by Sally McBride
Kat’s ears were wrapped around his head so tightly that it looked like a fist. He lay, a small purple ball of terror, just out of reach. I couldn’t get to him. Reason: my hands were bound together by a crotchety old cord that hissed angrily as I tried to stretch my body toward Kat. To add insult to injury, there was an ordinary metal—metal—chain attaching my ankle to a wall. A cold stone wall, doing its bit to form a neat cube of incarceration.
“Kat! Wake up!” My troucat had retreated to an instinctive lock-down state, just when I needed his help, drat it. I would have gnawed through the cord but for three things: it would taste awful, it would melt my teeth, and I’d get in trouble with my Clan. No unauthorized tampering with bios.
A loop of electrical reactant high overhead emitted fitful yellow light, enough to reveal the seeping walls and the noxious hole meant for necessary bodily functions. I shuddered.
I’m a Retriever, Hunter Clan Grey. Kat and I are partners, bio and human. Events in the immediate past of our missions get spooled out backwards, and I don’t remember them. Kat remembers everything, somewhere in his teeny round head. So, the misfortune or miscalculation that had got us here was unavailable to me… but I could deduce the gist: Surprised, grabbed, tossed into dungeon. At least I knew where I was: somewhere in the east quarter of Nagala City’s nether regions.
Retrievers are never given complete intel, in case of being caught just like this, but I did know my quarry must be close.
One problem: I didn’t know what that quarry was, exactly. Kat did, but he was curled up and unresponsive. Okay, one other problem: we were stuck in a cell.
So, I didn’t know what we were to Retrieve, but I did remember this: Revenbrook Karel lived in Nagala City. It was his uncle Quel’s stronghold, after all. Ah, Rev… I thought I’d got him out of my system long ago.
Revenbrook Karel, now Chief Circ-haut of Nagala City, had been playmate, friend, and more, until I’d been farmed out to Clan Grey after my parents’ bones were found on Dragon-tail Ridge. Rev’s uncle Quel had been the one to persuade the family that Clan life was better for me than moping around House Karel. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, to everyone but me.
Soon Rev would find out I was here. Then what?
The rhythmic thud of a pump sounded from somewhere below, accompanied by random groans and wheezes, whether animal, bio or mechanical I couldn’t tell. The exhaust fumes indicated mechanical. Some new-fangled contraption that someone had thought was a good idea. How stupid could people be? Wasn’t it obvious that bios were on this world for a reason, and that reason was to do the work? Or in some cases, to become a partner in crime… I thought I saw Kat twitch a little, but then he subsided with a tiny, wheezing sigh.
My slide into self-pity was interrupted by metal rasping against metal. With a shriek of hinges the cell door swung wide. Harsh artificial light spilled in… and there he was.
Revenbrook Karel, pretty much filling the doorway.
“About time,” I snapped, wiping my eyes.
He looked windblown, as if he’d been riding recently. The sweaty tang of cheval came with him, and a welcome whiff of fresh, cool air.
“Mag Grey-Hunter, as I live and breathe,” he drawled, giving me the once-over. “Just as pretty as ever.”
It was Magdalena, drat it, not the diminutive Mag. “Well, Rev, I see you’ve risen in the ranks. Good for you.”
His face was thinner than I remembered, the downy whiskers of youth replaced by bristly three-day stubble. Dark blond to match his hair. His body had firmed up since I’d last seen him.
He crouched beside me. “You were found near my archive vaults. Explain.”
“Archive vaults? I don’t understand.”
That got me a harsh shaking.
“It’s my job,” I whined. “I’m a Retriever, in case you hadn’t noticed my troucat.”
“Oh, I noticed him. He will be squeezed dry when I get around to it. But, to save time, Mag, why don’t you tell me what you were sent to steal?”
“It’s not stealing, it’s Retrieving.” I tried a seductive shimmy to distract him.
“Stop that. You really don’t know what you’re doing. Tell me what you came here for.”
“Haven’t a clue.”
This time my head snapped back and my teeth clacked together. “You know how this works, don’t you?” I yelled. “My orders are inaccessible!”
What had I ever seen in him? Jerk. He dropped me and looked contemplatively at Kat.
Troucats aren’t actually felines, who, like us, originated on Ancient Earth. They’re bios—neither animal, vegetable, nor mineral. Similarities of size, flexibility, and furry coat make troucats vaguely resemble cats, but there it ends.
Mine, whom I had named Kat in a brilliant stroke of creativity, was a delicate shade of lavender fading to purple, and had legs jointed in four places, making him extraordinarily bendy. His strong, prehensile tail was a tapering length of dark purple. His feet were coated in tiny glass beads, reflective in certain lights. His big, leathery, flexible ears, which he used both to gather information and to protect his ganglia-node—as close as a troucat got to a brain—were purple too, fringed delicately with long wisps of silky cream tendrils.
All in all, Kat was a damn fine accessory. I was proud to be his human. Right now, he was completely useless either as partner or fashion statement.
Rev extended a hand as if to stroke Kat. “Hey! No touching!” I struggled, the cord hissed, and Rev went ahead and stroked anyway. Damn him!
He said, “Leaving now. Don’t go anywhere.” He smirked and sauntered out.
As soon as the door clanged shut, Kat came awake, sprang for me and clamped himself to my head. He was panting, and the pinpricks of his little claws dug into my scalp.
A flood of impressions shot from his consciousness into mine, like a flurry of torn and curling silver nitrate exposures. I picked up something… a big and scary thing hovering at the edge of his primitive reasoning. No idea if it was actually a physical item, or just a ball of fear in Kat’s mind. Whatever, it was our mission. Oh, joy.
He burrowed his little round head under my chin, pushing hard as if he meant to climb right into my heart. He lived there already.
The pump stopped, and the cell echoed with silence, except for intermittent mechanical groans. Was this whole awful place empty, but for Kat and me?
By all the Terran gods, how were we going to get out of here?
A demi-heur passed before footsteps approached. I barely had time to wipe my nose on my sleeve before Rev bounded in again. Kat’s eye gleamed in my peripheral vision.
Yeah, Kat’s eye. It’s really a kind of skin, as shiny as iridescent glass, running in a band of indigo from one side of his head to the other, ending in rakishly slanted lines over his ears. It makes him look as if he is wearing stylish mirror-glasses, like rich people wear to protect them from the insolent gaze of the unwashed. His eye receives and focuses varied types of light, and is a specialized variant of the reflective beads that coat his feet and tail.
I regarded Rev with as much hauteur as I could generate from the floor. He had changed his clothes and taken a bath. I envied him. His hair was still damp and he looked pink-cheeked… and kind of belligerent. He had brought with him a flexible leather container with a little door in one end, and air-holes in the top and sides. What the—!
“Oh, no you don’t! How dare you tamper with my bond-being?” The cord squeezed my wrists.
Rev ignored me and made kissy noises at Kat, while holding out a sliver of cheese. Kat hesitated for a split second, then grabbed the cheese and hopped from my shoulder right into the case without so much as a chirp of reluctance.
This was more than merely humiliating, it was betrayal.
The Circ-haut shut the case on Kat, turned, and cut my arms free. With a knife. Had I lost the threat factor already? I rubbed my wrists, watching the cord’s two pieces crawl to a corner to regenerate.
Next he produced a large iron key and undid my leg clamp. Immediately I lunged for the case where Kat was busy grooming, but Rev stepped between me and it and clasped me in his arms.
“Hm. I don’t remember you being so smelly. Or skinny. Perhaps I should take you out for a decent meal.”
I wrenched myself free. “What do you know about decency?”
“I mean it,” he said. “I can’t let you starve to death in here.”
“Fine! Drag me to some filthy stew-pot, I don’t care!”
“I shall. But first…”
He reached into the pouch on his hip and withdrew a collar and leash. The man was laden with handy equipment. He wound the collar around my neck, where it squirmed into place.
“Your troucat will be safe in his case,” claimed Rev, taking a couple of experimental yanks on my leash.
I gave him a sneer and led the way out of the cell, my head high. I felt a tingling prickle on the left side of my neck. It made me instinctively flinch to the right. He was trying to turn me like a draft animal. “Stop it! Just tell me which way to go!”
“What, you don’t know your way around here?”
I wished mightily that I did, but that knowledge was tucked in Kat’s brain too, along with a lot of other useful info that was set to unspool just before I needed it. I gritted my teeth and marched down a long corridor. It might be wise to play it smart and keep my big mouth shut.
Something rank tickled my nostrils, and my stomach lurched. Through a door, I spotted half-naked men and piles of filthy clothes, crammed around a big bubbly pool of water. A barracks bathhouse. My nose wrinkled and my eyes watered at the miasma of sweat and cheap soap, but the view was worth it.
My neck tingled sharply. “Eyes front!”
I bit back my initial response. The men noticed their commander with a captive, and after snapping to attention and saluting as one, began to hoot and holler.
“That’s a pretty little dog you have!”
The hoots changed to barking. The Circ-haut laughed, made a couple of cracks in a lower-caste patois that I was too embarrassed to decipher, and urged me up a series of stairways.
