Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Our Second Loss
Let me start with a nearly perfect dawn on Fremont. Morning light dappled my legs with patterns made by the broad leaves of the tent tree I sat beneath. The Lace River ran smoothly fifteen meters below me. Two of our seven moons shone above me: Faith, large and round, followed by her smaller companion, Hope; both pale in the bright daylight. As round as the moons, but near at hand and small, the redberry bush fruit had swollen into sticky orbs the size of my thumbnail. My fingers were stained red. I sat, twirling a stick idly in my hands, thinking about the summer, which had been easier than most, about the good harvest being tucked into the granaries and the storage bins. My hands moved of their own accord, restless because the peace made me restless.
Footsteps on the path behind me announced my little brother Joseph, just old enough for light fuzzy down to ghost along his chin and a slight widening of the shoulders to emphasize his thin frame. He grinned widely as he sat down next to me, and then took the stick from my hands.
“Here, Chelo, let me show you.” He reached up and plucked a wide green diamond-shaped leaf from a low branch of the tent tree. He folded the leaf, then made a crack in the top of the dry stick and wedged the leaf into the crack. “See?” He twisted the stick, fast, so the black mottling of the whitish bark blurred to gray, his palms flat. He smiled, impish, his dark eyes dancing. His hands flew open and the stick rose, impossibly, higher than our heads, whirring like night-crickets. Leaf and stick separated. The leaf fluttered down onto my head and I laughed with him.
“Come on, sis, let’s go.” He stood, shifting on his feet, full of restless energy. He was nearly my height, black-haired and black-eyed like me, and fast and strong, like all six of us altered. In Joseph, speed and strength showed in long wiry limbs and well-defined muscles. Neither he nor I displayed obvious physical differences; we didn’t have Bryan’s size or Kayleen’s long feet and extra strong toes.
Green Valley spread below us as I followed Joseph down the packed-dirt path to the science guild hall. Artistos nestled against the Lace Forest. The Lace River, behind us now as we walked, bordered Artistos to the north, cliffs marched up and away to the east, cleared land gave way to thick forest to the south. Another cliff face bounded the valley, falling westward to the Grass Plains that themselves ended in the sea. The town itself spread neatly out from the largest open space, Commons Park, and thin strips of green parkway ran beside the river, buffering Artistos and making space for fishing and gathering and walking. The two cliffs, up and down, the High Road and the sea road, forced the town’s small industrial base north, across the river, and barns and fields bellied up to wide tent trees and tall thick-trunked near-elm of the forest in the south. Dense thorny underbrush made the forest a true barrier. All the land we needed so far had been long cleared, although each spring we fought the forest to maintain the boundary.
Nearly everyone lived as close to Commons Park and the guild halls as they could, so the edges of Artistos were empty. Still, Joseph and I passed small groups of people hurrying to cross the river and start work.
We began to walk faster. If we were last, Nava would be mad. We already angered her just by being ourselves, by being born at all. We couldn’t help that, but we could be on time. Our jobs were simple. For us. Joseph would slip open to the data nets, feeling the subtle messages carried on the air from the networks; his blood, bone, and then brain vibrating with and understanding the myriad stories of hundreds of pinpoint wireless data nodes that surround Artistos. Today, he would monitor a repair team heading past the perimeter to fix and replace failing network nodes. Meshed with satellite data and images from Traveler, Artistos depended on the wireless network to track movements of large animals, identify weather, gather seismic data, and provide a host of other information. The data network served as warning, science, and reassurance all at once.
I would be Joseph’s help, bringing him water, asking him questions from the others and relaying answers, recording as much as I could in my pad for us to talk about later. I would make sure he ate.
We crossed Park Street, heading for the science guild hall. Garmin and Klia and May walked toward us. They were all roughly our age, and in a hurry; at risk of being late for work across the river in the industrial complex. Klia looked up and saw us, and elbowed Garmin, who glanced our way and grasped Klia’s and May’s hands, pulling them toward the other side of the street, away from us.
“Good morning, Garmin!” I called, my voice as loud and cheery as I could make it be.
Garmin glared at me, just for a moment, and I expected him to say something mean. But he only turned and whispered to Klia, who watched the ground. I heard the words, “. . . darn mutants. They shouldn’t be allowed out.”
I was mutant enough to hear his whispered words, but not rude enough to reply. Joseph scowled, but he, too, ignored them.
May watched the park intently, as if she expected something scary to pop out of the grass and frighten her. Or as if she just didn’t want to look at us. If we’d passed May alone, she might have nodded politely, maybe even have said hello. In groups, almost none of the kids our age were even that polite. Joseph and I glanced at each other and walked faster, getting distance between us and Garmin. We didn’t look back until we ducked into the science guild door.
