It’s been 925 summers since the Jemen introduced zyme, a bioluminescent algae, into the world’s ocean and unwittingly triggered an ice age that has consumed most of the planet. All but a handful of Jemen flew to the stars, but before they left, they recreated several extinct species that had thrived in the last ice age. After almost a thousand summers, the archaic hominins that struggle along the edges of massive glaciers are dwindling. All they have to save them is a dying quantum computer called Quancee and her student, a Denisovan man named Lynx.
When the last Jemen, Vice Admiral Jorgenson, tells Lynx he’s going to dismantle Quancee and use her parts to create a new computer, Lynx is stunned. But while Lynx battles to save Quancee, the quantum computer has other priorities. Before she dies, she has to save a special boy who cannot save himself.
Meanwhile, in the lodges of the Sealion People, a sick boy on the verge of manhood hears voices, including an old woman who sings to him. When Jawbone goes on his first quest to find a spirit helper, that same old woman finds him, and his life will never be the same.
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925 Summers After the Zyme
The beginning of the Book of Sticks the Virtuous, the Blessed Dog Soldier who witnessed what came to pass in those days. Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth those things which are most surely believed among us about the Blessed Jemen, these are the events delivered unto us who were from the beginning eyewitnesses and sacred keepers of the story . . ."
Shh . . .
Do you hear him?
The other boy who tiptoes.
Sometimes I see him. He peeks around the dark wooly bison hide that hangs over the cave inside my head. I've tried to build a monstrous wall behind the hide to seal him up in there, but it keeps falling down. Stone by sacred stone, letting all the horrors that pant in the darkness slip out.
Far away inside me . . . soft leather boots on stone.
Who are you, other boy who looks like me? Have you seen thirteen summers, as I have?
My voice bounces around my head, sing-song, almost loud enough to blot out the sound of your steps. Steps like a dying heartbeat. Slowing down, down, fading, melting away into a silent pool where the bison hide sways, and then turns to bright hot splinters. So bright my heart hurts.
Steps coming toward me. Thump, thumpthump.
I shake myself and frown out across the glowing green blanket of zyme that covers the face of Mother Ocean. It stretches for as far as I can see to the west.
Is he still there? Waiting.
His footsteps are dead.
Exhaling hard, I hug myself and rock back and forth where I sit upon the ledge of the sea cave. Breathe the twilight. Breathe the storm pushing in from the west. Distant lightning flashes. In the brilliant green light cast by the zyme, the zigzags are purple. High overhead one of the Sky Jemen sails his ship of light through the few campfires of the dead that have begun to emerge with nightfall.
He must be gone, probably hiding behind the buffalo hide again.
Thank the Blessed Jemen.
My three little sisters laugh as they chase each other around the seven hide lodges in the rear of the sea cave. Little Fawn has seen eleven summers, Loon has seen seven, and my youngest sister Chickadee has seen six summers pass. They are not really my sisters. We were born Rust People, but three summers ago our village was destroyed and our families killed by giant lions. Two Sealion People found us and adopted us. Quiller and RabbitEar are our new parents.
My gaze drifts over Sky Ice Village. Made of mammoth rib-bone frames and covered with mammoth hides, the lodges resemble rounded domes. Firelight and smoke escape through the holes in the roofs and creep across the cave ceiling as though alive and seeking a way out into the open sky. Ten paces away, the central village fire blazes, lighting the faces of Elder Hoodwink, and Mother and Father. The rest of the villagers have retreated into their warm lodges. Mother and Father keep glancing at me. Worried. I'm sure they're talking about me.
Did I whimper when the boy came? I might have. I don't always realize it.
Blond hair blows over my blue eyes. Through the strands, I focus on the towering thunderheads in the distance, studying the streaks of dusky blue rain that waver beneath them. The elders say that by midnight the rain will turn to snow, and I'll wake to a vast sparkling white sea. Such mornings fill my heart with longing, for they never last long. The blanket of snow that sheaths the zyme melts quickly. If we are lucky, for a few hands of time, the entire ocean appears to be rolling, snow-covered hills that rise and fall all the way to the horizon.
