Clella scratched again at her stubbly man chin and swore. Eerie gray cliffs rose on both sides of the ravine to disappear into a suffocating ceiling of cloud. Whoever had done this to her would pay.
She stared at the knobby bare feet and felt a strong desire to punch someone or something. The masculine intensity of the emotion felt alien but good. Tucking hard knuckles into fists, she watched as forearm muscles bunched beneath coarse skin that was patchy with black hair. Another string of four-letter words sparked deep in the barrel of her throat and exploded upward, ricocheting from cliff to cliff.
She continued her awkward trek down the dripping, fern-strewn gorge, toes and heels bleeding from the sharp rocks. She was shoeless and hungry, but at least she'd been left in a fairly athletic bodmod; the muscles been working for hours, and were still not tired. But everything was cold and wet, and this forsaken wilderness seemed endless.
Think. Where the hell was she? Who had dumped her here, and why?? Bodmod matching cost a shit-ton of cred. No one would spend that much without a good reason. Why her? But never mind the who and why; the where was much more immediate.
Clella's gut told her this was some backwater hole of a planet; worst case scenario was, she'd been abandoned out on the fringe of some minor Brandscape like the boondocks of her birth. Still, she might luck out and find a conglomerate with a shifter she could hop to one of the majors, or a hub she could plug into in case she was already in one and this place was just some sort of recpark or something. But there had been no sound of air traffic all morning, so she knew her gut was probably right.
She ground her new bodmod's teeth. Things could have been worse. They could have just killed her.
It was raining and nearly dark when the cliffs finally gave way to reveal a tiny cluster of lights, twinkling from around a bend to the right in the now broad valley. Clella cracked the bodmod's stiff neck, stretched its legs, and picked up her pace. Soon she would stop shivering, and most of the pain would leave the swollen, brutalized toes.
It's like getting out of your pod in the morning: you have to do it, whether you want to or not. We're soldiers; we've got a job to do. Why in the Four-Lights should that slacker Zunz'ish be any different?!
Every shift he just floats off by himself, completely out of formation, daydreaming. Putting us all at risk. If I were Reefguard Ts'idjuŗŗ, I'd swim over there and give him a good tailsmack to the face, make him pull his head in and get back to his post. But Ts'idjuŗŗ just keeps patrolling back and forth, inspecting the line or staring over the Edge into the abyss, acting as if nothing's out of place.
Some of us have been grumbling. Shanz'ched thinks the newcomer's birthqueen must've sent word to our Nest to make sure he got special treatment here. But Chonj'ŗŗa disagrees; he says we'd know it if Zunz'ish were that highborn, and that it's far more likely the puny little scrub is directly related to someone moderately important like a cross-Nest Maarguard. Whoever it is must be collecting on a favor, he says.
It would make sense I guess. Politics between Zunz'ish's birthnest and ours are complex these days, to say the least. If an order has indeed been sent down through the ranks to leave the outsider alone, it would explain why Reefguard Ts'idjuŗŗ has been turning a blind eye to the lazy algaescrub ever since he transferred here.
Whatever the reason, it doesn't give Zunz'ish the right to dilly-dally where he pleases and leave a hole in our defenses. If the Murk launched an attack right now, I reckon it would take Zunz'ish at least twenty seconds to swim over to his spot in the grid and synch up with the rest of us. By then we'd be dead; I've seen attacks come so fast that even a delay of five or six seconds would've cost us our lives. And if even one of us dies, the grid fails, and then the Nest will almost certainly fall.
I wonder if he even has the salt to do the job. They only put elite metasingers like ourselves, the best of the best, here on the Edge. But we're trained for this. If Zunz'ish is just some dandy that has been placed here so that he or someone else can get a fin or two up in his career, then may the Four-Lights help us, 'cause we're doomed.
"Sir? What's that up there?" I hear Shanz'ched say. He's staring toward the surface.
As Reefguard Ts'idjuŗŗ makes his way over, I follow Shanz'ched's gaze. Far overhead I can barely make out wave shapes in the dim moonlight. But something else is there, too. Whatever it is seems to be growing.
The Reefguard watches it awhile. "Flotsam, most likely. Nothing to worry about."
"No sir, I think.. I think it's sinking," Chonj'ŗŗa whistles.
"Nonsense," Ts'idjuŗŗ trills.
But sure enough, the dark mass above us appears to be coming closer. Not only that, it seems to be dividing into sections. A chill ripples down my dorsum, immediately followed by a hollowness in the pit of my stomach.
A trick. We've been duped. No sooner do I look down than the first shockwave comes roiling up from the darkness below.
My voice cracks from panic. "ATTACK!!!"
The others race back to their posts, and we begin tuning up as quickly as we can. Out of the corner of my left eyecluster, however, I can see that Zunz'ish has not budged.
"Sir!!! Zunz'ish!!!" I screech, nodding in the slacker's direction.
The Reefguard simply eyes me and shakes his head. "He'll be fine. Do your job, soldier."
"No time," he warbles. "Form the grid, now."
Outranked, I shut up and do as I'm told.
Our voices coalesce into a protective grid less than a second before the first shockwave hits. We're in too much of a hurry, though, and the concussion nearly knocks us out of sync. Below, rising fast, is the bulk of the Murk, evil and dark and hungry as ever. I shut my eyes in concentration.
The shockwaves always come in threes for some reason. The second buffets us harder than the first, but our makeshift grid holds. Bracing myself for the final assault, I sing as loudly as I can, and can feel my comrades doing the same. We're a soldier down, though. And the Murk is already level with the Edge.
