One thousand years in the future, the zyme, a thick blanket of luminous green slime, covers the oceans. Glaciers three-miles-high rise over the continents. The old stories say that when the Jemen, godlike beings from the past, realized their efforts to halt global warming had gone terribly wrong, they made a desperate gamble to save life on earth and recreated species that had survived the worst of the earth's Ice Ages.
Sixteen-summers-old Lynx and his best friend Quiller are members of the Sealion People—archaic humans known as Denisovans. They live in a world growing colder, a world filled with monstrous predators that hunt them for food. When they flee to a new land, they meet a strange old man who impossibly seems to be the last of the Jemen. He tells Lynx the only way he can save his world is by sacrificing himself to the last true god, a quantum computer named Quancee.
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922 Summers After the Zyme
I lazily blink my eyes open and see a herd of helmeted muskoxen running across a starlit snowfield, beautiful and quiet, as if nothing is wrong. Dark bulky shapes, they have massive horns. Their hooves crack and snap on the ice as their legs part the snow. Halfway through their journey across the field, I begin to hear a low-pitched moaning, part whine, part growl, and the feral musk of lions envelops me.
Puffs of hot meat-scented breath cloud the night air. I want to run, but everything inside me is going slower and slower, freezing up like a winter river in a sudden cold spell. Six shining eyes stare down at me.
I can't move. Can't breathe.
In the distance, I hear a rumble, like a huge herd of bison thundering down the slope, or maybe it's growling . . .
My new wife shrieks, Oh, dear gods, lions.
Something rips away our mammoth hides, and my unfeeling body is flipped onto the right side where I can't see her.
Lynx, get up. Where's your spear?
My heart is bursting through my ribs, but I lie still, so still. I-I can't recall my wife's name. Senselessly, I stare out at the muskoxen. A shimmering haze cloaks them as they run faster and faster, their hooves kicking snow high into the air.
Lynx, a lion has got me. He's dragging me. Help me.
Branches crash, and feet suddenly pound away. It can't be my wife running away. She has seen only fifteen summers. How would she get away from lions? But it must be her. Who else could it be? Gasping and screams from ten paces away, then five. Is she trying to get back to me?
I fight to call out to her, to tell her not to run. Just go limp, my wife. Play dead. But when hands grab me and shake me, I am a mindless block of wood.
What's the matter with you? Wake up!
Something falls on me, and warm, wet hair slaps across my face and chest. I smell the tundra wildflowers that decorate her hair. Not the blood. Not the blood. Fingernails rake my leather sleeves like knives. Get up. Sounds of dragging, bones cracking, screams.
Finally . . .
I am on my feet, staggering into a brilliant darkness so vast and quiet it swallows my soul. The muskoxen are gone, their trail little more than a black line of shadow stretching across the starlit snow. Where are our wedding camp guards?
"Rider?" I shout. "Dust? Birdboy, where are you? Grasshopper?"
There is no sound at all. Am I deaf? Even if our guards answered me, I'm not sure I'd hear them.
And her voice is gone.
All of their voices are gone.
Trotting along the game trail, I fight not to weep. They must be dead. All of them. When their relatives arrive, they will find their bones crushed and chewed and strewn across the ground, the air filled with the sweet fragrance of glacial meltwater.
I'm the only one left.
Except I'm not.
Though I hear nothing else, I hear him.
He's behind me.
A walking stick lightly taps the earth, or maybe it's the clicking of claws on rocks.
Tap. Tap. Click, tap, tap.
Coming faster, coming up behind me.
"Stop walking, boy."
I stumble. How is it possible that I can't hear the birds or lions or human screams, but I hear his voice?
A pale silver halo arcs over the trees as Sister Moon rises toward the eastern horizon, turning the pines and spruces into dark spikes set against a background of monstrously tall ice mountains. Standing in the middle of the trail is a skinny elder. Wind blows shoulder-length white hair around his strange face. He has a jutting chin and small brow ridge. His translucent blue eyes are too wide and shiny to be human. The legendary Jemen, immortal warriors locked in an eternal battle with the Ice Giants, are supposed to have blue eyes . . .
And suddenly, I'm not alone.
