Gender: A what?
Age: 6 h 38 m
Location: The middle of a river
Viewpoint: Unaffiliated, bewildered
I’m fairly sure breathing right now would be a bad idea, though I’m not clear on why. What is this I’m feeling? Not the cold and the wet pressing in on me from every angle; I know those sensations, though I’m not clear on how I know them. I think what I’m feeling more than anything is what’s called fear. Enoch, is that what this is?
Okay, opening my mouth was a mistake; all it got me was a gulp of icy wetness and a sore throat. I can see water and the night sky and not a whole lot else. I’m pretty sure this isn’t normal, but I don’t have a lot to base that on. My memories only go back a few hours. Enoch says his memories go back a lot longer. But I haven’t been able to see Enoch since I fell into the river.
There are rocks beneath the water that my toes can reach if I let my head go under. I really don’t want to let my head go under because I can’t breathe when it does, and I’m pretty sure that’s a bad thing. There’s something buried in my mind—not a memory, but similar to one—that says not breathing is bad. I’m not sure what that means or how I got that impression, but the idea must have come from somewhere. So I dip below the water, careful not to inhale, and kick against the rocks. I make a little headway but now I can’t breathe. I’m supposed to breathe, right? Going without breathing feels uncomfortable.
For a moment I’m about to breathe in the river, then land rises under me and my head clears the surface again. My eyes are all blurry, but blinking a few times clears that up. Hope I didn’t break my eyes by getting water in them. Can you get your eyes wet? I’ll ask Enoch later. There’s land ahead so I kick against the ground again, this time without having to duck my head underwater. The water’s still carrying me downriver, but at least I’m closer to the shore. One last heave and I’m to the bank and safe to slump down on the grass.
It’s chilly. Again there’s something buried in my mind, not a memory but more a quiet voice inside my head, warning me I’ll catch a cold if I stay in these wet clothes. A cold, apparently, is something that messes up your body. I’m learning all kinds of weird things tonight. Enoch, are you getting this? Though come to think of it, you don’t wear clothes. Maybe colds are afraid of you.
Jacket, shoes and jumpsuit are all soaked, so I wring the water out as best I can and let them lay on the grass; one of those not-memories says they’ll dry out a bit this way. A waterlogged wallet occupies one of the jumpsuit’s pockets. I fumble with the zipper on the pocket for a minute, grasping the basic concept but never having encountered one before. Everything in the wallet is drenched and most of the papers inside are stuck together, but I can make out the words on a shiny yellow card:
Logistical Operations, Tierveh Science Department
Age 31 H 6’2” W 230 lbs
There’s a picture of a handsome man with copper skin and chocolaty eyes printed on the card. He probably has six inches and a hundred pounds on me. I think I remember him, but that memory is jumbled up with a lot of others. The majority of what’s left in the wallet are colored pieces of paper with no apparent function and some kind of foil package that tells me to “open here.” When I tear the foil, all that’s inside is a stretchy plastic tube. Some kind of finger warmer? But no matter what finger I put it on, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t look like there’s anything useful in the wallet so it goes back in the jumpsuit.
My mouth is dry. A few pathetic trees look to have started growing near the river, then thought better of it after it was too late. If the water’s good enough for them it should be good enough for me, right? That’s another of those not-memories: I know I should drink water because I’m, what, thirsty? I think that’s what this is.
It’s slow going back down the bank because I don’t want to fall in the water again. I drink until I can feel the water climbing back up my throat. That makes me feel like throwing up, and after a few minutes of lying in the shale, I do. A little more water gets the taste out of my mouth and I feel better.
The night breeze is enough to dry my pale skin, but it’s also cold and I don’t know that I like it. I think that’s what the jacket and jumpsuit are for. They don’t look or smell the same as when I started wearing them earlier—I wonder if that’s a problem?—but they’re all I have and I was warmer when I was wearing them. Warm, cold, funny how the world can’t make up its mind. I don’t remember this being a problem before. And I wonder why Enoch isn’t answering. I don’t remember that being a problem before either.
