Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


A Novel

Jeff VanderMeer





I found Borne on a sunny gunmetal day when the giant bear Mord came roving near our home. To me, Borne was just salvage at first. I didn’t know what Borne would mean to us. I couldn’t know that he would change everything.

Borne was not much to look at that first time: dark purple and about the size of my fist, clinging to Mord’s fur like a half-closed stranded sea anemone. I found him only because, beacon-like, he strobed emerald green across the purple every half minute or so.

Come close, I could smell the brine, rising in a wave, and for a moment there was no ruined city around me, no search for food and water, no roving gangs and escaped, altered creatures of unknown origin or intent. No mutilated, burned bodies dangling from broken streetlamps.

Instead, for a dangerous moment, this thing I’d found was from the tidal pools of my youth, before I’d come to the city. I could smell the pressed-flower twist of the salt and feel the wind, knew the chill of the water rippling over my feet. The long hunt for seashells, the gruff sound of my father’s voice, the upward lilt of my mother’s. The honey warmth of the sand engulfing my feet as I looked toward the horizon and the white sails of ships that told of visitors from beyond our island. If I had ever lived on an island. If that had ever been true.

The sun above the carious yellow of one of Mord’s eyes.

* * *

To find Borne, I had tracked Mord all morning, from the moment he had woken in the shadow of the Company building far to the south. The de facto ruler of our city had risen into the sky and come close to where I lay hidden, to slake his thirst by opening his great maw and scraping his muzzle across the polluted riverbed to the north. No one but Mord could drink from that river and live; the Company had made him that way. Then he sprang up into the blue again, a murderer light as a dandelion seed. When he found prey, a ways off to the east, under the scowl of rainless clouds, Mord dove from on high and relieved some screaming pieces of meat of their breath. Reduced them to a red mist, a roiling wave of the foulest breath imaginable. Sometimes the blood made him sneeze.

No one, not even Wick, knew why the Company hadn’t seen the day coming when Mord would transform from their watchdog to their doom—why they hadn’t tried to destroy Mord while they still held that power. Now it was too late, for not only had Mord become a behemoth, but, by some magic of engineering extorted from the Company, he had learned to levitate, to fly.

By the time I had reached Mord’s resting place, he shuddered in earthquake-like belches of uneasy sleep, his nearest haunch rising high above me. Even on his side, Mord rose three stories. He was drowsy from sated bloodlust; his thoughtless sprawl had leveled a building, and pieces of soft-brick rubble had mashed out to the sides, repurposed as Mord’s bed in slumber.

Mord had claws and fangs that could eviscerate, extinguish, quick as thought. His eyes, sometimes open even in dream, were vast, fly-encrusted beacons, spies for a mind that some believed worked on cosmic scales. But to me at his flanks, human flea, all he stood for was good scavenging. Mord destroyed and reimagined our broken city for reasons known only to him, yet he also replenished it in his thoughtless way.

When Mord wandered seething from the lair he had hollowed out in the wounded side of the Company building, all kinds of treasures became tangled in that ropy, dirt-bathed fur, foul with carrion and chemicals. He gifted us with packets of anonymous meat, surplus from the Company, and sometimes I would find the corpses of unrecognizable animals, their skulls burst from internal pressure, eyes bright and bulging. If we were lucky, some of these treasures would fall from him in a steady rain during his shambling walks or his glides high above, and then we did not have to clamber onto him. On the best yet worst days, we found the beetles you could put in your ear, like the ones made by my partner Wick. As with life generally, you never knew, and so you followed, head down in genuflection, hoping Mord would provide.

Some of these things may have been placed there on purpose, as Wick always warned me. They could be traps. They could be misdirection. But I knew traps. I set traps myself. Wick’s “Be careful” I ignored as he knew I would when I set out each morning. The risk I took, for my own survival, was to bring back what I found to Wick, so he could go through them like an oracle through entrails. Sometimes I thought Mord brought these things to us out of a broken sense of responsibility to us, his playthings, his torture dolls; other times that the Company had put him up to it.

Many a scavenger, surveying that very flank I now contemplated, had misjudged the depth of Mord’s sleep and found themselves lifted up and, unable to hold on, fallen to their death … Mord unaware as he glided like a boulder over his hunting preserve, this city that has not yet earned back its name. For these reasons, I did not risk much more than exploratory missions along Mord’s flank. Seether. Theeber. Mord. His names were many and often miraculous to those who uttered them aloud.

So did Mord truly sleep, or had he concocted a ruse in the spiraling toxic waste dump of his mind? Nothing that simple this time. Emboldened by Mord’s snores, which manifested as titanic tremors across the atlas of his body, I crept up farther on his haunch, while down below other scavengers used me as their canary. And there, entangled in the brown, coarse seaweed of Mord’s pelt, I stumbled upon Borne.

Borne lay softly humming to itself, the half-closed aperture at the top like a constantly dilating mouth, the spirals of flesh contracting, then expanding. “It” had not yet become “he.”

The closer I approached, the more Borne rose up through Mord’s fur, became more like a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colors that strayed from purple toward deep blues and sea greens. Four vertical ridges slid up the sides of its warm and pulsating skin. The texture was as smooth as waterworn stone, if a bit rubbery. It smelled of beach reeds on lazy summer afternoons and, beneath the sea salt, of passionflowers. Much later, I realized it would have smelled different to someone else, might even have appeared in a different form.

It didn’t really look like food and it wasn’t a memory beetle, but it wasn’t trash, either, and so I picked it up anyway. I don’t think I could have stopped myself.

Around me, Mord’s body rose and fell with the tremors of his breathing, and I bent at the knees to keep my balance. Snoring and palsying in sleep, acting out a psychotic dreamsong. Those fascinating eyes—so wide and yellow-black, as pitted as meteors or the cracked dome of the observatory to the west—were tight-closed, his massive head extended without care for any danger well to the east.

And there was Borne, defenseless.

The other scavengers, many the friends of an uneasy truce, now advanced up the side of Mord, emboldened, risking the forest of his dirty, his holy fur. I hid my find under my baggy shirt rather than in my satchel so that as they overtook me they could not see it or easily steal it.

Borne beat against my chest like a second heart.


Names of people, of places, meant so little, and so we had stopped burdening others by seeking them. The map of the old horizon was like being haunted by a grotesque fairy tale, something that when voiced came out not as words but as sounds in the aftermath of an atrocity. Anonymity amongst all the wreckage of the Earth, this was what I sought. And a good pair of boots for when it got cold. And an old tin of soup half hidden in rubble. These things became blissful; how could names have power next to that?

Yet still, I named him Borne.


There is no other way to say this: Wick, my partner and lover both, was a drug dealer, and the drug he pushed was as terrible and beautiful and sad and sweet as life itself. The beetles Wick altered, or made from materials he’d stolen from the Company, didn’t just teach when shoved in your ear; they could also rid you of memories and add memories. People who couldn’t face the present shoved them into their ears so they could experience someone else’s happier memories from long ago, from places that didn’t exist anymore.

The drug was the first thing Wick offered me when I met him, and the first thing I refused, sensing a trap even when it seemed like an escape. Within the explosion of mint or lime from putting the beetle in your ear would form marvelous visions of places I hoped did not exist. It would be too cruel, thinking that sanctuary might be real. Such an idea could make you stupid, careless.

Only the stricken look on Wick’s face in response to my revulsion at the idea made me stay, keep talking to him. I wish I had known the source of his discomfort then and not so much later.

I set the sea anemone on a rickety table between our chairs. We were sitting on one of the rotting balconies jutting out from a sheer rock face that had inspired me to name our refuge the Balcony Cliffs. The original name of the place, on the rusted placard in the subterranean lobby, was unreadable.

Behind us lay the warren we lived in and in front of us, way down below, veiled by a protective skein Wick had made to shield us from unwelcome eyes, the writhings of the poisonous river that ringed most of the city. A stew of heavy metals and oil and waste that generated a toxic mist, reminding us that we would likely die from cancer or worse. Beyond the river lay a wasteland of scrub. Nothing good or wholesome there, yet on rare occasions people still appeared out of that horizon.

I had come out of that horizon.

“What is this thing?” I asked Wick, who was taking a good long look at what I’d brought. The thing pulsed, as harmless and functional as a lamp. Yet one of the terrors the Company had visited on the city in the past was to test its biotech on the streets. The city turned into a vast laboratory and now half destroyed, just like the Company.

Wick smiled the thin smile of a thin man, which looked more like a wince. With one arm on the table and left leg crossed over the right, in loose-fitting linen pants he’d found a week before and a white button-down shirt he’d worn so long it was yellowing, Wick looked almost relaxed. But I knew it was a pose, struck as much for the city’s benefit as mine. Slashes in the pants. Holes in the shirt. The details you tried to unsee that told a more accurate story.

“What isn’t it? That’s the first question,” he said.

“Then what isn’t it?”

He shrugged, unwilling to commit. A wall sometimes formed between us when discussing finds, a guardedness I didn’t like.

“Should I come back at some other time? When you’re feeling more talkative?” I asked.

I’d grown less patient with him over time, which was unkind as he needed my patience more now. The raw materials for his creations were running out, and he had other pressures. His rivals—in particular, the Magician, who had taken over the entire western reaches of the city—encroached on his thoughts and territory, made demands on him now. His handsome face beneath wispy blond hair, the lantern chin and high cheekbones, had begun to eat themselves the way a candle is eaten by flame.

“Can it fly?” he asked, finally.

