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by Robert Reed
With cured gut and twitch-cord, the Nots had constructed their trap—a marriage of old cleverness and deep rage designed to catch dreaded, unworldly monsters such as her. But the device had lain undisturbed since summer, and the winter rains had washed away some of the leaf litter and clay that served as its camouflage. Knowing what to expect, the young woman easily spotted the taut lines and anchor points, and experience told her where a single soft footfall would trigger the mechanism, causing the ground to fall away. An extraordinarily deep hole had been dug into the hillside. One misstep, and she would plunge into blackness, every kick and helpless flail bringing down the loose dirt that would suffocate and then temporarily kill. She had seen this design before. The Nots were masters when it came to doing the same ancient tricks again and again. Only once in her experience had this type of mechanism worked as designed, but the vivid memory of that exceptionally miserable night was enough to make the woman step backwards—a reflexive, foolish reaction, since traps occasionally came in pairs, and one careless motion could be more dangerous than twenty smart, studied footfalls.
But her bare foot fortunately hit only damp dirt, and she felt nothing worse than a jikk-incisor gouging her exposed Achilles.
She knelt slowly and pulled the thorn free, placing a thumb across the wound to force the first drop of blood to remain inside her body. Her skin grew warm beneath her touch, and then there was no wound. Sucking on her thumb, she tasted iron and salt and a dozen flavors of grime, and after some consideration, she carefully, carefully traced out a wide ellipse that eventually placed the trap upwind from her.
Riding the breeze was the aroma of a mature piss fungus. Saliva instantly filled her mouth. Her present hunger had been building for days. She couldn’t resist taking a quick step forward while sucking down the scent, wild eyes searching the forest floor until she saw the trap’s bait tucked behind a stand of spent silver yddybddy.
Her bare foot struck nothing but dirt; another youthful impulse went unpunished.
Again she made herself stop. Again she retreated cautiously. Then from a safe vantage point, she studied the Nots’ trap. Her empty stomach rolled and shrank ever closer to nothing, but she didn’t let her instincts run free. Only when she had a workable plan did she coax herself back the way she had come earlier, climbing the slight slope, tracing two of the exposed twitch-cords and deciphering where the third was hidden. Her best knife was an ancient nanocarbon blade wrapped inside a plastic scabbard. She decided to use a worn sapphire knife instead, digging into the cold gray clay until the last cord was discovered. It took five hundred breaths to fully uncover each of the cords. Working together, dozens of Nots had pulled the cords to their natural limits. Extend them just a little more, and their latent energies would be unleashed. The trapdoor would be wrenched open, and the piss fungus would vanish into the killing hole. That was why she found a stand of mature pegpokes, breaking off the strongest three pokes and sharpening them, and then with the heaviest rock she could lift, pounding each one into the ground. Every stake had to be buried next to one of the twitch-cords, as close to the bait as she dared. Then she spent the rest of her rich morning weaving short heavy ropes that she tied to the pokes and then spliced into the cords, leaving no slack. Finally she eased her green blade under the middle cord and sliced it with a single clean motion, and with the pegpoke absorbing the load, the long portion of the cord slapped and twisted its way uphill, leaving the invisible trapdoor undisturbed.
Once the other cords were cut, the trap was utterly helpless, its bait free for the stealing.
With the knife in her right hand, she crept close to the yddybddy and paused, staring at the dense yellow folds of fungus tucked behind the finger-like branches. Her mind and then her mouth imagined the feast to come. She would eat today and tomorrow too, and the fungus’ hard fibrous heart would remain as traveling rations. Close to tears, she took a tiny step forward, feeling the ground and trapdoor sag slightly—just as she had expected. Then she took another step and heard what might have been a soft fart, and she turned in time to watch a single coil of elastic nanofibers spring from the ground beside her. She leaped back in time to save her leg but fell into another trap built along the same fierce lines. A second spring unraveled and flung out blindly, grabbing her by the right arm and yanking her down, and she kicked and flopped and dove back against the burning pressure as a thousand rit-hairs ate into her bicep and the burning joint of her elbow.
Two more traps were sprung, both missing her. She lay still and silent on the muddy ground, watching the coils lash at the air overhead, gradually losing their tension before dropping down and finally giving up. Then she stood, very slowly, looking at her bloodied arm, breathing hard, the air thick with the stink of an injured and terrified human monster.
For a long moment, there was no sound but her panic. Then from the hilltop came a strong wet woosh that continued up and up—a peculiar and important noise ending with another two breaths of silence, followed by an explosion and a brilliant flash of hard white light.
What had been so carefully contrived had done its gruesome work, and the rocket was a message telling the trap builders to come fast and marvel at their great luck.
There was no guessing how much time remained.
A decision that should have taken consideration and endless pain was made in an instant, without hesitation. With her free left hand, she yanked the precious nanocarbon knife out of its scabbard, making a first sloppy gouge to guide the following cuts. No blade could cut the fibers inside the coil, and trying would be an absolute waste of time. As she had been taught, she sliced up into her living shoulder, working too fast to let her natural misery killers take hold. Teeth clenched, body shaking, she choked back a scream as muscles and blood vessels and the main gray nerve were severed, and then she paused for a three-breath moment, allowing those gaping wounds to stop bleeding before using the knife’s keen point to dismantle the joint where the arm entered her body—the body that she was saving, leaving her dying limb in the trap’s tenacious grip.
Maybe the one arm would be enough, she told herself. Maybe its long bones would satisfy her enemies.
Though there was absolutely no good reason to hope so.
The long nameless hillside was covered with young forest, low and dense and as purple as a sick bruise, and a tiny woman with just a single arm could slip easily through gaps that might confound others. Not that that blessing occurred to her at that moment. What mattered was the desperate need to cover the greatest possible distance as fast as possible. Because it was a difficult direction, she ran sideways to the natural slope, pushing through the densest timber, and then she climbed a ridge and paused for ten breaths, listening as she gathered herself, wishing that nobody would come quite this soon. Then she attacked the steep ground, tearing downhill, leaping whenever she could and trying hard to touch only bare stone, making it a little harder to track her progress.
The country was dark purple to the brink of black, and it was drenched by rain. Even at a full sprint, she recognized dozens of smells—winter blossoms and sacks of fresh rainwater and fungi spores and bug dusts and the rocky soaked dirt itself. Westerwinds held their hiding places until she was in the midst of them, and then they broke for the sky—elegant green faces wrapped around empty gray eyes, fleshy mouths screaming and their voices always sounding like curses. Perhaps a hundred of the creatures lifted around her, and in a moment of pure fantasy, she wondered if she could lob off her legs too and grab one of them by its neck, letting the bird carry her away from this miserable place.
That long slope ended with a river that might or might not have been the same river she had followed for the last dozen days. The skin on the water was growing thin with the wintery gloom, but the dead white bubbleweed was stiff enough to support her weight, at least along the forested shore. Travel in the open was dangerous, but at least she wouldn’t leave easy tracks and the river made for quick running. Her sapphire knife had been lost with her arm. Her nanocarbon knife was still clenched in her left hand, lost blood clinging to the long gray blade, already infested with colonies of iron-eating bugs. She plunged the blade into the river’s skin and knelt and drank what poured from the wound. The water was warm, laced with winter algae and fish shit. As she drank, she wiped her knife against her trousers and then finished cleaning it with the hem of the little poncho covering her upper reaches, and then she pushed her only weapon back into its scabbard and stood again, discovering that her legs couldn’t hold her very slight weight.
She settled again, knees falling to the rubbery, interwoven face of the river. Something large passed below. She felt the river’s skin lift and then saw a long fin cutting into the bubbleweed, and a single black eye pushed through the hole that she had made, standing on a short thick stalk, considering the meal that seemed to be in easy reach.
An instinctive revulsion made her afraid, and that fear gave her enough strength to stand and run again. She followed the river past the next sharp turn, down to where the current picked up velocity and anger. Here the skin thinned until it couldn’t be trusted. Downstream was open water sprinkled with sharp corundum stones and sudsy foam, little fetchers skimming low while giant moth-planes hovered high above, wings thin as dreams, stiff and wide, baking in the muted orange glow of the midday sky.
She crossed back to solid ground and stopped and looked upstream, watching the walkable stretch of river.
No enemies were visible.
She leaped from one rock to the next, and the next, and when she misjudged the distance, both of her bare feet slipped and she dropped hard, cracking something inside her hip that instantly caught fire, her abused little body struggling to push that fresh misery aside.
Where the river slowed, the skin reappeared, and she ran with a limp across the face of it.
After the next bend, where trailing eyes wouldn’t see, she crossed over to the far bank before coaxing her legs to hurry, convincing herself that she had outraced every foe.
But she was nearly spent. Passion and fear gave out in the same instant. Gasping, she dragged her trembling, half-starved body past the ancient trunk of an enormous sky-hugging tree. Had she ever seen leaves such as this? Never, no. The river was heading north, pushing into country unlike that of her birth, and with their delicate but broad purplish leaves, the trees welcomed her with deep shadows and brushy cover and the rich fatty stink of a nearby grief-hive.
The hive was fixed to the water-swollen trunk of a massive tree. It was an old hive covered with living and dead griefs, and the entire colony buzzed, warning of her their presence and their very difficult mood.
Using her surviving arm, she picked up a slab of mudstone and walked up to the tree, closing her eyes for no reason. The insects could never hurt her. With a sweeping motion, she broke into the hive. The griefs went insane. Wings and rubbing legs roared. They picked up their dead and carried the desiccated bodies before them, driving barbed stingers into her poncho and her thin brown flesh. But toxins powerful enough to sicken a hundred Nots did nothing to her alien tissue. The stingers would feel like tiny pricks on her most sensitive day, which wasn’t today, and she barely noticed as she flung the rock twice again, battering the woodish walls, crashing into the queen’s quarters and exposing the rich golden wax that would give her a lingering bellyache as well as a fortune in calories.
Here was enormous luck, but the cool voices of the Dead reminded her that good fortune always demands the bad.
That first mouthful of wax made her gag and cough, and she had to push her hand between her tiny teeth to hold the bite in place. Chewing was work. Swallowing was misery. But her injured body responded immediately, unleashing enzymes tailored to break stubborn bonds, reshaping the peculiar lipids into other, more digestible fats that were already awakening glands and ducts that for too many days had done nothing but dream of food.
Twenty breaths, and she felt drunk.
Twenty more, and she was kneeling on the moldy floor of the old forest, her jaw working at a second mouthful while her hand kneaded what would become her third bite. That was when she noticed a pleasant heat building inside her wounded shoulder. She swallowed again and took another bite and then looked at the shoulder, studying the hairless pink bulge emerging from the gore—a totipotent structure ripe with everything needed for true muscle and nerves and bone. If she could eat her fill and then sleep, a short workable right arm would emerge, complete with a tiny new hand begging to be used. Her body would be only a little smaller as a consequence, and the rest of her bones only a little more frail. Several days of determined feasting would be needed to recover her lost mass, and richer meals than this had to be found before she found her strength again. But inside this splendid, unexpected moment, it was easy to believe that her life had suddenly changed. In this obscure corner of a country that she didn’t know, she had stumbled across a wilderness full of grief-hives and other easy treasures; and for the next thousand years she would rule this forest—a monster of importance inflicting miseries on the local Nots as well as more dangerous and far more persistent enemies.
Motion caught her attention.
Smoothly and slowly, she turned her head, looking down the slope and out onto the river.
The rain was stronger now, gray and steady, splashing against the river’s sun-starved skin. She heard the rumble of the rain and smelled it and smelled the river too, and then she saw a solitary figure running with a strong relaxed gait along the river’s far bank. The intruder was built not too differently from her, but it was wearing more and better clothing—a wardrobe that changed color to match any background—and the creature had the posture of a hunter following a promising trail, the back tilted forward, head up and watching, and both hands carrying some kind of long, awful weapon.
Her first thought, odd and wrong, was that she must have wonderful eyes if she noticed that monster at such a distance.
But then the second hunter stepped out from behind a nearby tree. This was what had moved first, plucking her out of her daydream: A male human, tall and gloriously strong, his face rounded and hairless, that big spoiled body as well fed as any she had ever seen before.
To someone else, the man said, “Nothing.”
Then after too long of a pause, he added, “Here.”
Her half-filled belly ached, and the stub of her new arm flinched. Otherwise she remained on her knees, still as death.
The man paused long enough to look in several directions but never straight at her. Like his partner across the river, he carried a weapon—an ancient gun sporting a long barrel, its magazine probably full of explosive rounds. His armored helmet was topped with some kind of radio transmitter. Riding his broad back was a leather pack large enough to hide somebody’s severed limb. She watched the diamond barrel aim at nothing, and then it dipped. But it didn’t dip far. Then she watched both the gun and man retreat back down to the river, and he stepped onto the rain-soaked skin, and once more he said a few words, too soft for her to make out but their tone sounding nervously happy.
They knew where she had been.
A moment later, the man slipped out of sight. But the figure next the far bank was running upstream now, the gait youthful and bold. The man’s partner wanted to cross where the skin was thick enough. Then both of the humans, and perhaps others, would converge on this damp little place, ready to wage war against the poor little monster lurking here.
Instinct told her to run. Now.
But the endless need for food was too much. She stood slowly and with her surviving hand brushed away the griefs and yanked free another lump of hard wax, and she ate it much too fast, suppressing the urge to vomit. When her mouth was empty, she began to cry, fear and fatigue and honest, precious joy finding room inside her. Dying was better with a full stomach. How often had she heard that said? Many times, her mother had repeated those grim old words, and to prove their wisdom, the woman’s death had been a blessing at the end of a miserable long famine. And that was why her daughter stood up now and reached high, risking everything to steal even more food from the furious griefs.
The two hunters reappeared, climbing the riverbank together. They could have been brother and sister, or maybe products of some tiny population where inbreeding ran deep. Definitely they had similar faces and identical mannerisms. They acted bold. With their camouflaged clothes and long guns, they looked exceptionally competent, immune to every fear, ready for any surprise. But their broad bright eyes dispelled those illusions. They were a young couple, she realized. They might be dangerous in a thousand awful ways, but during their little lives, they had done nothing quite like this repugnant, awful work.
Kneeling behind a low ridge of packed clay, she studied them.
Inside the woman’s pack was a gaunt brown arm, mangled but still alive. It bent and then straightened. When the lost hand closed on nothing, the injured girl ached. Severed limbs could reattach themselves, she was thinking. Flesh always recognized its own kind. If she could just hide where she was, and if they followed her tracks too closely, and then if she charged with her knife, dodging their shots and cutting their throats…well, then it would be easy then to take back what was hers and steal their weapons too, pumping bomb after bomb into their helpless bodies.
“The Creation was built on grand, foolish blunders,” her mother used to teach, in days not long ago, yet irretrievably remote.
Leaving her knife resting inside its scabbard, the young woman crept back into the darkest shadows.
Young as they were, these hunters were not idiots. Speaking in whispers, they spread apart, guns lifted and the man walking after a set of footprints that would look old and rain-worn by now. At least for another twenty breaths, they would never guess that she was this close. That gave her enough time to find a ridge of shale that offered a trackless route up the hillside. Then with the rain sounds covering her little noises, she jogged, climbing the slope until the ground softened, and then after sucking down a single deep breath, she forced her tiny body into a desperate sprint.
The forest ended at the top of the hill. Where the high ground flattened, the Nots had attacked the native trees, using explosive summer fires and corundum axes to create a single long field dotted with burnt stumps and winter crops. Purplish earweed and coldharm and the blue-black cindercane grew lush and thick with the chill rain. She paused at the field’s edge, listening past the raindrops, resting while she compared what were a series of exceptionally poor choices. And then she moved again, slipping along the edge of the forest and wishing that was best.
By very little, an aluminum-hulled bomb missed the back of her head and fell into the shaggy field, detonating with a hard, awful thud.
Weak despite wounds and her overstuffed belly, she ran into the cindercane, pressing hard even when she left behind a broad trail any fool could follow.
Duplicity was dropped, replaced with a bold taunt.
“Follow if you dare!” she was telling them.
Her first Not was a youngster, half-grown and consumed by its little work. She saw the long exoskin—like a poncho with a tall hood, washed milky gray with the season—and she saw the wooden hoe being lifted high and the warm rain sliding off the creature’s greased back, merging with the ground where roots like fingers worked to absorb and protect what came only in the winter. She couldn’t see any face, but she heard the creature speaking to itself. Nothing about the voice was sensible: Neither the words or their meanings, nor the emotions, or even if this was true speech at all. But the creature made its soft private sounds, and then down went the hoe, beheading a single green plant growing in the midst of all that happy black cane.
Before the hoe lifted again, she called out.
The Not turned abruptly, its face showing beneath the folds of thin gray flesh. Staring into the shadows, memory supplied the features: Two pairs of eyes and a beak-like mouth and flat nostrils and purple skin laid across stiff protein-woven bones that bore no resemblance to hers.
The young Not saw her and gave a weak holler.
Believing it was doomed, the creature bowed to the monster and wished it well, and then it lifted its head again, perhaps more startled than pleased to discover that she had already run past it, offering not so much as a brutal slap.
A few strides beyond the Not was the main trail.
She paused, just for an instant. But there was no way to decipher which direction was best, and so she made her guess and never looked back, even when the next hard thud rolled across the plateau.
One of the hunters had shot the Not.
The trail was narrow and curling, and then all at once it was straight and wide, leaving the cane field for ground more established and far more open. The burnt stumps were gone. The crops were perennials like elder and pack-a-long. A pair of adult farmers was walking home at the end of wet good day, hands filled with implements too important to leave in the mud. This time she made no sound. She ran between them, and even exhausted, she pushed one farmer down and looked back at his friend until that creature thought to yell out a warning into the gathering night.
She didn’t know the precise translation, but that single sharp word would mean her.
A human monster.
Which she was. A horrible murderous creature, and she was running loose in the village now. Little ellipsoid homes appeared, low-built and solid, made from stacked stone blocks and living earth, skins of water set out in the yards, absorbing the weak sunlight. She found dozens of Nots trapped in moments of very ordinary life, and in ways she had never felt before, she was envious. There was comfort in this place, alien but recognizable. She ran down a street of foot-packed mud, straight into the heart of a tiny community—a rough lonely place perched on the brink of a monster-infested wilderness. Yet here lived souls that enjoyed the luxury of dry shelter and a world of food that they raised for themselves, their brief, endless lives punctuated with countless little feasts.
Her enemies wouldn’t follow her into this dangerous realm, she hoped.
But they did. From the street behind her came gunfire and screams, the screams growing louder as her pursuers drew close. Then she heard the booming thuds of a single drum set in the village center—a great bowl of wood covered with the exoskins of ancestors. Someone was beating the drum with authority, warning the populace of monsters running loose. Now the children and elderly would hide. Every able body would race indoors long enough to retrieve a spear, or maybe a bow and lucky arrow, and then they would rush out again to stab at a trio of organisms that were impossible to kill.
Two determined enemies became a mob of a hundred and two. She couldn’t run faster, and then her legs slowed even more, turning clumsy. She had never breathed this deeply, but all the oxygen in the world couldn’t cure the kind of fatigue eating away at her muscle and reflexes. She was stupid with exhaustion. Straight ahead of her, a tall Not stepped out of his home, and she was slow enough that he had ample time to aim what looked like a very long arrow. She saw the creature’s face, the skin nearly black with the purple and the glassy beak exposed when the nervous lips pulled back, and she saw the arrow fly off the bow and heard the thunk and knew full well that she should leap to one side or the other, spoiling the shot. But despite trying to react, she couldn’t. The arrow’s head was hard, well-sharpened sapphire that cut through her poncho and the skin just beneath her tiny left breast, meeting the ribs and then bouncing. But the blade didn’t fall free. She felt the impact and spun around, astonished by how easily her balance was lost. More Nots were emerging from their little houses. She saw anger and terror. Or she saw nothing. Who could say what the Nots felt, in any situation, in any given day? But she imagined them being fearful, and then brave because of their fear. They saw her stumble and nearly drop to the ground, and maybe a dozen of them were holding sharp implements that could be used to hack at a monster such as her, reducing her to shreds before she could find her feet again.