The main room of the science guild hall was large enough for five hundred people. Offices, labs, and meeting rooms lined two sides of the building. The walls were wood from the Lace Forest, the roof tiles made of molded riverbank clay. The builders guild makes us glass windows, hauling sand up from the beaches and across the Grass Plains after the fall burn, when the grass is low enough for safe travel. Guild members set the thick windows loosely in clever slides designed to survive the frequent small earthquakes that plague Fremont.
When we arrived, Nava, Tom, and Paloma waited for us in the monitoring room. Nava frowned when we came in, her green eyes an icy contrast to her red hair. “You’re late.”
We weren’t late, we were just last. I ignored her, accustomed to her coldness, her resentment of every use the colony made of our skills. Her husband Tom, a dark-haired, stocky, and round-faced gentle bear of a man, greeted us more warmly, smiling and handing us glasses of apple juice. We drank, and I ushered Joseph to the soft blue chair Steven designed so he could lie curled in his favorite monitoring position, hands and feet drawn up into a ball. It was more like a little round bed than a chair, although Joseph could sit up in it when he liked. He almost never did.
Paloma stood in the far corner of the oblong room, her back to us, poring over logs from the night before. “Traveler,” she said to no one in particular, “reported two small chondrite asteroids last night. One burned up on entry and the other landed in the ocean.”
Tom grunted. “Could have been big ones. Gianna said we’ll be in the storm for months. It’s the worst on record.”
“Let’s just hope all the big ones miss us,” Paloma muttered, her words almost a prayer. Only when she completed the logs did she look over and smile at us. She was Kayleen’s adoptive mother, and she treated us, and our gifts, our alterations, as normal. I loved her for it. Even Steven and Therese, who stood up for us, did not treat us as if we were like them. Paloma grinned. “They’re leaving. Are you ready?”
Joseph drained his apple juice, handed the glass to me, and leaned in to take my hand. “Blood, bone, and brain,” he murmured, reciting the words he and Kayleen used to trigger the changes in their consciousness that hooked them into the data nets. “Take care of me, sis.” He smiled, falling away from me, his eyes closed, his face relaxing, slack, as if he were sleeping, as if he were dreaming a good dream. He loved nothing more, then, than to feel and hear his body sing with data.
Today’s repair team included our adoptive parents, Steven and Therese, who led the colony. They rarely left Artistos’s boundaries, tethered by their responsibilities. Perhaps it was the easy summer, the comparative rest, that drew them out.
All together, there were ten, a large group, mostly because they planned to hunt for djuri. Djuri flesh is soft and almost sweet, tender, a treat when you are accustomed only to goats and chickens. Djuri herds often come near us in winter, but they stay higher in summer, and today the team took the High Road. We all hoped for a feast.
The team was tied to us by four of the increasingly rare earsets that allowed people any distance apart to talk, using the satellite network and ground-based wireless nodes to beam clear voice anywhere inside the wireless net. I’d been allowed to use one twice on trips to the Grass Plains with Therese and Paloma to catalog species, and they tickled my ear inside. We could not make new ones here yet; every one we lost reduced our communications ability. Joseph though, Joseph could hear the earsets without needing one himself. He couldn’t speak, but he could hear.
I looked at Joseph. His body had softened, as if sleeping, and he breathed easily. By now he held at least three data streams in parallel, his agile brain watching them all, interpreting the varied messages from outer pods, the relentless pings of the boundary, and the voice streams from the expedition members, probably laughing and happy to be out, moving easily with their hebras’ fast, rolling gait.
The boundary bells rang friendly exit as the expedition passed beyond the near data nets, the walls, the hard-won relative safety of Artistos. I wished I were with them, feeling a breeze cooling my sweat, hearing birdsong. Being in danger. I turned my face to the window to hide my longing and watched the long fronds of the twintrees in the park across the street and the play of five children throwing hoops on the fine grass.
Twintrees were native, but the grass, tightly controlled, came from Deerfly. Children could fall on it without being scratched. Commons Park was the softest place on Fremont.
We waited. Joseph would speak anything we needed to know, talking through the repair process while Paloma and Tom watched on their own monitors, a step removed from Joseph’s intimate data immersion.
Never one to waste time, Paloma analyzed crop yields, periodically wiping her long blond hair from her face as she took notes. Tom and Nava argued quietly in the corner.
Joseph spoke. “They’re starting up the High Road.”