“No,” I said, smiling. “It has no wings.” Although we both knew that was no guarantee.

“Does it bite?”

“It hasn’t bitten me,” I said. “Why, should I bite it?”

“Should we eat it?”

Of course he didn’t mean it. Wick was always cautious, even when reckless. But he was opening up after all; I could never predict it. Maybe that was the point.

“No, we shouldn’t,” I said.

“We could play catch with it.”

“You mean, help it fly?”

“If we’re not going to eat it.”

“It’s not really a ball anymore.”

Which was the truth. For a time, the creature I called Borne had retreated into itself but had now, with a strangely endearing tentative grace, become vase-shaped again. The thing just lay there on the table, pulsing and strobing in a way I found comforting. The strobing made it look bigger, or perhaps it had already started growing.

Wick’s hazel-green eyes had grown larger, more empathic in that shrunken face as he pondered the puzzle of what I had brought to him. Those eyes saw everything, except, perhaps, how I saw him.

“I know what it isn’t,” Wick said, serious again. “It isn’t Mord-made. I doubt Mord knew he carried it. But it isn’t necessarily from the Company, either.”

Mord could be devious, and Mord’s relationship with the Company was in flux. Sometimes we wondered if a civil war raged in the remnants of the Company building, between those who supported Mord and those who regretted creating him.

“Where did Mord pick it up from if not the Company?”

A tremor at Wick’s mouth made the purity of his features more arresting and intense. “Whispers come back to me. Of things roaming the city that owe no allegiance to Mord, the Company, or the Magician. I see these things at the fringes, in the desert at night, and I wonder…”

Foxes and other small mammals had shadowed me that morning. Was that what Wick meant? Their proliferation was a mystery—was the Company making them, or was the desert encroaching on the city?

I didn’t tell him about the animals, wanted his own testimony, prompted, “Things?”

But he ignored my question, changed course: “Well, it’s easy enough to learn more.” Wick passed his hand over Borne. The crimson worms living in his wrist leapt out briefly to analyze it, before retreating into his skin.

“Surprising. It is from the Company. At least, created inside the Company.” He’d worked for the Company in its heyday, a decade ago, before being “cast out, thrown away,” as he put it in a rare unguarded moment.

“But not by the Company?”

“It has the economy of design usually only achieved by committees of one.”

When Wick danced around a subject, it made me nervous. The world was already too uncertain, and if I looked to Wick for anything besides security, it was for knowledge.

“Do you think it’s a mistake?” I asked. “An afterthought? Something put out in the trash?”

Wick shook his head, but his tight frown didn’t reassure me. Wick was self-sufficient and self-contained. So was I. Or so we both thought. But now I felt he was withholding some crucial piece of information.

“Then what?”

“It could be almost anything. It could be a beacon. It could be a cry for help. It could be a bomb.” Did Wick really not know?

“So maybe we should eat it?”

He laughed, shattering the architectural lines of his face. The laughter didn’t bother me. Not then, at least.

“I wouldn’t. Much worse to eat a bomb than a beacon.” He leaned forward, and I took such pleasure from staring at his face that I thought he had to notice. “But we should know its purpose. If you give it to me, I can at least break it down into its parts, cycle it through my beetles. Discover more that way. Make use of it.”

We were, in our way, equals by now. Partners. I sometimes called him my boss because I scavenged for him, but I didn’t have to give him the sea anemone. Nothing in our agreement said I had to. True, he could take it while I slept … but this was always the test of our relationship. Were we symbiotic or parasitic?

I looked at the creature lying there on the table, and I felt possessive. The feeling rose out of me unexpected, but true—and not just because I’d risked Mord to find Borne.

“I think I’ll keep it for a while,” I said.

Wick gave me a long look, shrugged, and said, too casually, “Suit yourself.” The creature might be unusual, but we’d seen similar things before; perhaps he believed there was little harm.

Then he took a golden beetle from his pocket, put it in his ear, and his eyes no longer saw me. He always did that after something reminded him of the Company in the wrong way, unleashing a kind of self-despising rage and melancholy. I had told him confessing whatever had happened there might bring him peace, but he always ignored me. He told me he was shielding me. I did not believe him. Not really.

Perhaps he was trying to forget the details of some personal failure he could not forgive, something he’d brought on himself or actions he’d taken toward the end. Yet the job he’d chosen—or been forced into—after leaving could only remind him of the Company hour by hour, day by day. It was hard to guess because I didn’t know much about biotech, and I felt the answers I wanted from him might be technical, that maybe he thought I wouldn’t understand the details.

If I’d had his full attention, if Wick had argued with me over Borne, the future might have been different. If he’d insisted on taking Borne from me. But he didn’t. Couldn’t.


By the time I found Borne, I was entangled with Wick in so many ways. We were bound by our mutual safe place: the Balcony Cliffs, which existed on the northeast fringe of the city, overlooking the poisoned river. To the west as the city sloped toward sea level lay the territory of the Magician. To the south, across desolation and oases both, the remnants of the Company, protected by Mord. Much of all of this sprawled across a vast dry seabed that extended into the semiarid plain beyond the city.

Wick had found the Balcony Cliffs and held them for a time without me. But only by inviting me in had he held on to that place. He provided his dwindling supply of biotech and chemical deceptions and I provided a talent for building traps both physical and psychological. Using Wick’s blueprints, I’d reinforced or hollowed out the most stable corridors and the rest now ended in hidden pits or floors strewn with broken glass or worse. I used a terrifying nostalgia: book covers with death’s-heads drawn on them, a bloody cradle never meant to break, a few dozen pairs of shoes (some with mummified feet still in them). The brittle remains of a doglike animal that had wandered in and gotten lost hung from one ceiling, while the graffiti added to the wall opposite would haunt an intruder’s nightmares. If they knew how to read. A horror show linked to Wick’s pheromones and hallucinogens, activated by trip wire. Attacks had come and squatters tried their luck, and always we had fended them off.

One route we’d made led to Wick’s rooms, another to the stairs in the former lobby that granted access to a blind hidden near the top mulch. Another route came after subterfuge to the converted swimming pool where Wick stirred a vat of seething biotech creations like a mad scientist—and then from there to the cliff where lay the balconies that had given the place its name.

From the center, near Wick’s workplace, the lines in my head were drawn most urgently to the southern edge of the mound, which faced the Company across the great broken divide of the city’s southwest flank, the confusion deliberately multiplied, my purpose to create a maze for any unexpected visitors … before simplifying again at the exit to three passageways, only one of which led anywhere safe, and before that the door, which from the outside appeared to just be a part of the mound, obliterated by an inspiration of moss and vines. A strong smell of carrion, one of Wick’s most inspired distortion pheromones, grew unbearable closest to the door. Even I had trouble leaving by that entrance.

Throughout the warren we had made of the Balcony Cliffs there now existed allegiances that felt intimate—more intimate even than our sleeping arrangements. Corridors? Tunnels? Even those kinds of distinctions had been lost under our excavating rule and Wick’s addition of special spiders and other insects. I kept track of my traps with a map, but Wick, Company-savvy, used a flounder-creature in a shallow pan of water as his command and control, an ever-changing blueprint traced delicate across its back.

At some point, just as our systems of defense had become entwined, so too had our bodies, and that had wrought an unexpected synergy. What had been created from extremes of loneliness, of need, had moved beyond mutual comfort into friendship and then toward some amorphous frontier or feeling that could not be love—that I refused to call love.

In weak moments, I would run my hand across his wiry chest and tease him about his pale, almost translucent skin against the deep brown of my thighs, and for a time I would be happy at the hidden center of our Balcony Cliffs. It suited me that we could be lovers there and retreat to being mere allies in the aftermath.

But the truth is, when we were together on those nights, I knew that Wick lost every part of himself and let himself be vulnerable. I felt this quite strongly, even if I might be wrong. And if I held back something from Wick because of it, still I let the Balcony Cliffs in, connected by something almost like lasers. These lines that radiated out from both of us surged from body and brain and through the rooms our talents kept safe. Sensors, trip wires, sensitive to touch and vibration, as if we lay always at the center of something important. Even lying there, beneath me, Wick could not be free of that connection.

There was also the thrill of secrecy, for to preserve our security, we could not be seen outside together—left by different pathways, at different times—and some of that thrill entered into our relationship. Anyone passing furtive far above us would have thought that underfoot, beneath the copse of sickly pines, lay only a vast midden, an old garbage dump with dozens of layers of crumbled girders, human remains, abandoned refrigerators, firebombed cars—crushed into a mulch that had a springy, almost jaunty feel.

But beneath that weight lay us, lay the stalwart roof of the Balcony Cliffs and the cross-section of body that served as our home—the lines that connected a woman named Rachel to a man named Wick. There was a secret shape to it all that lived inside us, a map that slowly circled within our minds like a personal cosmology.

This, then, is where I had brought my sea anemone named Borne—into this cocoon, this safe haven, this vast trap that took time and precious resources to maintain, while somewhere a ticking clock kept track of the time we had left. Wick and I both knew that no matter how much raw biotech material he created or bartered for, the beetle parts and other essentials he had taken from the Company so long ago would run out. My physical traps without Wick’s almost uncanny reinforcement would not keep scavengers out for long.

Every day brought us closer to a point where we would have to redefine our relationship to the Balcony Cliffs, and to each other. And, in the middle of all routes, my apartment, where, pulled taut by our connections, we fucked, we screwed, we made love, equidistant from any border that might encroach, any enemy that might try to enter. We could be greedy there and selfish there, and there we saw each other fully. Or at least thought we did, because whatever we had, it was the enemy of the world outside.

