Age: 30 y 8 m 19 d
Location: 39 miles north of the Demilitarized Zone
Viewpoint: Colonel, Tierveh Domestic Tranquility, Second Unit, snoozing
“Colonel, wake up.”
Funny how you fall asleep without realizing it. Though I guess once you’re asleep the part of you that would notice that sort of thing is off the job. Zalia is poking me in the arm and the sun’s climbing over the eastern horizon. It’s unusual for me to conk out in a vehicle, sitting in the passenger seat or not, since the accident. “I’m up. Isn’t it your job to keep me awake?”
“It’s my job to ensure you make the best decisions possible,” Zalia says. “You looked like you needed a couple hours. Besides, we’ve just been driving in circles.”
“So why’d you wake me up?”
“The target’s down,” Jols says, “and you snore.”
That’s enough to wake me up and quell my immediate need for a cig. Sure enough the whole convoy is on standby, every jeep idling in place ahead and behind us, waiting on my order to do what comes next. I can see the monster lying in the grass ahead of us, curled in a fetal position with its back turned to the convoy. Morning dew glistens off the monster’s snow white skin as the sun’s first light hits the barrens.
“What time is it? How long were we following it?”
“It’s 8:24, Colonel. We’ve been following it about five and a half hours.”
“Where are we?”
“A few miles south from where we started. It’s been moving in widening circles away from the river.” Which sounds to me like the pilot was looking for something. Doesn’t sound like he found it, either.
“How long has it been down?”
“Maybe two minutes.”
Zalia shrugs. “No idea. It passed out and fell over.”
Jols nods in the back seat. “I’m surprised the thump didn’t wake you up. It sounded like a shell hitting the ground.” He should know better. I’ve slept through Nephilim attacks on Abalyn before, raid sirens and everything. Jols has been the one to come wake me up on a few occasions. “The tractometer jumped right before it went out. If this thing was a Golem I’d say it blew a fuse.”
Zalia’s eyes go wide and she turns in the driver’s seat to stare at Jols. “You didn’t mention that before. And this thing isn’t a Nephilim?”
“It’s not a Nephilim,” I say, then to Jols, “Have you sent word to Elmyason yet?”
“Just waiting for you to rub the sleep out of your eyes, Sel.”
“Do it. Zalia, tell everyone to hold on until we get our orders.”
Jols goes to work on the laptop and Zalia sends out an update to the rest of the convoy. I wonder how many of them are having the same thought Zalia did. Kayutsa’s monster isn’t a Nephilim, but anything a couple stories tall that shows up on a tractometer is bound to make people nervous.
And we still don’t know who the hell is piloting the thing. I think that’s what makes me nervous more than anything else. If we don’t know who’s piloting, we don’t know the pilot’s agenda, which means we don’t know how dangerous that person might be. S/he has to know we’re here. We’ve been following it at a visible distance all night. Either the pilot doesn’t intend to harm us, or s/he doesn’t consider us a threat. Neither scenario makes much sense. That thing is stolen and we’re here to take it back—the pilot has to know that. So what gives?
Jols looks up from his laptop. “They want us to detain the pilot.”
Great. Hope the damn thing stays down. “How do we do that?”
“There’s an orifice along its spine.”
Did you already know that, or did they send us that tidbit? “You heard him, Zalia. We’ll pull the convoy within a hundred yards and then dispatch on foot from there.”
It takes another ten minutes for the convoy to form a half-circle along the monster’s back, then another five minutes pass while a dozen greens cover the remaining distance on foot and assure themselves the thing isn’t going anywhere. I can see the orifice Jols mentioned through the binoculars; it’s a pair of pale white lips maybe four feet long that split along the line of the monster’s spine. Those lips are clenched shut and it takes a half dozen greens pulling on either side before they’ll crack enough for a man to slip through the opening. How he doesn’t immediately run into the monster’s spine is beyond me. As human as it looks from a distance, it must have some alien physiology.
The green wriggles back out of the lips and grabs a radio from one of the other soldiers. Zalia tells him I’m listening and gives him the go ahead to report. “Colonel, there’s no one in there, ma’am. Over.”
A lit cigarette nearly falls from my mouth. “What?”
Zalia clicks the radio. “Repeat that, over.”
“There isn’t anyone inside the thing, ma’am. There’s no pilot. Over.”
I look to Jols, who’s looking at the monster.
He looks as confused as I am. That’s rare, and it’s a hell of a bad sign.
“Zalia, get me the Vice President on the phone.”