But she didn’t lose her balance completely.
Her last hand caught the packed mud and pushed, and her bare toes bit deep and helped shove her into full stride again. Then the hand lifted and blindly broke the arrow shaft and pulled it from her chest, tossing it aside before the muddy hand dug into the gore, pulling out the jagged gemstone.
The little road came to empty ground that led out toward a gray wet sky. She ran, and a thrown rock struck her in the back, between her shoulder blades. More rocks fell on the street with hard squishing sounds. Then all at once the shouting changed complexion. It took her a moment to realize that the faces had turned away, and now every mouth was cursing the monsters chasing after her.
It was astonishingly easy, this irrational and useless belief that the Nots had taken sides in another species’ contest.
But that’s exactly what she felt.
Unable to help herself, she paused at the edge of the village, and she breathed and turned around while placing her hand against one knee and bending forward, drinking at the dense air while her little Nots made their stand.
A hundred voices shouted insults, or they begged the gods for help, or they tried to coax bravery out of every hiding cousin and lover and brother.
The thunk-thunk-thunk of bows was a sweet noise.
Then the crowd charged at the two monsters, hoes and simple clubs lifting high and then dropping, battering one another as much as their mortal enemies.
She felt distant; she felt safe.
Even when she knew she was wrong, she entertained a bold little confidence that produced the best smile in days and days and days.
Then the hard pop of human guns began, and the nearly instantaneous booms of explosives. Concussions broke against her face. What kept the blasts from being louder were all those packed brave foolish and doomed bodies filling up the street. Nots flew back into Nots, and all their bravery was lost in an instant. The villagers tried to run and couldn’t, packed too close, and the young man and the young woman shot another ten or twelve rounds at pointblank range, accepting the burns and bony shrapnel that was sure to come from that tactic.
The one-armed girl took a tentative step backward.
Whole exoskins were ripped free of their bodies, and voices died in the midst of screaming, and then the mob dissolved into panicked figures fleeing and others falling, and the humans emerged from the carnage, shouting at their assailants with a few old Not curses.
She knew to run but couldn’t.
Spellbound, she stared at bodies not too unlike hers. These monsters were peppered with arrows and at least one long spear, and knife wounds and gashes from heavy rocks. But the man and woman were far stronger than her, and larger, and what would have dropped her ten times just them angrier and more sure.
It was the bride who took time to kneel and aim carefully.
As her gun kicked, the one-armed girl—her target—remembered to leap sideways.
What saved her was the range, which was too close. And it was the tiny distance that she had moved sideways, insuring that the single round passed into the guts but missed the spine or hips or ribs. It hit hard and dug into her and through her, and her first impression was that some heavy old piece of her body had been removed. At last, she was light again and full of energy. In that half-moment before the explosion, she could tell herself that she was blessed. And then came the white-hot blast that threw her forward, that casual violence shoving her into the wet face of the road.
She died, but only for a moment.
Then she was aware enough to know that her back was scorched, and her hair, and her clothes were blown away and her guts were battered or missing entirely. She came back into life unaware of how much time had passed, but then sitting up, she realized that only a moment or two was lost. The human man was just beginning to run at her, and his pretty mate stood and smiled, and the severed arm carried in the pack twisted and grabbed at the sky—a blind reflexive gesture that wouldn’t last much longer.
She rose to her feet somehow.
So much of her belly was missing that she had to use her one arm to keep herself upright, that meal of chewed wax dripping free even after the bleeding had stopped. She turned and began to do what passed for running. Neither quick nor graceful, she headed into the open country. Her only advantage was that pain and deprivation had stolen away all of her good sense. Any rational mind would have given up now. But she had nothing left except instinct, and both legs remained intact, and maybe the hunters were too confident or too injured to put an end to this chase. Maybe the Nots had counterattacked. She didn’t know. Crossing a pasture of hairvetch, at some point she stumbled her way onto a spine of eroded gneiss that quickly narrowed. But she couldn’t see beyond her next two steps, what with the rain falling harder suddenly and the invisible sun setting and her own numbing desire to do nothing but keep her eyes half-closed, dancing with sleep until that moment when her left foot stepped into the open air, dragging her body and other leg over the sudden lip of cliff.
Twice on the tumbling journey down, she struck boulders. Then the cliff pulled away, and she fell past beside thick beds of slates and mudstones undermined by an ocean that she had never seen before and didn’t see now—a realm of deep cool nearly living water topped with a winter-starved skin that split when her body, lead by her unconscious head, finally struck.
The limp, burnt body was a prize too rich to ignore. Fish licked the salty flesh and bit hard into the rusty red muscle. But even tiny meals made throats burn and bellies sicken, and the indigestible was often spat out again. Her proteins were unlike anything natural, spun from amino acids peculiar to distant worlds and immortal beings. Her stubborn blood was laced with antioxidants often toxic to the local biology. Buried inside her chemical bonds were the scarcest, most dangerous metals and lanthanides and heavy halogens. And worst of all, between her dead cells slept fleets of machine-like phages. If just one of those ingested phages lost its ancient safeguards, then it would duplicate itself at a staggering pace—billions of machines trying mightily to transform native flesh into the healthy body of a human female. But even with those dangers, her body was steadily bitten and masticated and then vomited up again. Nervous systems failed; metabolisms collapsed. Her drifting corpse created a zone of misery, the dark winter water full of twitching fins and abortions as well as a succession of increasingly grim fish kills. But that slaughter proved endurable for some species, and for a lucky few, there was uncommon wealth. Deep-swimmers tasted the mayhem, and once the rough soup was diluted enough, they rose up to drink their fill. A flight of hack-a-leens descended on the water’s skin, claws cutting through and the long necks leading down to where they would nab tiny, precious meals. After two nights and a day, the deep expanse of the bay had absorbed much of her potassium and phosphorus, while her stolen iron and calcium fueled a million quiet wars; and during the second day, a remarkable midwinter bloom made the water glow with a vivid, milky light.
Much as it had in life, the woman’s body continued to wander. Bloodless and burnt, gutted and chewed upon—yet she felt nothing. Many days and nights passed without being noticed. Occasionally one of her dark eyes would open, but the mind behind it perceived nothing but a vague cold gray. In tiny, ineffectual steps, intricate mechanisms would strive to make repairs to her body, or at least staunch the steady losses. A sleeping organ might wake for a moment, pushing ions into important places and spinning a few new proteins; but even tiny actions were a waste, and the work quickly ended. Processes rather like rot took hold, causing her flesh to bloat. She floated with her back up and her dead face down, the final arm and her legs spread wide. With the barest metabolism, her temperature matched that of the winter sea. The nameless river supplied the first steady push that carried her out of the bay, and the tides pulled her farther from the land. Then a wild storm broke, shredding the last of the summer skin. Waves rose up in high neat rows, marching toward a horizon she could neither see nor imagine, and what little remained of the woman was carried out into a realm as empty and black as space.
Each season had its wealth, its champions. Winter was dark but deliciously wet, and with the skin peeled off the wind-churned water, oxygen passed freely into the deepest realms. The muddy floor of the ocean was home to a nation: a thousand unimagined beasts, at least not imagined by the dead woman. These were huge creatures, and by any measure, their minds were substantial. Winter was their time to rise to the surface, feeding and breeding. Soon they discovered the mystery drifting above their home, and with sonar and then giant blue-black eyes, they studied the intruder with care. There was perhaps a passing resemblance of form, but this was no Not. That was one point of agreement. Ancient tales spoke of monsters descending from the sky, but that must have been a different species from this creature. The corpse carried no trace of wings. Nothing about the visitor seemed grand or special, and after so much abuse, even her original shape was a subject of considerable debate.
“Eat it,” one beast suggested.
“I will not,” its companion replied.
“It is not dead.”
Only detritus and their own children were suitable food.
“But it is dead,” the first creature argued. “Have you seen it move? In all of the time we have danced here, has the creature taken any action?”
Just then, the dead eyes opened.
Perhaps the sound of whistling voices woke her. Perhaps it was chance. Whatever the reason, the right eye came alive, followed by the left, and the mind behind the eyes fell out of its coma just enough to perceive two vast shapes drifting beneath, carefully keeping their giant selves out of reach.
The two watery beasts stared up at her, perplexed and intrigued.
Weakly, she managed to kick both of her rotted, bloated legs. And the last bits of muscle made her arm flinch, pulling her hand against her belly, gingerly touching the still-gaping hole.
“It lives,” the first beast decided.
But its companion was less sure. “Perhaps that was a reflex.”
Whatever the carcass was, it was unnatural. And it was evil. No other conclusion was possible.
“We should destroy it,” said the first beast.
“To rid the world of an abomination.”
There was a compelling logic to that opinion, yes.
“Consider the honor,” the first beast argued.
“I give this honor to you,” said its companion.
Slowly, the first beast swam upward and opened its broad mouth and then inhaled, neatly pulling the carcass into its wide throat and then its belly. Then with a lying voice, it said, “Delicious.”
“You must eat the next one of these,” it argued. “You will never taste anything like it, I promise.”
Phages designed to defend and repair human flesh suddenly woke, bathed in free oxygen and eager to work. But even worse were the rare elements carried in the dead blood—heavy metals freed by the stomach acids, effortlessly spreading into every cell inside that exceptionally long body. Bright cries of misery carried back into the depths. Every recent meal was thrown out of the anguished mouth and anus. Then before nightfall, thankfully, the poor creature was dead.
Consumed by acids and smaller than ever, the human corpse calmly resumed its facedown floating.
The surviving beast grieved for its lost friend and wrestled with its own guilt, and then in a moment of despairing bravery, it vowed that if this monster couldn’t be destroyed, at least it would be removed from the ocean.
The nearest land was an island, black and rough and rain-soaked, and when the tide was high, the water beside its shore was open and very deep. Carrying the monster on its head, the beast swam close and then flung the danger as far as possible, watching with satisfaction as the immortal body landed on a tall stack of rocks. And there it did nothing but lie in a motionless heap, those tiny black alien eyes neither opened nor closed, nothing to see but the rain and darkness and their inevitable doom.
The cistern was overflowing, and before it was capped it needed to be laced with copper salts—a useful trick to keep thieves out of the stored rainwater. That’s why the man was kneeling in the gully. The fanhearts spotted him and dropped through the tall trees, screaming some nonsense about a mysterious visitor. Then the flock’s white-throated elder settled on the slope above, long wings spread wide and her throat twisting to say one alien word. “Human,” the bird managed with a crackling squawk. “Human, human, human!”
The man poured in the last of the salt. Then he looked up, and with a rough approximation of the fanheart language, he asked, “Where?”
“Rookery, dawnward, pillars,” she reported in her own tongue. And when he did nothing, she said again, “Human.”
His companions meant well. But in matters like these, they were almost always wrong. What they’d found could be any sort of creature cast up on the shoreline, or it was nothing at all. But most likely it was a dead Not—some fisherman tossed from his boat, probably. Fanhearts were incurable optimists. They loved to make large promises, hoping for a taste of his praise.
Before anything else, what he needed to do was fit the sapphire plug into the cistern’s mouth, and then he covered the plug with plastic and clay and random rocks, hiding its presence. Then he finally climbed to his feet, telling them, “Thanks. Human will go view.”
The flock was thrilled that their ancient friend might believe them. They drew furious circles overhead, voices bright and enthusiastic. The rookery was an easy flight but a long walk, and the pillars in question stood beyond the barricade. Preparation was important. On the remote possibility they were right, the human climbed down the hillside and stepped inside his home. There he filled a large pack with supplies, selecting one gun to carry and two more for his belt. Then he donned a fresh poncho and secured his front door before walking out from under the shadow of the old gyreboy, attacking the cold chilled rain.
With eyes closed, he could have walked the next thousand steps. This portion of the island was so much his own that it felt as if his soul extended past his flesh, embracing the corundum hills and the crumbling beds of mudstone and the mature black forest that fed the wild game that lived as it wished, knowing nothing of genuine danger. This was a retreat, a private paradise. One creature ruled here, and the creature’s reputation was considerable—a titanic and fearless monster known well by the local Nots. “The Giant”, they had dubbed their human, or whistles to that effect: Even among his horrible species, he was huge and strong—the ultimate monster—and the tiny natives knew better than risk slinking into his dark realm.
The man walked smoothly, with grace and economy, his swollen pack creaking as the straps rubbed and the baggage shifted.
His fanhearts kept tabs on his progress, and they sent ahead scouts to check on the body lying above the surf—one after another returning with the breathless news that nothing had changed since the last glimpse.
Now and again, he let himself believe there was a human visitor. But even if that were the case, what was likely? Peaceful conversation was doubtful. And even if the two of them could talk politely, what were the odds that he could actually trust this intruder?
By and large, human beings were monsters.
From the forest edge, he announced his presence—a bright screaming shout familiar to every local Not—and then he donned an appropriate mask and stepped into the open, dropping the pack to throw it over the barricade, and then with a smooth motion, jumping after it.
The pillars and the black tidal flats lay exposed. Standing on high ground, he peered through a telescope, seeing enough to make his slender hopes collapse. The pillars were masses of corundum, pale brown and tough after spending their youth being tortured far beneath some ancient crust. He remembered clearly when those landmarks were still part of this island, and not just at low tide. He studied the terrain between him and them. Then he looked at the sea beyond, dark and exceptionally rough, the wind building waves that tore loose bundles of wiry black baleen weed. The weed had been flung across the top of the pillars, and even at this distance, he could see which tangle had confused his friends. A body-shaped lump lay in the open, one leg extended and another crumpled up in a decidedly unnatural pose. And what looked like a single bony arm rose up into the rain, stumps instead of fingers and no second arm to be seen. The mistake was natural. The fanhearts had too much respect for humans to approach without being invited, which was why they circled high overhead, the entire flock screaming happily as he let the pack drop and strode across the soggy mud, and with hands and bare feet climbed his way up onto the natural table.
The body didn’t move for him.
He approached, knelt. And then for a full ten breaths, he saw nothing but a mangled, unfamiliar species of baleen weed. Because human flesh could never be this color or texture, and because a human body, mangled even to this degree, would still actively fight to cure its various ills.
Then the woman’s mouth opened, exhaling once.
He fell back on his butt.
And she inhaled, slowly and with little effect, before her mouth pulled shut, her battered face turning back into the rough black weed.
For another ten breaths, the man could do nothing but sit, measuring the wounds but not bothering to imagine their history. He had seen worse, yes. Many times. But there came a point where the victim couldn’t be helped. Not by the likes of him, no. True death might be exceptionally rare, but between the Eternal and the maimed lay countless states of near-extinction.
“Do you hear me?” he asked.
The mouth stirred, slowly pulling open. But only to manage another breath, supplying fire to what had to be a very thin metabolism.
The right arm was missing. Her belly was ripped through. Her left leg had been shattered by a hard impact, and the poor woman’s flesh had been chewed and sucked dry, and then scorched by stomach acids. But worse than any wounds was her general health. Gingerly, he picked up the shattered leg and looked into the torn rancid meat. Human bone didn’t break so easily. Not unless it was malnourished, and severely malnourished at that. And the remaining muscle felt soft and simple, squirming between his thumb and finger—a washed-out, iron-depleted tissue perpetually on its last gasp.
Two choices presented themselves.
Cautious by nature, he looked at both possibilities before making his decision. He retrieved his pack and quickly yanked out what he needed, and with small rocks as anchors, he pitched a shelter over his guest and his supplies, keeping the rain off both of them and allowing him the privacy to remove his mask.
The tide was coming back in now. He scanned the shoreline, wondering how many Nots were hiding in the woods.
“Stand guard,” he told his friends.
The fanhearts scattered, granting him a small measure of quiet.
He had many blades and quality foods, but what counted here was simple. Inside an important satchel was a medical kit. Inside the kit were vials, each labeled in codes known only to him. By guesswork more than experience, he added a little powder from each vial, mixing them into a bladder half-filled with pure water. The concoction that he was mixing was worth an incalculable fortune. He put the ingredients together for the first time in ages, and then with a diamond dagger, he sliced deeply into the woman’s chest and set the bladder against the new, unnoticed wound, counting the drips as they came, stopping with every fifty-five.
His patient did not move and her breathing didn’t quicken, and for that matter, her breathing didn’t slow any either.
But after two hundred and twenty measured drops, something changed. It was the stump of her missing arm that moved first. Which he expected. It twirled once and shivered for a few moments, and then the entire body passed into what looked like misery. He slipped the dagger back into her chest and held his hand against the hilt, waiting for the beat of a heart and measuring its sluggish force, counting the times it beat and pulling out the dagger again and added another portion of the metallic soup.
How long had his guest gone hungry?
And what kinds of brutal adventures had she endured?
Because he was very much out of practice, he spoke to her. She would hear few if any of his words, and the odds of her understanding his meanings were minimal. But making noise to a captive audience was easy, and more than he would have guessed, it was fun.
“Did a leviathan gulp you down, daughter? And did you make the poor bastard pay for his foolishness?”
Spasms shook her.
With three bare fingers, he reached into the gaping hole in her belly, measuring the ruined tissue, wondering which course was best.
Food, he decided.
He fed himself, pulling provisions from his stores and paying only minimal attention to what kind of food. Some dried finfair and glow-in-day meat and the sugary lacidazical fruit, followed by a lump of cold wax from a grief nest.
As he chewed on the wax, one sunken eye opened.
He pulled the wax from his mouth and passed the lump over the double-pits of her chewed-off nose, and a random breath must have found the scent because her mouth opened, revealing starved little teeth, sickly yellow and widely spaced on a pair of pale, almost ghostly gums.
He stuffed the wax back into his mouth, chewed hard and swallowed.
And then he waited, counting the minutes.
Then he found the largest bowl in his pack and sat beside the woman, legs apart and the bowl between his knees. Vomiting was a difficult trick, but he had eaten too much and that helped his stomach agree to this purge. He threw up every morsel as well as the rich juices of his digestive tract, and then with a spoon and his free hand, he guided the feast into her gaping mouth.
The meal lasted all day and most of the night.
Sometimes he spoke to her, explaining the logic of everything. She was short of essential metals, which kept her constantly weak. Her body needed energy, but it had no working stomach. So he let his stomach do the hard labors, breaking bonds and reconfiguring the alien proteins, creating a stew that could be absorbed and transformed into fresh muscle and better bone.
He told her that she had somehow landed on his island. He didn’t approve of luck, but he used that old word now, congratulating whatever conspiracy of forces had managed to place her here, and now she was safe and dry under his tent, and for the present moment, she didn’t need to worry about anything.
He mentioned that he was very, very old.
Later, speaking in a whisper, he confessed that he was lonely and preferred his life to be that way. Other ways of living always turned out badly, and to prove that sorry fact, he told her a few stories that reached back across the ages. They were his stories, mostly. But he hadn’t repeated them in a very long time, which made him wonder if they could be somebody else’s tales, stolen by a sloppy old brain. Then he realized that he was feeling both wildly fortunate and exceptionally sad. And with that, the bowl of food and bile was drained and he was hungry enough to feed himself, sharing nothing with his unexpected guest.
That was in darkest part of the night.
The fanhearts were sleeping in their rookery, which was their right. And a new winter storm was building, winds tearing at the tent and the fierce rain drumming and his own voice lost when he told his patient his name.
It had been ages since he said the simple word, “Mercer.”
If she heard him, nothing showed. She was shaking as if cold, but her half-dead body was hot as coals, and the stub-arm was as long now as a healthy hand, and the shattered leg had pulled close to her hip, bones meeting and gathering the necessary resources before attempting any new growth. Her skin was a bright red, almost glowing in the dark. And then her heat fell away, and the color left, and she suddenly lay still.
He pulled a fungus from its sack and blew on it, causing the flesh to glow brightly enough to illuminate the entire tent.
Carefully, he set a hand between his patient’s breasts, measuring the beat and strength of the rebuilt heart. But she didn’t stir, even when he groped her. Even when he cried hard and wiped his eyes with both hands. And then he lay beside her and took her new hand with both of his and closed his eyes and remembered back to the last time when he had slept this way, with another.