“You brought me this way on purpose!”
“Yes, but you can’t prove it.”
Mouth shut, right. At last we emerged onto a small landing partway up a tawny sandstone wall, which overlooked the vast central plaza of Nagala City. I dug in my heels as my eyes adjusted to the unaccustomed brilliance.
To the south, tall towers gleaming white in the sun indicated the wealthy residential and business enclaves; in the west beyond the perimeter wall was a hazy distance clotted with trees and glittering coils of the river. Out there, a few kilometers along the road to Corusca, was the Clan Grey stronghold, which at this rate I was never going to see again.
Below us, people, bios, animals and machines seethed in a mosaic of activity.
Screeching caged ratocets, piles of bright fruit and bolts of cloth, fluttering racks of sports pennants and trinkets. A man demonstrating a coughing, smoking motor-cule to a clutch of potential buyers. Quite a few crackpots thought that machines could do the work of bios, and that they could make money selling them.
Hot-oil smells of cooking, exhaust fumes and the scent of animal dung wafted upward. The sun beat down, removing the last of the cell’s damp chill from my bones.
“Starting to look familiar?” sneered Rev, prodding me down the stone steps to an eatery with outdoor tables.
Not surprisingly, we found seats easily. Apparently no one wanted to eat lunch next to a local Circ-haut and his snarling companion. Was he parading me around in public just to humiliate me? Did he have some stupid plan in the works, with me merely being a prop? I sat straight in the sun-warm metal chair, and glared around, teeth bared. People started to settle up their bills and leave.
Rev ordered for both of us, since the servitors were ignoring me… yet, if Kat had been upon my shoulder, I would have had royal treatment. Little ingrate, snoozing in his cozy box.
I needed to check his brain without Rev listening in. Contact with Kat’s body gave me the part of his consciousness that operated his own life—his emotions, survival, ability to follow instructions, his own free will. But to retrieve mission info? I needed more than that.
Rev was surveying his surroundings, basking in the glances of women and quite a few men. All of them wondering what he was doing with me.
Snidely, I remarked, “You actually eat here? You do understand that they cook ratocets and call them chicken?”
“Doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I’m a soldier.” A pause. “So… how do you know what they serve? Been here before, have you?”
I blinked. Had I been here? Maybe with him and his mom and dad, long ago? Or even with my own parents, long dead now? Another fact shunted to Kat’s ganglia. As I thought about it, battling a sense of permanent deja-vu, a shadow loomed overhead.
A cargo ship, approaching dock. Her big bloodshot eyes darted here and there, checking clearances and searching for contact points. She moved ponderously, her vast belly pregnant with grape-like clusters of bomb-buds, looking very close to ripe. They’d be offloaded to harden in Nagala City’s nurseries. I could hear the airship’s chuffing breath as her bellows opened and closed.
Our food arrived. Ratocet or not, Rev and I got on the outside of a remarkable quantity of fried meat-morsels and chunks of bread. I tucked a few items in my pockets for Kat. After a while we both slowed down, sat back, and contemplated one another.
“So,” he said. Pause. “Why are you really here? And why now?”
“Now?” I shrugged. “Beats me.”
His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Don’t you pay any attention to the ‘scriers?” The airship let out an enormous fart as her gasses vented, fortunately upward into the vast sky. Along with everyone else, we ignored her politely. The big ladies had feelings.
“No, I do not pay attention to news-criers, broadsheets, or slogans painted on the sides of taverns. I have better things to do.”
He gritted his teeth. “And those better things might be…?”
“I told you I don’t know!” Something brushed my ankle and I stifled a shriek—some of the vermin around here have poison sacs in their mouths. I yanked my feet up onto the chair and looked down. A scrawny grey bio was staring imploringly up at me. At least I assumed it was imploring. Maybe derisive, or admonitory; who knew? One of his ears was torn and seeping, and he was trembling.
“Hey, are you scared, little fella?” I cooed, holding out a scrap of food.
Rev slapped my hand away. “Don’t feed it! You’ll never get rid of it!”
“Why would I want to get rid of him? Come on, come to Maggie…”
The little bio stepped closer, but then the diners at the next table began to shoo him away. “It’s a wild bio! Get that thing out of here!” One man balled up a lump of bread and threw it at the bio’s head. He caught it neatly and gulped it down. “Hey!” The man tried again with an empty cup, but missed. “G’wan, ya filthy parasite!”
Pretty soon there was a scrum of people kicking at the bio, which dodged in and out of table legs, squeaking. I reached down, grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and crammed him under my shirt, hoping he didn’t have fleas. “Come on, Rev, we’re out of here!”
Glaring at the cretins who’d tried to kill the little bio, stifling a yelp as his sharp claws pricked my stomach, I marched out of the café.
Rev, holding my leash, hustled me through a narrow alley to a secluded nook, the kind usually frequented by lovers or spies.
He looked from side to side, behind him, and above. No one was with us but dead leaves and pigeon droppings. He said, “Mag, are you going to get rid of that thing?”
“No. I like him. And he likes me.”
The bio had popped his head out of my shirt and was looking around, sunlight glinting off his shiny eye. “You don’t wanna go, do you, little guy?” He hopped out of my shirt and onto the ground. In seconds, he was gone.
“Drat! I wanted to look at that torn ear.”
“I didn’t know you were so soft hearted.”
I crossed my arms and pouted. I really like bios, unlike some people.
Rev sighed. “Okay, let me fill you in on current events. You must be aware that my uncle, Trent-haut Quel Naroo, has been taken hostage in Arderia.”
His uncle Quel, who had killed Rev’s father Lars a couple of years ago. And somehow made Rev’s mother disappear. Right. That much was coming back to me. “Uh… nope. Taken hostage, huh? Where’s Arderia?”
“Really?” He began to tear at his thumbnail with his teeth, noticed he was doing it and stopped. “Look, I’m sorry about the collar. It’s for two reasons—one, to keep you from vanishing again. Two, to display the fact that, despite Trent-haut Quel’s situation, things here are under control. Spies and Retrievers aren’t just running around loose on my watch. At least, not a lot of them.”
There were more of us in town? Why did I not know that?
His thumb crept towards his mouth again, and I felt a sudden ridiculously maternal flood of… love. Completely unexpected.
Really thought I was over it. I grabbed his hand. “What’s this Trent-haut Quel to you anyway? He got himself captured, so what?”
He yanked his hand back. “You’re really going to pretend you don’t know?”
I sighed. “Why don’t you tell me what the problem is, Rev?”
“The problem is that everyone thinks I arranged it.”
“And didn’t you?”
He glared at me. “There are certain people who want to pin it on me.” He rubbed his forehead. “Do they actually think I want to be Trent-haut?”
“So you don’t want ultimate power over the district of Nagala-sur-mer?”
“You know, you were always an annoying brat. It’s good to know some things never change. Let’s get out of here.”
We exited the cul-de-sac into the bustling streets. I caught sight of a slinking form and hoped it might be the bio, but it was just a matted and angry looking doggish herding a flock of geese. He glanced at me suspiciously and mumbled a curse before urging his charges along. The fact that I wore a collar and the doggish didn’t really pissed me off.
“Where are you dragging me now?” I asked grumpily. “For some nice crumble cake with caramel sauce? I could sure go for some crumble cake with—ow!”
“Shut up. I’m taking you back to your cell.”
“So, no cake. You know, I’m less than impressed with the quality of—”
He yanked at my leash, making me lose balance and stumble into him. He bent my head back by pulling my hair, and kissed me. Hard. After a few moments, I came to my senses and tried to knee him in the groin, but he dodged adroitly.
I put a hand to my lips. “What was that about?”
“Only way to shut you up.”
I felt dizzy. “Well, don’t do it again!” Until, I thought, I’ve had a bath and changed into something other than filthy pants and tunic…
We wended our way back to the bowels of Nagala City’s governmental block. “My troucat had better be untouched,” I threatened as he pushed me into my familiar cell. “If anyone has tried to interrogate him, the full weight of Clan Grey will come down on you like, like…”
“Right, a ton of ox manure, whatever. No one has touched him. Clan Grey can relax.”
Could there be others like myself and Kat in Nagala City? Clan Grey had three teams, and the five other Clans probably twelve between them, all presumably busily at work swiping this and that. It stood to reason that the most espionage-worthy stuff would be here in the capital city. Something besides the Uncle Quel thing must be going on…
I felt Kat wake up. When I opened his case, he jumped up and cuddled into my neck. His thoughts were clearer now. Trivial, but clear. Where ya been? Didya bring me anything? Then he buried his snout in my chest. Hey, what’s that smell?
I gave him a quick view of the wild bio, which seemed to calm him down. Okay, if Kat didn’t care, why should I?
He still had our orders in his ganglia nodes, and the orders involved us penetrating the archive vaults and stealing something. No surprise. That’s what we did for a living. Proprietary information, genomes, samples, plans, seeds. But what, exactly? He seemed oddly evasive, and refused to look at me. I’m hungry! Ya got any food?
