Gender: You keep asking that
Age: 3 d
Location: 17 miles north of Demilitarized Zone
Morning again already? I sit up. My skin is damp, my clothes wet as the dewy grass I’ve been sleeping on. The sun is back to the other side of the sky again, but there aren’t any clouds to be seen. How’d it get over there without them? Maybe it’s not the clouds that push the sun around the sky. It could be the wind. The wind seems enough to move the clouds around, but I figured the sun was probably too heavy. That would have explained why it took so many clouds to push it around. Could the wind be that strong, and move both the clouds and the sun?
I don’t remember going to sleep last night so I must have been tired. I think there was a dream, but what was it about? I can’t remember. Great, now I can’t remember my dreams either. The last thing I do remember is my blood surging through my limbs, and—here I am, in a new place, not knowing how I got here, like when I met Meis. I don’t understand a lot of things, but I do understand that’s not supposed to happen. Is something in me broken?
My legs ache when I put my weight on them. A few steps verify they still work. The rest of my body is stiff, which Meis says is from riding on the bike. If doing unusual things with your body can make it hurt, maybe my legs hurt from running. Guess I won’t worry about it. But my memory has me worried. Can’t remember my past, can’t remember my dreams, can’t even make new memories all the time.
Hey, if something unusual happened to my brain, why doesn’t that hurt?
I find Meis wrapped in a sleeping bag a few yards away. The remains of another of her fires separates us. The remnants of her dinner in the ashes make my stomach growl, but it’s the weapon laying at her side that draws my attention. This is the first time I’ve seen it, yet there’s an air of familiarity to the Isler .45, not just the model of gun but this particular one, and I realize that familiarity is borrowed from Meis’ memories, a fragment of her mind I inherited… when? It doesn’t seem fair that I can’t have my own memories and have to rely on those of others instead.
“It’s time to wake up.” I kneel beside Meis, careful to avoid touching the gun. She grunts and rolls away from me. “Meis, are you having a dream? It’s okay, it’s not real and you can be awake now.”
Huh, she seems to be having trouble waking up. Guess I’ll help her. Since being on the ground seems to have something to do with sleeping, I pull her out of the sleeping bag and put my arms around her waist so I can lift her to her feet. Her eyes open and she says “The hell?” then she slips and we both end up back on the soggy earth.
“Now you’re awake!” I scramble to my feet again before the dampness of the grass seeps further into my jumpsuit.
Meis stares at me, brushing damp hair from her forehead. “Good morning, Core. How are you feeling?” She climbs to her feet and picks up the Isler, which she clips back into a holster on her belt. Her eyes leave my face only for the brief time it takes to locate her sword, still leaning in its sheath against the Hiyutsa’s front tire.
“Hungry, and I think I need to piss.”
“Um.” Meis puts the back of her hand to my forehead and bends in close to stare into my eyes. “Your pupils look alright. Do you have a headache? See spots? Hear ringing?” I shake my head. “Did you sleep alright?”
“I think so. But I don’t remember going to sleep. It happened again, didn’t it?”
“Yeah.” She looks—it’s not happy, but like she’s won something. “See, I was right. You are having problems with your memory.”
I just shrug. Can’t argue with that since I can’t remember my own dreams.
“You were howling. You took off running, and I followed you on the bike for miles. God you’re fast. Then you fell over like the other day, except you were jerking around. I think you had a seizure. You don’t remember any of that?”
“No.” But now I remember something else. “I felt something yesterday. It was coming from over there.” Meis turns to look where I’m pointing, but there’s nothing to see. Whatever I felt yesterday, it’s gone now, and it wasn’t something she could have seen with her eyes anyway. Or maybe I’m just not using my eyes right.
“The Weaver clan lives that way. My plan is to stop at their village to grab some more food since you eat like a freaking horse.”
“What’s a horse and why do I eat like one?” Meis gives this look she’s given me a few times now, and I think it means I’m asking the wrong questions. But if this horse thing doesn’t matter, why bring it up? “So then we’re going that way anyway.”
“Yeah.” She doesn’t look too happy about the idea. Why not? It seems convenient to me.
“Meis, last night… You felt it too, right?”
