Aphelion Issue 263, Volume 25
July 2021
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

Cold Comfort

A Fa'teke Tale

by Matthew A. Reed


The icy water broke over Z'Ack's body like tiny knives flaying his skin from his bones; so cold that he almost lost his snorkel. The shock quickly wore off as he swam down. He knew that there was Ka'Rul in this area; he knew it in his bones. But after three weeks of searching he hadn't found as much as a single grain. And Sa'Teel got sicker by the day.

If only she hadn't joined those renegade Ba'Keel worshipers she could go to the doctor and get her dose of Ka'Rul without problem. But if she were to be seen by any professional at this point she would be turned over to the militia at once. Her face was posted all over town, wanted for the murder of a young woman. A Ba'Keel sacrifice, rumor had it, although Z'Ack doubted the truth in that.

The cold, murky water parted in front of him reluctantly, like thick, cloudy lamp oil. He reached the bottom and began turning over stones and shells. The sea floor in this area was very rocky and full of life. Thousands of small fish swam in schools everywhere, flashing silver and yellow as they went by. The occasional shark or barracuda checked him out, but with so many smaller fish to prey on they weren't interested in Z'Ack.

Z'Ack had been studying Ka'Rul since Sa'Teel had fallen through his front door, blood dripping from her wounds. Ka'Rul was almost always associated with swarms of healthy fish, and rocky sea beds to collect and grow on. This small cove that Z'Ack was searching fit that description perfectly. It only stood to reason that if he searched long enough he would find Ka'Rul and be able to help her.

Turning over a large stone Z'Ack fanned his hands to scatter the sand, again finding nothing. As he let the stone drop back to its seat on the sea floor he caught a glimpse of red out of the corner of his eye. Quickly he turned and swam towards a large coral formation. Deep inside the thick forest of coral was the definite glint of red. Z'Ack held his breath as he tried to decide what to do. He hated to destroy this beautiful and obviously old coral bed only to discover a shiny red shell (this had happened twice already) but the more he swam around the coral the more glints of red he caught. Finally, urgency made his decision for him, Sa'Teel was dying quickly now, the infection had spread throughout her body and even Ka'Rul might not be able to save her if he didn't get it to her soon.

His decision made he swam back to the surface to his small boat to retrieve his tools. The sun blinded him for a moment as he broke the surface. As his vision cleared he noticed the patrol boat beside his. A tall, imposing man was standing in his boat looking at him.

"Fine day for swimming, eh?" said the man.

"Sure is," Z'Ack replied.

"You wouldn't be Ka'Rul hunting would you? What with all this equipment…" He motioned to the gear in Z'Ack's boat.

"What, me? No, I just love to dive. Besides, everybody knows that Ka'Rul diving is illegal without a permit."

The man stared at him for a moment obviously skeptical. "What're the tools for? Gonna whop a shark with a shovel?"

Z'Ack had to think fast. "Nah, I like to treasure hunt now and then, and it's best to be prepared."

Z'Ack was starting to get worried, as he swam closer to the boat, it was plain that the officer didn't believe him, but there wasn't much he could do unless he caught him with Ka'Rul in his boat.

"Found anything interesting?"

"Nah, a few coins here and there -- but not enough to quit my day job, if you know what I mean."

Z'Ack had reached his boat by this time and began climbing on board to show that he was empty-handed.

"Well, I guess I'll be on my way." The guard said. " I suggest you do your 'treasure hunting' in other waters though. This close to the Ka'Rul beds you're likely to run into trouble." With that he nodded his head, turned and hopped over to his patrol boat, raised the anchor, set the sail and was gone.

Z'Ack sat down heavily. His knees were like jelly. Illegal Ka'Rul diving was a serious crime. Ka'Rul was too precious to allow just anyone to mine it. The Government controlled its mining and sale strictly so that no one person could hold others hostage to their price. Being the only real medicine used on Fa'Teke, and able to cure just about anything from the flu to extreme infection, it was highly sought after.

What should he do now? He knew that the officer wouldn't go far, and if he was caught with even a tiny piece of Ka'Rul it would be the labor camps or worse for him. But regardless of the risk, he had to have it. Sighing deeply Z'Ack grabbed a hammer and chisel and dove back into the cold waters.

Down and down he swam, trying to remember in what direction the coral was. Finally he spotted it, and he began to dig and break the coral separating him from the precious crimson crystals. Just a few feet in he hit something hard. The sand swirling around his face was so thick that he couldn't see, so he backed off and headed to the surface for a fresh breath of air and to wait for the water to clear.

After a few moments at the surface, Z'Ack headed back down. As he had hoped the water had cleared and what Z'Ack's saw caused his eyes to widen in dismay. Through the small opening he had created, Z'Ack could see red, bright red, and lots of it. And this was not a shell. Swimming closer, barely believing his eyes, Z'Ack saw thousands of cube-shaped Ka'Rul crystals; varying from the size of a grain of sand to an inch on each side. From what he had read about Ka'Rul, he would only need a couple of sand size pieces to cure Sa'Teel. There was easily enough here to cure most of Fa'Teke! This was probably the largest single find of Ka'Rul in all of Fa'Teke's history.

