Age: 20 y 3 m 12 d
Location: 6 miles north of the Demilitarized Zone
Viewpoint: Logistical Officer, Tierveh Science Department, worried
Core is hard to hear over the Hiyutsa 150’s engine, so I ease off the throttle and put out a foot to steady the bike as we roll to a stop. Just in time, too, because as soon as we stop Core wobbles against my back, his arms unwind from round my stomach and he tilts left off the bike seat and into the dirt. Core retches and brings up nothing but spittle. I kill the engine, set the peg and pull him off the ground. “What’s wrong?”
“I’ve been feeling kind of bad in my stomach, and now I’m dizzy.” Core rubs his face. His motions are slow and uneasy. His stomach rumbles. “And it’s been doing that for a while, too.”
I blink, unsure of what to say. We’ve been riding for a few hours now. The foothills northwest of the Waashimi camp rise and fall in every direction, and it’s slow going on the bike. It would probably be faster to go through here on foot so I didn’t have to pick trails for the Hiyutsa, but then we’d be stuck walking through the flatter barrens, going on foot uphill through Pao Pass and all the way east to Abalyn. The trip could take weeks without the bike, and we might starve on the way. Utility is best served by taking it slow here so we can save time and energy later.
The sun’s more or less straight overhead. Guess I’m a little peckish myself, but I was too busy thinking about other things to notice until Core brought it up. “It’s about lunch time. Why didn’t you say you were hungry?”
“Is that what’s going on?”
I pull some fruit and energy bars from my pack. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten hunger on top of everything else.”
“I didn’t know eating made this feeling go away.”
“You didn’t know being hungry meant you need to eat? Here.”
Core takes an apple and sniffs at it. “Meis, how do you eat this? Does it open?”
Are you kidding me? “You’ve forgotten how to eat an apple? Really?”
Core turns the apple in his hands. Is he looking for an opening like he did with the canteen? I pull out another apple and take a big bite. Core watches me chew and swallow, then mimics me. “It’th good.”
“Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to talk with your mouth full?”
He swallows. “No. Is that bad?”
My own appetite is quickly sated, but I nibble on some crackers as I watch Core devour everything I give him. He has to sniff each new morsel before he’ll stick it in his mouth, and a couple times I’m afraid he’s about to choke; he doesn’t seem to chew his food properly, not like he’s rude, but like the whole concept of eating solid food is new to him. It’s like watching a hundred and twenty pound baby feed itself for the first time. An apple, two energy bars, four inches of jerky and a few handfuls of saltines later, Core seems to have recovered his motor skills. His stomach is still rumbling a bit, but he says eating more would make him sick. I remind him that’s called being full, another foreign concept from the look on his face. He goes off to empty his bladder behind some bushes before we start riding again; at least he remembers how to do that much on his own.
I’m glad the noise from the engine makes conversation impossible even at our low speed. Core’s childlike confusion, his ignorance of basic things like eating or the Nephilim, makes me wonder what the hell happened to him in the pyl. I don’t like to think something like that could happen to me.
I wonder if Abalyn is still standing. If it is then the SD is probably looking for Core. Probably me as well. Earlier I was thinking about finding the group I left Abalyn with; they should be somewhere in the barrens. But how would I explain Core? And I need to get home as soon as I can in case something has gone wrong. And hell, for all I know the border with West Garazet is heading north, and I want to be on Tierveh’s side of it.
By dusk we’re through most of the foothills and I see a decent spot where a creek babbles behind a rise. The bike gets most of its power from dual solar panels so it’s no use trying to ride after dark. I set the pegs and e-brake and go to gathering brush for a fire. Core sits and watches clouds in silence.
More than anything it’s what Core said about his “feeling” he should find me that has my back up. If he really can’t remember anything how did he find me? I was having that weird sensation just before he showed up, and before Kunta died it was like I could see through someone else’s eyes—through Core’s eyes, I’m sure. That’s the sort of thing you disregard after it happens. You tell yourself you imagined it, that it’s impossible and couldn’t have happened, and gradually you believe it and move on with your life. But I’ve experienced too much in the pyl to ignore that sort of weirdness. I know it happened, and I know it’s related to the ANGEL.