The first trace of day pushed its way through a gray-gold skin—the cured hide of an exceptionally large tattler, she realized. New eyes gazed straight up, investing their first moments in the careful study of a rope made from cured gut as well as the delicate, beautifully interwoven veins preserved within the taut fabric. Then she closed her eyes and examined her mind, astonished to discover that not only were her thoughts coming quickly and easily, but that every idea was relaxed if not happy. This was someone else’s mind at work. Compulsive, enduring fear had been the spine of her life, but that had been stolen away, and she missed it. How she could survive until dusk without the cherished terror? Yet despite the stakes, she coolly and dispassionately wondered what force had done this damage to her, and how could she move through the world if she didn’t believe that every step taken and every step avoided carried the possibility of tragedy and death?
Again she opened her eyes. But this time she ignored what she saw, paying strict attention to how the world felt through her new skin. She was naked. With her left hand, she touched the bare flank of her leg, newborn flesh still without hair and free of punctures and the muscle beneath as hard as it had been in a long while, if ever. Then her new right hand flexed, discovering fresh bones cradled inside a strong grip. Here was a third hand. Whose? She momentarily imagined that she must have recovered her stolen limb. Her rested, recharged mind took that single impossibility and wove an elaborate tale of revenge and victory. But then that third hand flinched, and she noticed the heat of a body close beside her, and very carefully, she turned her head to one side, discovering the dim profile of a man lying on the rock floor of the small shelter.
Suddenly her old friend, Fear, returned from its hiding place.
She choked off a gasp and killed the urge to leap up. She didn’t know this face, and she had no idea how she had arrived here, in these thoroughly bizarre circumstances. She could imagine any scenario, and none would be right, and she might as well believe that this was her genuine life and this man was her mate and every misery and little success that she recalled was nothing but a dream.
The next wild moments were spent studying the man’s nose and closed eyes and the occasional twitch of his wide, relaxed mouth.
His breaths were long and patient and exceptionally shallow.
Beneath the shelter—presumably his tent—the air smelled of exhaled air and body oils and subtle pheromones for which no name existed. A big, half-emptied pack lay just above her head. The slit doorway lay at her feet. Even for a human, the man beside her was large, longer than her by a good middle and thick about the middle in a fashion that she had never seen in their species. Dressed for cold weather, he wore full-length trousers and a loose shirt made from some kind of blackish Not fabric. His long feet and very large hands were bare. The rust-colored hair was shaggy and dense, woven into an elaborate rope that vanished between his back and the stone ground. His beard was thick and closely cropped. Like a corpse, he seemed unnaturally comfortable. Just once, he took a deep breath, and she lifted her head high enough to look down on his face, watching the wet balls of his eyes bounce beneath their brown lids, dreaming who-knew-what kind of dream while he slept unaware.
Silently, she reached across her body with her old left hand, one finger and the tip of the thumb gently touching both sleeping eyes.
He woke instantly, totally.
What charmed her, then and forever, was that he acted as confused as she felt, if only for a moment or two. Who was this woman? How did he come here? Perhaps they were equal in this fashion—two souls thrown beneath the same tent, lost together and joined together out of simple shared ignorance.
Who was thinking these thoughts?
Because the ideas couldn’t be hers, she decided. In her busy brief life, the woman had never felt her mind slipping so quickly between subjects and possibilities.
The man spoke to her quietly, and he seemed to smile.
It took a moment to realize that she understood his words, despite the twisting accent and the unfamiliar voice. What he said was, “Hello,” followed by, “How do you feel?”
She had never felt this way, so how could she answer him?
Then he said, “Mercer.”
She opened her newly rebuilt mouth—the strong tongue pushing against fresh hard teeth—and with a voice that she recognized only to a point, she asked, “What did you say?”
“My name is. Mercer.”
She repeated the word softly.
She said, “Dream.”
It was a little joke, reflexive and swift. She was telling him that she didn’t believe any of this. But he seemed to accept her answer, lifting his head and turning his entire body. A second tattler skin, folded three times, served as their shared mattress. It squeaked under his bulk. He squeezed her newborn hand and then let it drop, reaching for her bare body and then stopping himself abruptly, pulling back the hand before repeating her new name.
“Dream,” he said, with feeling.
Perhaps he didn’t believe her, but he seemed gracious. She hadn’t known many men, but even her thin experiences gave her reason to believe that this creature would either agree to almost any answer she decided to give, or he would believe nothing she said.
“Where am I?” she asked.
“Do you know the Lake-of-Lakes?”
A dim memory tugged. “Yes,” she said.
“This is an island…the sunken backbone of an old mountain range stuck far out from the northwestern shore.”
She absorbed that odd news. “Who do you live with?”
Several responses seemed to have occurred to him. But instead of answering, he asked his own reasonable questions. “Where are you from? What family is yours? And how did you find your way across the water, in the winter, without any boat?”
An enormous story filled her head, but she told only what she remembered from her last conscious days. She ended with the giant eyes floating beneath her and a vast toothy mouth reaching for her helpless body.
“I think that river was the Ticklewater,” he offered.
She had never heard that name before.
“What did your Nots look like?”
The farmers were narrower than most of their species, she recalled, and their flesh was a ruddy purple, and they seemed to have a fondness for cindercane and sapphire arrowheads. Then he asked about their tools and the construction of their homes, and she discovered of details waiting to be told, fueling what sounded like an expert opinion.
“They come from the Northern Clad,” he reported. “Outcasts and now settlers, probably. Probably from one of the weak sect-families claiming some of those marginal lands.”
She had always known that the Nots had relationships and a kind of culture, but the concept of “clad” meant little to her. And even though she had heard the term “sect-family”, its subtle implications lay beyond her reach and her interests.
Genuinely baffled, she asked, “How do you know this?”
The man reacted with a shy smile.
Then he sat up, and with quick precise motions, he stuffed tools and vials into a variety of skin satchels that in turn had to be shoved inside the pack. She caught a glimpse of a rifle butt, but she couldn’t be sure if a working weapon was attached to it. Two small pistols rode his belt, secured inside their holsters by cord and complicated knots. Between the pistols was a simple mask carved from nightwood, orange flourishes painted around the eye and mouth holes. He secured the mask to his face and then looked back her, his gray eyes burning inside the orange slashes. “Stay here,” he instructed. Then he climbed through the slit opening and pulled the pack out of sight.
She considered following after him, or maybe slipping out the back end of the tent and running away. But her impression was that Mercer was standing nearby, giving her this important opportunity to disobey him.
Twenty breaths later, he returned, dropping folded clothes at her feet, along with a second black and orange mask. A voice both happy and hurried told her to dress herself. He said that the mask was essential, and she shouldn’t ask for explanations yet. And when she didn’t quite hurry, he announced, “I want to go home now.”
The clothes were his extras, far too large for her new body.
He stood back, watching as she dressed. Then with a quiet, almost sweet tone, he added, “I’ll take you home with me and feed you, Dream. If you’d allow me that kindness.”
She would. Yes. For the moment, why not?
Mercer dismantled and packed both tattler skins. Then they climbed down from a stack of brown corundum boulders, hurrying across a stretch of low ground that just hundred breaths ago had been underwater. The man had no trouble carrying the enormous pack. With him in the lead, they fled the wet shoreline, crossing onto a wide apron where last summer’s scrubtar gave way to winter weeds. Fanhearts were flying nearby, their screams rather different from how the mainland varieties would sound. For two breaths, the man paused to look off to the east, studying what seemed to be nothing but a tiny tangle of woods. Then he continued west, leading her toward an enormous half-built wall—corundum and slate and mudstone bricks stacked high enough to slow them, with upright poles giving the barrier the illusion of height.
On the other side of the wall, the world changed. Suddenly they were pushing hard into a dark wet realm that didn’t seem to know either fire or the axe. They paused just long enough to remove and stow their masks. Then they began to walk with quick long strides. At first she assumed somebody had been hiding in those little woods that he had stared at. Unseen enemies were chasing them, their arrival imminent and worth avoiding at all cost. Why else move with such a quick, half-blind gait, hanging to the obvious trails? Why so thoroughly ignore the ground underfoot and the black canopy created by the tallest trees that she had ever seen? An army of Nots could be hiding inside these shadows; yet the man seemed to look at nothing but the ground ten or twenty steps ahead of them, holding what had to be a punishing pace. He acted oblivious to the world. Which made him a fool. She came to that uncharitable conclusion, and it would take days for that wrong impression to vanish, at least to where she wouldn’t feel pity every time that she looked into his ageless, almost unreadable face.
On bare feet, they climbed through the ancient woods, reaching the crest of the hill exactly where it was easiest to cross. Judging by the noise, every corner of this wilderness was full of life. Croaking voices and singing voices and voices carried on wings constantly jabbered away, and sometimes the man would make his own little sounds, as if pretending to be a dewlane beast or some kind of buzz. She couldn’t make sense of what he was saying, much less why it was worth the effort. Her savior might as well have been trading thoughts with the rain, as much good as it would do. But she didn’t offer questions or betray any doubt with her newly reconstituted face. And perhaps Mercer was worried by the silence, because he paused suddenly on a wide, hard-worn portion of the trail. “Can I trust you to be good?” he asked.
“Yes,” she lied, almost convincing herself of her honesty.
And perhaps he believed the weak promise. Though the half-grin hinted that no, even this peculiar fool had his limits.
Guarding that old trail were mounds and heaps that looked unlike anything she had ever seen before. She smelled death leaking from them, and between the gray leaves of widow fungi, she saw the glossy white remains of recent bodies. Animal carcasses had been dropped here to rot. No, she realized, these weren’t animal carcasses. She noticed a single dead Not laid on the pile, its narrow three-toed feet near the ground and its badly decomposed face staring up at nothing, the soft proteinaceous skull still emerging from the purple flesh, its complicated jaws pulled apart to reveal the spine of what had been its own sexual member, jutting from the back of its mouth.
She stopped, staring at that oddity.
“He was one of mine,” said Mercer.
Her response was to glance at him and then stare again at the pile, trying to count the bodies that had built this impressive feature.
“He was a good citizen,” the man added.
“One of yours?”
Something in the moment was grimly satisfying. But he didn’t offer explanations, preferring instead to ask, “What else do you notice?”
She saw everything worth noticing, while this crazed man was oblivious to the most essential details.
“This trail,” he prompted.
She hated to walk on foot-worn ground. No reasonable soul strolled down common avenues.
“Guess,” he prompted. “How many feet created this trail?”
And when she didn’t respond, he said, “Two feet. One pair. And how long would you imagine it took that man to cut the ground this way?”
She watched him pull one long foot back across the yellowish corundum.
“I don’t have a guess,” she confessed quietly.
“Of course you don’t. Only one living person knows how to measure that much time.”
He nearly laughed. But even then, he stubbornly refused to give explanations. Again he walked, even faster than before now, and she followed the path willingly, but with every step she tried to decide where she would jump if trouble came, and where to flee, and if he didn’t survive this day, how much of that swollen, burdensome pack could she carry on her own.
His home was buried inside a stubborn old hill. The front door was red and massive—a slab of native ruby rock protected by at least one booby trap that he took the trouble to disable now. Then he slid the door open on a greased rail, revealing a series of tunnels created by the careful blasting of faults and natural cavities. With tangible pride, he mentioned that he had built his home by himself and added to it whenever he had the chance, and in the next breath he asked his guest what she thought about his humble sanctuary.
“I can see it,” she complained.
Her critique was ignored.
“Every trail leads to it,” she mentioned. Then she added, “Nots live this way. In the open, easy to find.”
Except she had never seen Nots that lived underground, much less built on such a colossal scale. And the idea that one man would need so much space, just for his body, was difficult to accept.
“Why did you do all this work?”
“You can’t offer any guesses?”
She shook her head.
Most of the rooms were empty of furnishings or decorations, connected to one another but never by simple, obvious routes. The windowless places were lit by pampered stands of cool shadow-fighting fungi. Doorways and hallways and hidden dark chambers would probably cause a Not to become lost, and even an invading human might grow disoriented. Perhaps that gave this home’s owner advantages inside here, she reasoned. But were those blessings worth all of the trouble?
“Security isn’t my first purpose,” he confessed.
He wanted her to beg for explanations. But instead she asked, “How long did it take you? To pile up all these rooms?”
His smile was broad and warm.
“On average,” he replied, “I add one fresh chamber every ten years.”
They had been walking through his maze for a long while, and not once had they crossed their path.
“How many rooms in all?”
“Would one thousand rooms impress you?”
It was an enormous, useless number—the kind of swollen figure that had never come into play during her narrow existence.
“I’m not impressed,” she lied.
Then her mind dropped back to an earlier question. “How long have you walked your trail? To wear at the stone that way…how many years have you wasted marching the same few directions…?”
They had entered a spacious room nestled deep inside the hill. Blue fires burned inside thick globes of glass, washing away every shadow. Electric currents flowed inside a variety of odd, seemingly magical machines. Unlike the air outside, this volume felt dry and pleasantly warm, little winds finding their way in and then out again. On every surface, she could smell the man. The furnishings looked used and treasured. Rock walls were softened with polished and oiled slabs of wood. Yet even in the middle of this castle-like arrangement of carved rock, she could hear the squawks and trillings coming from the surrounding forest.
“We’ll live here and in these next two rooms,” Mercer announced.
At last, he let his gigantic pack crash to the floor.
“My kitchen is fully stocked,” he promised. “Whatever is to your taste is yours. Rest hard, and then I’ll explain whatever you can understand.”
“What can I understand?”
“That might take us time to puzzle out,” he mentioned. Then he opened the pack and pulled out a short-barreled rifle—an ancient design, but with the carved butt that she had seen before and a grip coated with black plastic, the long magazine probably filled with explosive rounds.
She couldn’t help but stare at the treasure.
“You still have wounds to heal,” he warned. “It’s going to take a lot of patience for your body to forget its old life.”
“Are you leaving?”
“For the rest of the day, maybe longer.” He gestured with the rifle’s barrel, adding, “My bathroom is the final room. When you need to relieve yourself, go in the water-chair in the corner. Don’t just shit on my floor.”
Even in simple matters, nothing here made sense.
The man stepped into the hallway and then looked back at his guest, delivering two warnings. “If you wander anywhere, even for a short distance, I’ll know. And eventually I will learn everything that you have done.”
She didn’t believe him. But she nodded, promising, “I’ll stay here.”
Then with a delicate menace, he added, “Humans like you have found their way to my island. And some of them, sometimes for a very long while, were my welcome guests.”
Inside those words lay emotion, ageless and raw, and she knew enough to pay close attention.
“Where are those guests now?” she asked.
“Back to the mainland, I assume.”
Then he snorted and laughed softly, and turning his back to her, he added, “Unless they’ve ended up where everybody ends up. Which is a place I don’t know much about, and you don’t know much about, and neither of wants to learn the truth about it any time soon.”
She wasn’t an ignorant soul, regardless what her host might believe. She understood that the world swam away from the sun each year, the weakening light helping to trigger the cold and wet that was winter. And better than some, she appreciated how the transformation of life helped bring about each new season. In the blistering brilliance of summer, every lake and quiet river was covered with blackish blankets of knotted algae and bladderweed. Those floating jungles absorbed sunlight and its invisible mate, heat, and like a lid on a pot, the living skin trapped the rising vapors. Clouds soon vanished. Rain all but ceased. Forests sipped at their stockpiles of water, but by summer’s end, the trees often burned. Yet the world always swam away from the sun again. The pall of smoke and fading daylight reached a trigger point, and that’s when fish ate up the algae faster than it could grow, and that signaled the bladderweed to make its seed and then shrivel away. Now the world’s water lay exposed to the desiccated air. Clouds blossomed in a single afternoon. The world suddenly grew cooler and darker. And then the winter storms began, racing across the land, drowning fires and slaking countless thirsts.
Her mother was an orphan and life-long wanderer, and she had taught her only surviving child everything worth knowing about their world. Imagine a round skull sporting two faces, she had explained. The face beneath their feet was covered with old mountains and mud flats, enormous shallow lakes and endless rivers. But the sibling’s face carried less land, and every dry surface was rough and young, dotted with sharp peaks that needed no excuse to spit fire at the sky. Both skies shared the same stars and moons. But the other face stared up at a vast and exceptionally strange world. Being naturally proud, the Creator had saved its most startling colors for its largest child—distinct bands of earwish purple and human blood that were always in motion, endlessly swirling around bone-white clouds and bottomless holes that were bluer than even the youngest cindercane. Her mother had never seen that giant world with her own eyes, but she confidently described how their little home danced around it, and when the sun slid behind the giant’s bulk, the best human eye could make out the flickering fires of storms—great silent lightning bolts powerful enough to incinerate all the world’s Nots and all the humans too.
Their world was a moon, much the same as the two moons visible on clear summer nights. And her mother tried to explain to her daughter how the rock beneath their toes suffered as a consequence. Each swirling journey around the giant world made the sister moons jealous, and they worked together to crush and twist the old stone. They wanted to murder this world, but by tugging at its heart, their hatred made the heart beat. That was why there were quakes and geysers as well the legendary fire-mountains. Though how moons could hate moons was a mystery, and more than once the young girl had been warned not to waste her head on questions that could not be answered.
One day Mercer asked what she believed about the sky, and then he listened carefully to her explanations for the seasons and the purpose of the gas world and the consequences of their sister moons’ greed. He never made comments, not even with those expressive pale eyes of his. Then when she was finished, at last, he said, “All right,” and leaned closer. “And what about everything else?”
“What else is there?”
“Beyond the moons,” he said. “Please, Dream. Tell me what you think about the sky.”
With a clear, certain voice—very much her mother’s voice—she repeated the lessons of her childhood. The stars were suns like theirs, but most were childless. And between the stars lay nothing but black sand and the exhalations of the dead. With assurance, she told how any clear night revealed a vast, sterile realm. There wasn’t any purpose in naming those distant lights. Except to find marks for navigation, watching the sky was a sorry waste.
Mercer seemed to expect those words. He shook his head and laughed weakly, and then he spoke to the floor, asking, “Where did this sad, useless model of the universe come from?”
“From my mother’s mouth,” she snapped. “And what do you mean? Why shouldn’t I ignore what I don’t need to know?”
He accepted her rebuff, smiling at nothing for a breath or two. Then with a soft coaxing voice, he mentioned, “We were discussing the weather. Every human has his or her favorite season. And yours, I’m guessing, is summer.”
“Because I like winter, and we are rather different souls, it seems.”
Lucky or wise, he was correct: She was born in the middle of a wildfire. Since then she had always loved the fierce, honest glare of each day. Given her choice, she preferred slinking through baked forests and oppressive glades, every piece of vegetation swollen with stored rainwater and fire-resistant saps. It was easier to spot danger when all life suffered equally. Even though the sun was a swollen monster and every tree was ready to explode into fire and ash, the living world always managed to survive, and wasn’t that the greatest blessing? And of course the summer nights were bright, and by dawn they were tolerably cool, and a solitary human could enjoy good nights and the occasional great night as she made her way across the endless, enduring world.
But the sun always grew small again, weakening before it vanished behind the endless storms, and those cool gray times brought new threats and many more teeth.
“Fire,” Mercer repeated, without reason.
Then he spoke again, offering a single word that meant nothing to her.
“What was that?”
Again, he said, “Oxygen.”
She waited for an explanation.
“This atmosphere is thick with the element,” he mentioned. Then he winked, adding, “Which is only reasonable. There isn’t enough iron lying about to cause any meaningful amount of rust. Not to mention the all the ways this vegetation tears apart water and carbon dioxide, making odd sugars and churning out the oxidizers as a byproduct.”
She studied his hairy chin, his bright gray eyes. The way his hands made a pair of cups, and the erect posture with which he filled a chair constructed from smooth rope and gray driftwood.
“Did your mother ever tell you?” he began.
Then he paused.
“What?” she finally asked. “Did she tell me what?”
“Where we came from,” he said with a slow, serious tone. “The human species, I mean.”
She knew three stories, each as unreliable as its siblings. Every explanation brought their species down from the sky. The Gold Moon was her favorite, if only because when the night was deep and that moon was full, she found herself wasting time staring up at its beautiful smooth face.
