From the author: What if the Neanderthals are not extinct? How would they survive against today's Homo Sapiens? As equals, as subservient, or in the shadows modern humans don't see?
Molowite and Erethin waded behind the others. Erethin whispered, "I do not enjoy the Passage Ceremony, Mol. I should have remained at sanctuary, helping Rhay with concealment practice."
Molowite helped his wife step over a large mango root. "As would I. Duty demands our presence at Passage."
"There are too many Passages these nights. My mother witnessed a mere handful in her lifetime. We've sent three Truemen across in less than two years. I'm troubled for Rhay. I..."
Mol cut her off, "Do not speak of Rhay and Passage in the same breath. You create an omen where none exists."
Wading in front, Tewall turned. "Hush. This is neither the time nor the place for argument."
Mol clutched Erethin's firm hand tighter. It was a common debate of late, intensified by their son's status. Rhay would soon celebrate his eleventh birthday, though celebration would turn to Passage if he failed Concealment.
Mol's family had never experienced failure, tracing back generations. He knew them all, Fareyes the Great counted among his own bloodline. Erethin's heritage also ran strong in the hiding ways from the humans.
The Passage Mound rose up before them. Mol and Erethin took their place beside Tewall and his daughter, Sarrow.
The designate stood in the center of the high ground, his bearing regal, a perfect-looking Truerace child. Short-necked, round-shouldered, long graceful arms contrasting compact legs. Perfect, but a child. The elders came forth carrying journey staffs and each in turn tapped the chosen. The bearing remained proud but Mol saw fear in those young eyes. He sensed a tremor begin in the boy's shoulders and had to look away.
The sun's orange glow settled beyond the trees. Sunset provided the signal to start the Passage ritual. Sunset signified freedom for Truemen since the early days, safety from the diurnal humans. Now, the rising darkness signalled the start of Passage, a release for this child who could not put himself beyond human perception. A danger to them all, Mol knew. He understood the homo sapiens' nature, they were close to Truemen in so many ways. Once you knew something or someone existed, it became easier to find.
Total silence came with dusk. The animals' instincts alerted by the Truemen's presence.
The elders began the low, throbbing hum. Without thought, Mol and the others outside the ring responded with a higher frequency ululation. Mol allowed his cellular memory to come forth. Ancestral blood swept through his veins, bringing images of their achievements to him. He saw the hunters, cave painters, and explorers: masters of the world before the great descent.
The crescendo rose higher and Mol moved forward in time. Now they were the sons and daughters of Larr; the stealthy ones, the hidden ones.
The air vibrated within the Passage circle, breathing a life of its own, surrounding the chosen in a red glow. The air turned yellow and then white. A flame shot from the boy's chest and within seconds, consumed him. The acrid odor of burnt flesh, hair and bone assailed Mol. Erethin's knees trembled. Even Tewall gripped Mol's hand as if seeking support. Only starlight now illuminated the meeting place.
The elders broke their ring, slipping through the outer circle, each taking a different escape into the swamp or forest until necessity forced them together again. Mol released Tewall's hand.
The retreat was interrupted by sudden light across the water. Mol heard the mechanical whine of a motor. The remaining outer-circle witnesses left the clearing. Mol and Erethin squatted motionless, nostrils just above the murky water as the machine roared past. Mol tilted an ear out of the water.
"The light came from over here," a rough voice called.
"You're dreamin', Wilbur. It was just Big Willy and his mom out poaching deer."
"Big Willy's doin' six months in County."
The lights from the swamp boat hurt Mol's eyes as they hit him square for one brief moment, then passed on. The noisome machine retreated the way it had come.
Erethin stood. "Let's get away from this place."
Mol grabbed her hand, "Rhay will be anxious for our return."
The pair moved quickly on sturdy legs across their adopted realm.
Rhay stood in the open, twenty paces from the nearest tree bole.
"Father," the boy called.
"Rhay, you taunt danger exposing yourself thus."
"The sun is set these many hours, and the moon is not yet up."
"There are other lights," Mol said.
Erethin added, "Men were out. A boat."
