I should tell you about the gods, yes? Good setting for it. Here in the desert, hunger and thirst sharpen the soul. Sharpens it enough to poke right through the side of your mind to let in the second sight.
They hitched rides like barnacles and weeds on the bellies of our soulships and crossed the dark. Slave ship, starship, no matter to them. Belong is belong, yes? They took root and grew fat in the good red earth. I am surrounded by our gods. To be honest they are a mamabloody nuisance.
Eh heh heh heh. He laughs, Daddy Long Legs. Papa Negre. The old man who is a god walks behind me, his body made up of tumbleweeds and shadow. His laughter is the wind rattling through his snake bone ribs. He wears one face now, another next. They are all the people whose blood lies in the fields and whose bones rest in the earth.
You going de right way babygirl? He knows I am.
I’ve been ignoring him for a while now. I know the direction I’m going, if not the reason. I could take out my mipuu to check, but that would be him getting his way and I’m not in the mood. To hell with him and the rest. Stones around my neck, calling and crying. They do not like the desert.
Then go back home, I mutter. They cling harder.
There are many gods and few. They mix and re-form and come apart like particles of oil in water. They have always been around. In the village most could only see them as rags of light and sound, out of the corner of your eyes. Some never see them at all. Like Manman. Like me. I had not seen them until the morning I woke up at Titi Jeanne’s side with smoke burning tracks of tears from my eyes.
Gods fill the edges of my sight with color and sound. I am wearing a halo of gods, a boiling cloud that blooms and stretches into a thin shimmering thread back to the east and the good red.
As much as it worries me, it does not bother Minn. Takes a lot to bother a six foot tall manicou. She plods on, solid and comforting. As we move forward her tracks are intersected by smooth lines in the sand from the circling ’bots that I’ve programmed. They write their passage through the dirt, tireless scouts whistling back to me of the not-so-empty dunes. In the distance, as night fades to dawn. I hear the yip yee of desert sandbirds and the wayoooo of an owl. The not-sound of the wolf.
The heat rises with the stuttering chirp of djem flies. I nudge Minn towards a small outcropping of stone and pale brush. Dropping from the saddle, I lead her towards a shaded overhang. Getting her settled in and unburdened of our saddlebags and combed down doesn’t take much time, but I can already feel the day’s heat by the time I am ready to make my own bedroll in the shade.
The gods surrounding me begin to pop like soap bubbles, leaving me alone with Papa Bones and the Yellow Lady. Bones sits to my right, his rag and weed body seeming heavier than it should be. The lady, her hair strewn with coral and her dark skin wet, sits to my right. She has not spoken to me this entire way. She is simply here. Her eyes, when they do meet mine, are golden pools unbroken by pupils.
My dinner is roasted breadfruit and dried meat, both from stores rescued from the ruins of the town. It tastes like home but I finish it. Even though it sits uneasily in my stomach. Pain rising up from the smell of white thyme and scallion.
I begin to drift asleep as the sun climbs higher, white and burning. The horizon is wavy with heat. The last thing I hear as I fall asleep is Bones.
Where are you going? he asks again.
When I try to answer, bones spill out of my mouth. They land on the ground and sprout roots spiraling down, down, down to the heart of the world.
I must dig graves. Homes for the bones. A resting place for the ancestors. It takes a long time to dig a grave for a people. It’s full-body work. Your arms swing the shovel. Your thighs pull. And all the long while, your mind, it thinks. It accuses. You, at first. You could have done more, yes? Is all your fault. Jump in the grave you are digging. Cover yourself in the earth and die.
Gods rise up from the red earth and wrap themselves in an umbilical cord around your neck.
I wake to Minn’s quiet snuffles. Dusk is settling in, and the darkness smudges the desert to make it pretty and almost welcoming.
We walk at night. It surprised me that even then, the desert is not still. It is an unending chorus of creatures, all trying to survive in their own ways. With tooth and claw, quickness and smarts. Or silence.
I’ve made good time since leaving Way Back. Or what was left of it. Titi Jeanne and the griyot were making progress digging out the ruins when I left. But every time I walked past the Gathering House I could still see it smoking. And the marks of many feet outside the door.
Hour on the trail, the sky cracks in half. A sandstorm from the east, fire dancing on the horizon. Minn moans with worry, and I hurry us to an outcropping of rock out of the way of our path. We reach the cave in the rock just before the scouring sand passes over where we were standing. I pull Minn deeper into the small dark space and set up camp.
When I take a chance to peek up at the sky through the narrow cavemouth, I see Huracan dancing along the lightning, his locs streaming dark black against the towers of sand and flame that blast across the desert. Papa Long Legs sits by me and Minn, weaving a daisy chain from dead clematis flowers. He finishes and turns to me, offering it. Everywhere I look, I am surrounded by gods.
I place the flower chain over my wide-brim hat and laugh at what I must look like. Suit and hat of dark leather. Kerchief covering my mouth, and polarized glass goggles to block the stormglare. Dust covers me from hat to boot. Outside, the booming thunder cracks. Inside, a small trickle of dust falls into Minn’s face. She sneezes, displacing the crown of flowers on her head, and settles back in for a nap. The storm will go on for at least another eight hours.