Either moon was their first homeland, she explained. Or they had climbed up from the world of gas and lightning. How her ancestors left any one of those places, and why they should come to this barely livable world, were unanswered, unanswerable mysteries. But she doubted the reasons were as simple as the old fables claimed—a trick played on the naïve humans by some malicious, unnamable god.
Mercer laughed gently, nodding as if he agreed.
“You have a different story to tell me. Don’t you?”
“But not today,” he remarked. “We’re talking about the seasons now.”
Except that she had nothing else to offer.
Mercer’s smile changed. It was a subtle difference, but she recognized what lay behind those glad eyes and the healthy white teeth. He was smiling as men have always smiled at women, probably since the Creation. Staring hard at her eyes, pretending that his words had little importance, he whispered, “Winter is a good time for humans to conceive.”
“Early winter is best,” she added. “The baby arrives early in the second summer, when everything grows but nothing burns yet.”
That lucky date had been passed, she was telling him.
Mercer nodded, pretending to accept her wisdom. But the smile remained. Leaning forward in his chair, the ropes creaked as his voice rose slightly, remarking, “I don’t think you’ve been healthy nearly long enough. Not to conceive, much less carry the child successfully. Winter or summer, you’re far too depleted to be fertile.”
She had assumed as much, yes.
“We won’t have to worry,” he mentioned. “If anything should happen between us, I mean.”
Something was going to happen. She had known it from the moment she woke beneath the tattler’s skin. She could deflect his interest today, and probably tomorrow, but unless she was prepared to accept a frightful cost for her stubbornness, they would sleep together. So she did what she had done in similar circumstances during her busy, brief life.
She rose to her feet.
To this man, nothing was as real as the woman that he had saved on the rocky shoreline. Food and sleep had healed a body that had never been entirely whole before. She was a strong lovely creature with short black hair and eyes that made the hair seem pale by comparison. With him staring only at her, she pulled off the clothes that had been his but she had retailored to fit herself. Then in that rich, perfect instant when hunger and surprise were in rough balance, she mentioned, “I won’t take any pleasure from this.”
That was a useful lie.
Mercer suddenly acted shy—this strange ancient man full of stories that he never quite told. Leaning back in his chair, he managed to say, “You won’t like this, will you?”
“But if it is a duty, I will comply.”
He sighed as if injured. Perhaps he would change his plans. But then he stood and approached her, nervous and perhaps eager to impress, and before long he realized that she was not the passionless vessel that had been warned about.
Later, as he climbed on top of her again, and then again, she saw in his wide eyes that he was intrigued, and perhaps in useful ways, he was a little bit impressed by what the ocean had brought to him.
The island was shaped like a short powerful arm, and the man’s private empire stretched from the broad shoulder to the elbow—a rough landscape of high hills and brief winter streams too swift to be absorbed by the forest, each torrent plunging into cisterns or the deep water offshore. And on his ground, the man proved to be neither blind nor foolish. Not one speck of dirt was new to him. Every tiny change was noted and measured for importance. Each day, he took his guest farther and showed her more, mentioning tiny facts and offering anecdotes to help her see with his eyes. Fungi and griefs existed for no purpose but to give him easy meals. Every animal with a memory knew him by sight or by smell. There were only a few species of trees, but even the kinds that she recognized towered above the specimens growing on the mainland. Winter pushed ahead, the sun continued to dim, and the rain fell hard and then harder. Then one day the invisible sun seemed brighter by a little ways. Yet the season refused to weaken, its rains lashing down even as the clouds filled with sunlight and the first teasing hints of heat.
On the final ridge before the island’s elbow, a giant magna-wood grew halfway to the clouds, providing a natural watching post.
One morning, Mercer invited her to crawl with him up into the tree, into a blind made of rope and wooden planks and camouflaging bark. A squall line suddenly passed over their hiding place, and they filled their time pleasantly enough. Then the storm was finished, and it was possible to see all the way to the island’s far end—a long narrow and plainly fertile landscape that ended with crooked fingers with half a dozen black bays between.
“Look through here,” he advised.
A tube hung on a cord. She peered into the tiny end, and suddenly the distant places were thrown against the back of her astonished eye.
Quietly, he explained the nature of light and how the clear plastic shells of young haphazard-bugs could be cut to size and polished, producing superior lenses that would bend light and magnify the universe around them. But oxygen always distorted the hydrocarbons, and these lenses had to be replaced each year. The gas was a frequent villain in Mercer’s stories. She let go of the telescope and mentioned as much, adding, “For you, it’s worse than the Nots.”
That was an amusing observation. He laughed and winked, and then he took his own look at the island’s far end.
She had heard about enormous Not villages—landscapes that were covered to the horizon with their willowy, skin-draped bodies. But she had never seen as many of the creatures as she had just then, peering through the shells of dead bugs. Giant houses were built close to dozens of wide, well-traveled roads, and between the roads lay fields where winter crops and young groves of wood were kept for lumber. Beyond the farms were stone buildings, some as tall as trees, and there docks and countless little boats not just floating in the narrow bays but riding the wind out into the open water, using the long nets that could never be deployed in summer. The inhuman, incomprehensible creatures numbered in the thousands, and if they were aware that two human monsters were watching over them, no sign of anxiety or hatred could be seen.
“My enemies,” he whispered.
She sat close enough to feel the heat of his body. With unassisted eyes, she could see every piece of the Nots’ realm. The telescope might have its value, but narrowing a soul’s vision carried risks too.
“You think my neighbors aren’t my enemies?”
“I know they help you,” she admitted.
“And how do you know this?”
Now she had reason to laugh. “I see where you go when you leave me. Not every day, but sometimes. And you come back from these visits with things you can’t find or make for yourself. Like last night’s food.”
They had feasted on real monster fare—green leaves and long white roots, bitter but rejuvenating, and fresh, and crisp, and precious.
Mercer said nothing.
So she guessed, “The Nots grow those plants for you.”
She pointed, singling out the green smudge in a distant field.
“That isn’t quite accurate.”
“Because of me, they cultivate those old weeds. That’s all.”
“What does that mean?”
“Our meal was an offering,” he explained. “A good-natured attempt to earn my gratitude. At set times, a few of my neighbors approach the barricade to leave gifts at the feet of my likeness.”
“Down there,” he said, gesturing at the bottom of the hill. “You can’t see it now. But it’s a rather impressive statue.”
“As well as they can manage it,” he mentioned. “Since none of them have ever seen my face and survived.”
“All right,” she said. “Name some other enemies.”
“Oxygen, always,” he whispered.
She gazed off in a new direction.
“By the way,” he said. “Life did come from one of the moons.”
“I knew that.”
“But I mean the life that is not us. What we think of as the natives plants and animals.” Mercer pointed his telescope at one patch of clouds, perhaps knowing where the moon was hiding. “For the first two or three billion years, this world was too hot, too volcanic. It remained sterile until a few spores drifted down here from the Gold Moon that you seem to like so much.”
She hadn’t expected this answer.
“Our original home can’t be seen,” he continued. “Not by any number of polished bug asses. But I promise you: our cradle didn’t have as much free oxygen in its atmosphere as there is in this one. And if we had arrived here wearing our original bodies, we would have died. Since oxygen is always a little bit toxic, and in these doses, inevitably fatal.”
That final word was offered with a loud voice and a sly tilt of the head.
She repeated one word as a question. “Fatal?”
“Long ago, we were rather like the Nots. Except for every detail, of course. We had a different home world and a very different history, and our future wasn’t at all like theirs, and our outlook wasn’t even remotely similar. Plus we enjoyed a huge array of technological wonders that we had invented ourselves or that we were given.”
When she looked south across the open water, like now, she thought she could almost see the mainland lurking in the squall line. But that was an illusion. Nothing was out there but the watery horizon, Mercer had promised. The currents and then the leviathans had carried her an enormous distance, which was why this was an isolated and remarkably safe island.
“In our youth, we could and often did die.”
“We can die now,” she pointed out.
“But not like Nots die. Not like bugs and birds either.” With an ageless hand, he dismissed everything that wasn’t human. “In ancient times, a fall from this height would have shattered our bodies, and even if we survived, we’d have been crawling through our days as cripples.”
“We are different than them,” she conceded. “I know that.”
He released his telescope to look at her eyes.
“We’re aliens,” she said, repeating one of his favorite words.
“How long have those Nots and I shared this island?”
“One hundred years.”
He grinned. “Why that number?”
“It’s about as long as they can live, or so I’ve heard.”
“Clever,” he admitted. Then he rephrased the question, asking, “When did Nots carve that statue of me?”
She offered a huge number.
He said, “Triple that number. And in human years too.”
Which were twice as long as Not years, he had told her.
“In that long ago time, I came here. I discovered their ancestors inhabiting this ground, and for generations, we fought. I killed them, and they tried their best to defeat me. But our war eventually turned into something else. Something more. Larger and more subtle, and in ways neither side can define precisely, we have created a relationship larger than any hatred. Deeper than simple worship. More enduring than any love.”
“Do you understand their language?”
She shrugged, admitting, “I haven’t met anyone who does.”
“Then why ask me that?”
“Because you know so much about the Nots down there. And apparently, you hear news about Nots living beyond the horizon too.”
“My neighbors like to talk. Yes.”
“Do they understand you?”
He smiled with pride. “By various routes, and only when necessary, they understand exactly what I am saying to them.”
“Some humans pick a little village and terrorize it,” she said. “But there’s usually more than one human working together, and the Nots don’t have the numbers or wealth that your little neighbors have.”
“What do you see out there?” he asked.
“One of those bays…”
“I don’t understand what I’m seeing.” She took the telescope, squinting at a line of stone barely holding itself above the high tide.
He seemed pleased that she was puzzled.
“I saw you talking to those friendly fanhearts of yours,” she mentioned. “And then the flock flew out over the open water, moving south.”
“On patrol,” he said.
She considered what that might mean.
The man kept returning to the oxygen. “Once we were rather like the Nots. But then we learned tricks and improved our bodies and minds, and we left our green world for other places. Good, promising worlds.”
She had no idea what he might say next.
“There was once a ship of human colonists, a boat built for deep space and bound across the emptiness. And for years and years, everything happened according to a very thorough plan. And then quite suddenly, nothing went right. There was a tragedy. There were regrettable mistakes. Those immortal humans had to watch helplessly as their new home was lost. Inside their injured starship, they could do nothing but push on and on, deeper into a realm without uranium, with little iron, and often without the elements essential to making a good human mind.”
She listened carefully to each word. Who knew what would prove valuable tomorrow or in a hundred years? But she learned more by piecing together little clues and asking what he didn’t expect.
“What do your fanhearts hunt for?”
The man smiled, but he was unwilling to answer.
“In the winter,” she continued, “when the ocean water is open, I think strange Nots sail out this far.”
“I can’t remember a winter when they don’t wander by.”
“Why come here?”
“For every imaginable purpose.”
“And what do you do then?”
The gray eyes held steady.
She smiled. “This is what I think. Raiders attack your precious Nots, and they call up their resident monster to wreak vengeance.”
He let her enjoy her imagined success.
Then he dropped his mouth to her ear, and with an intense and distinctly proud whisper, he mentioned, “These Nots, my Nots, have enemies. But what truly terrifies them isn’t their own kind. And from what little I know of your life story, Dream…I think you know full well what murderous horrors make my neighbors beat the warning drums in terror.”
A body might persist across centuries and millennia, healing from every injury and insult; and it was much the same for the personality trapped inside that tenacious, wondrous skull. Mercer had always been an organized creature, and in ordinary times he had been pragmatic and stubborn. But despite living a life that was strange by any measure, he was still the man that he had always been. Patterns mattered to him. Routine was his most reliable, trustworthy friend. And because he was an organized creature who kept thorough, precise records of the island’s weather and the passage of its seasons, he knew at once that this auspicious summer had arrived eighteen days before the mean date for such milestones—an early heat by a considerable ways, though still three days short of the ancient and probably unbreakable record.
He woke in the dark and immediately knew why he was awake. With eyes closed, he smelled the drier air, and he heard the telltale noises coming through the ventilation pipes and distant microphones: scared scrubbers croaking and a male draconia begging for mates and the distant fanhearts warning their babies that the easy days were finished. For one sweet moment, he could remember every first summer night. It was if those hundreds and thousands of milestones had been pushed together and supercooled, forming a condensate where each swam united with All; and for just that instant, it felt that if he could lie still with eyes shut, then perhaps he could inhabit every one of these promising days, forever.
But his eyes had to open, one illusion surrendering to another.
She was close beside him and hard asleep, and he wanted her to remain that way. But in his life, he had known perhaps only three people more alert than this wild girl. Unfamiliar sounds never seemed to pass unnoticed. An unexpected touch could startle, even scare. Obviously that was how she had survived in the world. But Mercer was possibly the most graceful person that he had ever met, and what he heard from outside didn’t sound that different from last night’s prattle. He managed to slip out of their bed, never disturbing her breathing, never interrupting the jittering eyes or the fearful dreams that they signified.
For an instant, he allowed himself the pleasure of staring at the woman’s strong new body.
Then on bare toes, he moved into the darkened hallway, navigating by memory, climbing stairs and then a creaky rope ladder before entering an important room perched high inside his rambling, oversized house. His first chore was to find a sharp knife and slice off his braided hair. One haircut each year was his habit: It earned him a useful length of free rope and a cooler scalp for the coming season. Then he turned to the masks perched on the various shelves, organized according to a rigorous private code, each mask with its purpose, and its occasion, and a distinct aesthetics. Nots liked to see faces, which was why he kept his hidden—a visceral, instinctive unease always gave him a slight advantage. And they had sensitive, quirky eyes. Mercer selected a bold bright gigantic mask, and he opened a jar and used two fingers, surrounding the eyeholes with a radiant gel made from the guts of a roach-like bug found nowhere but in this island’s caves. The gel lent the mask a wild, fiery glow, particularly in the near-infrared. Then he secured it to his face. Except for the giant mask, he wore nothing. He carried nothing. He was a fearless god, or at least he wanted to appear fearless. Then the naked god slipped through a hidden doorway, stepping out into a deep crevice and its secret path.
The strong south wind had pushed away every cloud, revealing a hundred thousand nameless suns. In principle, this summer could be a lie. It was possible that the wind would shift, winter returning tomorrow or the day after. But that had happened only once, which was effectively the same as never. Looking at the brilliant stars and the soft, clouded face of the Gold Moon, he knew the summer was genuine, and with it would come many hot days and drought, explosive fires and the possibility of new wealth.
“Poor in metal, rich in sky.”
Who first said those words? One of the colonists had described their new world with that bittersweet phrase, probably during the first summer. But ancient memories, and particularly the trivial ones, were difficult. Was it Lota? Or Tesstop? Though it sounded like Ming. Unless of course Mercer said it, which wouldn’t be the first time that he had allowed his ghosts to steal his best lines.
“Poor in metal, rich in sky,” he whispered, breaking into a steady run.
The Milky Way was surrounded by thousands of ancient star clusters, and on occasion, one of the clusters would pass through the body of the galaxy—like a breath of dense smoke dropping through a thin wisp of fog. Disaster and lousy luck had pushed the colonists’ ship past their target world and then past both of the viable alternates. They were riding a dying machine, streaking through a dense cluster of elderly suns. But there was one world in this difficult wilderness that had life as well as land and bearable water. Its lone sun was smallish and stable, and not even the most paranoid models saw any looming collisions with neighboring suns. Where the majority of the old local planets had lost their tectonics, this tidal-wracked body retained that critical blessing. But what made it their home inevitable was pure chance: They happened to spot the world with just enough time to spare, the last sips of hydrogen fuel placing them in orbit around the brown dwarf primary. One hundred and ninety-one colonists and crew were still alive, in one form or another. Most were grateful to finally escape the battered, inadequate ship. A rough little settlement was established near the equator, hugging a deep bay that would eventually serve as their harbor; and the colony’s first fifty years brought nothing but measured successes as well as those good days when the community could tell itself, with honest conviction, that at least some portion of their hopes would come true.
But the scarcity of metal was an endless burden. With a starship’s power and a hundred talented engineers, they would have slashed deep into this old stony world, wrenching free enough treasure to make up the shortfalls. But their ship little more than a stripped and starving hulk, and the mission’s various disasters had decimated what began as a minimal engineer corps. These were inventive, intelligent people, yes. Ad hoc pumps pulled river’s worth of seawater through atomic filters. Plastics and diamond were manufactured in impressive quantities. Their best biologists were little more than gifted hobbiests, but they were still able to manipulate a succession of earth plants, inventing new species that breathed the dense rich atmosphere. But then their main reactor failed for the final time, and a series of technical solutions proved miserably unworkable. After that, emotion ruled over reason. Decent people quarreled and eventually picked sides, and during one awful winter, most of the technological innovations and all of the deep decent thoughts that humans had brought from the stars were pushed aside.
Mercer survived that winter war, and he didn’t suffer much during the following year’s long rebellion. But an organized, pragmatic soul had to recognize the inevitable. Their tiny colony existed only as a name on a few unread maps. In another year, or perhaps two, the last shreds of organization would collapse. People that he had known for ages—friends and a few lovers—would try to murder him. Or even worse, those trusted faces would coax him into their battles, using smiles and implicit threats.
The colonists considered Mercer to be organized and passionless, and that’s why he served as the semi-official shopkeeper. One summer night, a distant volcano sent a dense cloud of ash over the sky, covering the brown dwarf’s glowering face. The shopkeeper used that lucky darkness to slip into various locked storerooms, collecting items of value. Then he made two piles of supplies, and he forced himself to leave the larger pile, stuffing the smaller one into a pack that he could carry without too much pain, and if necessary, run with.
Before dawn, Mercer abandoned the human realm. By then, there were only three working plasma guns. Each faction had congealed around its own murderous gun. What he carried was one of the broken guns, and if confronted, his plan was to bluff. And if that bluff didn’t fool anybody, he had a diamond-barreled kinetic gun in easy reach. That would drop a few bodies, at least temporarily. People were already slow to heal, what with the shortages of calories and key nutrients. But fortunately there was no need to play games or to fight. No one noticed the shopkeeper as he slipped over the town’s rock wall and ran down to the ocean’s edge. One last time, Mercer paused and listened to the night breeze, some tiny piece of him believing that a woman had just called his name. But this was only another one of his ghosts speaking. The voice that he had heard, sweet little Deleen’s, had been silenced last year, executed for undefined crimes against the irritable, ineffectual state.
The moons were down, the tide out. The summer skin lay against the wet shore, thick and hard as wood, and each stride felt momentous. He walked quickly until the blazing sun rose, and then after a long look at the flat terrain behind him, Mercer continued to walk, ignoring sleep and food for three full days.
Reaching this isolated chunk of land took years.
Alone, he had wandered countless places and watched whatever this world would show him, and on rare occasions, he had interacted with the sentient organisms called Nots by no one but his exceptionally rare species.
In despairing moments, he talked to his ghosts. His memories. Not to the dead colonists, but to people he had known in his previous life. Most of them were probably still alive, scattered across a thousand successful colonial worlds. They were thriving today, he could assume. In their comfortable immortality, those happy souls would eat whatever they wished and sleep without care, and when the mood struck, they could become experts in the narrowest, dreamiest fields. Undoubtedly a few old friends had studied their local sentients, learning curious secrets and sharing their findings with an increasingly human galaxy.
To his ghosts, Mercer often explained the Nots.
The biology of this place wasn’t unique, but along many lines, it had pushed what was possible to the rational limit. Life here most certainly evolved on one of the outer moons. Since the White Moon was smallest and cooled first, it was the most likely candidate. But that world was little more than a titanic drop of water with mud and stone trapped at the core. In those depths, peptide nucleic acids were utilized for genetic material—built from the commonest elements, yet tough enough to withstand a wide range of temperatures and pH. Huge, cumbersome proteins were spawned. A patient metabolism must have evolved. Then some forgotten comet splashed into that living water, sending up storms of viable spores. Ten billion years ago, the Nots’ world would have been a hot, sterile realm. The spores fell, and a precious few of them survived, and the subsequent ten billion years of natural selection had taught the invaders to use more of the periodic table, but not much more. In tiny amounts, iron was embraced. And phosphorus. And sulfur. But life is a perniciously conservative business, after all. With an abundance of free oxygen and water, living cells and their makeshift chemistries could afford to be inefficient. Even when the sea was covered with a deep, suffocating layer of living skin, plenty of dissolved oxygen remained in the depths, nourishing the minimal gills. And despite a steeply elliptical orbit, the world’s seasons remained predictable. Carnage and small successes had led to an astonishing array of creatures, and those species continued playing hard at life, utilizing nothing but the same few, utterly functional ingredients.