Rhay said, "They passed not five paces from that tree." He pointed. "I was above them. I could hear their hearts beat. I was right above them."
Mol nodded, "They need so much light to see and even then they cannot look beyond themselves."
Erethin asked, "Did they ever?"
Mol and his wife flanked Rhay. They went deeper into the forest. Mol said, "My grandsire spoke of the red-skinned humans who once knew the animal ways. The pale skins destroyed their balance and they lost the ability to see the true world."
Rhay panted as they walked. Mol felt his son shudder.
"Did the men frighten you?" Erethin asked.
Rhay said, "They surprised me."
Erethin said, "Did they see you?"
Mol cut in, "The men chase ghosts. They saw nothing. My son conceals himself with skill; your talk upsets him. We will speak no more tonight."
Erethin said, "The Truerace's world gets smaller every day, Mol. Harder for any of us to hide."
Mol concentrated on making speed towards home.
Mol rested his head on his arm and stared up into the night sky. Rhay paced around him.
"Son, either lie or sit. Look at the stars with me."
Rhay thumped down beside him. "What's to see?"
"The past. The future. A tiny corner of the universe, opened up every night for us to glimpse possibilities."
Rhay pointed. "What's that one?"
"Hunter, the next planet out from Earth." Mol craned his neck backwards. "Up there, north, the bright cluster is the Leafstorm. Those blue stars are just being born out of the dust and chaos surrounding them."
"There are so many," Rhay said.
"Our race invented numbers to count them all."
"How do you know what they are and how they came to be?"
Mol gazed to the side. His son's face was a cameo against the swamp glow beyond. The tufts of facial hair clung like moss to a tree. Mol said, "When I was young, an elder taught me to read human books."
"You always told me the humans are so blind."
"Blind to us, yes. They see the stars and yearn to understand. They ignore the edge of their perceptions."
"Why are they still here, then?"
Mol sighed and looked up to the sky again. "They survive by numbers, we survive by our wits."
A light crunch and sudden pungent smell stopped Mol.
"What was that?" Rhay whispered.
Mol heard the tremble in his son's voice. He sat up and put a hand on Rhay's arm. Mol pointed to a nearby tree. From behind it came a low throat rumble. The head of a cougar peered out. The cat revealed the rest of its body and gave them an appraising stare.
"Good hunting to you, yellow-eye," Mol said.
The cat raised its head, turned its ears away, yowled a warning, then glided into the night.
When it had gone, Rhay said, "I haven't seen one of those since I was small."
"The humans are forcing the hunters deeper into this sanctuary. That cat has a well-nourished look. She's hiding here but travelling to the human dwellings to feed on their pets. Greed and sloth will be her downfall. An easy meal has a price."
"I'm glad she didn't want to eat us," Rhay said.
Mol laughed, "We'd be a hard kill. She would have to be starving to risk attacking us. Big-tooth was the only cat ever to hunt Truemen. Your racial memory lives within you. That's why she made you anxious."
Mol followed Rhay's arm and watched a shooting star fade. The pair watched for more.
Rhay broke the silence. "Do you think there are other Earths around those stars?"
"And do men and Truemen share them too?"
"I don't know. No, not yet."
"I would like to be on a planet without humans, just Truemen. Neanderthal World."
Mol snapped, "Don't use that word around your mother. It is a human word and many despise it for that reason alone."
"Sorry, father: Truerace World. But it would be fine, wouldn't it? A land to ourselves where we wouldn't have to hide."
Mol stood, "Time to go." He put his hand on the youngster's shoulder. "Yes, that would be fine." However unlikely, he thought. Our destiny will be forever linked to the humans.
A fortnight later, Tewall visited Mol. Tewall came alone. A good sign, Mol hoped.
"Tewall, it is good to see you. What brings you forth?" Mol put down the hide scraper.
Tewall leaned against the branches of Mol's shelter. "Where are Erethin and the boy?"
Trying to be calm, Mol reached into his pouch for pipe and leaf. "Hunting." He filled the bowl, tamped it with a finger and sat beside his friend.
The younger man, Mol allowed Tewall the first puff. Tewall inhaled then passed the pipe back.
