I barely recall how it used to be, before the Kus slashed open our sky—before their ships descended, battering the clouds with hurricanes and lightning. I remember the thunder and the majesty. And I remember the weeks of fire that followed: how the Kus stormships blasted our armies to impotence, and how their landfall burned New Beijing, Toronto, Albuquerque. But before that? Electricity, and solar walkways, and lazy Sunday mornings spent nestled in biococoon sheets that purred against us? After seven years, those memories are faded to dreams. They seem real only when a Kus comes close enough to touch—as this one has.
He sits across from me, a stone slab between us like a tabletop, in what used to be a mausoleum before thieves, human or Kus, shattered the crypts. The Kus's crocodile teeth are bloodied, flecked with gobbets of white and gray. The smell of his fresh meal ferments in the summer heat. That blood, that gristle were someone's child. The Kus eat their meat live. Before the image can ignite memory or panic, I force myself to examine the details of him. Observe, Kasandra. The old picnic bench creaks under his weight. Even for a Kus, he is huge. The bumpy, loose skin at his throat is the pale green of spring leaves. It hasn't yet darkened to full green-brown or begun to swell and dangle, so he is younger than the bulls who rule here—but old enough to wear the purple chest blazon and whip of a drover. Brawn, not brains. A young tough. He's traveled far from the nest. Why? To visit me, of course—the only attraction in this human cemetery. A sham fortune-teller.
Ah, but he doesn't know I'm shamming, or I'd be dead or braceleted. He thinks I'm a priest.
The bulls left us our religions; not from kindness, as some pretend to themselves, but to keep us docile—to tranquilize with hope. My mother's brand of snake-oil soothsaying passed the test, thanks to years on the best-seller lists. My con is a protected faith. That this Kus hasn't killed me tells me he thinks I can read his future.
I'll give him what he wants.
I shuffle the cards and ask the standard opening question in guttural pidgin Kusglish: "What's your name?"
A flash of green, a scrape of claw on stone, a slither of scales; before I can react, his hand is squeezing my throat. His fingers are surprisingly cool, ropes of muscle, but his breath is hot and meaty. Acidic, it stings my eyes. "No questions," he grunts.
I manage a hair of a nod. He lets go and settles back onto his bench. No questions. No give and take, no information to guide my deception. This will not end well, I realize. Without direction, anything I say will be wrong.
So adapt, Kasandra, as you always do. Ask his questions for him. I give him a name, this Kus who will kill me. Lord Jagged. Lord Jagged, why have you come? I shuffle the cards and consider. Because you have a problem. You're seeking your answers from a human, so you're desperate—if the Kus knew about your problem, it would go badly for you.
It must be a very big problem.
I turn the first card. The Butcher, in the suit of Blades. A smiling man in a bloodstained apron with a cleaver in his hand and ropes of sausages dangling from his neck like tumorous pearls; a double chin; a steaming soup pot behind him. A stolid card, workaday trudging, a willingness to dirty the hands to feed the family. But a card on a table is a dead thing. Inert. The "magic" my mother developed manifests when the card is activated.
I thumb it to stimulate memory receptors in the sensitive paint, and a tiny drama erupts from the card—finger-tall people replaying a scene, a scene dredged from my past. My gaunt, solemn father, a packager in the passagehouse, where the bioengineered pain-free cattle were raised then relieved of their borrowed lives. Gray-haired and craggy, he's crouching in our kitchen, turning a big knife this way and that while he talks to someone. I smell the smoky static in his white coat: nanotextile, bio-repellent. He was on his way to work, I remember. The image lacks audio, but I don't need to hear to know what he's explaining: that the blade is sharp. Dangerous. I know it because his unseen listener is me. My seventh birthday. I wanted to show what a big girl I was, so I'd decided to cut my hair. Dado's stolen knife had been heavy, and my head, without all that hair, had become strangely, feverishly light. He loved me, my dado. He never said a word about the mess I made of the hair (although Mother said plenty, to me and to Dado; ragged children don't sell books). The next day Dado took me to the passagehouse and began to teach me how animals think.
Lord Jagged seems fascinated by the projection. He stabs through it with a talon. "A human bull, but old," he says.
"You sound curious." I'm careful to make it not a question.
"Old Kus are cows."
I know this. Listening to the grunting chatter of our Kus overlords, we humans figured it out. In youth a Kus fertilizes eggs in the nest. When his strength is past, his sex changes; she then spends years laying eggs into the nest, and remains female until she dies. The slave-powered stormships carried eggs. Lord Jagged hasn't yet fertilized his first eggs, or his dewlap would have darkened. I wonder how young he is. The Kus grow so much faster than we do. He's old enough to have seen old men before, surely, since he's old enough to carry a whip.
"There are old man priests," I remind him. "There are old man workers at the nest. You see old men every day."
"Not with knives," he says. The words glint.