Where the Nots thrived, humans struggled.
In their blood and bones, the colonists held the talent to endure huge abuse and repair even the most catastrophic wound. But magic was never free, and their particular magic demanded huge stores of chemical energy as well as most of the periodic table—dozens of elements far, far rarer than the ancient rust running through their arteries.
Tiny, sophisticated organs hid inside Mercer’s ageless body, and he had never fully understood what any of them accomplished.
But they were vital, and they were shamelessly greedy. Those intricate machines relied on oddities like selenium and bismuth, terbium and silver, and in this diluted realm, sweat and pee and every lost drop of blood carried away what was essential and often irreplaceable.
Before the Nots’ world, Mercer felt no particular interest in the workings of his heart and lungs. But after abandoning the colony, he had no choice: If he didn’t replace his losses, atom by atom, and if he didn’t build up reserves to carry him across the lean centuries, then his body would literally fall to pieces.
Success was never easy, much less inevitable. But the life that he had fashioned on this island, by himself and for the benefit of no one else, was an accomplishment worthy of celebration. Without hesitation, he would set his life story against the best in human history. There were days when his success felt boundless, and he couldn’t help but smile with a smug, defiant pride. And there were summer nights, like this good night, when he was certain that he would never have to abandon this familiar ground or the fanhearts, or the Nots for whom he felt every emotion, including a deep, aching love.
He reached the barricade as the Gold Moon fell from sight.
Every Not had a simple but important calendar woven into its peculiar mind. To survive, Mercer had decided to plant himself inside his neighbors’ consciousness, which included dividing their year into a string of memorable dates. Ages ago, the first night of every summer brought death. Masked and alone, the human monster would suddenly march out of the hills to terrorize the farmers and fishermen, slaughtering all those who dared fight him. Nots might be slow learners, but their most vivid memories were often transcribed into their genetics and carried into their offspring. He wrote on their souls, using terror and hatred as well as a god’s endless patience. And by defeating his neighbors, he eventually taught those tiny creatures to accept and then embrace what was inevitable.
The Nots tried and tried and tried to kill the alien in their midst.
For centuries, they would send out their champions and their slaves, and they hired mercenaries who came here on the winter boats. The best of those professional killers had experience fighting similar monsters. The colony was lost, but their offspring were spreading across every landmass. Mercer was just the oldest of a dangerous breed. But he was a large strong opponent, and experienced, and he was fighting on ground that he knew better than anyone, and most important, he was far too shrewd to fool.
In the end, Mercer had the power to murder the last of the local Nots—a tiny population huddling inside a stone fort built in desperation, set far out on one of the island’s distant fingers. He arrived there on the first night of a long-ago summer, but without warning or explanations, he showed mercy. In ways that even the simplest Not could understand, the human monster betrayed a charity of spirit. He spent half of that night marching circles about the fort. Then he suddenly slid his long diamond sword back into its scabbard and set to work, wrenching free one of the fort’s smaller stones. A well-fed human, trained and rested, was stronger than six Nots. He carried that rock to the tip of the finger. The tide was high. He looked at the open water and then glanced back at the cowering faces, and when every eye was fixed on him, he threw the rock into the brackish sea.
Then he returned to the fort and claimed a second stone and threw it on top of the first.
In all, he tossed only a dozen rocks into the bay. At dawn, he strode back into his hills, back to bed in his small underground home again. And the Nots, misunderstanding his message, dismantled the fort and tossed every last block into the bay, creating a tiny second island.
That marked a momentous truce that held for a full year. Then the first summer night came again, and he returned and again threw rocks into the open water.
Gradually, very gradually, his intentions became clear.
Several generations of Nots grew old and died away, but the monster’s arrival remained a linchpin to their year. Afterwards, when they began adding rocks to the growing cofferdam, he rewarded them with gifts of wild meat and planks sliced from one of the giant magna-wood trees. As he slowly learned their ancient, inherited language, and they learned about his mind, understandings were reached. Principles became law. A bright young Not paid close attention to this ritual with the rocks, and after making an intellectual leap, she managed to explain her inspiration to others. Ignorant of the science, they nonetheless finished the cofferdam before the water grew warm. With a hill’s worth of packed mud, they sealed the bay off from the sea, even at high tides. And as the sun grew huge in the pale green sky, the bay evaporated, leaving behind nothing but thin white grime that their monster demanded for no conceivable reason.
But when two pirate boats came that following winter, Mercer generously slaughtered every last one of those invaders.
By then, no one but him could remember when dropping the ceremonial rock was not a tradition. Just once, Not youngsters got the foolish idea that they could kill the god while he was naked, unarmed and unaware. They took the trouble to ambush Mercer as he slipped through the barricade. But even with a couple arrows buried in his guts, he proved far more dangerous than any of those tiny fools. The rock that would have been thrown on the dam crushed skulls instead. He ripped off heads with his bare hands, and he stomped on squirming bodies, and cursing in their little language, he told everyone in earshot just how pissed he was, promising a hard long miserable summer in exchange for this undeserved treachery.
That was three thousand summers ago, and since then, nothing like it had happened again.
But for the glowing mask, he was naked: A fearless image striding onto the Nots’ rich ground. At a random point, Mercer bent low, picking up a worthy stone. Then he began to run again, powerful ageless legs carrying him down a rocky lane that was created more by his feet than any of theirs. It was night still, farmhouses and apartment buildings dark with the hour. But he knew that most of his neighbors were awake and watching, hiding out of respect more than fear, but their inherited fear never quite removed. Before dawn, he would run out on the same fingertip of land and throw the rock on top of the well-repaired dam, and if there was time, he would examine the various flumes and subsidiary dams that helped increase the production of salts and other precipitates: The summer’s treasure destined to fill a few dozen jars that he kept inside a locked room hidden in his forbidden home.
Summer had arrived, and at a perfect moment like this, there was no reason to suppose that the next billion summers didn’t belong to him as well—a balanced and endless life that would outlast human civilization and perhaps his species too.
Eventually this cluster of old suns would abandon the Milky Way. Hotter, richer stars would blow up and died away. But here he would remain, running down a tame road not too different from this road, while above, in the increasingly darkening sky, the last relics of the universe steered inexorably toward the Cold Death.
The world was bathed in sunlight. Not one winter cloud remained, and for the first days of this exceptionally early summer, the surrounding sea was brilliant and clear, cold to the eye and to the touch. But when the surface water warmed just enough, countless spores and seeds were shaken awake. One calm afternoon saw the transparent water fill with blue-black ink, and the following night brought the calming glow often called summer-milk. Furious biochemical reactions created that wistful silver-white light. She already knew this, but Mercer was full of obscure details and a willingness to share everything he knew. Thrilled with the sound of his voice, he happily explained how nothing mattered to that watery vegetation except to be near the surface once the summer bloom was finished. For heatweave and kather, and in particular, the giant ocean bladderweeds, the goal was to be planted on the very top, sooty-black leaves to the sky. For cooperative fickles and tuts and old-henry-balls, success was to supply the foundation for this buoyant, closely packed jungle, their deep roots pulling up the water desperately needed by the sun-broiled canopy.
The origins of this elaborate system mattered. Mercer claimed as much, and she offered agreeable noises whenever he glanced her way. But when he spoke about evolutionary pressures and microchemistries and the wondrous vagaries of chance, her mind wandered. Her life—what little there had been of it—had depended on hard, determined effort. The vagaries that mattered were her next meal and a stolen knife or two, and with luck, some hidden shelter where she could sleep for ten thousand uninterrupted breaths. She never needed to know how this rigid black summer skin spread across the world’s water, or where it grew best, or precisely how an array of simple, catalyst-impoverished organisms managed to build such a marvel out of light and air and drink.
Mercer still used her joke name. “Dream,” he called her. And she let him, since the past didn’t matter except when its lessons allowed her to reach the future. And by future, she meant only her next few days, or in her most expansive moments, the rest of this unexpected summer.
From a dozen vantage points, she gazed out at the fresh skin of the ocean, judging its thickness and its rigidity, and most important, how far from this long rocky patch of land it had managed to reach.
There was open water to the north, she observed.
“A deep cold current runs out there,” Mercer reported. “A polar current. By mid-summer, you won’t see water. But the skin never gets thick, and the mix of species changes constantly.”
South was a more interesting direction.
“How close is the mainland?” she asked.
He offered one of his ludicrous figures, using a measurement system that still made no sense to her.
She glanced at him, frowning.
And he laughed, and winked, and then only his face, he revealed the first traces of concern. “As I told you, Dream. The continent is a very long distance from us.”
“But will this skin reach all that way?”
“Maybe,” he allowed. “But there’s an undersea canyon between us and the rest of the world. And several big rivers keep the currents pushing. In your average summer, the skin finishes late, and it’s never stable or strong.”
“But you keep saying: This is a hot early summer.”
And when he didn’t reply, she asked, “Does the sea-skin ever come early enough and grow hard enough to let everything that wants to walk, walk?”
She was wondering if she could leave the island.
But Mercer didn’t understand her thinking, or he chose to ignore it. “Since I’ve been living here,” he quietly reported, “this island has been joined to the continent five times. Five different summers.”
So many thousands of years had passed, yet he knew the precise number. She had no doubt that Mercer could tell stories about each of those long summers. But the topic was too speculative to hold her interest, which was why she said nothing else, staring out across the flat black face of the sea.
She wasn’t stupid. Mercer said as much a little too often, as if trying to convince himself. He liked to explain how her brain was nearly the same as the one he carried inside his hard old skull. Between their ears sat a bioceramic wonder—the culmination of design and evolution. Even if the flesh was peeled from her bones, and the bones themselves were burnt and crushed, her brain would endure. Impacts and chemical explosions meant nothing. The hottest fires were ignored. Nuclear temperatures were required to consume what held her soul. Mercer mentioned that there used to be murderous weapons called plasma guns, but the last of them were disabled ages ago. Nothing in this solar system could manage that kind of blaze, unless it was the sun itself.
With similar minds, they had similar talents.
Though her head was emptier than his, he might mention…speaking of past experiences as well as a multitude of bad old habits.
“Five difficult summers,” he allowed.
Winter meant open water, and water brought boats. But they were usually small craft piloted by lost fishermen or raiders navigating through the starless rain, using the taste of the land to guide them here. For the island, summer brought relative peace. Yet this year was the exception, and the water barrier would soon vanish. And just as critical, life on the mainland was going to be hard. The heat would be brutal. Cataclysmic fires would push through the interior. What if all the Nots in the world one night dreamed of escape, and then every last one of them decided to march across the water, hunting for safer land?
And Nots weren’t even the most dangerous threat.
Mercer said as much with his southward glance, lips tight and one hand playing with the red stubble of his hair.
The girl woke early that next morning, alone in bed, and after a pissing into the special wooden bowl, she tracked him through his enormous house. Using scent and toe prints in the dust, she found her way to a huge yet cramped room normally hidden behind a bland beige slab of corundum. Here was Mercer’s armory—an enormous stockpile of weapons of every age, every design. On the racks and deep shelves and stacked in neat, scrupulously organized heaps were enough implements to make an army of killers. Slaughtering Nots was usually easy work. A long blade of tempered glass proved effective in most circumstances, particularly when wearing the nanoarmor that hung from high hooks—breastplates and helmets, breeches and leggings designed to shrug off all but worst blows from the natives. But something—an intuition; a nightmare; some private voice—had compelled Mercer to clean the firing mechanisms and test the aim of several fancy, terrible weapons that she understood too well.
With a fingertip, she touched the diamond barrels and plastic triggers and the carved wooden stocks that fit against only a human shoulder. Some instinctive piece of her was scared, warning her that she didn’t belong here, begging her to flee before the ghosts of this place woke.
Mercer stared at the rifle in his big hands. “Last night, I had an exceptionally lousy dream,” he confessed.
“Dreams have meaning,” she told him.
He made a rough, dismissive sound.
“They tell you what you won’t hear any other way,” she assured.
“And it’s always the same message. You’re worried about something real, and your mind finds a lazy way to remind you.”
“In my dreams,” she began.
Then she hesitated.
He closed the rifle’s breech and looked up, watching her eyes. More out of politeness than curiosity, he asked, “What about your dreams?”
“That’s how the dead speak to us.”
He looked almost relieved. “You believe that?”
“My dead speak,” she continued. “My mother, and others too.”
“Memories,” he said with a shrug. “That’s all they are.”
“No, no,” she insisted. “They come from the Afterlife.”
He repeated the doubtful grunt.
But not a whisper of skepticism lay in her voice. “The dead come to help me find my way.”
Mercer wanted to laugh. She saw that in his careful face, in the hard grip of his hands. But he decided to push the topic back to where it began. “I don’t want to worry you. And probably nothing will come of this. But today, before anything else, I want you to find three good guns that fit your body, your tastes. Your talents. This is a haphazard collection, but I can adapt my munitions. Whatever you choose, we will make it work.”
Most of the guns belonged to distinct, easily recognized species. They could be grouped by age and shape and the quality of their materials, and by the quirky designs of their barrels and firing mechanisms, plus the occasional flourish left behind by famous, nameless builders, all of whom were long dead. Humans had spread across this world, but they were never common. Few had the skills, much less the tools, to create machinery like this. But there were the occasional lush times, and the gifted craftsman would outfit an extended family and even its allies. As a rule, these weapons were tough, easy to repair and deeply cherished. In her life, she had held three guns, only one of which was loaded. But inside this room, she counted a hundred guns and then stopped counting. Each one could throw a kinetic round or an explosive charge over long distances. In a marksman’s grip, they would disable their target by shredding muscles and organs and temporarily shattering every human bone.
“How many have come here?” she asked.
Mercer pretended not to hear.
“How many of us have you have faced?” she persisted. “Do your dreams remember?”
Given any choice, he would evade that question. But then he looked at her, just for a moment, and she saw several emotions swirling behind his eyes, including a self-astonished pride.
“Three hundred and thirteen,” he allowed.
“They walked here?”
“Some did.” He nodded. “Most came in winter, sailing their own boats. But our species has more trouble than Nots do when it comes to navigating without stars or good maps. Besides, my fanhearts always spot those raiders first, and I’m usually waiting for them when they make landfall.”
She watched his jaw tighten, eyes narrowing.
“Summers are worse,” he allowed. “Fanhearts have to fly north to feed over open water. So I don’t have the usual eyes. And with clear skies, the humans can know where they are heading, and if they also have a plan…”
His voice trailed away.
This ancient creature was a marvel: By his admission, he had defeated more than three hundred monsters, and he had survived every battle, managing to steal away their weapons and ammunition and who knew what other tools that had been carried here from the distant coast.
She wondered what was lurking inside the other locked rooms.
But she didn’t ask, turning away from him, pulling a particular gun off its wooden rack.
Behind the rack sat a row of thick glass tanks, filled with something green, each topped with an elaborate valve.
She touched one tank.
“Don’t,” he cautioned.
She pulled her hand away slowly.
“Chlorine gas,” he explained. “Awful, wonderful stuff. It would force our bodies into alternate metabolisms, and we’d have to regrow our lungs before we could take a normal breath again.”
She nodded, wondering where the gas came from. “Is it for Nots?”
“If there’s a lot of them, and if the wind offers to help me.”
She nodded without comment. The gun in her hands had a long thin barrel, designed to send a tiny charge across considerable distances. The diamond barrel had a trace of yellow, and it was slick on the outside, and she knew immediately which species of gun this was.
“That’s too big for you,” he mentioned.
Too big by a lot, she thought.
“You’d be happier with something stubby. Accurate enough, but small, and with a lot more punch.” He stopped working long enough to pull two candidates off another rack.
But she kept staring at the weapon in her hands.
“I saw two guns just like this,” she mentioned. “And not that long ago.”
“Where was that?”
She smiled at him. “Where did this come from?”
“The same as every other gun. From the mainland.”
Mercer might know quite a lot about the Nots, understanding their clads and sect-families. But the politics of human monsters seemed rather more mysterious to him.
“After you destroy their bodies,” she began.
He waited, and then asked, “What do I do with them?”
“With those immortal brains, yes.”
They watched each other’s face.
She was a tiny, tiny fraction of this man’s age, and she lacked his experiences and all of his hard-earned wisdom. But her life, such as it was, had taught her what mattered most. With confidence, she said, “If I was in you, I’d take everything that I could use of them. Everything. Then I’d walk out on the sea with their heads, and where I knew it was very deep, I would tie rocks to them and cut a hole through the water’s skin, and I’d drop them down where nothing would ever find them.”
The man flinched.
Then with a tone edging near embarrassment, Mercer admitted, “I’ve considered that. A few times. But it seems like too much.”
“So what do you do?”
With the wide barrel of what would become her favorite gun, Mercer pointed at the floor. “I have another room, a special room,” he admitted. “Where I keep their skulls, labeled and safe.”
Flashing a little smile, she asked, “Where are they?”
“No.” He spoke quietly, yet the voice could not have been sharper. Some line of trust was being defined. “Dream, no. Never. And please don’t ask me that again.”
She watched the dense black skin cover the sea, and she didn’t quit asking herself when would be the best time to run. Because she knew that she couldn’t stay in this little place forever. A summer as remarkable as this might never come again. Yes, she was thriving for now. Her body had never been so healthy or felt half this strong. But to stand two moments on the same patch of rock felt unnatural. The life that she knew—the hard inspired honest unburdened life that her mother had taught her—beckoned. Perhaps if this Mercer man were ordinary, or even just comprehensible, she would want to linger. But he was different from any human she had ever known—a strange and unimaginably ancient creature, secretive beyond all reason and far too in love with his ancient ways.
When Mercer wasn’t working, he was busily thinking new projects to attack. In his home were rooms filled with vats, and he would build hot fires and breathe the smoky fumes, enduring that misery while he refined some peculiar metal or semiconductor or odd salt. In the depths of the hill were a series of connected rooms filled with the turbines that gave light and electricity. One distant room, isolated and sealed, was where he made his fresh explosives and special, Not-killing poisons. One great long chamber was his “shop”, and it was full of complicated machines that did little more than sleep. But occasionally he would wake one of the machines, using it to repair some broken device or shape a useful piece of sapphire or build an entirely new machine that had no function except to impress his guest. He even boasted that he could weave nanofibers and culture pure diamond, although he didn’t presently have the time or need. And of course he was constantly leaving her, for a day and sometimes for longer, attending to one of the nameless but very important tasks that involved his Nots or the surrounding sea.
It was a time-eating burden, being the monster deity.
But when he returned home again, Mercer enjoyed his rest. Sitting on a chair or in their shared bed, he loved to reach inside his cavernous head, offering another tale about vanished ages and invisible worlds. As a rule, his stories had no ends and usually no discernable lesson. Often they were little more than noise. Yes, the old man was unquestionably bright, and his life on this island was an astonishing accomplishment; but sometimes she wondered if the human mind wasn’t as durable as he claimed: Some kind of erosion or madness was infecting his soul. He had become such an expert at living one very narrow life that he couldn’t see his sorry decay, much less conjure up any fresh answers to questions long set aside.
And the man had his rules: Some were small, others enormous, but they were usually unbreakable. He didn’t want her crossing the barricade, ever. Which was fine, since she wanted nothing to do with his precious Nots. But there so many rooms that she couldn’t enter either, and so many topics that were strictly forbidden. She didn’t need to know anything about the original human colony. The names of his old friends and lovers couldn’t matter less to her. But knowing that she was forbidden to ask about his Dead only made her want to know more. And worse still, Mercer began to control what she ate and how much. That was for the sake of her body, he claimed. And maybe he was right. But even when she was a child, no one had so thoroughly defined her life. Even her mother had let her explore and make her own spectacular blunders, preparing her daughter for that day when every last taboo would be lifted.