It takes me a bit to tie my shoes when I put them back on. I have this vague idea of how to do it, not sure where it came from, but it’s like I have the memory in my mind without having it in my muscles.
So, um, where to? I wish Enoch would answer me. Maybe he’s asleep. He says the humans put him to sleep sometimes when he doesn’t want to sleep. Or, well, he didn’t so much say it as share it… It’s confusing. Maybe Enoch found some people and they put him to sleep. One of those not-memories says following water is a good way to find people. I guess I could follow this river. Last time I saw Enoch he wasn’t far from the bank.
But as soon as I start wondering where I should go, something else catches my attention, something away from the river. I feel it like a vibration in the back of my skull. That’s all it takes and then I know where I want to go. I feel that if I just concentrated enough I’d be beyond those distant hills already. It’s a siren’s call, obliterating all sense of time and self…
I’m at the base of a hill when awareness returns. I finish the climb to the top. The sky is lighter. I didn’t know it changed colors. There’s no sign of the river, just a series of cliffs and ridges settled into one another creating a valley below. There are stunted trees here and there, but most of what I can see is open plain and rising hills. There’s flickering, inconsistent light down in the valley, and a sound that brings back mental images of people in green clothes with guns.
Whatever is calling me, it’s down there, and it’s afraid.
Age: 30 y 8 m 19 d
Location: 43 miles north of the Demilitarized Zone
Viewpoint: Colonel, Tierveh Domestic Tranquility, Second Unit, irritated
I hate my job.
We’re in the middle of a two week monitoring mission out here in the barrens, an unsettled region ringed by mountains in every direction but the south. To the south is the demilitarized zone, the buffer between Sayrun and West Garazet established in the ceasefire I helped bring about six years ago. Tierveh’s still technically at war with West Garazet, but then Tierveh’s still technically at war with about a dozen other countries too. Doesn’t make much of a difference nowadays since the Nephilim prevent most countries from sustaining long-term campaigns outside their own borders. Most of the shots my unit takes are aimed at dissidents and terrorist sympathizers.
The people living out here aren’t citizens of Sayrun, and they’re sure as hell not Tierveh party members. These scattered tribes have lived off the earth for generations, probably going back to the years after the Flood. What time I’ve spent out here among the tribes tells me they’re not interested in joining the modern world. They’re lucky to have the lands they do; all the native groups along the coasts are gone, assimilated willingly or otherwise. That all happened years before Tierveh, when Sayrun was still a republic. I’ve heard instigators claim Sayrun was better before Tierveh, more humane, but I haven’t seen much in the history books to back that up. Jols would point out that Tierveh members write the history books, and he went to school before the revolution. But that’s a treasonous thought.
I get the impression West Garazet, which remains a republic, treats the natives the same way Sayrun did, but General Qorin still sends us out every once in a while to ensure none of the tribes are assisting foreign powers within Sayrun’s borders. It’s mostly an excuse for the newer recruits to get out in the field and do some training away from civilian eyes. Once in a while we’ll find a little contraband, but it’s usually a boring assignment.
The sudden change in orders wouldn’t bother me so much if they didn’t concern Russel Kayutsa and the Science Division. It’s been a couple hours since we received word that Kayutsa’s monster was loose somewhere in the Foothills. It’s weird that orders concerning SD matters are coming straight from Vice President Elmyason tonight. Elmyason was career military before President Tier made him a politician, and he usually respects the chain of command. And the Science Department has its own security force, so why aren’t they out here?
I wonder, did they send the orders to me because my unit was the closest, or because I’ve already seen the damn thing? Probably a bit of column A, a bit of column B. That’s utility for you. Whatever the reason, my unit’s driving around the barrens in the dead of night, hoping our headlights are enough to spot any sudden jeep-swallowing dips in the ground, instead of sleeping until 0500 hours like sane people. I need a smoke.