The Woman In Yellow walks out of the storm and into the cave. She shakes sand and leaves from her hair, and in the waving folds of her dress I see schools of glittering fish.
You and your boyfren have a fight? Papa Bones asks her, his death’s head grin growing wide in the sunken grey-blue-black of his face.
The Woman ignores him with a flick of her frothing black hair and settles her skirts around her. Sitting cross legged by the fire I have built, she reaches her hands out to it. I wonder what she sees when she looks at it. I wonder for the millionth time if I’m imagining them. Or if I’m dead.
I had never been one to care about our gods. They seemed distant and unimportant in comparison to concrete things like maths, and getting out of my mother’s house. Gods had not seemed like the way that I was going to get to university in Prime City.
I’d liked the stories the griyot told about our gods as much as anyone else. Understood their importance in a distant way, like I understood crop rotation: a thing that others take care of which has nothing to do with me. I had never been what Manman called a godbotherer.
But it seems they are content bothering me.
They are not what I expected.
More have formed in the sphere of light around the gel-fire I’ve built in between a circle of stones. They argue and jostle until one has the idea to ask Papa for a story. Bones always has a tale in him. He has the story of everyone who has ever crossed his ivory threshold.
“Here is a true-true story,” he begins in his sawdust voice.
Griyot words for the beginning of the most important stories. When they arrive in a new settlement, sand still fresh on the hems of their robes, the gods-chosen story weavers tell the tales of us, the People. Wreathed by the painted star sky of the gathering houses. They remind us of our history as much as the planted bones of our ancestors remind the earth of our promises.
So does our death god begin tonight’s story in the traditional way. A true-true story. His voice, the one he chooses, is of my own manman.
That’s something they never tell you. Gods are assholes.
“In 3128 Standard, oh beloved children of the space where my heart would be if I were more than bones … the Deere-Minagawa conglomerate was paid 32 trillion credits to terraform this land, Tiere. Or as it was known then, Exoplanet M-329.”
I have heard this story a thousand times. Every child in every settlement knows it by heart. But Papa has us in the palm of his skeletal hand.
“Monies were paid, my sweet babies, in what was called a public-private partnership. Where a few people paid a lot and many people paid only a little less, because they all wanted one thing. To get rid of an inconvenience: mouths and souls yawning wide with hunger. Send them away! Let them sort themselves out! If we cannot see them we won’t feel shame.”
The gods and I hoot and holler in response. Our part in the retelling.
Everyone has a part, doux doux.
Old Man Bones grins wide, teeth as white as the doorstep to the house his children will never leave.
“It was not much, as planets go. But who wants to give the biggest piece of chicken to the hungriest mouth? The People lived on the sharp cutting edge of maybe enough if the budget passes and the board approves, oui? When they arrived, man familyé, shaking the stardust sleep from their eyes they were met by a home that had failed. There was no paradise for them. There was desert. There was fire unlike anything seen before, even in the blooms of stars. A fire pink as Grey Dogs’ birth. But it was their world, and they decided to remain.”
We stomp our feet, the gods and I. Here we stay! Punctuating our words pounding against the ground.
“You think this is crazy, non?” Papa jumps up, reflections of the campfire writhing in his eyes.
“Non!” We cry.
What is louder, our roar or the storm outside?
“What is safety? The People cried. What is home, when home is the bottom of a jackboot, or the ratatatat of death raining down? What would they go back to? To live as a dispensable budget line? Fuck you, mijohj. Non. Here they would stay. It was theirs.”
“It is ours!”
Bones, he laughs. A sound like the first clods of dirt hitting a shroud. Having a good good time, he is. He is stalking the little cave in his shiny threadbare suit whose trouser legs don’t even cover his ashy ankles. His feet are bare and cracked. But we can’t look away, human or god. Spindly arms outstretched, legs spread wide, he spins his tale.
“What the People wanted became the subject of several years of, what shall we call it …? Masturbatory litigation.”
I see Huracan, who has come inside to sit by Yellow Lady, snicker. She rolls her eyes at him.
“The partnership did not agree with the People’s choice. It is hard to put pictures of a ruined planet and desperate colonists in brochure material. By the time all of the paperwork was shuffled away, the colonists had been forgotten. And no one bothered to tell them what had been the outcome of the case. It was assumed that the stupid fools had died.”
“We live! We live!” Fists raised up, beating against the air.
Death dances among us, grinning and spinning.
The sandstorm calms enough that we can press on. The polarized goggles and bandana protect my face from the sand, but I can’t help flinching in the face of the fierce wind howling in the dark around me. Manman taught me how to survive in the sand, but only to scare me away from having to.
This is not the Tiere I know. This is what I have been protected from, this darkness. But it is also mine, and also beautiful. Minn walks on, carrying her small cargo. Her quiet implacability is like a warmth in my heart. She is a piece of home and I cling to her, resting behind the large crest of her head.