The girl didn’t often guess at the future, but when her mind drifted, she could imagine herself remaining here for years, and perhaps many years. But the next instant always brought an obvious, dangerous question: Why would a man such as Mercer live alone? She wasn’t the first woman to find her way to his front door and not make herself into his enemy. But he was evasive when telling her how many others there had been. With words and long glances, he implied that every guest eventually returned to the mainland. But she had to wonder what happened if the love had turned sick. Maybe those past lovers hadn’t left him. Maybe their bioceramic brains were labeled and stacked inside the forbidden tomb.
Her working plan was to wait until a few days before winter, and then slip away without warning. That’s why she stole nothing but tiny items that wouldn’t be missed. Yet she compiled a longer list of treasures—items too important to leave behind—and when the time came, she planned to grab them up too.
There was a favorite rifle that threw big explosive rounds, and a quiet pistol that fired kinetic rounds, and she knew a sack already filled with both flavors of ammunition.
She planned to steal vials from his stocks of minerals, but only a sampling of the full inventory—if she were too greedy, she reasoned, then he would probably have to chase after her.
A tattler skin shelter.
Tools, of course.
And enough dried piss-fungus to keep her belly full for thirty days. If she could carry all of that, she resolved, and if she reached land before the storms and darkness descended, that would ensure an easy winter and a better summer than any she had ever known.
As long as she kept her guns and used the ammunition sparingly, she would be a powerful force in the worlds of Nots and of humans.
If if if if if…
But which country was best? In her head was a loose conglomeration of facts and offhanded words that came from every voice she had ever heard. But there was a painful lack of precision. What she needed was a map, drawn out and defined in terms that she could understand. She had owned and lost a few simple maps in her days. In Mercer’s living quarters was an odd machine that showed images that resembled maps. The lines and incomprehensible writing always made her eyes ache. But when he left one morning on some grand errand, she set to work trying to memorize some kind of maze—an interwoven array of tunnels and rooms far larger than his little house. But the only image resembling a world proved gray and dry and strangely smooth, save for a few odd mountains standing high above one hemisphere.
By some means or another, Mercer discovered what she had been doing in his absence, and he was pleased. That smooth world seemed to be another one of his endless fascinations.
“What is this object?” he asked, bringing the gray world back onto the screen. “Any guesses, Dream?”
It was obviously important. But since Mercer responded best to ignorance, she shrugged and said, “No. No guesses.”
“I came from here.”
“Is that the earth?” she asked doubtfully.
Her response saddened him. He shook his head for a moment before saying, “It’s not a world. It is a starship.”
“You came here on that ball?”
She waited, knowing the rest would soon emerge.
And it did. For a long while, he talked about an ancient, empty vessel found drifting between the galaxies, and he explained how humans had claimed it for themselves and then took their glorious prize on a long circular voyage around the galaxy. He had ridden inside that ship for a long time, and then in a much, much tinier vessel, he had come here.
“This ball moves in a circle?”
“If it’s still on course,” he said. “Yes.”
“So it will eventually find us here,” she concluded.
He shook his head. “The starship never came this way to begin with, and I doubt that its captains would be interested in a place as remote and impoverished as this. I’m sorry.”
“Why are you sorry? Are your hands steering this fat ship?”
“The Great Ship. That’s its name.”
Which was not much of a name, she decided, in secret. With a dismissive shrug, she pointed out, “Whatever this ball is…if it isn’t coming back here, then it might as well not exist…and why waste your time thinking about it…?”
It was her mother who warned her that she was going to have a baby. And in that same urgent dream, she told her that the child was destined to die. But then the dead woman laughed, reminding her that every child meets that fate. The trick was to feed both of them well enough to assure a strong birth, and then she should teach her son—and it would be a boy—everything of practical substance. Then if the boy were fortunate as well as strong, that sorry last day could be avoided for the next thousand hard and wondrous years.
Then the young woman woke, discovering that it was the middle of the night, the man lying close beside her.
Her first instinct was to run and run now. A life of ceaseless wandering demanded nothing less. But she was trapped, at least for the moment. Caught in the bed of this slumbering giant, she had no choice but keep still, breathing softly, carefully considering her reasons for whatever she did next.
Nutrition was everything for the developing fetus.
Mercer could lecture for days about tiny, nameless organs and essential rare-earths and how exceptionally difficult it was for a body to build a new mind. But she didn’t need fancy ideas to appreciate how selfish and rude the unborn were. They absorbed the wealth from every bite of food, every sip of water. And if that thievery weren’t adequate, they would happily reach inside their poor mother’s bones, stripping away her own reserves of precious elements.
Every pregnancy was a tiny war, and when one side dominated too well, both fighters could perish.
Her mother had carried at least ten fetuses during her life, and she had used all of the reliable tricks, including sucking the sweat from her clothes and drinking her own urine. Of course she ate as much as possible, which meant some disgusting and dangerous foods. Yet only one of the ten fetuses survived into adulthood. Three siblings died as malnourished infants. The other six developed too slowly, and when famine struck, their living home had no choice but stop the pregnancy and reabsorb what could never be finished.
Remain with Mercer, and there wouldn’t be any famines.
But this was his island, his home. In so many ways, she was the stranger in a forest that knew him by sight, and she couldn’t imagine that day when she wouldn’t feel like the ignorant, dependant guest.
Stay here, and her child would almost certainly become an adult.
But to what end? One child might be the first of five babies, or fifty. There would come a day when the fat land and its surrounding water wouldn’t feed their family. In boats and on foot, her offspring would have to return to the mainland—attempting to survive in a busy, dangerous realm for which none of them were halfway prepared.
But if she returned to the mainland now, armed and strong, she had a respectable chance of seeing her first child grow into the life she knew best—a wandering, inventive existence that would survive long after this piece of land collapsed into the tide-swept sea.
Mercer was a fluke.
He was a species of one.
What she felt for him was too fresh to weigh, too weak with all the gaps and wise questions. On the matter of children, she didn’t know what his opinion might be, with her, or for that matter, with any other woman.
But she couldn’t ask. She didn’t dare. Not without alerting him to a host of uncomfortable possibilities.
Hard thought led to one half-viable tactic. Then she lay awake until dawn, and when Mercer woke, she offered her fond hands and mouth, making love to him before lying on his long bare chest and belly, her knees tucked and her new hand drawing circles in the dense rusted-red hair on his chest.
“When will we tell them?” she whispered.
He heard the question, but the words didn’t seem to make sense. A long moment of concentration was needed before he asked, “Tell who?”
“And what are we telling them?”
“That I’m here.” She looked at his face, and when he finally returned her gaze, she smiled. “I’m living here with you. We should announce that two gods are now ruling over this island.”
He said, “Soon,” with his mouth.
But nothing else about him seemed sure.
“And I want to make my own mask,” she persisted.
He said nothing.
“And I want to walk beside you,” she continued. “Past the barricade, right down to the bay where the big buildings stand. I want every last Not to see the two of us together, holding hands.”
“I’m not sure.”
“Because they aren’t ready.”
She paused long enough to make him believing that she was considering that weak answer. Then with less of a smile, she asked, “When will they be ready?”
“Nots are more instinct than culture. More ant than man.” His own instinct was to lecture, perhaps to explain what an ant was. But then he doubted himself. Being the teacher wouldn’t help, and in a rare moment of self-restraint, he stopped talking.
And she surprised herself. Her first reaction was to feel fire surging through her body. Who would have guessed that jealousy would be her response? Jealousy directed at a pack of Nots that seemed to possess this strange old man? Then she surprised herself a second time when she remained silent, choking back the justifiable anger, keeping it hidden behind a wide, meaningless but very believable smile.
“Everything on this island hangs in a balance,” Mercer said. “Forces match forces, genes guide every important thought, and I’m not at all sure how they would react if they saw us walking as equals.”
She gave him a few moments to believe whatever he wanted to believe.
Then she quietly reminded Mercer, “Nothing is balanced. The world only pretends to be, darling. And most of us are waiting for chance to throw everything out of whack.”
Three days later, fanhearts that had been feeding over the open water to the north and west returned home with important news. Nots were walking across the sea’s skin—a multitude of strange Nots, if those chattering voices could be believed—and they seemed to be marching for the island.
Mercer appeared ready for the news.
He spoke to his friends, deciphering distance and speed. Then he dressed in armor and selected a few weapons before telling the girl he would be gone for at least one night and probably two. “I’ll turn them before they get close,” he explained calmly.
She nodded, saying nothing.
“I want them to run home scared,” he continued. “I want stories told that will frighten their descendants for generations.”
“I’ll wait here,” she volunteered.
They kissed, and he left.
She counted five hundred breaths and then dragged a big pack out of its hiding place and finished collecting the various treasures that had to carry her and her son for the next year or two. Then with the pack on her shoulders and her rifle in one hand, she passed through the front door. She felt the forest watching her. Every tree was swollen with last winter’s rain, but the dark air beneath those high branches was hot and treacherously dry. To be fair to Mercer, she took time to seal the stone door, and then she set each of the three booby traps that would stop the curious and delay the malicious. Then she believed that she was leaving. But stepping onto the foot-worn path, she remembered a final treasure that was far too tempting, and she changed course.
In the high heat of summer, the magna-wood bladders were inflated with watery saps, each one of them close to bursting. She dropped the pack and rifle, muscling her way up the rope to the watching post. The bladders squirmed under her toes, and ripe fire retardants leaked through the pores, saturating the exceptionally dangerous air. She coughed some. Then she reached the hidden post and wasted a few moments staring across the Nots’ half of the island.
Little moved in the blazing, shadowless heat. The green crops had been harvested or they had died. The Nots’ summer crops were black and tall, patient hands having killed every weed and unwelcome mouth. With the little telescope, she studied the long bay with its mouth jammed full of rocks and mud and mortar, the trapped water halfway evaporated. That stagnant pond had to be bitter with salts by now. She saw Nots working on the dam, struggling to patch some tiny leak. Then she panned to the right and the left, and in the bright space alongside one building, she noticed perhaps a thousand Nots enjoying the last of the day’s brutal light.
With her new diamond knife, she cut the little telescope free.
Then she climbed down fast and shouldered the pack and hurried toward the south. Out from under the trees, the sun was enormous and fierce. But the day was nearly finished, and the blistering heat wouldn’t grow any worse. She was soon shuffling across the sea’s skin, making even better time than she had hoped. The footing was excellent. Except for the occasional muted wave, the sea remained still. The tides lifted the entire skin and then let it drop again, but all of the world’s water was obeying those stately motions, and when the sun was gone, she broke into a slow but determined run.
It had been a lot of days since she felt any fatigue.
The sensation proved pleasant, like a cherished friend returning on cue. The ache of her legs and her shoulders helped keep her awake through the night. The heat faded, but only to a point. And then the sun returned as a broad red glow breaking across a flat horizon.
She paused to drink and rest, sitting on her swollen pack.
The glow brightened, and the sun’s face emerged, brilliant orange light licking across the black surface of the world.
In the distance, on the brink of visibility, she saw dots.
One dot, and then two more.
Then she counted again, making out ten distinct objects moving lazily along the horizon.
If she could see them, then she might be visible to their eyes. But a stand of some purplish parasite grew on the skin’s surface—a watery little tangle of limbs and seed pods that she didn’t know—and moving slowly, she dragged her pack behind the inadequate cover and sat again, guessing the distance and counting her breaths as she waited for this second band of uninvited Nots to pass out of view.
Either they were closer than they looked, or they were moving faster than she expected.
The sun was hanging free in the sky when they passed north of east, and it would have been easy to pick up her pack now and march on, confident that no one would notice her. But she had stolen the telescope, and it seemed important to use what belonged to her, particularly now that she wouldn’t have to stare directly into the sun. Setting the device on a knee, she looked into the eyepiece and pulled the inner tube out until the focus was found, and for a long while she didn’t breathe—she forgot to breathe—and then her body begged for oxygen and she managed a deep gulp and steadied her arm and the leg and closed her extra eye and bent down again, fighting to get the focus just so, counting the bodies until she was certain of everything, except what she would do next.
On the perfectly flat terrain, Mercer had the tallest, farthest seeing eyes.
And his first glance was enough.
The Nots belonged to one of the fishing sect-families—they could well be the entire family, judging by the drag-carts and youngsters and the purplish-black sun-boiled exo-skins. He found them at midday—dozens of motionless lumps scattered across a random stretch of the sea’s skin. Each had its poncho-like skin spread out as widely as possible, the adults forming a tidy ring with their faces watching outwards, protecting their possessions and the little ones who slept in the middle. Only in the summer, and at this high latitude, only near noon, was there enough light to thoroughly feed the hungry Not. If mayhem was the goal, his timing was perfect. Lob a few incendiaries into the middle of them, and the rest would panic along predictable lines. After all, Nots were simple, reliable souls. He had lived close to them for thousands of years, and when was the last time one of them had managed to surprise him? Which was why he decided not to waste ammunition on creatures that would never damage his interests, even by accident.
These were fishers, after all.
Come summer, they hid their boats on shore and moved out onto the lakes and sea, and where currents seemed favorable, they would slice through the skin, spearing and hooking what the sun and chum lured to the surface.
As Nots went, they were poor, almost landless souls.
And they were probably a long ways from home, judging by their indifference to the island and the famous monster that ruled its forested hills.
Mercer dropped to his knees and waited.
Let them rest. Let them eat sunshine and feel the heat quickening their watery blood. If he killed any of them, it would be a simple clean warning act—an old body or a weakling child that wouldn’t live through the next winter. But he hadn’t decided what to do yet. He had always wrung a certain pleasure in being what he was, but even at the worst, the monster held tight to a knot of compassion. Empathy was another old habit. Even in rage, Mercer had the capacity to measure his violence, to hold back the blade and the bomb, understanding exactly what was necessary and then using only a little more than that.
What would he tell the girl when he returned home?
People like her, these solitary wanderers, were often the most wonderful guests. Weak bodies and their hard upbringings meant they could be trusted, at least in measured doses. An old man’s charities were readily accepted. Easy food and dry shelter meant a paradise worth cherishing. They would even accept his little wisdoms, or at least pretended to believe whatever truths he tried to share with them. And like this girl, those poor humans understood how even the tiniest mistake could bring violence and disaster.
Which was only reasonable. Consider the girl: For her, compromise and compassion were last resorts. She appreciated the merits of blind determination, small-scale thievery, and how the mangled hand often delivered the winning blow. But she couldn’t understand why a creature like him would vanquish his enemies, but then fail to sink the dead into the deepest ocean trench. It made no sense to her, and her response was to stare at him—a fierce baffled stare—some piece of her soul probably wondering if she had ever known anyone more foolish than this soft old fossil.
It was a measure of Mercer’s fondness for the girl that as he watched these helpless fishers, he decided to offer her a lie.
If asked, he would describe a nonexistent slaughter. He would tell her that he killed every Not child and most of the adults, sending a few survivors running back to the mainland. And if she didn’t inquire, he would act grim but fierce nonetheless, using his eyes and a tight mouth to convey an understandable, respectable viciousness.
“If she’s waiting for me,” he whispered softly.
Because he knew she was planning to leave. A shopkeeper in his former life, he always kept thorough inventories of his stocks and tools and anything else of value, and he knew exactly what was being stolen and how much she might carry comfortably. None of this surprised him. In some ways, he was almost pleased. It was the dangerous guest who took nothing. In his experience, if you weren’t a thief in small ways, you were plotting to remove the owner and acquire everything that was his. But as much as Mercer liked this girl, he didn’t allow himself to feel sentimental or unreasonably attached: After all, she was a wild child who had reached maturity despite several decades of hard deprivation, and as miserable as every breath had been, the life she knew was too familiar to surrender. Particularly when it meant sharing the bed and food with a strange, eons-old creature.
He knew what would happen. When he had stabbed her in the chest and dripped those essential and precious minerals into her dead heart, he understood that she would eventually leave.
He had hoped for a normal summer and a longer stay, of course.
In his fantasies, she gave them time to make a child. That birth and the demanding infant would keep the wild girl here for a several more winters, giving Mercer time enough to teach her more about this world and the universe beyond, and in little ways, explain what he could about himself. Nothing of lasting importance would be accomplished, probably. Once Dream left, she would never return to the island. Dozens of women had come to his doorstep, accepting his charity and instruction, and then along very predictable avenues, they had built a small boat or walked across the summer sea, abandoning him forever.
That’s why he had always kept a little space between the girl and his heart.
Too well, he understood that the human spirit was enduring, and deep habits were just as immortal as a favorite hand or the language of your youth.
In his best dreams, women long lost and probably long dead returned to him. But they were nothing more, or less, than precious memories. The girl was superstitious to believe in ghosts, but that didn’t mean Mercer held those who had passed in any less esteem, or what the brain recalled from ages past was any less sacred than what a few ghosts would mean if they were real, and if they cared enough to visit from the Afterlife.
Memory had a vivid, inexhaustible hold on Mercer’s soul.
And perhaps that was why he found this girl more intriguing than most. From the first time he saw her face filled with life, she looked familiar. In the nose and black eyes and the shape of her delicate suspicious mouth, she resembled the woman he had lived with last in the lost colony.
Dead little Deleen.
How long ago was that now?
Forever, it seemed. And it was yesterday, too.
Deleen never had children. But every woman’s eggs were harvested by the two-doctor clinic, and there was always the possibility that after Mercer left, some other woman had used those eggs to begin her own family. But even that was true, the resemblance had to be an accident. How many generations had those genes passed through? How many nameless families had began and died before this girl, Deleen’s descendant or not, was flung onto the rock above the high-tide mark?
Coincidences were only that. But they provided a solid measure of his longings too. As he sat on the blackish skin of the sea, on his knees, watching the Nots do nothing, Mercer again warned himself that she was going to leave, and perhaps she had slipped away already, taking only a fraction of the treasures that he would have willingly bestowed on her, if only she’d had the foresight and courage to ask.
And with that, he dropped that difficult subject.
A mind polished by endless centuries of solitude had that talent. In the next breath, he was thinking about small solvable problems and the endless chores waiting in his busy life. What gift would he grant his own Nots next, and what did he need to build next inside his machine shop, and what would be the shape and purpose of the newest room that he eventually carved deep inside that ancient hillside?
His eyes drifted shut, and for an instant, he napped.
Then he was awake, utterly and perfectly alert. One of the Nots had stood, and Mercer’s first thought was that the creature had noticed him kneeling behind a patch of graylick weed. But the angle of those double-paired eyes was wrong. Then he heard a voice speaking in a simple, planet-wide language that was defined by the genetics—an instinctive language that had changed only slightly and very grudgingly since the humans’ arrival.
“Smoke,” the voice said.
The other adult Nots began climbing to their feet, looking where the first Not looked, repeating the “smoke” squawk again and again.
Before he turned, Mercer knew that his island was burning. But he wasn’t particularly surprised, since it was such a hot dry summer. The forested uplands had plenty of fuel, but he knew that the healthiest of the giant trees could resist the flames. Probably one of the south drainages was on fire, he decided. That’s where they came first and hit hardest…
But that guess was completely wrong.
His hilly end of the island stood on the horizon, the eastern region just out of view. The thick column of smoke sprang from a single blaze, and its position meant either that the sea north of his territory was on fire—a strict impossibility—or the Nots’ lands beyond were caught up in some unlikely, tremendous blaze.
He leaped to his feet.
That’s when the Nots saw him. And that’s when they began to scream—a single reflexive chorus splitting the air, everyone using one of the few words that had arisen during these last hundred millennia:
“Eater-of-Bone!” cried the little creatures. “Eater-of-Bone!”
More than once she counted the running bodies, never believing the tally but the impossible number always waiting at the end of her count.
Twenty-seven, and every last one of them was an adult.
Not in any experience of hers, nor even inside any old, unlikely story, had she heard of so many people sharing one another’s air. Except for Mercer’s fables about lost colonies and left-behind worlds, that is. How could so many mouths find enough food? How could so many skulls share the same destination? And her best guess was that there were six or maybe seven women, which meant the extra men were laying awake nights, plotting ways to win or steal what was as valuable to them as any nourishment.