Zalia politely coughs from the driver’s seat so I roll down one of the jeep’s windows. The cancerous smoke that had been billowing around our heads wafts into the night air of the barrens. “How about it, Jols? Anything?”
“Tractometer’s clear so far.”
“Figures. It’d be better if we just left it out here anyway.”
Jols looks up from his laptop. His dark eyes blink behind finger-thick glasses. “Better for whom?” Which is exactly the kind of response I’m used to getting from him, dry and succinct without committing to any point of view.
“Did they mention how it got out here?”
“No. The orders don’t even say what we’re looking for, just that you’d know what it was, Sel.” Jols puts the laptop aside, and I get a good look at the programmer’s gut peeking out from under his shirt. Lucky me. Jols is old enough to be my father and fat enough to be the expectant mother of triplets. “That, and we’re to contact them as soon as we find it.”
“And we’re supposed to find it with a tractometer?” There’s an edge to Zalia’s voice I usually don’t hear unless the Nephilim are involved. Zalia’s an only child now, but she wasn’t born that way. She grew up on a farm along Highway 2 between Shin and Ehrtin and lived through three Nephilim attacks, each of which took a sibling and the last her mother as well, before joining Domestic Tranquility. I know what it’s like to lose family, if not to the Nephilim.
“We might see it on the tractometer,” I say, “but there’s no guarantee. It’s not going to sneak up on us, I can tell you that.” It better not. There’s a line of jeeps ahead and behind running tractometers and trying to make visual contact. I’m the only one out here who’s seen the damn thing before, but I’m confident they’ll know it when they see it.
“We know it when we see it”—that’s how the Council defines treason. Now why the hell did I have that thought? Shit, my cig burned out too.
Neither my aide de camp nor my communications assistant have anything more to say so we ride on in relative silence. The barrens are mostly hills and scrub brush, all rocks and tufts of rough grass that can make for a bumpy ride. Zalia’s years on the farm pay off when it comes to driving through the mess; she knows how to avoid the worst of the dips and the stones, and she keeps my stomach at more or less the same altitude. Jols takes the bus everywhere in town and drives like a kid on the bumpercars when he’s at the wheel. There’s some unspoken rule that I’m not allowed to drive myself around when I’m on duty. My job’s a real pain in the ass.
I can remember a time when I didn’t feel that way. Six years ago I felt like I was on the right side when West Garazet tried to take Calhoun Island from us. Fourteen dead on our side, twenty-nine on theirs, and it seemed a righteous victory, like I’d done something good for my country and the people who lived there. Cody said there were boys on his sandhoop team at school who wanted my autograph because they’d seen me on the news. The Vice President himself put in the request for my promotion to colonel when I got back home.
Except now when I think back on it I don’t remember the news interviews or the welcome back party or my parents telling me how proud they were of me for serving my country. What I remember is how dark the sky was when West Garazet’s ships landed on the island and the smell of the oil burning on the water as their ships sank and the men and women who’d come to kill us leapt flaming into the ocean, hoping to escape the hell we’d prepared for them. I remember Professor Kayutsa telling us how vital the island was to our national defense and how much of a right we had to keep it even though it lay at the same latitude as the demilitarized zone. Knowing what I know now I have to wonder what his interest was in the area at the time.
“Sel, we’re getting word from the front of the line. They see something.” Jols hands me a set of binoculars. “We’ll be able to see it once we’re over the next hill.” Zalia follows the line up the slope and pulls to a stop without me having to give the order, possibly from shock instead of foresight.
I don’t need the binoculars to see Kayutsa’s monster this close up. Sure enough, it’s the same one I’ve seen before down in the Mausoleum. It’s around thirty feet tall and looks unsettlingly human at this level of light and distance. There’s no sign of the visor the SD had it wearing the few times I’ve seen it before, but it’s too dark to make out the details of its face. Starlight sparkles off the monster’s powder white skin as it lopes through the barrens, casting right and left as it goes. Is it looking for something? Or more to the point, is the pilot looking for something? I wish I knew who was in there. Whomever it is he or she isn’t authorized to be out here with it, that much was clear from our orders.
