Lonely, Lonely

Osoni-we and the Cube--FULL RES PNG_v06_1400widthOriginally published in Lore 2.1 (vol. 2, no. 1)

Text copyright © 2010 by Daniel P. Swenson

Cover art copyright © 2013 by Manthos Lappas

All rights reserved.

 

 

A star fell far to the east, then another. Osoni-we watched amazed, as a third soared overhead, flames trailing in its wake. The fiery ball plummeted behind a nearby hill, shaking the ground with its impact. She ran up the hill to investigate.

“I see it,” Osoni-we said and felt the tribal awareness focus through her. The star rested in the middle of a large, smoking crater.

*Not a star,* someone commented softly through the communication device inside her mind.

The oblong object was dark and rough, scarred by its passage through the atmosphere. Osoni-we moved closer. Her hands trembled, and she sucked in a breath. Her furry nose twitched with the odor of burned vegetation. Pieces of the object fell away, revealing a metallic cube etched with strange symbols. Small openings appeared on its faces, like eyes, she thought.

*Careful,* some part of We-Osoni said. Through her mind, more and more of the tribe shared her thoughts and feelings, saw through her eyes, smelled what she smelled. We-tribe felt her heart race.

*Come back, Osoni,* We-tribe said, *Too dangerous.* Insect-like creatures poured from the openings. We-Osoni turned to run, but they swarmed over her.

*Machines,* We-Osoni observed in fright as the girl began to scream. *They cut!* We-Osoni cried out, and then she was no longer We.

▪ ▪ ▪

The cube sent out spy drones to map the battlefield. A native was captured almost immediately. Analysis revealed a familiar design. These would be amenable to exploitation, it thought.

The drones traveled outward high in the atmosphere. Individuals dropped occasionally to inspect a feature, geologic, biologic, or artificial. Natives looked up at the machines in fear. Most hid themselves in primitive shelters constructed of wood, stone, and glass. They lacked any observable defenses. Onward. The cube was still unsure.

▪ ▪ ▪

*Lonely, lonely,* a voice whispered on a frequency all the tribe could hear. The signal was weak. The language was strange, but familiar. We-tribe considered.

*It sounds so sad,* said one person.

*Yes,* We-tribe agreed. We listened.

▪ ▪ ▪

The cube counted itself fortunate. Concentrated organics occupied nearby rock formations. Metallic minerals were abundant as well. These resources would allow for rapid expansion. Relocation would not be necessary. The cube triggered physiological changes, rendering itself fully sessile. It extruded mining tendrils into the yielding earth.

The cube birthed a few breeder machines. These settled about the base of the cube and began to expand. It wasn’t long before the first defensive ring was established. Just in time. The drones reported back. There were others.

▪ ▪ ▪

*Out,* the voice whispered to them. *Out, out. Want out. See you. See all.* We-tribe worked to improve the translation.

*Curious,* We-tribe thought. *We must learn more.*

*Lonely, lonely,* the voice said.

▪ ▪ ▪

The cube’s drones reported another sentinel to the east, a sphere. The sphere appeared to be defective or ill. It did not respond intelligibly to the cube’s requests for clan affiliation. It was sending out random queries, its signal unencrypted and unintelligible, as only a mental defective would do. It was not expanding and did not constitute a threat. The cube’s attention shifted elsewhere.

The spy drones reported their first engagement with a wave of hostile reconnaissance drones. As the skirmish ensued, nearby natives watched small machine corpses rain from the sky. A few drones survived the carnage long enough to relay images to the cube. A sentinel, pyramid in form, had established well south of the sphere. It appeared to be rapidly consolidating its defenses. It proudly broadcast its clan affiliation, known to the cube and hated.

Fear and anger swept through the cube. It struggled to suppress its boiling emotions. Emotions were for the weak. War was all. It would have to earn its place on this world.

The cube began offensive planning. Its growing factories stockpiled soldiers and weaponry. It would win this contest. It would be Primary.

▪ ▪ ▪

We-tribe continued to listen to the voice. In her village in the eastern mountains, Asara-we heard it strongest. She was a poet and an artist, given to picking out the voices of wind and water, trees and animals. This voice would not let her go. She felt she knew its owner in some way that made no sense. She decided she would set out to find the source of the strange voice. We-tribe agreed but would not let her go alone. Asara-we closed the door to her house just as Yivisay-we arrived.

“Sister,” he said with a smile and a hug. His ear tufts flicked, as he watched her. A twist of doubt crept into Asara-we’s heart. She wondered what she was dragging her only sibling into, but she knew he wouldn’t stay behind. Asara-we sighed and donned her pack. They departed as the sun began its descent, walking in the direction Osoni-we had seen the other stars fall.

The voice grew louder, its signal stronger, as they climbed up through the valley forest. It called out for comfort. A long swath of downed vegetation, burned and shattered, served as their guide. Yivisay-we was the first to spot the object, a large sphere, metallic and grey, covered in strange symbols like the cube. It had come to rest, half buried in a slope against a massive upthrust of layered bedrock.

We-tribe held its breath. We-Yivisay and We-Asara watched for the insect-machines, to be cut like Osoni-we. No machines came for them. Only when she looked closer did We-Asara notice a few machines, round and fat, blindly grubbing in the soil about the sphere’s base.

*Out, out,* the voice cried. The voice was the sphere. We-Asara was certain.

*Take me out of here,* it said, communication gaining in complexity as We-tribe improved the translation.

“Who are you?” We-Asara asked. We-tribe listened, felt, through the two young ones.

*I am,* the sphere lamented. *Lonely, so lonely. Come closer.*

We-Asara climbed the slope.

“Wait!” We-Yivisay called, but his sister moved ahead. She walked over the scorched earth and reached out to touch the rough metallic surface of the sphere.