* * *

That first night after I had brought Borne into our home, we lay there in my apartment and listened to the remote, hollow sound of heavy rain smashing into the mossy surface far above. We both knew it was not real rain; real rain in this city came to us ethereal and brief, and thus we did not venture out. Even real rain was often poison.

We did not speak much. We didn’t have sex. We just lay there in a comfortable tangle, with Borne on a chair as far from us as possible, in the corner of the bedroom. Wick had strong hands with fingertips worn almost smooth from his years of handling the materials that went into his vats of proto-life, and I liked to hold his hands.

This is how far we had come, that we could be silent and we could be still together. But even then, that first night, the presence of Borne changed things and I didn’t know if part of the silence was because of that.

In the morning, we peeked out through one of our secret doors to find the cracked earth writhing with the death throes of thousands of tiny red salamanders. So intricate, their slow-questing limbs, their obsidian eyes. So much like a mirage. A mosaic of living question marks that had rained down from the darkened sky without meaning. And already to the west we could hear the rage of Mord and feel the tremor of his passage. Rage against this illogical rain or against someone or something else?

Once, comets had appeared in the heavens and people mistook them for celestial creatures. Now we had Mord, and salamanders. What did they portend? What fate was the city working toward? Within minutes of the sun hitting their bodies the salamanders dissolved into liquid, absorbed by the earth so that only an off-red sheen like an oil slick remained behind, dotted with the tiny tracks of investigating animals.

Wick did not seem much concerned about the salamanders despite his need to replenish the supplies in his swimming pool.

“Contaminated,” he said, which I had known already from the look on his face.


I called the creature Borne because of one of the few things Wick had told me about his time working for the Company. Remembering a creature he’d created, Wick had said, “He was born, but I had borne him.”

When I wasn’t scavenging for myself or Wick, I took care of Borne. This required some experimenting, in part because I had never taken care of anyone or anything before—except some hermit crabs as a child and a stray dog for a day that I had to give up. I had no family, and my parents had died before I had arrived in the city.

I knew nothing about Borne and treated him like a plant at first. It seemed logical, from my initial observations. The first time Borne felt comfortable enough to relax and open up, I was sitting down to a quiet dinner of old Company food packets I’d found buried in a half-collapsed basement. He was sitting on the table in front of me, as enigmatic as ever. Then, mid-chew, I heard a whining noise and a distinctly wet pucker. As I set down the packet, the aperture on top of Borne widened, releasing a scent like roses and tapioca. The sides of Borne peeled back in segments to reveal delicate dark-green tendrils that even in their writhing protected the still-hidden core.

Without thinking, I said, “Borne, you’re not a sea anemone at all—you’re a plant!”

I’d already gotten into the habit of talking to him, but at the sound of my voice Borne snapped back into what I thought of as his “defensive mode” and didn’t relax again for a full day. So I put him on a plate in the bathroom, on a shelf beneath a slanted hole in the ceiling that let in improbable sunlight from far above. I savored that green-tinged, musty light in the mornings before I went out to do Wick’s work.

By the end of the second day, Borne had taken on a yellow-pink hue and the tenacity of his defensive posture hinted at either sickness or religious ecstasy, both of which I had seen too often out in the city. He smelled overcooked. I removed Borne from the shelf and returned him to the kitchen table. However, by then I noticed that the worms that composted my bathroom waste and excreted the nutrients Wick used in his vat had “disappeared.”

Now I knew a few useful things. Borne could overdose on sunlight. Borne was a glutton for compost worms. Borne could move around by himself but wouldn’t while I was there. So Borne chose to overdose on sunlight. Nothing now indicated that Borne was malformed or in any way a mistake.

I upgraded Borne from plant to animal, but still did not reclassify him as “purposeful.” I should have, though, because following his bathroom adventures, Borne made no attempt to disguise his movements. I would come home to find him in the bedroom when he had been in the kitchen when I’d left—or back in the hallway when he’d been on the living-room floor. Upon my approach, Borne always remained silent and unmoving, and I could never catch him in the act. I sensed amusement from Borne over this, but I was probably projecting. This made me smile. It became a kind of game, to guess where he might be when I returned. I looked forward to coming home more than usual.

When I mentioned this to Wick, while giving him a half-dead azure slug I’d found near the Company, he didn’t find it funny.

“You’re not worried?”

“Why should I be worried?”

“Because it is concealing its capabilities from you. Already. You have no idea what it might do next. You’re telling me it’s organized and possibly as intelligent as a dog, and we still don’t know its purpose.”

“You said Borne didn’t have to have a purpose.”

“I might have been wrong. Give it to me. I can find out what it is.”

That made me shudder. “Only by taking Borne apart.”

“Maybe. Yes, of course. I don’t have any sophisticated equipment here. I don’t have the time or the ability for anything noninvasive.” The Magician encroached, the supplies wouldn’t last forever—the rhythm that ruled our lives.

To Wick, Borne was just another variable, something he needed to control to manage his own stress. I understood that, but perhaps the lie created by life inside the Balcony Cliffs was that at some point we might think beyond the next day or the next week. That was the sliver of doubt that had crept into me along with the laughter at Borne’s antics.

On impulse, I hugged Wick, held him close, even though he tried to pull away. This was business, this was survival, that resistance told me, and I shouldn’t mix our personal relationship with business. But I couldn’t help it.

And I still couldn’t give him Borne—not out of pity or concern or anything else false. And because I couldn’t give him Borne, I stopped talking about Borne with him. When he asked about Borne, I kept my answers brief and casual. He’s fine. He’s really nothing more than some kind of vegetable. A potted plant that walks. Wick would look at me like he saw right through me, but he didn’t take Borne away from me.

It was all a test as to whether trust could still exist between us, and every time I extended that trust a little further I expected it would be unable to take the weight, or the pressure of my weight on it, and snap.


Trust, though, required certain betrayals. Long before the arrival of Borne, I had searched Wick’s quarters while he was out selling his drugs. I assumed he had done the same to me, but who knew? This aspect of trust you don’t talk about with the recipient.

My betrayal required skill—to un-puzzle locks, to bypass traps, to snuff optics—but in the end it wasn’t worth the effort. Wick’s three rooms did not reveal much about the man. The sum of his existence in that cramped space came to so very little. No family photographs or portraits, few personal items.

Perhaps, I thought, he chose to live so small to keep whatever secrets he hid out of his mind? I imagined that somewhere buried deep in our Balcony Cliffs midden lay a warehouse full of artifacts Wick kept locked away so he could not be compromised by them. But if that was true, I never found that place.

I had only the stark evidence at hand, coerced gently from a desk drawer with a little creative lock-picking: a diagram of a fish curled inside the outer tube of a broken telescope and a metal box filled with tiny vermilion nautilus shells, curled up and dry.

I pocketed one nautilus shell for later, examined the fish diagram. I held the diagram unfolded beneath the dim light of the fireflies Wick had embedded in the ceiling. I knew it was a relic from Wick’s final project at the Company, the one he would only talk about when he was drunk. Certainly nothing like this had ever arisen from Wick’s makeshift swimming-pool vat. Yet.

Whatever purpose the schematic had served, in the end it depicted an ugly fish, like a huge grouper or carp. A sideways, cutaway view, with lines radiating out from the brain, but also other parts, with numbers and random letters at the end of the spikes. That the fish had a wistful face of a woman with pale skin and blue eyes did not help, the effect ghoulish. It made me wary, as if some mad scientist had decided to make real a figurehead from an old sailing ship.

Wariness was not the term for the scrawling on the back. The more recent notes around the edges I could tell were in Wick’s handwriting, and amounted to nostalgia: little nudges about how he might re-create the fish project, which had clearly petered out over time. But there was also a second writer, dominating the center space, with what looked like older marks, whose clear passion had increased into madness. The handwriting devolved into sweeping or stabbing marks, less and less legible, and then became gouged dark clouds of scribbles. The damage obscured meaning or told me too much. And what words that did peer through the mess were less than useful. Near the end of legibility, the scrawled words, No more company.

I put the empty telescope on the bed, continued my rummaging, worried Wick might catch me in the act. But I quickly realized there was nothing left to riffle through. So some scavenger’s sixth sense made me return to the telescope. A patina like mother-of-pearl covered the surface. I held the telescope up to the firefly lights to admire it.

Then frowned. Something seemed etched on the surface. In fact, up close, the “metal” surface revealed itself as hundreds of tiny hard fish scales forming a pattern so integrated you almost couldn’t see the joins. The surface was still silver shiny, blank, but when I adjusted my grip I discovered that the heat of my fingers had done something to the scales: miniature photographs had formed there. Sneaky, sneaky Wick—although I couldn’t understand the purpose of concealment. The photographs appeared to date from before the city’s ruination, reproduced from old books, but hardly seemed worth keeping secret.

Curious, I made quick work of the telescope’s surface, heating up every scale with my touch, almost as if playing a musical instrument, and then squinting at the results.

Most that weren’t photographs of places now destroyed held a record of impressions of the city. There were lists of places under titles like “Reclaim” and asked/answereds like “How do you kill a building? Do nothing.” Some of it appeared to be the equivalent of microfiche containing a rich history of the city before the Company’s appearance. Other fragments were so microscopic I could only guess at their importance, and wondered how Wick could read them, unless he had some viewing device hidden away, too. None of this seemed like the Wick I knew—who was a loner, who had never mentioned the city as it had existed before the Company, and who seemed to have blocked the hope of any future for the city from his mind.