Danger. "The knife isn't important," I lie. "What's important in the card is the pot in the background. A soup pot. This card is called the Cook."
"What does the Cook mean?"
What have you told me, Lord Jagged? That he's willing to offer information to a human. That he's willing to question a human without using that whip at his belt. That he's had sufficient conversation with humans to understand some religion. Humans and Kus—whatever his issue, it has to do with the fact that he doesn't see us as quite the animals the rest of the bulls do.
"Soup is a mixture," I tell him. "The card means that things usually separated have become mixed together."
"Does it say what things have mixed?"
He doesn't ask simply, "What things?" Why not? Because Lord Jagged already knows what things, and they're not merely his race and mine, coexisting on this conquered Earth. No. This is something personal. Something intimate.
He's hiding. He's deceiving. I'm surprised. The Kus don't lie. They fight for dominance, they growl, they posture, but they smell, taste, and wrestle, too—they mark territory—and those make it hard to lie. "The card says it's a secret," I say. "That's why the soup pot's in the background. I need another card to see whether the secret's safe."
I quickly turn a second card, another Blade: the Surgeon. Steel room, white lights, an androgynous figure swaddled in blue anti-infect cloth, squinting down at a patient's mountainous swell of belly. The navel is a painted eye among a web of purple markings—dashed lines and arrows, a map for incisions. In the surgeon's left hand is an upright scalpel. In the right hand, outstretched, three red wasps.
Exploration. Hidden rot. Cancer. Tearing away layers, exposing malign motives. Excision. Poison.
I thumb the card, and bite back a scream when I see what image it tears from my memory. The diener, the morgue assistant, in a filthy hospital basement, with a one-handed grip on a monstrous curved saw longer than his forearm. A pruning saw. His free hand clutches someone's wrist on the steel table; the rest of the body is out of view. Those dead stubby fingers, so familiar: the little scars in the meat of the thumb, from an old rat bite. The nails chewed to the quick. The slave bracelet. The antique wedding ring that matched the one I'd traded the week before. My husband, Andry, the day after his avoidable death, and Why didn't you avoid it, Andry, after everything else that happened?
Lord Jagged watches me. The Kus have a hundred kinds of stillness: the stillness of prey, the stillness of waiting. The long stillness of basking, of relaxation, when the sun warms and the mouth hangs open. Lord Jagged's mouth is tightly closed.
When he finally speaks, his voice is a sandpaper rumble, full of disgust. "Hope, you women say. Courage. This man will allow his hand to be severed so the bracelet may be removed. But he will remain a slave. No Kus would cut off a hand to steal false freedom. That's an action of animals. A fox in a trap."
His disdain sharpens my response. "He's not cutting the hand to get the bracelet off." He wasn't cutting the hand at all. Bitterness, even after three years; I thought the pain was buried with Andry.
The diener, scarecrow thin, whispering. Kasandra, it's the only way. After what Andry did, the Kus will burn down any hospital that treated him. They'll pay food for information. If we don't take it ourselves, somebody will sell us out. Please. He's already dead. I gave the diener permission to take Andry's head to the Kus to prove his death. To trade it for supplies.
Lord Jagged leans across the table. He presses a claw up into the soft flesh under my jaw. One claw, pinprick sharp, a warning against my anger. The Kus eat their meat live. Hot blood trickles down my neck. I lower my gaze. Lord Jagged settles back on his bench. "Why is he cutting it?" he asks.
What have you told me, Lord Jagged? "You women say hope." Not cows, but women. So Lord Jagged has talked with a human woman, and not simply to give a brisk order to an animal slave, "Clean that" or "Dig here." Jagged and his woman talked about hope. "False freedom." Did they perhaps discuss escape? Human escape? Treason, for a Kus. Death for the woman, certainly. Something slow; fire and entrails. "He's holding the hand for comfort, not violence. It's a woman's hand. The card is the Midwife. The shears are for the birth cord. See the swollen belly on the card? A midwife is a human who helps human women deliver their young."
"I know what a midwife is," he snaps. "So the secret is safe? What about the woman?"
"The woman is in danger," I tell him. "These are surgical diagrams; something's gone wrong, for surgery to be required. Look at the eye where the navel should be. Hidden knowledge. And look how big the saw is. Enormous, much too big for just a birth cord. When the belly is cut, the knowledge will be laid bare."
"But what if the child is already born?"
A child already born? Whose child? When? But I can't ask, can I? I can't dig, I can't question. I flip another card.
The Digger in the desert, kneeling in red dust over a shallow trench filled with half-buried animal bones. His Blade is a scraper, applied to a draconic wing bone. Huddled over his excavation, he doesn't realize that his sunburned neck has blistered. Nearby, a water bottle tipped over and empty. Behind him, a trail of footprints that lead across the vastness and over a distant red dune.
