Thankfully, when Linda woke the next morning, the nightmare from before and the heavy conversation with Wint that followed, had started to drift from her mind and the panicked state which had prevented her from sleeping well half the night had left her, to be replaced by that light, pleasant feeling which she felt the first time she boarded an AWA flying machine of her own free will. She put on some clothes fast and flew out of her cabin door, as if worried that the nasty thoughts would return if she dallied too long inside the small dark space. She shook her head and looked through the corridor for stairs that might lead her to the deck. She needed to see the sky and the water. Ever since she was little, the way the bright-blue tint of the atmosphere melted into the blue-green of the seawaves managed to both calm and excite her. She hoped that at least Alaian ships were more like earth ones, because she really wanted to stand on the bow and pretend she’s flying over the waves like a seagull.
After some shuffling around the cabins, she managed to find a staircase which led to an open hatch, through which one could see a small patch of clear day sky. She ran up, jumping over a few stairs at a time and she nearly ran over some woman, dressed in a deep blue uniform, who was going the opposite direction. Linda just flashed her a huge grin and shrugged apologetically in response to the woman’s raised eyebrows. The girls was surprised at her own lack of awkward shame - her trademark back on Earth and passed the woman by, before she had a chance to say something. Not that Linda had suddenly woken up and decided that good manners no longer apply to her, on the contrary - ever since she had arrived here she felt a sense of duty and belonging for this society, even though it wasn’t her own. It was more a case of her finally coming into full realization of the meaning of the phrase “big deal”. Some things didn’t need mentioning even in thought more than once.
There was indeed a deck and it was quite spacious and similar to the ships back home, but what impressed her the most was that pretty much the whole thing was made of wood. From what she could see it looked a lot like an English fregate from the 18th century. This surprised her a bit. Apparently, the people on Alaiah (or rather, the women of Alaiah, as they liked correcting her, because obviously here the words for groups were gendered) knew about metals, could use them to build stuff and in many ways, she had seen the local technology far surpass what they had on Earth. Why weren’t alloys used to build ships then? Or was it just a really old fregate? Linda highly doubted that the Ruling over Sea only had old wooden boats at her disposal...
Her thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the strong arm which materialized out of the shadows cast by the freight containers nearby, and pulled her down. She blinked a few times before managing to finally focus on the features of the woman who was still clawing at her shoulder.
“Wint?”, was all Linda managed before the hand came over her mouth with lightning speed.
“Did ye go mad, lass?”, the wind storm whispered. “Why ya messin’ about out in the open?”
“Mhy mot?”, the girl tried to mumble in protest.
“Because we’re officially not here right now, get me?”, the woman hissed. “Didn’t the Rulesome tell you to sit still?”
Linda’s eyebrows flew to her hairline in an expression of startled indignation. When exactly was she supposed to have had this conversation with the Ruling? While she was lying beaten half to death and semi-conscious on the floor of the shaman’s quarters? Or last night, when she had awoken terrified of her nightmare? Wint, as usual, read perfectly one part of her reaction and totally ignored the other:
“Oh, right, ye slept like a rock these past days. This ‘ere ship we’re on now is called “The travelling fairy tale” - tis’ a touristy attraction cruise on an ‘thentic vessel from some centuries ago for the wealthy citizenry of AWA to go ‘round the cool historic sights on the islands ‘ere. Only the captain knows we’re aboard, because she’s some mate of Her Highness.”
The wind storm shuffled for a moment with her other hand through the bag hanging on her shoulder and pulled out a long grey robe with a huge hood, much like the one she was sporting. She pushed the garment into the girl’s hands and hissed:
“If yer gon’to be shufflin’ about, ye better wear yer hood. Better that the women round ‘ere think ye mad, than for some eye in the sky to recognise ye.”
