What it Takes to Fly-part 7
The sun beat down mercilessly overhead, scorching the earth; the weather this time of year was normal, though if it didn’t cool down a little, they’d have to go out and water the fields themselves; the rain came with the cool temperatures, and until the river rose above its current level, the irrigation ditches would remain low as well.
Trizka sighed and dumped the glass of water she’d been holding over her head; it was great to feel the cool water flow down her scalp, wet her hair, and crawl down her neck and back. The blue drake sat back in her chair and closed her eyes, shutting out the sight of the black and white tiles in the ceiling of the cafe where her group was eating the midday meal. She was glad she was inside, out of the oppressive heat that had taken her village.
It was empty, save for the four drakes at the window table; everyone else was busy tilling their fields. This late in the season, and the otehr groups were rushing to get their allotted land ready for planting. All the goofing off and playing had left them behind.
Yesterday, Trizka’s group had been among them. The loss of Klane had left their area without that needed extra muscle that they had come to rely on. And gone were the pranks the drak had played on them, which, no matter how much they loathed them, anyone in Trizka’s group would gladly be the brunt of a practical joke from the big jovial male, except for Jaina; she seemed to just plain hate Klane now.
Trizka opened her eyes and leaned to the left a little, allowing her to see the small yellow drake; Jaina sat, staring out the window, lost in her thoughts, completely silent. Trizka was starting to worry about the yellow; depression had claimed many a drake before, out here in the ass-end of no-where.
Know where? Trizka thought to herself. No, nowhere. It was a long-standing joke that Klane had used often. It had become his tagline. You knew you were in the same room with him when his voice rang out with that phrase. It had become as common as his outspoken hatred of any thinking machines.
Dust motes floated in the light from the window; the ancient overhead fan rotated slowly, beating out a steady rythm as it wobbled from side to side.
Know where? Yeah, she knew where he’d gone. Trizka was the only one who knew, outside of the circle of elders, where her elder brother had gone. It had been a unanimous decision, on both sides, Klane and the elders, that he should leave and seek a new life elsewhere. Now, he was simply gone. Trizka doubted she would see her older brother again.
Once again, the elders had stripped another part of her family from her. It was becoming a bad habit. And, if she didn’t do something, she’d be as depressed asJaina seemed to be.
Of course, things weren’t all about her and Jaina; Jade and Onessa, sitting close together across the table from Trizka, were getting worse emotionally without someone to focus on. Jade, Klane, and Onessa had been close since they had met, and the three always liked to play around with each other; the Three Stooges of their workgroup. Jade had even been trying to court Klane; she didn’t know how obvious she’d been until the day after Klane left, when she broke down in the middle of the field and had to be carried to the rest shack nearby, where she stayed for the rest of the afternoon, banging her head against one wall or another.
Onessa had taken their friend’s leaving a little better than anyone else, even if she didn’t really know what had happened to her groupmates. She had taken to comforting the rest of her group when they stopped suddenly, in the middle of slicing the ground up, and leaned on their tools, looking out across the empty fields with watery eyes. Trizka could tell she missed Klane as well, but was willing to swallow it and keep working.
Jaina, though, of all of them, seemed to keep on living as though nothing major had happened; Trizka had caught the yellow, from time to time, crying without realizing it, though what about she didn’t know or dare ask.
Whatever magic her brother had cast on her group had left them when he had. How had he been such a positive influence on their lives, when all he had done was be a bother?
The light blue drake felt her shirt-wrap stick to her body, and leaned forward again, letting it hang from her shoulders. Jade noticed her movement and blinked sleep from her eyes; she didn’t sleep well anymore.
“I say we stay here for the rest of the day,” Jade said. “It’s nice and peaceful in here, and no one’s gonna find us here.”
It was probably true. Only travelers and humans frequented the cafe. “No, we have to report, like all the other groups told us, on our progress tonight.”
“That’s only because the other groups are jealous of how we actually get our work done,” Jade yawned.
That fact was still true, even though the effectiveness of their group had been lessened by Klane’s departure.
“We got our work done because we had five people working,” the light blue said. “Now that we’re down to four, it’s basically the same level as all the other workgroups.”
“Even so, they’re jealous,” the elder Greene sibling repeated. “They’re just too dumb to realize that playing when you’re supposed to be working decreases productivity.”
“Jade, we play when we’re supposed to work, too.”
“And we still get the job done. They must take longer breaks than we do, or something.”