Kat, though gorgeous to look at, is kind of shallow. I dug some greasy nuggets out of my pocket and handed them over. He didn’t care where I’d been, or with whom, as long as I was back now. It was all about now for troucats.
“Kat. I need to know what I’m doing here.”
Kat’s tail was twitching and I could tell his eye was avoiding mine.
“Kat. I need to know.”
Kat hopped off my lap and settled on his haunches a few feet away, tucking his forefeet together primly. His eye’s focal point, a tiny specialized area behind the wide iridescent sheath, locked into the gels in my eyes. The gel-fish never went beyond egg stage, fortunately, at least after implanting. So far as the Clan doctors knew anyhow… Getting them installed had been a highlight of my budding career, a sign of true commitment.
Updates through Kat’s eye were fast and silent and impossible to intercept, but also could be insanely hard to understand. The gels supposedly sent data directly to my brain, eliminating the retinal middle man for immediate capture, but I still had a few training sessions to attend.
You know what I know, he sent. A ritual phrase. We must Retrieve blurrrrr.
“What? Retrieve what?” With a squint I focused the gels harder.
It was the visual equivalent of a garbled mutter. Where normally there would be a detailed, tidy image of what we were going after and exactly where it was, now floated a blank spot, like a fog-filled bubble.
“Come on, Kat, don’t be annoying.”
You know what I know. We must retrieve blurrrr.
“Argh! What is blurrrr?”
Kat looked away regally. He hated when I started to shout. He also hated being forced to disgorge the data in his nodes, for so often it meant he’d be accompanying me into danger. But this time it wasn’t fear I detected, but a sense of huge responsibility. In his node was the image of something he—we—had to do.
“Kat, if you are deliberately keeping necessary information from me, I’ll, I’ll…”
Kat had teeth. He showed them now. They were clear as crystal, needle-sharp, and multitudinous.
“Fine! Be that way!”
The sound of fast, heavy footsteps penetrated my anger. The cell door crashed open and Rev burst in, panting. He had a pack slung over one shoulder, and his belt was lavishly hung with two short-swords, a stunner, a coil of rope, and a pouch of… I don’t know. Soldier stuff.
“Get up!” he shouted. “We have to go!”
I didn’t move. “Go where, exactly?”
“Somewhere other than here. Now!” He reached down, picked me up with both hands and hustled me out of the cell. “Orders to take me dead or alive just went out. Come on!”
He put me down and began to stride back the way he’d come, obviously expecting me to follow him. Dead or alive?
To his retreating back, I said, “You don’t really need me along, do you? I mean, I could just tell people you went the other way, or something.” This was my opportunity. Kat and I could get back to business. Rev could take care of himself.
He turned and strode back, muttering under his breath. This time his grip was painful. “You are coming with me.”
“Ow! Why didn’t you just say so—” I made a grab for his short-sword.
“Quit that! Can you just be quiet and follow orders?”
“You’re the one shouting. Plus, I’m not one of your soldiers.”
Kat’s tail went around my neck and tightened. I gasped and stumbled, earning a curse and a yank. “Can’t… breathe…”
Rev tried to pry Kat’s tail away, but got an open-paw swat across the cheek for his trouble. Three thin lines of blood sprang forth. “What’s wrong with that blasted thing?”
“Ack! Don’t… know…”
But then I did. We are going the wrong way. We had to go down, not up; not leave the dungeons of Nagala and their quarantined archive vaults but penetrate them further. We had to carry out our mission.
“Our mission is over, Kat! We’ve been captured, understand?”
Eliminate male, carry out mission.
“Eliminate—no! Kat, we’re done, we’re getting out of here.”
I forbid it.
My body suddenly filled with something that felt like hot oil. It started at my feet and washed upward. I knew that if it got to my nostrils, I would be dead. This sort of ultimate mind control is a troucat’s last resort. For a moment I wondered if Kat had gone mad, or had been suborned by an enemy. But his intent was strong and clear.
“Rev? Ugh! Can’t… go with you. Have to carry out… mission.”
Rev kept prying at Kat’s tail. “I can’t leave you behind. Not after so long—”
I backed away, and Kat’s grip loosened a bit. I had an allegiance to my bio that superseded any I might once have held toward Rev. “You have to go,” I croaked. “I don’t have a death sentence on me. Scoot. I’ll be all right.”
Shouting sounded from above, and Rev clenched his teeth. He muttered, “I get it. That creature is ordering you around. You could just ditch him, you know, and come with me.” He held out a hand.
“Never.” Kat’s tail loosened some more. The oil receded.
“Okay. You leave me no choice.” He grabbed my hand and hustled us along the corridor toward the stairs leading down. Down!
Gasping for much-needed air, I said, “You don’t have to do this! I can—”
“I’m sure you can, it’s a question of may. You may not get out of my sight.”
The stairs were dark and slimy, and we had to grope our way down, the air getting more and more noxious. But the sounds of the hunt receded. No one would expect the disgraced Circ-haut to head for the lowest levels of the dungeons, would they?
“Just what is this mission, anyway?” he asked.
“Like I would know.”
“Oh, great. It’s in that ridiculous creature’s head. You need to find out, and fast.”
“What a great idea. Why it didn’t occur to me I’ll never—”
“Shut up!” He pushed me ahead of him into a tiny room containing a lot of dust, a small table holding sharp metal devices, and a skeleton hanging from chains.
“What under the stars goes on down here?” I asked, appalled.
“In here? Nothing. It’s for show.” He pulled the heavy door shut. “Well, the skeleton is real, but we got it from the teaching hospital in Corusca.” He turned to me. “Okay, we’re safe for a minute or two. Get that thing to spill it.”
The time for evasion was past. Besides, I was miffed at Kat too. “I’ll try.” I unwound him from my neck and rested my forehead against his eye patch. It was shiny but resilient, like a film of soft glass miraculously sewn to his head. Staring directly at his focal point, so close my eyes crossed, I sent him an urgent pulse of query/crisis/distress.
He should have maps in his nodes, alternative routes, code words for passage through checkpoints, everything I might need to Retrieve whatever it was.
Kat squirmed in my hands, but complied. Ah. I was starting to see it. I have always imagined that someday I would start to feel my gels hatch and grow like tadpoles inside my eyes. Gives me bad dreams. You know what I know. And I did. I could see our path, and knew which way to go. It was like a map suddenly illuminating.
And then I saw the thing we were here to find. Oh. My. Goodness.
Swallowing carefully, I put Kat back on my shoulder. Rev was looking at me as if I might know where God was. Perhaps I did.
“We need to go down three more levels.”
“There are only two more levels.”
“That’s what you think. Come on.”
We stood peering through translucent patches in the thick, sinewy membrane that stretched across a wide cell door. The membrane was a specialized bio meant to contain a dangerous lifeform, a sort of cocoon designed never to open. Ever. The stuff was tougher than anything mankind could construct, and it looked like it was stretched tight. Something very big and very not-human was in there.
Rev dumped his pack on the floor and squinted at the creature dimly viewable within the membrane. Not a nice simple scroll, or jewel, or magic calculating machine or something. A dratted bio.
“What is that thing?” he asked. “I had no idea anything was down here.”
It wasn’t moving. Kat hopped to position on my shoulder and began to lash his tail. I think he was smacking his lips. I could feel his emotions, and they had a this-is-it flavor. Now or never. “What next, Kat? That bio is locked up tight!”
He quivered on his hind legs for a second, then leapt off my shoulder to cling to the vertical surface of the membrane. The thing on the other side shuddered. It looked kind of grey and extremely large. I hoped it wasn’t planning which one of us to eat first as soon as it busted out.
Rev, watching Kat, exclaimed, “Hey! What’s he doing?” He stepped back, pulling me with him.
Kat’s mouth was pressed against the impermeable membrane of the bio-cell’s containment protocol, tearing it with his teeth.
But, impermeable. Right?
From Kat’s mouth squirted a fluid that ate away the membrane as if it were silky lingerie.
Kat had never told me about this little talent of his, this ability to excrete caustic spit. All those times he’d tenderly licked my face…
He must know what he was doing. Was this our mission? Retrieve a sample of the thing’s flesh and get it home to Clan Grey for study, or cloning, or whatever? We’d collected samples of bios before, but nothing this weird.
The membrane suddenly let go, splitting open like overcooked fish skin. A puff of fetid air blew out.
“Okay, Kat! Grab the sample and let’s go!”
All Kat had to do was get in close, find a tender spot and bite out a chunk. The chunk would remain safely in his esophageal pouch until it was delivered to the Clan’s proprietary archives, where its genome would be interpreted and utilized. I had a feeling that maybe this sample would yield something battle-ready.
Kat hopped up onto the grey slab that was the cell’s occupant.
But instead of nipping off a chunk, he placed his eye upon what I now could see was a smooth patch on the thing’s forelump. Couldn’t really call it a forehead.
Just like other bios, it had a sensory patch, though it looked rudimentary. But the two of them were communing.
Then, with a grinding scrape, like a sarcophagus being dragged across an ancient cathedral floor, the creature turned. It opened a set of tiny eyes in the wall of flesh below its patch. It looked at me. My heart gave a lurch.