But I finally understood the need for secrecy when I realized it wasn’t just old photographs and older data. Some scales held monstrous visions of projects never completed that scared me because they made Mord seem mundane. Most important, other scales included a fair number of technical specifications for biotech that I knew Wick had created. None of our enemies needed that information.

Sometimes I wondered whether I would still find Wick fascinating if I uncovered all of his secrets, if I would even know who he was without them.

Back in my apartment, I dropped the nautilus I had stolen into a glass of water and watched as it reanimated, turned a brilliant shade of crimson, began to uncoil as it stared at me, almost defiant, and then disintegrated into nothing as if it had never existed. A disappearing trick. An illusion.

Drinking that elixir of Wick mysteries was impossible for me. I poured the water out, cleaned the glass, tossed the glass onto a pile of dirty old clothes out in the corridor.

* * *

My other betrayal was simple: I liked Borne too much. I knew this in my bones, knew I really should give him up. But I also knew it would take something catastrophic for me to do so. The more personality Borne showed, the more I felt attached to him.

Borne also made it easy to keep him because I discovered he would eat just about anything—any crumb, lowly pebble, or scrap of wood. Any worm of any description that came within reach would disappear, never to be seen again. Borne ate a lot of what I would have discarded as trash and in a sense made a compost pile redundant. I think he would’ve eaten a garbage can if he’d been hungry enough.

This ease of life with Borne didn’t stop him from continuing to puzzle me. The most basic and troubling puzzle? Even though so much went into Borne, nothing ever came out of Borne. This fact struck me as absurd, even humorously sinister. It actually made me giggle. No pellets. No dung. No little puddles. Nothing.

Borne was also growing. Yes, growing. I hadn’t wanted to admit it at first, because the idea of growth carried with it the idea of a more radical change, the thought of a child becoming an adult. In how many species did the transformation become radical, the parent so different from the juvenile? So yes, by the end of the first month, although the process had been gradual, I could no longer deny that Borne had tripled in size.

I also could not deny that I was actively hiding Borne from Wick. I no longer let Wick into my apartment, or if I did I made sure to put Borne in the back room, out of sight. I ignored Wick’s attempts to engage me on the subject of Borne as a threat or a creature that required caution.

Since Borne never displayed any kind of threatening behavior, I never thought to take him as a threat. Even calling Borne a “he” began to feel faintly ridiculous as he didn’t exhibit the aggression or self-absorption I expected from most males. Instead, during those early days Borne had become a blank slate on which I had decided to write only useful words.


Most of what I knew about the fish project, and the Company, came to me from Wick like fragments of a dark tale I had to put together myself. I couldn’t tell if he held those memories close to ward off the world or to let in something of the world. The Company had come to the city unbidden, when the city was already failing and had no defenses against the intruder. For a time, the Company must have seemed a savior to the city and its people. For a time, the prospect of jobs alone must have been enough. I tried to imagine a young Wick being drawn into the Company, working his way from apprentice to making creatures on his own. Yet the vision always blurred, fell away. I could only ever see him in my imagination, fully formed, Wick as I knew him now.

The fish project had been his undoing, the cause of his being cast out from the Company after many years of service. But although the fish had led to despair, memories of the creature filled him with nostalgia, too.

“A tank of a fish,” Wick told me one night more than a year before I found Borne.

We were on our balcony, looking up at the black sky and ignoring the slap and rush of river poison below. Sometimes, through the protective veil Wick had created to disguise us, we would see others on the balconies to the north, beyond the area we controlled. They looked like manikins or statues, something hopelessly remote, even though we knew they could be dangerous.

It was early in that year, far into a chilly evening. The wind gushed up out of the dark, broke against the balcony stone to bring the faint sting of river smells, and I heard the reassuring hut-hut-hooting of owls and the sounds of stealthy things moving through the underbrush below. I remember thinking that the creatures we couldn’t see had no use for us, went about their business without the need to figure us into their plans. I had no use for me, either. We were both drunk on alcohol minnows and exhausted from a long day of work. I had blood on the bottom of my boots from a scavenging mission gone wrong, but not too wrong.

The sky and its blurred stars, seeking something, wheeled and roved and quivered despite how little I moved as I stared up from my chair. But still I listened to Wick beside me. Still I was awake. My sadness gave me a clarity, a kind of sobriety I hadn’t earned, Wick much drunker.

“A wonderful fish! With a wide and mournful mouth—like you see in certain kinds of dogs. Beautiful and ugly and it moved like a leviathan. On land, no less! It could breathe air. I loved that it could breathe air. I gave it wonderful eyes, too: veined with emerald and gold.”

I had heard this part before, but as much as Wick went on about the fish, the depths of his feelings weren’t about the fish. Not really. As time passed and the stars above began to slow, to reorganize along familiar constellations, most of his emotions were focused on people from the Company: the old friend who had abandoned him, or whom he had abandoned, and the new employee who had betrayed him. The supervisor who had overseen the fish project. All of these people he had let into his life, and who had turned against him. Or had changed. Or had simply been acting to their nature, and Wick had come into focus for them for a time and then drifted out of focus again.

I didn’t know them, and Wick never gave enough context to make me care. But also I couldn’t remember as an adult when I had trusted three people at the same time. That Wick had once trusted so many seemed silly and irresponsible: an old-world indulgence. That he might have trusted them more than he trusted me I didn’t want to think about.

I wondered, too, if Wick’s view of the Company, his willingness to forgive, could ever be reconciled with my own view. To me, the Company was the white engorged tick on the city’s flank, the place that had robbed us of resources and created chaos. The place that, it was rumored, had sent its finished products out by underground tunnels to far-distant places and left us with the dregs at the holding ponds.

Sometimes I met rare older scavengers who would spin me tales of the richness of the city before the Company’s appearance, and their faces would shine with an inner light that almost made me change my mind about memory beetles. Almost. What they told me could not be the whole truth, the same as when we speak of the recently deceased and tell only the good stories. That was the beauty of the Company—how it won no matter what. How it had attached itself to the history of our city, even when it no longer existed here except as a husk, a ghost, or a giant, murderous bear.

“Someone killed it, showed it to me through a camera embedded in one of my spy beetles.” Except, later on Wick said that another person had killed it.

Yet another version: that it had been wounded and lingered on for a time in the holding ponds outside the Company building. In this version, the fish had survived for almost a year—longer than it should have, in part because Wick had fed it. The creature had become a terror of that place: the monster with the human face that rose from the depths to devour. Although the human face was dead almost from the start, nibbled at and gnawed on by lesser creatures in the water, became waterlogged and misshapen in its decay, and no one would have recognized who it once was, nor could the rest of the fish ever recover from the death it carried atop its head.

In a fourth version, Wick hinted that the fish might linger there still, deep under the water. Wick telling versions. Wick hurt. Wick falling back into angst—Wick recounting how he had been forced out of the Company when his fish project was sabotaged, the Company sliding into anarchy, out of contact with its headquarters, and he having to live his life without the protection to which he’d grown accustomed. Turned him into a drug dealer, a survivalist, a man so thin and translucent he wouldn’t have looked out of place in a row of creatures from a cave or the deep ocean.

In my darker moments, when I doubted my own true self and betrayed that self by framing my attraction to Wick as a kind of antidote, I knew that what Wick was really admitting was that in his past he had helped to create a weapon so deadly that not even its extreme beauty could justify its use.

The truth that Wick conveniently left out of most of his memories but was explicit in the notes on the diagram in his apartment: The purpose of his monstrous fish had been to serve as enforcer and crowd control, to instill fear, and perhaps to kill. In some remote place, a government still had had, at the time, the authority or the stability to restore order, was invested in restoring it.

And then, that night on the balcony, for the first and only time, another monster entered Wick’s rambling discourse about the Company. “Mord knew about the fish project. Mord showed me what I was.”

I didn’t know how to take that. Had Wick coexisted with Mord in the Company? When Mord was smaller, when Mord couldn’t fly? But whenever I sensed Wick had let slip something important, he would stop abruptly, as if reading my sudden interest, and fall silent. That silence was no natural end.

It was more like a cutting-off point, the border beyond which Wick could not venture.


In the city, the line between nightmare and reality was fluid, just as the context of the words killer and death had shifted over time. Perhaps Mord was responsible. Perhaps we all were.

A killer was someone who killed for reasons other than survival. A killer was a madman or madwoman, not a person just trying to get through another day. Once, I hit a woman with a rock. We encountered each other while out scavenging on the same deserted street on the west side of the city. I had found a smooth piece of metal being absorbed by a glistening red piece of fleshlike plant. I didn’t know if Wick would find it useful, but I had never seen anything like it before.

As I turned a corner holding my prize, I came upon a woman walking. She was about fifty, wiry in the way survivors often are, gray hair hanging in a sheet, clothing a patchwork of gray and black.

She saw me and smiled. Then she saw what I held and her smile went away. “Give me that. That’s mine.” Maybe she meant “That’s going to be mine.”

I didn’t wait for her to get close enough to grapple with me. I knelt and picked up a rock with my free hand. As she rushed toward me from the middle of the street, I threw it at her, catching her in the forehead. She went limp, fell onto her side, breathing heavily. Then she got up and I threw another rock, catching her in the head again.

This time she staggered back, put her hands on her knees as she hunched down. I could see the bright red pooling from her head to the ground. She sat heavily in the rubble and put a hand to her head, stared at me as I dropped the third rock I’d picked up.

