Sitting casually on a small, flat rock, Xani undid the straps on his leather traveling pack and pulled out his meager lunch, danor root on mixi bread. As he took the first bite, thoughts of the human traders flooded his mind. Humans are so lucky, he thought. They never get hair in their teeth when they eat. My paws always shed hair and then I have to eat it. Five clawed fingers instead of three. Sometimes he wished he could be human. But as he continued to munch, the wish faded. He remembered the humans’ savage nature.
They had come to his world without asking, and without asking they had begun to mine. They would one day ruin his world, he knew, the world he and the other Dira worked so hard to protect.
After he finished the last bites of the sandwich, he replaced the pack on his back. The human trade camp did not lay far from here, but he wanted to get there son. The sooner he arrived, and traded for what he needed, the sooner he could return to watch the Theamin. The humans called it a “play,” but to him it had always been the Theamin.
He brushed off hid furry behind as he stood up and swatted at an insect that buzzed around his pointed ears. Dira had big ears, bigger than the humans at least, and his uncle had always told him his were the biggest. Sometimes they flopped down at the sides of his face as he ran. The flopping irritated him to no end. Xani had always loved to run. When h had been just a pup, his family had had one great time keeping track of him, he had runs o much. But the ears.
He through about running then, all the way to the human trade camp, but the experience told him not to. When dealing with the humans, caution proved best. A season-turn ago, h had been running on all paws when he ran right into the legs of a human who had been visiting Tanil, the city where he lived. The human had yelled at him. He couldn’t remember what he said, but the man had called him a “dog.” Dog? Was that a human insult? It sounded so to him. All the Dira walked on all paws most of the time. Standing on his hind legs seemed too much work, unless he needed to reach something up high. But the humans seemed to prefer thy walk on their hinds, so he had practiced it over and over. He walked on, with two legs, to the human camp.
Woora trees dotted the otherwise barren plain. His uncle, who spoke to the humans though a curious, colorful stone they had given him, had told him the humans called the woora “sycamores.” Xani’s curiosity over the humans’ names for things had grown daily since they had arrived. His uncle remained among the lucky few that possessed one of the speaking stones. When the humans had first come to the Theamin, the first time anyone had ever seen them, there had been much confusion. But then they had pulled out the speaking stones from their packs and run their five-fingered paws over them. Soon the stones began to talk Dira language. When the Pack, the elders of Tanil, finally determined that what the stones said represented the speech of their owners, things had gone much more smoothly.
The Pack had made an agreement with the humans that first night, they would send some of the Dira to trade once every five day-turns, and the humans would never visit Tanil again unless asked. Xani’s uncle had gone on the first trade and had brought back such wonderful things. But the Pack thought him too young to deal with the humans; he had not even gotten close to a speaking stone. Oh well, he though as he plodded along, I’m sure I can do well without one. I can’t let that stop me from seeing what is in the human camp.
After climbing a ridge, Xani came in sight of the camp, just where his uncle had said it would be. It spread out by the side of a ravine. Odd, box-like machines lifted things out of the ravine, and lifted humans in. He had seen machines before. Some of the Pack claimed that machines could help you do anything. One among the Pack even made machines. But his were rope, leather, bone, sticks and stones. The humans’ machines shined brightly in the light of the daystar. They reflected the light like pools of water. Xani stopped on the top of the ridge. The scene before him almost turned him away. Besides the machines that lifted things in and out there were others. There were crunching machines, machines that moved back and forth—those that roared and grumbled—and more box-like ones somewhat farther away from the rest. He just could not believe they had so many. What were they all for?
When his awe subsided, he stared down the other side of the ridge. There were humans here, so many. Only one or two had ever come to Tanil at the same time. As he came closer to the camp, and the shining machines, he began to count: one, two...five, six... He got to fifteen and then he stopped. Fifteen humans. He had been so sure before now that there were only six humans.
His steps slowed as he reached the bottom of the grade. He stopped and hitched his paws into the straps of his pack. A tiny pang of not-want-to-juice began to well up in his midsection. He couldn’t go on. Not into the midst of at least fifteen humans. They had never attempted anything to harm the Dira before, but no one knew if that would last. He reasoned that the Pack only sent their chosen ones to the mining camp because they did not want to start trouble with the human world-invaders. No, I can do this, thought Xani; none of the humans down there have seen me yet.