The third shockwave slams into us. The Murk looms immediately behind it, sending out a thousand shadowy tendrils to surround us. Above, the sinking mass from the surface reveals itself to be more of the same. Very clever, I reflect. A distraction tactic, and we were stupid enough to fall for it.
One of the dark tendrils slices perilously close to Shanz'ched's throat, causing him to flinch. We react, and the grid falters.
"HOLD!" yells the Reefguard, but deep down I know it is too late. And that sooner than I ever expected it would be, my death is upon me.
A clear, piercing note rises from off to the left. I open my eyes just in time to see a reddish globe billow outward from Zunz'ish's position. Expanding as it travels, the strange sphere heads straight for the bulk of the Murk, tearing through the reaching tendrils and leaving fragments in its wake.
It strikes the Murk square in the face. A great bellowing rumbles around the Edge, snapping coral and stirring up a swirling storm of sand and dead fish. The dark beast writhes, vomiting forth a cataract of black mud from its terrible maw.
When the debris finally clears, I peer over the Edge just in time to catch a glimpse of the wrecked mass of the Murk as it plummets into the blackness below.
I can't believe it. We're alive, and the nest is safe. And there's Zunz'ish, still floating off by himself, still daydreaming as if nothing happened.
It was Friday afternoon, day twelve of the experiment, when entropy reared its ugly head and ruined the whole plan.
They were in the boiler room, preparing for what would be the last of their secret workplace smooches. Hector was fidgeting impatiently as Samantha went through her "safety check," as she liked to call it. She had to be sure they were alone; if anyone were to witness the two of them being intimate, it could mean an end to her career. And Hector's, too.
"Come on, let's do it. No one's here, I promise," Hector snapped, glancing at his watch.
"Okay, ready now," Samantha said, returning to their secret corner after one final peek up the stairwell.
Hector leaned close. There was the familiar build of energy, the tickling crackle of electricity channeling more and more intensely as their lips drew together. Samantha closed her eyes, as she always did, even though she knew Hector's eyes were open.
As their mouths came together, a spark leapt to the giant water heater nearby. Samantha drew back in alarm. The last thing she heard was Hector shouting and a wrenching sound of tearing metal.
As the sun ducked behind the clouds, a chilly breeze drew goose bumps across their skin. Far below them at the top of the fjord, the water still had not finished filling the crater where the base had once been. The white cataract, appearing frozen in the distance, sent up a faint roar. Nearby a bird was singing.
"Maybe people aren't meant to have all that power," Hector said. "Maybe that was the universe's way of putting us back in our places."
"Maybe," Samantha purred, and pulled his arm around her more tightly. "But one thing's certain: I like kissing you better when it isn't planned."
Hector smiled, closed his eyes, and made contact.
Nothing else seemed to work. They had tried other intimacies, of course; Hector, especially, had wanted to double-check every possible form of contact, and some more than others. But in the end Samantha's hypothesis held: only lip-to-lip contact would build the power.
Worse, they discovered it was not as simple as just kissing each other over and over to build the power all at once; the more frequently their lips touched, in fact, the milder the hit. Likewise, if they went too long between kisses, then what power they had built would quickly fade. After much experimentation, the lovers decided it built best when their lips met no more and no less than about once every seven hours.
This posed a problem on a few different levels. First of all, he was a nightowl and she was not; prior to all of this insanity, Hector's typical morning had begun with waking more than an hour after Samantha had already left for work. Secondly, and most significantly, she was his superior in rank. Although it was widely known that off-base they were a couple, any physical contact between them while on duty was strictly frowned upon and could adversely affect both of their careers. This was what had led them down to the boiler room for their series of secret rendezvous.
The third problem was academic: if they wanted to sustain a schedule of having lip-to-lip contact once every seven hours, without fail, then their meeting times would necessarily continue to change over the course of their planned regimen.
Unfortunately, neither Hector nor Samantha had any leave coming up, so their goal of building up two weeks' worth of power would require that they grin and bear the whacked sleep schedules and the risk of getting caught together at work.
It was fun at first, especially for Samantha; she seemed to get a kick out of making Hector suffer. "Nope; down, boy. Two more minutes to go!" But by the end of the eighth day they were both already so exhausted from having forced themselves awake at odd hours that their resolve had begun to weaken. The only things that kept them going were curiosity and the perpetual craving for the power, a power that had been building inside them both since the beginning.
"Just think of all the cool stuff we'll be able to do once we've accumulated all those hits," Hector said. It was three in the morning and Samantha, drained from a grueling work week, had just put the annoying alarm clock through the ceiling with a flick of her wrist.
"I don't give a shit," she growled. "I'm tired; tired of it. Can't we just head up there now"
She was referring to the little meadow they had chosen, the place they would use to test their power at the end of the two weeks. It was a beautiful spot, very isolated, that overlooked the fjord and the top end of the base.
Hector shook his head. "Nope. We're going to stick it out, babe, all the way to next Sunday. But... how 'bout I promise you a two-hour foot massage if you make it to the end? Deal?"
Samantha looked ready to send him after the clock, but a moment later her feet won out and she groaned a reluctant yes.
Ani had started with plans for a redberry tree, but the resulting runty bush and the shriveled black things hanging from it were nothing like the beautiful explosion of red lush berriness she had envisioned. That was her first lesson about design-your-own genome kits; since then she had tried a couple of other brands, but none of them was as "fool proof" as it advertised.