It's so easy now. He's come to help me. Nothing else explains his presence here. I watch him labor up the trail, placing his walking stick with care, back bent beneath his hunting pack. Here he is . . . the sum total of all the dreams I've ever had in my life. All my prayers for courage, for strength so that I could take care of my new wife . . . it's all come down to this.
That's who he is. I'm sure of it. I've been chasing him my whole life, and now I've caught up with him. My fears drain away. My heartbeat calms as a great certainty possesses me, and I find myself hovering, sailing high above the camp like a fragile dragonfly, climbing toward the Road of Light that leads to the Land of the Dead.
The old man cocks his head. "What are you doing?"
"Why are you just standing there?"
"I'm wondering if I have the courage to face you."
He props his stick and leans on it. "How much courage does it require to face an old man?"
I stagger toward him. "If you're going to take me, just do it. Please."
"Good Lord, boy, don't you want one more day of life? Are you really the coward your enemies believe you are?"
My chest fills as my heart expands. I wanted so much more than this. One more night of sitting around the fires listening to the elders' stories about the beautiful world before the zyme, just another smile from my precious wife. And a son. Dear gods, I wanted sons and daughters. Not now. None of that now.
I choke out the words: "Elder . . . I . . . I'm ready to go. Take me to the Land of the Dead."
The old man looks me up and down. "That would make it easier, wouldn't it? Living is difficult. Believe me, I know."
Suddenly, he cocks his head and seems to be listening to a voice that floats on the air . . . a voice I cannot hear. "Yes. Yes, all right," he quietly answers.
Death gives me a sidelong evaluative look, then he hobbles away on his painful joints, his windblown cloak melting into the forest as though he was never really here. Leaving me.
Lying on my back with my head pillowed on one arm, I stare up at the stars twinkling beyond the smoke hole in the top of our domelike lodge. Mammoth rib bones serve as the lodge frame, then we cover them with mastodon hides and paint the exterior with our sacred clan symbols. The night is so peaceful. My little sister's hair spreads across the bedding hides to my right, and to my left my two younger brothers snuggle next to our parents beneath a warm bison robe. If I wasn't worried sick about Lynx, the night would be perfect. But Lynx and his new bride, Siskin, should have returned from their wedding camp by sunset. They did not.
Wind gently buffets the hide walls and brings me the scent of the sea. Late autumn is a happy time of full bellies and smiling faces. A time of netting birds and bison hunts. And marriages.
Lynx's wedding camp is less than one day away. If I start now and run hard, I'll make it there by noon, providing I'm not hunted by lions, dire wolves, or short-faced bears. Lions are the most frightening. With huge heads and massive front quarters for grabbing and holding prey, the giant animals weigh five times as much as a grown man.
Pushing away my bedding hides, I crawl across the floor to the lodge flap and shrug into my bear coat, then I grab a spear and duck out into the brilliant moonlight. The spear, about as long as I am tall, and tipped with a ground mammoth-bone spear point, makes the perfect walking stick.
To the east, sheathed in the silver gleam, the Ice Giants rise in stunning blue-white peaks. They are never still. Never quiet. Even now they whisper and groan. Our sacred elders say that a thousand summers ago, most of the Jemen sailed to the campfires of the dead in ships made of meteorites. We still see them at night traveling along the Road of Light that leads to the afterlife. We call them the Sky Jemen. A handful of heroes, the Earthbound Jemen, remained behind to carve out a great hollow in the heart of the glaciers, a place where they hid cages of animals and plants, and vowed to continue their search to find a way to kill the Ice Giants. One day, when they've won the war with the Giants, they will release the animals and plants into a warm and beautiful world.
I don't really believe the tales, but they fill me with such wonder.
Gripping my spear, I walk away from the village and down to the beach, where slithers of zyme sprawl across the sand like luminous green arms. For as far as I can see, the ocean glows green, blanketed with zyme. I've heard people tell of a time when darkness held the world in its arms at night, but I've never seen true darkness. My people, the Sealion People, are a sea people. We live along the shores where the nights are always pale green and shimmering.
Zyme smells pungently fragrant, as though the air is drenched in green grass, but it's an empty-hearted monster.
In the summer, zyme rises and falls upon the water like low verdant hills, but when cold weather arrives, the zyme forests began to die back a little. Which is the only time people dare to be out on the water in boats. Even then, we have to stick close to the edges of the Ice Giants, where the water is coldest. If a boat gets too far from shore and zyme closes in around it, there's no escape. You can't paddle, can't swim. After a time, you can't even float. The slimy tentacles creep over the gunwales, and the weight drags you down to the bottom of the ocean.