Was Core in the prototype? The beta units aren’t combat ready yet. If there was a Nephilim attack they might have sent a beta test pilot out in the prototype. But they wouldn’t send out an ANGEL unless they were desperate because the project doesn’t officially exist. They’d only send one out if it was something the Golems couldn’t handle, something like the attack five years ago when the north wall came down. But even if Core was piloting the prototype that wouldn’t explain how his memory got wiped, or how the two of us got linked.
Why were you in my head, Core? What the hell happened to you?
My nerves settle after dinner and some quiet time in front of the campfire. Core is still eating. He’s going about it slowly, taking small bites of everything, tasting it all separately then in combinations. Once in a while he’ll give a happy “Huh” or make a face when a combination doesn’t work for him. The bread from Abalyn and the Waashimi deer jerky seem to be his favorites. He spits out the fineroot tea I give him and looks at me like I just kicked him in the shin. Well, it’s an acquired taste.
I pull my uniform out of my pack and straighten it out on the ground so Core can see. “Core, this is a Tierveh uniform. Look familiar?”
Core scoots closer. His fingers trace over the fabric; he looks down at the jumpsuit he’s wearing. “It’s the same as mine. Do you work for Tierveh?”
“A lot of people in Abalyn work for Tierveh. I do. I think you do too.”
“This part. I remember this.” He points to the insignia on the breast pocket—a black circle with an upside-down white triangle touching the rim at three points from inside. Two more circles, one within the other, are in the center of the triangle. Seven vertical lines run off the highest edge of the triangle, each pointing toward the collar.
“The Eye of the Beast. It’s the symbol of Tierveh’s Science Division.”
“What’s a Tierveh?”
“Tierveh is the name of our state party.” God, it’s like explaining to a child. How did they put it in school? “We’re guided by President Tier and her council, who see to the public welfare in ways that guarantee the maximum utility for every citizen. Tierveh protects our country, Sayrun, from terrorists and foreign enemies, and the Nephilim.”
“What’s a terrorist?”
“A terrorist is…” Well, it’s one of those words you know the meaning of because of the context it’s used in. How do you define aloud what the state communicates by making examples? “A terrorist is someone who acts against the peace Tierveh has given us. They hurt people, cause violence.”
“Were the people at the village terrorists?”
“No, those were soldiers from West Garazet.”
“Oh.” I can tell by the look on his face he doesn’t get it. How do I explain the difference between another country’s soldier and a terrorist? “Soldiers only kill other soldiers. They don’t kill civilians.”
“I get it. Then all the people who died in the village were soldiers.”
“Well, no.” Goddammit, how hard is this to understand? Everyone comes to understand the distinction between a soldier and a terrorist while growing up. Why can’t you see the difference? “I think we’re getting side-tracked here.” He gives me a look. Okay, if he has amnesia I can understand him not remembering a lot of things, but what would make him forget the definitions of words, idioms, that sort of thing? “We’re off-topic. Have you really forgotten the Nephilim? That word doesn’t mean a thing to you?”
“You asked if a Nephilim attacked Abalyn. Are the Nephilim terrorists?”
“No. Forget the terrorists.” Is this what having a kid is like, the constant questions and deviations from the point? I don’t know how anyone puts up with it. “The Nephilim are…” Again, how do you explain this stuff? Everyone knows what a Nephilim is after seeing the footage on TV. “They’re monsters, I guess. They’re huge, big enough to wreck a city, and they have…” How would you say it to a four year old? “…strange powers. Some of them start fires or affect the weather, others spread disease or give people hallucinations. They roam the planet killing people. No one knows where they came from, but the first one showed up about thirty years ago and as far as we know there are ten of them now. There have been attempts to track them, but they’re too aggressive and intelligent to be followed and élan scrambles most wave frequencies so remote monitoring is out of the question.”
