Isis walked across the stone flags of what passed as a spaceport, accompanied by the sound of tinkling bells. Gom was a backwater with a reputation as a bad place for offworlders. It would not have been her choice of destinations but it was remote and under the circumstances, that was all that mattered. Regardless, Isis was going to have to work up some capital to get a ride anywhere else. Her skillset lent itself to stealth and she was not averse to occasional thievery in a time of need, but it quickly became clear that subtlety was not going to be easy here. Although the populace of Gom were human stock from the human diaspora, the founder effect and isolation had made for considerable divergence. The Gomi were large, hirsute, and androgynous to the point that Isis could not tell the genders apart. Despite this, and despite the fact that the beige wrappers worn by the natives were always damp with sweat, Isis found that the Gomi did not smell bad or sweaty. They smelled like baking bread, a strong yeasty smell that also emanated from virtually every structure of any size.
Isis learned these things about the natives because on spotting her they would rush out, wanting to touch her and offer her food. The touching she could have done without although the Gomi were invariably delicate, touching her as one would touch something which might tip over or break. Isis was roughly the same size (but half the weight) of a Gom preteen and after spotting one she quickly purchased a wrap of beige material in hopes of blending in a little better. Or would have purchased; the delighted vendor (whom she could not understand, and whose extended family gathered to watch the transaction) made clear that she (he?) would accept no payment. The vendor also insisted that she have a piece of fresh bread from the oven in back. By then it was her fifth piece of the day at least. It was becoming clear to her why the Gom got so big. The stuff was buttery and delicious.
A little less conspicuous, Isis walked quickly down the road towards the town center. She was not going to go hungry but it irked her not to have a role, and she wanted employment. The village was comprised of irregular small one and two story stone buildings. Large quadrupeds meandered about, usually a mother with one or more young. The Gomi did not say much, and although many were about they seemed to communicate with a lot of gestures and touching. Despite this, it was not quiet. Bells were everywhere; tied to pinwheels in hopes of a breeze, attached to the clothing, and even on some of the animals. It seemed peaceful but Isis could not shake a vague discomfort. Something felt wrong. It was hard to put a finger on it.
A very large Gom, walking slowly along and singing or humming a tune, spotted her and moved to block her path. He (she?) was half again as tall as Isis, with a piece of bread and some sort of long cigar in one hand, and a stick covered with bells and rings in the other. Clearly the singer was delighted to see her, her eyes widening as though she had seen a rainbow or a rare bird although she (he?) continued the song uninterrupted. Isis was ready for more touching, and wondered if she would be asked to taste the bread. Instead, the Gom handed her the tall bell stick and began to shimmy around her, singing and smoking. After each puff on the cigar she blew the smoke onto Isis. She smiled at the strangeness of it, and at the Gom's obvious good intentions. The smoke smelled like toasted cheese and she wondered if the cigar was actually a burning sandwich. After a full circuit around her, the Gom reached into her beard, or possibly chest hair, and withdrew a small bell which it very gently clipped to her sleeve. Then she retrieved her stick and moved on, singing and jingling.
Isis hurried down the road to escape the populace who had emerged from their stone houses, bread in hand, to watch this interaction. Her bell tinkled. "I got a bell, Augi," she said, mostly to hear words out loud. Her unease persisted.
Near the center of town Isis encountered some sort of caravan assembling. Isis found one of the Gom who could speak a few words she understood. She tried to explain her worth to the party as regards possibly defending from thieves or wild beasts. All the Gomi loading up the caravan stopped what they were doing and paid close attention. They seemed appreciative but she was not at all sure she was making herself clear. Finally she held up her hands, stepped back and did a full backflip, landing on her feet. That clinched it – the delighted Gomi including the furry gray caravan leader gathered around her smiling, touching her shoulders and singing little bits of song. It was clear she was welcome, although Isis remained unclear about the terms of her employment. Among the various items handed to her was a bag of coins and she suspected she was being paid in advance. Or possibly this was payment for doing the flip.
