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So they ran threaded through the breaches, found the seams. So they ran with a memory of the City without buildings. So they navigated two worlds: the new and the old. When the ancient seabed had been green with reeds and lakes and the low salt-poisoned trees with their thick moss-encrusted limbs upon which they might sleep.
Now they must come to rest on half-collapsed roofs and in the shadows of the great rocks out in the desert. Now they must dream where they could and trust in the lookout who would not sleep. Must trust in how thought danced from mind to mind. How there was nothing but a lightness to that. How they knew each other’s will.
They were the color of sand, which might shift and stall, pass between the paws unnoticed, but would never not be there. Would never become weathered down because it was already what it was meant to become.
One from another in the night they snapped at the winking rescue lights of giant fireflies. Savored the crunch of wing, the collapse of carapace. Let in the coolness of the dark. Played games in the aftermath, searched for hidden water, dug their own shallow wells. Licked at the salt when needed. Mated and had cubs. Sometimes looked up at the stars distant and for a moment contemplated what lay beyond. Even though it meant nothing more to them than the fireflies.
Until the blue fox.
For one night there came a flare of blue across the heavens and a nimble quicksilver thought in their heads that was both familiar and strange. They sat at the border between the desert and the City. Hearts pumping fast. Motionless but ready to leap, to run, to bite.
Out across the desert came the Source. At a trot. With a familiar grin of fangs. The blue fox. Larger than them by half. Projecting to them what he wanted to project.
Love. Power. Fate. Destiny. Chance.
Showing them another world. Another way.
But why should they have a leader? Why should they not roam like wild things? For they were wild things. Why should they have a purpose? For they were wild things.
I will tell you why said the blue fox as he approached. I will tell you why it matters. To you.
Soon under the glancing moon, the blue fox stood before them. He stood mighty before them. He stood respectful before them. He stood before them.
Came a mighty yipping and barking from the multitudes, the gathered folk that were foxes but not foxes as had been known in the past. For what had a fox been but what a human thought it was?
The blue fox said:
There shall come scavengers to the City from far away. They will call themselves the Company. They shall have no face. They shall have no body at which to strike, but many limbs.
There shall issue forth from the Company beasts and monsters and creatures that shift their form in ways that you cannot imagine. There shall come threats you cannot imagine.
The little foxes seethed, withdrew, seethed around the blue fox, moving like a memory of the sea. Cusp of a new thing, considering what the blue fox showed them.
And by the time the foxes left that place, the blue fox was their leader, and although not one of them could say why this should be, it felt right. It felt true. And in no particulars could it be said that their lives changed in the short-term. In no particulars were they not themselves after. Yet in their hearts they felt the change.
There will be a terrible price to be paid. But I will pay it. If you follow me.
It made them braver. It made them fierce. It focused their thoughts through the prism of the blue fox’s mind.
Now their play had purpose.
There shall come three humans across the burning sands …
came unto the cityunder an evil star
A glimmer, a glint, at the City’s dusty edge, where the line between sky and land cut the eye. An everlasting gleam that yet evaporated upon the arrival of the three and left behind a smell like chrome and chemicals. Out of a morass and expanse of nothing, for what could live beyond the City? What could thrive there?
Then scuffed the dust, the dirt: A dull boot, a scorpion-creature scuttling for safety much as a human would had a spacecraft crash-landed there. Except the owner of the boot knew the scorpion was unnatural and thus anticipated the scuttle and crushed the biotech beneath one rough heel.
The boot-scuffer was the one of the three who always went first: a tall black woman of indeterminate age named Grayson. She had no hair on her head because she liked velocity. Her left eye was white and yet still she could see through it; why shouldn’t she? The process had been painful and expensive, part of her training a long time ago. Now she glimpsed things no one else could, even when she didn’t want to.
Kicked a rock, sent it tumbling toward the thankless dull scrim of the City. Watched with grim satisfaction as the rock, for an instant, occluded the white egg that was the far-distant Company building to the south.