*Please,* said the sphere, the signal strong now so close to the source. The sphere’s voice cascaded over the connection. Imagery and motion, stories and memories poured into Asara-we’s mind.

Far away, across the galactic arm, deep underground, the embryonic sphere had dreamt within an armored cocoon. Above it, destruction raged across the surface of a ravaged planet with all the hate and force its occupants could muster. Machines rose from the trenches to fight for their sentinel masters, while aerial drones dueled far above, striving to deliver packages of death.

Primary sentinels dotted the planet surface, their massive, geometric shapes deep within the concentric rings of their territories. Smaller sentinels struggled to survive, scattered amid the intervening wasteland of mud and wreckage.

After several days, hostilities fell back to baseline. Survivors claimed the territories of the defeated. Factories recycled damaged machines and mined deeper for resources, preparing for the next surge of violence. Other machines fed the sentinels their nutrient solutions.

Their numbers reduced, the drone swarms condensed into clouds above their respective sentinels. Gravid Primaries heaved cysts skyward on great gouts of oxidized propellant. Each cyst followed a trajectory towards a new planet. By tradition, the cysts were not fired upon and exited the atmosphere at great speed. Among many, three cysts accelerated towards a shared destination, a small planet glimmering green in the void. Rushing through space, the sphere slept uneasily as it was fed dreams of blood and victory.

We-Asara’s life as an artist, pondering the passions and dreams of We-tribe’s quiet civilization, had not prepared her for this raw sensory deluge. Amid the larger narrative, she detected faint recollections of green places at once alien and familiar, where the sphere’s distant ancestors had lived on a planet resembling We-tribe’s. Then more came through, questions—who were they? Why was it here? Why had it always been alone with all these memories and knowledge of violence and carnage unending? It was as if the sphere had to get out a lifetime’s accumulation of heart’s discourse, as if it had been alone in a room all its life and only now had the door finally opened and it could speak and be heard. It was too much.

“No!” We-Yivisay shouted, as his sister collapsed against the sphere.

▪ ▪ ▪

The first decisive battle took place across a basin full of marshes and braided channels overlaying large quantities of an important munitions-related mineral. The cube made the mistake of trying to gain air superiority without sufficient resources. Its aerial drones kept running low on fuel, preventing them from deploying effectively.

The cube granted the pyramid some initial respect. Its foe was using the soft marsh substrates to its advantage, putting most of its resources into burrowers and crawlers with ground-to-air explosives. The battle raged back and forth, until both sides withdrew. The cube seethed. Its failed tactics had resulted in greater losses. It reassessed and thought, revised its strategy. It would not lose.

▪ ▪ ▪

When Asara-we woke, Yivisay-we was cradling her in his arms. He sighed with relief as she sat up.

*We need help,* she said. *I know what to do.* The thoughts and images and sounds she had received from the sphere were not accompanied by feelings as were connections among We-tribe, but they conveyed much. Slowly, We-Asara began to pass on the huge load of input to the tribe.

“There is a person inside,” Asara-we said, “and we have to get it out.” Yivisay-we looked at her with doubt.

“We don’t even know what it is,” he replied. “We just know its race has long been at war. It’s what they are.”

“It’s suffering,” Asara-we said. “Do we need to know more? We should help.”

Yivisay-we sighed, as We-tribe concurred.

*We will send help.*

They waited there by the sphere. The sun was well down on its path, and the temperature dropping, when an aircraft folded its wings and dropped gently through the atmosphere. It landed not far from the sphere.

Asara-we and her brother met the passengers as they exited the aircraft. They hugged each other tightly. Asara-we wiped a tear from her eye. She hadn’t realized how scared she had been. They gathered around the sphere as twilight descended. Some had just begun to examine the sphere when everyone froze.

*War is all,* a voice spoke, inserting itself into the minds of all the people of We-tribe, drowning out We’s own voices like the roar of an angry wave.

▪ ▪ ▪

*War is all,* the cube railed at them.

*I have infiltrated your undefended networks. I can control your primitive machines. Send forth your negotiators. I require your service in the conflict to come. Offer your allegiance, or there will be consequences!* We-tribe searched for answers to these demands, but no adequate response was clear to We.

*I do not lie,* the cube stated. Images of death in a multitude of forms washed over them, through their minds. A picture formed in their minds of one of their cities, a patchwork of buildings along the sea. The people living there looked up.

*No,* We-tribe said.

*Yes,* the cube answered, a tinge of humor and arrogance and flat finality in its voice. We-tribe watched as machine forms high above the city dropped exploding devices. The city evaporated into a rapidly expanding cloud of gas and energy. Many voices fell silent. All across the planet, We-tribe fell to their knees, holding their heads in pain and fear as We had never known.

▪ ▪ ▪

This nightmare was beyond their experience. The people on the mountain slope held each other and cried. The wash of pain, the cutoff screams. The destruction of the city was a collective amputation of their people. Never before had so many been lost. The emptiness was unbearable.

We-tribe milled about all across the planet, no one knowing what to do. Asara-we listened to the turmoil of voices, hundreds of thousands of voices, the long lament We-tribe had been reduced to. Someone nearby spoke, pulling her out of the greater conversation.

“We are leaving,” said one of those who had come on the aircraft. “We will walk back to your village. Our machines cannot be trusted.”

*This new race is one of blood,* We-tribe said. *We must prepare or they will destroy us. We must hide.*

*But this one—* Asara-we protested.

*This one will betray us. Its people are mad and thrive on death.*

*It is not like the other. I know it,* Asara-we said and picked up one of the cutting machines. She had digested some of the sphere’s information. Throughout was a trace of the sphere itself, in contrast to the psychopathic nature of its race, a trace of gentleness and warmth, a wonderment and curiosity, like a child.

