They walked three abreast through the jungle. There were thirteen children in all, and each walked between two warriors whose jobs were to protect them. Makito and one other tribesman led the group, and the two remaining men brought up the rear.
Before they left the low, white-man structure, several of the older children, through gestures and demonstration, showed Makito and his warriors how to get to the food inside the cylinders by using a rain-colored tool that removed the tops of them. Room was then made in the carts for as many of these round-box food stores as could be held. It was clear these children knew about white-man magic and would thus be a vital source of information.
When the darkness came and they made camp, one and all sat around the fire sampling the fruits, vegetables, and meats in the white-man containers. The warriors then shared around their hard cured meats and hide bags of nuts brought with them for their long journey to and from the city.
After eating, some of the tribesmen made funny faces and did deliberately clumsy tricks of hopping and falling down, in an effort to make the gaunt looking children, many of them still quite frightened, laugh and feel more at ease.
Once the young ones were placed protectively within a circle of warriors who would sit watch over them while they slept, Makito talked with the others about how these children would be received when they were brought to their own village. There really wasn’t a choice though, as they obviously could not be left to fend for themselves among the dead of the fire-sickness city.
The many days of their journey home progressed without incident. The children had ceased fearing the dark-skinned tribesmen, and came to trust in their protection as one would a parent’s. Efforts were made to communicate by way of gestures and drawings in the dirt. This worked well for getting across here-and-now intentions or wants, but did little to reveal much about recent events of the past.
Several of the younger children drew stick-figures in the sand of all thirteen of them standing next to two elder-folk outside the building where they were found. These were followed by drawings of the children still standing there, but the stick-figure elders lying on the ground.
The oldest child, a boy of about ten season-turns old, used a combination of dirt drawings, rocks and other objects to show how the children would sit at the tables in the low building, with the two elder-folk either in front of the room, or doing other things around the space. Then he demonstrated the two adults falling down, getting up, falling down again, then finally, by moving a big rock forward along a path, showed them getting into an animal-machine and racing toward the more populated part of the city. His demonstration made it clear enough that these elder-folk caretakers had become sick with the plague, and must have been either going for help, or else trying to prevent spilling their sickness onto the children.
The Warriors arrived back at the village with the children. Makito and several of the others went off to the talk-hut with the grand-elders to tell about what had transpired on their journey, while others went about unloading the carrying-packs and the carts of the treasures they had returned with.
The tribes-people gathered around to look at these strange, white-faced, yellow-haired youngsters, but none dared to touch them or get too close. The newly frightened white-men children stood in a tight circle in the middle of them.
One of the tribal children, a boy of eight season-turns old named Temio, had many daydreams of one day becoming the bravest and most respected warrior of his tribe. He wished to impress both the elder-folk and the other children, so now stepped forward courageously and yanked on the golden curls of one of the white girl-children. This caused her to cry, more with fear than with pain.
A woman-elder grabbed the boy by his hand, slapped it, and in the sharp, staccato tongue of her own people, admonished him for hurting and scaring the child. With that, a black girl-child shyly stepped forward and offered the sniffling white girl a baby-toy made of hide, sticks and leaves. The child tentatively touched the doll, and at the insistence of its owner, took it and clutched it to her own chest. Tearful blue eyes finally looked up into brown ones, and the two children smiled at each other, the universal expression of happiness and friendship.
The white-men children spent a number of weeks with Makito’s tribe. During that time, they quickly assimilated into village life, sharing the beds, foods, eating utensils and hand-hewn clothing of their hosts. Understandably, due to the language barrier and their young age, they never could say very much about the fire-sickness plague or how they alone survived. The grand-elders concluded, as did Makito on his journey home with the children, that their caretakers rushing away from them in the animal-machine was what ultimately prevented the children from falling prey to the illness.
On the night of the next full moon following their return, Makito and his group were honored in the traditional coming-of-age ceremony and took their rightful place among the men of the tribe.
El-Gar had finished dictating his final report into the ship’s recording cell. His shoulders sagged with sadness when he thought about how not a single live member of this apparently civilized, intelligent race remained on this planet they had set down on four days ago. It was the first time during their year-long emissary expedition that they encountered, not an uninhabited world, but a world of the dead. What made it even more sobering was that it was obvious, from the still decaying bodies strewn throughout the cities, that the illness that had fallen like the night over these people had preceded their own visit here by a mere ticon of time.
He was about to shut down his work-screens when his aide, Bos-L, knocked, and without even waiting for the customary “Enter”, burst into the room.
“Sir, we’ve picked up life-signs.”
El-Gar sent a contingent of five of his men, led by Bos-L, in a space-jumper, to the area of vegetation the steadily pulsing signal was emanating from. They landed the jumper in a clearing near to the spot, and donning protective gear, set off to walk the rest of the way through the dense brush. They had hopes that these few remaining survivors of the plague might be able to shed some light on what had occurred here.
When they finally arrived at the location, lead by their hand-held trackers, they were stunned to find thirteen terrified, white-skinned children hiding in a hut in a clearing dotted with crude living structures. Dead, black-skinned men, woman, and children were scattered everywhere. The red streaks and explosive pustules running all up and down their bodies looked like lava that had poured in rivers through black rock.
It was clear that they were dead of the same plague that had run rampant through the rest of the land. Beyond that though, the surviving children spoke a language unknown to Bos-L and his party, so no other information about what had occurred could be shared right at that moment. While they were scared, dirty, and understandably confused by the somewhat unusual appearance of the alien visitors, it soon enough became obvious that they were neither ill nor injured in any way.
Children of all species and worlds were greatly valued in Bos-L’s own culture; they were considered to be the architects of the future. The search party members, through the use of smiles and non-threatening gestures, got them to understand that they would not harm them, and finally, gently, got them to walk along the path by which they themselves had come, to the land-jumper waiting at the clearing. They arrived there without incident, and shortly thereafter were back at their ship.
An access ramp was slowly lowered from the vessels sparkling, white underside. As the deadly, virus-carrying children were shown aboard, many of them had ceased to be frightened, so smiled up at their new hosts.
They were made to feel welcome, and before long, the ship had rocketed back into space with a course plotted toward their home world, soon to be at its journey’s end.