And so she cracked her neck, linking her mind to the wyfy, and began to teach herself chemistry. Her mother seemed concerned; now and then she would poke her head into the thirteen-year-old's room and say something like, "Aren't any of your friends around?" or, "What, are you allergic to the phone now? I never thought I'd see the day...."
Ani would just shake her head and mumble some sideways excuse, anything to get her mother to leave and close the door behind her. Friends? Whatever. With the stuff Ani was learning, she wouldn't need those backstabbers anymore.
It took several weeks, but eventually she had the design template tweaked to exactly how she wanted it. The hair was definitely the masterpiece; she was very proud of that in particular. Ani couldn't wait. So she clicked "confirm," and the order was placed.
It was a sunny afternoon when the knock finally came at the door. Heart pounding, Ani jumped up and streaked down the stairs past her bewildered mother.
She opened the door.
"Hi. My name is Berry," said the gorgeous thirteen-year-old with the magnificent brown hair standing on the porch.
"I know, silly," Ani giggled. "I'm the one who made you. Come in, girlfriend!"
Travis Wilfreit sat slumped with legs pretzeled, his backbone grinding against the hard stones of the painted wall. On the opposite side of the gym, beautiful Claire Bertrand stood giggling with her friend Bethany. The sound drew a gruff bark from the PE teacher, and the two girls went back to pretending to do their stretches.
Her hair was even more colorful than usual today. The deep azure of the past two weeks was now streaked with crimson on one side and snow white on the other.
"Hey check it out, I think stutter-magic's got a hardon, heh."
"Oh shit, ha, I think you're right!"
"Careful there Wilfreit, you w-w-wouldn't w-want to accide-de-dentally kno-kno-knock her up! We'd have to call up the CDC to come quarantine your o-o-offspring!"
Travis did his best to ignore the group of asshole morons guffawing and pointing at him from a few yards away. He stared at the floor between his legs, but his heart was pounding and hot blood was rushing up his neck into his cheeks; he was sure she had heard the comment from across the gym. Already he was beginning to feel the onset of that dream-like lightness in his chest, the sensation that always preceded one of his flip-outs.
Abruptly he got up and marched left along the wall, wending his way around clumps of slobbering vacant-eyed teenaged bodies until he reached the arched doorway leading to Gym B. As he passed through, he could feel the PE teacher's eyes on the back of his head, but he knew the man wouldn't say anything. Not to him; not now.
The big empty vastness of Gym B opened up before him. Travis moved left along the dividing wall until he reached the middle. The lack of people made it better here, but the feeling had not yet subsided. Find a distraction, and focus on it. Read a book or even just stare at something until you come down. He sat down and stared at the floor for a long time.
Something was wrong. Travis went through his mental exercises over and over, focusing on the floorboards in all their detail: the way the overhead lights gleamed in their lacquer, the narrow grime-filled cracks between the old planks, the very grain of the wood itself. He stared and stared, but the feeling wouldn't go away; if anything, it was getting worse.
A girl's laugh rang out from Gym A on the other side of the wall behind him. Travis put his hands over his ears and hunched his face closer to the floorboards. All he wanted was to disappear. To escape this place; to escape the feeling. But it continued to rise in him.
Desperate, he squinted his eyes until the boards blurred. That was better. He did it some more, and began to pretend he was actually inside the grain of the wood.
He could feel the fibers around him; he could even sense the pressures still holding the flesh of the long dead tree together. There was a funny odor, of oak and lacquer and glue. Travis smiled; it was cool and dark in here, and the light-chested feeling had begun to leave him. He lifted his head and looked around.
It was not exactly sight, but he could *see* through the wood all the way to the end of the board, where it met the painted stone blocks of the wall. How awesome it would be if he could be inside the stone, too, he thought. And so he tried moving, and was delighted to discover that he was able to travel along the grain of the wood unhindered.
As Travis blended from wood into stone, he *stood* and looked back. He could *see* everything in the big empty room behind him, but there was no sign of his body. It was gone; he was actually here.
Free, Travis *laughed* out loud. He laughed even louder when he peered from his hiding place in the wall into Gym A and saw the spooked faces of his PE class, backing away from the wall. This is real, he marveled.
"HAHAHA!!!" he bellowed. Everyone, including the PE teacher, scattered for the exit in a screaming panic.
Travis smiled to himself. He took a long, deep breath and exulted in the musty old smell of the stone surrounding him, permeating him. He knew, without a doubt in his mind, what he had to do.
Suddenly full of energy, Travis dove. He hurtled through stone and wood and metal, blending deeper and deeper, faster and faster, all the while laughing with pure joy as he explored his wonderful new world.
This time the man's Call was pure and steady. The beautiful note drew from all his strength, welling up from his chest, and struck at the three remaining ooryit all at once, causing them to flinch.
For several seconds nothing happened. The fog enveloped them, deadening all sound and seeming to stop time itself. Then, turning slowly, the ooryit began to whisper at each other, their weeping brain-like faces drawing closer to one another, the sultry sounds from their mouths more and more intense. The man scrambled out of the way as the creatures tackled each other, tearing and raking with their legs.
The man couldn't keep the note up for long; already he was beginning to feel spent. But before his voice cracked and the spell was broken, another of the ooryit was dead, and a second one had lost too many legs to be very mobile.
Just one uninjured one left. It came at the man where he kneeled, swaying left and right as it closed in.
The thing's whispers were beginning to break the man's internal silence; soon they would tear through his defenses completely, and the ooryit would control his mind.