“I just wanted to look at it,” she said, puzzled as she kept putting a hand to her wound and taking it away again. Her eyes began to glaze over. “Just a look is all I wanted.”

I didn’t stay to help her or hurt her. I left.

Did she die? Did I kill her, and if I did, am I a murderer?

* * *

What happened between the woman and me wasn’t new, no matter how much amnesia we’ve suffered; it was as old as the old world and older still. The first rule, the only rule, is that you carry your safety with you the best you can—you protect yourself the best you can, and you have that right.

But one evening, three weeks after I found Borne, I let down my guard. A gang of children creeping through the moss and detritus caught the door behind me before it shut. Followed me silent down the corridors to my apartment, keeping to my same path to avoid the traps and pheromones and attack spiders. I didn’t notice because I was already thinking about Borne and wondering where I would find him this time.

Wick had left to tend to the farthest reach of his crumbling drug empire. None of my personal defenses—predator cockroaches in the hallway, the crab spiders embedded in the door, a good old-fashioned knife blade—could stop them.

Other than Mord, the poison rains, and the odd discarded biotech that could cause death or discomfort, the young were often the most terrible force in the city. Nothing in their gaze could tell you they were human. They had no memories of the old world to anchor them or humble them or inspire them. Their parents were probably dead or worse, and the most terrible and transformative violence had been visited upon them from the earliest of ages.

There were five of them, and four had traded their eyes for green-gold wasps that curled into their sockets and compounded their vision. Claws graced their hands like sharp commas. Scales at their throats burned red when they breathed. One wing sighed bellows-like out of the naked back of the shortest, the one who still had slate-gray human eyes. After a while, I wished he’d had wasps instead.

They smelled of brine and sweat and dust. They licked their lips and flexed their biceps like little conquerors. At that time, we did not know how they had become so changed, unless it was from contamination from the Company, and could not identify the new impulse rising nor where it came from.

I fought, but sometimes fighting isn’t enough. Showing aggression and resistance isn’t enough. You can’t blame yourself for being outnumbered, if you want to stay sane.

It was useless. I was useless. They tortured me in various unimaginative ways for hours. The shortest mostly just watched, stood beside the bed with his slate-gray gaze shining dull from huge eyes, the whites not as white as his pale skin. They were on drugs they’d probably found on a toxic waste heap.

Between my whimpers and screams and thrashing, as the sheets grew red and the other three howled their dominance, I kept saying to the gray-eyed child, “Don’t watch. Don’t watch.” I wanted to believe I was trying to spare him, but I was really trying to spare myself. It was too late for him.

When they began to tire of their games, they broke everything not of value, stood on one another’s shoulders to snuff out my fireflies.

Then they found Borne—he must have moved or somehow attracted their attention. Soon their interest in me faded. On their way out, they decided to take Borne with them—through one bleary, blood-encrusted eye I saw them snatch him up.

That was the first time I pleaded with them, when they took Borne. That was the first time I truly knew Borne was important to me. But it didn’t matter. They took Borne and left me in the dark, cheek laid open, face and arms and legs bleeding, some of the wounds deep. My skin burned. My skin was numb. My open flesh felt cold against the heat. I didn’t have the strength to get up.

The city had visited me, to remind me that I meant less than nothing to it, that even the Balcony Cliffs wasn’t safe. That every wire in my head connected to our defenses could be snapped, just like that.

* * *

Time passed, and I existed in a quivering, exposed, horrible state. I was howling and shrieking, and there was nothing of restraint left in me; the pain took care of that. When I came to for the third or fourth time, my head lay upon Wick’s lap and he was looking down at me with a curious expression on his face. His body flickered a light green with his stress, a side effect of giving a home to the diagnostic worms. My body felt soft and warm as he tended to me, with an ache behind it that threatened to become all-consuming.

“I’m so sorry,” Wick said in a quiet voice as if talking to a corpse. The concern I hadn’t seen in him came through in his voice, so thick and heartfelt, as if he had been crying, that it transfixed me, became something horrifying. I didn’t need his devastation but his strength. “Just lie still. You shouldn’t feel pain for a while.”

I did feel pain, muted yes, but I felt it. But I nodded to give us both comfort, my vision blurring as I stared up at him. I could still make out the precise and beautiful architecture of his face, god help me. That still mattered to me.

He ran a diagnostic beetle over my body. It was old and worn, its carapace scratched, but its legs felt smooth, glossy. Everywhere it touched me, I felt an immediate, fast-fading glowing sensation. Wick had already closed up my wounds with the help of surgical slugs. I remembered the cool-cold sensation of their progress from the last time I had suffered an injury. My attackers had been creative, had cut me in patterns, writing words that had no meaning to anyone, least of all them. And so the movement of the slugs had retraced those paths, those words, given them a meaning by accident.

“I would hold you,” Wick said from far away, “but I’m afraid I would hurt you.”

Then I remembered they had taken Borne and wanted to ask Wick … what? To go after them? But Wick told me not to speak, said, “I’m sorry I wasn’t here. I’m sorry they got through.” He was in a different place than me, worried about different things.

“How badly did they hurt you?” he asked then, with a particular emphasis, and I knew what he was really asking. The question was medical but not medical. He had been re-creating my attack in his imagination and seeing the worst—and he needed to know just how invasive to be with his diagnostics.

“Just what you see,” I said, and there was a noticeable relaxation of Wick’s taut stance that somehow agitated me.

My attackers had been too single-minded or too inhuman to rape me. The one with the gray eyes, the oldest, had been about eleven years old. With sandy blond hair and delicate hands. I might not have told Wick the truth even if they had, but they hadn’t. Two of the wasp-eyes had shoved their tongues in my mouth as they cut me, but it had been as if trying to contaminate me with something. A metallic aftertaste still lingered on my tongue.

Now I was crying—just a steady stream of tears without the expression on my face changing at all. There is only so much you can take before you begin to feel that the effort to survive is too much to endure. It would have been better if I had been attacked in the street. It would have been better if I lay out there now in a heap than to lie in the middle of the Balcony Cliffs and have to absorb Wick’s guilt, his concern, his regard. To be seen, when all I wanted was to crawl away into a dark hole to die or recover from my wounds.

But I let Wick do his work and also told him how it had happened, so he would know how to bolster our defenses. I was alive, and from past experience I knew in time I would forget enough to again pretend that we could someday be free. Of the city, of Mord, of all of it. I don’t know if that was hope. Maybe it was just stubborn inertia.

“And they took Borne, too,” I said a little later, not sure my words were coming out right. Borne being gone was a concept I had to think around or I wouldn’t make it.

Wick frowned from the chair next to my bed. “But they didn’t take Borne.” He nodded toward the living room. “He’s right in there.”

Even through my numb discomfort, the beetle crawling across my torso, I felt an overwhelming confusion and relief.

“Did they bring him back?”

“I don’t think so. He was in the hallway by the door. Your attackers got away. I brought him back in.”

“Thank you,” I said, knowing that might not have been an easy decision.

“He’s bigger,” Wick said.

I said nothing. I didn’t dare. For the first time I realized Wick looked worried or preoccupied for reasons that might have nothing to do with me. I’d managed to keep Wick away from Borne for two straight weeks.

The beetle had finished its work.

Wick got to his feet. “You need to rest. I’ve brought food for the kitchen. I’ve put up better defenses. I have to go out for a while, but I’ll be back soon.”

I understood. He needed to make sure my attackers were really gone. He had to change the locks, make sure no one else could enter the same way. All of which meant eating up more resources we didn’t have, putting us both at risk much sooner.

The burn, the sting—the screaming agony—of what had happened would not return for hours, as if it was coming toward me from light-years distant. I extended my arm to touch Wick’s cheek, the edge of his mouth, but he was too far away.

“I should have been here,” he said.

“If you hadn’t come back, I might be dead,” I said, but this was no comfort. If the city had really wanted to kill me, it would have killed me, as it had so many others.

“I should take Borne with me,” Wick said, trying to sound casual.

I winced. “No. Please. Don’t.”

It would have been better for Wick’s peace of mind if I had shouted it out or said it just as casual. But I didn’t. I said those three words in a small, broken voice, and Wick couldn’t push back against them.

* * *

At some point after Wick left, I realized I couldn’t sleep and decided to get up. It hurt but I was already restless, unused to bed rest. I wanted to go see Borne. In my altered state I worried my attackers might have injured him as well. Or maybe I just wanted to be sure Wick hadn’t taken him away.

He sat on a chair at the kitchen table, pulsing a faint green-gold. Wick had restored a few of my fireflies, but not many, so all I could really see was the glow of Borne.

Borne stood at least half a foot taller than that afternoon, his base thicker and more robust. On the chair, he came up to my shoulders. I couldn’t see that any harm had come to him—he still had that perfect symmetry. He was beautiful in that darkness. He was powerful.

“It’s just me,” Borne said.

I screamed. I stumbled back, looking for a weapon—a stick, a knife, anything. His voice sounded just like the rasp of the boy with the gray eyes.

“Just me,” Borne said. “Borne.”

Just me.

The worms Wick had left inside me struggled to release the drugs that would calm me. I was shaking. I was making an uncontrollable sound.

“It’s just me,” Borne said again, as if testing out the words.

I flinched again, stayed up against the far wall. This time he sounded less like my attacker, warmer and more lyrical. What I would come to know as his normal voice, although he could assume many.

“Rachel,” Borne said. “Don’t need to be. Afraid.” The gray-eyed boy’s voice was completely gone now.