Its eyes, all three of them, were small, beady and desperate. They flicked back and forth while some kind of palps or arms on its forequarters waved ineffectually. It looked pathetic. Not horrifying, or invincible, or even argumentative. Pathetic.
Kat hopped out of the cell wall and clung to a rocky outcropping at the huge bio’s eye level, whisking his tail and making cute little mewing sounds. The thing’s eyes turned toward Kat with the fervor of a captured princess onto her rescuer, and its little palps fluttered. I found myself biting back tears.
Oh, for God’s sake. “Kat! Get ‘er done!”
Rev had a sword in one hand and my elbow the other. I shook him off. The creature shrank back timidly, limited by clinging shreds of the membrane trying to re-form.
Rev barked, “Get your troucat under control, Mag, before that thing gets out!”
“Yeah, yeah…” I reached out a hand and touched the thing. It felt like warm concrete.
Kat and I had retrieved many items over the years and all the operations had gone without more than minor hitches. Some amusing, some not so much. He had never gone against explicit orders, either mine or the Clan’s. Kat was up to something.
The big lumpy critter—who I decided to name Critter—looked distantly related to some of the worker bios I’d seen around the countryside, slogging away at excavation or harvesting or whatever it was they did all day. It was much too big for the cell it occupied and might have burst through the membrane if the membrane weren’t insidiously tough.
Not as tough, apparently, as my little Kat.
It crossed my mind to wonder how long Critter had been in there. Had it started out small, gotten stuffed inside, then simply been forgotten?
“Kat, sweetie, we have to get going. Can you hurry it up please? Pretty please?”
Kat turned to me and snapped, Shut up.
“Why, you little—”
Critter turned some more, the heavy scraping sound shivering my bones. He, she, or it began to stretch out. Okay, she. Let’s call it she, babbled my brain. Those imploring little eyes….
She most closely resembled a tray piled high with greyish, overcooked meat, complete with bits of hide stuck on here and there. Nasty, yet somehow heart-rending. Was Kat adopting a pet?
Were we acquiring an asset, or a liability?
Critter’s blocky legs and feet, the first of several, stepped out of the cell. They met the ground with a crunch, and she hesitated, glancing fearfully at Kat, who seemed to be leading Critter toward the corridor.
“I’m not perfectly sure, but it looks like Kat wants this poor thing to accompany us.”
“Poor thing? Gah!” He grabbed his head with both hands. “What is wrong with me? Why am I even here?” Rhetorical questions, yet perfectly valid. “I’m going to scout for an exit that doesn’t lead us smack into my former colleagues. You three can either follow me, or not.”
He peeked around the anteroom’s doorway, then strode off into the darkness.
Critter assembled herself outside the cell, and began to glance around. I could swear the thing was curious. The meat slabs had conglomerated into a lengthy wall-like structure, studded with bony projections like a stone-lizard’s ancient skeleton, so large that it was forced to curl around the room’s perimeter. Her face, mostly a flat wall of grey with a hairy patch at the top, consisted of those three little eyes arrayed in a wide triangle, and the shiny patch Kat had used to commune with. If she had a mouth, it was somewhere else. I could hazard no guess as to what made her tick.
Kat hopped back onto my shoulder. I glared into his eye. “Please tell me all we’re doing is setting her free. We can go now, right?”
This is mission. Must deliver mission.
“We’re stealing the whole thing? How are we gonna do that? We’re stuck in the very bottom of the dungeon.”
Footsteps pounded along the corridor, rapidly getting closer. Rev burst in and whirled to face the narrow doorway. “They’re after me! Get back! I’ll fight them off as long as—”
Kat hissed, Critter twitched and suddenly there was a barrier of stony meat blocking the door.
The Circ-haut, deprived of his heroic fight, kicked at the barrier. “Great! Now we’re trapped!”
Kat jumped back and pressed his head against mine. A vision formed, like a tiny picture of the huge building we were in. It began to turn and shift nauseatingly, as if I were falling into the lower levels. Turned out there was yet another below this one, and I’ll bet no one but Kat—and whoever gave him his orders—knew about it.
But we were stuck in this small anteroom, nothing but the membrane-cell behind us, which even Critter hadn’t been able to escape, and a squad of well trained, money-hungry soldiers in front.
How were we supposed to reach the next level?
But wait—we were in possession of the planet’s craziest battering ram. “Kat! Critter can get us through this! Tell her what to do!”
There must be something final below us. We were about to find out. There was no other choice.
Going into the water was like falling off a tower, followed by the tower.
Not only did Critter blast through the anteroom floor with a few stomps of her feet, she seemed to have initiated demolition of the whole place. The huge hewn stones of the cell, the corridor—maybe the whole building—crumbled loose and plummeted close behind us into the river that washed the dark underbelly of Nagala City.
I had no idea what would become of the men outside the cell door… maybe they had run for it, screaming like new recruits.
Rev and I, with Kat clinging to my head, bobbed to the surface and let ourselves be carried along on the crest of the wave the falling rocks had produced.
Resonant rumbles and splashes sounded behind us. I found myself able to see, if dimly. The patches of luminescent algae placed years ago by the city planners had been at work, for a long, long time. A network of illumination arched overhead, like green-gold lace, intricate and glimmering, and it extended to within an arm’s length of the water’s surface all along the immense tunnel. The reason for the gap appeared. A thing rather like a giant pink eel, with a groping suction-mouth at the end, blundered its way upward and began nibbling at the algae’s fringe.
River worms. I could see them around me by the glow of their digestive tracts. My toes curled as I trod water, and I looked around, alarmed.
“Critter! Critter, where are you?”
Had she escaped her prison only to drown, or be eaten by worms? I sucked in a breath, ducked my head and looked underwater.
There on the bottom, about five arm-lengths down, trundled Critter. Apparently she lacked buoyancy. And lungs. Driven by the current, she bounced along looking up blearily. She was propelling herself with her stubby legs, like some kind of ancient Earth hipposaurus. I didn’t see any worms nearby. Also, I could swear she was a wee bit larger than before…
I raised my head and took a breath. Rev churned along beside me.
Doing the sidestroke, I puffed, “So, did you arrange your uncle’s capture?”
“Right about now I really wish I had.”
“I really wish you had killed the son of a bitch.”
“Ah, so it’s starting to come back to you.”
A pause while we forged along. There was nowhere to crawl ashore in the ancient tunnel.
“Good thing is,” panted Rev, “night’s coming. Maybe we won’t be spotted when we come out from under the buildings.”
“What about when Critter tries to walk up on shore? Even in the dark she’ll be pretty hard to miss.”
“Yeah. They’ll probably be after us with sight-hounds. They can spot an extra candle at an Aura’s birthday celebration,” said Rev. They didn’t just see light, they saw heat, and maybe politically incorrect thought waves too.
At last we reached the outfall—unfortunately nowhere near the perimeter gates of Nagala’s sprawling outskirts. We still had a long way to go. The water fled before us into the dark, with a pattern of reflections popping in as street lamps came awake.
The rusty remains of a long-ago security barrier provided a place to cling, and plan our next move. The sounds of the city filtered down from above: the bleating and whir of cars, shouting doggishes, a far-off chorus of sirens. The river ran in a channel cut by the First People and had been utilized as a conduit for detritus to rejoin its mother lode of muck for centuries, gradually being buried under human-built roads and buildings, along with other evidence of this world’s previous occupants. There were probably forgotten access points all over the place. It was a city on top of a city. Humans, moving in to the abandoned pile centuries ago, had never quite gotten around to mapping the whole thing.
My fingers were pruny. “Kat. What’s the plan?”
In answer, he leapt off my head onto the gate’s sagging hinges and scampered out of sight. My bond-being was reconnoitering. A good thing, except for the propensity of the city’s denizens to stroll in the cool air looking for booze and entertainment. Lots of eyes on the lookout for fun, or cute troucats. Or would the city be under lockdown by now?
I looked at Rev and he looked at me. His hair was plastered over his skull, and a bit of something brown clung to one cheek. He looked furious, bitter and very wet. I’m sure I looked about as bad.
Critter oozed her way above water nervously. Her tuft of hair appeared, then her patch, then her top eye. After taking a look at the two of us, she sank beneath the water again.
I couldn’t blame her. I’d thought I’d managed to forget Revenbrook Karel, yet here he was in the midst of my operation. Rev shouldn’t even be here, and he kept trying to take charge. I lifted my lip in a half-hearted snarl, and he blew out his cheeks.
“Don’t give me the stink-eye, little girl—I was only trying to help.”
“Well, we don’t need help. Why don’t you just swim back upriver and start paying people off, get yourself back in favor. That’s what you fancy-pants glorified bureaucrats do.”
“See, this is why I got rid of you last time.”
“Got rid of me? I escaped! It was hard! I had bruises for weeks.” I never should have gone to see him in the first place. Stupid, girlish longing had destroyed my brain. But I’d wanted to know if he still… loved me. Unfortunately, I’d been mistaken for a spy by his Uncle Quel, who, I found out later, had been in the midst of planning Lars’s assassination. How was I supposed to know? No one, including Rev, had seen it coming. Quel Naroo could give lessons in two-faced lying.