Two moons ago, when we first passed beyond the Steppe Lands, one of our boats was struck by a massive wave and shoved far out into the zyme. There was nothing anyone could do. On the third day the boat turned green and sank. The last people dove overboard and tried to drag themselves across the zyme to shore, but the zyme slowly, methodically, pulled them down.
Bad way to die.
Climbing the rocky beach terrace, I search for the closest guard, and finally see a man standing to the north, silhouetted against the glittering campfires of the dead.
When he sees me coming, he calls, "Too worried to sleep?" The scars that cover the lower half of his face shine whitely in the pale light. He escaped from our enemies, the Rust People, several summers ago, but the flayed flesh never properly healed.
"Where are they, Bluejay?"
We both gaze up the mammoth trail that leads to the wedding camp. In the moonlight, it resembles a black serpent.
"Probably just delayed. Newly wedded men and women are so happy enjoying each other, they lose track of time. I'm sure they'll be home by noon today."
"If not, I'm going after them."
"I'll go with you, but I'm sure it won't be necessary."
His words about marriage hurt. Until four moons ago, Lynx was promised to me. Then Lynx's affections shifted to Bluejay's sister, Siskin, and my world changed. At some point, my torn heart will mend, but I keep thinking that the marriage three days ago should have been my marriage to Lynx, not Siskin's.
"Dire wolves have been howling madly. As though they've made a kill."
"Probably brought down a bison," Bluejay says. "Try not to think the worst. We sent four of our best warriors to guard them. They're all right."
But we both know the howls originate from very near the location of the wedding camp.
"Least there's been no sign of Rust People." Bluejay is clearly trying to change the subject.
"They're still behind us. I can feel their footsteps in my heart."
"Hope you're wrong."
In total, the Sealion People have one hundred and forty-two men, women, and children left. The warlike Rust People, on the other hand, have eight clans, ten villages, and maybe one thousand people or half-people. Once they start hunting you, you have to run and keep running. Like wolves with prey in sight, they never stop. Never slow down. Their rusted-out hulks of ships, powered by zyme oil, are never far behind.
As though tying themselves to the terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, eerie growls and yips drift down from the wedding camp.
I reach up to rub the medicine bag hanging from a braided leather cord around my throat. My first spirit quest was two summers ago. After four days of fasting and praying, a bull bison trotted across the grasslands carrying Sister Moon between his horns. Before they left, Bull Bison and Sister Moon gave me pieces of themselves, powerful offerings, to remind me of their constant spiritual presence. As I rub the medicine bag, I can feel the silver glow encased in the bison fur that rests inside, and know my spirit helpers are alive and breathing over my heart.
Where is Lynx, Sister Moon? Bull Bison? Is he alive?
Moonlight suddenly blazes from the spruces and pines, and every grain of sand on the beach sparkles. It's my answer. He lives.
"My wife is better, Quiller. Thank you for bringing her soup today. The baby is less fitful tonight. When I left, WayWind was sleeping soundly."
"We've all been worried."
Which is an understatement. Just as many babies are being born dead as alive. Our numbers are dwindling fast. If that doesn't change, in a few summers, our people will vanish from the earth.
"Go check on WayWind, Bluejay. I'll take over your watch. Can't sleep anyway."
"Thanks, but I can't sleep either. Why don't you go talk to Mink? He must be worried about his brother. Tell him that I'm sure everything is fine."
"Where is Mink?"
Bluejay extends an arm. "Standing guard to the south."
"I'll tell him."
Fog hovers over the waves in the distance, and I pray it stays out there. Lion prides and wolf packs use fog as a cover to sneak into the villages on their nightly hunts.
As I walk across the rocky beach terrace, the sweet scent of glacial meltwater carries down from the Ice Giants.
It doesn't take long to spot Mink. A muscular, heavy-boned man, he wears his black hair pulled back and tied with a leather cord, which makes the blocky angles of his handsome face seem sharper. His forehead slopes back severely, and his brow ridge sticks far out over his dark sunken eyes. His nose is wide, his chin blunt. He and Lynx look so much alike it tears at my heart.