Trizka sighed again, taking the time to rub her forehead. Dust fell from under the scales, and she blinked it away. It was as Jade had said, and it was hard to miss, too. The other workgroups were jealous of the fact that her group finished early, all the time. The got more work done than even the harvester bot did, mainly because they didn’t overheat in the dry weather. And, while it was plain to see why her group did, in fact, do more work, it was hard to convince others that they were just not doing what was necessary.
It had finally reached the point where the other groups had become incessantly suspicious of their every act. Anything they did was put under public scrutiny. The best group? Hardly, remember that time...? And now that Klane had left, the other groups seemed to be even more suprised.
Jaina had, as usual, summed it all up, in one of her cynical swings one afternoon. “They could understand when Klane had worked with us; he’s the biggest male in Whontinm. He could work as well as three men. Now, we’re down to four females, and the only group that’s all female, and it galls the men that we can do their work better than they can.”
Now their group had been called, and would face the rest of the village workgroups in an open forum, talking about their work habits. They would have to explain how they could get their fields done faster, with only four members, and without the help of a bot, like the triplets and their field.
“Jaina, when we go in front of the crowd tonight, could you be the one to champion our side?”
The little yellow turned an eye towards her. “Why me? I’m not good in front of lots of people.”
Which was not true, but the yellow steadfastedly refused to be told she was a good orator. “Because we need a cynical sarcast to deliver our arguments that we actually work whilst the others play.”
Jaina didn’t say anything in retort, but resumed staring out the window. After several minutes of silence, during which Onessa tried to belch in rythm with the fan overhead, Jaina twisted in her seat and faced the rest of the group.
“Alright, I’ll defend us,” she said. Trizka smiled. “Great!”
Jaina waggled a finger in the air. “But don’t expect much. I kinda lose it in front of crowds.”
“Nah, you’ll do fine,” Onessa put in. “Remember that time you convinced Horas that burrowers were what kept eating all his store?”
“Horas is hardly a good representation of what I am going to do tonight!” Jaina said. “He’s too simpleminded. A few good points shut him up good.”
“And that’s all that a crowd of people needs,” Trizka said. “There’s an Old Earth quote that Klane always told me: a person is smart; people are stupid. You’re talking to a group of people, Jaina. You just have to sell a few of them on the fact that we do our work while the rest of the lot play around.”
Jaina looked pensive. “Yeah, right. Right. And then should I invite them to meet our fields? I’m sure they’ll get along nicely.”
Onessa was at first surprised by how many people were in the meeting hall, but then, she really shouldn’t have been. Her group was not the most popular, especially now that Klane was gone. The big blue had been the one thing that had kept the other groups from complaining about how well their workgroup did.
The younger Greene made her way to the bench where her group normally sat, in a dark corner by the entrance opposite her. Trizka had made them sit there the first time they had been to a workmeet, and the bench had, since then, become their place to sit. Tonight it felt like the entire hall was watching that one bench.
Onessa purposefully tripped over several tails on her way across the hall, and she felt a kind of perverse pleasure in knowing that she was annoying someone. And then she saw something that made her stop in the aisle so suddenly she almost did tip over.
For the past few months, she had been courting a red drak by the name of Nikel; he was, coincidentally, another group farmer. And he was sitting not three rows away, staring at her with a mixture of a sneer and a look of pure guilt fighting for dominance over his snouted face. She could tell, just by the way that he was looking at her as she passed, that he had something to do with the opposition to her workgroup. It was in the slump of his shoulders, shoulders that she had leaned her head on, nights. There was a damper on the glimmer in his eyes, which normally shone red like his scales, now were slightly brown.
Without looking back, Onessa picked up her tail and trudged onward. It was just unbelievable. That the one person in this crummy, backwater place that she cared about would be one of those who didn’t trust her. She was so preoccupied that Jade had to stop her before she walked right out of the meeting hall.
Onessa looked up at her elder sister, her vision starting to water. Jade only looked down at her, set her jaw, and then gently moved her to their bench.
It was going to be a long night.
Jaina felt nervous all throughout the opening comments of the workmeet. She felt the spikes of hair along her spine start to rise. It was a sign of how tense she was, and she couldn’t control it. Trizka bit her nails, Jade flicked her tail, Onessa fidgeted, Jaina’s hair stood on end. Otherwise, she was perfectly still, with a blank look on her face. At least, she thought it was a blank look. Klane had told her once that she looked like she was scowling slightly, or trying to squint to see something in bright light.
