyes. She inhaled more buttermilk air. “I’m sorry about your, um, elder here. I don’t know how he died, but we can’t have him in our site.”

One of the creatures was taller and grayer than the others. It had something around what could roughly be called shoulders, something like a necklace of vining blossoms. Maybe it just grew there, part of its body, she couldn’t tell from this distance. None of the others had a similar decoration, so she addressed her next comments to him. “We don’t mean you any harm. In fact, we’d like to be friends. Okay?”

The change occurred without warning. A grey-green haze, like murky contact lens, colored her vision. Her stomach lurched and she couldn’t catch her breath. The pond-scum air grew thicker, hotter. Her heart stuttered, memories of childhood panic attacks flooding her with the need to run and hide. Every cell in her body screamed, this is wrong, the world is wrong.

The creatures at the tree line hadn’t moved, yet she felt them swarming her, closing around her, and the world tilted. The ground beneath her feet seemed to shift and lurch, sending her to her knees.

Then it was lights out.


She came to in the chill air of the med dome. Taking a deep breath that for a change wasn’t like sucking air through a straw, she pushed herself up from the cot Montgomery had dropped her on. “What happened?”

Gail Wu, their medic, shoved her back down. “You passed out. Montgomery said the aliens did something to you.” Wu gave Montgomery the side-eye. “Can you verify that, Magda?”

Magda considered. “Probably just the heat.” She didn’t believe that, but better to lose face than try to explain something she didn’t herself understand. She glared at Montgomery, jabbed a finger at him. “You don’t repeat that, Monty.”

He winked. “Repeat what, boss? I didn’t hear a thing.”

Wu stuck a couple of sensors on Magda’s temple and chest, consulted her comp. “Elevated adrenaline levels, heart rate. O2’s a little low.” She passed Magda a suck tube of clear liquid. “Drink that. It will help balance your electrolytes. I’d tell you to take the day and rest, but I’d be wasting my breath.”

When Wu backed off, Magda sat up. The world swam and sparkled. She closed her eyes, forced down the sweet-salty liquid. When the dizzy glitter cleared, she climbed to her feet. Montgomery’s doleful brown eyes studied her, lips downturned. She waved off his concern. “What happened after I passed out?”

Her crew chief shrugged. “I ran back, carried you off. Put the crew to work on the foundation again.”

“And the windem?”

He frowned. “I didn’t see, but I assumed they disappeared back into the forest.”

“Did they take the old one with them?”

“The what?”

“The body, Monty, the body.”

“Hell if I know. Kinda had my hands full lugging you back here.” He smirked. “Might wanna lay off the sausage and biscuits, boss.”

Typical Montgomery. Snark aside, he’d missed the real point. The corpse of the windem was important. Magda didn’t know why, but she knew to rely on her instincts about things.

She swung her legs off the cot. Montgomery was a great crew chief and an expert at dome construction, but what he had in site smarts, he utterly lacked in imagination. Like always, Magda was the only one thinking ahead. Ahead to their schedule, their bonus, and what this interruption might mean to both. She pushed past Montgomery and out of the med dome. The sense of unease she felt before she fainted still squirmed inside her.

By the time she’d hiked back to the site and reached the spot where she’d left the body of the windem, the sun sweltered directly overhead and the crew had broken for lunch. A flattened section of tall grass between the bare earth of the construction site and the edge of the forest remained the only indication of their encounter.

She searched the trees, looking for any of the watchers, but the deep purplish-black and magenta foliage of the forest had swallowed them up.

Her skin crawled. Something felt wrong, she could taste it. Sour, gritty, murky grey. None of those things were feelings, and yet those were the only words she knew to describe the way she felt.

She shook her head, marched back to camp, hustled her work crew through their meal and back to the site. They had to make up the time they’d lost. She didn’t care what the tree-creatures did with their withered corpse, just so long as they didn’t get in her way again.

She pushed her crew hard, offering double time to work past dark. By the time the second moon had risen, they’d repaired the damage and even gotten a start on the foundations of three other buildings. While Montgomery supervised the pouring of the foam-crete, Magda worked on her own, installing the ribbing for the plasti-steel dome walls on the Admin Center, a job she could do with her eyes closed.