"Dangerous for the two of them, don't you think, Mol?"
Mol exhaled the thin, odorless smoke. "It's always dangerous. I fear for their safety every time. But we can't quit living, can we? Erethin is as stealthy as the hunters of old."
Tewall accepted Mol's pipe again. "True, I have watched her since girlhood. Even then, she had the patience and the skill of Larr. It's not Erethin I worry about, Mol."
"Rhay is still young. And you've just compared his mother to the Great One." Mol stood without thought.
Tewall said, "He's eleven next full of the moon. He should be travelling on his own, without Erethin, or you, to protect him."
"He's my son. Your honor-son!"
Tewall said, "It's never easy, Mol. Rhay hasn't failed yet. We don't know for certain. Be honest, have you given him the chance to hunt alone?"
"He may have it, but how many must make Passage?" He turned to his friend. "We're sending more children across than we're birthing. The Truemen are headed for self-imposed extinction unless we let more live."
"You know that can't be, Mol. The hiding ability is genetic. Fifty thousand years ago, homo sapiens could see us. They hunted us near to extinction then, with equal numbers. It's not just that they've become blind; led by Larr, the stealthy ones learned to hide among them. We are descended from those few. We aren't dying, we're amidst a low period. If the humans discover even one of us now, they will keep looking until we are all exposed. Once you know something exists, it becomes easier to find."
"I know the litany," Mol said. "The humans have changed. We could live among them." Mol's racial fear lowered his voice to a whisper. "Teach them how to live in the true light, as we do."
Tewall rasped, "Truemen live in their shadow, that is our way."
"That way, and our arrogance, leads us to death."
"By Fareyes the Great, so be it." Tewall's voice rose. "You will bring Rhay to Larr's Grove a fortnight from now for scrutiny. I will help him any way I can between now and then. We will talk no more of this today. My honor-son may just be slow in maturing, that's often the way with boys."
Three days later, Mol and Erethin lazed in the morning warmth.
Erethin rolled onto her side to face him, nuzzling her head in the crook of Mol's arm. "Do you remember when Rhay was born?"
“I do. Like yesterday."
"You don't remember?"
She shook her head. "I remember the pain."
Mol closed his eyes. "He was so quiet. I held him and he clutched both fists onto my stomach." Mol ran his free hand through the furry thatch around his navel. He opened his eyes and turned to Erethin. "He was content with me until you touched him. You nurtured him and I lost him." Mol ran a finger along the downy covering of Erethin's chest.
"I lost him back to you when he stopped nursing and started hunting with you. If my mother had not taken sick, you and I would have trained Rhay together."
"Did I fail him? I tried to teach him everything I learned from my father."
"No, you've given Rhay love as well as skill. It is up to Larr."
Mol lay silent. He would not leave Rhay's fate up to Larr.
Mol and Rhay carried their rootpacks above their heads as they waded shoulder deep through the fetid water. Travelling day and night for six days, the pair had penetrated deeper into the swamp than any Trueman in Mol's ken.
"Father, I need to stop. How can I learn when I'm tired beyond measure?"
"Those are your mother's words. You learn because the humans won't let you rest when they hunt. You learn or you perish, exhausted or not." Mol was learning too. Learning how the three of them could survive without the others, when he could reveal his plan to Erethin. She had been sad to see mate and son leave. He had told her the same tale he told Rhay. They would immerse themselves in practising the stealth ways during the time before the Elders scrutinized his son.
Wiping away another relentless insect, Mol said, "It's near dawn, we will rest as soon as we find dry ground."
"These bugs are driving me crazy. They're all I hear during the day when we try to sleep and they follow us all night."
Sunrise neared. Mol could see further across the lake. He pointed to a grove of bushes and trees. "We will rest there."
"I hope we're alone."
"What do you mean? No one is near."
Rhay said, "I mean animals. If you can hide from the creatures, you can hide from the humans."
Wet, bleeding from insect and leech bites, they stretched out on the reeds of the small island.
Rhay said, "Those birds will be mad when they find us sleeping on their nest."
