Oleipha stood on the edge of the shore and looked up at the star-filled sky. Ranal had not yet joined her and though she eagerly anticipated the company of her lifelong friend, she enjoyed also these quiet moments of solitude with nothing but her own thoughts to reflect upon.
On this particularly still evening Oleipha thought of the Vessels. Rumours had spread to their village that a Missionary contingent had settled in the valley a few miles east. Ranal was curious and intrigued – she caught that sparkle in his dark brown eyes and had scowled at it. Oleipha herself turned her nose up at the news. She did not accompany the other children that crept from the village at dusk and headed for the light-glow of the Missionary camp that lit the forest canopy in a sphere of pale blue light. Ranal had gone with them, though. That was last evening, and tonight he would no doubt be brimming with it.
She turned away from the stars and sat on a rock at the very edge of the shore, letting the warm water wash up over her feet. The fractured moon reflected on the waves in splashes of distorted silver; she liked to dip her toes into these shimmering shapes and imagine that the silver clung to her skin when she pulled her feet from the water and the droplets cascaded back into the ocean.
The dry grass rustled behind her; a telltale sign of Ranal’s presence. Oleipha stiffened, bracing herself for the excited ramble that she would have to sit through if she wished to spend time with her friend this eve. The wind carried his scent to her; the earthy tones, the smell of clay that lingered on his skin from his work at the pottery.
“Little Leiph,” He slunk up beside her and flopped down onto the sand.
She glanced down at him nonchalantly.
“You should have come!” He tossed a handful of damp sand that collided with her legs and clung to her skirt.
“Hmph,” Oleipha rolled her eyes. “I have better things to do than go prancing after those high-and-mighty Missionaries that think we need their help. And so do you, Ranal,” She cast her friend a chastising glare.
“Oh come on, Leiph, you can’t tell me you’re not curious! I know you better.”
Her jaw clenched. She was, of course, curious – the Old Earthers didn’t get to see the Vessels much, from either faction. She’d have preferred a visit from the Commensurate, but even the Missionaries sparked her sense of intrigue. She hated that, and she hated that Ranal knew. Oleipha shifted on her rock to turn her back on him.
“We didn’t talk to them, anyway,” Ranal stood and walked into the shallows, kicking spray up with his feet. “They have tents set up and all kinds of fancy equipment. We just hid nearby and listened for a while. They talked about our village – they’re going to visit.”
“And what will you do when they do?” She brushed the sand from her skirt and pulled her legs up to her chest. The sun had long since set and the winds from the rifts were cooling quickly.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh you really are naive, Ranal,” Oleipha tutted. “You know they’ll come here looking for converts.”
“No,” She glowered. “Converts. They’ll convince the dim-witted among us that theirs is the Right Path.”
“You don’t think it is?” Ranal was walking backwards through the waves now, the water tickling around his knees.
“Of course it’s not. They’re just people like us, Ranal. They were here before, when we were. Just because they left in their fancy ships and we stayed here and made do with what we had doesn’t make them better. If anything, it makes US better, because we’re the ones who struggled through it.”
“But look at what they have to offer! All that technology we could use. If we make peace with them and let them into our village, they’d bring us so much.”
“And take so much from us!” Oleipha looked away, her cheeks flushed with rage.
There would be no benefit from allying with the people who lorded themselves over Old Earthers as if they were nigh on deific. The Missionaries had one quest and one quest only: dominance through exploitation.
“You’re such a stick in the mud,” Ranal splashed water over her.
“Fine, you see how it is when they come. Go and join them if you’re so sure they’re just.”
“Of course they’re just! Why wouldn’t they be? We’ve done nothing to them.” He frowned at her and his shoulders sank.
This gave Oleipha some small measure of satisfaction – knowing that her disapproval could dampen his spirits. At least she still had that – and maybe it would be enough to stop her friend from doing something they’d both regret. She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself.
“No, we’ve done nothing to them. Not that we could if we wanted to. They take advantage of us, Ranal. They see us as primitive people and they use that to profess themselves upon us as higher beings.”
“Leiph, when we were down here making do with clay bowls and straw baskets and stone hammers, they were flying through space. Of course they’re higher beings.”
“Don’t confuse ‘higher beings’ with ‘advanced’. If they were so much better than us they wouldn’t be trying to get us to praise them.”
Ranal rolled his eyes and dragged himself through the shallows back to the beach.
“Well, we’ll see,” He shook the water from his legs. “If we heard right they’re visiting before the moon cycle ends.”
Oleipha watched as her friend strode confidently up the beach and through the grass back to the village. She already knew she had lost him and the bitterness of this realisation clutched its icy fingers inside her chest. The Missionaries would arrive and he’d go with them just to spite her, if for no other reason, and it was her fault for goading him.
Perhaps she’d seek out the Commensurate and offer her services. She’d heard that they worked freely with anyone who wanted to help their cause to unite the lost tribes and secure a unified future for what remained of Earth. A far more just cause, Oleipha assured herself as she climbed from her rock and walked back to the village alongside Ranal’s footprints.