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Home and Hearth
A stabbing pain jolts me awake.
My neck . . . the needle, the snake . . .
No, not a stab. A poke . . . a poke of cold metal. I lift my head, look around. My silver bracelet. I wear it over the sleeve of my black coveralls, its wide ring circling my right forearm just below my elbow—I must have rolled over in my sleep, laid my neck on the long point that extends from the flat ring down to just behind the back of my wrist.
I’m cold. I’m wet. It’s raining again. Correction: it’s raining still. I was sleeping on the tiny metal deck of a spider cockpit, other people crammed in around me. My thigh is numb—I rolled over onto the combat knife I always have strapped to my leg.
So tired. As uncomfortable as I am, I just want to go back to sleep.
A boy’s voice: “Em, wake up.”
Victor Muller, part of my spider’s three-person crew.
“D’souza spotted them,” he says. “She’s coming.”
That wakes me up for real. If Maria is coming, maybe it’s time to fight.
I sit up. Muscles, cramped and stiff. My cold skin feels like it’s made of half-dry clay. Our black coveralls are good at keeping us warm, but in the jungle the dampness always finds a way in.
Ten days of this. Ten days of hiding, without fire or heat, without a hot meal, eating prepackaged food and raw jungle plants. Ten days since I bathed—I want a shower almost as much as I want to catch the Belligerents. I want to lie on my couch, Bishop’s arms around me as I watch the jungle from afar, not from within it.
I miss him. I miss his eyes, his hair and his smile. I miss the very smell of him. If we’re able to force our enemy to battle—and that is a very big if—I might be hurt in the fighting. Possibly even killed. Before I left, he told me he loves me.
Did I tell him the same thing?
I think I did. Yes, I must have.
You would have told O’Malley, and you know it.
Well, hello, Annoying Little Voice. How nice of you to show up now.
Annoying Little Voice always wants me to second-guess myself, to doubt my decisions. It always seems to think things would be better now if they’d gone a different way then. If I’d made different choices. If I’d had stronger self-control. I hate that damn voice.
Wiping the last of the sleep from my eyes, I reach up and grab the armored ridge that surrounds the cockpit. I stand, slowly, careful to not jostle the branches that hide our position.
The twin moons of Omeyocan—one bluish, one maroon—shine through sparse cloud cover. In the daytime, this jungle is bright with yellow leaves, brown tree trunks and long blue vine stems. At night, everything is a blue-purple shade of gray. The plants gleam with wetness.
Spingate still insists on calling our machines “pentapods,” but no one listens to her about that. To us, they are spiders. Five-legged, yes, but spiders all the same. The machines are meant for a two-person crew: driver and cannon operator. We use them with crews of three, adding one person who can fire with whatever weapon they have at hand. Three makes for close quarters. The cockpit is open-air. No glowing holograms here—all the controls are manual, built to last a thousand years, to take a real beating and keep on working. A waist-high, horseshoe-shaped armored ridge surrounds the cockpit, protects us from bullets and musket balls. The ends of the horseshoe blend into the cockpit’s rear wall, which comes up to my sternum. If I stand straight, I can rest my arms on the spider’s sloping back and fire my bracelet at whatever is behind us.
We’ve repainted the spiders to cover up centuries of superficial damage. Each one has black numbers on the sides (ours is 05), while most of the shell is dark yellow with jagged stripes of brown and blue—the colors of the jungle. When the machines work correctly, they blend in well. Of course, they’re all a couple of centuries old, so they don’t work correctly all that much. Parts often clatter and gears frequently grind, making unmistakable noise. We do our best to fix those problems when they come up.
There are two legs in front, two on the sides—one each below where the armored ridge blends into the back wall—and one leg in the rear. The three-jointed legs all end in hard, sharp points, which can slice right through any enemy unfortunate enough to be in our way.