“Really?” How could she have not felt it? “You’re not playing a trick on me, right? I remember now. It was kind of like when I met you, but stronger.”
“I didn’t feel a damn thing.”
Why does she look angry? The more time I spend with Meis, the better I’m getting at knowing how she feels by the look on her face. Problem is, knowing how she feels doesn’t seem to tell me why she feels that way, and I’m afraid that she’ll get angrier if I ask what’s wrong and it’s something I did. I wonder if Meis usually gets her way because she’s so scary.
I think talking about last night is what’s making her mad so I guess it’s time to talk about something else. “Hey, Meis, does the wind blow the sun across the sky in the morning?”
“There aren’t any clouds and sun still moved. The wind makes it move, right?”
“Actually, the sun’s heat is part of what makes the wind move.”
I laugh, but when Meis doesn’t join in I begin to feel confused again. She’s joking, right? The sun causes the wind? That’s crazy. No way that’s true. But then Meis thinks the world is round and it makes circles around the sun, too. Maybe once you believe one crazy thing, other crazy things start sounding more likely. I hope I’m never that gullible.
Age: 32 y 4 m 17 d
Location: Sunnybrook Officers Housing, Abalyn
Viewpoint: Squad Leader, Tierveh Domestic Tranquility, First Unit
The vacuum’s electric hum is audible through the apartment door. Well crap. No one else is in the hall so I allow myself a quick head-bop against the wall. Mom’s cleaning at 10:30 in the morning on a day she has family coming over. That probably means Damien’s being opinionated. I let myself in and hear two familiar baritone voices from the living room.
Sure enough, mom is running the vacuum in the guest bedroom even though it’s been two years since anyone slept there. I know well enough not to disturb her ritual, but she sees me and nods hello. When I get to the living room, Dad and Damien are both on their feet and looking askance at one another. Damien’s finger goes up in a triumphant gesture when I enter the room and he says, “Val, what is today?”
“Thursday,” I say as I set my purse on the coffee table. Dad sits back down in his easychair, smiling, so that must have meant something to him. They couldn’t be arguing over the day of the week. It doesn’t take much to set them at each other’s throats but I’ve never heard them debate the calendar before.
“It’s the third anniversary of the Paper Rebellion.” Damien watches my face for a reaction I fail to give him. I take a seat in mom’s easychair next to dad, pat his freckled brown hand. The Paper Rebellion? The news didn’t—oh.
Now I remember the Bentley Six, arrested for printing an underground paper out of the eponymous college without the Information Accuracy Service’s approval. It would have ended there—always had ended there before, every time some hack got caught spreading anarchist propaganda—except then-Commander Wilkon of Domestic Tranquility admitted he was the anonymous source cited in their article on a secret indefinite detention program that had swept up students from Bentley University the year before, Wilkon’s niece among them, and the next day downtown Abalyn was mobbed by pissed off weekend revolutionaries like my brother, throwing rocks and lighting cars on fire. The greens ordered the protestors to disperse and had Wilkon shot for treason. It just made things worse. Two weeks later, President Tier announced media licenses would be issued to non-Tier Party members and pardoned the Bentley Six, and the capitol went back to business as usual, except now you can buy rags like the Witness at the types of stores self-respecting (or career-minded) Party members shouldn’t be visiting.
“Was that three years ago? I forgot all about it until you said something.”
“That’s my girl,” dad says to me, though he’s looking at Damien. I wish they wouldn’t do this when I’m around. Damien thinks it’s my duty to be on his side because we’re from the same generation; he says it’s up to “the young people,” which apparently includes everyone under forty, to take the country back from the Party. I’ve pointed out that President Tier is only six years older than me before but it never goes over well. Dad acts like I’m his favorite when I agree with him in these arguments (“conversations,” mom calls them), but as much as I love my father I’m not agreeing with him to win his favor. The simple truth is that dad knows how the world works and I wish Damien would stop filling Terrence’s head full of his anti-unity bullshit.
Damien sits on the couch facing dad and me. I hear the vacuum come out of the guest room, through the hall and to the master bedroom, cord thwacking against the wall trim as mom exorcises her dust devils. “Here,” Damien says, and he pulls a twice-folded newspaper from inside. “Guess who made the front page of this week’s Witness.” This week’s, instead of today’s, because non-Party papers are only allowed to publish weekly. That prevents non-Party papers from being mistaken for the real thing or having too many opportunities to spread their lies without IAS-approved papers countering with the facts.