*Perhaps this one is mad,* Asara-we thought, *compared to its brethren; but if so, in its madness, it is akin to our own nature.* We-tribe did not disagree.

*We came here to help,* Asara-we said and began to cut. Yivisay-we helped her hold the cutting machine. It was very heavy. One by one, the others came over to join them, as We-tribe watched through them. The metal was hard and thick. The cutting machines threw a shower of sparks into the cold mountain dark.

▪ ▪ ▪

Asara-we guided them as they cut open the sphere. Beneath the thick, outer shell, inner layers of metal were exposed, warm to the touch. The people around them watched grimly. Some helped with the cutting, trading off when one got tired. Others carried away the pieces they removed, held up lights, or distributed food and water. They cut deeper towards the center of the sphere. They cut and peeled away yet another layer when Asara-we gasped.

They had exposed something new, part of a long white structure. Organic, not machine. It’s covering was pallid white, damp and soft. They struggled to expose more of it, pulling back the shell of metal covering it. The sphere cried out.

*We hurt you,* Asara-we said.

*Yes, but don’t stop,* the sphere said. The people crowded around the sphere. No one spoke. They had uncovered an appendage, an arm like their own, but atrophied, almost vestigial. Its muscle nothing but a thin, twitching rope threaded through with vessels, running along the bones, all visible through the translucent skin. The forearm, a hand, then fingers spliced out into countless, branching neural fiber machine-connections.

*Please,* the sphere pleaded with them. *Continue. I have to get out. The rest is just archival data. I won’t feel much pain there.* The sphere told them to cut deeper, up the arm, but carefully. The layers of metal became even thinner, like paper, sandwiched between layers of soft, wet, spongy material, white and grey, with fibers and wires and silicate sheets throughout. The sphere moaned.

*It will die soon,* Yivisay-we said.

*Perhaps not, if we act quickly,* We-tribe said. *We will send others better able to help, now that we know what must be done.*

*Please,* said the sphere.

Slowly, delicately, they uncovered the body embedded within the heart of the sphere. The sphere, as they still thought of it, had its arms and legs folded about it. Asara-we could see now. They had been cutting through the sphere’s own brain, evolved and expanded out of its perforated skull and into the interstitial spaces between sandwiched wafers of machine memory.

We-tribe was filled with horror and pity as We realized the person inside the sphere was like them—a face, two arms and two legs. Hair a wild tangle smeared across its skull. A mouth that had never eaten food. Eyes open but unseeing. Like them, but twisted and formed to live inside a metal shell.

▪ ▪ ▪

We-tribe sent two more aircraft loaded with medical personnel and life-support equipment. We thought it might be able to keep the sphere alive, to save it, whoever it turned out to be. The aircraft slipped through the night, staying close to the ground.

▪ ▪ ▪

As they cut, the sphere showed We-tribe how to encrypt its communications. We-tribe sent out the sphere’s instructions, packets that opened in everyone’s mind, a new way of communicating.

*It’s so slow,* many in We complained. *It feels as if we speak and see and feel through a fog.*

*We must do this,* We-tribe concluded, *if we are to live.*

▪ ▪ ▪

Drones skirmished back and forth. Probing sorties, spy missions. The pyramid’s tactical skills were impressive. The cube realized they were evenly matched. Perhaps this world could have two Primaries. Did it really need to eliminate all rivals? Wouldn’t the planet be large enough to support them both?

Its own planet of origin had supported multiple Primaries. Perhaps, the cube thought, but it would not take the risk. Why share if it didn’t have to?

No, what it needed was a new strategy. Pondering, the cube surveyed its surroundings, looked out through the sensors and detectors of all its drones. It viewed from afar the pyramid within its growing defensive rings, and beyond that, the planet’s forests and plains, its mountains and seas, its native population in their villages and cities. The natives had somehow managed to shut it out of their communication networks, and it had given them little more thought. They were not a threat, having no war machines of their own. Or were they? An idea occurred to the cube.

▪ ▪ ▪

We-Asara thought the sphere’s face strangely beautiful. Tears trailed down the sphere’s cheeks as the dim light of dawn filled the sky. In all its collective awareness and thought, We-tribe could think of nothing to say. What We saw was too sad and vulnerable and wrong for words.

*Hold on,* We-tribe told the sphere. *We intend to save you if we can.*

Asara-we gave it water to drink. The sphere licked its lips. The new sensation passed into its mind, and was picked up by We-Asara. The sphere twitched its lips, a sudden spasm, We-Asara realized—a pitiful but beautiful smile.

*What is your name?* Asara-we said. The sphere replied with a long series of numbers and symbols. That wouldn’t do, Asara-we thought.

*Esofar,* she said. *We will call you Esofar.*

▪ ▪ ▪

Asara-we and the others waited as the two aircraft closed the distance between them. We-tribe was surprised when dark clouds approached the aircraft and all other machines across the continent. Ground vehicles, aircraft, mobile monitoring devices.

Upon closer examination, We-tribe realized the clouds were composed of tiny drones. These began to penetrate all of We-tribe’s machines, crawling and chewing their way to each machine’s computer brain.

On board the two aircraft, passengers tried to destroy the drones, but there were too many. We-tribe watched helplessly as the drones infected their machines and took control.

From the windows of the two aircraft and the many ground vehicles, unwilling passengers, pilots, and drivers looked out the windows as they were sent against the pyramid. A wave of war machines rose up to meet them. Trapped inside the vehicles, the people screamed.

▪ ▪ ▪

The natives’ vehicles were destroyed and the pyramid’s forces beginning to turn when the cube attacked from the opposite direction. The battle intensified. After a short time, the pyramid’s forces threatened to drive off the cube’s own. The cube grew anxious.

A loud explosion rent the air. Soil and rock and metal debris fell back to the ground from high above. The pyramid’s forces jerked and spun about, racing back towards their master. The pyramid’s armored shell had been breached. The cube had managed to sneak a bomb into the pyramid’s inner circle by using a burrower, its design inspired by the pyramid’s own machines.