Age: 48 y 11 m 8 d
Location: Capitol Building, Abalyn
Viewpoint: Head of Research, Tierveh Science Department, contemplative
A wide swath of southern Abalyn is visible from the balcony outside my office. Clusters of Tierveh office buildings rise from the pavement of the blocks nearest the Capitol Building like so many middle fingers flipping the bird to the factories and housing projects that lay in their shadows. The ghettos remain trapped, pinched between these sky-piercing reminders of the ruling party’s power and Abalyn’s city wall, which rises almost as high as some of the buildings downtown. When I came to Abalyn as a young man, I saw that wall as a symbol of freedom against the scourge of the Nephilim, a way to keep the great threat of our age out of the city. But as the years have passed, it occurs to me more often that the wall keeps us all in too.
My hand comes up to shade my eyes from the glare of the morning sun, and I’m momentarily bewildered as my fingers brush the raised tissue running down the ridge of my nose. Ah, I’d forgotten the scar is there. It’s still new enough that my mind hasn’t incorporated it into my self-image yet, and I’m occasionally surprised when I remember it’s there. That reminds me, Kana will be here in nine days. I suppose I’ll have to deal with that now.
I walk back inside and plop down in my office chair. God, all I needed was a scar to mar my looks. My hairline’s already receding faster than the greens when a Nephilim comes in view and now that I’m sitting down I can feel my middle-aged gut squishing against the lip of my desk. What I want more than anything is to sleep. My mom used to say sleep is a reunion with the soul, and if anything’s troubling the soul, it’ll flee from you till things are put right. Dozing for more than a few hours at a time has been impossible for weeks, and I haven’t had a wink since the day before yesterday.
Paranoia and exhaustion threaten to tag-team my consciousness, but there’s too much work to be done to worry about the trivialities of the human body. The mind’s preoccupation with the body it inhabits is a meaningless distraction, but it’s one I’m powerless to escape. I wish I could get my attention span under control, but last night was crucial and so much has gone wrong already. I should have known he’d fuck this up.
My eyelids snap back to wide open when the card reader beeps, and I sit up straight as the door slides open. My fingers play at a stack of notes on the desk as if I was busy going through them. Lea lets herself in, arms full of manila envelopes stamped with the three-fingered hand of the Council. That would mean Elmyason sent his bitch here on a personal errand.
I lean back into my seat with a sigh. The mind’s preoccupation with the body may be meaningless, but that doesn’t make having too much stomach and not enough slack in my belt any less of an annoyance. Thing is, when you work with women who look like Lea, what does it matter? Strawlike hair cut short, wide shoulders, flat butt, she might as well be a man. Makes you wonder about those rumors concerning Elmyason’s years in the field. Back when Megana was alive things were different. Lea’s no replacement for Megana—she doesn’t have the mind and she doesn’t have the ass. Hard to beat the combination of the two Megana Kanot had.
Once again, the body is interfering with the mind, but I don’t mind it so much when the body comes up with subjects like that.
Lea drops the envelopes on my desk. “From the field. It’s in custody.”
“How’d they bring it down?”
“They didn’t. Colonel Marian’s detachment followed it all night until it collapsed on its own this morning. The tractometers spiked before the unit went unconscious. It’s all in the report.”
The report Elmyason sent me, all based on data I haven’t seen. That son of a bitch. It’s bad enough they’re keeping everyone out of the Mausoleum—I expected that much—but refusing to allow me or my department to take part in the recovery of the unit we created? It’s petty, asinine. This isn’t the first time he’s let the military step all over the Science Department, but he’s never gone so far to risk exposing classified projects before. He can’t suspect, can he? No. The bastard is just being paranoid and power-hungry like always, and his bitch is loving the opportunity to stick it to me. How does he justify having Lea involved in the recovery effort when I’m being left out?
“Is Hashganas in custody?”
She taps an envelope. “He wasn’t in the pyl. Maybe he abandoned the unit before Colonel Marian found it.”
Where the hell does he think he’s going? West Garazet won’t take him in if he doesn’t live up to his side of the deal. “Are you telling me the unit was acting on its own volition the whole time Colonel Marian was following it?” I don’t need Lea’s nod; that’s exactly what she’s saying.
“We had Colonel Marian enter the pyl personally to confirm the status of the NOS. It’s missing as well. The working assumption is that Hashganas took the NOS along when he abandoned the unit.”
So. I can feel the muscles in my face go slack. Does he intend to deliver the NOS to West Garazet? But why leave the unit behind? You’ve completely fucked this up in every conceivable way, Rydio.
“I trust that since I’ve been kept out of the loop so far I can depend on the Vice President to bring the unit back home? If it’s not too much to ask.”
“We’ve already dispatched an escort. Again, all in the report. I suggest you read it.” Lea heads for the door.
I think she’s going to say something else—but I guess not, because there she goes and the door’s closing behind her. Fine. Elmyason and his bitch are doing me a favor taking care of this mess whether they know it or not. I need all the time they’ll give me to determine whether Elmyason’s on to me or not.