Paloma stretched and went out. I watched through the window as she shimmied up one twined trunk of a twintree set, and pulled down a shirtfront full of bittersweet fruit. She came back in and handed me two fruits, round balls the size of my fist, crowned with small thorns. I set one aside for Joseph, and started carefully peeling the bitter rind of my own. The salt-and-sour smell of the rind filled the long narrow room.
Joseph narrated the trip. “Pod 42A. Test and replace.” I wrote, my own recording of the journey, kept for Joseph to remember, to supplement the dry electronic recording of events. “Knitting pod data.” Freed from its thick skin, twintree fruit is small and yellowish. I popped mine into my mouth, whole, and bit down, savoring the sweetness as he continued. “Complete. Moving up toward pod 58B.” Monitoring was a rhythm. He spoke, I wrote, he spoke, I wrote, I teased him up from his trance to drink water, to eat, he fell back into data and spoke and I wrote.
An hour passed. Two.
I repeated his words loudly, smelling grilled djuri meat already. Tom and Nava drifted closer to us.
Excitement painted the edges of Joseph’s voice. “Gi Lin counts ten, Therese counts twenty.”
I laughed. The pessimist and the optimist. I would bet on fifteen. Djuri are small animals, human-sized, long-eared and four-legged, horned; thin runners that blend into thickets. I imagined them in a band of trees, dappled with light. There would be a cliff, a stream, the trees, the broad High Road, and then a steep falling away to the Lace River below. The expedition would break into two groups, one ahead, one behind, and drive them together to stun them. Most would escape, but not all.
Alarm crept into Joseph’s voice, feeding data back to the expedition. “Paw-cat above you. In-line between pod 97A and B.” He’d have caught the size and shape of movement only. Enough. The cats had their own data signature, in the way they moved fast and low and the heat of their strong bodies. The nets almost never made mistakes identifying them. Paw-cats loved djuri as much as we did. I pictured the High Road in my head. The cat would be in the rocks, hard to spot. Joseph breathed a relieved sigh. “Steven and Mary see it. Circling to run it off.”
“Are there more?” Tom asked.
Which meant he hadn’t identified more.
Suddenly Joseph tensed, then he called, “Quake,” and then, moments after the words registered, the quake bell rang in Artistos, once, for medium danger. The window rattled in its clever cage, Joseph shook in his chair, my own chair bumped below me like a live thing, and Tom and Nava and Paloma grabbed for each other.
Then the quake was gone.
We laughed, the nervous relieved laughter of fright.
“Six point five,” Joseph said, then called to the expedition, “Are you all right?” He began narrating. “Gi Lin and Therese report everyone accounted for. The hebras are nervous. Steven lost sight of the cat, thinks it went up, away from them. Therese says the djuri have gathered in a knot, the does in the middle, says she’s never seen that. They’ll try and take some now, while they’re frightened. Gi Lin can’t make his hebra move. It’s—” His face screwed up suddenly, and he yelled, “The rocks. Falling. Run. Quake. Run!” He reached for me blindly, his eyes shut, his hand clamping down on mine, hard and tight. His eyes opened, dark whorls filled with horror. I pulled him in, close to me, looking for a safe place to go.
The only sound I heard for the space of four heartbeats was his ragged breathing.
The quake bell clanged over and over and over: danger, danger, danger. Joseph screamed. The window shattered outward, tiles fell, the ground bucked under my feet, throwing me on top of Joseph. My ears were full of the bell, of Joseph’s scream, of Nava and Tom and Paloma yelling, of the dull thud of tiles crashing onto the street and landing on the shattered glass. Alarm bells rang from the hospital, the school, the guild halls, the water plant. The ground shivered a last time and went still.
I gathered Joseph to me, holding him, rocking him, tears streaming down my face. Why wasn’t he talking to Therese and Steven? To Gi Lin? To me? “Joseph, can you hear them? Are they okay?”
He’d lost control. Joseph never lost control monitoring. But if he felt them all die? What if they died? Fear touched my voice as I called, “Joseph?”
He hung slack in my arms, as if he were someplace far away, as if he were crushed by the rock fall that devastated our team. A scream filled me, wanting to burst out my throat, and I kept it in, fighting it, fighting for control. Joseph needed me.
Nava’s voice behind me, demanding answers I didn’t have. “What happened to them? What does he see?”
I held Joseph close to me, not looking at her. “He doesn’t see anything,” I snapped. Couldn’t she see his pain? We needed to be in the open, away from the shattered window, the damaged guild hall, away from Nava’s bad grace. I tugged on Joseph. “Wake up, wake up. Now. Come on.” He didn’t respond. His eyes stayed closed and narrow. His skin felt cool, as if he himself were not there in my arms at all.