Gathering his thoughts, Z'Ack quickly broke off a few small pieces and placed them in his leather bag. He retrieved his tools and swam up towards his boat.

Fearing the officer might be back, Z'Ack swam directly under his boat and quietly broke the surface in the shadow cast by the small boat. Carefully he looked around the boat: no sign of the patrol. Cautiously Z'Ack reached inside and grabbed a small length of rope. He tied the leather bag to the rope then dove back under the water.

On the bottom of his boat, where he had made a hasty repair there was a nail sticking out just enough that he could tie off the rope leaving it hanging beneath. Down he swam again and farther out in the direction he had come from. Then he kicked his way back up to the surface.

As he had suspected the patrol boat was coming around the side of the cove again. Z'Ack swam back to his boat trying to keep his nerves under control.

Z'Ack saw the officer on the bow of his ship as it pulled up to his. He had that same skeptical look on his face.

"Find any treasure?" he asked sarcastically.

"Nah, just some trash," Z'Ack replied as he tossed his tools and snorkel on board and climbed back in. "People really ought to treat the ocean better, you know."

"Well, not all people are as conscientious as you are. I was just circling back around to make sure you were O.K. there have been a lot of shark reports around here lately."

"Yes, I saw a few myself," Z'Ack said. "But they left me alone. I'm heading home now. All that swimming tired me out." Z'Ack pulled anchor and set his oars.

The officer nodded once to him and turned his boat around.

Z'Ack sighed audibly, relief trickling through his veins.

The trip back to shore was uneventful, something to be thankful for after all that had already happened. Z'Ack tied his boat up and began to gather his tools. Looking around, trying to be casual about it, but making sure no one was paying too close attention to him, he reached over and under his boat, grasped the rope tied there and pulled hard. The rope gave and Z'Ack pulled in his treasure. He tucked the small bag inside his shorts and prayed that he would make the walk home in peace.

####

It was late afternoon and the heat was sizzling up from the paving stones. Most shops had their doors thrown open and many shopkeepers were sitting on their stoops fanning themselves. The heat was enough to keep most shoppers home.

Z'Ack made it home with no trouble, sweat dripped down his face and stung his eyes as he let himself inside. It was dark and at least a few degrees cooler than outside for which he was very grateful.

He went straight to his cabinet and pulled out a mortar and pestle. Taking out the leather bag, Z'Ack dumped the two Ka'Rul crystals out into the mortar. The one crystal was larger and would surely be more than enough for Sa'Teel, so he took the other one and hid it in the back of a trunk. You never knew when a piece of Ka'Rul would come in handy. Besides, it would save him the cost of a doctor if he got sick himself.

Z'Ack took the pestle and pounded the Ka'Rul crystal into dust. Reaching into his cabinet he took out a small cup and carefully scraped the Ka'Rul dust into it. He added a small amount of wine and headed for the bedroom.

Sa'Teel was huddled in the small bed shivering. "It's okay, Sa'Teel. I found some Ka'Rul today. Actually I found more Ka'Rul than a hundred people could use in ten lifetimes each! You wouldn't believe it. I met a Militia Officer there too, so I had to take my time, or I would have been back sooner. Here, drink this."

He held the cup to her trembling lips and she slowly sipped it. "Drink it all, and in a few hours you'll be feeling better. I bet you're able to leave here in just a few days. That's it -- drink it all. Now lie back and sleep." Z'Ack laid her sweat-soaked head back on the pillow and quietly left the room.

Back in the main room he flopped down into his favorite chair and quickly fell into a restful sleep.

####

It was full dark when a sound awoke him. He started up from his chair and immediately noticed that his front door was open. He ran into the bedroom only to find his bed empty. Sa'Teel was gone. He had known she would recover quickly; Ka'Rul was almost magical in its ability to heal the human body. But he had still thought it would be a few more days. And he had certainly expected her to thank him before running out.

Feeling kind of hurt after all he had gone through for her, he went to the front door and closed it firmly. Then he trudged back to the bedroom where he lit a lamp and changed the bedding. Climbing into his bed for the first time in three weeks Z'Ack drifted into a fitful nights sleep.

####

The next morning, Z'Ack woke up feeling refreshed and better than he had in days. Breakfast was first on his mind, and a large breakfast at that. The fire had burned down to dim embers in the stove, but with some stirring and some kindling it quickly caught. He placed the coffeepot over the stove and began rummaging through his cabinets for food.

With a loud crash, the front door was kicked off of its hinges and flung into the room, narrowly missing Z'Ack. He spun around reaching for the coffeepot -- if the water was hot enough, it would make a good weapon -- when the intruder struck him to the ground and promptly sat on his chest, pinning his arms. Z'Ack finally got a good look at the man but he didn't recognize him.

"What do you want?" he cried.

A shadow darkened the doorway and Sa'Teel slowly walked in.

"Hi, Z'Ack. Sorry to leave so quickly last night but I had urgent business. I can't thank you enough for saving my life. It kind of sucks to have to come back here like this, but our order needs help. You said you found Ka'Rul, lots of it. Where did you find it, Z'Ack?"