“I let you go! I went directly against orders, just for you!”
“Well, thanks a lot. I ended up right back where I started. At least you didn’t let me escape this time. We both got out by the skin of our teeth.”
He laughed hollowly. “Yeah, well, our tooth skin is wearing thin. Where’s that troucat of yours? Aren’t they supposed to stay close to their master?”
I snorted, liberating something chunky that had made it up my nose. “Are you kidding? In case you hadn’t noticed, Kat is in complete control.”
“Control of what? Critter? What is that thing, and where are we going with it?”
“We can trust Kat,” I proclaimed loyally. “He has a plan—”
Rev suddenly swatted at my forehead.
“Hey! What the—”
A small green point of light flashed across his shoulders to his chin, then zipped back to me. I crossed my eyes trying to see it.
Rev yanked me underwater. I clamped my mouth shut as we let the current take us. Just as I was about to panic and gasp water we burst to the surface, near the opposite shore.
Rev sucked in air. “Sight-hounds! They’ve found us.”
There was a bridge just ahead, and we made for its black shadow. “But sight-hounds just see, they don’t emit light!”
“Not as far as we know. New stuff is always being rolled out.” I recalled a statement he’d made once, long ago. I was a rebellious student, he an entitled, arrogant prince in the making. “Now that the cheval has been perfected,” he’d proclaimed grandly, “I don’t care if another bio ever comes along. If I ever…”
“If you ever what? Get to make the rules?” My voice had been tender with an overlay of snotty. That’s who I was.
“Huh. Well, if I do… we stop. We just stop with the constant development. Have you seen some of the things on sale lately?”
We had never really finished that argument. Clinging under the bridge, I peered around for more green dots. None so far. “But if they aren’t sight-hounds, then what’s doing that?”
There was a low chirp from above. Kat! A gust of relief warmed my extremities briefly, then I started to shiver. We crawled up on a rocky patch of shoreline where the bridge supports began. Kat chirped again. Come up.
“You got any towels? Some hot mulled wine? No? Then why should I come up?” This muttered as I scrambled up the bank as fast as I could, followed by Rev. I glanced back for Critter and spotted a tuft of damp hair, encrusted with flotsam. She was okay… and I hoped she wouldn’t decide to just keep going down the river. She’d probably never tasted freedom…
The green dot settled on the tuft.
“No!” I shouted. “Get down!” I started to toss rocks at Critter to make her sink out of sight. Instead she heaved herself higher, emitted an excited yawp—somehow—and started to emerge. It was a frightening sight, in two ways. One, she was crazy weird even by the standards of my world, and two, I feared for her safety. I realized the dots must be guidance for soldiers’ aim. Clever. Another military development, courtesy of the bio-mongers.
Any second now, a rain of cling-arrows would shower down on her and begin to burrow into her skin. Or husk or whatever.
But it didn’t. Critter galumphed eagerly up the steep incline and eventually piled herself in the middle of the road. Which was deserted. I realized why.
Flashes of angry orange light came from the northeast, flaring quickly, reflecting off the low clouds, followed closely by deep booms and echoing crashes.
Rev stood watching, a sword in his hand and a snarl on his lips. “Ha! It’s happening!”
“What’s happening? Did Critter do all that?”
“Of course not. The revolution has begun!” he crowed, pumping his sword in the air.
Kat bounded down from one of the boulevard’s fig trees to hop aboard my shoulder once more. I stroked him quickly but kept watching. “Is this about Uncle Quel?” One of the topmost spires of the central complex seemed to be sinking. Suddenly it peeled out of the sky and crumbled away. The familiar skyline was shifting fast.
Rev shrugged his shoulders, a smug grin upon his lips. “Maybe…”
“You said you didn’t arrange his capture!”
“And I didn’t. I ordered someone else to arrange his capture. But I don’t quite understand who’s doing the bombing…”
“Not revolutionaries? What would they be revolting against, exactly? Things are pretty good here.”
“You have no idea what’s been going on.” Rev eyed the pyrotechnics, frowning. “This wasn’t supposed to happen, not so soon… and destruction was to be kept to a minimum.”
“Whatever. Best laid plans. Listen, if you have a strategy that doesn’t involve me, you should implement it now. I am out of here. Critter, Kat, let’s go.”
Rev, obviously torn between a desire to join the fight and an atavistic urge to protect me, took only a few seconds to make a decision. He gave me a jaunty salute, grinned like a maniac, and galloped off toward the explosions.
“Should have seen that coming,” I muttered to myself. “Okay, Kat, where to?”
Another map appeared in my head. The funny thing about some of the memories Kat doles out to me is that they seem to have always been there. I know they have just popped in, but they… have a history. It’s kind of like what philosophers yammer on about. What if our world constantly remakes itself? What if each time someone takes one path instead of another, the world reshuffles? And no one knows the difference, no one suspects…
I’d never paid much attention to oldsters shouting on street corners. If we never know or suspect, then who cares?
Looked like we were to follow a backstreet route to a section of the city wall that was under renovation. Half torn down or not, it would still be hard to get past, what with a revolution in progress. But it gave us a better chance than marching naively to a designated gate and requesting exit.
Kat and I, with Critter scraping along as quietly as she could, crossed the main street, down into a trash-littered ravine, and up again to a low-rent residential district. People were leaning out windows watching the destruction, paying no attention to ground level, fortunately. A few alert citizens were already loading up their vehicles and leaving.
From there, it was a series of dark, narrow twists and turns. Fortunately Critter turned out to be flexible when she stretched out, like a giant caterpillar.
The construction zone was deserted. Kat jittered on my shoulder, emitting threads of emotion. Little twirls of apprehension, with a background chorus of hard determination. Like a production of “The Swan Princess” done by soldiers. Not believable.
We peered from behind a construction shack, scanning the large laydown area, currently studded with piles of material and ranks of heavy equipment. The largest of these, which looked like a multi-purpose truck, shook itself, turned its observation turret 180 degrees and looked at us. The ground began to shudder as it fired up its internal digestive engines.
I have never encountered a piece of construction equipment that scared me. Until now. High atop the truck’s turret perched an ominous crouched figure, with an eye that glowed brilliant green.
I suddenly had a dot right in the middle of my chest.
Okay. It was just a guide dot. Calm down. But… could this be the Admiral of the Bios? The General of a rag-tag army bent on revolution?
If so, he was kind of small.
Kat’s claws dug into my shoulder. The green dot whisked over to Critter, then zipped between me and Kat. The giant truck lurched toward us, its strange rider shooting green beams as if it were blinking rapidly.
Critter emitted a soft moan, then stumbled eagerly toward the truck, in a pas de deux both clumsy and awe-inspiring.
I prudently dodged out of the way, but Kat leapt for the truck. I was pretty confident by now that there were no soldiers around. I blessed the revolutionaries for luring everyone away, while watching moodily as the two behemoths crashed together and settled into a pattern of playful circling.
The shaggy stranger jumped off the truck and slunk toward me. Kat followed, bouncing around like a puppy. The creature looked like Kat the same way a pine cone looks like a rose. You know they are related, they’re kind of the same size, but…
But wait. I knew him! It was my little pal from the café. What was he doing here?
“Hey, little guy! Remember me?” He was obviously used to living rough. Where Kat was delicate and fastidious, this fellow was teetering on the edge of derelict canyon, about to fall right in. What was he up to?
The wild bio looked at me. Whoa. This was like when Kat did it, but way more so. I felt my gels throb and my brain expand.
Yep, he remembered me. A very tactile feeling of fur rubbing against skin tickled my chest. As if he were still sheltering under my shirt. Hey, glad to help, I thought. Who are you? Would he be able to commune with me as Kat did?
Yes. In a way. I am Hsssss. That’s what it sounded like in my mind. Hsssss. No single ordinary word fit what he was, but it sort of meant Ancient One Who Archives. A little like the Gardiens of my Clan. The Keepers of what I go out and get.
The creature was a telcat, a very old one. Related closely to troucats, telcats were a variant sub-species less refined in looks but much greater in intellectual capacity. Of course, the way memories were injected into my brain made me believe I’d always known this. Right. The boss telcat.
So what had he been doing wandering around the café? Could he have been searching for me? Or, more likely, my troucat? Or maybe for Critter…
My brain squirmed, reluctant to do any more expanding. Mercifully, he dropped his gaze, and I rubbed my eyes. If the cats were ganging up on humans, I was on board. The telcat prowled briefly around me like an evil little pirate, then he sat on its haunches just as primly as Kat ever did. Oh, yeah. Related.
I turned to Kat. “Uh, d’you know what’s going on?”
Kat chirped and jumped to my shoulder. Are you ready?
I took a breath and nodded.
Suddenly I found myself on the ground with two bundles of fur in my lap. One was purple and slinky, the other grey and stinky. Both of them radiated so much information I couldn’t possibly sort it out. I just let it wash over me.