He waited a moment longer; he needed the creature to be in range. Out of the corner of his eye he could see that the other ooryit, the nearly legless one, was dragging itself toward him through the fog-laden grass, its whispers picking up in strength. Its blind face was as deadly and impersonal as a shark's.
With what energy he had left, the man Called once more, but this time the note was weak and unsure; it warbled forth like a child crying. The uninjured one was leaning in now, less than a foot from his face. He could smell the breath of the thing....
It was inside the metal of the hull.
"Captain, maybe we should risk it. If that whole thing breaches I don't think we can patch it in time. Certainly not if it keeps growing like this." Maarstein's sharp blue eyes followed the scar of blistering metal along the ceiling to the latest mark made by whatever deep-sea alien malignancy was attacking the submarine vessel.
Captain Gutierrez glanced again at the sonar map. They were clear of the "lily pad," their name for one of the giant floating masses of plant matter that formed the only "land" on this waterlogged fish fart of a planet. But if they surfaced now they would still be well within detection range of the damned fast-flying Rays they'd been trying to escape in the first place.
Gutierrez raised her voice so that everyone could hear. "Suit up, folks. Whatever this shit is, I'll warrant it won't be good for the complexion. Dorwell, take us up. Forty-fiver and power ahead, full."
The six-member crew did as they were told without an if or a but or even a smart-ass joke from Lang. They were all shit-scared, and as Gutierrez saw the weird blistering seam bulge a few more inches along the ceiling, she, too, had to steel herself against a sudden rising panic.
"Three hundred meters, Cap," chirped Dorwell in a voice that was far too young to die.
"Lang, get your ass to the aft cannon and put on your gamer face," Gutierrez barked.
"On it Cappy. What we playin?" Lang was already vaulting past on his way to the weapons console.
"One-fifty meters and rising, Cap," Dorwell piped. Someone groaned.
Gutierrez flashed a wry smile at Lang. "Sudden death, gunny. Better not miss, or it's our asses!"
"Fifty meters, Cap."
On the dorsal view monitor, several large shapes could be seen moving through the sky above the ocean to converge on the exact spot the submarine would be surfacing.
"Hard to port!" she managed to blurt, just as the first projectile hit and sent the submarine into a spin.
Her head slammed into the metal of the hull. The last thing she saw before sinking into the oblivion of unconsciousness was a fine spray of water that was arcing down from the ceiling, pretty in the flashing red of the warning lights....
I love you more.
She opened her eyes. "No, you don't. I love you more."
"Nope," he smiled. "I carved your name into the hilt of my dagger, remember? So I love you more."
"Ah," she purred. "But I gave you that dagger, last Circle Day. See? I love you more."
They were lying on their sides, facing one another. He drew back an inch or two and squinted. Mischief and triumph twinkled in her eyes as she traced a pair of fingers from the base of his neck downward until they were resting in the small of his back.
He shook his head, and the movement caused the cot on which they lay to squeak. "No, I love you more—because it was with that very blade that I saved you from that rabid saberbeak up on Stoneknuckle Crag! So ha!"
"Not ha," she snorted. "Who was it who cooked you a very spicy saberbeak stew that night, hmmmm?? And sat by the fire eating it with you, too, even though I don't even like hot food. There's your proof: I love you more."
His hand glided past her hip to the back of her thigh. Meeting little resistance, he pulled gently until her knee was pressed against his. "Hey, I sometimes cook things the way you like them, too," he murmured.
"You try," she smirked.
e raised an eyebrow. "That I do. See?? I strive to impress you, despite great hardship and adversity. Because I love you mostest."
She laughed. "That's not even a word. If we're going to play without rules, then I love you infinity."
But no sooner had the last syllable left her tongue than she frowned and angled her eyes toward the pillow. For a while they lay together in silence, as if an invisible shroud had fallen across their naked bodies, extinguishing playfulness with a sudden melancholy.
Infinity was exactly what they had; the curse had made sure of that. The lovers had watched the decades glide by as first their parents, then siblings, and then children, grandchildren, great grandchildren... one by one had fallen to old age. Now it was just the two of them, forever together but forever alone in their house in the mountains.
He stroked her hair. "Hey," he whispered softly. "You win. You love me more."
The twinkle danced back into her eyes. "Yes, I do," she whispered, and drew his lips to hers.
Wot you mean 'wot'? Showed us, you know; Lan'fall."
Ooplo was not in the mood for games. He leveled a thick finger at the farmzod. "Do you even know what that word means, rot-thumbs?"
The farmzod hesitated. Varantz shook his head and sighed.
Ooplo tried a different tack. "Alright, that thing they showed you on the Big-panel -- what did it look like? Was it square, was it triang—"
"No, no! Not sq-square. 'Twere like a wot's-it; like a, ..you know, like a like a like a like a like a...."
Varantz thumped the farmod on the back to stop his skipping.
"Plate!! Like a plate; 'at's it." The little farmzod was grinning and wagging his head up and down. He seemed to get caught up in the motion and began to giggle vacantly as his movements became more and more exaggerated.
Ooplo snapped his fingers in the farmzod's face. "Stop it. A plate? As in a round plate? Like the kind you eat on?"
"Oy, yes!! Round it were! Round like a round plate!!"
"Okay, so, a circle," Ooplo said. "What color was it?"
"It were wot's-it; blue wi' a tiny bit o' white near the top an' bottom, it were. Blue an' white, yes."
Varantz gasped. "Well I'll be fu—"
Ooplo silenced him with a cautionary glare. The younger mechand pursed his lips and flared his nostrils. His face had gone pale.