“Right, I bet you don’t remember that either.” He’s forgotten so much, but he seems to pick up on the right questions to ask. I wonder if everything’s still buried in his head just waiting for a reminder. “Élan is a type of radiation emitted by the sun that gets stored in living cells. The Nephilim can process it into usable energy somehow.”
“The sun.” Core looks up at the darkened sky. “I wanted to ask about that. Why does the sun hide when the sky goes black? Is it afraid of the dark?”
Oh god I hope he’s joking. I stare at his face, and he stares back, a student awaiting the teacher’s instruction. “It gets dark because our side of the planet has rotated away from the sun. The sun isn’t moving, we are.”
“Aren’t we sitting still?”
“Yeah, but the planet’s round and it’s always moving.”
“It’s round? It doesn’t look round.” He’s smiling like he thinks I’m making a joke. He’s like a kid. Is this what piloting the ANGELs can do to you? Just wipe out everything you ever knew, leave you hollow and helplessly ignorant? Or did a Nephilim do this to him? I wish I knew if we were going to find my home or a crater when we get to Abalyn.
Core doesn’t argue when I suggest we sleep, his curiosity instantly put aside for the night, and by his breathing he’s out within minutes of lying down. I hope he doesn’t confuse his dreams for reality again. I hope he doesn’t find his way into my head again. Hell, I hope he remembers who he is and what he was doing so I can ask him questions without having to answer a thousand of his instead.
Mostly I just hope I can get to sleep tonight. Talking about élan and the Nephilim makes me think about mom, and I can never sleep when she’s on my mind.
Gender: No idea
Age: 2 d
Location: 10 miles north of the Demilitarized Zone
Viewpoint: Unaffiliated, curious
Why am I wet again? Am I back in the river?
No, water’s falling from the sky. How did it get up there? As far as I can tell, everything falls down, not up, though I have seen what Meis calls birds moving through the sky, so that must not be a strict rule. There are grey clouds in the sky too, with the sun peeking through the gaps. Maybe water falls from the sky when clouds smash into the sun, like how blood fell out of the people when the bullets hit them. Does that mean water is the sun’s blood? That’s gross!
I’m still not sure I believe Meis when she says it’s us that moves and not the sun. I watched the sun move across the sky all day yesterday. Besides, if the sun doesn’t move, how did it get back over to the other side of the sky again? Maybe the clouds pushed it over there. That makes sense—every couple days the clouds have to push the sun back to the other side of the sky, and water leaks out of the sun when it happens. Man, nature is complicated. Thinking about it is making me hungry again. Do you have to keep eating things whenever that feeling comes back? Seems kind of annoying.
I have another feeling too, and it’s one I recognize for a change, so I let Meis stay asleep and walk a bit from the camp until I find some brush where I can relieve myself.
Something is moving through the undergrowth up ahead. A rhythm pounds in my ears; my heartbeat, I realize. The bushes rustle and a brown four-legged animal with floppy ears scurries across the open ground and down a hole. It didn’t look dangerous; I think I scared it more than it scared me. I feel kind of bad about that so I walk to the hole and look inside. The animal must be deeper down where I can’t see it, but it can probably hear me. “Sorry,” I say into the hole. “I didn’t mean to be scary.”
The way the animal ran, legs kicking against the damp grass to launch across the scrub, looked fun. It makes me want to run too, stretch my legs and feel the wind against my face. So I run back to camp, and it feels as good as I thought it would. That makes me breathe hard, though, and I worry that I’ve messed something up, but once I stop running my breathing returns to normal. So the more you use your body, the more you have to breathe? There’s so much to remember about living out here in the world. I don’t think I’m ever going to get it all down.
Meis is awake and looking around. Is she looking for me? I think so; something about her shoulders and her face is different once she sees me. She gives me some more bread and that salty meat we had yesterday and the hungry feeling goes away. I wonder where all that food goes after I eat it, but I think if I ask too many questions Meis will go back to sleep like she did last night. I like sleeping, but I like it when she answers my questions, too. I wonder if it’s my questions make Meis tired.