“Don’t tell me what I need to be!” I shouted at him. “What are you?”

He began to shamble off the chair.

“Don’t come closer. Stay the fuck away!”

I struggled for more words, to fill the space between us.

Into that gap, Borne said, “Go rest. Please rest. Don’t worry. Sleep.” I could tell Borne had to consider each word carefully before choosing one, unsure how they fit together.

“Sleep?” I laughed bitterly. “I’m not going to sleep now. You’re talking to me.”

“I am Borne,” said the thing in front of me. “I talking talking talking.”

Those words came out in a kind of mellifluous burble that reminded me of how much he had amused me those past weeks. But where did those words come from? Borne still had no face, no real mouth.

“Is this a dream?”

“Dream?” Borne said.

“How did you escape them?”

“Them?” Borne said.

“Yes, them—the children who attacked me.”

“Children,” Borne said. “Attacked me.”

I was drifting then, drifting against my will, swaying as the medical creatures inside worked on me. I staggered, knew I was sliding down the wall onto my butt. The worms must have decided I needed sleep. Everything became fuzzy, indistinct.

After a time, I had a sense of Borne’s shape looming over me, of things crawling around inside my veins. I was in my bed. I was on the floor. I was in the living room. Awake. Asleep. Suspended between. Delirious, raving, wondering if I was in a nightmare or just now entering one. All the things in my past that I tried not to think about rose to the surface, spilled out of my mouth, and Borne stood there, listening. I told him everything about me. Things I hadn’t admitted to myself, that had been bottled up for so long I had no control over them.

I couldn’t know it then, but what I offered up to Borne probably saved my life.


Once, it was different. Once, people had homes and parents and went to schools. Cities existed within countries and those countries had leaders. Travel could be for adventure or recreation, not survival. But by the time I was grown up, the wider context was a sick joke. Incredible, how a slip could become a freefall and a freefall could become a hell where we lived on as ghosts in a haunted world.

Once, at the age of eight or nine, I had still wanted to be a writer, or at least something other than a refugee. Not a trap-maker. Not a scavenger. Not a killer. I filled my notebooks full of scribbles. Poetry about how I loved the sea. Retellings of fables. Even scenes from novels I never finished and will never finish. Borne could have been a creature out of those childhood fictions. Borne could have been my imaginary friend.

I rationalized later that this is why I told Borne about my past, why I told him what I could never tell Wick, just as he could not tell me about a diagram, a hidden history of the city, the nautilus biotech. But maybe it could have been anyone, in that moment.

* * *

I was born on an island that fell not to war or disease but to rising seas. My father was a politician of sorts—a member of the council that ruled the largest island of the archipelago. He liked to fish and build things in his spare time. He collected old nautical maps and liked to find the errors. He had a boat that he built himself called The Turtle Shell. He used to take my mother out for “floating picnics” while he courted her, land just a dot on the horizon.

“I must have trusted him,” my mother said when he told the story. “I must have really trusted him, to go so far out at sea.”

My mother had been born on the island, too, but her people came from far away, from the mainland, and it was a scandal when the two of them married because it wasn’t ever done. That scandal gave me my name, Rachel, because it came from neither family but from outsiders. A compromise.

My mother was a doctor who took care of infants. She was quick to smile and laugh, perhaps too quick because she would laugh when nervous or distressed, too. I could see my father observe her carefully, perhaps to make sure of the difference. She liked the spicy food of her family’s homeland and took up making little models of ships. She would playfully mock my father’s fascination with boats using her models. Scale versions with toothpicks. Like my father, she loved to read and books surrounded me growing up.

We had what we wanted and more. We knew who we were. But that could not stop the rising seas, and one by one the smaller islands around us winked out of existence. We could see their lights at night with our telescope, standing on the shore. And then came the nights when we could no longer see those lights. We had known before that, but after that we put away the telescope.

I was only six when we left, boarding a ship as refugees. I remember because my parents told me the stories as I grew up. They told me the stories even as we continued to be refugees, moving from camp to camp, country to country, thinking that we could outrun the unraveling of the world. But the world was unraveling most places.

I still have vague memories of the camps. The ever-present mud churned to muck by overcrowding, of mosquitoes so thick you had to keep your mouth shut, of extreme heat balanced later by extreme cold. The fences and guard dogs that always seemed better tended to than the tents. The new papers we needed to apply for, the old ones that were never good enough. The cast-off biotech they shoveled into troughs for us and the way phones and other devices became extinct over time. The feeling of always being hollowed-out and hungry. Sickness, and always having a cold or being feverish. The people on the outside, the guards, were the same as us, and I didn’t understand why they should be on the outside and we should be on the inside.

But also I remember my parents laughing and sharing things about our home as I became old enough to appreciate them. Photographs, a ceremonial bowl my father insisted on lugging with us, my mother’s handmade jewelry, a photo album. Every time we moved and started over, my father would build things: tents or enclosures or vegetable gardens. My mother would pitch in and tend the sick, even though the countries we lived in didn’t recognize her medical license. Was it selfless? They were fighting for their lives, their identities. So, no, it was not selfless, but it helped people.

My father must have been cheery for my sake, for my mother’s sake. She might one day be able to return to a homeland. He could not, and it was rare we met anyone who had lived on the island. The stories he told became boring to me through repetition, but I understand now that he was just trying to fix that place with the compass of his memories.

Throughout all of this, my parents did not forget my education. Not a formal education but the education that mattered. What to value. What to hold on to. What to let go of. What to fight for and what to discard. Where the traps were.

* * *

Once, we found a kind of peace. My father led us to another island: not the same, not at all, but whether from an impulse futile or courageous or both, he meant to re-create what he had known. We had a good life there for almost two years. A city to live in, a beach to walk on, a botanical garden, a school, playing with children who looked like me. We lived in a little two-room apartment and my dad built in the backyard an outrigger canoe with a cannibalized motor. My mother became a doctor again, working in return for goods.

Every so often information came from the mainland that whatever might have been bad was getting worse, but my parents withheld any news from me for as long as they could, as best as they were able. Until, one day, shock: We were herded by soldiers via a crowded, diesel-spewing ferry to the mainland and another camp. The green-blue water and my father’s boat and our apartment were gone.

It got worse after that, not better. It got worse and kept getting worse until we didn’t even have the camps. It was just us, trudging across a land that held pockets of sanity and insanity both. Kindness and cruelty, sometimes from the same source. My father carried a knife in his boot and took turns with my mother holding on to a small revolver. We were as likely to come across burned and half-buried bodies in a ditch as a farmer and his sons armed with shotguns. Once, a grinning man invited us into his house and tried to rape my mother. My father had a scar across his left arm after that and we would stay off the main roads.

We starved at times rather than join the ranks of those marching toward an illusion, that slow, tired trudge. The back roads we took would become reduced to gray snakes against the blackness of forest or scrubland. In the distance, lights of a cabin or of a town would invoke in us dread and then caution, followed by avoidance.

Months after we had stopped believing in refuge, there appeared on a distant hill a city so miraculous it looked at dusk like a huge crystal chandelier that had fallen to Earth or a stranded ocean liner listing on its side. I could not keep my eyes off of it and pleaded with my parents to go there. They ignored me. They were right to. It lay on our horizon for several days, and during the night of the ninth day, having rounded its eastern side, still fighting our way through forest and plain, it caught fire, all of those sparkling lights taken up in a huge conflagration that burned the darkness away for miles around.

There came the blinking red hazard lights of bombers flying away from the city, and we so far down below marveled at the sight because it had been years since we had seen a plane of any kind. Something so old and so new. We wondered if airplanes might mean some resurgence, that some resurrection of a normal life might be upon us. But it was just an illusion. It meant nothing.

We made our way quickly more eastward still, fearing the exodus of the survivors as if it were a wave that might drown us, and yet they were no different than us. Then came the thick, powdery black smoke during the days, gathered up in the sooty rain that fell, and out of the ground came writhing worms and rabbits and other dying things.

Soon we would think back kindly on those days. But throughout it all, my parents held on to hope, kept trying to find a safe place. They would not give up. They never gave up. I knew that, even now that they were gone.

* * *

There was more that I told Borne, but I can’t bring myself to write it, because it is too terrible to put into words. And it pushes up against the one thing I couldn’t remember: how I came to this city, what had happened to my parents. My last memories from before the city were of floods and makeshift rafts and the expanding silence of people dead or dying in the water—and a hint of land on the horizon. My last memories were of going down for a second, third time, my lungs full of silt.

But when I came to, I was in the city, walking. I was walking by the river as if I had always been there.



For every clear-eyed view of my room that took in the lack of running water, the mold that had begun its war against the constellations of fireflies embedded in my ceiling, the half-collapsing wall with the window that looked out on a mountain of dirt … for all of that, and the scenes out on the streets of one tired and dirty person fighting another person who was just as tired and dirty over a scrap the old world would have found useless or disgusting … for all of that, I still could imagine a time when the small things we used to love might be returned to us.

“It’s just me,” Borne said and for a long time huddled on my bed, trying to recover, I didn’t answer. Not really. I just spewed words at him, lost and rambling. Wick appeared next to him from time to time and winked out again. Sometimes I would feel Wick’s arms around me. Sometimes I would see him staring at me with an expression of guilt and, I thought, of suspicion.