My throat catches when I see the front page article’s byline. I wish Terrence would go work for a real paper so I could hate on the Witness properly. He had a job lined up at the People’s Voice after graduation, except then the Paper Rebellion happened in his last semester, and he turned the position down so he could report the “truth” as he saw it instead of submitting to what he calls “censorship.” Sometimes he can be so immature, but that’s what I get for loving a man still in his mid-twenties. He’ll grow up someday.
Damien knows I avoid reading Terrence’s articles just like I avoid discussing politics with either of them, but my morbid curiosity takes over. The Witness—Terrence, I suppose—is reporting on—I’d say calling for—plans to march in remembrance of the Paper Rebellion (his term) on today’s date. There’s no time or location listed, but then I guess they wouldn’t want to publish that sort of thing. It reeks too much of supporting a protest, and I doubt the editors of the Witness want the greens to visit their newsroom.
I know Damien wants me to ask about this, but I’m not going to give my brother what he wants. Instead I hand the paper back and pat dad on the hand. “My JA37 should be ready to go Monday. I have somewhere over 340 hours of virtual flight time. It’ll be fun to finally sit in the real thing.”
The room turns warmer as dad and I pick apart the specs of the newest V-Mods and Damien listens in silence. The conversation turns to the sandhoop tournament coming up and dad and Damien both back the Rangers, just like they have since Damien was small enough to sit in dad’s lap while they watched the games, so they’re back on stable father/son ground again. Ranger fandom represents a love and devotion deeper than politics and religion under my parents’ roof. I suppose that’s a form of social unity for you, even if it’s not exactly what the teachers meant in our citizenship classes.
Mom finishes vacuuming, either because she ran out of rooms to clean or she heard the men in her life getting along again. She sets the table for brunch and the family sits down together in the cramped dining room/kitchenette. The table and the immediate space around it are separated from the oven and burners by three inches of plaster four feet high. The floor tiles used to be cream with wisps of technicolor flower patterns, but smoke, spills and foot traffic have left them a more uniform dingy yellow.
“It’s a shame Terrence couldn’t make it,” mom says as she dishes me up half a vegetable omelet. Brunch, as defined by Joane Lawlam, is breakfast with rum in the coffee.
“He had an interview scheduled this morning, but he says he’ll make it next time.” Given the way dad and Damien were fighting when I got here it’s probably a good thing Terrence had to work. Being engaged to my brother’s best friend can be a pain in the ass, especially when they gang up against my dad on politics.
It’s all small talk from there. Damien helps mom clear the dishes and dad turns on the radio. The station’s playing the sort of aural diarrhea you hear in government building lavatories, cheesy cracker-jazz with hotel bar hooks. Dad lights up a cigar, and mom mutters “Reynold” low enough that his munitions-deadened ears probably can’t hear her from the kitchenette. Damien sits back at the table with another cup of coffee and rum and pulls out a filtered-to-hell cig longer than his middle finger and maybe half the circumference of his pinkie. I don’t appreciate the smoking any more than mom, but it’s another of those issues where Damien and dad are likely to gang up against me instead of going at each other.
The radio plays a bombastic version of the national anthem next, all horns and pipe organ, wildly out of touch with the laid back attitude the station had going. Damien frowns. As the anthem plays I hear the unspoken lyrics in my head. I remember standing in class every morning in school, hand over my heart and eyes on the flag as we sang the anthem before class began:
Our people were guided
By god to this fair land
Now we stand united
Brethren hand in hand
We pray that you will guide us
As god has guided thee
We pledge allegiance to you
Our State and our Party
“On this day,” the announcer says as the national anthem fades away, “the Vice President encourages loyal citizens to think of our thriving nation and the peace we have struggled so hard to attain, and refrain from engaging in actions that undermine social unity or represent a threat to public safety. A curfew has been announced for the downtown area tonight, and all citizens not engaged in pre-approved Party business are required to clear the area by six o’clock. A map of the area in question is available online at…”
“Oh go fuck yourselves,” Damien says. “Radio, off,” he says, and the speaker hushes.