I ride in the cockpit’s right side. Yoshiko Bawden, the driver, is on my left, in the middle. She’s a tall, muscular circle-star who thinks it’s funny to make fake burp sounds. When she’s not being crude, though, she is a fierce warrior. She’s always kept her black hair shaved down. Before we began this campaign, she had some of her fellow circle-stars tattoo the word killer on the right side of her head. She has a pitchfork strapped across her back and a bracelet on her right arm over her coveralls. She used to use an axe, like Bishop does, but she prefers the pitchfork for jungle fighting. I have known her almost since I first woke up. I’m so grateful to have her as part of my crew.
“Little” Victor Muller is on Bawden’s left, where he mans the beam-cannon. He’s not little anymore, though. When the circle-star came out of his coffin, I was a bit taller than he was. Now my eyes come up to his chin. He’s added muscle as well. He’s not as thick as Bishop, probably never will be. Victor has the same wiry frame my friend Coyotl had—long, lean, athletic. Victor wears a bracelet on his right arm. In his hands, he holds a spear. Not my spear, of course, but one that looks close to it. A repeating rifle is slung over his back, black barrel and the black loop lever that lets him reload it with a flick of his hand gleaming from a recent cleaning and oiling. Victor has become one of our best warriors, almost as skilled as Farrar, Bishop and Bawden, who are all fully grown.
I am brave enough to fight, but I’m not stupid—I want people in my crew who can protect me. I’d rather have Bishop instead of Victor, of course, but right now it’s more important to our people that Bishop remains back in Uchmal.
The lower half of our spider is buried in the jungle floor, the upper half covered in branches and vines. Sometimes you hunt your enemy—but only if you can find them. When you can’t, your best bet is to set a trap and hope your enemy falls into it.
It looks like they finally have.
A light rustling from the jungle in front of us. I see what looks like a thick, yellowish snake rise from the underbrush and move toward us. The furry snake ends in wicked, hooked pincers that can snap together so hard they’ll damn near cut a person in two.
A few meters away, the full animal rises up from the underbrush. A year ago, the sight of this predator would have scared me half to death. Now? It only scares me a quarter of the way.
When I first saw these creatures, I didn’t have the memories or words to describe them. It’s still hard. Different people have remembered different things at different times, filling my head with images of animals that Matilda only read about in books. The heavy body of a bear. The thick trunk of an elephant. Below where the trunk connects to the head is a piranha’s dagger-toothed mouth. Claws of a tiger. All of it covered in brown-striped yellow fur. Heavy plates of mottled yellow bone on its chest. Three beady black eyes in a line on each side of the head, which is also plated in yellow bone.
On the back of this beast, on a saddle made of tough leather, sits Maria D’souza, a fellow “empty.”
She took to calling the big predators hurukans. We’re not sure where that word comes from, but as soon as any of us heard it, we agreed it was the perfect name.
“Hail, Em,” Maria says. “Guthana, Yalani.”
Maria greets me first in English, then in the Springer language. She always wants the Springer fighters in her squad to know I am in charge—Yalani means “leader.”
“Hail, Maria,” I say. “You’ve found them?”
She nods. “The Belligerents are coming from the east, closing in on the cornfield. I have the Creepers circling behind them to cut off any escape. Barkah and his infantry battalion are positioned to the north as a reserve, per your orders.”
Cornfield sounds a bit grand for our sickly crop, but we have invested countless hours getting it to grow.
“How many Belligerents?” I ask.
“Maybe a hundred,” Maria says. “All on foot. No cavalry of any kind.”
“Excellent. Where do you want us?”
Maria points north.
“Straight ahead, Yalani. My squad will attack from the southwest. When you strike, we’ll be on your left flank.”
Atop the 650-kilo hurukan she calls Fenrir, Maria is a striking figure. She wears cloth strips of yellow, green and blue, just like the Springer warriors. Vine juice and dirt cover her brown skin, helping her blend into the jungle. She has a half-dozen knives strapped to her body and a repeating rifle slung across her back. When the violence began months ago, I offered her one of our precious bracelets. She declined. She chooses to use the same weapon as the Springers in her cavalry squads.
The snake-wolves are the top predators of this world. As far as we can tell, they kill and eat everything they see. That included the Springers. Then came Maria, who somehow learned how to not only capture the beasts, but tame them as well. She’s trained others to do the same.