Tom came up behind me, gently moving me aside, separating me from my brother. He knelt by Joseph, who must have sensed my absence; he struggled and kicked, lashing out wildly. Tom pinned Joseph’s legs, picked him up, and started toward the door. He looked over his shoulder and caught my eyes. “Follow me.” He spoke into his earset, his voice high and worried, “Report out. Anyone. Anyone.”
I followed Tom out and across to the park, thinking of Joseph. Only of Joseph. I couldn’t think of Therese or Steven or Gi Lin yet, of the silence that answered Tom’s repeated pleas. I focused on Joseph, limp in Tom’s arms, his eyes closed, his face over Tom’s shoulder completely white.
Soft grass tickled my ankles. Tom settled Joseph so his head rested in my lap. I stroked his shoulder, the side of his face, trying to pull him back from wherever he had gone.
The sounds of the colony accounting for itself flowed around us. Nava, taking charge, using the deep sonorous gather-tones of the central bell, pulling the townspeople to meet at the amphitheater behind me. Children crying. People calling for their loved ones. Dogs barking.
The guild halls and houses ringing the park nearly all showed damage, but they all stood. Water from a broken underground pipe gushed up through the tight-packed stones on the street between me and the school.
Kayleen and Bryan found us, Bryan’s eyebrows drawn together in worry. Fear brightened Kayleen’s blue eyes. Like Joseph, Kayleen could tap data streams, although two or three at a time, not the unlimited number that Joseph seemed able to juggle. “He’s in shock.” She reached a hand out and touched his cheek, her dark hair falling over her face. “How connected was he? What’s the last thing he said?”
I told them the story. Bryan sat across from Joseph, watching his face. Kayleen sat next to me, chewing on her lip, uncharacteristically quiet. She was at least as disturbed as me. It bothered me that she had no answers, no suggestions.
Townspeople poured around us, streaming to the roll call bell, discussing damage in loud, worried tones. Hilario’s handsome dark face was covered in blood, his arms and hands bathed in it, as if something had opened a fountain of blood in his skull. Gianna limped. One group carried a prone form on a stretcher toward the hospital.
It all felt unreal. We were used to death and danger on Fremont, but by ones and twos, nothing so widespread.
The bell called for us, too. Bryan picked Joseph up, carrying him like a baby, and Kayleen and I followed, holding hands. We settled at the top of the amphitheater, Joseph lying on the grass, his head pillowed on my thigh. Bryan sat on my other side, sometimes taking my hand. Our feet dangled over the edge of the wall. Above us, a large twintree leaned over the amphitheater. It was usually full of kids scampering up and down its broad branches, picking fruit and scaring their parents into high-pitched calls for care, but today only two small boys seemed brave enough to climb it.
We looked down into a ring of granite steps falling gently downslope to a stage. Built in the first hundred years, when the colonists were more hopeful, the open amphitheater could hold two thousand easily; fewer than eleven hundred lived in Artistos today. Empty seats surrounded any gathering held there.
There was no gathering today, rather a stream reporting in and being sent back out in small knots to check streets, record damage, find wounded, do all of the hundreds of things that needed to be done. Nava and the other three Town Council members assigned work and recorded information. Tom ran errands for them. Hope surged in me as the boundary bell rang until I recognized the exit tone: riders being sent to check on the expedition.
Paloma took Kayleen to check on the hebras and goats, but Bryan stayed with us, silent and protective. So he was beside me when Nava charged up the aisle toward us, standing over us like some red-haired warrior, her hands dirty, her shoulder-length hair hanging in damp red strings around her face, her green eyes boring into mine. “Has he said anything else? Does he know if any of them are alive?”
“He seems to be in shock,” I said, as evenly as I could.
“Well, your job, both of you, is to fix him. We need him back on the data nets.”
The ground chose that instant to shiver and jerk again, enough to jolt more tiles from the guild hall roofs onto the ground, to cause a child to scream. “I have to go,” she said. “Get him working.” Nava jogged away from us.
Bryan whispered under his breath, “He’s not a machine,” and I heard the anger in him. Bryan’s strong, polite outer nature shielded him against rude treatment from his adoptive family, who never forgot his altered strength or forgave his extraordinary patience and intelligence. Patience, however, is not forgiveness. It is merely patience. Bryan’s anger burned deep. Now, it lit his blue eyes, tightened the line of his jaw, and flushed his skin. He pushed his brown hair from his face with one large hand and stared out across town, his gaze apparently fixed on the horizon. Bryan was always sweet and patient with us, but like the big sheepdog that helped Stile with the hebras, I knew he could be dangerous to anyone who threatened me or Kayleen or Joseph.