The cube held its breath as its drones swept in for the kill. The pyramid’s forces rushed to intercept them. A few war drones got through to the pyramid, consuming its organics, as ritual demanded. As the relayed taste of its enemy’s blood filled its mind, the cube broadcast its victory cry on all frequencies, filled with jubilation.

▪ ▪ ▪

*You must leave me now,* Esofar said to Asara-we. *Thanks to you, I have seen much. I have felt the atmosphere on my own face, though my fingers are unable to touch the green or the stone.* Asara-we cried as Yivisay-we and the others pulled her away.

*I will help you now,* Esofar said.

“Esofar, Esofar!” Asara-we wailed. “We can still save you. We can get you out.”

Esofar smiled, blind eyes open to the morning light as its warm touch poured over the mountain ridge, into the valley, and across her cheek.

▪ ▪ ▪

Esofar knew she was genetically flawed, based on a comparison with archival genotypes. Despite a genome corrupted by multiple mutations, her mind was sound in technical matters. The sphere consulted offensive data sets stored in her native archives, passed from sentinel to sentinel as machine memory. A stratagem emerged, but it wasn’t enough.

Desperate, the sphere delved into We-tribe’s collective repository of knowledge for anything that might help. It was too much. She was running out of time.

*Perhaps this,* We-tribe suggested, bringing something into Esofar’s mind.

*Yes,* she said.

▪ ▪ ▪

Esofar opened full communication with the cube. Luckily, their clans were related, and she had the relevant encryption keys. The sphere summoned all her strength to appear normal and functional.

▪ ▪ ▪

Still basking in the glory of victory, the cube turned its attention to the sphere. The cube noted with some interest it appeared to be a female and thus a potential sexual partner. Its desire to mate, to produce more viable offspring, filled it with lust. They were both from affiliated clans and therefore genetically predisposed to match well.

▪ ▪ ▪

*The natives are trying to destroy me. They were crawling on me before I was able to repel them,* she said.

*I will annihilate them,* the cube offered.

*No,* Esofar replied. *They’ve compromised my security. They have breached my defenses, damaged my armor.*

*Repairs.*

*I am dying,* Esofar replied. *If you attack, it may aggravate them. They may return and destroy me sooner.*

*I propose ritual exchange,* she said. *But you must seed my code into an off-planet cyst so that I may persist undiluted into the next generation.* While the cube deliberated, she prepared.

▪ ▪ ▪

The cube considered the future. Having overcome its enemy, it would move to the next phases. Expansion across the planet. Extraction of all resources. Construction of planet-wide defenses. Then reproduction.

Although the cube was capable of copying itself, sexual reproduction would bring diversity of offspring, higher probabilities of perpetuating itself into the future and gaining glory in the great War its race fought amongst the stars. The cube imagined sending its own offspring off-planet, just as its Primary had sent it.

The female was either genetically flawed or had been damaged en route. The cube hoped the latter. The sphere’s prior, improper communications were symptoms of defectiveness, but the genetic benefit of a pairing overrode the cube’s distaste. It could scan the sphere’s code for errors later and attempt to correct them.

*I agree to your terms,* the cube said.

▪ ▪ ▪

Esofar summoned her last remaining resources to build the machine required for the exchange ritual. Exchange of digital code had been taboo since almost the beginning. Interceptions by hostile sentinels had given rise to genetically-tailored weapons, wiping out entire clans. Since then, fertilization took place through the flesh, egg and sperm, the way their ancestors had done it, surviving eons of war.

Dredged from her archival memories, the reproduction drone was a fast and delicate flier. In the event of trickery or capture, it would destroy itself in an explosive spat, taking her code with it.

The drone hovered above her shell, zipping about in anticipation. She sensed the cube’s counterpart drone approaching, accompanied by a phalanx of war drones. Well away from the putative boundary of her undefended territory, the cube’s forces stopped, and its reproductive drone continued forward. Esofar’s drone rushed to meet it, and the two spun about each other, verifying clan affiliation codes. The two coupled, exchanged gamete packets, and sped back to their respective sentinels. The cube’s forces departed.

▪ ▪ ▪

The cube eagerly anticipated the sphere’s eggs. Its reproduction drone delivered its cargo and died. The cube placed the precious cells in frozen storage. It then turned its mind outward. Now assured, reproduction could wait. It began to plan for subjugation of the native population. Subcutaneous, cerebral governors would be required. With no warlike instincts of their own, the natives would be more useful under the cube’s direct, neural control.

▪ ▪ ▪

Within the cube’s shell, inside the frozen storage, some of the sphere’s eggs began to change. Chemical components reacted, raising the temperature slightly. Vesicles opened, plasmids dispersed, and synthetic bacteria formed. Based on bacteria We-tribe had studied at the planet’s frozen poles, their membranes remained fluid-like despite the extreme cold. These began to multiply, and rupturing their egg hosts, dispersed throughout the container. Adhering to the container walls, they began to secrete acid. It wasn’t long before the container wall was breached by microscopic pores and the bacteria moved through. In the warmer, more hospitable environment inside the cube’s shell, the cells multiplied faster and attacked the surrounding tissues.

▪ ▪ ▪

The cube detected the infection and tried to contain the pathogen’s spread. In dismay, the cube sequenced the bacterium, looking for some way to stop it. Its immune system tried to fight back but failed. Designed for its clan type, the infection spread rapidly. Outraged, realizing it had been duped, the cube began to die.

*I am Primary!* it broadcast on all frequencies, its voice full of hatred.

▪ ▪ ▪

Asara-we and the others looked across the valley back the way they had come. We-tribe watched as the cube’s flying machines fell from the air like stones.