Was the suspicion because of Borne? Since the attack, Borne had changed again. He had abandoned the sea-anemone shape in favor of resembling a large vase or a squid balanced on a flattened mantel. The aperture at the top had curled out and up on what I chose to interpret as a long neck, sprouting feathery filaments, which almost seemed like an affectation. The filaments, with a prolonged soft sigh, would crowd together and then pull apart again like bizarre synchronized dancers. He was tall enough now that the top of him loomed a good two feet above the bed. Colors still flitted across his body, or lazily floated in shapes like storm clouds, ragged and layered and dark. Azure. Lavender. Emerald. He frequently smelled like vanilla.

As I lay on my side and stared at him—half curious, half afraid—I could see that Borne had developed a startling collection of eyes that encircled his body. Each eye was small and completely different from the others around it. Some were human—blue, black, brown, green pupils—and some were animal eyes, but he could see through all of them. They perplexed me because I didn’t know what they meant. I decided to think of it as a kind of odd adornment, Borne’s equivalent of a belt.

When Borne saw me staring at him, he would make a sound like the startled clearing of a throat, and his flesh would absorb all of the eyes except two, which would migrate higher on his body and away from each other. Sometimes they would slip back down to his hips, but once in position on his torso they became larger, took on a sea-blue color, and grew long, dark lashes; they moved independent of each other.

He must have thought he looked more normal that way.

* * *

On the sixth day, I felt more lucid, woke with only a slight fuzziness. Wick had gone out again, reluctant, to conduct business. He hadn’t found my attackers, and I knew he probably never would. We hadn’t talked again about what had happened, or about much of anything. I even pretended to be asleep when he came in. I had energy only for Borne.

From my bed I asked Borne a question. It was really the only question—a dangerous question to match a dangerous mood. I was still on the worm-drugs and I wanted to be of use, to do anything but just lie there.

“What are you?” My heart beat faster, but I wasn’t afraid. Not really.

“I don’t know,” Borne said in a rough yet sweet tone. For a confused moment I thought he’d spoken in the voices of both my parents at once. Then, sincere and eager: “Do you know what you are?”

I ignored him. “Let’s play a game to figure out what you are.”

Borne went quiet for a second and his colors dimmed. Then he flared up.

“Okay,” he said. “Okay!”

“Then you have to be honest with me.”

“Honest.” Turning the word over in his head.

“Tell the truth.”

A ripple of vibrant purple traveled across his skin.

“Honest. I can be honest. I am honest. Honest.”

Had I upset him or triggered some other emotion, or was he just testing out the word?

“You know a lot about me,” I ventured. “But I know nothing about you. The game is about questions. Will you answer some questions?”

“I will answer questions,” Borne said, uncertain. Did he understand the word question?

“Are you a machine?” I asked.

“What is a machine?”

“A made thing. A thing made by people.”

This puzzled Borne, and it was a long while before he said, “You are a made thing. Two people made you.”

“I mean something made of either metal or of flesh. But not through natural biological means.”

“Two people made you. You are made of flesh,” Borne said. He seemed agitated.

“Why didn’t you save me from those boys?”


“Rescue. Help. Stop them from hurting me.”

There came a long pause and everything about Borne shut down until he was just a gray shape. Even the eyes went away.

Then the colors came back in an explosion of reds and pinks and a roiling, turbulent green. The eyes popped up as a rotating halo embedded in the skin near the top of his aperture. “But I did help! I helped! I helped Rachel. I helped.” This said in an anguished tone.

I tried to control the trembling of my voice. The spirit of Mord filled me up.

“Those boys hurt me for hours.” I spat out the words. “Those boys did that and you did nothing. They hurt me badly. And you could have done something.”

Silence again, then, in a whisper, “I could not. I did not. Help. Until.”

“Until what?”

“Until I knew them.”

I realized knew wasn’t the word he meant. That the word he sought might not exist, that he was trying, perhaps, to tell me two or three things at once.

“Knew them how?”

“I am not complete,” Borne said. “I was not complete. I am not complete.” He tried “put together,” which didn’t help, finished his sentence with a kind of frustration for words that caused the feathery pseudopods to straighten like spikes.

“Now you are complete? Aware?” I didn’t want to use the word activated, because it scared me.

“More complete,” Borne said.

“You killed them,” I said, calm. But not before they hurt me, came the raging, screaming thought behind the words.


“Cease to be. No longer alive. Dead. Not here.”

Confusion shuddered through Borne. “I know them now. I know them.”

“Killing is bad,” I said. “Killing should never happen. Don’t kill.” Unless someone attacks you. Unless you have to. But I didn’t think to make the distinction to Borne, because I didn’t have the strength.

Those eyes no longer seemed beautiful. They looked ever more trapped and horrible. Was it my imagination, or was one of them a familiar gray? I turned away from Borne then, and drifted into unconsciousness for a while. It was easier than facing what he’d said.

And yet why would I turn away unless I felt safe?

* * *

The seventh night, I slept in Wick’s quarters, and Mord, far above, slept over us, sprawled across the sea of loam and debris that covered the Balcony Cliffs. We experienced his breathing as a haunted depth charge that tumbled down through the layers, the beams, and the drywall, the supporting columns and the cracking archways. The sound of it permeated the atoms of a dozen ceilings, vibrated through our bodies. We felt it in our flesh after we heard it in our ears, and it lingered longer under the skin.

The stench came to us, too, faint, carried by the ducts and the thousand imperfections in the sediment above us, carried by the subterranean tunnels of worms and beetles. Like the thunder after lightning, it came to us late, but then wrapped around our throats. It was the stench of every living thing Mord had killed in the last week. Could Mord smell us down here? Could he smell us mice? Us little human mice?

Wick lay frozen, unable to move, terrified that somehow this was not random, that Mord knew he was there, that come morning Mord might start to root us out. And so, for a time, we whispered and moved in slow motion and in all ways acted as if we were submarines and Mord a destroyer above, seeking us. Even to whisper, Wick would put his mouth right up against my ear. He could not stop talking about rumors of Mord proxies being seen, searching in the city and the hinterlands beyond. Searching for what? Wick wouldn’t say, but I had the sense he knew.

Then we didn’t even whisper, as Mord began to moan in his sleep. His moans sounded like gnashed, crushed words, filtered through the dirt, and we could not understand them. I knew only that they felt like anguish.

Some hours later we felt his weight leave us, the Balcony Cliffs almost seeming to spring back up around us with relief. When we examined the spot above in the morning there was a deep depression from Mord’s weight. If he had spent the whole night there, would he have fallen through, smashing down level by level until, still sleeping, his body bulged through our ceiling? The stench remained for a day or two, and whenever I smelled it I felt a pressure pushing down on my head.

I had come to Wick’s place so he wouldn’t come to mine and be reminded of Borne, but Borne is the subject he raised as soon as Mord had left. I almost wished Mord was still there to silence him.

“I could still take him,” Wick said.

“Who?” I asked, although I knew.

“Borne. It’s time. I should just take him and figure him out. While you recover.”

“You don’t need to.”

He hesitated, about to say more, thought better of it, and seemed to accept what I had said. He hugged me close and, as if I were his shield against Mord, soon enough snored quietly against my shoulder. I let him, even though it hurt; the price of peace. Because it was simple. Because it helped us both.

But I could not sleep. I was thinking about the silly conversations Borne and I were having because Borne didn’t seem to know much about the world, had only fragments that didn’t quite fit together.

Borne: “Why is water wet?”

Me: “I don’t know. Because it’s not dry?”

Borne: “If something is dry, does that mean it’s not wit.”

Me: “Wit or wet?”

Borne: “Wit.”

Me: “Wit is in the eye of the beholder.”

Borne: “What?”

I tried to explain wit to him.

Borne: “Like grit in the eye? Is wit like dust?”

Me: “Yes, dry.”

Borne: “I’m thirsty. And I need a snack. I’m hungry. I’m hungry. I’m hungry.”

Conversation would fall away again while I tried to find a snack for Borne, which, again, wasn’t hard. He especially liked what you might call “junk food,” even though that concept had become obsolete long ago.

Maybe, too, I liked Borne so much because Wick by then was almost always serious. For the longest time, Borne didn’t know what serious was.

* * *

In the morning, with Mord and the weight of Mord just a bad dream, Wick tried again.

“I can do it in a gentle way,” he said, but that didn’t reassure me. “I can return him the way he is now.”


His weight went taut against my back.

“I shouldn’t have to ask. You should know it’s the best thing.”

“It’s not.”

“You know something’s not right, Rachel.” Now he was almost shouting.

Like most men, Wick could not help terror about one thing erupting as anger about something else. So I said nothing.

But he wouldn’t let up. “Give me Borne,” he said.

I refused to turn to look at him.

“You need to give him to me, so we know what he is. He lives here, among us, and you protect him in a way that’s unnatural. This thing you know nothing about.”


“He may be influencing you using biochemicals,” Wick said. “You may not know your own mind.”

I laughed at that, even though it could be true.

“You have no right, Rachel,” he said, and there was a wounded quality to the word right.

“Tell me about your time at the Company.” I was tired of talking, just tired period. “Tell me all about your weird telescope.”

But he had nothing to say about his telescope. He had nothing else to say at all, and neither did I. We both knew that one word more and either I would leave his bed or he would ask me to leave.

* * *

Wick. Wick and Rachel. Portrait of us. Wick and I, at opposite ends of the frame, half out of the picture. Oddly wary of each other now, for all that he took care of me, perhaps because he expected more blame from me, to bolster the guilt he had decided to keep. And perhaps I did blame him—for making me weak, for making me rely on his surveillance, his beetles and spiders, rather than my own traps.