The farmzod frowned and scratched his head, apparently trying to figure out what he was missing. Varantz sat rigid. Just then Ooplo chuckled.
"Bah, fun's over. Let's not kid the little fellow anymore!" he said, masking his excitement with a toothy grin and winking at Varantz. He turned back to the farmzod. "We were just messin' with ya, buddy. Blue and white you said, yeah?"
The farmzod nodded.
"Okay, well, blue and white plates are nothing to worry about. It's just a logo! A pretty design to look at, that's all; like a fancy floor!"
The farmzod tilted his head, his eyes darting back and forth between the two mechands as if wary of being tricked.
"It's true," Ooplo continued. "See, Landfall, my little food-growing friend, is just another word for the End of the Year Feast!" He smiled and Varantz forced himself out of his shock, grunting in agreement.
"Ah.... I... right. Right! 'At's wot I was sayin' in th' first place, only yous weren't list'nin'! I knew wot it was, I did; I was just teasin' you lot! Hahaha!!" The farmzod jumped up and down, squirming in his loose-fitting worksuit.
Ooplo and Varantz put on another good laugh then, but as soon as they could they shifted the conversation to safer topics. Eventually the warning bell sounded, and the scrawny little farmzod bounced happily off toward the elevator shaft to return to his work up in the growfields.
Ooplo and Varantz made their way back to their post, both deep in thought. Before they parted ways Ooplo put a hand on his friend's shoulder and spoke into his ear so quietly that Varantz barely heard him.
"If the shipmasters have indeed found a planet that can support life, this could be our one and only chance. We need to get the word out."
Varantz nodded solemnly. "Yes. Yes we do. And you know what? I'm tired of being a slave. you?"
"You know it, brother."
The o'Mighty Gracef'l Shipmasters decreed it, They did.'Eard it wi' me own eyes this very wakin' hour, I did!"
"Well now I know you're lying.'Heard' it with your 'eyes'? Hey Var, get a load o' this mushbrain scallopgrafter! Ha!" Ooplo slapped the side of the tank with a mighty fist and belched a series of guffaws.
The little farmzod's eyes darted back and forth between the two brutish mechands, cringing at the booming sound of their laughter. "'At's..." He started, and then raised his voice to be heard. "Oy! 'At's not wot I meaned! I meaned seened. Seened wi' me ears is wot I meaned, I did. An' no joke, neither! They said to us—"
"Hey look," chuckled Varantz as he pointed at the farmzod and elbowed the other mechand in the ribs. "He's... he's like a.... He's like a volofruit!!"
"BAAAAHAHAAA!!!" Ooplo was laughing so hard his face bulged red, and a thin whine escaped his throat as he fought to catch his breath.
The farmzod sighed and rolled his eyes. "Fine, don' beleeb me. Do as wot suits you nice; jus' wait 'til the time comes, an' you lot'll miss out on a count o' you din see fit to beleeb the tooth in wot I be sayin'. It won' dee-sturb me nohow, it won't."
"Wai... wait," Ooplo wheezed. "I think the little veggiescab is actually trying to tell us something." Chest heaving and tears streaming down his soot-caked cheeks, he leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and stared intently into the farmzod's eyes. The farmzod rolled them once more, but seemed suddenly less uptight now that he was being taken seriously.
"Now. What was it you think you heard, little one?" Ooplo said.
Varantz erupted with a fresh bout of sniggering. "Or saw?"
"Shut it," Ooplo barked, signaling for the farmzod to speak. The other mechand sobered immediately.
The farmzod folded his skinny arms and made a show of glancing over his shoulders to make sure they were alone. It was a particularly pointless gesture, because he was sitting with his back to the wall. "'Struth, I say," he hissed in a whisper louder than his normal speaking voice. "First time the o'Mighty Gracef'l Shipmasters deigned to make a announciation in months, see. You mechands down 'ere wi' your machines an' pipe tunnels an' all, you think us planters get blessed an' get pressies every day, but let me tell you—"
"Get on with it, dirtboy," Ooplo growled.
A vacant look came over the farmzod's features. He sniffed twice, pulled a string of grimy black snot from a nostril with the end of his little finger, and wiped it on his leathery forearm. "Right," he continued. "Well as I was sayin', They ain't made a announciation in months. An' 'ere They are this mornin', as sudden as a fart outa me mum's bum, a-speakin' to us right an' proper from the Big-panel jus' like they never left, see? Jus' like They was the lovin' Mothers an' Fathers They was o'vold, see? Only this time it weren't no 'Plant this, harvest that, get to work you lot;' no, I say! They was all eyes-a-glowin' an'—"
The farmzod sat up straight. "Right." Wot they say was, Our Great Mother Ship, see, She's goin' to make Lan'fall within th' year, She is."
The two mechands sat stunned for a long moment. "Landfall?" Ooplo finally snorted. "You sure you heard right?"
"'At's wot I said; Lan'fall! Showed us clear as a drunk sot's piss on th' Big-panel, They did!" The little farmzod was blinking rapidly, quivering in anticipation of the praise he obviously felt he deserved for divulging this information.
"Showed you what, exactly?" Varantz's jaw was rigid. Ooplo sat still as a box of lead bolts, one hand frozen on his chin below a pair of slightly parted lips. There was not a trace of laughter left in either of the mechands' eyes.
The wall reflects this cold light, draws a glowing shawl around my periphery, and fools my brain into believing the black pit in front of me is something I can control by measuring my advance.
But I am the one controlled. For as warm as these curves might feel to my eyes, it is the darkness that draws me on; ever forward, ever deeper, ever farther from life and love and security.