Klane. If he were here, they wouldn’t be making her do this, he’d be the one standing to talk for them. Oh, how she hated speaking in front of others. It was like walking on a balance beam: she just never seemed to be able to keep along the top, and fell off mostly. Public speaking had a right to be everyone’s worst fear, but, aside from insects, it scared her breathless.
Behind, in front, and on both sides were other groups; Jaina was starting to think of them as rival groups. They only seemed to want to bring their fellow woman down. All they wanted was to look good. And what for? Why did they need to be better than her group?
It all seemed to stem from the fact that the elders had promised more robot harvesters if this season’s harvest was exceptional, and they made a killer profit. Jaina had assumed that the slower workers would get laid off and replaced with a harvester when the time came. Not the ones who could actually work at a swell pace.
That was when it hit her, hard enough to make her visibly shake. Those bastards! She thought. We’re the fastest, most productive group. Get us out of the way, and the other groups won’t have to worry about being laid off, at least not immediately. With no one fast group, everyone would have an equal chance to be put off the force. What galled her was the fact that the other groups were not willing to work harder, just topple the best of them.
She was so caught up in her inner anger that she almost missed what the elder was saying. The yellow drake forced herself to calm down and pay attention, though she would rather have seethed privately at her “fellows” than listen to the old drak.
“-and so, we move to tonight’s meeting’s focus,” he was saying, in his cracking voice. From his table in the middle of the meeting hall, upon which he had sat his wiry body, long orange hair flowing down to the ground, he looked like a hermit. His wattle rattled as he spoke. “I have received several reports of a rather alarming type, all pointing fingers at one group.” The orange elder looked up, straight at Trizka. “Group Leader Trizka,” his voice rang deep through the hall; even given his age, he had impressive lungs. “Have you appointed one to speak for your group?”
Trizka looked over at Jaina, her eyes wide. Jaina, her face still as it had been all night, and all yesterday for that matter, nodded her head, and stood up on the bench. The fact that she was only half visible, even as she stood on the bench, was not a comforting thought, but the yellow drake banished her height problem from her mind.
“I’m speaking for the group tonight,” Jaina said, and her voice also rang out around the hall. Score one, she thought. “What are the complaints against my group?”
The elder looked at her for a moment, not in a condescending way, but more out of curiosity than anything else, and then looked back down at the papers arrayed in front of him on the table, his long hair falling over his face as he read the accusations.
And accusations they were. “I have a report that you are not doing your work properly; that you steal and use the harvester robot, which causes it to overheat for any other group who uses it; that you hire travelers to do you wok; an accusation that before Klane left your group, you four females made him do all of the field work...the list of problems goes on, and there are some that I will not mention aloud here. Would you care to explain any of this, Jaina O’Reilly, for your group?”
For a moment, Jaina wondered how he knew her last name, but then it was replaced with the fury that she had felt while listening to the list of accusations. It was all rubish! Insubstantial.
Clenching her right fist, the yellow glared as her gaze swept the gathering, but she spoke to the elder alone. “I have no idea what the people were thinking when they wrote down those statements, Elder. Perhaps they were pinning their own failures on our group to make up for their lack of real effort?” At this statement, a few of the younger males in the other groups glared at her; she returned their stares with equal, if not greater, hate. “Perhaps, by making our group appear to be the only one who was going beyond the laws of Whontinm, they would make their own groups look better in comparison? What is there to explain, except that they are all false.”
Jaina felt her mind reeling. But she couldn’t stop now. The words were coming of her mouth on automatic, her half-formed theory among them. “We have always worked better, and harder, than any other group. Our records prove that. We have always been the first to finish our fields because of the fact that we do not slouch off our work, or force others to do it; our bodies are sore every day from the work we do, and we come home in the evenings to find our mate-groups drinking the night away, as if they did not have to work the fields the next day.”
Pausing for breath, she noticed several more of the gathered draks were giving her the eye. Many even were giving her the once-over. It didn’t matter to her, though; she was on a roll. Jaina wasn’t able to stop if she wanted to. “Further, if we didn’t know how to work properly, why would we finish so early, and on repeated occasions? Before our groupmate Klane left, we finished early; even now, without Klane, we still finished early, and not because he supposedly did all our work. We actually work out there, something many people in this room apparently don’t know how to do.”