Linda felt an icy chill go through her entire body, despite the humid heat in the air. For what seemed like the millionth time she was reminded of the fact that she barely knew a small fraction of what was really going on in this strange new world she was on. A part of her that had been dormant for a while now, suddenly went on in high gear and started bombarding her with fears and suggestions for escape. Why was she doing all this? Why did she agree to travel with these strange, dangerous women? While she was in Syfis, surrounded by the menacing armoured Wardens she had no other choice but to do as she was told. But they were now suddenly on a civilian cruise ship, which officially had no record of neither Wint, nor Wotar being aboard. If she managed somehow to slip them…
“Look, I know this must be hard for ye, little one”, the wind storm once again surprised her with an uncharacteristic softening of her usually harsh tone. “Ye still have no idea what’s up and what’s down and we’re already draggin’ ye along to do us favors. Here’s why I’ve brought ye something nice to keep ye brain busy”, she pulled the bag off her shoulder and draped her across Linda’s arm, which made the girl bow slightly under its weight. “In three days time from now, we’ll be in the Fringe port - I’ll come get ye personally from yer quarters. But till then - keep it still, ye hear?”
The girl’s face was still skeptical, but she nodded, put on the light hooded robe and made for the staircase. She couldn’t say that all her unpleasant feelings were suddenly gone, but at least for the moment, they had taken a backseat to the curiosity that the mysterious contents of the bag had inspired. Besides, it was a good excuse to get away from the stifling presence of the wind storm.
She barely waited for the door to her cabin to shut behind her, before throwing her robe to the bed and started rummaging through the bag. The object she pulled from there was a black rectangle, flattened on its two large sides and it was emitting a barely audible humming sound. She positioned it carefully on the bedding and with a bit more scrutiny, noticed a similarity between the thing and the laptops back on earth, with the exception that this thing was lacking the multitude of sockets that the earth machines had. This piece of metal seemed almost completely smooth - there didn’t even seem to be a power outlet - the only gap in its perfect reflective surface was the small notch separating the screen from the keyboard. Linda used it to open it up.
The screen wasn’t all that different from what she’d seen back home - it was a transparent rectangle and it even had a small circular window on top, which she guessed was the web camera. The keyboard however was a bit more peculiar. Instead of the neat, albeit non-alphabetical horizontal order of keys she was used to, here there were two circular sensor panels defined on the smooth metallic surface. The keyboard had four large buttons - two at the poles of the two circles and the rest were sections defined by meridians descending from the edges of the north pole buttons on each circle. Each button was slowly blinking with soft bluish light, which served to highlight the curvy symbols on top - symbols Linda had seen quite a bit of recently and she assumed these were the local alphabet. Between the two keyboards lay a spiral of two intertwining curves with horizontal lines linking them where they weren’t touching. It looked like… a DNA spiral?! What the...
She traced two fingers over the arches of the spiral and suddenly the screen came alive. On a pale blue background, a round interactive window came up with more of the curvy script. Linda felt an unpleasant lump form in her throat, as her eyes darted across the alien design of the machine in her arms. She felt like one of the native people she had seen documentaries about to whom anthropologists would give their phones or some other modern gizmo just so they could look on with ill-concealed glee as the less advanced were shocked and awed by modern technology.
She imagined Wint, sitting in her cabin, laughing hysterically at the girl’s naivete and this angered her more than she dared admit.
She pushed not too gently the laptop from her lap onto the bedding and lay flat on her back for a while. She let the wave of anger and frustration wash over her completely. She felt like that one time in kindergarten when some boys had broken one of her toys (she didn’t even remember what it was now) and when she got mad at them, they just laughed. And the angrier she got, the more fun they seemed to be having. She couldn’t understand people like that. She never could… You know… understand them… because understanding...
She bolted upright in the bed all of a sudden. That’s it - understanding! She understood the way the alaians spoke (minus some of Wint’s more explicit outbursts, of course), which wasn’t all that surprising, considering the fact that she was at this moment inhabiting the body of a local woman. And spoken and written language were intrinsically connected, right? Of course, there was a vague change that her body belonged to an illiterate or a dyslexic… but Linda owed it to herself to at least try.
She took the alien laptop into her lap once again and stared at its screen with obsessive insistence. The circular interactive window responded stoically to her stare and for a few long minutes, absolutely nothing happened. The foreign squiggly symbols remained as impervious and mysterious to her as ever. Linda felt the anger wave rise up in her chest once more.
“Damn it all to hell!”, she exclaimed, punching the metal shell.
And for a brief moment, she thought she’d seen the symbols on the screen flutter. Maybe she’d damaged it? Or maybe...
“My name is Linda Pearce, I came here by accident”, she notified the room in general.