“Language!” mom yells, and Damien has the good graces to flinch, but I know that won’t be enough to head off what’s coming. And it was going so well, too.
Dad puffs his cigar, holds the smoke while he thinks, exhales and says, “They have a point.”
“They’re threatening people who want to speak their minds.”
“They’re giving fair warning to unpatriotic anarchists is what they’re doing. It’s more than I’d give the motherfuckers.”
“Reynold!” mom says from the kitchenette.
“If the Party’s so concerned with our welfare, why are they so afraid to let people hear what we have to say?”
“You think you should just be able to say whatever the hell you want! You don’t take any responsibility for the trouble your words cause, you don’t have any respect for authority or order, it’s all you, you, you all the goddamn time. Those protestors all need a good ass-kicking so they can figure out how the world really works. How’s that for utility?”
“Fuck utility.” Damien drops his cigarette in his coffee cup and shoots out of his chair. “And fuck you. See you later, Val. Bye, mom.”
I follow Damien through the living room and catch his arm at the door. He turns to look at me, lips pursed in frustration. “Dammit, Damien, why do you always do this?”
“Yeah, it’s always my fault.” He yanks his coat from a peg by the door, and I think I hear threads snap. “You want to know why Terrence isn’t here, Val? He’s busy getting ready for the protest. Maybe he’d be comfortable telling you that if you weren’t always kissing the Party’s ass to stay on your daddy’s good side.” He turns for the door. Mom runs into the room after him, demands to know where he’s going. “Where the hell do you think I’m going?” he says, and the door slams behind him.
Dad and I sit at the table in silence as mom goes at the dishes, suddenly obsessed with scouring the grease from the omelet skillet. Why is it like this every time anymore? Damien and dad didn’t used to argue like this. Once in a while it would get bad, but not every freaking time. Something is wrong.
The rest of the day that’s the thought I keep coming back to, and it gets louder and shriller when I watch the evening news and see the greens gassing the protestors. I watch the throng scramble and disperse as a choking orange cloud billows through the streets of downtown Abalyn, the unlucky few trampled by their compatriots and left behind to have their hands zip-tied behind their backs by gas-masked greens so they can be safely herded into the Security Division’s mobile response wagons, every image a reminder of the State’s authority and rightness, beamed to my living room in sanitized 3D technicolor, and all the while that same thought bouncing around inside my skull. Not even my call to Terrence to ensure he’s still alive and not in police custody makes it go away.
Something is wrong. Something is very, very wrong.
Age: 20 y 3 m 14 d
Location: 22 miles north of the Demilitarized Zone
Viewpoint: Logistical Officer, Tierveh Science Department
Flat, empty country gives way to hills and scattered trees by noon. Core keeps his thoughts to himself and I return the favor. My clothes are still half-damp and itchy from the soaking they got the night before, and the sun’s hiding behind the clouds instead of coming out to dry us off. Every once in a while I’ll spot some likely trees and toss some fresh fruit in my pack. There’s not going to be enough to feed us both all the way to Abalyn without a little foraging. I’m always back on the bike before Core can start asking questions.
I can smell what’s happened to the Weaver village before I can see it. The odor is enough to tell me what I need to know. It’s like two smells mingling together as if from different rooms in the same house: one is like bacon sizzling in deep grease without the range fan on, the other like weeks-tepid swampwater in a humidifier that permeates everything for maybe a mile from the epicenter. It’s going on four when we get to the Weaver village and by then I already know a Nephilim has wiped out the clan.
So what do I say to Core? I take an extra minute getting the bike settled. Core looks at the ashy ruins of the Weavers’ woven-grass tents, community centers of cloth tethered on hemprope and dyed red and white or black to mark their purpose for outsiders come to trade. “We’re here,” he says, and walks past me into the remains of the village.
The communal stands are charred husks. Core is staring at what was a middle-aged woman before her skin liquefied and her hair burned away. “There’s a Nephilim called Armaros. It exhales radiation that boils the water out of your body, makes combustible materials light on fire,” I say just to say something, anything to break the silence. There are still standing tarp-houses here and there, but most have fallen down and all were on fire at some point. The rains yesterday are the only reason the entire village isn’t an ashpile. Abalyn hasn’t been visited by Armaros yet, at least not that I knew a few days ago, but I’ve seen videos of its visits elsewhere. Funny how much more… personal… it is when you’re standing in the midst of what’s left after those attacks instead of seeing it from the imagined sanctuary of your own home.