“Colonel,” Zalia says, foot still firm on the brake, “is that a Nephilim?”
“Tractometer’s clear,” Jols says. He leans forward so he can get a better look at our quarry through the windshield. “This would be the new anti-Nephilim unit Kayutsa’s been working on.” Jols isn’t asking a question. He probably knows more about it than I do, clearance or no. But the sound of his voice tells me this is the first time he’s seen it with his own eyes.
Zalia tears her eyes away from Kayutsa’s experiment so she can look to me. “Orders, colonel?”
I hand the binoculars back to Jols. “Tell everyone to stay back. If it’s noticed us it’s ignoring us so far, and I want to keep it that way. Jols, get the SD on the line and tell them we’ve located their monster.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Zalia says and gets on her radio. Jols just nods, flips his laptop back open and starts texting the SD in Abalyn. I light another cig and wait.
Age: 20 y 3 m 11 d
Location: Waashimi Camp by the Demilitarized Zone
Viewpoint: Logistical Officer, Tierveh Science Department, relaxing for a change
Grandma hands me a cup of fineroot tea with a smile on her sun-leathered face. She brushes a few strands of hair from my forehead; it reminds me of how she used to rub dirt off my cheeks when I was a little girl. “You do not come to see us often enough. What is there in your city to so preoccupy a woman your age?”
Utility, I’d like to tell her, but it would lead to a conversation I’m not authorized to have. The tea is bitter and cold with an aftertaste as gritty as the rough ground the fineroot grows in. It’s an acquired taste outside the Waashimi, who grow up on the stuff. I already have some fineroot stuffed away in my pack to take back home. It’s not the sort of thing you can get hold of in Abalyn.
“You should not be alone among the Tierveh people,” she continues in the crisp, formal tone that marks my native tongue as a second language to her. “Such a pretty girl. Surely you could find a companion here among your people. Isn’t she pretty? She has her mother’s figure.” Grandma looks to Father, who only grunts and sips at his tea.
“I’m not alone in Abalyn. I have Sandi, my roommate. And Avia’s just moved to Abalyn. You remember Avia. She came to visit with me a few years ago, back when I was going to school in Didoise.”
“Girls.” Grandma waves a hand in the air. “Do you not know any men?”
I grin. Grandma and I have played this game every visit since I turned sixteen, marriageable age among the Waashimi. It might be irritating if I thought she was serious. I think the better part of why she does it is to get a rise out of Father. Though you really have to know him to know when you’re getting a rise out of him; he doesn’t say much so it’s more a matter of how he shifts his weight and the tone of his grunting that tells you when you’ve gotten under his skin. I seem to get under his skin just being here, but the feeling’s mutual.
Still, it’s been too long since I was able to visit them. Getting out to see my father’s side of the family is never an easy task. The Waashimi, my father’s people, are nomadic; they travel throughout the barrens and the Foothills seeking game and harvesting wild flora. It’s an old way of life, one that used to be more common in this part of the world until a century and a half ago, before Sayrun was founded by colonists from across the sea, my mother’s side of the family among them.
The Waashimi stick close to the demilitarized zone, a place that I’m not legally supposed to be as a Sayrun citizen and Tierveh member. It can be a pain in the ass to get clearance for a visit. I was surprised when Professor Kayutsa sprung it on me as a reward for putting up with all the tests we’ve been going through lately. He’s usually so worried about utility that he doesn’t think about his workers… not that that’s improper. It was just unexpected.
Kunta pokes his head through the tent flaps and says something in the quick Waashimi dialect that I can’t keep up with. I can read Waashimi, and I can speak it slowly and understand it at a steady pace, but I’m not out here often enough to keep up with native speakers, especially when they’re in a hurry. Father frowns and gets up, and Grandma watches him with her lips set hard and her grey eyebrows low. I don’t have to understand what Kunta said to know it might be trouble so I follow Father out of the tent.