Still, money and loyalty only bought so much extra work. After the last rib had been welded in place, and before the grumbling started in earnest, Magda called it a night. Even she had run out of steam, despite the specter of having various body parts irreparably damaged by her creditors. Trudging back to her sleeping carrel, she stripped off her sweat-soaked jumpsuit, dumped it in the cleaner then collapsed onto her cot and into oblivion.


A flutter of cool touched Magda’s face. Someone had entered her sleep carrel. Her eyes snapped open to dim lighting indicating early morning and she rolled into a sitting position, swinging her legs over the edge of the cot. “What?  What is it?” She groped for her jumpsuit at the end of the bed, remembered she’d put it in the cleaner the night before.

Montgomery stood in the entryway, arms crossed, a little “v” between his eyes. “Sorry, boss, but you gotta see this.”

Magda fetched her jumpsuit from the cleaner, pulled it on, zipped up. She’d been looking forward to a long session in the sonic shower followed by a hearty breakfast and several cups of coffee made from the real coffee beans she’d brought with her. Yeah, those kinds of pipe dreams never came true. She didn’t notice Montgomery’s side arm, clipped to his belt, until she was shoving her feet into her work boots.


“Happens.” Montgomery’s lips quirked up. “Especially to us.”

She pushed out a breath. “Talk while we walk.”

He did.

The windem corpse had shown up again sometime during the night, tucked into the foundation of one of the new buildings, the commissary this time.

Magda scrambled down into the foundation pit. Two of the work crew hustled to install electrical conduits and plumbing pipes, studiously avoiding the dead windem, which rested just under what would be the entryway to the dome.

Montgomery stayed on higher ground, peering down. His hand hovered near his weapon, as though he expected the corpse to leap up and attack. Magda knelt on one knee and examined the thing. It lay on its side, facing the foundation, but not touching it, so it hadn’t gotten stuck in like the other one had.

“Not the same one,” she called up to Montgomery. “No concrete on it.” She eased the body onto its back. Gasped. A daisy chain adorned the thing’s torso, the same green viny, blossom-bedecked necklace she had seen on the elder windem she’d addressed the day before. She had no way to tell if this was the same individual or another who wore similar decoration. She shuddered. Surely, they hadn’t killed the elder and placed him here. And if they had, why? A threat of some kind? Some other kind of message? Damn it, this was a problem for the resident Exo-Anth, not Magda.

She squeezed her eyes shut, expecting to feel the tightening in her head which was prelude to yet another of the migraines she’d been plagued with since arriving on this hot house planet. Oddly however, the pain didn’t come. In fact, sitting here, her hand resting lightly on the sinuous, braided branches that formed one of the windem’s arms, she felt calm. Peaceful. All her problems dissolved in a single intake of breath. Gone was the gray-green feeling, replaced by a cheerful blue one, like the color of a still lake reflecting clear, blue skies back home. Skies she hadn’t seen in decades. She sighed. Maybe it was time for a trip back to Earth. Maybe when she’d settled this mess with the Garicola brothers, her debts paid and the monkey off her back, she’d take some time.

“Boss? You okay?”

The blue, happy feeling slid away. She forced herself to pull her hand from the windem’s body. “Yeah, fine.” Standing, she shaded her eyes and squinted up at Montgomery, silhouetted by the ruddy sun. “Come on, let’s move him.”

Montgomery’s jaw clenched. “Why me?”

“Because I pay you the big bucks.”

He groused a bit, but ten minutes later they placed the corpse in the grass in front of a new assemblage of windem. Again, Magda tried speaking to them, this time focusing on one that had a crown of blossoms on what Magda thought had to be its head. “I’m sorry to disturb your elder’s rest, but we really can’t have his remains in our building site. It wouldn’t be proper.”

The creatures just stood there, the long line of them. Silent. Motionless. There had to be forty or so of the things.

Magda turned to go. This time, when the ground beneath her feet lurched, she was braced for it. Sensations swarmed her. Deep-rooted unease. Wrongness. Mental world-tilting, like the sky was down and the ground was up. That same, murky gray-green. She swam in it, was filled with it.

“Ah, shit,” she heard Montgomery say.

She groped for his arm, found it, steadied herself. A few seconds went by and the sensations slowly subsided. She opened eyes that she hadn’t realized she’d closed. “I’m good, it’s okay.”

“You don’t look good.”

