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Sweat beaded on her forehead. A small rivulet made its way down her nose, gathered weight and volume, and then a singular drop fell to the ground, splashing in the ashes on the slope of Mount Eshuan. It had been a day of trudging ever-upward, sweat stained, sore and more tired than she thought was possible. Dust from the ashes of the dead pillowed up with each footfall, then resettled. Grime built up on her shoes, clothing, hands and face.

Such a horrible price to pay, she thought, for a mistake that wasn’t even mine. If I survive this I’m going to kill that machine, she told herself. Once more she adjusted the burlap bag that was slung over one side—contents unknown—and switched hands and shoulders that were supporting the extra weight, then trudged on.

She wasn’t certain, the language barrier being so immense, but she believed at the top of the mountain she was to meet the Eshua god, Sytl. Only being in his presence would release her she had been told. She stopped, gazed upward—not long now. She could see the summit, barren rock just a couple of hundred meters away. She put her head down again and shuffled one foot in front of the other. “Yes,” she mumbled, “I’m definitely going to kill that machine.”

Everyone assumes being a soldier is the most dangerous occupation in the galaxy, bullets and bombs are part of the job description, after all. But she could argue persuasively that being a linguist and an ambassador was far worse. Plus, she had the scars to back up her arguments, not that the soldiers didn’t have those also.

Her profession and her specialty put her at the bleeding edge of humanity’s foray into the galaxy. Her experience had taught her many things over the years but one thing was always certain. People are people, she’d learned to think. Regardless of their genetic backgrounds and developmental baggage, they mostly behaved the same throughout the stars. The one defining characteristic of sentience was an overabundance of self-importance. They all—the Indirins, the Swaylitch, humans—believed their way of doing things was correct, infallible. Experience had taught her that no matter where she traveled throughout the galaxy she was always at its center. Sentience, she thought, should be redefined to include the word ethnocentric.

She coughed. Her thighs burned with lactic acid. Not far now.

Some cultures took offense in the simplest of mistakes, like the Eshua seemed to. Portia, her AI counterpart, had insisted on a particular meaning for a phrase when meeting with the Eshan ambassador. But Portia had been wrong and they had insulted the ambassador. She still didn’t quite understand it—the mistake or error.

“Perhaps,” the Eshuan ambassador had strongly suggested, “you should walk among our dead. You will get to know us better, I think.”

The Eshuans cremate their dead and the ashes are added to the face of Mt. Eshuan. Once every three years, if she was translating properly, families make the trek to the top of the mountain to pay their respects.

“Consider it a holiday,” Portia had said.

She climbed over the top of the last rocks, dropped the bag and sighed. The peak of the mountain was flat, boulders strewn about almost ceremonial in manner. A couple of small bushes grew around the edges. She sat on a boulder and looked out upon the landscape.

A small animal ambled up next to her, looking in the same direction as she was. It was similar to a dog, with longer legs and larger ears. For some reason she didn’t feel threatened or scared of the animal.

“Hello,” she said.

The dog walked over and sniffed at the burlap bag. Ah, she thought, that. She had been instructed not to open it until she had reached the summit.

“Well, let’s see what was so important.”

The animal let out brief bark and wagged it ears. She laughed and picked up the bag and dumped its contents onto the ground. Food—for the animal! She laughed hard at that. The animal danced around and nosed her.

After it had eaten the animal led her to the backside of the mountain. Steps wound their way down the mountainside. Off in the distance, part of the way down, there was a trolley car waiting to be taken to the bottom.

Later, after she had washed up, changed clothes and let go of the anger—at Portia and the Eshuan—she met with the ambassador.

“We have an old saying here,” he told her, smiling, “If you can laugh we can be friends.”

A simple mistake forces a walk among the dead. This is a writer's group story.

in category Fiction

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