Was that fair? No, it wasn’t fair. But I had my own guilt: I now kept an even bigger secret from him.

Borne can talk. Borne killed my attackers and hid their bodies. Borne is intelligent. Borne makes me happy.


Borne made me happy, but happiness never made anyone less stupid. During my recovery, I had such trouble remembering what waited for me outside, as if I had to learn it all over again, despite having been taught so many lessons.

All kinds of dangerous ideas entered my head while groggy. It was as if the little foxes and other animals out in the desert ran in circles around my mind, barking and kicking up dust, stopping only to stare at me from afar and encourage me to wander. I kept fantasizing that I lived in a real apartment in one of the stable sanctuaries from my past. Everything would be fine—I just had the flu or a cold and was out sick until I got better. And when I was better, what would I do? When I was better, I would go back to university and to some part-time job. I would complete my studies so I could become a writer. Because the ruined city was just a bad dream and my life as a scavenger was a bad dream, and soon I would wake up, and the visions of almost drowning, of losing my parents and with them all connection with the past, would prove to be an illusion, too.

The longer Wick expended time and energy protecting me, the more ideas like this took hold of me. They had only a vague relationship to my memories of flight, of trying to find refuge, of all the dangers before the city.

But minds find ways to protect themselves, build fortifications, and some of those walls become traps. Even as I started to walk around my rooms with Borne, even as I ventured out into the corridors. It was so sad a fantasy that I brushed by without recognition the revenants that told me it was a lie. The chair stuck in the wall. The filing cabinet rusted beyond use, now just a barricade at the mouth of a tunnel. The lack of libraries or other people.

Yet those sequestered weeks also contain some of my best memories because of Borne. Wick was gone a lot, spying on the Magician’s movements, providing beetles to his small band of dealers … and possibly because of our argument.

Which left Borne and me ever more time to explore. He’d gotten tired of being cooped up in the apartment. On days when I knew Wick would be out for hours, I’d take Borne into the hallways, prickly with the fear of discovery and stiff from my slow-healing wounds.

It was all a construct by then, this game of not telling Wick that Borne could talk. He had to know. But because I never admitted it and Wick never brought it up, Borne became an open secret that existed between us like a monster all its own. It made me reckless, as if I wanted Wick to confront me. That somehow our relationship would be a total lie if Wick didn’t confront me.

Ignoring the strain on my own body, Borne and I would race down dim-lit, dust-covered corridors, Borne afraid of colliding/congealing with the wall and tripping over his own pseudopods, wailing as he laughed: “You’re going toooooo fast!” Or, “Why is this fuuuuuuuun?” Which just made me laugh, too. When you don’t have to run and you have the chance to run for the hell of it, it becomes a strange luxury.

Then we’d collapse at the end of the hall and Borne, in addition to his usual observation that he was hungry and needed a snack—I now let him hunt lizards and rats to blunt his appetite—would ask some of his questions. He never stopped asking them, as if he were really ravenous for the answers.

“This dust is so dry. Why is dust so dry? Doesn’t it need some wet for balance?”

“Then it’s mud.”

“What’s mud?”

“Wet dirt.”

“I haven’t seen mud yet.”

“No, you haven’t. Not yet.”

I would show Borne a photo of a weasel in an old encyclopedia and he’d point with an extended tentacle and say, “Ooooh! Long mouse!” Which brought me quickly to the idea of teaching Borne to read, except he picked that up on his own. When we played hide-and-seek, I’d sometimes find him hunched up on the edge of a midden of discarded books, two tentacles extending out from his sides to hold a book and a single tentacle tipped with light curling down from the top of his head.

He would study any number of topics and had no real preferences, his many eyes enthusiastically moving back and forth as he read the pages at a steady clip. I don’t believe he needed light, or eyes, to read, but I know he liked to mimic what he saw me doing. Perhaps he even thought it was polite to seem to need light, to seem to need eyes.

But the truth is, I don’t really know what he thought or how he thought it, because most of the time I just had his questions.

* * *

Eventually, I took him to Wick’s swimming pool, which was Wick’s laboratory. I loved the swimming pool, and perhaps that meant I loved Wick, too, in a way. The swimming pool had originally had a skylight above it, extending to the top of the Balcony Cliffs, and a divot of open space remained all the way to the top, with Wick contriving to camouflage it from above with his illusions.

When the light from the hole in the ceiling was right, it formed green-and-gold waves, as if the moss and lichen on the surface had mingled with the sun’s rays and been transformed in some fundamental way. The light would glisten against the living filaments Wick had placed there as part of his work, and you could see dust motes floating and the occasional water bug or glider and, rising off the water, a mist that curled back on itself like certain kinds of ferns.

It could take a while to get used to the mélange of chemicals, which gave off a dank smell, cut through with something spicy. That spice could be sweet or sour, but was always sharp. Wick needed the light in the mornings to feed the rich, revolting, shimmering stew-brew to finish his beetles and other creations. But our shit and piss fed it, too, although the harsh smell was more of algae and peat and some bitter chemical. I’d long ago gotten used to it, even found it pleasant.

Eellike things wriggled in the mire and the fins of weird fish broke the surface only to submerge again.

“What’s a swimming pool?” Borne asked.

“A place people go into to … swim.”

“But it’s full of disgusting things! Disgusting things live in there. Just disgusting. Really disgusting.” Disgusting was a word Borne had just picked up and used often.

“Well, just leave those disgusting things alone, Borne, even if you are hungry.” I gently slapped away a tentacle he’d begun to inch toward the water. I had no idea what effect those chemicals would have on him. Nor did I want Borne eating Wick’s supplies, which would only endear him further.

Borne summarized for me: “A swimming pool is a place where people like to swim in disgusting things.”

“Close enough,” I said, chuckling. “You won’t be encountering many of those when you’re out in the real world.”

And then I wished I hadn’t said it, because I’d acknowledged that this wasn’t the real world. That we lived in a bubble, of space and time, that just couldn’t, wouldn’t last.

* * *

I took him to the balcony out on the cliffs, too, but that was a little harder because I felt Borne needed a disguise, to be safe. I found a flower hat with just one bullet hole and a brown bloodstain to match. I found a pair of large designer sunglasses. I had the choice of putting him in a blue sheet or a black evening dress that I’d salvaged from a half-buried apartment. The evening dress was moth-eaten and had faded to more of a deep gray, but I chose it because I had nowhere to wear it and it was several sizes too big for me now.

So Borne reconfigured himself to be a little longer and less wide than usual, sucked in his “stomach” more or less, and put on this ridiculous outfit. Only, on Borne it looked good, and it wasn’t until later that I realized he’d drawn himself up into an approximation of my own body, that I was looking at a crude faux version of myself with green skin.

But it wasn’t complete enough for him.

“What about shoes?” he asked me, and I regretted having gone off on a rant about the value of a good pair of shoes a couple of days before.

“You don’t need shoes. No one will see your feet.” Probably no one would see him, period.

“Everyone wears shoes,” he said, quoting me. “Simply everyone. You even wear them to bed.”

It was true. I’d never gotten over having to sleep in the open so often. When you slept in the open in dangerous places, you never took off your shoes in case you only had a few seconds to gather your things and take off running.

Borne really wanted shoes. He wanted the full ensemble. So I gave him shoes. I gave him my one extra pair, which were really boots, the ones I’d come to the city in.

He made a great show of growing foot-legs and with his hand-arms reached down to put on his new shoes. He’d muted his skin to a shade that mimicked my own. From the aperture at the top of his head, muffled by the hat, came the words, “We can go now.”

But if Borne wanted the full ensemble, I wanted the full human.

“Not until you grow a mouth,” I said, “and a real face.”

“Uh-oh,” he said, because he’d forgotten. In those days, he always said “uh-oh” when he felt he’d made a mistake. Maybe he also was trying to be a little “difficult,” a concept he’d been field-testing, usually in charming ways.

The transformation only took a second. All of his eyes went away, then two popped up where appropriate—never, ever gray anymore—and a nose protrusion that looked more like the head of the lizard he had eaten a few hours earlier, and a kind of crazy grinning mouth. In that hat. In the black evening dress. In the boots.

He looked so earnest that I wanted to hug him, I never for a second understood the gift I’d given Borne. Never realized what other uses disguises could be put to.

We went out on the balcony. Borne pretended he couldn’t see through his sunglasses and took them off. His new mouth formed a genuinely surprised “O.”

“It’s beautiful,” he exclaimed. “It’s beautiful beautiful beautiful…” Another new word.

The killing thing, the thing I couldn’t ever get over, is that it was beautiful. It was so incredibly beautiful, and I’d never seen that before. In the strange dark sea-blue of late afternoon, the river below splashing in lavender, gold, and orange up against the numerous rock islands and their outcroppings of trees … the river looked amazing. The Balcony Cliffs in that light took on a luminous deep color that was almost black but not, almost blue but not, the jutting shadows solid and cool.

Borne didn’t know it was all deadly, poisonous, truly disgusting. Maybe it wasn’t, to him. Maybe he could have swum in that river and come out unscathed. Maybe, too, I realized right then in that moment that I’d begun to love him. Because he didn’t see the world like I saw the world. He didn’t see the traps. Because he made me rethink even simple words like disgusting or beautiful.

That was the moment I knew I’d decided to trade my safety for something else. That was the moment. And no matter what happened next, I had crossed over into another place, and the question wasn’t who I should trust but who should trust me.

Copyright © 2017 by VanderMeer Creative, Inc.