Mounted atop her monster, Maria D’souza has become a death goddess of the jungle. She has killed more enemy soldiers than anyone. Except for Farrar, of course, but that’s why we used him as bait.
We used to think Barkah controlled all the Springers on Omeyocan. We were wrong. There are four main tribes that we know of. Barkah’s tribe, the Malbinti, claims the areas around Uchmal. The Khochin are far to the south of our city. The Podakra are just a day’s ride to the west. The largest tribe of all, the Galanak, fill the jungle to the northeast.
“Belligerents” is what we’ve come to call the Springers that attack us at every turn. We haven’t taken any alive yet, but based on the clothing of those we killed in battle they have members from all four known tribes, including the Malbinti. Barkah doesn’t know why some of his people joined them.
The Belligerents don’t have uniforms, but they do have one unifying element. In addition to the jungle rags of blue, yellow and green, they all wear at least one bit of red.
Red—the same color as the robes Aramovsky wore, as the robes in the carvings on the Observatory.
In the past few months, the Belligerents have been burning our crops, attacking us when we go outside the walls. Whatever their reasons, the Belligerents are aggressive and trying to kill my people.
I can’t allow that to continue.
“Get into position,” I say to Maria. “We attack immediately.”
Maria and Fenrir vanish into the jungle with barely a sound. How something that big can move so quietly, I have no idea.
“Finally,” Bawden says. “Those bug-eyed bastards can’t escape this time.”
I give her a short glance. Bawden was close with J. York, a circle boy who was killed by Belligerents a few months ago. Bawden wants revenge. Too many of my people want revenge.
“Our allies are also bug-eyed bastards,” I say. “Do you forget that? Or do you want to cuss at the people who are fighting on our side?”
Bawden answers with only a belch, which makes Victor laugh.
I’ll never understand circle-stars.
“Clear away the brush,” I say. “We go now.”
Victor and Bawden toss aside our cover of branches. My spear is held by a bracket mounted on the cockpit’s rear wall. I yank the spear free, then raise it high and circle it in the air—the signal for my platoon to move out. Branches rustle around us as two other spider crews clear them away and prepare to leave. A dozen young circle-stars silently rise up from hidden places in the underbrush. They wear black coveralls, like me, but are wrapped in vines, their faces and hair smeared with dark mud. They make ready to march, make ready to fight.
Including me, my platoon has twenty-one humans: nine on spiderback, twelve on foot. Maria’s squad—“D’souza’s Demons”—has three snake-wolves and their riders, along with eighteen Springers on foot. Squad Two—called “the Creepers” and led by Lahfah, Barkah’s mate—has the same numbers as D’souza’s Demons. That means we’ll attack with a combination of sixty-three troops, three spiders and six snake-wolves. We’re slightly outnumbered, but technology is on our side. And in reserve, we have two hundred Springers led by Barkah himself. I almost feel sorry for the Belligerents we’re about to attack.
“Bawden, lead us out.”
She does. Our spider rises up, the cockpit now four meters above the jungle floor. Mud drips down from the dented yellow shell and the black 05 painted on either side.
We march to battle.
The Belligerents like to hit and run. They never fight in the open. When they started attacking our people, our crops, Barkah’s patrols and his new city of Schechak, we would ride our spiders out from Uchmal to fight them. But as fast as the spiders are, by the time we reached the conflict the Belligerents had already melted into the jungle, leaving bodies and carnage behind.
Just over a year ago, Aramovsky led our people to war with Barkah’s father, the former Springer king. The battle was brief but bloody. Barkah and I brought our two peoples together. We made peace. While some hatred and distrust remained between our two races, we worked hard to coexist, to learn from each other so that both cultures could flourish and grow.
Other than a few scuffles, there was little trouble.
But six months ago, that started to change.
Barkah’s people started to confront us. Verbally at first, then arguments turned to fistfights. Then knife fights. My people—and Barkah’s—started getting hurt. Barkah and I both punished the aggressors, trying to set an example that hate would not be tolerated.