Oh, that reminds me! “Meis, I wanted to ask you something else from last night.” She looks at me, which I guess means I should ask. “What do you do for the Science Department?”
“I’m a data analyst.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well… I analyze… data.”
I don’t think I understand that as well as she wants me to, but she doesn’t look like she wants to explain it more, so I move on to the next question. “Do you know Rydio Hashganas?”
She stares at me. Did I say something wrong? “I’ve met him, but we worked in different sections. Did you remember something? Do you know him?”
“No, I just have this thing with his name on it. Here.”
I hand her the wallet. She takes out the card and reads it over, then she counts the colored pieces of paper and her face pales a little. “How did you get this, Core?”
“Don’t know. What are those papers?”
“It’s a lot of money, maybe three hundred thousand quid. And you really don’t know how you got this?”
I shake my head. Money—I have one of those not-memories about money. It’s supposed to be valuable. And what does that mean? I think if something’s valuable that means people want it. Does Meis want the money? Should I want the money? I’m not sure what good it’s for. Maybe I should give Meis the money for helping me. I get the feeling you should reciprocate when people are kind to you.
“Core, I need to ask you something important. You remember when we talked about the Nephilim yesterday, right?” I nod. “Okay, I need you to think really hard about this: have you ever heard of an ANGEL before?”
“No.” There’s no doubt; I’ve never heard the word before. All the same she gives me a funny look like I should know what she’s talking about. “What is it?”
“Nothing. Just an old story.”
“If I could find Enoch he might know. He knows a lot more than I do.”
“Enoch again. The guy whose back you climb into?”
“Yeah.” Meis seems to know about Enoch. I wonder if Enoch knows her? It’s hard to say. He knows so much more than I do. Wouldn’t it be funny if Enoch and Meis were old friends? “You know Enoch, right, Meis?”
“That’s… I can’t talk about that.”
“What’s stopping you?”
She sighs. “It’s not a good idea to talk about the SD’s research.”
“It’s good if it helps me, right?”
“You have to think about the good of the State, not just what’s good for you.” Her voice changes suddenly; it’s more like she’s talking at me than to me. “We can’t let our selfish whims interfere with the good of the State. It’s bad utility.”
“What’s a utility?”
She shakes her head. “You really have forgotten everything.”
“Can you remind me?”
“Utility is one of the principles Randolf Tier set out for us so Sayrun could prosper. You have to think of others’ needs before your own because the selfishness of the one brings chaos. The many create the State, and the State works for the good of the many, so it’s important to have humility before the State. Otherwise order breaks down and we’re no better than any other country. Does that make sense?”
“I think so. I’m supposed to think of others before myself, right?”
“And the same goes for you?”
“So if you’re thinking of me before yourself, shouldn’t you help me by explaining things I don’t understand?”
“Well, it doesn’t work that way.”
“Oh.” This is hard. There seem to be all kinds of rules that are unspoken, and they can counteract the rules Meis tells me about. I wonder if I used to know these sorts of things? I don’t think so. This feels like Enoch’s territory again. I wish he was here so he could explain it. “Hey, what about the water falling from the sky? Can you tell me what that’s about, or is it a secret too?”
“You mean the rain? Everyone knows about the rain. Come on.”
We ride the bike some more. I think we’re going faster than we did yesterday. The ground is flatter here and I can see for a long way ahead of us. It looks like the earth just stops so far out where the ground meets the sky, but when we get to where the ground seemed to end before there’s more ground instead and the sky still touches the earth at a distance. Maybe that’s why Meis thinks the world is round. I didn’t think it would take so long to get to Abalyn. The world must be huge. I wonder how much of the planet Sayrun is, maybe half? It’s hard to imagine anything being that big.
If Meis is right and I’ve forgotten most of my life, I wonder how much of the world I’d seen before I fell into the river. All of it? Most of it? I still don’t get how it’s possible to forget things like that. Shouldn’t I remember forgetting important things like utility and the Nephilim and apples? Or did I forget that I forgot too? How does this work? I wish I could ask Meis questions, but the bike’s too loud and I get bugs in my teeth when I open my mouth.