She watched how they ran, studying their gaits and weighing their packs by the bounce. Every last one of them carried guns, usually a long rifle, and they kept their distance from one another, as if expecting to somebody to fire on them any moment. They were determined people with a goal, a mission. They had to be running toward Mercer’s half of the island. But no, that reasonable, wrong assumption was soon thrown aside. They were steering for the Nots, and in particular, for those long fingery bays where the big stone buildings stood just above the high water mark.
The strangers never looked back.
What mattered to them lay straight ahead.
But even when she was certain that they couldn’t see her, she remained behind the parasite plant, counting her breaths and watching the runners grow too tiny to see anymore, and that’s when she finally ease out into the open again, staring at her bulging pack.
Except for the guns and ammunition, she left everything.
She didn’t run as fast as the others, and she followed a different line, retracing her own steps as the sun lifted and the heat lifted and the sea’s skin responded by growing fiercely hot and dry beneath bare toes. The day reached noon. The Nots would be outside now, basking in the sun. Every so often, she changed her mind and told her legs to stop, and when they refused, she became confused. Where was her trusted fearfulness hiding? How would returning accomplish anything at all? But she was relieved as well as puzzled. Fanciful, improbable plans swirled inside a head that had never been so rested or well fed, and she kept returning the simple faith that her intuitions actually knew what they were doing.
The first explosion sounded like the crack of a dried pegpoke.
She stopped running and listened, and just when she decided that the sea was making the snapping noise—a consequence of tides and currents abusing the thick skin—she saw half a dozen flashes of light and the bright yellow lick of flames rising up from the shoreline.
The Nots’ buildings were burning.
She knelt on the sea and watched, silently telling herself to turn now, turn and go back. The mainland beckoned, and a life of relative wealth and constant invention.
But then a traitorous thought pushed her back onto the suicidal path.
She imagined Mercer.
This creature that she barely knew was inside her. She could see him, and she heard his smooth old voice talking to no one but her. He was weepy and furious about what was happening to his Nots, to his island. One life had spent eons in a tiny place, and all those habits had gathered on the soul because of it…an illusion of eternity that meant more to him than any sensible notion…and she had absolutely no doubt how he would react to this brutal assault.
More buildings began to burn.
Even across such a distance, she heard the Nots’ wild screams.
She rose again, and her shoulders slumped, and she managed to take half a dozen steps backward. Then a single fanheart dove out of the smoke-pierced sky, spotting her and diving close to shout nothing that made sense and that she understood nonetheless.
Again, she ran toward the island.
She felt trapped inside a strange woman. Reasonable terror and brilliant cowardice had been tossed aside. With the fanheart circling overhead, she finally reached the shore. The tide was high. Open, weed-choked water lay between her and a mudstone bank. She didn’t hesitate, feet plunging into the warm deep edge of the sea. One arm pulled and both legs kicked, and she held the stubby rifle high until her left foot kicked the sharp lip of bedded stone, slicing open the skin behind her toes. Then she hurried up the bank and into the great forest that welcomed her with shade and the rich smell of burning flesh. Kneeling for a moment, she pushed at the cut until it was healed. The wind was blowing down the length of the island. Through gaps in the canopy, she saw black smoke and glimpses of an afternoon sun. Obviously her enemies knew much about the island and its inhabitants. An army like this could be everywhere, but she filled only one little place, forever shifting and never unaware. When she reached a familiar trail, she paused long enough to convince herself that only her feet and Mercer’s had passed this way. Then she crept down to his front door, discovering that each of the booby-traps remained active, untouched.
She disabled them, and before she entered, she set them again.
But waiting beside the door itself—that great slab of ruby rock—sat a little wooden box that she didn’t recognize.
She began to step back, and then thought better of it.
Standing on the only ground she trusted, she called out. Ten times, she risked making the kinds of noise that should have drifted through the house’s breathing holes. Mercer would have heard her with her first word, and where was he? Gone already, she decided. But she yelled an eleventh time regardless, and that was when a body kicked the ground behind her, and his careful, very soft voice asked, “What are you doing?”
He was dressed for war. A huge man with muscles and tough bone, he nonetheless looked tiny inside unfamiliar armor and beneath the various munitions. Steel boots covered his feet. The ancient mask was as clear as clean water. His face was exactly as she had expected: A tight jaw and the red beard and the squinting, uncompromising eyes, little beads of sweat running through the whiskers and the throat jumping a little as the voice said, “I thought you’d left me.”
“No,” she lied.
Dark, skeptical eyes stared at nothing but her eyes.
“I did leave,” she finally admitted. “But I changed my mind.”
He insisted on saying nothing.
“I saw them coming,” she explained. Then she reported their numbers and the equipment that she had seen and the arrow-certainty of their motion.
Mercer’s only response was a slight silent nod.
Once again, she looked at his gear. Where did all that shiny armor come from? She hadn’t seen it hanging in the armory, she realized. And his rifle was different from the others, although she couldn’t decide exactly what made it so unlikely. So strange.
Sensing those questions, he said, “Hyperfiber.”
What was that word?
“I stole several sheets of it when I abandoned the colony.” He rapped hard on the flat breastplate. “This was scavenged off our starship.”
“I designed it and built it myself.” He aimed at the sky, adding, “It has an exceptionally long reach and some very special shells.”
“I don’t care,” she said.
“See?” He pulled one bullet from the breech and tossed it up.
She caught it, astonished by its weight.
“Metal,” he said.
The object was long and tapered at one end, its smooth face reflecting the world around it.
He said, “That one is lead and silver, mostly.”
“I don’t care,” she repeated. “You can’t beat them.”
“You think I should run away?”
But she knew he wouldn’t. And that was why she shook her head. “We can go underground,” she said. “We’ll fight them when they come here.” She almost believed those words, and every other crazy utterance that spilled out of her mouth. She and Mercer had their booby traps and the hard old hill, plus a maze of tunnels in which to hide. Their armory and living quarters were stocked and ready for a long, long siege. Sure, an army of monsters was coming, but they’d brought only what they could carry, and most of them were men, and eventually their little peace with one another would break down, and they would fight with each other instead of the two of them.
“Why did you come back?” he interrupted.
He might as well have asked about the far side of the White Moon. She had no ready answer, or even a half-convincing lie.
“You did leave me,” he pointed out. “And then you didn’t.”
It made no sense to her either.
She admitted, “I don’t know why.”
He dropped his gaze.
Then she said, “Maybe,” before her voice fell away.
Every breath tasted of smoke and burning Nots. She managed a deep breath before saying, “I’m pregnant.”
If anything, he looked offended. He shook his head, saying, “Then I’ll ask again. Why? Why endanger yourself and the baby?”
There was no answer to give.
Looking at her own hands, she had to admit, “I don’t know this person.”
“Maybe what it was…is…”
His voice trailed off.
She said, “What?”
“What?” she pressed.
Then she took a sloppy step forward.
The new trap was triggered, a simple gun inside that wooden box aimed at her back. A copper bullet was driven past her ribs and through her ribs and heart, and she dropped hard on her rump, feeling nothing but warmth and surprise.
Mercer leaped, dropping the rifle and slashing the air with a diamond sword. An insulated wire ran from the box to her chest, and he cut the wire an instant before a staggering jolt of electricity ran up into the wound, cooking her insides. Then he knelt and yanked at the bullet until it dropped free, and gently, he set a hand over the tidy little hole.
“I don’t think your siege plan is awful,” he finally admitted. “But whoever they are, these people know me. I’m sure of that. My guess? One of their women lived here, long ago. Or some old girlfriend of mine talked to one of the men and told too much. Either way, they’re probably prepared for a long fight. So if I am going to beat them, I have to do it now. Today. Before everyone’s dead but them and me.”
He had to save his Nots, he meant.
She coughed hard, tasting the sweet iron in her blood.
He pulled off his helmet and kissed her twice, and then he opened the ruby door and dragged her limp body inside. Then he kissed her once again, on the belly that betrayed no trace of a baby yet.
“You’ll heal quickly enough,” he promised.
She already felt her toes wiggling.
“These other monsters have made plans,” he allowed. “Careful plans. But then again, there’s one element they won’t see coming.”
“When you have your legs again,” he began.
“What do you want?”
He told her.
She nodded, coughing one last time.
Then he put on the helmet again and touched a switch, causing the faceplate to turn black as a winter night. Then quietly, tenderly, he said, “I love you. Whatever your name is, I do love you.”
Generations of laborers had invested their lives shaping a titanic block of gray-white basalt. Sapphire chisels had dug into the stone, creating the rough approximation of a human form. Then mud laced with diamond grit was used to smooth and polish, finishing arms and legs and the powerful torso, and finally, the frightful, mocking mask laid over a face that none had ever witnessed. Here was stark evidence for the power of honesty over any singular artistic genius: Every detail was rendered with relentless perfection—the hard fibers of each muscle, every vein in the menacing fists, and those gray-white eyes, big as platters, staring forever into the Nots’ homes. This was the island’s lawful ruler. Not Mercer, but this gigantic testament to fear and adoration. Without any prompting on his part, the sculptors had captured the individual hairs trailing down his long bare back, and they understood the precise angle of every bone as well as the bare human ass, and several of those exceptionally thorough creatures had even managed to replicate what was the most unremarkable male genitalia.
Mercer slipped past the stone god, kneeling behind a long slab of polished magna-wood. Two old Nots and a child had died recently. Relatives had prepared them for the Afterlife, peeling away their exoskin to reveal spidery bodies that were treated with their family blood before being carefully laid out on the altar, waiting for the honor of being carried into the monster’s realm. A Not’s rotting flesh produced a horrific stink. Mercer held his breath, reading the sun-washed country before him. Twenty-nine invaders? That still seemed like an enormous, unlikely number. Yet he trusted the girl’s eyes, and even if she hadn’t returned to warn him, Mercer would have recognized the awful stakes. His home had been invaded, obviously. What this army wanted was nothing less than to kill him and then live here forever. And all of this smoke and carnage was nothing more, or less, than a brazen, carefully planned message meant for an audience of one.
They were taunting him.
One way or another, they would draw him into their fight; and somewhere in the ruins, a careful trap was being set.
Yet that could play to Mercer’s advantage. People crouching inside secret holes often felt too safe for their own good. Whoever these invaders were, they probably expected him to sneak down through the crops and between the intact buildings. But they couldn’t where he would come from, or when. Twenty-nine pairs of eyes looking into the shadows, expecting a slinking, fearful soul…and that’s why Mercer forced himself to stand and breathe deeply, ignoring his nausea as well as a host of reasonable, useful fears…
Holstered pistols bounced, but his rifle was tied securely to his left shoulder, and with his armor and light pack cinched tight, he could easily maintain this long efficient stride. Against every instinct, he kept to the perfect middle of the lane. He didn’t bother watching for hazards that he likely wouldn’t see anyway. Let the bastards hide where they wanted. What mattered were speed and surprise. His only focus was the ground straight ahead. When the lane twisted left and began to drop, he consciously lifted his pace. And where the farmland started to dissolve into the tall stone apartment buildings, Mercer pushed his body and cargo into a blurring sprint.
Pure human genetics couldn’t have managed this relentless pace. Mercer forced his fit, well-fed body to unleash all of its talents. Metabolisms lifted while pains were obscured. His heart roared. His lungs massaged every breath. Oxygen made his bright blood sing.
Like two streams merging, his lane joined with a neighbor, and moments later he sprinted out into a wide stretch of open ground—the Nots’ version of a public plaza. The space was paved with tightly-fitted corundum stones and lined with tall mirrors that gathered the low northern sunlight. A little Stonehenge stood in the middle plaza, showing with shadow exactly where they sat inside this summer. Here was where Mercer fully expected to suffer. Some sniper would suddenly notice him and aim a little too quickly, opening fire before he was ready, and then this miserable waiting would end…
Yet nothing happened.
The next few moments of running lasted for ages, and then Mercer escaped the open ground, slipping back between tall buildings again. He was surprised. Disappointed, in a fashion. And then as he thought about the situation, he became terrified.
Was he going to have to run back and forth like a madman, begging to be noticed?
Or worse, could his enemies have anticipated his tactics?
The invaders weren’t here. He thought it and then believed it: Somehow they had slipped past all the watching, friendly eyes that guarded Mercer’s forest—the fanhearts and dewlanes and such. They had lured him here, and now they would steal his home.
He hoped Dream had healed enough to run away…using her legs and paranoia to keep her safe…
Thinking of her, Mercer slowed his pace just a touch.
The first round missed, skipping off the pavement ahead of him, bouncing and detonating with a hot red flash. His momentum carried him through the explosion. Then he jumped to the left for no reason but to jump, to ruin the next shot. But the marksman guessed right and put an explosive charge into his chest, and the blast slammed against the hyperfiber armor and every rib beneath.
Mercer felt his feet lifting.
Then he found himself on his back, but perfectly conscious.
He rolled and stood and ran blindly toward the nearest door—a dozen tattler skins woven together and painted with yellow lettering that told all who passed the significance of this building. He was barely through that opening when two explosions went off together, flinging him onto the little Not stairs that led up into the nesting house.
Mercer picked himself up and climbed.
At the top of the stairs, a single guardian remained at his post—a sturdy, mature Not armed with authority and habit as well as a sapphire-tipped spear. The creature barked the traditional warning at the intruder, and Mercer replied by declaring his identity and demanding help. But the building was being peppered with grenades and kinetic rounds. The Not heard nothing that convinced him to quit, and he must have believed that this was one of the invaders. He lifted his spear and drove the tip downward, aiming for a gap in the unbreakable armor. Mercer had no choice but shove the Not aside, and when the creature stubbornly tried to find his feet again, Mercer used a short sword to finish the useless fight.
The nursery was built to never burn, which was helpful.
And it was tall, which gave him a sniper’s power.
But there were several doors and endless windows intended for ventilation, and that meant that no one fighter could keep the army at bay for long.
The gunfire fell off, vanished.
Mercer slipped into a long narrow room where the windows faced south, admitting the afternoon sun into a realm where unborn Nots lay inside their transparent cocoons—the first exo-skins wrapped tight around half-defined bodies that were hung from the stone ceiling, each of those unfinished faces habitually following the sliding of the day’s light.
A pair of the cocoons had been shot.
Mercer measured the wounds and guessed the likely angles of fire, and he crawled between two windows and shucked off his pack and his rifle and pulled a dulled piece of mirror out of a pocket, using the dark reflection to study both of the facing buildings without letting the sunlight offer up his position.
Someone launched one kinetic round.
On the lane below, a single Not screamed and died.
Mercer made himself do nothing. Nothing. He would let the monsters sit and wonder if he’d managed to get away from them somehow. Make them crazy, at least for a little while. The next few minutes were spent unfolding and then studying a piece of high-technology—the highly detailed map of the city, including not only what the Nots had built in the last ten generations, but also every chamber and abandoned sewer and paved-over cave that no living creature besides him was aware of.
Nots were gathering in the lane below. Their long feet moved in a rough unison, a desperate muttering building. Dozens of them had crawled out of their hiding places. There could be a hundred of them, even more. Then he heard prayers to vanished gods, and thankfully, prayers intended for him. The Nots had learned about this fight at the nursery, and they were coming to rescue their children. Which wouldn’t have happened if the enemy had struck him in the open, in the Stonehenge. That would have been better for everybody, Mercer told himself.
“But you can’t live forever,” he muttered to himself. “Not wasting your head thinking about what-ifs, you can’t…”
The snipers opened up on the converging Nots.
Prayers turned to wailing screams. Across the lane, two windows sprouted guns, and Mercer lowered his mirror and lifted his rifle and turned on the laser sight, and then he came around smoothly, kneeling low, waiting for the first human face to fill the eyepiece before punching three fast shots between the eyes.
He pulled back, grabbed his gear and rolled and then ran hard.
Grenades dove through three windows, spinning and then exploding, sticky gobs of napalm splashing across walls and the helpless cocoons.
Mercer dropped beside another window and pulled out a single bomb. One of treasures that he stole from the original colony was the chemical knowledge of his species, and with the resources and ample time, he had managed to concoct some wonderfully potent species of pyrotechnics.
A hundred Nots were dying below him.
Again he wheeled and aimed, punishing the next human face with a single round of lead and gold and silver, and then he set the fuse and flung the bomb at the open window, his aim not quite perfect but the gray aluminum casing slipping across the sill and bouncing inside maybe two seconds before the blast incinerated flesh and bone, half of the apartment building shaken to pieces and collapsing onto the street below.
A fresh handful of humans joined the fight, spraying explosives through the nursery windows.
But Mercer had slipped away. He was charging down the back stairs, pack and rifle held high in one hand and maybe two dozen Nots coming up into the nursery from the flanking side of the building. They could smell burnt flesh, pure death. A peace that had lasted longer than their lives had been lost, and every old instinct forced them to act crazy and stupid, rushing up those same stairs even when they couldn’t do anything that would matter.
The human monster shoved his way into them.
His plan was find the latrine at the building’s low end and open the floor with a shaped charge and work his way up along the sewer line. In principle, he could reach the farmland without being seen again. But the smarter plan would be to pop up periodically, hitting his enemies with a few shot and blasts, making sure that their focus wouldn’t fade.
He wanted to make a very specific retreat.
That was the goal.
But Mercer didn’t expect to round one corner in the narrow hallway and find a human monster ready for him.
He threw his pack at the figure.
She had a long rifle meant to fire little bombs, and she managed to avoid firing until the pack had fallen at her feet.
Too late, he threw his rifle to his shoulder.
Her first shot struck the hyperfiber plate over his belly, bouncing off and detonating at his feet.
Mercer was flung back, his boots torn apart, feet burnt to the bone.
But then he had his shot to take, and he even managed to fix the laser on that point on her neck where half a dozen solid rounds would probably break the spine and cut the head clean off.
What made him pause was a mystery.
Maybe it was the woman’s age, which seemed very young, or how terrified she looked to him just then. Or maybe he was startled, noticing the swollen belly that made her nanofiber armor next to useless. Or it was her gun, which was the same type that Dream had seen in his armory—the model carried by that young couple who had tried so hard to kill her just last winter.
In an impoverished world, human bone could be a precious resource for any woman expecting to give birth.
Was her pregnancy to blame?
Unless there was no hesitation at all. Maybe the first blast hurt Mercer worse than he had realized, and he wouldn’t have gotten off any kind of return fire before she shot again, blindly but with extraordinary luck.
The man was flat on his back, on the hard stone floor, and the bomb passed between his belly plate and chest plate.
His hyperfiber contained the blast, making it worse.
Guts were shredded and his heart quit and those scorched lungs opened up to the air, and he howled and dragged himself backward, and she fired one last time, aiming carefully and missing by quite a lot.
Mercer shot her once in the forehead.
The bullet knocked her off her feet, giving his body time to rouse several anaerobic metabolisms. Then he dragged himself close enough to use the diamond sword, hacking at that long limp neck until it was cut through, and he set two of his big bombs on long timers and left them under his pack, and he took only his rifle and sword and a pair of grenades, crawling to the latrine door, flinging in one grenade and then another, battering a wide hole the floor before he pulled his near-corpse to the edge.
He clung there, smelling the rancid chemistry of an alien sewer.
Mercer asked himself if life could be worth this kind of misery.
Then he rolled and fell into the gaping hole, his impact cushioned by water and the stinking gelatinous filth. And because the building above him was about to collapse, he forced his battered body to stand, and he convinced his exhausted legs to march upstream, his guts held in place under his hand while his thoughts, such as they were, revolved around the woman that was still waiting for him.
She began to work even before her feet quit tingling. Following Mercer’s precise instructions, she slipped into the armory and found everything that she needed and filled the same huge pack that the man had used when he came to rescue her, all but dead on the shoreline. Then she stomped her toes a few times, just to make certain that her legs had recovered. Shouldering the pack took three attempts, and the hike proved far harder than she had imagined. But there was still daylight when she reached the hilltop, and she dropped the pack against the magna-wood tree with its camouflaged blind. The next few hundred breaths were spent studying the slope to the south. The big fires down by the sea were beginning to die back. She wasn’t certain about the timetable, which meant that she might already be late. But Mercer had been explicit: The trap would work or it wouldn’t work; they would never get a second chance.