The other two appeared behind Grayson in the grit, framed by that bloodless sky. Chen and Moss, and with them packs full of equipment and supplies.
Chen was a heavyset man, from a country that was just a word now, with as much meaning as a soundless scream or the place Grayson came from, which didn’t exist anymore either.
Moss remained stubbornly uncommitted—to origin, to gender, to genes, went by “she” this time but not others. Moss could change like other people breathed: without thought, of necessity or not. Moss could open all kinds of doors. But Grayson and Chen had their powers, too.
“Is this the place?” Chen asked, looking around.
“Such a dump,” Grayson said.
“Old haunts never look the same,” Moss said.
“Would be a shame not to save it, no matter how shoddy,” Grayson said.
“Shall we save it, then?” Chen asked.
“No one else will,” Moss said, completing the ritual.
All the echoes of the other times, what they said when things went well, scrubbing what they’d said when it didn’t.
They did not truly speak by now. But thought their speech into one another’s minds, so that they might appear to any observer as calm and impassive as the dirt atop an ancient grave.
How could they dream of home? They saw it continually. They saw it when they closed their eyes to sleep. It was always in front of them, what lay behind, overwriting the places that came next.
Chen said they had arrived at the City under an evil star, and already they were dying again and knew they had no sanctuary here—only accelerant. But the three had been dying for a long time, and had vowed to make their passage as rough, ugly, and prolonged as possible. They would claw and thrash to their end. Stretched halfway to the infinite.
None of it as beautiful or glorious as an equation, though. All of it pushed toward their purpose, for they meant, one of these days or months or years, to destroy the Company and save the future. Some future. Nothing else meant very much anymore, except the love between them. For glory was wasteful, Grayson believed, and Chen cared nothing for beauty that declared itself, for beauty had no morality, and Moss had already given herself over to a cause beyond or above the human.
“While we’re only human,” Grayson might joke, but it was because only Grayson, of the three, could make that claim.
This was their best chance, the closest to the zero version, the original, that they might ever get, this echo of the City. Or so Moss had told them.
* * *
Grayson, the restless one, the leader, if leader they had, took point, and her blank eye was her gun, her hand her gun, and no aim ever truer. But all three had restless, dangerous thoughts. All three had minds that reeled from the imprint of strange constellations and distant coordinates. Hell lay behind them on that map—blood and murder and betrayal.
And because the three were home, and because they strode toward the City, which was everywhere the property of the Company, the enemy came for them. Tripped an invisible wire.
Apparitions sprang from the sand, dust devils formed like sand but not sand that took the shape of vast monsters with glittering eyes: Bio-matter with nanites instead of intent, to bring down upon them punishment for their rebellion. A digging gap-jawed leviathan that ate the soil and vomited it back out, transformed. A flying creature with many wings that blotted out the sun. Claws and fangs were to be expected and a lust to kill, grown more corporeal with each staggering step the creatures took, so that what might seem ghost matter or star matter gathered with a great soughing sigh and low guttural groan as it became strong where once it had been weak.
Only Moss ever found them sympathetic, and that was because she was closer to them in her flesh than to Grayson or Chen. Phosphorescent, dripping a mist of near-weightless biomass in emerald and turquoise torrents, as if they had emerged not from desert but from some vast and ancient sea. The brine of them hit the three in a wave, and the taste of them registered Paleo-Mesozoic, worthy of the respect one gave to old bones in a museum.
But these monsters had been made to combat some other enemy than the three, and not a one of the three hesitated in their step or paid these apparitions any heed—ignored the terrifying sounds, the slavering jaws, the shadow rippling across the heated sand—and when the molecules of the three met those of the defenders, the defenses fell away and again became like sand.
Sometimes this was not the case.
Copyright © 2019 by VanderMeer Creative, Inc.
“Suicide Invoice” copyright © 2002 by Rick Froberg
Frontispiece and ornament illustrations copyright © 2019 by Mario Tauchi