Status: this is an INCOMPLETE FIRST DRAFT, and has only undergone minor edits. if something seems weird just leave it be

Groundlings

The Envoy

It took a few hushed whispers and a few gentle shakes to get Cate awake. She opened her eyes blearily, frowning as she realized her consciousness was flooding back into her. Without sitting up she turned her head to face who had so rudely woken her from the few hours of peace she had.
Cate couldn’t put a name to the face, though she recognized the woman as one of the night guards, and one who seemed to take her position seriously from what little Cate had seen.
Cate didn’t care, she wanted to go back to sleep. “This better be good,” she said, her voice cracking. “What time is it?”
“It’ll be sunrise soon,” the woman said in a calm tone, like she was talking to a spooked animal. “But we need you to be in negotiating shape as soon as possible.”
Cate’s frown deepened. “Why?”
The guard looked down before answering. “We have visitors,” she said.
That was all Cate needed to hear. She bolted out of her blankets, rubbing at her eyes and going to fumble in her bag, searching for her pistol. Cursing herself under her breath for keeping it unloaded, she fumbled around for it in the dark. A touch on her shoulder stopped her.
“Living visitors,” the guard said. “I’m sorry, I should’ve said it before.”
Cate breathed a sigh of relief and closed her eyes as she dropped the bag. An image of Selsdon Pope coalesced behind her eyelids and lingered, but she banished him by opening her eyes again. “Oh,” she simply said. “Good.”
The guard nodded, her hand still on Cate’s shoulder. “Make yourself presentable, the settlement in the area sent a party our way.”
Cate groaned. “Couldn’t they have waited until a reasonable hour?”
The guard laughed a short dry laugh low in her throat. “Apparently not,” she said. “But they are waiting, and from what we know of this place, its inhabitants aren’t too friendly. I’ll give you some privacy.”
“Wait,” Cate said. “Why me?”
The guard shrugged. “They asked for our leader,” she said. “That’s you.”
“No it’s not!” Cate said. “I’m documenting this expedition, not heading it!”
“And you have the greatest knowledge of history and diplomacy out of all of us. The rest of us are either warriors or civilians,” the guard said. “

And so it was that half an hour later, just as the sun crested the distant horizon, Catherine Siobhan McCarthy, spearhead of the Sequoia-Yellowstone trek, came out of her tent for a long day of hard leadership. She had swept her hair into a loose bun, partially in hopes it would give her an air of togetherness, and not at all to hide that she hadn’t washed it in a week. The reading glasses only partially obscured the redness in her eyes, but they would simply have to do.
After all, there was work to be done.
The Death Valley party, she noticed first and foremost, looked self-righteous and dirty. Three women and two men sat in the tent that had been hurriedly appropriated into a conference room, and all of them looked strange to Cate, and she certainly looked strange to them, judging from the looks they exchanged. Just like the settlement at Sequoia had developed its own culture and fashion, so it seemed had these folk.
Only one of the women, the only one visibly carrying a weapon, was wearing pants, she noted as she sat down. One of the others wore a dress, the other a shirt with a skirt. They both had feathers braided into their hair, alongside a few shiny baubles. All five people prominently wore cleaned bones. One of the men, an older fellow with a clean-shaven face and grey hair at his temples, had on a breastplate of sorts fashioned out of the ribcage of some larger animal over his shirt.
Calm, Cate told herself. They’re scavengers, just like us. Just like us, she reminded herself again. “So,” she said in her beast leaderly voice as she sat down across from them. “I hope there’s a very good reason for your presence in my camp.”
Two of the women glanced at each other. “We hope there’s a very good reason for your presence in our hunting grounds,” one of them said coldly.
Dial it down, Cate thought. “I’m sorry, I misspoke,” she said. “It’s early.”
“This is the best you guys have?” said the man with the ribcage. “Some girl who doesn’t even know what she’s saying?”
“The place seemed disorganized on our way in,” said the woman with the knife. “I had no idea it was this bad.”
Cate sighed. “I’m right here,” she said. “Let’s start over. I’m Catherine McCarthy, head archivist of Sequoia, and the mess you see around us is a people adjusting to a new life.”
“Couldn’t have been too good at your job if you got kicked out,” said the man with the ribcage, at which the woman with the knife elbowed him in the side.
“My merit in my position is unimportant at this time,” Cate said. “You asked to come to me. Who are you, and what do you want?”
“We’re from Death Valley Town, east of here,” said the woman with the skirt. “My name is Clara. We’re here to assess whether you’re a threat to our lifestyle.”
Cate smiled. “We pose no threat. We simply intend to pass through, though I would love to strike some kind of trade arrangement.”
“Trade?” asked Clara. “What could you possibly have for us?”
“I don’t know,” Cate said. “I don’t know what you’re interested in. But we need medicines. Antiseptics. We need food and we need your knowledge of the area. I’m sure we can provide something of equal value for you.”
“Why would we give out this kind of information and help to invaders?” the woman with the dress asked.
“Pipe down,” said the man without the ribcage, speaking for the first time. He was both younger and larger than the man with ribcage, and he had a kinder cast to his face than his companions. “Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. They probably didn’t know we were here. After all, they’re the tree-people. They don’t leave.”
The man with the ribcage shot him a glance. “But they did leave.”
“Why?” asked Clara. All five of them turned to look at Cate, and it felt like their eyes bored through her skull.
It’s way too early for this, she decided. “It may come as no surprise to you, but living somewhere you cannot get away from is hard. None of us knew the feel of solid ground beneath our feet,” Cate said. “From a historical standpoint, the area we live in was densely populated, with major cities nearby. Our home was an attraction, a spot where people would gather from around the world to marvel at our forest. The ground was not safe, but there were people who needed to relocate.”
“We have been doing research, keeping track. Keeping a careful watch at what goes on below. And while the view does not change, the numbers do. So we organized an expedition, and we will form a colony far away from here, but we need to pass through your lands to get there. In truth, all I ask for these people is safe passage. But we would be ever grateful to partake in your hospitality and learn of your people and your way of life as well. There is much you could teach us.”
The party shared glances again, followed by a series of slight, but grim nods.
“Very well,” said Clara clearly. “We’ll open our gates to you. Your people seem only to trespass, so we will can camp inside our fences for now, so you and… whoever else is in charge here will meet with the governor to work out what happens next.”
Cate felt as if she had been socked in the gut, her breath knocked out of her completely. They didn’t even send a leader to her, only a mere scouting party. She could only hope that the Death Valley governor was less cold than the five individuals that sat in front of her, calmly regarding her with their icy disdain.
Well, Cate thought. Six can play at that game. Recovering quickly from her shock at their blatant disrespect, she cleared her throat and spoke. “This is much appreciated, thank you,” she said. “We will cause no trouble to your residents, I assure you.”
“Sounds like something someone who’s about to tear a town up would say,” said the older man with the ribcage.
“Quiet, Raven,” said Clara, barely glancing in his direction. “We’ve already made our decision. Or would you like to go back on your promise and risk this young lady’s guards opening fire?”
“I wouldn’t dream of that,” Cate interjected hurriedly, though Raven only rolled his eyes. It was clear to Cate that he saw her a silly girl playing at politics, and it needled her to no end. But the only way to prove him wrong was to keep her calm and be the bigger person. And the better leader, in the overall scheme. The sheer spite of the thought comforted her an alarming amount.
But she would take what comfort she would get.
She cleared her throat. “Now that’s done with for now, have you eaten yet? If not, I’d love to have you around my fire this morning. Our food is humble at best, but I will offer whatever I can in the name of hospitality. Besides, I would love to know our hosts a little better.”
The five people shared glances. The woman in the dress declined, citing that she had brought a day’s rations with her, as did Raven. Clara and the other two, however, accepted.