Core looks back at me. There’s something funny about his eyes, though I can’t put my finger on what. “I felt this happen, didn’t I? And you didn’t feel it?”
I’m not sure how to answer either of those questions.
There are more bodies once I start watching for them. Most are huddled around the northwest corner of the village inside what was the Weavers’ only wooden structure. If anyone got away, the puddles of melted skin and blubbery pork-scented corpses among the scorched grass says they’d be the lucky few. Definitely Armaros. The radiation kills everyone, boils your organs as steam rolls out your eye sockets and your hair bursts into flames. The Nephilim kill and they move on. They aren’t animals; they’re a force of nature. The plains tribes don’t have any more defense against the Nephilim than they would a sudden eruption of one of Sayrun’s dozens of volcanoes.
God, what direction was it traveling? Mandy, Zoe, Chen, they’re all probably still somewhere east of here, maybe wondering why I haven’t come back yet. I told Zoe I’d be back by last night. I wonder if the Nephilim would bother with a group as small as ours. Fourteen grad students, not enough for a meal, right?
Then again, what if they know more about what’s going on than I do? I wish my phone got service out here but it’s little more than an expensive watch this far away from any towers, and with a Nephilim near who knows if the signal would get through even if I was in range. Maybe the others heard about what’s happened in the last few days while I was visiting father. If so they might have already started home without me. I hope they didn’t go south looking for me with West Garazet coming across the demilitarized zone.
Core is staring at the ground when I come up behind him. He’s fixated on a tiny sandal sticking out of the mud. “They all died. That seems to happen a lot.”
“It happens out here more than it does in civilized places.”
“Like Sayrun. Places with laws, where the government looks after people. The Nephilim have a harder time hitting cities like Abalyn than they do these villages out in the plains. We use machines called Golems to turn them away from the cities.”
Core points at the sandal. “So you don’t see this sort of thing in Abalyn?”
“You don’t see it much.” I’m trying to remember the way my professors explained it. “Those who fail to adapt, die. It’s a law of nature. That’s why man comes together to form States—to survive. The State protects us from harm.”
“The State is there to protect us.” Core nods to himself. “Meis, yesterday, did you feel it too? You did, didn’t you?”
I stare, mostly because I’m not sure what to say, but if I’m honest with myself it’s partly because I’m afraid of what might come out if I do open my mouth. Core tries to keep his smile, but it wilts and dies as I turn my back to him. He couldn’t have felt a Nephilim attack, could he? And if he did, and piloting screwed him up that badly, where does that put me?
“Why don’t the people out here have states?”
“They live an older way of life.” I remember asking my mother the same question when I was a kid. If she was here, if the Nephilim hadn’t taken her from me, she’d be so much better suited to answer Core’s questions than I am. Her work in biology began with studying the species of the Foothills, which is how she came to know so many of the tribes still eking out their livings beyond the Party’s authority. It’s how she met my father, and it’s why she was so adamant in her defense of the natives’ right to autonomy. “The plains tribes lived here before Sayrun. Sayrun was founded by immigrants who fled from Aeston, across the Eldec Ocean, during a civil war hundreds of years ago. The tribes have been here since the times after the Flood.”
Core’s look tells me what his next question is, so I continue. “The Flood came centuries before that. They were…” Science and theology headbutt inside my brain, fighting over which viewpoint will escape my lips. “Humanity was judged and found lacking.” Theology, then. “Civilization ended for a while, and when humanity picked up the pieces, they found the world had been remade, and god had given them a chance to be better.”
I know I’ve made a mistake in my explanation from the way Core mouths the newest unfamiliar word. “What’s god?”
“He’s…” Is this what it’s like to be a parent? How did you ever do it, mom? “He watches over us. Protects us. Tells us right from wrong.”
“Like the State?”
“I don’t think god was here either.”
I’m not sure how to respond to that, so I busy myself picking through the ruins of the Weaver village, looking for food and fuel, while Core contemplates the corpses.