We walk through the night and mile by mile the storm begins to sleep, or we begin to outpace it. My god-riders settle and recede from my sight, even the stormking. He disappears with a laugh and a smile.
The stars come out one by one. It feels like the world is unfolding from underneath the sand winds. Above I hear the cry of the single wree-wrie bird in its lonely crossing, searching. The white dunes spread out towards all edges of the horizon, blooming with distant pink fire as if in answer to the stars above. The bones crying out, we are here. We are here.
If I lean forward into the dense fur on Minn’s back, if I cover my eyes in her darkness and my nose with her scent, if I feel lonely enough to die here in this graveyard of my ancestors, then there is no one to see me, not even my restless gods.
I don’t want to use up all of the stores I brought. Gotta hunt on the trail, as Manman always said. I have my slingshot, nothing flashier than that where projectiles are concerned. But I do have my little friends.
Magnetic field on Tiere is fucked up. Plainest way to say it. Instead of one field, there are many, drifting in currents across the surface. It’s the wildlife that follows those, moving along with a wave that only they can feel.
I’ve kept three bots back from my dozen. These I’ve adapted with some half broken dispellers from smashed den boxes I grabbed before heading out. It’s not hard to connect them to the simple guts already in the ceramic constructs.
When I’m done, I set two of them out on a course my mipuu has plotted. A third is on an oblique course to meet them when they connect with their quarry.
A magnetic front is coming. Where it edges up against another field, a sandstorm erupts, blacker than ink on the horizon. In that field will be bari. About as high as your knee, sandy grey-brown fur, and snub noses, they follow a field that takes them through the half-blasted prairies where they live off of twisted seed grass tough enough to cut the calloused heel of any oldster.
Following along the edge of the flowing herd, two of the bots roll through the tall grass and eventually catch one sow. I’m back far enough from the herd that I need to set my specs to magnify. But I see the moment they get her alone, and send my signal as they do.
Whap! They release an electromagnetic pulse that dazzles the bari, and she falls to the ground. The third bot, rounding up on her flank, gives her a shock strong enough to stop her heart. Quick-clean.
Before I can stop myself I think, Manman would have been proud of that kill.
The sands recede to smoke.
She was dead. Along with most everyone I had ever known. And most everything I’d thought was simple and true.
Like, why does the sun rise? And why do I breathe?
Odd, odd questions, with no answers I could easily grasp.
Mind memory can paralyze you. But body memory can keep you moving. So it is with the hunt’s end. I clean the kill, spare some blood for the earth and the Blessed Ancestors. But I am in a daze.
I am packed and set up for the day’s rest, meat ready to cure in the sun, when my body can no longer resist the pull of my mind’s riptide.
The morning after my home burned, it rained. It rained as if it had been waiting, hot air one second and a curtain of water the next. We few left sat huddled in a lean-to by the back of one of the houses, five survivors shivering in darkening ashes.
The smoke rose from the guttering flames and mixed with the leaves from the founding tree. From the ember I saw lights rise and curl through the night. Bright enough to touch my numbness.
Titi saw me and took my hand.
We walked silently towards the tree that was the oldest part of the village, to the ash and flickering embers at its feet. She squeezed my hand hard, then. Hard. Her face trembled, and I couldn’t look at her. Not at my Titi, as she cried. Like seeing a mountain cry or a wave sob. That was what it was like. And she held me fast, sitting under the elder tree. Shoulder to shoulder, we cried and shook until it was dark and the stars were reflected in the tracks of our tears.
I cried so much, I fell asleep. Woke up with my head in her broad and soft lap. She stroked my hair, Titi, like I was still a baby.
She must have felt me come awake, because she began, “Tiere is the home we have made. With each other, and with the land. A kontresang, our elders called it, doux doux. There are promises. Between we, moun sangre and she, Tiere. Promises. Contracts need to be bound. When we promise each other to behave, we are bound by the law. Our promise with the earth, min sangre, is bound by the deusie.”
“Like Le Ren Azulee?” I asked, as Titi began to replait the unraveling ends of my braids. I felt soft and dreaming, tired. My eyes so wrung dry, they hurt.
“Oui, comm ele. The gods of our Exodus. Old Man Bones. The Sea Witch. Huracan. The Hundred Thousand.” With each name she called, I felt a warmth in my bones. I floated between her broad hands and the smell of smoke.
She pointed unshakingly to the lights we both saw. “Those threads are their tracks. They bind us and our souls to the earth, and she to us.”
“Why can I see them now?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
Rescue came out of a sandstorm darkness. A caravan of forty plus people. By then, we had uncovered and cleaned out a still-standing home, and were living almost like people again. If people sometimes sat down on the floor and cried and cried. Titi Jeanne had found an unspoiled cache of village supplies. We were still alone together, but our bellies were full and we were warm. Petite Aniah had even found some goats that had wandered loose and gotten lost in the canyon and led them back to the village, her chubby little face beaming.
It was only afternoon, but the sky had fallen dark with a sandstorm on the desert horizon. The babies were playing with a teacher-holo I’d rescued from a debris pile and cleaned up for them. It still worked fine, and Titi did not think that even the destruction of everything we’d once known was a good reason to stop lessons.