The world righted itself, the ground back where it belonged. She sucked in air, regretted it. Thick, sour, like rancid milk. “God, I want off this rock.” A glance over her shoulder revealed the windem had gone, every one of them, the dead one included. She shook off Montgomery’s hand and directed her steps towards the construction site. “Come on, let’s get this job done.”

For a change, Montgomery offered no argument.


Sore muscles, a pounding headache, and incipient nausea accompanied her into the sonic cleaner after chow that night. Her cot called to her, but damn if she’d go another night without removing the sweat and grime. She yearned for a long shower under stinging hot water, but their temporary habidomes weren’t equipped for it. That much water was just too expensive a luxury right now. Soon though, she consoled herself. Soon, they’d finish this damn job and get the hell off-planet.

Sitting naked and blessedly cool on her cot, she grabbed her com unit, found a message waiting for her. Hoping for a response from Ramanujan, who she’d been trying to reach all day, she played it.

A high-pitched, weaselly voice enunciated each word in her ear. “Ms. Zeller. Your payment is due in fifteen standard days. Please remit to your account by midnight, Earth UTM. We hope you can continue to enjoy your stay on Baeder.”

She tossed the com onto her cot and put her head in her hands. She began to shake, and a wave of nausea swept over her. They knew where she was. Of course, they did.

Damn it, she needed this bonus. Pulling herself together, she grabbed her com unit again and attempted to reach Ramanujan for the sixth or seventh time that day. The woman answered just as Magda prepared to hang up.

“What is it now, Ms. Zeller?” Her clipped, central hub accent grated, even more terse than usual.

“We’ve had another run-in with the windem. I tried to get hold of you yesterday, left you messages. They left another corpse in our construction site.”

A pause ensued, longer than the delay warranted by the distance between. “Another one?” She made a musing noise. “Are they burying them?”

“The first one was covered over in dirt and leaves. The second was just there, at the base of the foundation.”

The annoying pause again as Ramanujan’s response traveled back from Upstation. “Were there any grave goods?”


More waiting. Then, “Tell me you took vid or at least stills. Are they still in situ?”

“No, and no. I gave it back, just like the last one.”

The pause was extra-long this time. A snort finally ensued. “Damn it. I told you to document. How could you not at least have taken pictures? We’ve never seen a windem burial. If it happens again, I want full documentation. And keep the body.” A shorter pause. “What happened when you gave the remains back?”

Magda shrugged. “They took it and vanished back into the forest.”

Seconds ticked past. “That’s all?”

It was Magda’s turn to take her time. Should she tell the Exo about her fainting spell? It didn’t seem relevant, and Wu seemed to think was probably heat-related, coupled with the number of hours Magda had been working. “Pretty much, yeah.”

“They didn’t try to communicate in any way? We’ve seen them touching branches with each other sometimes, especially the lower limbs that look like roots. They may use mycorrhizal communication, the way plant life on earth does.”

“Nothing like that.” She sighed, figuring she’d regret things either way. “I did feel a little woozy both times.”

More waiting. Magda had time to rearrange the small holo-cube containing family pictures, and her e-reader into a more balanced and pleasing arrangement on the small shelf near her cot. It was suddenly important, that balance. Things in the right place.

There was some background noise, a clinking sound and a man’s voice murmuring something Magda couldn’t make out. Was the woman out to dinner? Ramanujan spoke over the noise. “That happens to a lot of newcomers on Baeder. Should have been a note about it in your planet brief. Some people report dizziness, fainting and some free-floating anxiety. It should pass in a few weeks.” A much shorter pause followed. “Damn it, I can’t get downside for another forty-eight hours, but if another incident with a windem body happens, I need you to leave the body in situ and contact me immediately.”

Oh, hell no. “Sorry, Doctor, but I’m on a tight schedule here. We lay floors on all buildings tomorrow, once electrical and plumbing are in place. Walls go up on the domes the day after that.”

“Ms. Zeller, this is important! Your floors will have to wait. This is unprecedented contact. I need you to be my eyes and ears.”

A part of Magda wanted to help, but the part that valued having intact arms and legs won out. “Nope. I have express instructions from the governor that this site needs to be ready for occupation on the 15th. If I don’t get floors down and walls up, that won’t happen.”

“Then I’ll speak to the governor myself.”