By the time Rev loped out of the darkness, I was in tears and my head felt about to explode.
Rev skidded to a stop. I quavered, “H-how did you find us?” I hiccupped, overwhelmed by the historical drama that flooded from the cats.
“You’ve got two of the things? I leave you alone for a few minutes—”
“A few minutes? I thought you were never coming back!”
“Of course I was coming back, I—”
“Just shut up! You and your revolution—that’s a good one!”
He gave me and the occupants of my lap an intensely dirty look, for which I couldn’t blame him. He’d had his heart set on the revolution. Toss Uncle Quel in a dungeon, rally his men, take over… All gone.
He leaned forward and plucked a tiny sticky something out of my hair and squashed it between his fingers. “I needed to be able to find you again, so I bugged you. Now I’m wondering why.” He jerked his chin at Critter and Truck. “What’s with those two?”
“They’re in love.” I wiped my nose and sighed. “I need to tell you about Critter.”
“Critter is the last surviving prototype of a…” I waved my free hand, the one that wasn’t stroking the telcat’s healthy ear. The other one still needed treatment, and I had to figure out a way to get it for him. “…a sort of shunting unit. She’s like a central nexus of information… a library. A really big library. Everything’s in there, and she can call up, organize, and disseminate it upon command. The right command. Which she hasn’t had in, oh, 200 years or so.”
“Sit down, take a load off your brain.” I patted the ground next to me. He sat, eyeing Critter dubiously. “Since she’s a prototype—the ultimate model was never made—she’s been unable to self-regulate. Or even call for help. She… she sat in that horrible cell for decades, waiting, slowly growing into a stunted shell of what she might have been. All she w-wanted was to be a librarian. Instead, she spent the historical span of human life on this planet In. A. Cell.” I paused to wipe my eyes with a sleeve. “In your city, Circ-haut.”
“My city? I didn’t even know there was another level! I swear no one knew she was down there.” Critter was nestled firmly against Truck’s gently rumbling flank, or fender, or whatever. “So… d’you think she could be one of the First People? Could they have put her in there?”
“Maybe. But why would they do that? Could some reactionary faction have feared her?” Knowledge is power, after all.
He turned back to me and clenched his fists. “Do you know what this means, Mag?”
What was wrong with him? “Yes! It means she’s finally free! She’s even found love!” The telcat hopped out of my lap and stretched. Kat followed him and began to lick his ear. Their tails twined together and their eyes drilled into mine, and I wished forlornly that I had a couple of heavy-duty painkillers on hand.
“No. It means we are in big trouble,” said Rev, contemplating Critter’s immense size. “Do you know what I saw when I went back to the City center?”
“Why do you keep asking stupid questions?”
“I saw bios. Lots of them, local workers and wild ones from outside. They were the revolutionaries. Not my men.” He laughed grimly. “Somehow they must have got wind of… Critter. Being released. By the other First People, I presume. That’s what’s happening, right?”
“How the dickens should I know?”
I started to notice that the night was boiling louder and louder with noise: sirens, crackling shots, animals and bios and humans running around screaming. Smoke was in the air. “You know, the City Wall isn’t doing much of a job at keeping wild bios out.”
The telcat looked at me, and I couldn’t look away. I had a choice with Kat; I could deliberately ignore his messages to me. But not with this one.
You are wrong, the telcat said, directly into my brain. He needed a name, and I couldn’t do Hsssss. Pressed for time, I decided to go with Tel. The wall is to keep you humans in.
That seemed a bit harsh. I pointed at Kat, outraged. “This mission was Kat’s all along, and you—both of you—used me!”
I thank you, human, for your kindness earlier. It shall be taken under consideration. And we are not the First People.
“What’re they saying?” demanded Rev, who wasn’t privy to the eye-talk. “I need to get things organized! I wonder if that dead-or-alive order has been rescinded…”
I ignored him, as did the cats. What did Tel mean, they weren’t the First People? It had always been taught that the bios were the degenerate remnants of a once-advanced civilization on this world, who had built the cities, the canals and the manufacturing facilities that produced new bios. And then had sunk into anarchy.
Suddenly that wasn’t on the curriculum any more.
I wanted to pout, but now was not the time. I had the feeling that history was being made.
Tel’s ratty grey ears lifted, sagged and lifted again, as if he were picking up a signal. Maybe he was. Maybe the Queen of the Cats was out there, ordering airships to deliver more bombs to the city, and worker bios to help princesses escape. Truck had fired back up and awakened his co-workers, who were well on the way to demolishing the wall. Critter looked on adoringly. How long had the bios been bamboozling us humans? We thought we ruled the world.
Critter seemed to be the catalyst. Had all this been brewing for two centuries?
I wondered suddenly if I could commune directly with Critter, like I did with Kat and Tel. Theoretically it should be possible… but even contemplating it made my stomach heave. She held a world’s worth of information. What if my head really did explode?
I gestured at the widening gap in the wall. “So, Kat, what now? We’ll leave if the bios want, but where do we go?” Going back into the city was a bad idea. We’d be bucking a tidal wave of citizens who were all heading for the gates, unaware they were escaping the burning city to run straight into angry bios.
I’d been outside, of course; it was part of Clan life and it was fun, as long as you followed the rules and minded your manners. There were bios who dealt with humans all the time, organizing trade deals, prisoner swaps, water rights and so on. We had things they wanted, and vice versa.
Some of the bios were the first to display exotic variants of their own kind. Slave traders. Panderers? Infiltrators? With a long-term goal…
Tel stood and emitted a low growl. It was the first time he’d made any kind of sound. His green dot was back, and it flashed first on Kat, then on Critter. Perhaps it was something he couldn’t control, like a hysterical laugh.
Goodbye. Kat’s voice in my head… oh no. No! He hopped off my shoulder and scampered to Tel’s side.
“Hey!” I squeaked, dismayed. “Kat, wait for me!” Rev grabbed my arm and drew me to a stop. I struggled uselessly. “Let me go!”
“Mag. No.” He pulled me close, enfolding me in his arms. I watched, my throat closing painfully, as Tel, Kat and, after a long look of regret at Truck, Critter joined the line and headed for the newly opened wall.
I pushed Rev away and ran after them. “Hey,” I yelled, “humans are kind of like bios, y’know! Plus, I have gel-fish in me—what do you say to that? Huh? What am I supposed to do with them now?”
I heard Rev run after me, and I knew he was going to drag me back. But I couldn’t let Kat go without a fight. I dodged, tears stinging my eyes, but then I saw something approaching from out of the darkness beyond the wall. It had the characteristic gait of a human, but was accompanied by something definitely not human. A low, slinking form that made my hackles rise. Somewhere stored in the human brain-stem is the shape of a wolf, and this was it. Our sense of smell is terrible, our hearing is sub-standard, but there’s nothing wrong with our eyesight.
The shape was a woman, and she strode onto the construction site like a warrior. She looked kind of familiar… but where would I have encountered a woman like her? She was mature, muscled like a soldier and attired like one too. She stood with her legs apart and her hand on her sword, her wolf-creature beside her. Her face was tanned and weathered, her silver hair chopped short. She was smiling.
That smile would have made me turn and run but for Rev at my back.
He said, “Mom? Is… is that you?”
I frowned. It couldn’t be. She looked completely different from the sleek, slender, quiet Lady I remembered.
Critter, Kat and Tel had vanished Outside. Truck rotated his turret, scanned the area and found it not to his liking. Apparently rethinking his work contract, he revved his engines and joined the parade.
The woman strode up to us, thrust her sword back into its scabbard and grabbed Rev by the cheeks. She squeezed them. “My boy! Goodness, you’re so big and handsome! How long has it been?”
In a split second they were hugging.
Really? Now, his mom turns up? Where was she when he was moping around pretending he didn’t care that she had fallen into the clutches of Quel Naroo? I tapped her on the shoulder, and jumped back when she turned on me. “Whoa! Take it easy. Everyone thought you were dead.”
“Yeah, Mom,” said Rev. “What’s been going on?”
A cold smile curved her lips. “Yes, I suppose everyone did think I’d died. Of natural causes. Quel made sure of that, didn’t he?” The smile vanished as she gazed regally at me. “And who might this… person be?”
I did not like her tone. “Who might I be? I might be about to kick your—”
Rev grabbed my hand. “You remember Magdalena. She’s my girlfriend.”
“Ah. Delightful.” Her steely eyes glinted as they scanned my unimpressive form.
Great.. Mother-in-law troubles and Rev and I weren’t even dating. But… girlfriend…
“So Mom,” said Rev, “this is a new look for you. I like it. Not sure Dad would have approved, though.”
She snorted, then looked back at me. “I have taken my birth name: Corona Teilard Rendou. You may call me Rendou. Was that a troucat I noted on my way in?”
“Yes it was. His name is Kat, and we are bonded. I’m called Magdalena Hunter, Retriever Clan Grey,” I chirped brightly.
An eyebrow went up, and she scrutinized me with sudden intensity. “Ah. You possess a bio.”
“Actually, it’s mutual… but I’m not sure it’s still the case. Looks like the bios are revolting.”