Four jeeps are idling at the edge of the village. I don’t see any markings on them, but they don’t look like Tier People’s Motors models. “Father,” I say low, and he looks back at me, still silent. “Do you know these people?”
He shakes his head. “People come from time to time. Traders, missionaries.”
I look past him at the man leaning against the nearest of the vehicles. His hair is cut short, his collar straight, his boots polished with his pants tucked into the top of them. “Soldiers,” I say.
“Sometimes,” Father says. He looks at me for a moment more, light blue Waashimi eyes unmoving but still the most expressive part of his sun-browned face. Then he turns to follow Kunta so he can speak with the man by the jeeps, and for some reason I stay where I am.
I can feel something in the back of my mind, something coming closer, like that feeling you get while your back is turned when someone comes into the room. It’s beyond sight or smell or hearing, a knowledge that someone is close by and a sensation that if I closed my eyes and concentrated I could see the world through someone else’s eyes. I’m not used to this kind of paranoia away from work. I wonder what—
Holy shit, my dad just punched that man!
That’s all it takes for the village to explode into chaos. Doors open on all four of the jeeps and men and women in combat gear step out, some armed with tasers, others with assault rifles. Shit. Families run for their tents, laundry and water jugs abandoned. Four men hauling a thick cast-iron barrier run past me. They plant the portable barrier in the dirt and scramble behind it; it’s a modern take on one of their oldest strategies for dealing with other tribes. More Waashimi, men and women, pour into the center of the village, aiming bows and guns at the soldiers from behind makeshift cover. It reminds me I left my Isler .45 in my tent this morning. Shit!
Kunta grabs my elbow before I can make much ground away from the fight. He says something in Waashimi, but he’s still talking too goddamn fast and all I can do is nod like a tourist. Someone shoots—I’m not sure if it’s us or them—but it’s close enough to make my eardrums quiver, and now it wouldn’t matter if Kunta slowed down when he talked because I couldn’t hear him anyway.
A jeep comes speeding through the middle of the cluster of tents, crushing an elderly man beneath its wheels. Is this jeep number five, or is it one of the four I saw? Three soldiers leap out of the jeep and Kunta shoves me into the nearest tent. I get wrapped up in the flaps and end up on my ass atop someone’s bedroll, about six inches from knocking over a pot of tepid water. I hear shouting outside, then a gunshot, then more shouting and a few thuds like snow falling from a branch, which I’d guess is the sound of a fist hitting body armor.
Is there anything in here I can use to defend myself? Bedding, a couple drawing pads and some pens, a drawer full of shells and beads and string. A mirror with a crack in one corner. Goddammit, did I end up in Paia’s tent? I bet I did. He’s an artist, not a warrior. The cooking knife soaking in the pot I almost knocked over is probably as close to a weapon as I’ll find in here. The whole search takes maybe forty seconds and I hear at least half a dozen gunshots in the meantime.
I know the troops out there aren’t from Tierveh. I’d recognize the uniforms. West Garazet? They’re a long way from their side of the demilitarized zone, but who the hell else can it be? Are they invading? If we go to war, I wonder—will they send me out to fight? Will the SD be part of it?
That would be our greatest utility, wouldn’t it?
Going out the front flaps would be stupid. Instead I saw through the back side of the tent with the cooking knife, which takes more precious time because the blade is getting dull. Stepping out the new hole in Paia’s tent puts me in a narrow alley between rows of similar abodes. I hear a crash from around the front side of the tent. There’s gunfire coming from all around now; it’s impossible to know where any one shot is being fired from. But under the cracks of powder and shells I can hear Kunta’s voice shouting and someone giving the Waashimi equivalent of “Okay!”
I peek around the tent. Sure enough, Kunta’s still alive. He and three other Waashimi have pushed the jeep on its side and they’re using it for cover. Looks safer than where I’m standing, but for the State’s sake keep your head low. I can hear a bullet ping on the jeep’s roof just as I kneel beside the rear tires next to Kunta.