He approached the camp, trying not to meet eyes with any humans. He knew he should not be here, an d if his uncle, or any of th Pack, ever found out, he would have a certain visit to the elders in the future. He tried to avoid the humans by keeping his eyes to the ground and his steps slow until he could pass the loud machines and make it to the other side of the camp, the side where his uncle claimed the pretty things had come from. But as he passed the second in a row of machines, a human popped out from behind it and pointed right at him.
He froze. He could turn around, go down on all paws and run all the way back to Tanil. A Dira on four legs could beat a human on two easily. Two legs. But he did not turn, he looked up at the human just as the world-invader turned his head to another and said something in their garbled language. Xani didn’t catch all of it, or understand, but he did recognize one word, “dog.” There it was again.
One of their bellies jiggled and he seemed to draw air too fast. He covered his mouth. Then he stood straight again. The one h had spoken to spoke back. “Laugh” was the only word Xani hear over the roar of the machines.
The two humans moved away, and then dismissed him with a wave. He understood that at least. It’s too bad they didn’t have stones, he thought after they had passed out of sight behind another machine and the not-want-to juice in his stomach went away, I could’ve spoken to them.
He gathered his courage again. Standing in the middle of the roaring machines had started to get to him. Especially when they made that high-pitched whir. That sound made the bristly hairs on the back of his neck stand up. It made him want to go down on all paws. No, I cannot, he reminded himself, I have to go on. He renewed his walk toward the other side of the camp.
Soon the roaring machines lay behind him. In front lay the machines he had thought looked like boxes while he stood on the ridge before the camp. But now that he had come closer, he saw they were not machines at all, but buildings.
The door in the building was much larger and wider than the low, narrow doors of Tanil. Xani wondered why the humans had wasted so much time making it so big. If they would only go down on all paws, it would be much simpler. Oh wait, he remembered, they’re humans and I’m not.
He walked to the nearest door and considered opening it. He would bravely walk in. After all, maybe the shiny things were in there. He had brought three banda sticks and a terval pot with him to trade. Certainly three banda sticks and a terval pot would be worth a great sum to any human. He had made them himself. He almost did walk in, but then something glinted at him from the ground near the door.
With no regard for any humans who might be looking, le leaned over, getting down on all paws. The thing that had caught his eye must be one of those wonderful things his uncle had traded the humans for.
He took a closer look. A smooth, six-sided stone, boxy, colors and shapes...not it couldn’t be...yes it could. Someone had dropped a speaking stone.
His heart beat faster as he checked his right for any humans; none were close enough to see. He looked left, nothing. Up and down, forward and backward. No one was around.
He snatched the speaking stone from the ground and quickly undid the straps of his pack, stuffed it inside. As he did this, his paw hit one of the colors on the stone and a small, satisfying chime sounded. But he ignored this and stood back up on his hind legs, hoping that he had not been seen.
After standing, he started to move away from the building. Whoever had dropped that stone might come back for it later, he reasoned. He took three steps, and then heard someone talking.
“That unit’s busted, Earl,” someone said. “Better try this one.”
What’s going on? thought Xani. One of the Dira here? Now? Dira didn’t speak like that.
He turned around to see if the talking people were Dira. Instead, two humans confronted him. Of course, he thought, the speaking stone, I must have set it off. He decided to stay a while longer to listen to the humans. The shiny things could wait.
One of the humans, the one who had been called Earl, Jerked one of his five-fingered paws in Xani’s direction. “Say, chief,” said Earl. “What’s that Di-whatever doin’ here? I though they were only a supposed to come once in a while.”
“Don’t know, man, maybe’s lost. But you better let it alone and tell the others to too. The boss would be mighty angry if we start messin’ with the locals. He’s already had it out with the miner’s guild once this month over Lamera Five and we don’t need no more trouble.”
“Gotcha’ again, chief.”
Xani couldn’t help himself now. He just had to speak to a human. He walked right up to the one Earl had called chief. Just as Earl began to move away, Xani spoke up.
“Hello, chief,” he said. Inside his pack, the speaking stone repeated his words in the garbled human language, which to Xani, came through clearly in the Dira language.
The man looked up from a small, pointed object he had been working with.
“Wha...hello,” he said, meeting Xani’s eyes. “If you’re here to trade, the cargo huts are over that aways.” He pointed off somewhere behind Xani.