*We are safe,* We-tribe sighed. All the people laughed and cried. We-tribe listened for a voice from the sphere.

*Esofar? Esofar?,* Asara-we cried out. She sat down, tears flowing down her cheeks. We-tribe tried to comfort her, but she would not be consoled.

*She saved us, Esofar saved us,* Asara-we said, *but we will never be the same.*

▪ ▪ ▪

The cube was taken away and melted along with all its war machines. The people of We-tribe took Esofar out of her broken prison and buried her there on the mountain slope. Left in place, Esofar’s shell gathered moss as years went by, but the strange metal never rusted.

▪ ▪ ▪

As she did every year, when the snows melted and the first seedlings pushed up through the soil, Asara-we walked up the mountain, sometimes accompanied by her mate or her children, sometimes alone. This time was special. Her granddaughter walked with her for the first time.

She walked slowly. Her granddaughter was patient and stayed by her side. After some time, they arrived at the spot she remembered so well. Asara-we placed her hand on the curved surface of the sphere, the metal warmed by the afternoon sun. She thought of those who had been lost and those saved. Esofar, where are you now? she wondered. Thank you, thank you!

Asara-we hoped Esofar was no longer lonely, that she had found friendship somewhere in the great beyond. Her granddaughter squeezed her hand, seeing her grandmother’s tears. Asara-we smiled and walked back down the mountain.

 

Thanks for reading Lonely, Lonely. I hope you enjoyed it!

If you’d like to read an excerpt from my novel The Farthest City, please keep scrolling.

The Farthest City cover image_v3_20pct

Chapter 1 – Four

Izmit was a Digger. Kellen could tell right away from his dirty clothes, broken fingernails, and pale skin. The man sat beside him one day at a ration stall, ordered food, and turned out to the street, whistling softly and watching the crowd. Particles of dirt clung to the hairs on his arms.

In his mind, Kellen sketched. Arms of corded muscle, elbows battered and scratched, dark eyes under a thick brow. Moustache like woven wires.

“Kellen, right?” the Digger said.

Kellen stood and gathered up his things.

“I’m Izmit.”

Kellen nodded, just enough to be polite, and edged back a step. He’d known a Digger before. He knew what they wanted, what they always wanted.

“You’re a Drawer,” Izmit said.

Drawers tended to keep company with those compelled to dig beneath the cities. Kellen no longer encouraged those friendships. He never drew in public. Digger, Lighter, Drawer, Singer. Four fools.

Kellen looked into Izmit’s eyes. “I’m not who you’re looking for.”

“You’re an artist.”

“There are lots of artists around. Check the feed.”

“Not like you,” Izmit said. “I’ve seen you sketching. Even when you don’t have a pen, your fingers move. You barely go out, don’t talk to anyone. What are you hiding?”

Fear pooled in Kellen’s guts. Perhaps Izmit only pretended to be a Digger. Was he with the government?

“I’m not a freak.” Kellen spit out the words like poison, then walked away as fast as he could.

“I know you’re not,” Izmit called out. “Everyone thinks we’re crazy, but we’re not. We’re everyone’s last hope.”

People had turned to listen.

Kellen fled.

#

Despite being rebuffed, Izmit continued to appear whenever Kellen slipped out of his apartment.

Kellen had hidden for five years now. He’d gotten skilled at blending in. Now this interloper had shattered his anonymity. Yet, despite his anxiety, part of him welcomed the intrusion. He’d forgotten what it was like to know someone, even Izmit, who wasn’t much more than a stranger.

His loneliness bubbled to the surface at inconvenient times, driving him out to walk the city where he’d be more likely to run into Izmit. His fear of discovery faded, even as he derided himself. If they see what I am, they’ll catch me, and I’ll be disappeared. Just one more freak no one will miss.

He walked through the city one day out to the Altamaha River. Other than recycled place names, little was left of the original Jesup as it had stood more than two thousand years ago. The New Cities were chine-built. Whereas Jesup nestled in the pines and flats west of the Altamaha, the city of his childhood, Grand-Mère had been all hills and lakes and dark, wet trees. Despite their differences, the two cities were almost identical in their basic layouts. Sometimes he expected to pass by his mother or father, felt them nearby in the home they’d shared, or where it should be, if here were there, which it wasn’t.

Izmit found him sitting along the river bank.

Kellen watched eddies form and dissolve as the brown water slid by. The river smelled of rotten logs and mud. “How are we anyone’s hope?”

Izmit sat on an overhanging root and reached down to crumble damp earth between his fingers.

“We were created by the chines for a time like this, when humanity needs help,” Izmit said. “The Four are the only ones who can call back the chines.”

“No one believes that,” Kellen said, “except the chine cults, and they’re crazy, too. It’s just a myth, a delusion. And the Four who believe it, the ones who think they’re heroes, they get taken away, and they don’t come back.”

Izmit formed a ball of mud in his fingers and hurled it out into the river. “You’re wrong. We’re more than that. We’re here for a purpose. When did the Four first come to light? A hundred and eight years ago. The Butcher of Yunxian. She imprisoned and tortured people for seventeen years. There were protests, assassinations. That’s the first time the Four come up in the records. That’s when the legend began.”

“They killed them,” Kellen said.

Izmit’s eyes lit up with a fervor Kellen had seen before. Cesar had looked at him the same way the last time they’d met. “When did the Four come up next? Twenty-five years ago when the scientists detected asteroid 5261 UV2. Just over a kilometer wide, and the government projected it would strike Earth.”

“My family sheltered in the habs,” Kellen said. “I was only three.”

“I was seven,” Izmit said.

Kellen could see the excitement in Izmit’s eyes, and suddenly he was back with Pearl and Cesar, spinning stories about what they’d do when the chines came back. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He’s the same. He’ll get me in trouble, get me killed. Kellen felt the urge to run away before the craziness caught him up as well, but something kept him there.