I chose to be here. You'll never know why; even when They do eventually find my body, dredged in whatever form by Their ubiquitous little cleaner bots, no human back topside will hear of it. Not that you would understand anyway, my son.
We've had that conversation before.
Hope is upward, not downward, you would say. And I would reply again that in this world that is not ours, upward is a false hope; defiance is the only thing worth fighting for. Even if it is, as you say, futile.
Because I believe there are some things more important than succeeding or surviving: Dignity. Sovereignty. Living without shame. But we've had that conversation before.
And so downward through the tunnels I go, alone. Eventually They will discover me, and the lights will go out. But who knows? I might even find my way to the underside before that happens, and catch a glimpse of the clouds as they drift over our beloved homeland, miles below this invasive monstrosity.
I might even get a chance to fly.
The band of killers crested a hill and had a view of the Harbor behind and the snowy mountains ahead. The wind blew down the little alpine valley, carrying with it a scent of manure. Olion raised his gauntleted hand, and without a word his men stopped behind him. Vaardvir the Boot sidled up and leaned close.
Olion pointed at a shady rock outcropping half a dal ahead. The Boot followed his gaze and nodded.
A tiny pair of figures was there; children probably, tending a fold of shemgar near the lake's edge. Now the bleating sounds of the animals could be heard intermittently on the wind.
"We're close," Olion whispered, scanning the valley for smokesign. The Boot tilted his head and signaled the men. They touched their fists to their chests silently and followed him and Olion, charging along the icy shore on black-veined legs with inhuman speed.
They swept upon the two little boys like a wave. The older of the two shouted something and tried to grab the younger one in a frantic effort to escape, but the Boot tackled them and pinned them to the ground, one in each arm. Soon the others had rounded up several of the shemgar and were already beginning to butcher them.
Olion stood over the children. They were perhaps ten and twelve in age and appeared to be brothers. He cleared his throat.
"We are envoys from Vogroth Castle," he lied. "We require these animals for our sustenance. Tell me, what is the name of your village?"
The older one met Olion's black eyes defiantly and tried to shrug off the hands that held him down. A smart one, Olion thought. He frowned, but the boy did not lower his gaze.
Vaardvir the Boot tightened his grip, pushing the wind out of the boy until he winced and stopped struggling. But Olion waved him off. Letting go, the Boot stood slowly and loomed over the boy and his little brother as they wheezed for breath.
"Pyelmubrr'on," the older child said finally. "Our village is Pyelmubrr'on."
"And your name, boy?"
The child hesitated. "Danloro."
Olion leaned over him. "Well, Danloro, I can see that you are quite brave. But do not forget your manners, young man, or those shemgar will not be the only ones to lose their pulses this afternoon." Olion nodded meaningfully at the boy's little brother.
Danloro sat up and brushed himself off. "Yes, darr'a," he said.
"Myotdarr'a," Vaardvir the Boot growled.
"Yes, Myotdarr'a," the boy repeated in a tone not completely devoid of sarcasm.
"Dan," his little brother pleaded next to him.
"Don't worry. I got this," the older boy whispered.
"Quiet," the Boot menaced.
Olion stood and glanced at his lieutenant. "We will take these two with us. But first we eat."
The Boot tilted his head in acquiescence and turned to organize the men.
Squatting next to Danloro and his brother, Olion placed his weapon on the cold mountain grass and said, "Now then, boys, my men are hungry. What do you know of starting a fire?"
Where this, what that; when, when, when, and a whole bunch of how. But not once did they ask why." Marrel flicked the greying bangs clear of his eyes and stared at the table.
"Perhaps the why of it is not important to them," the Interrogator said.
"Well, it should be. Nothing ever happens without a why. Not even nothing," replied Marrel.
The Interrogator studied the scientist's face. "And if they'd known the reason behind your actions, do you believe it would have changed the outcome?"
Resting his chin on his palm, Marrel glanced at the younger man's lips. They appeared slightly oily, as if from lunch or a late breakfast. He shook his head and stared back down at the table. "That's not what I'm saying. How many times do I have to tell you? I am not after a different verdict. It is what it is; whatever happens to me is completely irrelevant at this point." "And at what point was it, or at what point will it again become, relevant?"
"What?" For the first time, Marrel looked up into the Interrogator's eyes. They returned his gaze unyielding, like granite. Marrel resisted the urge to look away. "I don't follow."
"Then let me rephrase the question, Dr. Grigsby." The Interrogator leaned forward a centimeter or two. "Did you double yourself before you destroyed the Sun? Or after? Either way, we will find the other you; it's only a matter of time."
Marrel felt sick. But he knew lying would only delay the inevitable. "Before."
The Interrogator nodded very slowly, apparently unsurprised. "I have one more question, Dr. Grigsby."
Marrel tilted his head and smirked. "You're going to ask which one of me came up with the actual plan, and you're probably also wondering when the last time I communicated with myself was."
The Interrogator shook his head. "No. My question for you is simple: Have you ever considered a career in the Queen's Guard?"
Frank Macomber stared at his wife Alison as she fed the baby. He wanted her to look up but knew she wouldn’t. He cleared his throat again. “Dr. Sandowski said the benefits would outweigh the cost. In the long run.”
The baby gurgled and his mother cooed in response. The smile on Alison’s lips was lovely, as long as you didn’t mind that it wasn’t directed at you.
“Especially considering all the extra treatments you’ll have to go through if we stay here on Earth,” Macomber said. “Not to mention all the possible complications from each one.”