How’d I get in the river? That keeps coming to mind because the rain is dripping down my collar. Something that might be a memory is in my head, but I’m not sure if I can trust it. It could be another dream I’m remembering instead. But I have this memory of being thirsty and going to get a drink while Enoch was busy. And the wallet—I get the feeling I’m not supposed to have that because it has Rydio’s name in it. How did I get it? Do I know Rydio Hashganas?
Wait, is that…?
“Meis, pull over!” I squeeze my arms around her midriff to get her attention and the bike slows down.
“Can we stop for a minute?”
She pulls over and I slide off the back of the seat. The rain makes the grass wet and I almost slip and fall. Note to self: water is slippery.
I ignore her since I don’t have an answer and walk toward the sensation that’s calling me. I can feel it, a vibration in the back of my head like before, but stronger, like a hum in the air I can feel with my teeth and my joints more than I can hear it with my ears. “Meis, do you feel that?”
“Hm?” Meis stares at me, shakes her head.
My spine is stiff, my eyes stare at some invisible point through the rain. “Over there.” I point; I can’t see it, but I know exactly where it is all the same. I could walk toward it with my eyes closed and arrive at the exact spot. The vibrations surge again. “You feel that? There it was again.”
“I don’t know, Core. Do you hear thunder?”
What’s thunder? Is it—
The vibration is stronger than ever, and I can feel it run through my body like fire in my blood. Thoughts scatter; instinct takes the reins. I howl and break into a dead run.
Age: 30 y 8 m 20 d
Location: 39 miles north of the Demilitarized Zone
Viewpoint: Colonel, Tierveh Domestic Tranquility, Second Unit, startled
There’s a howl, then chaos.
The beast’s screams stab through my eardrums like hypodermic needles and must carry for god knows how far out here in the flat country; from miles away it might be mistaken for the tortured screaming of an animal caught in a trap. The tone and volume suggest a fierce jungle predator, a blood-maddened killing machine. But the odd pauses, the harmony and order to the alien grunts and growls, mark the monster’s screeching for what it really is: language, or as close as the thing’s misshapen throat can manage.
How intelligent is this thing?
The greens slide on rain-slick grass as they fight to keep the tethers around Kayutsa’s pet secure. The tarps over the beast are close to flying off with all the damn wind, and the monster’s flailing only makes it harder to get the lines tight again. It looks like a dozen spiders wrapping a gorilla in a blanket tied with neon orange threads.
I catch up to Dr. Alans, the head of the SD unit that flew here last night, and grab him by the arm. “I thought you said that thing couldn’t move!”
Dr. Alans is pale. “I… Colonel Marian, I haven’t the slightest why—I assure you—with the Nonconscious Operating System missing—completely impossible…”
I let go of his arm. My fingers are numb, from the cold or otherwise I can’t say. “Just settle it down before it gets loose.” He gives a pitiful salute and takes off running. I rub at my eyes. Zalia is there to hand me a fresh pack; Jols glares when I light up but doesn’t say a word. The SD crew switches on one of the noisy diesel engines they brought on the choppers and the monster gurgles as the techs pump enough sedatives to kill an elephant twenty times over into its bloodstream.
All the steam goes out of the beast by my third drag. The tethers are secured and reinforced by the time I flick the butt into the grass. “Okay, Jols, what just happened?”
Jols shakes his head. “Damned if I know, Sel.”
“Zalia, how long until those cargo beds gets here?”
“Tomorrow, Colonel.” Zalia is staring at the monster, once again quiet under its tarps. “They’re bringing in more tranqs too. In case it gets rowdy again.”
“Did we have any tractometers going just now?”
“We’re monitoring the surrounding three miles. I just came from the tents maybe ten minutes ago and there wasn’t a peep. There aren’t any Nephilim around.”
“No doubt.” I pull out another cigarette. “But I think we should take a look at what the local numbers were while that thing was throwing its fit.”