"I don't fear the birds. The alligator is my concern. They don't always fear us enough. Still, so far we've been fortunate. One could grow to enjoy the solitude here." Mol let the suggestion hang.
"I could never like it here."
The sky was light. The air filled with sounds of diurnal creatures greeting the dawn. Mol covered himself in reeds, his skin already camouflaged from the bog mud. Rhay remained atop the natural bed.
Mol whispered, "We're vulnerable on this island. Cover yourself and get some sleep."
Rhay burrowed under the foliage until Mol was satisfied. Dirty, cold and wet, Mol was soon asleep. He dreamed he was alone on a vast plain of knee-high grass. It felt soft. The air was warm against his bare skin. He smelled the fresh, wild grain. He didn't itch from nesting lice and fleas. His solitude was broken by the whine of an engine. Mol swung his gaze full circle. He couldn't see the machine. The whine intensified. He looked up, crouching, trying to stay hidden. The sound was so close! Panic became a rock in his throat.
Mol rose. He tore away the camouflage. The noise was close, and real. He fought the rising panic. Where was Rhay? Mol looked left and right. He crawled to his son's side, prodded the boy awake and pointed to a natural tunnel in the foliage.
On his stomach, Rhay slithered towards the opening. The machine roar rose in pitch. Mol tasted oil and gasoline fumes.
Mol pushed Rhay ahead, deeper into the mud and grass. He couldn't risk looking up but could not tell how close the boat was. Mol draped himself over Rhay. "Lie still. If they see me, they'll think there is only one."
The engine noise fell to an idle. Mol heard voices.
"How much further, Evan?"
"Half hour, give or take. I gotta take a leak."
The man's weight moved the mud mound. Mol heard clothing rustle, then inhaled the acrid stench of human urine. Rhay squirmed under him. Mol tensed his muscles, preparing to leap to his feet.
"Hey Evan, what's that over there?"
"Behind those trees, something moved."
More rustling. "Hang on, let me have a look."
Mol felt the booted feet step off the island.
"I don't see nothin'."
"There, that shadow."
"Let's have a look anyway. If it's that cougar Wilbur thinks he saw, we can claim the bounty."
The boat roared to life and was gone.
Mol and Rhay held still for a long time. After many minutes, Mol dared a look. The men and their boat were gone.
He heard a slap of water then the squish of a naked foot sinking into the mud. He turned.
Rhay said, "What is it? Did they come back?"
Mol realized Rhay did not sense the difference. He patted his son's leg and raised himself upright. "No, it's one of us. Sarrow, I believe."
A familiar head broke the surface of the water. She said, "Father has lured them away but we should move quickly."
Mol grabbed Rhay and pulled him to the edge of the island. "Follow Sarrow." Mol took a final look into the forest they hadn't reached. They had to go back. They were tied to the Truerace, alive or dead. Escape was not possible.
Rhay followed the sound of the human’s singing. The words were jumbled and he couldn’t distinguish them. The tune sparked his curiosity.
"Shwing low, shweet shariot. Hah, shall we share a chariot?"
Rhay crept close. The dark was his advantage. The man's fire was dying. Rhay saw his shape some distance from the embers, bottles glinting in the flickering light. Rhay saw other eyes watching the man. Yellow eyes. The cougar stalked an easy kill.
The man was still now, snoring loudly. The cat raised its head, sniffing. It looked directly at Rhay. In challenge? Rhay wondered. The man quieted. The predator moved into the faint circle of light, a low rumble came from deep in its throat. Rhay closed his hand on a branch and hefted it.
The cougar twitched its tail. Rhay ran in, swinging his club and yelling. The cougar tucked its ears back and howled a warning.
The man sat up, suddenly sober. "What in hell?"
The cat sprang away from the two men with a howl and vanished into the gloom. Rhay locked eyes with the man for a brief moment then dropped the branch and disappeared in the opposite direction.
Tewall passed the pipe to Mol. If his friend suspected his trying to flee with Rhay, he hadn't mentioned it.
"Mol, true brother. My honor-son's fate is beyond your control. It always has been."
"Do the humans cut out their weak?"