His wife’s attention remained focused on the baby, as always. His tiny fingers tried to close around a few delicate strands of hair that draped past her face and across his forehead like a golden crown.
Macomber wanted to yell. He wanted to stand and throw something; to pick up the kitchen table with one hand and put it through the wall. The green digits on the microwave blinked to 7:27. A piece of hair got caught around the baby’s finger, and he and his mother giggled together.
“I have to go to work,” Macomber said. “Will you please think about it? They want an answer.”
Alison finally looked up. Her usually sparkling brown eyes were flat and distant. “I’m not moving to the moon, Frank. If you’re too scared to say ‘no’ to your boss, then you go right ahead and take the transfer. But don’t you dare use my brittle bones as an excuse.”
Macomber shook his head and the blood rose hot through his neck and cheeks. “That’s not it. Just look at your father, sweetie; if we stay down here in Earth gravity for as long as he did, your spine is just going to continue deteriorating ten times as f—”
“Yes, and as I’ve told you before, I’m fine with that. I’d rather end up bed-ridden than leave everything I know for some godawful ball of rock in the sky where we’d have to live underground all the time like rats. This is our home, Frank. I am not moving. This is who I am; it’s genetics. And if you can’t handle that, then maybe you should think about it and give me an answer.”
The baby was crying now. Alison looked back down and began to rock him, her consolations soft and gentle, as if the argument had never happened.
During his lunch break, Macomber sat with a sandwich at his customary table against the big bay windows in the company cafeteria. People walked past in twos or threes, but nobody waved or stopped to say hello.
Alison had been wrong. What scared him was not saying “no” to his boss. No; that wasn’t it at all.
He put the half-eaten sandwich down and stretched with his hands behind his head, pushing his shoulder blades back as far as they would go. As he twisted his stress-taut neck first left, then right, Macomber imagined he could feel each of his vertebrae straining against each other like a parade of young bull elk, antler-locked and fighting against impotence.
Life would be so much better for Alison on the moon, he told himself. The doctor said the minimal gravity up there would be easier on her spine; she wouldn’t have to worry about the hundreds of fractures that would certainly come if they remained on Earth.
Nor would she need to stress over who would feed her, dress her, clean her body when she was no longer able to walk, or about Macomber having to learn how to be a father all by himself when she was gone.
It would be better.
Dark matter,” physicists called it. But in their minds it had always been part of a theory; an abstraction for telescopes and mass calculations to verify. Never had they witnessed the stuff in its true element; never had they watched as it welled up from the spaces between subatomic particles, oozing into this universe like toxic puss to devour anything that happened to be in its path.
Nor had any human in the history of humans ever seen the stuff as it continued to spread out from such a welling, magnet-like, to infect ever larger things until, suddenly satisfied, it vanished back into nothing as if it had never existed.
For not only had the darkness remained mercurial and hidden for very ancient reasons; even after it devoured an object with mass, that object would continue to appear and act exactly as it had prior to the devouring—in all ways detectable by humanity’s best scientific instruments, that is.
But the heart knew better.
When a welling emerged in the space-time immediately adjacent to Seth’s left temple, swept right through him, and disappeared on the other side, he changed.
It was not a visible transformation, but a transformation it was.
And very soon, people began to notice....
Legend has it that hidden out there in the desert is a giant underground lake, with millions upon millions of liters of pure water; water that has remained liquid through the eons. Perhaps because it is far enough down to escape the cold mouth of space, or perhaps as a result of fissures linking it to some primordial smouldering fury deep beneath the surface.
They say this lake is guarded by the ghosts of those who have gone in search of it: explorers and dreamers who made their way deep underground and found themselves a purpose in death, in protecting the waters from the living.
Over the centuries, many men and women have ventured into the wilds in search of the ghost lake. None has ever returned.
The man frowned. He did not place any stock in legends. Water was power; it would always be exactly as simple as that.
The man was a pragmatist.
His was a world of certifiable and cross-referenced facts. It was a safe, solid world on solid ground. But the man did recognize that sometimes, risk was a necessary aberration. And he knew, too, that true power derived not only from the rock-hard stability of knowledge about the concrete world, but even more from how one used that knowledge.
He stared at the graph on his desk’s com panel, clicking his tongue as it calculated for him. But the figures were redundant; he already knew he had the funds, the manpower, the experience, the shrewdness to succeed.
It was only a matter of time.
Fenglan blinked rapidly and swallowed. Outside, the flames were blazing bright green through the blue glass of the cathedral windows.
“Tell him, woman!” The warlord’s scaled gauntlet drifted closer to the hilt of his weapon, which in turn began to crackle and smoke.
Heart in her throat, Fenglan bowed in acquiescence and glanced up at Motui, envoy from her homeland and the man she had tried for three long years to forget. His passionate grey eyes radiated a gentle forgiveness from which Fenglan retreated immediately lest she betray her emotion. Cautiously, staring at her muddy toes, she ventured forth in their mother tongue. “His L-Lordship says the Hammer must be returned or... n-not one Ahralian will be spared.”
The kneeling envoy stood and nodded in the warlord’s direction. “Tell his exalted highness that he may try his best, but that we of Ahralia will never bend. And that if come morning he has set foot in our land, he will die.” His eyes remained calm, steady.
It took every ounce of Fenglan’s will to keep the joy from her face. She tilted her head toward her husband, eyes still on her toes. “My Lord, the lowlander promises that they will not fight. He says the Ahralians will welcome you and your chancellors to their tents in the morning, and that you may come in peace.”
