Episode 2: Freedom for Sahlee

“Come inside. Quietly, Henry. She didn’t sleep well.”

     “I’m not surprised, Gariel. It’s a big day for her.” The deep, sinuous voice curls around the hushed space like wood smoke.

     Soft footfalls tread over heavy woolen rugs. Clockwise in a circle, they pad: from south to west to north and then east, coming to rest beside a narrow wood bed painted with orange and yellow flowers against a deep green backdrop.

     An eagle perching at the foot of the bed—its ersatz eyrie—shifts its weight away from the interloper that it cannot see. It jerks its head left and right, an effort to orient, its eyes covered by a leather hood the same golden-brown color of the feathers at the nape of its neck. Distrust is evident in every twitch.

     The little girl’s eyes jerk open to see her uncle’s craggy face looking down on her. A device displaying the cover of a popular graphic novel lies flat against her chest. It’s animated with a horned and tailed red devil brandishing a pitchfork, trying to pin a woman lying on her back. Down goes the pitchfork, aiming for the woman’s neck as she rolls off to the side and springs to her knees with the reflexes of a cat. The animation boomerangs over and over again. A sketchpad, open to an unfinished drawing of a concept muscle machine, a sports model, lies on the floor beside the bed, along with an old-fashioned mechanical pencil.

     “Uncle. Is it time?” The eagle visibly relaxes at the sound of the girl’s voice.

     Henry nods as his long fingers sweep hair off the girl’s sleep-damp, round cheeks. “Yes, you cannot put it off any longer.”

     “Riven, come eat your breakfast. Henry, please join us.” Gariel’s voice flutes through the small, round ger, each syllable absorbed by the tent’s soft, felt walls.

     The little girl rubs her eyes with short stubby fingers, shoves off the woolen blankets, and reaches to stroke the eagle’s massive chest before vacating the warmth of her bed. She leaves its hood in place.

     A weak, cold light filters down from the center of the ger’s circular roof, the only opening besides the south-facing door. It’s mid-spring and early morning temperatures chill the barren, windblown steppes of Eurasia Location M12, known locally as LocM12, at the foot of the mighty Altai mountain range, near what used to be Khovd City in the former country of Mongolia.

     But that was back in a time when long-dead politicians insisted on drawing boundaries across the land, sea, and sky—back in a time when wars were waged over the positioning of those unnatural barriers, when eagles screeched and dust storms howled at the conceit of man.

     For longer than Riven and her mother could remember, no boundaries existed. No countries. No imaginary demarcations. “Locations” were marked simply for the sake of communication, travel, and trade, like a home address. For three generations ever since the New Industrial Revolution, one central government has been presiding over one united people. Gene pools, races, and cultures all melted into one. Even surnames reflected this socio-genetic hybridization. As a result, conflicts were small in scale when viewed through the lens of history, and relative peace reigned over the Earth.

     Riven shuffles to the center of the ger where the light shines brightest. A small blue-and-yellow-painted wood table, and three painted wood chairs—one red, one purple, one orange—huddle beside a hot stove. Eschewing the new multi-armed muscle machine KitchenAid, her mother has manually set the table and is now ladling out noodles and mutton, a centuries-old breakfast tradition and a departure from their usual quasi-vegetarian fare of eggs, goat cheese, toast, and fruit.

     Riven plunks her chubby body onto a chair next to her uncle and mother. She’s dressed in an off-white fleece tunic with flannel pajama bottoms of the same shade. She’s short for her twelve years, and almost as wide as she is tall, quite the opposite of Henry and Gariel who are both reed-like and willowy. The result is that she looks like a marshmallow. She recalls the statuesque image of her dream-self wielding a boomerang and sighs. The only time she feels that kind of confidence is when she’s hunting with Sahlee. Through Sahlee, Riven can feel the freedom of the scattering wind that roams the vast landscape of her known world, and beyond.

     But today brings an end to all that. Because today Sahlee will be freed—and she will lose her closest friend forever. Her only friend, really, in these isolated steppes, so far removed from the civilized world. Her eyes well up over her steaming bowl as she tries to focus on the eagle tethered to its perch.

     Gariel follows her daughter’s gaze and then touches her arm. “Qizi, you knew that Sahlee would be with us for only a short while. She must be freed to live among her own kind, to hunt for herself, and for her family when she chooses to have one. She’ll be happier in the wild. You want that for her, don’t you?”

     Riven chokes down a sob, and says, “She’s my best friend. I want her to be happy. But she’ll be in danger out there. She hasn’t even got a nest. I didn’t teach her how to build one. What’ll she do at night? She can’t sleep if she doesn’t have a nest to perch next to. And in the winter, she won’t always be able to find food. Rabbits and mice go underground then. Only foxes brave the cold. She might starve,” then softly, “and die.”

     Henry appraises his niece and says, “We’ll all die, Riven, one day. It’s how we live that’s important. And having the freedom to choose what we do and how we live. Don’t you think Sahlee wants that?”

     But all he gets from her is a wet hiccup.

     So Henry continues, “Imagine if you were forced to live the way Sahlee lives now. Your ankles always tethered by a pair of jesses, your vision always blinded by the tomaga. So you can’t do what’s most natural to you, what you were born to do—you cannot fly. At least unless your handler allows you to.” He pauses, and then adds with a cutting edge to his voice, “Everything you have—every scrap of food, every drop of water—and everything you do—even something as inconsequential to you as opening your eyes to the morning light—all come by the grace and will of your handler. That defines a life in servitude, Riven—every moment of every bloody day.”

     Gariel interrupts him with a look, dark brown eyes stern with warning.

     Henry quietly lowers his fork. He’s gone too far. The muscle in his left eyelid tics spasmodically then stills.

     Gariel turns to her daughter, her features softening. “Qizi, you rescued Sahlee when she fell from her nest as an eaglet, but now she needs her freedom. You’ve healed her, made her strong, and then trained her to hunt and fend for herself. There's much you haven't taught her, yes, but she can and will learn what she must—trust her. Be proud of what you have accomplished. You’ve helped prepare her for this day, and now you need to let her go.” She paused before asking, “Remember what your great-gram Tilly said?”

     Another hiccup, followed by a nod and a squaring of young shoulders. “Yes, Mama, I remember,” she says, looking from Gariel to Henry, and then to Sahlee, who has turned in her perch to face the brightly painted front door, as if knowing what the day will bring.

     Voice steady, she whispers to her eagle, “All creatures must be free.”

*****

From Muscle Machines, a dystopian science fiction novel for fans of Neal Shusterman and Jay Kristoff. A new episode published each month.