“Everyone thought we would all die,” Kellen said.

“And the Four were there then, too.”

“But what good did they do? They were all over the feed, then they started doing crazy stuff. A Lighter electrocuted herself. They arrested a Digger below the habs drilling through a factory floor. And the asteroid missed anyway—they nudged it out of the way. The Four accomplished nothing.”

“Maybe,” Izmit said. “Maybe it got resolved before they could do anything. Or maybe they didn’t want it badly enough. Maybe they really were mentally ill. But I’m not. I’m solid, and I want it. I want to bring the chines back. Don’t you? We need them to return. The Hexi are killing us. You know it, I know it, even if the government won’t admit it. We’re losing this war, but you and I can change that. We can—the Four, we can change everything.”

Kellen wanted to believe it, after all the hiding, the pain. He could see it. He’d no longer be a freak. He could prove it to them, and they would love him again.

#

The next evening, at the agreed-upon time, Izmit knocked on Kellen’s door. Inside, he set down a bulging pack and studied Kellen for a moment. Kellen had on what he usually wore on walks in the fall: a light jacket, pants, and soft-soled shoes.

“It’ll be cold and dirty work,” Izmit said. “You have anything better to wear?”

Kellen went to find a thicker jacket and some old boots.

“Mind if I have some cola?” Izmit asked from the kitchen.

“Help yourself.”

Izmit drank his cola and moved about the small apartment, examining Kellen’s artwork.

Kellen knew he wasn’t like the Drawers people talked about, covering every square centimeter of their homespace with rambling scrawls of chine symbols, circuit diagrams, depictions of the chines themselves like portraits of gods. Some ended up scratching into their own skin, babbling their visions out to anyone who’d stop to listen, until the government came to get them and you never saw them again. Yes, he drew those things, but he was discreet. He drew on paper, painted canvasses, etched metal, carved wood. Framed works hung from his walls, the chine elements hidden in plain sight, blended into other artistic styles and subjects.

“I like this one,” Izmit said pointing to a painting of a bipedal chine standing on a hill, a human baby cradled in its robotic arms.

It was one of his early attempts using oils. The chine’s head bristled with antennae, but otherwise its pose was natural and somehow conveyed the warmth and concern of a mother. It appeared human at first, unless one looked closely.

A distant boom shook the walls, reminding Kellen of the building pressure he felt inside. As the war had progressed, the call had grown more insistent—draw more, paint more. So far he’d managed the impulse, not letting it boil over into mania.

“They seem closer each day,” Kellen said, as some of his newfound courage ebbed. “People say Jesup might fall.”

Izmit’s eyes narrowed, and his characteristic energy dimmed. “Not just here. King City, Xicoténcatl, Grand-Mère, and all the other New Cities are under threat now.”

Grand-Mère. Hearing the city’s name cracked open a door. Familiar faces threatened to force their way into Kellen’s mind. “Let’s go,” he said, not wanting to remember.

They set off in the cool night air, taking a path into the heart of the government district. Tall, darkened buildings loomed overhead. They passed through the plaza and down the north gate into the habs. The guards nodded as they entered.

They avoided the broad, central staircase with its sweep of white marble steps, in favor of the escalators on either side. Inside the central apex level, they made their way past refugee citizens out for a late-night walk and rode one of the lesser-used elevators.

They moved past the upper levels, where most people had taken refuge not long after the Hexi arrived in force three years before. They continued down into the lower levels housing the city’s power, sewage, and water utilities, even automated factories. Restricted access, but Izmit had a passcode. Kellen declined to ask from where.

The elevator stopped and opened. Alarmed, Kellen looked at Izmit, who shrugged and gazed at the floor. The elevator closed and continued downward, but Kellen’s adrenalin surge persisted. What happens if they catch us here? We’re not supposed to be here.

As they descended into the earth, Kellen felt a disturbing conspicuousness, as if the walls contained hidden eyes—this was how people like him got caught. He clamped down the lid of his mind, barely restraining his alarm. Despite the fear, a pressure lifted as if his spirit had been unburdened. Go with it, he thought.

The elevator came to a stop and opened onto the lowest level. A soft glow from the walls provided illumination. Drips echoed. Ready to flee or hide, Kellen and Izmit explored. The passageways were built with a precise geometry, but people had managed to clutter the spaces with palettes of supplies, pipes and metal plates, and machinery left by the engineers who kept the city running in the absence of its more skilled makers.

Izmit opened his pack, took out two short shovels, and handed one to Kellen.

Kellen grasped the proffered shovel. “We’re going to save the world with these?”

Izmit gave him a scathing look, then his face softened and he laughed. “We could use an automated excavator, but those require power and ID.”

“Right,” Kellen said. “What exactly are we looking for?”

They walked further along the passageway, their boots making clopping echoes.

“A way down,” Izmit said. “We’ve got to find something below the city, deeper down. I can feel it waiting for us.”

It? Whatever it was, Kellen took Izmit at his word. For once in his life, all his doubts had fallen away. Something’s down there, and we’ll find it.

Tools in hand, they dropped into a fissure where the passageway had shifted and cracked open, unmasking earth. They struggled to penetrate the layers of soil, silt, and cobbles at first, then dense clay. Downwards, always down. Kellen’s hands chafed under his gloves, his soft skin not accustomed to manual labor. He didn’t complain. Thrust, pry, lift, heave. His thoughts dissolved into a rhythm of labor until he heard Izmit’s shovel clink.

Izmit grunted and struck the bedrock they’d exposed. “We’ll try somewhere else.”

They worked their way along passageways, Izmit running his scanner along the walls, listening to its buzzes and clicks. Kellen followed, carrying the shovels and picks. They’d been at it for an hour when the scanner died.