“A little boring and normal will be good for them, doux doux,” she said. And I did not want to argue with her about that.
Mma Singh and Titi were bent over their hand looms. The microcircuitry in both had been damaged, but they were hopeful that they could be repaired. Us five survivors of a settlement of hundreds. I stood outside their circle, my mipuu in one hand, staring out at the storm.
So I was the first to notice the perimeter bot alarm. It whirred back to me, lights whirring inside its round clay body and kicking up red dust in its path.
Titi saw it and jumped up, pulling the bebes into another room. Mma Singh went to the cupboard where her machete was stored. My knife was at my side always, now. We had not found any of the village’s guns in our excavations.
I turned our few lights off via my mipuu connection and waited in the shadow of the door, my eyes focused outside. The perimeter bots followed the motion, silent and dark.
There was a flash of lightning over the horizon, and a boom like a man’s laughter. The drums of Huracan. I thought at first it was a haze on my eyes after the lightning but no, growing larger was a light in the whirling sand-burned darkness.
In that light moved ribbons of color, like the godthreads around the meeting house. I moved without thinking.
Mma Singh grabbed my hand. In the dark I could just make out the reflection of the stormlight in her brown eyes. Children don’t go out into danger.
I pulled away from her and went, chest burning.
I held my knife close to me in the dark, tasting salt and sand in the air, and moved into the street. The light grew closer and closer. And with it came sound.
A sound like the booming of a mother’s belly, from the inside. A sound like the twanging of a heartstring. The light blossomed into the dark, and inside of it was a form. A person, skin dark and sand-blasted ashy, holding a staff into the sky. At the top of the staff, a light like a star in the vastness of the Deuxsie’s heaven.
We People have a word for the cracked earth. We call it desolation. It is not just unwelcoming land, it has been heartbroken. Not empty though. There was always the fire, booming in the distance. The wind, snarled and knotted with lighting-laced sandstorms. And quieter things: colonies of brown-white bush foxes. Desert brack-figs clustered around salt pools, home to flocks of red-eyed birds that live off of the sour fruit and spread the seeds as they follow the wind.
On seventh days we sang lullabies to the earth, Tiere the broken-hearted. In the desert, tracking ghosts, I find myself beginning to sing them too.
I sing a song the griyot taught me. They said it was a song my father had written long ago when he was barely more than a boy and saw stars shining in my mother’s hair as if she were Ren Azulee in the flesh. Before they married. Before they had me. Before he was lost to the sands, his bones anchoring some part of the desolation where no one has yet found him.
Griyot gifts are strange things. They are silk knots tangled through golden rings.
Bygodsgrace Jones. That was their name. The redwalker who came to the pyre that had been the town called Way Back. I have been on my own for nearly two weeks now. Traveling east, following the tracks picked up by my rolling scouts. I don’t know how long I will go until I find what I’m looking for but I can’t go back until I do.
The desert rain has lulled me and I sleep all the way through the daylight hours. It is only when the light recedes and the temperature of the desolation plummets that I awaken. Minn has gathered close to me, her large musky bulk keeping me warm. Around us, there are ice crystals on the grey earth, gilding the parched shrubgrass.
It does not get this cold in the village. Our air and earth are protected by the founding guardian line that rings every settlement. So we do not have the same extremes on the red as there is in the desolation.
That last morning I left the house early, before Manman woke. Sometimes it felt like she only ever slept when I did. Passing the small garden where dasheen and eddo burst happily from rich soil, I went out to the borders of the red. Riding my manicou, Minn, it was a few minutes from the house to where the staggered boundary of stone ancestors marked the end of the red and the beginning of the desolation. I’d heard that the larger settlements had multiple rings of boundaries, pushing back back against the grey sands. But we were a young town, and had just the one.
Being out, I never wanted to turn back. It was the fire on the horizon that brought me out of my small room and smaller bed. The sands, grey, white, and black, flowed in an ombre dance as far as the eye could see. As tidal as the broken piebald seas.
This time, I had a good ten minutes watching the sand devils chase each other under the still rising sun before my mipuu chirped. I didn’t need to look at the message to know what it was.
Manman waited for me in the doorway. Her face calm as she watched me slink back to the house. She did not move aside as I walked in. And though I am only a few inches taller than her, it felt like standing in the shadow of a sparker. A real desert-churning storm.
She said nothing as I sat down at the kitchen table and ate the porridge she’d made. Didn’t look my way when I packed up my stylus for classes.
It was as I headed back through the sandblasted lintel of our front door that she spoke for the first time that day.
“The only one you’re going to hurt is yourself.”
Her face, known as well as the moon’s in the sky, fades to black until it is Papa’s wizened grin. His mouth opens into a long cackle.
I shake myself out of my sluggishness, shivering and cursing my numb fingers, and it is time for Minn and I to walk again.
I find the downed trakcar two hours later, stuck in a raw spinney, the air filled with magenta fire. There are places like these all over Tiere, Jones says. Where in most of Tiere, the failed terraform left behind wasteland, the raw were places where the earth had simply remained in flux.