And so it was that Cate cooked breakfast for four instead of one. The campfire roared and the meat on her metal cooktop sizzled -- a relatively fat pigeon for each of them, to be eaten with bread and some cheese and fruit. In a separate pot on a small gas stove she only broke out for special occasions, a pot of water slowly thought about boiling so she could make tea for her guests.
Clara, it turned out, was the governor’s personal assistant, which eased the blow of being told the governor himself wasn’t present. She explained that he had to stay in the town proper because there was so much business to attend to, and besides the risk of being held hostage or killed by the intruders ran too high. Cate could understand this, and so while she stoked the flames that cooked their meal, she slowly poured water on the one in her chest.
The woman with the knife was prodding at the pigeons a little impatiently, but she too was willing to make conversation over the food. Her name was Paola, she’d said, and she was no one special. She and Raven were the guards sent to accompany the group in case they ran into trouble, both in the wild and in the Sequoians’ camp. It was apparent that she didn’t like Raven very much, that she thought he needed to mind his own damn business and stop trying to influence people’s decisions. His job, Paola said, was to make sure no one got stuck or shot, and he should damn well stick to it. Cate found herself silently agreeing.
Her last guest, the big young man who had first taken pity on her, was a medic. He gave his name as Marian, claiming that his parents had a twisted sense of humor, though Cate saw nothing with it. He was easily the most friendly and conversational of the bunch, and Cate found herself learning a great deal of the Death Valley culture through him. In her first appraisal of the group, Cate’s eyes had missed the small wooden crosses they all wore, either around their necks or as pins on their coats. He explained that Death Valley was a Christian settlement, and that their safety procedures around their fenced-in community operated around their beliefs.
Cate was in no way prepared to hear the truth of it, though. Marian went casually on to explain that when the epidemic first broke out roughly fifty years ago, when the Sequoians first retreated into their boreal metropolis, the founders of Death Valley had interpreted the plague as a divine punishment. They claimed that the reanimated cadavers that began roaming and killing were agents of God, and that they specifically sought out wicked people in a great scourge of the earth.
And when Marian saw Cate’s horrified expression, he laughed. “Most of us don’t think so, though,” he said. “Our judicial system still operates around the belief, and there’s some old-timers in power who hold to it, but most of us just live by it because we have to.”
Clara shot him a rueful glance. “I believe it,” she said. “I am not afraid of God.”
“He ain’t afraid,” said Paola. “He’s a doctor. He’s disappointed.”
“I think,” Cate interjected, “that this is a personal matter and not up for much debate or criticism. After all, how we see our own lives, and what personal heavens and hells we may make, is simply only important to ourselves.”
“Well said,” said Clara. “What’s important is that the system works and that the governor holds to it, so it would do you well to know this when you meet him.”
Cate nodded. “I’ll remember it, thank you.”
♠ ♠ ♠
this is the last chapter for now-- and it's still incomplete
either way here it is