That same day the caravan set off into the wilderness. Travel was slow; they rode mounted on very large and placid camel-like quadrupeds with young camels gamboling alongside. It was not clear to Isis how long the trip was expected to be nor could she elicit this information. The trip was monotonous to the point of boring. Insect life was minimal and animal life nearly nonexistent, the exception being occasional large quadrupeds which were apparently the wild counterpart of their own mounts. Sometimes these would come out and amble along with their own animals before drifting back into the underbrush. They occasionally passed abandoned stone structures, some of them larger than any she had seen back in the town. At points the road was also paved with stones. These relics were traversed without comment or interest by the Gomi. Isis wondered if there had at some earlier point been more to this world than was now the case.
As far as she could tell she was the only warrior in the party or at least, like her, none of the Gomi were armed, even with knives. At sundown each night there was a fire, quiet singing and a meal of bread, fresh milk from their animals and green vegetables. Each night the same unintelligible songs were sung but by different individuals of the several smokers in the party, verses punctuated by puffs of smoke and an occasional cough. This continued late, or possibly all night long and Isis fell asleep each night to the quiet jingling and singing. It quickly became clear that there were in fact no warriors at all in the party, including herself: Isis had been taken on not to fight but out of a need to alleviate boredom. Each night and sometimes at breaks during the day it was apparent that the party hoped to see another flip. Isis expanded her repertoire, inventing a move where a large Gom named Lona would throw her into the air. She would then, to the amazement of all, do flips and twists on the way down before landing on her feet. Much of these were things Isis could have done without Augi's help but her juggling benefitted greatly from the AI's preternatural speed.
Various party members tried to emulate her in various ways. Lona kept trying to teach himself (herself?) to juggle. Once a young Gom had tried to do a flip but landed sprawling and nearly in the fire. Isis almost laughed out loud but suppressed this after seeing the earnest concern by the other Gomi that the young man (woman?) had been hurt in the effort. On seeing this Isis was a little ashamed – why had she thought a person getting hurt was funny? She was, however, amused to note that within days, nearly all of the Gomi had switched and rode sidesaddle as she did, although Isis herself rode that way only because of the tremendous girth of her mount.
Sidesaddle also made it easier to drop to the ground and run, as she frequently felt the urge to do. Out in the wilderness, Isis' sense of foreboding did not abate. It became more pronounced. If other offworlders shared this sensation she could understand why Gom was generally shunned. Although the benign-seeming Gomi remained respectfully fascinated by her, she was increasingly tense and aware. As they traversed a region of low shrubs and rocky outcrops which might have been ruins, Augi spoke for the first time in several days.
"I perceive your suffering," it said quietly.
"I am not suffering," she replied.
"You prepare yourself," Augi answered. "You prepare to fight."
It was true. Isis thought a moment. "It is good to be prepared," she told the AI. Ahead of them, one of the singers in the party had stopped his mount along the side of the path. As each person passed, he sang to them, shaking his bells and blowing smoke from his cheese sandwich. Isis smiled back at him, relaxing a little. "Maybe I need to smoke one of those cheese burritos?" she asked quietly, smiling. No reply was forthcoming from the AI. Augi had learned to identify a rhetorical question and did not take the bait.
Isis suddenly awoke. She stood in a half crouch, hands clenched in fists. She felt like she was on a branch, about to fall; adrenaline surged through her veins and her breathing came ragged and short. The only sound was the pounding of her own heart in her ears. All of the Gomi slept, either against the low stone wall where they had made camp or slumped in front of the dwindling fire.
Augi spoke through her mouth. "I had to wake you but could not. There are animals gathering here."
Isis looked over the row of sleepers. The remains of their fire glimmered. A little ways off she could see their mounts standing in the underbrush. There was nothing else.
"Augi," she said through clenched teeth. "There is nothing here."
"Yes," countered the AI. "There are many. You perceive them."
"How?" demanded Isis. "Animals? I don't see them. " She leapt forward, wheeling her fists around in the air, meeting no resistance. "Do I smell them?"
"You perceive them in the same way you perceive all things of this kind," replied the AI. "These are the animals that travel with us. Every day you perceive them."
"What?" demanded Isis, her temper short from the surging hormones. She scanned back and forth, the hair prickling on her neck from the adrenaline and from the weirdness of the situation. "Invisible animals are stalking us? Could you have mentioned something?"