The land shifts away from your eyes. You find that where your feet land is not where you set them. Grasses change color and explode with multicolored spores that wing away like purple butterflies. Emerald nnetti-hoppers jump from grass to rock to tree, changing colors as they move, looking like colored paper floating on the wind.
I leave Minn a little back from the raw. When the wind shifts and blows in from the spinney, she sneezes and turns away. I pull the red bandana around my throat up to cover my nose and mouth and the broad leather hat on my head down, keeping the raw away from as much of my face as possible. Much good may it do me. I wade into the grass. It starts out low and stubby, and it thickens and grows tall past my waist the closer I get to the center. The sticky seeds pull at the cloth of my shirt and muffle the sound of my spurs.
“Good evening,” I call out to them when I see their broken ivory peeking out from the red ground.
It’s a good thing I brought gloves with me. Some part of my brain had listened to Jones when they spoke. I put them on, but even through their tough manicou leather, the bones still feel hot like fire. I pull them out from the earth, two long thigh bones white as lightning. They hum and crackle. I place them gently in the grass and begin to dig and talk.
Griyot Jones taught me how to bury our dead.
They showed up at my Titi’s door two days after the caravan of rescuers arrived in the storm-shrouded night. Tall and gangly, skin as dark brown as the carved stave they carried. Walked me over to the Gathering House whose stones no longer smoked. But it burned in my mind’s eye. Brighter than the sun almost, I raised my arm to block my eyes. But I could feel the light.
Jones held my hand as we walked into the charnel house dark, and towards the bones of Way Back. Hundreds of them.
“Come,” they said. “Our people need us.”
I knelt before one broken body, stomach and heart roiling, ready to bolt and throw up everything I’d ever even thought about eating.
They held my shoulder firmly, feeling I was ready to run. I breathed in and when I exhaled I could see the gods’ thousand faces, a mix of expectation and fury and what I could only hope was love. Ready for their children.
I talk to the bones about all sorts of things.
“We are having good rains this spring, Elder.” The red earth parts for me smoothly, as if it has been waiting for me and the blade of my shovel. Willing to be opened.
“The cacao are growing dark. The crop will be great this year and we will have more than enough to trade for a new ansible.” The cacao will rot in the fields, when there is no one left to pick them. The ansible tower is gone.
When I had made a hole wide enough and deep enough for the bones, I lower them in gently. The heat inside them pulses like the flow of blood and it is all I can do to not drop them. I am your descendent, please don’t hurt me. As if that would be enough. As I cover the ancestor over with earth, I see their spirit rise up as a ribbon of light that spools around itself like golden thread. It floats among the divine colors of the gods who reach out for it, but it is the soul that chooses. The soul flutters gently over to a god I have no name for. His eyes are black pools that match his skin and his hair is whiter than bone. He wears nothing but a veil of flowers. The soul moves to him, so close it looks as if it kisses the tip of his wide nose. The god gathers them in his arms, and in a burst of light, dives towards the waiting earth.
The soil underneath my feet shudders and bucks. It ripples like a pond disturbed, and then like a boiling river. Underneath the movement, the earth changes. The soil is as red as in my home village, the grass as thick and green. This abundance flows out from the spot where I stand. A crashing wave of soulstuff and redemption. Where the raw was before only a few yards wide in any direction, I can see it has begun its creep further. The land has a new foothold in the desolation.
But my job here is not done. The car is waiting.
This is an easy job. A kid could do it. My mipuu could run a prog on it practically on auto. But I do it the manual way for the practice. We used to try to crack the code wall around the ansible tower all the time, us kids. Hack a bot and replicate exponentially shifting patterns, that takes work. None of us ever beat Johnjohn the ansible man but I come close sometimes eh? Manman use to say she did not like it. That the law is for all of we. But who was the one who bought the glaschip to upgrade my mipuu eh? My chest hurts the way the bones hurt. Like fire.
Maybe I cry as I hack into the car’s old board. Maybe not. No one here is going to tell you but the sand and the earth and they are both mine. When I am done, I know where the car has been. The sound of the rustling grass is the sound of gods laughing.
The time in the spinney has gotten me turned around. I whistle to call over a bot to check the direction. These are not more than toys really. Our major constructs, the work of the ansible tower, was in the net that connected Way Back. And that is gone unless Auntie can fix the tower or find new engineers. I turn towards the the path behind me wondering if I should have stayed.
The wind changes. My hair smells like smoke and blood.
Gods will drive you with whips made of your own memories.
It’s been days since the craft was abandoned. On foot or packbeasts they’ll be slower. I can catch up with them. If I push.
I feel the shadow of Papa’s gaze on me. The shadow where his eyes should be reveal a glint of white, like stars strung along an event horizon.
If I don’t push, I’ll be driven.
He laughs, a sound like the wings of carrion birds slashing against the air.
Blood for the earth.
Blood for the tree.
Blood for the carrion birds, wree! wree! wree!