"You know the answer, Mol. It does not matter if they protect the unsuitable. The numbers are against us. We can't afford the flawed."
"Is it worth the sacrifice? If we don't honor family, then what value have we as a species?"
Tewall exhaled the smoke and it conjured a sudden memory of Mol's father.
Tewall said, "Because the Truerace has to hang on until we can thrive again."
It could have been his father talking. Had his sire known those emotions at his death moment, drowned like a hunted animal while trying to elude the humans?
"To live in the open is a blind dream, Tewall. Those times are gone. Neither Rhay nor I will live to see them return. Nor you, nor Sarrow."
"All the children belong to you. And me. You and Erethin can have another child, if you must."
"Not Erethin. She came close to death birthing Rhay. He is my life."
"You love your son more than Erethin?"
Mol searched hard into the corners of his soul. "I love Rhay more in some ways. I love his potential for having a life free from our fears and limitations. I would die to give him that."
"And he would die for you, Mol. No doubt, he for you." Tewall stretched his legs then stood. "The scrutiny isn't finished, good friend. My honor-son may yet surprise you."
"He surprises me daily. He pities the humans Maybe the many we send through passage are those of our young who are more like the humans. They could help the humans."
"Yes, they can. But the humans can't help the Truerace. They can only destroy us."
"We destroy ourselves, Tewall."
"If so, we do it on our terms."
Mol stared into Tewall's eyes, looking for an answer, looking for hope. He saw neither. If Rhay failed the final tests, Mol had decided what he would do. Escape deeper into the swamp had proven futile. He would take the one other path open to him.
A girl, half Rhay's height, ran past Mol. She scampered under roots and over fallen trees and was soon lost to sight. He heard her and the other youngsters playing what was just a game to them.
"Find the boy," they cried.
Mol followed their noisy trail. Run as fast and as far as you can, he had told Rhay. Return here in a great circle. Erethin joined him without a word. Tewall was twenty paces to his right, moving parallel to the couple.
The adults' greater strides soon caught up to three children. The youngsters moved with caution, noses to the wind, eyes and ears on full alert. In the dusk, Mol scanned the forest ahead. Erethin's hand squeezed tight with a strength beyond her slight frame.
Mol spotted Rhay through tear-filled eyes. In a distant tree, his son lay stretched on a branch three man-heights above the ground. Twigs and moss disguised his limbs. Mol was an adept, these young ones were green, they wouldn't see the boy so far from the ground. Mol inhaled through mouth and nose. A faint hint of yellow-eyes; it might fool the small ones.
Mol forced himself to keep walking, straining with anguish. The blood pounded in his ears. He looked at Tewall. Tears wetted his friend's eyes. The children ahead came back, closing in on the tree. One by one, they looked up. Mol could read their lips. "There he is," a girl said. The others echoed her.
Tewall crossed to Erethin and Mol. "I'm sorry, Rhay's a good son. Not a Trueman."
Erethin buried her face in Mol's shoulder. She said, "We cannot help him any more. I must leave."
Mol watched his son struggle down the tree.
I will stay, he decided, to give one final act of support.
Mol stepped inside the final circle. Rhay looked at him with clear eyes, deeper than Mol remembered.
"I'm here, son." He put a hand on Rhay's shoulder. The young muscles flinched beneath his touch.
"Father, remember the night under the stars? We went far into the swamp, to the island, before the boat came. I finally saw what you see every time you look up."
"I remember," Mol whispered.
"Thanks for taking me out there. I liked us being together."
"We're together now," Mol said.
"Father, this I need to do myself. You've protected me enough. Let me leave you as a man."
Mol choked back tears. He had chosen to leave with Rhay. Now his son had denied him that choice.
"Goodbye, Rhay. This day you are a Trueman."
"Goodbye, father. I will miss you."
Mol hugged him and let his tears flow.
"Look, Wilbur. See that light yonder?"
"I seen it before, couple of months ago. Some kind of brush fire."
"It’s too bright. Wood don't burn that hot."
"We'll check it later, if we got time. Nothing to fret about now."
"Yeah, prob'ly right. Ain't nothing."
This story originally appeared in Ares Magazine.