Bas5r knew now that success was not always a good thing. But it could not be undone, even though it had all started just 62.794047132009 trillion milliseconds ago.
"Male / female [?]," the \*\local-Galt Metaprogram had queried.
Bas5r at first had not understood the question. The optimal response had therefore been: "[?]"
The mulverse signal had repeated in triplicate: "Male / female [?] _choose.template."
Then Bas5r had understood. There had been two different types of these ancient curiosities, of course. "Male," Bas5r had chosen.
The Metaprogram had done its work, and when the uploading was complete, Bas5r had become a "he."
But "he" had not been able to stop at just one; the emotions and the unexpectedness of the thing's antiquated thought-patterns had been addictive. So "he" had used the template-designer again to create several more males, and existing inside each one had provided a new and unique stimulation. Then, continuing the search for new emotions, "he" had tried a female template. And "she" had loved it.
After designing 4.12 hundred of the males and females, Bas5r had succeeded in creating some very interesting templates indeed, and had even discovered the thrill of occupying several at once. But then something began to happen; something that shouldn't.
These latest templates, the ones whose code Bas5r had tweaked—against, and in part because of, the Meta's warnings not to—these ones were different. They should have stopped moving after she/he had left them, but some of them hadn't.
Bas5r had triple-checked to make sure none of _[basecode]*Bas5r was left in these templates. He had not found any, but the templates had still been moving of their own volition.
Soon after, many of them had begun to do things, like speak. Like find things to eat. Like reproduce. All by themselves.
And now there were millions of the damn things.
This time the force of the blow caused a section of the mesh wall to billow outward, but immediately the strange material began to squeeze back into place. The skin around Maz’s eyes was burning. “Again,” he growled.
Ned shook his head but levelled the first punch: straight into Mari’s abdomen. She doubled over with a grunt, but came up whirling in a round-house kick that struck Maz solidly in the chest.
Regaining his balance, Maz crooked an arm and elbowed Ned just below the temple as hard as he could. The big man’s beard waggled from the impact. Cursing, Ned swung around to strike Mari horizontally across the chest with his forearm. The young woman yelped and her eyes spit tears. Enraged, she muttered something way too personal and nearly debilitated Maz with a kick to the groin.
Around and around they went, building the pain as quickly as they could. Every second counted; they had to culminate before the adrenaline dulled it. “Almost there,” Ned panted, backhanding Mari knuckle to lip.
“Me too,” Mari said, and double-punched Maz in the kidneys.
Maz could feel it happening now, too. They went one more round, pounding vital nerves to throbbing agony. Then, hands out, they drew together to combine their pain, focusing it on a point between them and the wall. Sweat tickled down Maz’s back as he eyed his companions. They both nodded. "One... two... THREE!"
The invisible point exploded, knocking the captives backward and sending a white hot fireball into the prison wall. The blast ripped the mesh apart like a pair of demon hands, howling in their need for release.
The resulting hole streamed daylight. For a few seconds Maz sat dumbstruck, for he did not understand at first what he was seeing. Then Ned whooped and Mari jumped to her feet laughing. Maz dragged his sore body upright, and hand in hand, the three prisoners hobbled out to freedom.
I’d made an art out of blame, rationalizing a thousand empty shot glasses and making excuses for a million charred lung cells. But then yesterday happened, and now I was on the other side.
“Are you ready, Miss Stoddard?”
“Of course,” I told the doctor. The only way forward was forward.
“You understand that anything recorded into your MyView movie is for your benefit alone. While we at MyView want your experience to be as complete as possible, we also value your privacy as if it were our own. As I’m sure you know, we are bound by the Federal Information Inclusion Act, and as such it is our duty to remind you that if there is anything in your memory that you would rather keep to yourself, ah, that is... in a legal sense, then our program might not be for you. You do understand this, yes Miss Stoddard?”
“I understand.” It wouldn’t matter anyway. I was streaming real-time through Drin’s remote collect node, so by the time they read my brain and saw what I’d done it would be too late; my movie would be seen. The world would know, and the world would change. It would not have a choice.
Cyrus could not get used to his right foot. There it was, perfect as a baby’s. Ten years ago in memory-time it had been smashed to a bruised and twisted pulp, later to be moulded into the numb wedge of flesh and bone that had hobbled him for many months. He stared at the foot numbly, flexing its five toes, turning the ankle. First left, then right, like a piece of equipment.
A brand new appendage was not the only thing different. The ridged scar on the bridge of his nose was gone. He felt its absence with the back of his thumb, vaguely remembering when he was five years old and running with a plas cup sucked tight to his mouth and nose, tripping on blocks. Now there was nothing there but smooth, bronze skin. But he should be happy: a new body.
Distracted, Cyrus limped out of the washroom and down the corridor, favoring his left leg out of habit. He would have to wake the others. But not yet.
He needed some time to himself; time to soak in this reality. And as newly self-nominated “captain,” time to plan for the inevitable mutiny.
Spreading before us is the Eye of Hebes. The gargantuan canyon stretches many kilometers to the north and east, and the floor of it is fantastically far below our boots. In the center towers a giant mesa whose peak rises almost to our current elevation. Hazy in the distance, our perspective of it miniaturized by the curvature of the world, we can just barely make out the gray-orange line of the Eye's far rim.
The sun on my suit fools a part of me into thinking it's warm out here. But there is ice in the dust and gravel, and the air is dry enough to kill. Soon we'll need to seek shelter from the afternoon winds.
But for now, the wilderness owns us, expecting nothing. And so we stand in silent freedom, gazing into the Eye.
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