Rock. Sere grass. Eyes blinking shyly from under cover of leaf and mound. Claws pulsing, in out, to the beat of an unaware heart. Fire. Winds that propel shards of glass instead of water. The desolation, unforgiving but not empty, has its own rhythm. As much as the village did.
I have slowly learned it. Night after night. So it is with a sharp shock when I become aware that something has broken it.
There is the sound of another person. Not the rumble or tolling of godvoice but something so much smaller. A sad broken voice calling out for help. I send the bot net out to track whatever was making the noise and follow them into the slowly rising horizon. A few minutes later I kneel down in front of a broken body. They look up at me, eyes clouded with pain, and begin to cry.
The Yellow Lady sits behind him, almost cradling his head in her lap, and her eyes fill with salt water. In the distance I hear Huracan’s drums echoing from a passing storm.
The boy is skinny but not light, I have to drag him up onto the litter I whack together out of some extra tent zipperstop and lash to the rings embedded in the back of Minn’s saddle. He screams when I lift him up but then falls unconscious from the pain.
Better for both of us.
By the time I get us to some cover in the closest oasis, the sun is rising high into the sky and I feel like I’m being baked into my kit.
It’s not much more than a rock overhang surrounded by a few struggling trees but it feels like heaven when I can lay the boy down in shade and set myself and Minn to rights.
I don’t have much more than the basic med kit with me. And nothing like this kid has probably ever seen before. I wipe the burns on his face and torso with kalkól and follow up with a layer of bush honey, and slap two of my algae gel packs on his chest. The djeeba poison in the gel acts as a stimulant, will pull him out of shock. But there’s not a damn thing I can do about his broken leg.
He might live or not, I’ve done everything I can to tip his luck over onto the side of not dying. Knowing that Papa is following my every move.
I stare and stare at this broken boy. Maybe a few years younger than me, not a man full grown. He is skinny, and has lost enough blood to turn his already pale skin the color of fish guts.
You know who he is. Papa says. You know what he is.
I do. How could I not? I wasn’t in this soul-blasted desert for no reason.
What did you come out here to do? Why you think we followed you, girl?
“I never asked you to follow me!” I spit back.
Papa glares at me, a look that rips through my skin and heart and right down to my quivering guilt.
You are here for the People, says he.
None of the other gods have stayed for this. Whispering off to wherever they go to when they aren’t being amused by me. So no one is here to contradict him. And I’m not sure they even would. The Threshold god is an eldest among Elders.
As I watch, a thin silver string of light rises up from the sleeping boy’s chest. Long Legs wraps it around one bone finger, drawing it up like thread against a spindle. But he does not snap the thread. Instead he gets up and walks out of the shade and disappears like mist.
I feed Minn. Eat something myself, and I can’t keep my eyes off the boy. He doesn’t die.
He has freckles. Like Miss Auberville who made nutcakes every gathering day. Her granmere’s recipe.
I’d seen her soul rise from the burned ground where she’d died.
And now this boy.
I am fighting with myself. Fitting, seeing as how this all began with a long-ass fight.
Is we is, or is we ain’t, People. At first, this was not much of a fight. The other people, after all, stole us.
Not much talking there.
But afterwards. After the first war for we, the question was asked. It kept being asked.
A thousand years later, we came to Tiere. And that, we said, was that. We wanted, at long last, to be left alone.
And we couldn’t even have that, could we? The Grey Dogs arrived.
“That is what we call you.” I say to the boy who cannot hear me. Because I am mad in all permutations of the word.
He’s sleeping. His bleeding has stopped and he is breathing. Good signs. But he is still pale as fish guts. The freckles across his face stand out in stark relief. I know nothing about him. Or his people.
It is not so much that the People hate them, it is that we see in them another link in the chains that were made for us. So we mostly stay away except for some small trade. There are talks of outside mediation. Mother’s blood.
The holovids don’t say much about them. The odd short documentary. But I know more about the foxes that hide in the desert oases than I do about this other human being.
Who are their gods? Do they even have them? I don’t know. We are not taught much about the Grey. They live far to the west of our settlements. Habitations-cum-township they call Newholme thrown up around the spot of their landing, two decades ago. Pretty shit showing for it.
I can see his bones nearly as well as I can see Death’s.
His eyes open and he’s staring right back at me. Weak as shit tea but nerve enough to look me dead ass in the eye.
“Are you going to kill me?” He asks in garbled Emigre.
“Probably not,” I offer.
He nods, although he must be working hard to understand me. It has been some time for us People, and languages evolve almost as quickly as hatreds.
“Where are your little friends?”
His eyes narrow, like the sound before a lie.
“Trade?” He asks.
I laugh. “You’re dying, mijohj. But sure.”
“How do you do it?” He asks, licking his cracked and bloody lips. “How do you make the earth do what you want?”
“You fix the ground. How?”
The earth around Newholme, their patch of Tiere, will be as grey dust and barren to them as the surface of an asteroid. They are not us. And I have confirmation of what I have feared all along, in the spirits I did not see rise out of the grave of the gathering house.
“You people really are evil as well as greedy.”