Magda chuckled. Good luck with that. “Feel free.” She’d be doing the same, right after she got off with Ramanujan, reminding the man just how much that delay would cost, not only in labor, but in their agreed on bonus fee structure, not to mention the cost of housing all those colonists who were arriving on planet to occupy the site. The governor, unlike the Exo-Anth, was no idiot. “Any words of wisdom beyond that, Doctor?”

Waiting, waiting. “I’ll be back on planet in two days. Please, just wait for me.”

Yeah, that wasn’t good enough. The woman never should have left. “Sorry, I think we’re losing the connection. Can’t hear you.”

She didn’t wait for the sputtering reply, just ended the call and immediately contacted the governor’s office. People in Rewey would just be waking up. For once, somebody’s god, probably not hers, made the com-sat link work and in five minutes she had the permission she needed to carry on, so long as the windem weren’t interfered with. She fell asleep with a smug smile on her face.


The comp on her shelf read 3:33 a.m. when that weirdly soothing blue happy feeling roused her from a dream about balancing precariously on a wooden plank atop a beach ball done up to look like planet earth. The gray-green sensation which had dogged her since her encounter with the windem the previous morning lifted as she blinked blearily. She felt peaceful. Energized, even.

Knowing that she’d be getting up in a couple of hours anyway, she rolled out of bed, dressed and slipped out of the sleeping dome. Grabbing a couple of ration bars, a to-go container of coffee from the commissary, and a flashlight, she headed out to the construction site.

According to the scientists, there was little nocturnal activity on Baeder. No night bird-type creatures sang, no frog-type things croaked. No scary predators stalked. A few weeks ago, she’d found the silence and the emptiness eerie, but tonight, that buoyant, blue mood had her whistling as she climbed down into the foundation of one of the three dorm units. By the light of all three moons and a huge work light, she pulled a little storage box from her jumpsuit pocket and selected a peachy-orange scallop-shaped shell from the mix within. This she placed in the still-hardening foundation to replace the one that had been destroyed, and blueness washed over her. With a smile she couldn’t repress, she began to assemble the struts that would brace the flooring. The familiar, repetitive work soothed her, and a cool breeze wafted over her as she schlepped equipment and fitted connections. She’d nearly completed the grid of struts and was contemplating whether to try hefting the floor sections into place by herself when she heard a shuffling sound behind her. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled.

Straightening, she turned slowly.

They stood, three of them, above her. One had a crown of blooms and she knew with certainty it was the same windem she’d seen that morning.

Blue came the feeling, barreling into her like an excited puppy, yellow nipping on blue’s heels. A ruddy yellow, a yellow tinged with orange, like the light of Baeder’s sun. It made her feel warm. Hugged. Secure.

The creatures’ root-like lower limbs twisted and undulated like a deep river flowing as they descended the earthen ramp built to haul construction material in and out of the foundation pit. She’d never seen a windem move before. She thought they’d scuttle, insect-like. Instead the three windem rippled towards her, single file. They each helped carry the horizontal form of another of their kind.

Another body.

Magda took a step back, hit a strut with her shoulder blade, stopped.

The windem bent their trunk-like bodies as though they were made of rubber, not bark or wood, and streamed along beneath the floor grid to deposit their burden at the base of the foundation just beneath where the door would eventually be. Right next to her seashell. They turned towards Magda again.

Their root-feet undulated, touched one another’s. Some form of communication, Magda thought, like Ramanujan had talked about. She’d give almost anything to know what they were saying.

Blue. Yellow-orange. Solid earth beneath her feet, no tilting.

They were speaking to her. Those colors, those feelings, they were messages.

They shifted and the one with the crown of blossoms gestured with one of its vine-like branches toward the corpse. It was in the shadow of the foundation wall, shrouded by darkness. Magda took a tentative step toward it and when nothing except more blue happened, she got closer. Using her flashlight, she examined it.

The body had to be extremely old. The bark was gray and crumbling, covered with something like lichen. Ocher-colored earth clung in places, caked between patchy sections of bark. Something hung around the “neck” of the corpse, a withered, desiccated garland of braided vine upon which hung a circular object with a hole in its center. Stone maybe? No, she thought, not stone, coral. The amulet was a piece of faded blue coral.