The incendiaries were not particularly large, but he had promised that they had a hard kick. And the fuses could have been any brown cord, which was why she invested a few moments cutting an extra length of fuse and wrapping it around the magna-wood trunk before setting one end on fire.
In two hurried breaths, the entire fuse turned to sparks and ash.
As she had hoped, the water-gorged bladders protected the old wood. No premature fire had been started. She fixed her first bomb to the trunk’s base, on the south side, and tied in the brown cord and laid it back to where she would sit unseen. Then she grabbed several bombs and all of the fuses and worked her way down the slope, selecting only in the largest and the weakest trees.
Mercer had gone past the barricade to put up a good brief fight. He wanted to do just enough to get every human’s attention and rage, and then he would lead that army on a long, painful retreat, bringing them here during the night, hopefully leading them through this particular drainage.
Her job was to mine this slope and then hide, waiting for that perfect moment when she would drop the entire forest on their heads.
The little bombs would spray fire, and if enough of the trees’ watery bladders were punctured, and if enough deep wood was splintered and exposed to the atmosphere, then what would begin as an avalanche would turn into an enormous, cleansing bonfire.
With each bomb set and each cord laid back up on top of the hill, she found herself more and more believing in Mercer’s plan.
About when she expected to hear gunfire, the muted explosions began to drift from below. She paused occasionally, listening carefully, trying to piece together an accurate picture of the war. But then came a final big thud followed by silence, and she returned to her work as the sun set and night rose up from the dried streambed and then fell from a sky full of close bright and astonishingly colorful stars.
Her hands knew what to do in the dark, and she soon discovered that every bomb was set and there was no more fuse to cut and splice and lay out.
Satisfied, she returned to the hilltop and the hidden place where thirty cords lay together, waiting for any excuse to burn.
She listened for another battle, preferably from some place nearer.
But she didn’t let herself worry. Not yet. Having fixed her future to Mercer, she found herself willing to accept his skills and experience, and his confidence, and what she considered to be his bottomless well of luck.
The man was coming, she told herself.
As time passed, the Gold Moon rose over the eastern sea, washing the hillside with its slippery wet light. Maybe in the next breath or two, Mercer’s armored body would appear. She pictured him shoving his way up along the drainage, defiant and unbowed, firing back a few times just to make his pursuers hold their pace, and then pausing at a predetermined point and signaling his survival to her with that bright red laser.
She had to believe that he was coming, didn’t she?
But then at some point, without warning, her mother interrupted her unheard-of devotion.
“Run,” the dead woman advised.
In the softest whisper, the daughter asked, “What?”
“That man is lost,” declared the ghost. The phantom. The memory. “You know where you left your pack. So run to it now and push on, and don’t bother looking back.”
She said, “No.”
Then after a long listen to the silence, she admitted, “He should have been here by now.”
“Lost,” the phantom repeated.
“And if those monsters find you, then you’re lost as well.”
She told herself to remain in her hiding place. To give Mercer time, to give him every chance. But her body was suddenly possessed with energy, nervous but ready, and the best she could do was make herself stand slowly, stepping nowhere, watching the valley below and discovering a numbing despair that had been secretly brewing for a long while.
From the opposite slope came the hard quick voice of an ollo-lol.
To give her mind some job, she began to count her quick breaths.
“Remember what I told you, daughter?” the phantom continued. “Before my death, you were kneeling over me, tending to me. But the dying have few needs, except to be heard.”
“I listened,” she reported, interrupting her count.
“What a beauty, life is. I told you. And I promised you that small moments in every day would contain some lovely good thing to soothe the eye or sweeten the nose or linger inside the happy ear.”
“Quiet,” she begged.
But the phantom refused to obey. Quietly but with force, it reminded the grown daughter, “I promised you one treasure for your day.”
She realized that she was weeping, and she had been weeping for a long while now.
“What was the treasure, daughter?”
“I was dying—“
“You weren’t dead yet,” she muttered, probably too loudly.
“I was lost,” the phantom said.
Starvation on top of endless malnutrition had shriveled her mother’s badly depleted body. The woman had insisted that her child eat everything available, which was very little, and that final deprivation meant that even cuts that should have healed in moments refused to knit. Organs, named and otherwise, were plunging into hibernation. Old wounds were resurfacing, and each labored breath could have been the last.
“You did what you had to do, daughter.”
The strength drained from her legs. Slowly, she dropped to the ground and wrapped her arms across her bare knees, sobbing peacefully.
“I was lost—!”
“I could have buried your body,” she interrupted. “Hidden you and come back again, with food. With nutrients.”
“That wouldn’t have happened,” the phantom replied.
“In my pack,” she said, looking south toward the sea. “I have enough treasures to make you over again. Bring you to life and back with me—“
“Your child needs those gifts, darling.”
“I didn’t have to,” the young woman muttered, mouth against one knee, the salty taste of her own flesh making her guilt even worse. “Your bones…they were just a few little sticks at the end…”
“Mine became yours,” the phantom assured her.
But that sorry truth just made her sicker, and sadder, and she pulled the palms of her hands across her wet eyes and choked back a deep sob and let little gasps leak out while the phantom said, “Sticks, yes. Spent, yes. But still with little nodules of minerals that you needed worse than any dead lost soul would need them…and that was the beautiful heart of your day, daughter…regardless what you pretend to think…”
Another ollo-lol spoke in the darkness.
She looked up, looked around. What would she do now?
“Run,” the dead mother advised one last time.
Then the young woman rose to her feet again, finding the strength to retrieve her rifle from the hiding place. What she would do next wasn’t decided. She didn’t know her mind yet, and it might have taken another thousand breaths before she finally gave up the wait. But then came the sudden thunder of bombs exploding to the east and south, and she turned in time to see a flash rising from where the barricade divided the island into its two halves, both His.
Then halfway down the rocky slope, she stopped. What good could she do in this fight? Her task—his hope—was for her to be where he expected her to be, waiting for the signal. Always, impulses seemed to rule over reason inside her. She chastised herself and managed to turn around, starting to climb again, when a voice she didn’t know screamed, “The forearm! The left forearm! And his damned gun too, I got it!”
Mercer was injured.
“Blood,” the voice said. A woman’s voice. “Look for blood trails.”
Badly hurt, she realized.
Some man asked, “Which way?”
Another man said, “Here’s a track, here…!”
Where the dry stream poured down onto the farmland, human shapes were moving. Brush was snapping; she heard overlapping orders. A single man stood in the moonlight for a long moment, presenting an easy shot. The enemy believed that the war was won. Whatever had happened before made them feel safe and powerful, and obviously they didn’t have any hint that she was standing nearby, eager to spray explosives down across their heads.
Instead of firing, she crept silently along the slope, trying to guess where Mercer was.
A kinetic pistol fired.
Half a dozen larger weapons slashed at the trees, starting fires that sputtered and died as the ripped bladders bled over them.
Then somebody yelled, “Quiet,” and then, “What do you see?”
In the chill light of the moon and endless stars, she saw the familiar shape struggling to run. He was still some distance ahead of his pursuers. The hyperfiber armor still encased the powerful body, but it was obvious that nothing had worked as planned. Mercer was staggering. Two steps, and he dropped to his knees while the stump of one arm flailed senselessly, and then he rose again and did nothing after that, too spent to manage even one weak step.
Mercer was still too far down the drainage.
Exposed, and caught in his own trap too.
She ran, pushing down the slope while working upstream, running out onto a bed of dried, dusty pebbles. She was above him. Even facing her, he didn’t seem to notice anything amiss. Walking was everything that he could manage, and he did it erect, shattered feet dragging on the rocks and the armor catching the moonlight, making him all the more obvious, and what sounded like a spongeworm squishing every time his nearly useless lungs managed to take another breath.
The army closed on their victim.
She heard the monsters talking openly, happily. An infectious mood, a kind of celebration, erased all but the last shreds of caution. She even heard two voices near the front arguing passionately about which one of them should get the final pleasure.
On her toes, she ran toward Mercer.
His helmet was missing. A burnt face managed to see her as a shape approaching, and he lifted his final pistol and tried to fire with the empty chamber, perhaps puzzled by the useless series of clicks.
She kneeled and aimed over his head, flinging half a dozen explosive rounds over his head.
The blasts flung him to the ground.
She had never heard so many humans speaking at once, and every last one of them was cursing.
“A new gun,” someone decided. “He must have stashed one.”
Nobody wanted to get battered now, at the end. So they hunkered down, waiting for Mercer to make a fresh mistake.
He was fighting to stand one last time. Lying on his chest, he looked helpless. She came close and dropped flat to put her mouth against his ear, and tasting ashes, she said, “I’m here.”
He didn’t answer. But his body seemed to relax, slightly.
She grabbed his surviving arm and tugged hard, once and then again, and he decided to obey what he felt, pulling one leg up and then his body, allowing her to slip under that arm and helping him to come upright. But every step was miserably slow. He was astonishingly, frighteningly light. Something awful had happened, and that he could heal enough to stagger this far was miraculous. But that lightness meant that a rested and strong woman, no matter how small, could push herself under his bulk and shove up hard enough to let his shattered body lay limp over her shoulders, and with her rifle in one hand and the other arm between his shrunken legs, she could run straight for nearly a hundred rapid breaths.
A dried waterfall stood like a wall before them.
Behind them, voices argued and debated and gradually pushed closer. And then as she wondered what to do, a man’s voice declared, “There’s fresh prints here. He’s got a friend.”
She bent low and swallowed an enormous amount of air, and then with a clean shove, she flung him over the brink of the dried falls.
He was unconscious now.
Shaking from fatigue, she dragged him up to where the winter currents had cut into the bank, creating a tiny shelter roofed with ruddy corundum. Into the less-burnt ear, she said, “Stay,” and then she retrieved her rifle and ran hard up the hill, terrified that she wouldn’t have time enough or that her trap had been diagnosed or that any of a thousand little mistakes could have doomed both of them.
Below her, countless rifles fired at every shadow.
She reached the fuses without drawing anyone’s fire. Time mattered, but so did precision. She used the flint lighter to light one short fuse that she had lashed around the others, and then stood back, one long breath spent wondering what to do when this didn’t work. Shoot the fuses with her rifle? Or detonate the trees one by one, maybe?
Her doubts evaporated.
Several dozen serpents sprang to life, spark and fire streaking across the dry ground, setting tiny fires before reaching the incendiary bombs. The watching post’s tree exploded first, the ancient trunk gouged out and bladders bursting, and then as more trees exploded below, the giant bent and fell, dislodging rocks as well as the explosive underbrush, the shattered mess sliding rapidly downhill.
Fifty breaths, and the hillside quit falling.
No voices were heard. No weapons, no sobs. The drainage below Mercer and the waterfall was jammed with downed timber, and as promised, much of that exposed wood was burning. Bladders had been shattered, soaking the mess with water and fire retardants. But when those desperate measures had done their best, the ancient forest burst into a single consuming blaze, hot enough to create a funeral pyre for every miserable monster trapped beneath.
With the heat, she couldn’t reach Mercer’s hiding place.
But he would be safe enough where he was, she reasoned. In that damp, near-underground place, he would burn only a little and heal those new wounds before dawn, most likely. This creature that never believed in any long future found herself talking to the almost-dead man, telling him the story of his unlikely survival and imagining what he might tell her about his various adventures facing down nearly thirty of the most deadly monsters in the world.
She baked in the fire, and because she wanted to feel sure, she scanned both her slope and the facing slope, in the unlikely chance that one or two of the humans had escaped the others’ fate.
Whole trees detonated, but the opposite, north-facing slope was too wet and far too steep to catch fire.
Every once in a while, she noticed movement. But what she saw was high on the next ridge, and they plainly weren’t human shapes, and it was easiest to believe that tattlers and other animals were running through the forest.
By dawn, the giant fire was reduced to red-hot coals and a thick column of black smoke.
Rifle in hand, she began to walk toward Mercer. But even now the heat was intense. Her flesh threatened to blister, and each little breath hurt her throat and her chest.
She thought about retreating.
But then she saw the Nots braving the furnace. Fifty of them, all adults. And then she realized that no, they were just the first of several waves, and she couldn’t count how many hundreds were climbing down the opposite slope. Some of the Nots carried bladders stolen from the forest trees, busily soaking themselves and their neighbors with the cooling liquid. Like a flood, they flowed into the dried streambed, smelling the air and ground and finally discovering what they knew was somewhere close by.
Mercer was dragged out into the open.
She stopped, standing on her toes, not certain what to think but incapable of feeling much concern. His Nots must have followed the invaders up into the forbidden forest. Unseen, they had watched the last fight and the horrible fire, and now they were dragging their great protector out of his hiding place. There were so many of the tiny creatures crowding in close now. Despite a lifetime of mistrust and paranoia, she couldn’t understand what they wanted from the god they had worshipped for hundreds of generations—not until one Not lifted a stone-tipped hoe over its head, driving the cutting edge into Mercer’s burnt and helpless face.
Twenty other Nots took their swings with the same hoe, and then the pole shattered with a sharp crack.
Sapphire knives were pulled from hidden belts.
A thunderous chorus of cries rose up from the opposite slope.
Suddenly what might have been ten thousand shapes flowed out of the shadows, out from under the trees, fighting one another for the honor to help with or at least witness what was plainly a wondrous, long-anticipated event.
The girl saw nothing that happened after that.
Finally obeying her mother’s wise advice, she ran off those hills and across the summer sea, retrieving her waiting pack before continuing to the south, chasing after her new, old life.
Summer was nearly done when the great ruby door was finally pried open, but even then booby-traps continued killing and maiming, including the sudden release of a wicked green gas that slaughtered dozens of good citizens. After that tragedy, there was fearful talk and fearful thoughts. What if the female monster—that mutilated beast thrown out of the sea—was hiding in the hills, waiting to inflict her terrible revenge? Traps were built and baited with piss fungi, yet nothing touched them. The sharpest eyes and noses examined every piece of the island, but no recent trace of her or any other living Eater-of-bone was found. When the darkest, wettest days of winter descended, the Elders held a council, and it was decided that their enemies indeed had been vanquished. The ancient premonitions were true: With an ocean of patience and a handful of courage, the Nots at long last had won their well-deserved freedom.
Yet even when the monster’s lair proved toothless and empty, it was studied only with slowest possible deliberation. An intricate maze of tunnels had to be measured and marked. Room after room after room was carefully examined. Maps were drawn. Scribes made exhaustive inventories. The monster’s furniture and his elaborate wardrobe brought endless fascination. But those were normal, knowable objects. His home was littered with mysterious wonders that needed to be examined and memorized. Those rare souls with the necessary skills gazed directly at the human-built machines, and they whispered with learned voices, and then only when they felt ready did they give their honest verdict.
“We have no idea what this device does,” was the usual pronouncement.
They were the Hunters-of-unthinkable-thoughts.
At the beginning of time and the world, a lady Not had watched the monster throw rocks into the bay, and from the action, she had somehow discerned an important piece of his greater purpose. She had urged her people to mimic his insanity that next year. And her descendants learned from the monster how to build the dam and drain the bay and then carefully scrape up a white film, vanishingly thin that meant so much to the invincible Eater-of-bone.
It was the Hunters who always studied what refused to be understood. To strengthen their talents, they formed a narrow sect-family, gradually improving their blood line—countless generations of wizard-like savants whose culminating moment was to stand together in the heart of that cave-like home, debating the purpose and merits of this piece of brass and of that broken cylinder of cultured diamond.
At winter’s end, a fleet of raiding Nots landed near the burnt remains of the mineral works. But before they could move off the shoreline, they were struck dead by a rain of aluminum bullets and tiny bombs.
That day, a new force sat upon the world.
Then came the holy first night of summer. Much talk had been invested in the proper best way to mark this event. One young Hunter—a lady Not with an astonishing talent for holding the odd and unimaginable behind her fiery eyes—argued successfully for a reversal of the traditional ceremony. As a nation, the Nots streamed past the uprooted statue of their vanquished god, and they passed through news gaps cut in the barricade, and then holding tight to a respectful silence, they marched up into the hill country. The strongest carried the weakest; no one was left behind. At the lead was the courageous young male who had first struck at their sworn enemy, his only weapon being the common, now famous hoe.
What he carried tonight, nestled in careful hands, resembled a round stone, grayish in color and surprisingly light in weight, decorated with a multitude of folds and little fissures mirroring the ancestral mind of human beings.
The Hunters followed closely behind, carrying the twenty-nine souls of the wicked, blessed invaders.
Into the lair went the honored leaders.
The rest of the Nots waited silently in the darkness of the forest, crowded beneath a giant gyreboy tree.
Thirty monsters were carried into a distant room.
Set about that room, in neat rows and labeled in a precise, still unreadable tongue, were more than three hundred Eaters-of-bone—the previous residents of this common grave.
Some Nots had argued for sinking all of these horrors in the sea.
But other voices had won out, at least for the moment. And to make that moment eternal, the young Hunter reminded all in her presence that little was known about the creatures they were at war with. The origins and magic of these demons remained deep mysteries. But time was deeper, and patience could be eternal. Using the relics in the monster’s sanctuary, some future generation might finally tease away all of the ignorance, and wiser souls would find themselves holding all of the tools used by their unwelcome visitors.
Who could say where the next billion years would lead?
Perhaps someone of power would find a compelling reason to give these dead monsters their faces again, and their limbs, and their animal voices.
But not their freedom, she hoped.
As did all of the good Nots…
“My name is,” she began.
“Mother,” said the boy, grinning.
“Are you sure?”
And he laughed at one of their oldest, most cherished jokes. Of course she was his mother, and that was the only name she would even need from him. It was still just the two of them working as one. Other solitary humans lived in this forest of sky-hugging trees. But since these were relatively wealthy times for monsters, at least in this one northern corner of the world, there was no serious fighting. Nor were there any treaties of alliance, either. Cooperation demanded need, and none of the resident monsters saw good reasons to join forces, even for a day.
“I want a story,” the young boy said.
They were sitting in the dark, under the tattler skin, listening to the rain hit and flow off onto the muddy ground.
Mother said, “All right.”
“Which story?” he asked eagerly.
“The island,” she promised.
“About my father?”
“What about your father?”
“I want to hear how he saved you and cared for you…right up until…” Then his young voice trailed off into a sad, practiced silence.
“Another night, I think.”
“Then what will you tell me?”
She wrapped her arms around her tough little monster, and she squeezed him until both of them ached, and after a while she said, “I am going to tell you about the stars, and about the universe beyond the stars, and our great species, and the wonders you can see only with our mind’s eyes…”
About the Author
Robert Reed was born in Omaha, Nebraska on October 9, 1956. He has had eleven novels published, starting with The Leeshore in 1987 and most recently with The Memory of Sky in 2014. Since winning the first annual L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest in 1986 (under the pen name Robert Touzalin) and being a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in 1987, he has had over 180 shorter works published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. In addition to his success in the U.S., Reed has also been published in the U.K., Russia, Japan, Spain and in France, where a second (French-language) collection of nine of his shorter works, Chrysalide, was released in 2002.
Bob has had stories appear in at least one of the annual “Year’s Best” anthologies in every year since 1992. Bob has received nominations for both the Nebula Award (nominated and voted upon by genre authors) and the Hugo Award (nominated and voted upon by fans), as well as numerous other literary awards (see Awards). In 2007, he won his first Hugo Award for the 2006 novella “A Billion Eves”.
Reed continues to live in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife, Leslie, and daughter, Jessie. Local residents who may not know him for his award-nominated work as a genre writer may instead recognize him as an ardent long-distance runner — he can frequently be seen jogging through the parks and hiking trails of Lincoln, and has taken part in many of the area’s running races for the past several years.
About the Narrator
Mat Weller is the servant to a lovely family in eastern Pennsylvania. After his wife and kids go to sleep at night, he sometimes re-watches old episodes of X-Files on Netflix and other times retires to his basement booth where he records noises that get played on the Internet. Rumor has it he also makes delightful chocolate chip cookies.
Oh, and in October 2014, he beat Metroid II for the first time since 1991.
Mat had the honor of producing for Escape Pod from 2010 to 2016. He is also a graphic designer, an amateur voice actor, an amateur father, and he narrates a growing catalog of books for ACX.