For now, Nava and I both wanted Joseph to heal. We just had different reasons.
Bryan got up, smiled softly at us, and walked down the hill. He came back a few moments later, carrying a blanket, a canteen, and a hunk of bread. He covered Joseph carefully with the blanket and handed me the water and half the bread. My shocked body welcomed the water, but I simply held the bread in my lap, unable to take a bite. I stroked Joseph’s head.
Dusk had driven the twintree shadows nearly the length of the park when the boundary bell rang again: entrance. I looked up, my heart leaping with hope and confounded by dread all at once. Bryan must have seen my feelings in my eyes, because he said, “Go, I’ll watch Joseph.” I kissed them both on the forehead, and ran down the street toward the river. They’d be coming in from the north. I could intercept them at Little Lace Park. If there were any dead, the searchers would have to pass through the park to take the bodies to the other side of the river for preparation. I’d pass anyone bringing the living to the hospital. I ran all out, blood pumping through my limbs, my fingers, my toes, my heart driven to find out, now. I passed four groups of people before I ran up on Paloma, her blond hair flying. She turned toward me, her blue eyes startled, and put a hand out, yelling, “Chelo!”
It took great effort to slow my steps, to bridle the energy that burned in me and obey her, to go no faster than her pace, draw no more attention. But I did it.
Kayleen and Tom and about ten other people had beaten us to converge on the riders in the park. The long graceful necks of two hebras poked above the human heads, nearly silhouettes in the evening light. Tom struggled with a bundle strapped to the back of the nearest hebra. I ran up to him. Tom narrowed his eyes and looked as if he were going to send me away, but Paloma and Kayleen stood beside me. He sighed, and swallowed, and continued with his work. It seemed to take forever.
The burdened hebra turned its bearded head, watching Tom carefully, its wide-set dark eyes curious. Cold settled inside my stomach. The body lowered and the shroud opened to reveal Gi Lin, one side of his face flattened, the other perfect. Kayleen and Paloma and I nearly crushed each other’s hands from sorrow and disbelief.
The other hebra was similarly burdened. Just as Tom loosened the ropes, a hand flopped out. Steven’s hand. His left little finger was missing, an accident from the last days of the war. It is one thing to be certain of something, and another to have knowledge of it driven into you with the harsh stake of reality. I landed on my knees on the stony grass of the park, and Kayleen and Paloma knelt on each side of me. Someone keened. When I found my breath again, I pushed myself back to standing. Behind me, Paloma asked, “Any word of the others?”
Ken, one of the men who’d gone to retrieve the bodies, answered her. His words were choppy, uneven, as if he still had trouble admitting their truth. “Rocks fell almost all the way across the road. Hard to pass at all, but if someone was on the upward side, they could get to us. We saw a dead hebra off the cliff, but there are rocks there, too, rocks crossed the road.” He swallowed. “We did see Therese’s body, but there’s a rock too big to move covering most of her. We’ll have to go back later.”
I stumbled into Paloma’s arms as the second expected blow became real.
Tom came up, putting his arm over my shoulder. “Go on, Chelo, take care of Joseph. You can’t stay in the park all night. Your house came up safe in the survey. Go there. We’ll check on you tomorrow.” He glanced at Paloma and Kayleen, his eyes demanding rather than asking. “Can you take her back? Settle her and Joseph in? Then meet me at the amphitheater—I’ll be there in an hour.”
We walked back, clutching each other’s hands, stumbling through nearly complete darkness. Only one weak moon, Plowman, added to the starlight. The town’s evening lights hadn’t come on. We stumbled through the dark to find Joseph and Bryan where I had left them. Bryan carried Joseph, and the five of us shuffled carefully home, crunching shards of glass and ceramic roof tile under our feet.
Kayleen and Paloma helped me tuck Joseph in. Bryan made me a cup of mint and redberry tea. After they left, I tried to drink the tea, but it tasted bitter. I wandered about, restless, picking up cups and pictures that had fallen, sweeping the shards of a broken potted plant into the trash.
Steven and Therese should walk in any minute. I knew better, yet I looked up for them over and over.
I pulled my bedding into Joseph’s room and lay down on the floor. False crickets chirped outside the window and the occasional call of a night bird sounded from up above the house in the beginning of the Lower Lace Forest.
The night passed slowly. What if Joseph didn’t get better? What would happen to us now? Who would take us in?
Copyright © 2007 by Brenda Cooper. All rights reserved.