She shone her light onto the ornament, the center of which was filled with ochre soil. A rich, leafy smell wafted up from the corpse. It must have been reclining in some deep part of the forest, like a fallen tree. The idea of the windem disturbing that repose, bringing it here, like some kind of offering, staggered her.

Magda’s emotions were a swirl of colors. Deep emerald green spun through her, along with the sky blue and orangey-yellow. Happy. Contented. Peaceful, peaceful. Calm. In balance.

Blue. Balance.


She thought of her seashell. A piece of her, of her home world. Something she brought with her to make this place her own. Humanity’s own.

She turned to face the windem, a glimmer of understanding twinkling firefly-like in her mind. She thought about how she had felt when she’d returned the other bodies. That sickly gray-green color/feeling. Wrongness. Illness. The sense that the world was shifting beneath her feet, that dizziness and the inability to regain her balance.

Magda smiled. She had no idea if the windem could recognize a smile, but she hoped they didn’t find it threatening. In her mind, she conjured the feeling of blueness. Happiness. Balance. “You’re trying to fix our intrusion into your world, aren’t you?  Trying to balance our presence with something of your own.” She glanced toward the body, now sure that this body was someone who had been revered. They’d been upping their game with each body they’d brought, bringing a more important, maybe even more sacred member of their tribe to the construction site to counterbalance the intrusive human presence.


She felt a flash of white, biting, stinging, fearful, as Montgomery appeared over the lip of the eastern foundation wall. She raised a hand as the beam of his flashlight played over her and the three windem. In a calm tone, she said, “Stay where you are, Monty. It’s okay.”

She saw him reach for his sidearm. White swirled around her like a blizzard. “Monty, no!” She threw herself in front of the aliens. White, snow, ice, fear, death, horror, bowled her over. She tumbled into the windem, fully expecting to feel the searing pain of a bullet.

Arms caught her, steadied her. Embraced her. Blue slid over her, and emerald green, coating her like a second skin. The world was aqua, streaked with sunny yellow-orange. Happy, safe, balanced. Through, behind, beyond the colors, Montgomery stood with the unfired weapon in his trembling hands, his mouth agape.

Respectfully, gently, she pushed away the braided vine-arms, murmuring her thanks. She strode toward the wall. Hoisting herself up onto one of the sturdy struts, she pulled herself over the lip of the foundation wall and onto solid ground, projecting blueness as she went. “It’s okay, Monty. Put down the gun.”

His rigid stance eased. “They grabbed you. God, I nearly shot you. What did they do to you?”

She stopped in front of him. “Nothing, just helped me up when I fell. Really. It’s okay.”

He didn’t look convinced. “You sound funny.”

She laughed. “And you look funny, but I’ve never held it against you.” Beyond him, at the bottom of the layer-cake horizon, the sky glowed deep purple. “I’m all right.” And she was. Calm, peaceful, happy. She was in balance. The site was in balance, the gray-green intrusion healed.

“I thought they were going to kill you.” He gestured with the sidearm.

Calmly, bluely, she reached for the weapon, took it away from him before he shot his damned foot off. “Nope. We were just having a conversation.” She looked back toward the windem.

They were gone. Gone as though they’d never been there.

Montgomery pointed his flashlight into the foundation. The beam caught the body of the ancient windem elder in its sweep. “Shit. They left another corpse.”

Magda nodded. “And we’re going to leave it there.”

“What? Why?” He shuddered. “The crew isn’t gonna like this.”

“I’ll explain it all over breakfast. Then we need to call the Governor, and Ramanujan. They need to understand what’s going on here too.” I hope she got her grant. She was going to need it now.

He holstered his weapon. “You’re the boss.”

“That I am. But if it makes you feel better, I’ll share a cup of my real coffee with you.”

He grinned.

“But only,” she cautioned, “if you let me get through the story without interrupting.” She could afford to be generous. She’d be able to afford more of those rare beans now that they’d get their bonus. Hell, with the information she now had on how to communicate with the windem, she might get an extra spiff.

Montgomery grunted in appreciation and followed her back toward camp.

Walking into the lavender morning, giving the little box of seashells in her pocket a pat, Magda imagined the flavor of her freshly ground coffee, one of life’s true pleasures. Rich, acidic, soothing.

It tasted brown.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Read and learn more about Nancy Bach on her website: http://www.nancybach.com and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NancyBachAuthor/. Be sure to give her a “like.”