"You perceived them. Almost all things are perceived but not mentioned."
Augi cut off her reply, something which almost never happened. "These animals are causing this sleep, I think," said Augi. "They mean us harm."
"Ok, Ok." Isis inhaled through her nose. It had never been so clear. She could smell herself; the sharp scent of adrenaline sweat. "Can you, maybe, make it so I perceive them better? Can you change how I perceive them? Make them not invisible?"
Abruptly, the world changed. The ground fell away and Isis was immersed in a tangible world of shifting colors and things that could have been colors. Things that wanted to be colors. A strange sky or maybe the inside of a hole wheeled overhead. Isis heard a shrieking noise and realized it was coming from her.
The world snapped back. "That caused you suffering," observed the AI.
"Yes," said Isis. "We need to practice that later." She shook her head and exhaled, listening to her pounding heart. "OK. Augi, I'm up now. Can you turn off the juice please? I can't think."
Suddenly she was back awake, teeth chattering. She stood where she had been, Augi having prevented her from collapsing when she fell asleep. This time, in addition to the adrenaline she was ragingly hungry. And horny. "Augi what the heck!" she demanded furiously. But behind the chemical jangle was something else – something seductive.
"Isis, I cannot keep you awake," said the AI. "Run."
"We can't leave these guys! The animals will get them!" It felt so good to move. She ran yowling up to Lona's sleeping form and planted a sound kick on her back. "Lona, you lump! Get up!" No movement came. She leapt from body to body, screaming and kicking them.
"Stop." said Augi. And stopped her. Isis could not distinguish the adrenaline from real panic. "Again," said Augi.
Isis was confused. She had just kicked one of the singers. "Kick him again?"
"Yes," said Augi. "There is a change." Isis could feel it. She could perceive no invisible monsters but the beckoning murmur which threatened to claim her had receded, just a little. She got a run up and kicked the sleeper again, rolling him over with the force of the blow.
"Can you perceive the change?" asked Augi.
"Maybe," said Isis. "But this poor guy. I can't just beat him up. Why would these animals…" She looked over the sleeper. There was not a handsbreadth of his garment that did not have a little bell tied to it. "Ah." Quickly, she stripped the yeasty smelling cloak from the sleeper, throwing it over her own shoulders with a shimmer of sound. She snatched up his ring staff and began leaping over and around the line of sleepers, swinging the staff as though she could strike the unseen things around them.
"Augi, that song? How does it go?" And in her ears, she could hear it. She even recognized the voice: it was the huge singer from the village who had pinned the bell to her. She sang along, missing words the first time through but getting it right on the second. She sang a duet with Augi's playback of her experience, singing a counterpoint to the singer's remembered tune as she leapt about with the staff and cloak. With the adrenaline coursing through her veins, leaping and singing she was transported to another time, long ago, when she had raced alongside her sisters, singing their song. The song she sang became that song. She could feel it working.
It took some time but then, as one, the sleepers sat up, turning to stare at Isis bounding about in the borrowed cloak, singing at the top of her lungs. The Gomi were wide eyed and frightened, touching each other for reassurance as they gathered around the fire. Isis stopped her singing and handed the bell cloak and staff back to its shaggy owner, who was rubbing his side in a puzzled manner.
Lona stepped up to her. "Isis…" he said, struggling with the words. "Did you.. see? What.. see?"
Isis hesitated. Unprompted, Augi lifted her arms slowly and then put her hands together, raising them in a quick flickering movement like a bird in flight or smoke flickering from a fire. Somehow it was threatening at the same time, as though her hands had become part of something larger and unseen. Something that could move fast and bite. Isis had never seen this movement before. Her eyes widened and she opened her mouth in surprise, an expression simultaneously made by each and every one of the Gomi. Immediately all the smokers began singing and jingling bells in unison, their voices then joined by all of the others in the party.
Isis whispered below their voices. "Augi – what was that?"
"In almost all ways, that was moving hands," the AI replied. "But in one way that was like the creatures we perceived."
Isis said nothing. She thought about this. It was the first time the AI had used the term "we".