Our legends speak of the blue oceans that existed one thousand summers ago, before the Jemen planted zyme in Mother Ocean. There were blue oceans and dark night skies where the campfires of the dead glittered like millions of frost crystals, but no one among the Sealion People has ever seen such wonders. Nights along the shore are always filled with the luminous green shine of the zyme, and the campfires of the dead are faint. It's only when our bravest hunters climb high into the Ice Giant Mountains that they escape the glow.
Oh. No. Hear him?
Very soft. Almost not there. He whispers, Come with me. Let me show you the way.
"Stop talking to me!" I shout. "Go away!"
Elder Hoodwink, Mother, and Father turn in unison to gape at me. Elder Hoodwink leans sideways to speak softly with Mother. All I hear him say is her name: "Quiller."
She nods, rises, and walks toward me.
Tears clutch at my throat. I keep my eyes on the coming storm.
Who are you, other boy?
You live back there with my old mother and father in a long-ago darkness where huge lions roar and screams are bone knives.
But I don't know you!
The elders of the Sealion People say I hear voices because I am a special child and will grow up to be a great shaman who will lead our people to a warm world where the Ice Giants-the glaciers that cover our world-do not exist.
I pray that's true. I have seen thirteen summers pass. In a few days, I will go on my first spirit quest. I hope spirit helpers find me worthy, but I'm not sure they will.
For I know I am a broken boy.
Like a shattered mica mirror, one dazzling splinter glitters here, another dazzling splinter over there. They all reflect me until nothing makes sense. Nothing connects.
Except on the most terrifying nights when my soul walks backward to my old village, Great Horned Owl Village, and then blazing threads spiral outward from the splinters and coil up in the other boy's fractured blue eyes, making them whole and clear, and I hear familiar voices shish and shush. Order me to run. Drag me by the arm and fling me into the cold, where the darkness pants and growls.
My hands fly up to cover my ears. Please, spirits, don't make me hear, don't make me remember.
Just let me sprout wings and soar to the far, far country where I only have to hover in silent darkness for eternity.
I know another place. A better place.
"Stop it! Stop it! Stop talking to me!"
I loudly chant nonsense sounds, trying to drown out the other boy's voice.
Mother sits down beside me and her buffalo-hide cape spreads over the cave floor. Red hair frames her freckled face and bulging green eyes. She's very tall, the tallest person in our village. Some say that means she has Dog Soldier blood, for they are very tall, as well. Sealion People believe the Dog Soldiers are half-human beasts, but I know they are not. They can read. Among the Rust People, that means they are sacred. I grew up with Dog Soldiers telling me wonderful stories about ancient wars and strange beings who flew among the campfires of the dead.
Gently, Mother strokes my blond hair. "You're safe, Jawbone. Everything's all right. I promise you."
"But, Mother, he watches. He listens."
She gives me a worried smile. "Who? The spirit you were shouting at?"
I pick up a pebble from the lip of the cave and hurl it down where it vanishes into the luminous zyme. "He won't leave me alone. He scares me."
She slips an arm around my shoulders and hugs me. "In a few days, you will be a man and you will be initiated into the warrior society. Once you've learned all the secret ways of warriors, you will never have to be afraid again."
"But I'll have to fight if our village is attacked. I've heard warriors say they were scared during battles."
"Yes, that's true, but they are not scared the same way you are today, because they know how to fight. Training makes a big difference."
My mother is a respected warrior. I nod, but I can't imagine how being trained will allow me to fight the other boy.
"Can you fight spirits with spears or clubs?"
Mother's eyebrows pinch together. "Great shamans, like Elder Hoodwink, have special magical weapons they use to fight evil spirits. Are you saying that the spirit that's coming to you is evil?"
I have to think about that. "Mother . . . why won't Father let me become a shaman instead of a warrior? I don't want to be a warrior. Elder Hoodwink is an excellent teacher, isn't he?"
"Oh, yes, definitely. He taught the Blessed Teacher Lynx, you know."
"Of course," I reply, a little exasperated. I am almost a man and she still treats me like I've only seen eight summers.
Mother pulls her arm from around my shoulders and squints out at the ocean. "Would you like me to speak with Elder Hoodwink about training you after you've become a man?"
"Father won't allow it."
"You are of my clan. I will allow it. Let me speak-"
"No, Mother. I can speak for myself."