“Heh. Some of them aren’t so bad,” she deadpanned. “Some are quite lovely, your troucat for instance.” She tapped her lips gently with a finger. “You may have surmised that I am presently aligned with the bios.”
The wolf, who had been sitting at her side, tongue lolling out, chuckled. “Prrrhaps y’ll change yerrr mind now, M’lady.”
She gave his large, pointy ears a stroke. “Allow me to introduce Fang, my compatriot. He’s one of a strain of bios you humans—I mean, we humans—constructed shortly after landing on this world. He still hasn’t forgiven us.”
Fang chuckled again, a rolling sound that came from deep within his furry chest. He wasn’t a wolf, of course; in fact, he bore more than a faint resemblance to Kat. His ears were fringed with mobile tendrils, and he had the characteristic single eye in a wide shiny patch above his snout. A sob of loss started up my throat—Kat, you ungrateful wretch, how could you leave me?—but I swallowed it back.
Rendou took her son by the arm and leaned close. I tagged along as they strode toward the wall. “Have you,” she murmured to him, “heard anything about Quel Naroo? What he’s up to these days?”
Rev straightened with pride. “He’s not up to much. He’s in custody in Arderia, awaiting trial. Assuming things don’t go tits-up with this bio rebellion business.”
“In custody? You mean he isn’t dead yet?” Her eyes flared wide and I believe she started to salivate. Then her look became calculating. “Hmm. Good. Best place for him.”
Rev gave her a suspicious look, as did I. The man who killed her husband, safe and sound and awaiting the syrupy workings of the justice system. If someone killed Kat—or Rev—I’d want to rip them limb from limb with my bare hands.
Rendou glanced around, noting the increasing activity at the wall’s breach. The official gates must be clogged up. “We need to get out of here. An organized retaliation may start soon. Not that I have much confidence in the average Nagala City soldier, but still. Oh, sorry, dear.” She sketched a quick salute at her son, turned and strode away.
“Dad had a heck of a time with her,” Rev remarked. “I’m glad he’s not here to see this.”
I was getting beyond sorrow and back into annoyed at Kat for leaving me. He had a lot of my memories still inside his head. However, Rev’s mom seemed like a good bet for the immediate future. She was in cahoots with the bios… but did she actually have authority among them?
I looked down at Fang, who cocked his head at me and lolled his tongue happily.
He nudged my leg with his snout. “Afterrr you, m’dear,” he said. We all followed Rendou as she marched out of Nagala City into the Bio Wildlands.
“I don’t know what’s gonna happen now that you humans arrrr out. It was an unforseen side-effect of rrrretrieving the library.”
Fang didn’t say it in quite that way, what with his dog-like muzzle and long drooly tongue, but that was the gist of it. The fortified cities—Nagala, Corusca, Arderia—were where the natives of this world kept the interlopers. Humans, that is. And all along we had thought the walls were to keep the nasty bios out.
“Look, Fang,” I grumped, “I’m not going to feel guilty over being a big bad human. You guys run this place and you know it.”
“Harrr. True. But now you know it too.”
I wasn’t sure they were doing such a great job of it. After all, they did all the work and didn’t even have their own families. Unlike regular animals, bios were sterile. One of their selling points, according to dealers. No unanticipated litters of obstreperous, random freaks all over the place. On the other hand, you couldn’t just breed ‘em yourself for free.
Looked like the romance between Critter and Truck was going nowhere.
We had left the main road a while ago. It was lined with temporary encampments of alarmed citizenry milling around asking each other what was going on. Most wanted to return to the city, once they noted the intense darkness outside the walls, lit eerily by glimmering bios flitting or lumbering here and there. The city, even when blowing up, was familiar; besides, the destruction and fighting seemed mostly confined to the central areas, not the residential quarters. I wondered if the same thing was happening in the other cities, and bet myself a hot meal that it was.
We hurried to catch up with Kat, Tel, Critter and Truck, and our little group skirted campfires under cover of darkness and thick vegetation. Once Kat was firmly back on my shoulder, I tried not to let my relief show. He was already snooty enough.
I soon figured out where we were headed: the Blue Caves, about ten kilometers away.
The Blue Caves were where humans and bios did business. I’d never been in the actual caves, only in the display areas and front office along with my Clan team, but according to legend they were lined with sapphires, or something. The caves were said to extend for uncharted kilometers, opening onto the fabled Land of the Departed.
Rendou marshalled us into a line and ordered us to climb aboard Truck, who could quickly carry us the rest of the way. I thought this was a fine idea, but Rev decided to be defiant. “Mom, how do you know we can trust this bio? How can we even trust Critter, for that matter?”
“Critter?” Rendou narrowed her eyes.
Rev pointed at the pile of meat slabs that was the main event, the reason for this whole circus. “Mag named her. It. Whatever. That thing has been locked up so long she’s probably bat-crap crazy. Plus, how’s she supposed to fit in Truck?”
“It can run alongside. According to specifications, it can move pretty fast.” Rendou favored Critter with a maternal smile. “I can’t tell you how pleased I am to finally see this particular bio… when we have time, I’ll tell you more about it.”
Yeah, and when we had time, I’d tell her that Critter was not a thing to be collected, or owned, or dissected, or whatever Rendou planned for her.
Rev capitulated and hopped aboard, extending a hand to me. I glared at him. Then I felt bad. Rev’s father was dead, his mom scary, his uncle a scoundrel and his city in ruins. On the other hand, he seemed to be having a wonderful time.
Men. I let him pull me up.
We settled into Truck’s ample box and looked back over the city. From up here, we could see that things seemed to be settling down. Or maybe all the flammable material was gone. The sullen orange glow was simmering into black, with soft-looking clouds of steam and dirty smoke hiding the stars.
Fang loped alongside Critter as we hurried away from the city. Critter could indeed move fast, making the earth shudder and vegetation topple as if she were a traveling earthquake.
Rev put his arm around me. I let him, since I could see it pissed his mom off. I smiled at her benevolently and sucked one of Rev’s fingers. She looked away.
Rev squeezed me absently, gazing back at his city. I spat out his finger. Hopefully there would be time later to get under Rendou’s skin.
At the Blue Caves, we left Truck parked outside and breezed right past the sales offices, courtesy of Rev’s mom. Things looked a little different than when I’d been here before. Zero customers, zero smiles and bows, lots of brisk activity. And the display cages were empty.
After a brief consultation between Rendou, Tel, and a tall, skinny bio with a face like an axe, Critter was ushered away. I felt like a mother sending her kid off to the first day of school. She stomped away surrounded by bios and humans of various kinds, looking back only once. I was going to start crying. She was probably hungry and tired… maybe I should—
“Will you settle down and quit whimpering?” Rev barked. “That thing pounded her way through my dungeon floor. She’ll be fine.”
I waved goodbye despondently, wondering if other Retrievers had been out hunting for Critter, obviously a hot commodity. Kat and I ought to get a bonus.
Our reward turned out to be a visit to the Caves. “You’ll be impressed,” assured Rendou, as we filed down a rocky hallway. Some overeager technophile had strung electrical lights along it, and I could clearly see an irising membrane open onto an immense cavern. The temperature, which outside at around midnight had gotten chilly, rose to tropical levels immediately
“This,” stated Rendou, leading us to a balcony, “is the main nursery. Don’t make any sudden movements.”
My eyes adjusted and I froze, gawping like a farm girl. No sapphires were in evidence, but it didn’t matter—the cave was glorious. All over the ceiling and walls, as far as I could see, was a fluttering, rolling pattern of butterfly wings. The entire inside of the cave, except for the floor, was lined with thousands upon thousands of jewel-like insects, each of them industriously fanning away with their iridescent wings.
Then my eyes focused, and I suddenly saw the true size of the place. The term “cavernous” fit perfectly. I also saw that the insects must have bodies about the size of rump roasts, their wings like serving trays. Most were shades of blue, indigo or turquoise, with here and there veins of yellow-gold. They stirred the warm, moist air and emitted a soothing hum. Kat, on my shoulder, started to hum along, his fur fluffing in the humidity. Tel was beside us, peering through the railing, his lopsided ears twitching.
I looked down. The floor, seen from the height of the entry port where we stood, was a maze of what looked like tanks made of rock or coral, surrounded by a sinuous network of waterways. In fact, you couldn’t really call it a floor, because everything down there seemed to be swimming, crawling, doing back-flips or generally oozing around. A constant liquid gurgling blended pleasantly with the hum, and a rich salty smell tingled my nostrils.
Rendou had been observing Rev and me as we stood staring with our mouths open. As did almost everything, it made her smile faintly, an expression that successfully hid any real emotion she might be feeling. “This,” she said, “is the best looking cavern, the one investors and big buyers get to see. The next few caverns aren’t quite so attractive. They hold the developing bios and their attendants, the culling chambers, the chemical and hormonal stimulant inputs—”
“Wait! The culling chambers?”
“Yes. You don’t imagine all the experiments turn out for the best, do you? That’s why we are so happy to recover the Library. The information it contains should streamline the whole process, get rid of a lot of the testing and elimination facilities.”