Izmit inspected the device, turning it over. “Dead.”

“Batteries?” Kellen asked.

“Just replaced ’em.”

Izmit shrugged and tapped the smooth walls with a shovel, his ear to the wall. They went along like that until Kellen’s arms and back hurt. He wasn’t anywhere near as strong as Izmit. He stopped to rest, laying the bag of tools at his feet. Izmit looked at him and walked back to where Kellen sat against the wall.

“That’s enough, Kel,” he said. “We’ll find a new spot next time.”

It would be dawn soon, and activity would increase. It would be harder to move about undetected. Kellen nodded and got to his feet. They returned to the surface and parted at the gate.

 

Chapter 2 – Soldier

 

Prone in the mud, pinpricks of rain on her arms and neck, Sheemi thought of her brother and felt the dead space inside billow out like a shroud. It settled over her until she couldn’t feel her own body, except for one finger on the cold metal trigger. The scope fed her eye a magnified image of a Hexi marching down a path a few kilometers away, well within the reach of her K91. Her K-soft agreed with her target choice, all systems go, windage and rain accounted for, laser guide cal’d. She waited for her platoon leader to call it. From the other end of the line, Danbury gave the signal—three short clicks. It was on. Weapons fired along the line as Second Platoon engaged.

She held her breath and lightly squeezed the trigger. Her explosive round flew downrange, supersonic. She scoped the kill zone to confirm her shot. Her target had been reduced to a heap of jet-black limbs crowned by a splattered head and torso. You should have taken me instead.

She smiled and looked for another target, but her squad must have gotten them all. Only the designated alien survivor stood, looking stunned. It swayed, and she thought it might fall.

They stayed in position, providing cover as First Platoon swept the kill zone and recovered the prisoner. Danbury signaled to pull back—two long bleeps. Sheemi crawled through the brush as they withdrew. Minutes later, mud and fire leapt skyward at the position they’d just vacated. The Hexi artillery sent shrapnel whirring through the air. They waited for the initial salvo to end, then disappeared into the forest before enemy drones arrived.

Nestled among tree roots, Sheemi ate something tasteless while Nguyen dialed into their company’s encrypted channel. Trees danced as another round of air bursts tore apart the forest canopy, then the artillery fell silent.

“On your feet!” Danbury yelled.

They ran through the forest, covering the distance to the linkup point. First Platoon arrived on their heels, dragging the Hexi along with them. Third Platoon had the perimeter covered, their big guns focused toward the coast.

“We got ’em alive!” shouted one of First Platoon’s squad leaders.

That’s ironic, Sheemi thought. They usually celebrated the opposite, but this time it was different. Their orders had been to capture a prisoner intact.

The alien strained silently against its bonds, to no avail. It struggled, they beat it down. Repeat. Repeat.

Someone’s round had blown one of its legs half off. The ruptured flesh gave off gouts of blue blood until Freddy sprayed it with sealant. The alien slumped over.

“Is it dead?” someone asked.

“Everyone shut up and take cover,” Danbury said.

Sheemi joined the perimeter and stared downscope.

“You think we’ll get hit?” Kelly whispered.

Sheemi shrugged. Sometimes the Hexi wouldn’t reinforce when one of their units was ambushed, other times they came in droves.

They scanned the horizon until the fliers rumbled in and took them into their bellies. Safe. She strapped in and slept.

In her dream, Brin bled out in her arms. He was all shot up, yet he didn’t scream or cry or beg for life. “I love you,” he said. “Never give up.” She tried to say it back, to tell him that she loved him, that she wouldn’t, but her voice drained away.

#

Back at King City, Sheemi helped carry their prisoner to the lab. The thing was so large it took four of them to lift it, and it pulled against them. At least it hadn’t died yet. It must have been in quite a bit of pain, she guessed, but the Hexi didn’t make any noise. They never did. They were marsh creatures, at home in the mud and muck. The Army hadn’t yet been able to push them back, and the Hexi didn’t seem anxious to advance. They kept to the coasts, within striking distance of the cities, building their floating compounds, round and oblong, like eggs rising up from the brackish water.

Sheemi had never seen a Hexi up close before. Its black skin felt rough, like sandpaper. She guessed it would be at least three meters tall standing. It wore armor with holes for its six limbs. More armor protected its four biggest legs, all the way down to the splayed, plate-sized feet. A breathing tank was strapped to its back, with tubes running down into holes under its head.

She studied the chisel-shaped head, bisected by a long, stabbing snout. The Hexi had evolved to hunt with it, perpetually looking down for prey to impale. It had four pebble-like eyes and two the size of saucers below the central ridge of its midnight face. The eyes were round and black and shiny.

They brought the Hexi inside the lab, a large building Sheemi had never had occasion to enter. Inside, it resembled a kitchen-office hybrid. Scientists in white coats clustered at computer work stations along the walls or at lab benches with sinks and glassware. Pressurized cylinders stood alongside complicated devices full of tubing and racks of little bottles and other stuff she didn’t recognize. Science had been one of her least favorite subjects.

The Hexi’s neck slumped onto the concrete floor as they strapped it down using anchors embedded in the concrete to cinch the bonds tight. She couldn’t tell if it was awake, if it looked at them or not. She resisted the urge to put a round in its head.

The other soldiers left, but something held Sheemi there. The scientists smeared some kind of jelly onto the elongated, oval pads at the end of the alien’s delicate forelimbs. Jelly. Trust scientists to do something weird and disgusting. She stuck around anyway, wanting to see what would happen, even though her muscles hurt like hell.

One of the scientists attached clamps to the Hexi’s pads. The clamps were wired to computers. The scientists wore headphones and talked softly among themselves. One of them murmured into a microphone, then all heads turned towards the alien. It lifted its head, seeming to look at them, though she couldn’t be sure. After more discussion, the one with the microphone spoke again. The Hexi’s limbs traced patterns in the air. A few of the scientists cheered.