There it goes again! As she was speaking, she noticed the words on the screen flutter, as though they were just getting ready to change configuration. She took a deep breath and continued:
“Room, girl, sky, forest, flowers, work…”
She hadn’t finished pronouncing the last word completely, when a group of squiggly lines shuddered slightly. She stared it down with the full scope of her attention - looked through each curve of the four symbols and muttered again under her breath - “work”. She felt the strain of neurons working hard to restore the link between the vocalized and graphic expression of the term on a physical level. A few random bursts of word soup later, the entire message in the balloon became clear: “Scroll your hand through the spiral to continue your work.”
Linda scrolled two fingers over the sensory panel between the two keyboards and the interactive bubble grew until it filled out the entire screen, before bursting into multi-coloured balloons and disappeared. In its place, an open program came into view, which she assumed must have been some form of web browser, because it had a panel to the left, where the url of the current page was written out, vertically - “alaiantruth.aw”. The site header consisted of an image of a young woman with her white hair tightly pulled back in a tail and eyes so black, her pupils were melting into her irises. Her stern features were slightly softened by her ironic smile and two long, slender fingers were resting on her temple. Next to the photo a single word hung, in bold shrift “Think!”.
It took Linda a while to understand how to navigate through the page on the unknown device. Thankfully, her body’s muscle memory, in combination with her newly awakened cognitive abilities helped her quite a bit. Apparently, the girl whose body she had occupied was not only fairly literate, but very well off with computers as well. After a few minutes spent clicking around the keyboard and spiral in the middle, she managed to learn enough to figure out online surfing. Apparently, the two keyboards were so separated because the one on the left contained all vowels and the one on the right - only consonants. It took some getting used to, but the spiral proved to be more of a challenge. It seemed to not only replace the earth mouse, but a fair bit of the command buttons as well. If she did a sudden scroll downward, for example, the screen would go dark and the device would sleep. If she placed her thumb at the bottom of the spiral while scrolling her index finger up or down, the screen brightness was adjusted. Double-tapping on one of the DNA segments would pop the cursor on the screen, which looked exactly like the control panel itself. Only when she pulled that up to the screen, Linda could scroll down the page itself.
The site she found herself on was something between an online encyclopedia and a news site - the articles sported flashy titles like “The secret recordings of the attack on the World Academy of War”, “The truth about the Border Patrol” and so on. Most of them were quite old, if the laptop calendar and the article dates could be trusted. The next-to-last one was from ten rotations, or years, ago and the last one - from five. It was this one that caught her attention, because the title contained something she hadn’t yet encountered in the previous publications - a name she recognised: “Aquina Wotar - usurper or saviour?”.
Linda felt her eyebrows furrow on her forehead as she opened the article up. Apparently, this one was still unpublished, so it wasn’t visible on the site itself, judging by the red triangle which appeared in the upper right corner. Perhaps Wint had some sort of special admin privileges on the site? Linda shook her head - no, most likely, knowing the wind storm, she had stolen the machine from somewhere, read a few of the incendiary titles, which appealed to her anarchistic soul and content with having found confirmation of her radical beliefs in the page creators, had given the laptop to Linda under the guise of a reputable source. With this grain of salt, the girl continued reading :
“On this date, five rotations ago, Her Highness Aquina Liquitt officially withdrew from her service as Ruling over sea. As her heir, she appointed her very own daughter - Aquina Wotar, which in and of itself was a complete slap in the face of our Carta Electora, but what is more concerning is the overall lack of outrage from the part of the citizenry.
On the verge of the 21st hecarotation of our society, the so-called Communication hecarotation, we cannot allow ourselves to wallow in the dark pit of ignorance and apathy, appealing as though they may seem. Especially as citizens of AWA, the only truly free nation on Alaiah, we have an obligation both to ourselves and as an example to others, to carefully educate and inform ourselves and the decisions we make about our own fate, by basing them in fact and reality. We should not allow the false security of the past decarotations to blind us and dull the horrific memories of the last Great War, which as you might remember, also came to be through desinformation and demagoguery on the part of women in power and their special interests. As capable and civilized citizens of our political and military alliance and of the planet as a whole, we need to stay alert so as not to fall once more prey to another power struggle, caused by overambitious governing women.
Before I move on to the facts themselves, I would like to point out that this article does not seek in any way shape or form to sully the name of Aquina Wotar, who is without a doubt a capable leader and an admirable warrior. But this is not about one individual’s accolades or medals, rather we are concerned with the disregard of our electoral laws, which AWA ratified for the first time in the history of the planet, precisely to avoid the stagnation of leadership observed in traditional monarchies.