"What? You mean you brought this thug here so you could get your hands on Ka'Rul?" Z'Ack grunted, trying to catch his breath.

"Z'Ack, you know half of us are on wanted lists, we have to be careful. You don't know how many of us die because we can't get Ka'Rul. Th'Kent, get up, he won't be any problem. Anyway, we've been searching for years for an independent source with no luck, and then last night you came in babbling about the biggest find in Fa'Teke's history. Do you have any idea what that would do for the Ba'Keels', Z'Ack? You have to tell us where you found it."

Z'Ack thought back to the first time he and Sa'Teel had met. At first they had both thought it would be a romantic relationship, but it developed into a deep trusting friendship instead. The hours they had spent together wandering the parks, diving in the sea and just talking were precious memories for Z'Ack. Then she had found the Ba'Keels', and everything had changed.

Ba'Keel worship had been forbidden for hundreds of turns, and yet the sect survived, and even prospered in a way. The risk of punishment made it attractive for some, and adherents tended to be fiercely loyal to each other. No one outside the sect knew for sure, but there were rumors of secret, underground meetings, and even whispers of non-believers offered as sacrifices to Ba'Keel.

Sa'Teel had plunged headlong into the Ba'Keel underground, claiming she had finally found her 'place'. As time went by she came to seek Z'Ack less and less. It had been many months since she had been to see him when she appeared at his door, beaten and bloody. Apparently someone had stumbled onto a small group of Ba'Keel worshipers and a huge fight had ensued.

Z'Ack was a devout Sorilla worshiper and despised the Ba'Keel's bloody past and reputed present, but despite his protests Sa'Teel had only delved deeper into the mysteries.

The thought of so much wealth and power in the hands of the cult made Z'ack tremble. "I can't remember where I found it," he said. "I was so far out, there's no way I could get back there. Besides, I told you that the Militia Patrol found me, and it's more than likely they'll be watching for me to come back. I'm sorry I can't help you."

"Z'Ack, I'm disappointed in you," Sa'Teel said. "I know you believe all the garbage about Ba'Keel. But to lie to me? I thought we were friends." She sighed heavily. "Th'Kent won't be happy if you don't tell me where you found it, and I can't control him when he gets upset. Z'Ack, please, tell me what we need to know." It sounded like she was begging.

"Are you threatening me Sa'Teel?" Z'Ack was starting to get worried.

"I'm just telling you like it is, Z'Ack. We both have our orders and I can't tell him what to do anymore than he can tell me. Tell us where you found it, Z'Ack! Don't let him hurt you."

Z'Ack thought about it for a long time. Chances were that no matter if he told Th'Kent or not he was going to get hurt. He could see the blood in Th'Kent's eyes.

"About half a mile out to the west, off of Pe'Taks Cove in 60 feet of water, there is a large growth of coral. It's within a mile of the Ka'Rul beds, so be careful, Sa'Teel."

"Thank you Z'Ack. Th'Kent, would you wait outside a minute? I want a word alone with Z'Ack."

A few minutes later Sa'Teel came out. She wiped the blood off of her knife and put it back in her bag.

"Now let's go get that Ka'Rul!"

THE END

An introduction to Fa'Teke (Fä 'tek) by the author.

Fa'Teke is a small continent on a far away planet. It is the only known body of land on the entire planet. About the size of Australia, Fa'Teke has a population of about 4 million people spread across the continent. Most of the population is centered along the shores and the people are mostly seafaring by nature. The inner continent is mostly wild forests, dangerous swamps and even a few dried up deserts.

Their level of technology would be about the equivalent to the late 1700's of our time.

They are a deeply religious people with almost 100 percent belief in a single Goddess known as Sorilla. Many hundreds of years ago there were two religions on Fa'Teke but Ba'Keel worship was outlawed because of its war-like nature and irreverence for human life.

Fa'Teke is governed by a very strange system (see short story "Day of Fate" for more information) consisting of a temporary monarch and a Quorum of 100 elected Dukes representing the 100 established cities of Fa'Teke. A monarch is chosen by a national lottery of which every living person above the age of 18 must participate. Every ten years a new lottery is drawn and the old monarch steps down and resumes his or hers life and a new monarch is crowned. There is no choice in the matter; if your name is drawn you must serve.

The most precious substance in all of Fa'Teke is Ka'Rul. A small red crystal found growing sparsely in mineral deposits on the sea floor. It is rare and coveted for its almost magical healing properties. It is also strictly controlled by the government and its misuse or possession without permit is one of the few crimes that warrant the punishment of being "cast out" into the great sea. Certain death.

Ka'Rul has been in use by the people of Fa'Teke for thousands of years. Over this time it has slowly begun to change them.


© 2007 Matthew A. Reed

Bio: Matthew A.Reed has been writing short stories since the early 80's and focuses primarily on fantasy stories with an occasional jaunt into the realm of SciFi. Matthew is 39 years old and lives in Versailles, Kentucky. Three of his stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently Out of Body in the June 2007 issue. ('The Lessons of Guilt', set in the same world as 'Out of Body', appeared in June, 2000) and 'Spru TV' appeared in September 2000.)

E-mail: Matthew A. Reed

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.