Jaina looked at the elder for the first time since she had started speaking. “The fact that there are so many of these ‘problems’ that only seem to plague our group, when in fact they are the faults of almost every other workgroup gathered here, shows that the other groups do not like having an example that they are not working like they could work. My group is proof that actual, hard labor can be done by the members of one single workgroup, not by hired hands or robots that never work in constant heat.
“By making my group look bad, it is a simple matter from there to no longer have one group that stands above the rest as the group that actually does their work. From here, if my group is broken down and seperated, it is even simpler to have nothing but an entire workforce that simply does not know how how real, back-breaking, heart-straining work is done.”
Jaina paused for breath, thought for a second, and then nodded her head to the elder, who sat in the center of the room with a small smile lifting his sagging snout. “So, you are saying that everything written down is pure untruth, meant to disrespect and disenfranchise?”
“Yes, Elder.” The yellow drake continued to keep her gaze plastered on the elder. “If you do not believe me when I say that our group does none of these things, then you can send a watchgroup to make sure that my group does as I say it does.”
There it was, the ultimatum. Either check us out, or believe us on the spot. Of course, it helped that her group was, in fact, quite close to the elder. His name was Eliok, and Klane had been a close friend of his ever since he had been a youngling; the blue had since passed on his friendship with the elder to his workgroup.
And to agree with Jaina here and now would deal a serious blow to the credibility of all the groups that had written complaints about Jaina’s group.
Jaina felt her world start to grow cold as she waited, standing on the bench; her knees were starting clack together, and her legs had started to feel as though they were ready to give way from underneath her, whether or not she willed them to stay put.
The yellow’s entire night and the rest of her group rode upon this one decision that the elder had to make: did he believe Jaina’s argument for her group, or the complaints and accusations against?
Eliok the Orange, sitting upon his table in the middle of the room, cleared his throat, though there was no loud noises to quiet; oddly, there was no uproar to what Jaina had said. She found this strangely sinister.
“I put my trusts in your case,” the old orange drak said, nodding his head. “Your voice is no longer required, Jaina O’Reilly,” he said, not unkindly. He then addressed the whole of the meeting hall. “To hear such emotion from this one drake about these accusations, and such truths stated do negate what was said against Trizka’s group. While I do believe that they are innocent of the crimes attributed them, I will personally be overseeing them for one week. And the same shall be true for every other group here tonight; tomorrow, a wather will be assigned to each group, and reports shall come to me on every group’s daily progress. This meeting is over.”
With surprising speed, the meeting hall emptied, but Jaina could still see the looks on the faces of the drak who passed her, and could not help themselves but give her glares. She could feel their stares on her back as they left, until it was only her group and the elder left in the great hall.
When Trizka stood up and made for the center of the hall, where the elder orange was still shuffling his reports, Jaina got to her feet, but found that she could barely keep up with Jade and Onessa, so much were her legs wobbling and unsteady. But she made it to the table right behind the Greene sisters anyway.
“Thank you, Eliok,” Trizka said.
The old orange smiled, and the folds around his mouth lifted. “You know, I never knew that Jaina was such a wonderful orator,” he said. “I would never have thought to question the validity of the complaints unless I had heard such a wonderfully emotional account to the contrary.”
“How could you have even thought that we would do any of this?” Jade asked, breaking her record silence of the afternoon. “You even come out to our field sometimes, you’ve seen us work...”
Eliok waved his hand. “I know, but sometimes my old brain tends to forget tiny details. In any event, we have an entire week to blow off steam talking about it, starting tomorrow morning.” His smile grew into a grin. “What you said tonight is going to get you a hell of a lot of enemies, Jaina,” he said. “But that was damn good speechifying.”
Jaina felt her eyes flush. A compliment. But also a warning. “I know.”
The smile faded a little from the elder’s snout. “We’ll see if you do, we’ll see. Now, come, I want to buy you four a drink, on me. Nothing alchohic, mind. You need to work tomorrow, and to appease the masses, I’m moving you to a new field; I have all confidence that you will do all the work of two groups in a week’s time!”
Jaina felt her insides shudder. A whole new field? It would be one of the outlying, probably one of the last to be tilled and finished. It was at least two weeks of work, if she was a judge of how well their group did.
As the four drakes followed the diminuitive elder, Jaina could not help but feel something like victory. She had stood up to her foes, and beat them down in the meeting hall. Where else would they confront her, now that she had seen their faces?