Lunging to my feet, I race away from her and straight to the fire to speak with Elder Hoodwink.
When I glance back at her, she looks hurt, but she must start treating me like the man that I will be in just a few days.
Sitting upon a flat rock high above my cave, I let my gaze drift. Wind Mother has stripped the Ice Giants of their frosting of snow. For as far as I can see to the north and east, jagged ice mountains shimmer in the light of the rising full moon. The summer evening smells earthy and wet.
I draw up one knee and prop my elbow atop it to listen to mammoths trumpeting. The Ice Giants add their own rumbling voices to the music of nightfall. For a short while, I grant myself the right to just listen and look.
The air is aglow, turning the world faintly emerald. It's called oxyluciferin 27-the enzyme produced by Bioluminescent Algae Omega. The project was designed to feed the world, provide fuel, and cool the planet. My people, the Sealion People, named it zyme. It's been nine hundred twenty-five summers since Year Zero, the moment the zyme reached tipping point in the Pacific Ocean. There were many Jemen scientists involved in the algae project. My beloved teacher, Dr. John Arakie, blamed himself for the catastrophic consequences, but I don't think he was the only scientist responsible.
Locks of black hair blow around my face as I massage my heavy brow ridge. I have seen nineteen summers, hard summers of war, death, and starvation. Though two babies were born last winter, my people are almost gone. There are only twenty-two Sealion People left in the world. We all know what that means. The hoofbeats of extinction beat in our hearts. It's inevitable now. Soon, we must plead with the Rust People elders to allow us to marry into their clans, but I doubt they will agree. Our peoples have warred since just after Year Zero. There is currently a peace agreement, but they continue to think Sealion People are ignorant sub-humans, beneath their dignity.
That's why I sit upon this black boulder, to consider the errors made by the ancient gods that we call the Jemen. From here, I can see my village, Sky Ice Village, nestled in a huge sea cave just above the algae line to the west. The seven mammoth-hide lodges glow like seashell lanterns. I miss my people. Almost no one comes to see me now, not even my best friend, Quiller. Over the past three summers, I have occasionally gone down to visit my family. But never for long. They're afraid of me. So long as I am there, women hide their children inside lodges, and warriors keep one hand on belted weapons.
Why wouldn't they? I live in a cave with a strange crystal being, a quantum computer named Quancee. That makes me exotic and alien. Not only that, the stories about me, spun by my former student, Sticks the Dog Soldier, are fantastic and terrifying, and untrue. At least, largely untrue, though I admit strands of the tales are accurate. That's what makes them powerful. No one really knows what is true and what is not. At first, I tried to counter them by constantly correcting people, but over the past two summers it has brought me nothing but heartache. People seem to want to believe I am a magical being. The more bizarre the story, the more they cling to it. In the eyes of both the Sealion People and the Rust People, I have grown strange beyond anyone's ability to understand.
So I am alone. My only company now is the wordless voice of an ancient quantum computer and the half-intelligible voices of the massive glaciers quaking through the earth around me.
This fact makes me neither happy nor sad. Each day I float suspended like a wing-seed in a haze of glittering information. I talk to myself a good deal, and to Quancee. No matter what anyone says, I know she's alive. Every moment I am with her, I feel her concern for me, her love for me. The solace of such love is this: only there, in the echoing silences that stretch between the qubits, can my life be molded into something that has meaning. But Quancee is dying. I've known it for three summers. She says I have almost learned as much as I can, and soon I must let her go and become the great teacher I am meant to be.
But I'm not ready to let her go.
Quancee's lessons are like unripe fruit rolling around inside me. They bang around my head and occasionally a sweet scent flies up, but for the most part my understanding is a thin veneer, so weightless it can blow away at any instant and leave me in despair and confusion. Recite the solution to the Riemann hypothesis . . . the Yang-Mills existence and mass gap . . . Navier-Stokes existence and smoothness . . . Quancee tells me there are patterns that tie everything together, and I await the joyous moment when all that has wounded or defeated me will fall away and I will finally see. But I don't. Not yet.
Until then, I can't bear to let her go.
I must continue to study and think. When I grow too exhausted to concentrate, I stride the glaciers looking for the bodies of ancient gods and the evidence of the great Jemen war that ravaged this land once called Merica.