Obsession. A narrow perspective. Action taken too late. Oblivion, with disastrous consequences. Denial. Looking downward, while death impends unnoticed.
I thought the cards could pull no more painful memory from me than the day I surrendered Andry's body to mutilation. I was wrong. The image that blossoms is a grave digger in filthy overalls, streams of rain like veins on his scabrous skin, a shag of beard, defeated eyes. He stabs his shovel into the dirt, again, again. Take my wedding ring, it's all I can give you, and he took it from me and buried her, our bright Holly, fourteen, just a child, savaged by a Kus drover who caught her out after curfew. Andry went after her and knifed the Kus with its snout in her belly, killed it, but not before its claws raked him throat to hip, giving him the wounds that would fester and kill him, too, a scant week later.
"The card," growls Lord Jagged, interrupting my pain and should-have-dones.
I can't do it anymore. I can't think so hard, so fast all the time, whipped by guilt and terror as I fumble for just the right lie. We humans who prided ourselves on dominance have been utterly dominated. We've lost our predator's innocence. I'm finished.
I tell Lord Jagged the unadorned truth.
"My daughter was ten when you came, just a child. This man you see, he buried her. If she'd lived, she'd be seventeen now, a young woman, kissing young men, having fun. If these were human times."
"Seventeen is adult?"
"It used to be." I'm too tired to bother looking away.
Stillness. Then he surprises me with a truth of his own. "We challenge our bulls at fourteen, or when their thinking becomes inflexible." Acid words, sour and sharp. He's considering a challenge, I realize—a young Kus preparing for his run at rulership. He is fourteen, Lord Jagged. Fourteen!
But what has inspired his challenge? The woman; it must be the woman. No—not the woman. Her child. Lord Jagged mentioned a child already born. A child, in danger from the bulls. What would a bull Kus do with a human child? Eat him. No. Food humans are raised in the death houses in the next province; for Jagged to have been in contact with the woman, she must be local. A house slave, or a tradeswoman, or one of the others, the ones who are held separately for implantation into the neural navigation systems of the stormships, nerves to wire, bone to metal. Yes. That's it. A child held for the stormships.
"You love a child," I say, making the words gentle. "And the child is going away."
"Kus hatchlings are reared separately from one another. I was raised with a human baby. Maya. The bull told me yesterday. Maya will be implanted in a stormship, and I will remain here in the province."
This is his secret, then: that he loves this little girl. He sounds upset, Lord Jagged. The Kus subjugate, they implant, then they blast the stormships skyward—launch technologies that burn whole cities to ash. The ships travel. The slaves die. The Kus find new races, new slaves. New fuel. In the ships' wake, a thousand subject islands: the provinces of Kus, like Earth is. It was inevitable for Earth that the Kus would come. Dominance invites competition.
What have you told me, Lord Jagged? The most tragic thing of all. You Kus arrived only seven years ago. If you were raised with a human baby, you must have been an egg. You're not fourteen.
Me at seven, with Dado's knife—everything was life or death, love or bright despair. Holly at seven, with her doll and her swing and her over-the-shoulder gap-toothed grin. Lord Jagged is a baby, for all his body is grown.
But his mind has been altered by contact with us.
What are you telling me, Lord Kus? That if one of you can be altered, more can be. That we can change you, if we fight our terror, if we're thoughtful and watchful and clever. We can't challenge you, but we can change you. It will take time.
"The cards," I say. "The Cook, the Midwife, the Digger. You and Maya, the secret revealed, your death. You're too young to challenge, my lord. If you fight the chief bull now, you'll be slaughtered, and Maya will be implanted anyway. But there's another way."
"What way?" The words are quick, anxious. Desperate.
"Steal Maya. Bring her here. I'll hide her, I'll lie and say she's my daughter. I'll teach her the cards. She'll be protected. A priestess. You can come as often as you want—come every day, if you want. I'll keep her safe for you. And you keep us safe from them."
I can do it, I think. I think I can stand the pain, the memory of Holly, of Andry. I can teach this girl to read the cards while we make Lord Jagged human. I can get word to others—the priests, the slaves, the ones who come here to worship. Let Earth become a backwater Kus province, unattended and unimportant, while we study. While we spy. While we work our implanting, bone to metal, culture to culture.
Maybe the Kus are right and these cards aren't a sham. I imagine our future so clearly: Maya and Lord Jagged, seven years old, eight, twelve, my children, just two of many on this Kus Earth. When Lord Jagged is fourteen, he'll win his challenge, because I'll teach him how.
You and I, Dado. You and I, Andry. You and I, Holly. We'll teach Lord Jagged; we'll infect his Kusness with our humanity.
Lord Jagged is looking at me. I wait in stillness for his answer. When it comes, he sounds young, so young. My boy. "I'll do it."
I'm glad. "There shouldn't be secrets between us," I say. "What's your name?"
He tells me.