“My sister died because we didn’t have enough food for her,” he says around fresh tears. “My mother cried herself to death! Do you have a mother?”
Rage brings me nose to nose with him, this audacious child.
“I did have a mother. You killed her.”
The hand of his gods must close his throat for him. Bless be their mercy. The boy chokes on his tears and turns away. Eventually he falls back into sleep.
When he wakes up, I will have questions for him.
“They said we was only going to trade.” I can hear the boy’s whine as I trudge further into the desert and close so close to my quarry.
Who goes to trade with twelve men, armed with near obsolete starship cutters? Who goes to trade with empty pockets and sacks? Who goes to trade and comes back with bloody butcher’s knives?
These men, once twelve now five, did. Six lay their own bloody bones in Way Back. And one is a boy wounded and feverish on the edge of his own death. But left behind all the same.
I have come for the others. And the ragged bags they carry behind them. The bags look like ag surplus. Normally, strong enough to haul anything you want. But this cargo don’t want to be carried.
They’re down their car and half their friends and now it seems they’re about to lose one of the packanimals they brought from off-world when they landed. Well, I assume that’s what they’re yelling at each other about.
The big long necked plodder is lying on the ground stunned. It’s heart is stopping, poor thing.
I didn’t give them a chance to do more than yell. They dropped as surely as the packbeast. Electric charges leaping from the swirling drones surrounding us all. Herding them in a close circle with me at the center.
They cursed and spat and vomited on the sandstorm rippled ground and I stared them down. Tired and wasted as the boy, eyes dark with surprise or hate or confusion. As if it mattered to me.
One stayed conscious long enough to spit at me.
“Fucking animals.” He fumbled for the blast gun across his chest. Even got it aimed up at me before it too sparked and died.
Tiere eats up offworld tech and then offworld blood and bone. They must have found an old sealed stash from landing. Decided to come to our side of the desolation to take what they wanted.
I walk past the stupid man still scrabbling for something anything to stop me with. Their haul sacks have spilled out onto the dust. Ripped open by their fall or by providence. What was inside is bloody red and bone white against the sand, and pulsing like a lighthouse.
A click behind me makes me turn. The last man is standing, teeth gritted and bloody, but standing still. Drones must have been low on juice or maybe he has a heart like a sand courser. Point is, he has the barrel of a gun pointed straight at me.
Its quivering, but his voice is steady enough when he asks me, “Why are you fucking people so hard to kill?”
In the rising storm, I hear the sound of clinking bones in the wind.
“It shouldn’t have taken so many of us to take one stupid village!” There is blood dripping from his mouth but that gun is steady steady.
“We’re at Landing fucking starving, and you freaks are just sitting pretty. No real walls. No army. But you got food. And you got land that doesn’t fucking turn everything to dust.”
“Doesn’t seem fair. Doesn’t seem right.”
You in trouble, babygirl?
“We paid good money to come here! And the fucking planet is half dead.” He cocks one wild eye at me, as if I personally salted the planet in anticipation of him and his. “Except what you got. Somehow you all got the good stuff.”
“I see. And you know how.”
He laughs, manic full of teeth and pain.
“Oh yes. Got one of your traveling men. He told us. Squeeeealed.”
Gyal. This boy a few rows short of a field.
I ignore my god. I only see the gun. Can only see the gun.
I’ve seen it almost every day of my life. Sitting on my manman’s hip. A lawman’s piece. Coded to her hand, it can only be shot by her.
He has my manman’s gun.
I slash my knife down the length of my arm and pull myself into the pulse of bones spilling behind me as my blood rushes to meet them.
Reality breaks open as the ground shudders up and swallows us all.
Gods are memory. Blood is memory. The earth remembers all.
I am Tiere and myself.
We are the restless chain of gods and the robbers of bones. Us/I/they/we witness the end of the world.
Death comes from without, hovering above. (Five grams of hetratrichloridrofane sulfidomate injected into a self-replicating carbon-nitrogen matrix. We learned the formula in sixth form ...) The matrix is placed within a caged hydrogen reaction and encapsulated in a thin film of imaginary numbers and dropped into my atmosphere. (It burns. It burns worse than anything I/we/theeey? have ever felt.)
In “real” space it is the size of a child’s fist. (In the plane of history, it is a long chain dangling back into the irrigated lanes of abandoned forests left bare by plague. It is a harbinger of ships with white masts at the horizon. It is the weight of a boot and sharp shunk of a bayonet into flesh.)
(This is the first half. I know I know what comes next please please no. Let me go. LET ME GO!) What is this strange intruder? This is no rock and ice traveler, to break apart in my air and kiss my surface. What is this? (Terraforming … copyrighted by the Ng-Barrenweiss Multigalactic Corporation two hundred Earth Standard years … I’M SORRY! I’M SO SO SORRY!)
A crimson pearl, wrapped in a shimmering caul of fire that separates its dimensions from ours and from and every living thing it touches until the reaction at its core runs itself dry. It pierces through the lower atmosphere. Where it explodes.