Kunta has helped himself to a dispatched soldier’s assault rifle. It’s a West Garazet military issue HC45, so I guess there’s no question of who’s attacking. If they get spotted by the border patrol this really will mean open war like six years ago.
There’s a sudden hail of ping-ping-pings on the opposite side of the jeep. I wonder just how much the cab can take before those rounds pierce through and find flesh. A woman on the other side of Kunta pops up long enough to empty half a magazine over the top of the jeep then plops back to the ground just before the pinging starts again. People are yelling from the other end of the camp where Father was.
Why the hell would West Garazet attack the Waashimi near the northern edge of the demilitarized zone? I wish I could do something. I wish I could see what was going on. Is Father still alive? The thickest fighting seems to be centered around where he was talking to the soldiers. Was he the first to fall? I’m tempted to peek over the side of the jeep, but another ear-stabbing barrage of gunfire dissuades me.
I have that feeling again, and it’s like I can see the other side of the jeep and the soldiers facing it. I just want to tear them apart. They’re a threat. They’re a threat and something deep inside me, some animal instinct that responds to fear without thought of consequence or reason, wants to wrap my fingers around their throats and—
Then I’m back in my own head just in time for a soldier to come flying over the jeep and land head-first in the dirt behind Kunta. I hear a thud against the other side of the jeep and watch Kunta swing around the HC45 and blow a hole through the gut of the soldier behind us before the poor stunned bastard can regain his feet. Red blood and pink innards splatter on Paia’s tent flaps. The soldier dies with an expression somewhere between sudden pain and utter bewilderment on his face, and gravity pulls the rest of his body to the ground as the light leaves his eyes.
Another thump on the opposite side of the jeep, and this time whatever’s hitting against the roof is enough to tip the jeep back on its wheels. I scramble on hands and knees through the scrub and dirt, and I can see Kunta and the other Waashimi doing the same out of the corner of my eye. The jeep settles back on its wheels with a rusty squeak. Two men tumble off the roof and onto Kunta, arms and legs entangled in a contest for life. One of the men is in West Garazet fatigues; the other is in a SD jumpsuit.
This doesn’t make any sense. Did someone drug me? Am I asleep?
The stranger in the jumpsuit twists and slams the soldier’s head into the ground. The impact is enough to stun the soldier, loosening his grip on the stranger’s wrists, and the stranger’s hands go to the soldier’s throat. Is he going to strangle him?—oh god, no need. The stranger crushes the soldier’s windpipe with his hands as a matter of course while he hammers the soldier’s skull against the ground again and again until blood is streaming from the soldier’s mouth, nose, eyes. The soldier’s neck looks like a crushed aluminum can when the stranger’s hands come away. I think I’m going to throw up…
But before I can barf the stranger keels over and spits up his own bile. I shuffle backward on hands and knees, oblivious to the gunfire from the other side of the village. Kunta takes a step toward me and says, “Meis,” taking his time so I can understand him. He might be sweet if I could follow what he said.
The stranger’s eyes go wide and his head whips to Kunta, then his spine arches like a cat’s and he springs from his legs, arms already in motion, and tackles Kunta with more force than he should have for his weight. The other Waashimi grab at the stranger to pry him off, but he’s too strong, and one of them ends up with a broken nose. Kunta gasps and then his body spasms when the stranger’s fingers wrap around his throat, and a moment later he coughs blood over the stranger’s face and jumpsuit. The stranger lets Kunta’s body go and turns back to look at me again.
“Who are you?”
It’s what I intended to say, but the stranger is the one speaking. It’s not just the words that are the same, though; the inflection, the tone, even his stance mirrors mine.
“What the hell is this?” the stranger says, again all me. “Stop it! Get out of my head!” The stranger recoils at this last statement and leans against the jeep.
“I mean it!” I say, and as I say it I will it to be so: “Get out of my head!”
For a moment it’s like I’m looking at myself through the stranger’s eyes, then a wall goes up and my awareness snaps back to my own skull. The stranger’s eyes roll up in his head and he slumps to the ground.