Defecting is a real pain in the ass.
Gender: I don’t get it
Age: 14 h 52 m
Location: On the floor
Viewpoint: Unaffiliated, at peace
This place is familiar. It’s dark, it’s dry and it smells pungent, though my nose seems used to the scent. I was here earlier. I’m safe here; I’m not sure how I know that. Maybe it’s not something I know so much as something I feel. This is my place. My home? No, that doesn’t feel right. More like—my starting place, the place I’ve set out from. But if it’s so familiar and comfortable why would I want to leave?
But I do leave, though I don’t feel it’s of my own will. It’s almost like I’m watching myself, a surreal brand of entertainment that would be fascinating if I wasn’t so terrified of going outside again. I rise out of my place, and wasn’t there supposed to be more beyond it? All I can see are the stars, and all I can feel is my body floating up to meet them. Are these the lights I saw from the hill? Is this what was calling me?
The stars are gone and I realize my eyes are closed. I suck in a breath and sit up. There’s a tweak in my back, and my wrists are tender and sticky and don’t want to come apart from behind my back. I’m sitting in the dirt inside a tiny circular room and I can see people staring at me. Were they in the stars too? They look so angry. Should I be angry too? I wonder if something happened that should make me angry. Why can’t I move my arms the right way? I’m pretty sure I should be able to move my arms.
One of them says something, but I can’t understand him. Is there something wrong with his mouth? Someone else leaves the room, then the person who was calling me comes into the room. I’m not sure how I know she’s the one, but she is. She has brown eyes and black hair, and I feel like if I closed my eyes and spun in a circle I could still point to her without looking. The woman stands in front of me, looks me up and down and says, “Are you from Abalyn?”
“Where are you from?”
“Oh. Um, I came here from the river.”
Was that wrong? She’s looking at me without saying anything, like I was supposed to say something else, but I really did come here from the river.
“Are you with the SD?”
I blink. “What’s an essdee?”
“Is that your uniform that you’re wearing?”
This woman asks funny questions. “I guess so if I’m wearing it.”
She sighs. “I’m Meis Kanot. Were you sent here to find me?”
“Yes, I came here to find you.” I don’t know if I’d say I was sent so much as lured, but she doesn’t give me time to expound on my circumstances.
“Alright.” Meis sits in the dirt in front of me and looks me right in the eyes. “What’s your name?”
This question I at least understand. It’s like that card I have; it belongs to a man named Rydio. A name is what you use to distinguish yourself from others, right? She must have a card that says Meis Kanot. I don’t have a card, so does that mean I don’t have a name? Wait, what was it Rydio called me?
(“You’re the core of the whole system, eh? Not much to look at.”)
“I guess my name is Core.”
“Core?” Meis cocks an eyebrow. “That’s… different. Where are you from?”
“I fell in a river and then I came here. What happened to the stars?”
“Just now. I was in the stars, and then I was here.”
“You mean while you were asleep?”
“I was sleeping? Was that what you call a dream?” I have the idea dream in my head already, but I didn’t put the concept together with the experience until just now. How do people tell the difference? Dreaming feels the same as being awake to me.
She’s not saying anything, so maybe she wants me to ask another question. “Meis, do you know why I can’t move my arms right? I think they’re supposed to move more than this.”
“Your hands are tied behind your back,” she says.
“Because you killed Kunta.” The way she says it makes it obvious I shouldn’t have done that. Note to self: killing is bad. Guess I should apologize. That’s what my not-memories tell me I should do.
“Sorry. Is he okay?”
“Well, he’s dead.”
“Oh. Does it hurt?”
Meis bends forward, and I think she’s looking at my head for some reason. Is there something in my hair? I don’t know what she sees, but after she says, “Are you dense? I’m saying he’s not alive.”
“Whoa, whoa. So being dead means not being alive?”
“That can happen?”
“You should know. You did it.”
“I…?” Oh god. Oh god. “I didn’t mean to! I’m sorry!”
I didn’t know you could stop living. Why didn’t I know that? It doesn’t make any sense for things to stop living. Why would they do that? And it’s my fault. Oh god. I’m sobbing and pretty soon I have the hiccups, and Meis just watches me with a blank face while the other people in the room look at each other and kind of shrug. Now my face is wet and my back is sore and my arms are stuck behind my back and I killed someone? Are you getting any of this, Enoch? Because I am so goddamn confused.
“Look.” Meis waits for me to stop sniffling before she says anything more. “My father is the chieftain of the Waashimi. He tells me that the soldiers from West Garazet whom you helped kill were here to arrest me and take me across the border. That means someone in Abalyn told them I’d be here, and the list of people who knew I’d be here today is pretty short. Hell, officially I’m not supposed to be here at all.”