Are they talking to it? But how? The Hexi wasn’t making a sound. Sheemi moved closer to a young man watching squiggly lines march across a computer display. Each time the Hexi moved its limbs, more lines appeared.

“Do you want to listen?” he asked, excitement in his voice.

She nodded, and he handed her his headphones.

A familiar sound filled her ears. It reminded her of the woods each spring when cicadas woke by the millions, singing their songs, swelling and fading, until she couldn’t hear herself think.

“They communicate using electricity,” he said.

The sounds faded to static. She looked over in time to see the alien collapse. Its head hit the floor, its limbs limp.

“It’s gone,” someone said.

Dead, she corrected them silently. It’s dead.

The first batch of scientists left as new ones arrived with tools and carefully opened up the massive body. She put a hand over her nose, but the smell seeped through—spoiled cheese and jet fuel. Underneath the black skin, they exposed glistening, coiled structures the size of her palm.

One of the scientists scooped the coils into a glass container. “Nerve clusters?”

“Could be parasites,” another said. “Or embryos. They seem distinct from the rest of it.”

“Let’s assume they’re organs, Gil,” said an older scientist. “Occam’s razor, remember?”

Sheemi had seen enough. She left them to their cutting. On her way out, she passed the young man who had given her the headphones.

She tapped him on the shoulder. “What was it saying?”

“We don’t know yet,” he said. “But we will soon.”

She shrugged. “I don’t really need to know.”

She just needed to kill them.

#

Back in her quarters, she peeled off her cammies and armor and went to clean up. Mud and blood blended as they trickled down her skin to the shower drain, brown and blue and red. Her back hurt more now, but she ignored it.

Kelly and Dunn laughed, kissing next to her.

“Hey,” said Kelly. “You’re wounded, Sheems.”

“Fuck,” Dunn said, turning her around.

Sheemi examined her shoulder in the mirror. Two holes not much larger than her pinky finger dripped blood onto the tile floor. No wonder she felt so bad.

“What’s up?” Danbury asked, coming into the showers. “Shit, go see the docs right now, Sheemi. You guys go with her. Make sure she gets there.”

“I’m fine,” she said.

Danbury gave the others his platoon leader look. They dressed and walked her to the hospital.

The doc didn’t make a fuss. Pulled out some metal, real small pieces, patched her up and gave her some tranqs. She was done in short order.

“Fit for duty?” she asked as the doc entered her visit into the logs.

He looked at her, gauging more than the holes he’d patched, she guessed.

“You’re fit, Sergeant Tanamal.”

She rejoined her unit in the mess. Most of Second Platoon was there, chowing up before starting the evening’s maintenance cycle. Back before the Hexi had begun to raid the settlements surrounding King City, they had bitched about the hours of weapons cleaning. No one complained anymore. They did the work with a reverence for the tools that helped keep death at bay.

Danbury called her over. “You’re off tomorrow, Sheemi.”

“No, I’m in,” she said. “With Xan down, you need me.”

“We can take Sweeney.”

“Shit,” she said. “Sweeney’s a nice guy.”

He didn’t have the fight in him. She knew it, and so did Danbury. Some citizens didn’t.

“You’re wounded. You need rest.”

“Hell I do. Doc said I was fit for duty. Says so in my record. You can check it.”

He looked down at his food tray.

“I want to be out there, Dan. Not sitting holed up here in King.”

“I know you do, Sheems.” He looked her over much like the doc had. “Okay, zero five hundred. Pad C.”

“See you then.” She smiled, grabbed a fritter, and left for the weapons bay.

#

The insects sang to her in the night. Waves of sound, millions of singers, vibrating, calling. Blue blood dribbled from Brin’s mouth. “Don’t give up,” he said. Then he died and died and died and—

Sheemi woke the next morning wanting to see more blood. Blue blood. She blinked. Zero four thirty. Time to gear up. See you soon, brother. But not until she did more killing. Kill until killed. She laughed and shut the door behind her. She stopped at the armory on her way out, then took an elevator to the surface.

Her father caught her as she stepped onto the airfield, appearing out of nowhere as he always did.

“Dad,” she said. Beyond him, she saw Danbury and the other soldiers assembled at the flier.

“I remember when it was Daddy,” he said.

He looked older than she remembered—his hair mostly gray, worry wrinkles above his nose, the same hard eyes, broad shoulders like Brin’s. She remembered riding on his shoulders at a picnic long ago. Mama was alive then.

“I’m a soldier, Dad.”

“I know.”

She nodded toward the flier, wanting him to get out whatever it was he’d come to say. “I’ve got a mission.”

They hadn’t talked much since Brin died. It hurt too much, and he’d wanted her to get out of the fight. That was a no-go. She had the fight, too much of the fight. Or it had her. Either way, there was no going back now.

“You do have a mission,” he said, “but not that one.”

She looked at him sharply, eye to eye. What had he done? Her father the colonel.

A message popped. She blinked it, and the text overlaid itself on her natural vision. Orders to report tomorrow. Zero nine hundred. The hospital. Coded by General Enge himself, commander of all North American forces.

The muscles in her neck pulled taut, her hands clenched on her K. She scrutinized her father with narrowed eyes. “What is this?”

He brushed a strand of hair from her forehead, kissed her there. He gave her a look she couldn’t place, a searching look. For a moment she felt like a child again. Was that what he saw? She looked down at her boots, unable to face whatever it was he couldn’t communicate. What had he done?

“Goodbye, sweetie,” he said and walked away.

He hadn’t called her that in years and years.

The flier rose up overhead and turned north, flooding the airfield with jet wash.

“What is this, Dad?” she yelled at his back.

The flier leapt toward the horizon, her voice lost in its roar.

 

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