(“Your world, your way.” “WE build a better planet!” The quicker planet fixer-upper! IT WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE LIKE THIS.)
From the ground, the world ends with a slash. A stab. A shiv. The capsule was preceded some days ago by a sonic drill. Alloy, organic material, nothing nothing to to to worry about? (It is a machine, now mass produced by a subsidiary of the Deere company, around the size of a tall human.) It is heavy, core heavy. (Which is perfectly fine, as it is meant to go down.)
(I SAID STOP! I WANT TO GET …)
As the red pearl sizzles and burns it’s way through air, the drill begins to dig. It is a broken bone, rotting teeth shattered at the gum bloody pain. (WHAT ARE YOU DOING?) It is in me. In me. In me. In me. There is within and without. HOW HAS THIS GOTTEN HERE. Core belly fire. Heart soulstuff starsparked. Kill it. Kill it everything until the pain stops. NO. (It is here, that the drill turns into a bomb. Letting off an combination thermal and electromagnetic pulse that disrupts the magnetic field of the planet.)
(The plates of the earth buckle up, releasing fire. The pearl touches earth. Its thin veil of containment shimmers and disappears, and it too explodes. Like the spores of a ripe fungus, the air is seeded with millions of matrices, painting the sky pink, as if with millions of flowers. The air is bent with thunder and it begins to rain a mixture so toxic that it rearranges the very strands of matter it touches.)
(“AN EDEN-EDEN-EDEN-EDEN-E-E-E-E-EDEN FOR FOR EVERYONE!”)
(This process is called Endometrial Geo-destabilization. The earth sheds its deepest skin and is reformed according to the designers’ instructions.)
(That is what had always happened, before.)
no. no. NO. NO. NEVER.
(This time, the earth fought back. And when we, the People, arrived in our sleepships, it was to a geological toxic waste disaster. The soul of the planet was dying, and with it the soul and the air and the water. And soon after, we died too. With our lungs clogged by grey ash and desert sand and bellies hungry and empty as the space where the earth’s center used to be.)
(BUT YOU KNOW WHAT HAPPENED NEXT, LITTLE THIEF. LITTLE SNEAK. SOMEONE HAS TOLD YOU. OR PERHAPS YOU PERSUADED THEM IN YOUR GREY DOGGISH WAYS, EH? DO YOU HAVE THEIR BONES TOO?)
There was someone.
At first I could not hear.
But she called me over and over and oh the voice was many voices I had never heard such a thing in all my dreamings.
(Grandmother L’tasha, may her memory last as long as the People. The Engineer of Souls. Bridge the gap at the heart of the world with the ropes of our DNA. Adaptation/translation, billions of constructs rewriting our base code. Blood and bone. Where you sleep, I will sleep. Where you go, I will go. Whatever you become, I will become with you.)
(Where we were buried, where our blood falls and is consecrated, Tiere is reborn.)
YOU WILL NOT STEAL US.
The morning the Grey Dogs came to Way Back to raid, I was already out of the house. Farther than I’d ever gone before. Staring at a horizon that I thought was my only hope for a future. I spent most my days it seemed, being eaten up by a fox named Far From Here. So I left the little house, as far as I could get, to get a little touch of what I fiended for.
So I wasn’t where Manman expected me to be. She couldn’t find me at all.
I tried to be a good girl, and could not.
She tried to find me, and died.
I look up at the souls released around me and think. Me too. Please, take me too. I feel myself begin to unspool from the spindle of my bones. Unraveling towards a light like Manman.
Something tugs me, pulls me back to my body shivering, to stare as the spirits of my people are given to the earth by their gods.
Until I am surrounded by silence and new fertile earth. And completely alone. Again with my dead.
Girl is that why you thought we came with you? To send your soul to the earth?
“I thought you were mad at me?” I pull up my specs, pawing away tears that fog up the glass and blur the night.
When I manage to look up at Long Legs, he is grinning at me.
That is the joy of being a parent doux doux, an infinite capacity to be angry and love you at the same time.
I send the boy back to Newholme on the surviving plodder. After the new earth rose, there was one left, happily chewing the crisp newborn prairie grass. He was quiet. Looking me over still too skinny and too pale, huddled under an extra saddle blanket.
“What are you all going to do?” He asked.
I knew he was talking about the People, and what his friends had done to us. His face was pinched with worry. I adjusted the buckles on his saddlebags. No use me sending him out into the desert to die after fixing him up.
But it was a good question.
“What would your people do, if it had been us come killing?” I ask back.
He turned away, as was his habit. I finished loading up the packbeast. I set a drone to roll along with it as a guide until it was near enough to home to make it the rest of the way itself.
As the beast began its plod away, the kid turned back at me. Face shaded by the cloth wrapped around his head to keep out the sand and dust.
“I’m sorry!” He yells from the back of the beast. Not quite strong enough to find my eyes when he says it.
I watched him leave, and then saddled up Minn to go in the opposite direction. Back home.
The moon rises higher in the sky, lengthening our shadows across the sand. Mine, Minn’s and Papa Bones.
You going de right way babygirl?
I hope so.