I’m not sure what she means by she’s “not supposed to be here.” What’s that mean? Is it like when I was supposed to breathe, but didn’t? Who decides what you’re supposed to do, and what’s the difference between doing what you’re supposed to do and doing something else? I want to ask her, but she keeps talking.
“Then you show up in an SD jumpsuit, kill a couple soldiers and Kunta and pass out after… some other weirdness. Follow me?”
Here she goes asking questions that don’t make any sense again. “Are we going somewhere? Because I should really find Enoch first.”
“Enoch.” Meis takes a step back, and her face goes pale. “Tell me about Enoch.”
“He’s…” Well, how do I explain him? “He’s tall, and you can go inside him. I got separated from him, and then I had this funny feeling so I came here to you. I should find him again.”
Meis looks back at the men standing behind her. She leans in closer and whispers. “Are you saying you rode in this man? There was a place to get inside him?”
“On his back, yeah. Do you know him?”
She looks back at the men again. “Was there a Nephilim attack at Abalyn?”
I stare back at her, unsure of how to answer. She said Abalyn before, and I think it’s a place. I don’t know the other new word at all. “Maybe? I don’t know. What’s a Nephilim?” One of the men behind Meis glances my way when I say the word.
“You’ve forgotten the Nephilim? I almost envy you.” Meis stands. “I think I get it. You must be one of the test pilots for the beta series. I wonder what the hell’s going on in Abalyn.”
“I’m a test pilot?”
“I think so. You must be suffering from amnesia or something.” I’m not sure what amnesia is, but one of those not-memories says suffering isn’t too great so it’s probably bad if it makes you suffer. “Wait here.”
Meis is gone for a while. I’m getting thirsty and I ask the men for a drink of water but they just stare at me. I get the feeling they don’t understand me, but if that’s the case, how do they talk to each other? Come to think of it I couldn’t tell what they were saying either. Meis was looking at my head earlier. Maybe I broke something on my head and that’s why I can’t understand them right. I don’t know.
My arms hurt. That’s suffering, right? It’s not pleasant. No wonder people don’t like it. Now how do I know people don’t like pain? More of those not-memories. Meis says I have amnesia. I guess she’d know better than I do. I wonder what amnesia means. Someone should invent a way to look up words and know what they mean.
When Meis comes back to the room she’s wearing a backpack and a sword is buckled to her belt. She bends down, pulls me to my feet and does something to free my hands. My fingers are all tingly and I have the urge to rub at my wrists. There are red indentations and white rises on my skin. One of the men steps forward, but Meis says something I don’t understand and the men all leave the room.
“We’re getting out of here,” Meis says once the men are gone. “My father’s not happy to let you go, but I’m not giving him a choice. I bet they’re wondering where you are back in Abalyn.”
I follow her out of the room. From outside I can see that the room was actually the inside of a cone of fabric supported by a few wires and metal rods. I think this is a tent. The sky is blue out here, so I guess it changes colors even more than I noticed before. It’s really bright and my eyes kind of sting. Is that the sun? I guess that must be it. I have the word for it in my head but this is the first time I’ve noticed it. There are a lot more colors in the sunlight than there were in the dark, but I wish it didn’t make my eyes water so much. I wonder how Meis is able to keep her eyes open wide in this bright light. Do you get used to it?
“Meis, do you have anything to drink? I’m thirsty.”
She stops and hands me what I’m pretty sure is a canteen. I turn it over in my hands but I can’t see where the water comes out. “How does this work?”
“Unscrew the cap.”
Cap. Like a hat? Or—wait, this thing? It looks nothing like a hat but when I play with it I finally get the cap loose and take a drink. That does it for thirst. I’m feeling something else too, like a hollowness in my stomach, but I’m not sure what that’s about. I’ll ask later when we get where we’re going. I hand the canteen back to Meis, who screws the cap back on.
She leads me to the edge of the Waashimi village where there’s a dirtbike resting on its kickstand. I’m not sure how I know it’s a dirtbike but the word is there like all the others. An older woman is waiting beside the dirtbike. I can tell she’s older than Meis and I because her hair is grey and her skin is wrinkled, though the whole idea of “older” and “younger” is weird when I try to wrap my head around it. Will my hair go grey by the time we get to Abalyn? Or do different people find their hair turning different colors as they age? I’ve noticed that different people have different colors of eyes and skin, so that’s probably the case.
While I’m wondering what color my hair will turn when I get old, the woman says some more things I can’t understand and motions toward me a few times. Meis seems to talk back to her, but I can’t follow any of it. They hug, then Meis shows me how to hold on to her and put my feet on the pegs so I can ride on the back of the bike while she drives it.
“What kind of place is Abalyn?”
She revs the engine and sets the bike into gear, then we’re off. Huh. She must not have heard me.