Our Carta Electora is that which separates us from this rigid and archaic structure - the right of each and every citizen (and as of recent - some male citizens as well) to cast her vote and criticism of those in power and to choose leaders and governing bodies which will adequately serve the needs of the two peoples coexisting within AWA - the water ladies and the wind storms. It is for this reason that we re-elect the entire Senate every 7 rotations and the Commander in Chief - every 15 rotations, or as required in case of emergency circumstances or the needs of the population. And yet, the goal is to always succeed a Ruling over sea with a Ruling over storms, as well as the moving of the capital from Syfis on the Water twin to Typhone on the Wind. This is necessary not simply to fortify the alliance between our two people, but to ensure the balance of power between the water ladies and the wind storms. This is precisely why it is absolutely unacceptable to allow this fragile homeostasis to be broken by lady Aquina Liquitt’s shameless power grab.
As you are most likely aware, on this website, we have been fighting for a long with with the powers that be to declassify the process of selecting the next Ruling. Even though each citizen is aware of the criteria by which the Senate downselects them, until the choice becomes the subject of a national debate, we cannot truly feel a part of a free society governed by the people for the people. It was precisely this that drove us to dig past the traditional mystification of the process and we made every effort to find out the names of the wind candidates which the Senate was considering for this essential position of power.
We would like to remind you that when Aquina Wotar inherited the title from her own mother, the reason, stated by the governing bodies for this tautological and unconstitutional choice, was that the genetic instability of the wind Gift could one day jeopardize the safety of our people, in case of a new conflict with the other two alaian nations. We will let you form an opinion of your own as to how much actual concern went into protecting our territory and the safety of the citizens of AWA and how much of it was an ill-concealed attempt by the water ladies to usurp power by benefiting from the wind storm’s tragedy.”
Linda felt an icy chill go down her spine. She felt led on and betrayed on many levels. At the surface - because Wint had actually been right about the Ruling over sea, but mostly, she was mad at herself for investing so much trust into the water lady. How dared this alien mislead her so? She remembered with horror and disgust all the admiration and joy she had felt, when she’d gained her approval during the surprise fight they’d dragged her in. Aquina Wotar had quite quickly become an ideal role model for Linda and now, just as quickly, this ideal had disintegrated into the small dust particles of illusion it was made from.
She reached out to once again push the alien device off her lap, but stopped her hand a few centimeters shy from the metal surface. Yeah, sure, she could let disappointment and anger take her over completely and leave her lying in her bed while staring darkly at the ceiling until Wint showed up to her door to pick her up for the next leg of their journey. Or she could take the opportunity presented to her to gather enough information about Alaiah to formulate a more or less successful escape plan, as soon as an opportunity presents itself.
She clenched her teeth, as her mental resolve hardened and slid her fingers on the spiral again.
Alaian population numbered around four billion people worldwide, based on data from ten years ago. Science was quite advanced, even in most cases more advanced than on Earth - half a century ago the citizens had successfully transitioned from internal combustion engines and fossil fuels to the use of hydrogen powered engines, which were not only more eco-friendly, but also cheaper, so the majority of transportation had become more affordable and accessible. Well, of course before that compact hydrogen reactors were invented as weapons of mass-destruction, but what is progress of not the sublimation of sentient beings’ aggressive tendencies.
In the beginning, when she’d first met Wint and seen what a wind storm is capable of, it seemed quite incredible to her that a people endowed with such abilities would be at all interested in exact sciences. Now the more she was learning about alaian culture, the more ridiculous her initial assumption felt. Yeah, sure, for someone like her, coming from a world where people were somehow strangely separated from nature and despite all their progress were still inclined to consider her a foreign and malevolent chaotic structure, the women of Alaiah would appear just as mythical and awe-inspiring. “That which we call magic is just science we have not yet learned to comprehend” - the quote popped into her head bright as some form of mystical universal enlightenment - it might have been from a movie she’d seen or a book she’d read. But that didn’t matter too much. What did matter was that she finally felt as though she was beginning to understand these peculiar aliens.
A slight smug smile twisted her lips as her fingers slid once more on the sensor panels of the device in her lap.