I opened my mouth angrily, then closed it. Okay. Elimination facilities. Made sense, in a cold-blooded way. A market-driven economy is a terrible thing.
Rendou said, “And, of course, the information will help me—us prepare.”
My ears perked up. She had her own agenda, I was sure of it…
“Prepare for what?” asked Rev, absently ruffling the fur on Fang’s blocky head.
But Rendou narrowed her eyes and snapped her mouth shut. Abruptly she turned away from the winged vista. “We have to go, or we’ll lose control of this whole operation.”
I squinted at her, wondering if her information meshed with my own. What operation did she have coiling in her devious brain? Could I trust anything the cats had sent to mine?
We all followed her back down the corridor at a fast clip.
Something Tel had shown me nagged at my brain, seeming relevant. Tel had learned something about himself from Critter… it had surprised him. Heartened him. An attribute he possessed, one which he’d thought useless, had suddenly taken on meaning. His ears had been twitching, and I was getting a sort of eager hum from his hard-packed little ganglia-node.
I was glad for the little fellow… so determined, so intelligent, so basically unattractive. The Undercat. No longer would he be the angry, despairing outcast, if we were right.
Trotting beside Rendou, I panted, “So, communication is important in uprisings, right?”
“Of course it is. What’s your point?”
“You’d like to know what’s going on in the cities, wouldn’t you?”
“You have no idea. The fastest chevals and pigeons can only do so much.”
“Well, did you know that Tel can converse with other telcats using their dots?”
She stopped striding and faced me. “Their whats? Oh, you mean their ca-ca emissions.”
“Collimation and Coherence Cavity. CaCCa. The Library mentioned something about that.”
“Green dots, CaCCas, whatever. They were designed with this attribute but forgot how to use it decades after their abandonment. If two or more telcats link up, information can be coded and transmitted. Really fast. In fact, at the speed of—”
“Light!” she blurted. “Well, what do you know. I had no idea that thing they do was useful.” She stopped and held out a hand at shoulder level, palm forward. I regarded it suspiciously, until Rev nudged me.
“Slap it,” he whispered. “Just slap her palm with yours.”
I did so, and Rendou provided a feral grin. “You two are on your own. Try not to get into trouble. Fang, Hsssss, you’re with me.”
She and the two bios were off. Probably to develop a fiendishly impenetrable code to teach the other telcats.
Axe-face reappeared at our side and suavely ushered us to a waiting area. He was used to dealing with entitled buyers and stylists demanding access to the rich lode of biological material dwelling within the caves.
Rev slumped on a bench and stuffed his hands between his knees. “I wonder what the original human colonists thought of the creatures they found here…wasn’t this world supposed to be free of sentient life?”
“Apparently the surveyors were mistaken.”
History class at the école I’d attended till I turned thirteen indicated that the colonists had zero qualms about a world hopping with weird beings who could technically be labeled “not-life”, thus getting around the “life” problem. Our planet became home to a bunch of entrepreneurial eager-beavers who saw a natural resource and promptly put the natives—bios as they were generally called—to work. The colonists were so busy they hardly noticed that they’d been abandoned by the rest of humanity, and they never did find out why. Everyone stopped caring after a while.
Life was good, and everyone got along pretty well. Anything a human needed done—hauling water, digging ditches, building and tunneling, and farming—could be done by a specialized bio. You could buy the things at the Caves. Sure, the prices were high, but what was a person to do? Dig and farm and build all by himself?
Truthfully, the bios hadn’t seemed to mind. In fact, they’d been eager to please.
A few crackpots tried to develop mechanical “bios” they’d invented, but no one took them seriously. A fringe group of collectors had various sparking, oil-spewing machines they liked to play with, but they were mostly for show.
I longed to fill Rendou in on what I’d learned from Tel, but we were parked here uselessly. Rev and I were both gnawing our nails.
Obviously we weren’t trusted. I was reasonably certain that Rendou wasn’t in this fight to profit from the bios. They had accepted her, and though she wanted their freedom, she would most likely use them for her own ends…But did she know what the real fight was about?
Too much information, no way to sort it all out. Critter knew it all, but didn’t know that she knew. Tel knew some. I knew some: Before she’d been locked up, Critter had been designed, conceived and grown to larval stage, then loaded with her planet’s true history.
Which wasn’t pretty. And so far I’d seen only a few highlights, courtesy of the cats. The thought of peering directly into her vast store of data was frightening. It was keeping me from acting. That had to change.
I looked at Rev, who was probably wishing his mother hadn’t turned up. “Hey, can I do a brain dump?”
He squinted at me from his gargoyle-like position on the bench. “Do I look like I have anything better to do?”
“Oh, buck up. You know how people love pets, right?”
“No, I do not. I do not love pets. I have never had a pet and I do not want a pet.”
“Oh. Really?” I’d seen how taken he was with Rendou’s bio-wolf. “Well, you’ll just have to use your imagination.” I stood and began to pace. “What happens when people move house but leave their pets behind? I’ll tell you, since I’m sure you have no idea. The pets have to survive on their own. Which they have not been bred or trained to do. It’s a very cruel fate.”
“Yeah? So? Survival of the fittest.”
I wanted to swat him. “Listen! I know what’s happening here: The owners are returning! They want their pets back.”
“Are you telling me that Kat—and all the other bios—are abandoned housepets?”
“He gets it! Hallelujah!”
“Could the owners be the First People? No one has ever really figured out what all that myth and legend stuff is about.”
The half-remembered tales of Those Who Departed, told by the bios who could talk.
“Yeah. Apparently Tel received a ping a few months ago. The beings who first occupied this world, and created the bios as pets and workers, have decided to revisit the old neighborhood.”
Rev was opening his mouth to comment when a rush of night-chilled air billowed into the waiting area. Rendou, trailed by Fang, surged after it. “The Library has been sent for unzipping,” she announced. “The ancient telcat Hsssss has been communing with it.” She rubbed her hands together, her eyes glinting with steely fervor. “Hsssss told me—”
I closed my eyes and waved my hands in the air. “Wait… let me guess… Ah! I have it. The First People are returning.”
“Huh? How did you…? Never mind. I should have realized you possess eye gels. How much do you know?” She glared at me, her jealousy evident. “We’ll talk, later. Anyway, it seems The First People don’t like humans encroaching on their space.”
“And this means…?” They almost had it…
Rev closed his eyes. “We’re at war with aliens. Great. Just great.”
Where did the bios themselves figure into this? Whose side would they be on? The heartless owners who had left them behind to die? Or the pushy newcomers who had exploited them?
I headed for the door Rendou had just come through. “We need to find Tel and Critter.” Critter desperately needed an advocate, and I needed to commune with her, no matter how much it might hurt. I hoped Tel could get me close enough to activate my gels.
I looked back. Neither of them had moved. “Come on! This is important!”
Rendou rolled her eyes, but Rev hauled her along behind me. “I said I wouldn’t let Mag out of my sight, and I meant it, Mom.”
I was starting to like him.
“You were always a stubborn boy,” Rendou said. “Fine. Past the Blue Cave Nursery is Command Central.” This was more like it.
“I am tolerated because of my relationship with Fang,” she admitted as we hustled along. “Now that they have their Library, will they need humans anymore?”
“Good question. We have to convince them they do.”
“Oh? I admire your spirit, my dear, but I don’t know if you’ll make much headway. The bios can be headstrong.”
“I can be more headstrong.”
“She can,” chimed in Rev. “So, how long do we have before the First People arrive?”
“Approximately 18 years.”
“Eighteen years?” he yelped. “You’re kidding. Why is everyone going berserk now?”
“You don’t imagine this world is anything like ready for a fight, do you? We’re only just emerging from the dark ages.”
“I love a good fight,” I said. “I’m just not sure we’re planning on the same fight.”
“What in Aura’s name are you talking about?”
“Rendou, don’t try to blow smoke up my skirt. All you want is to get your hands on Quel Naroo. And, hey, I totally approve.” It would be fascinating to watch the warrior queen take down the treasonous murderer.
Rendou grabbed the metal railing with both hands, and I swear it bent. She let go, flexing her fingers. “You’re right,” she gritted, “and my bios almost had him for me!” She wheeled on Rev. “Thanks to you, I’ll never get near the son-of-a-bitch! The Human Council knows me too well.”
Rev leaned in. “Hey, I had things under control! I didn’t ask for you and your bio army to take the law and mangle it!”
“That was before I knew where he was! How was I supposed to know you had him in Arderia? Do you think I wanted the bios to destroy Nagala Central?”
The soothing hum of the nursery was gaining a strident, panicky edge. We were disturbing the babies.
“Shut up, the two of you!” I hissed. “Rendou—we’ll get him for you. You can cut him up and make him into jerky if you want. And you—” I pointed a finger at Rev, “will let her! This is no time for the rule of law.”
Through his teeth, he said, “In case you have forgotten, I have sworn to uphold the rule of—”
“And in case you have forgotten, that bastard killed your father! Who I happen to think was really nice! So just shut up!”
Then I pointed the same finger at Rendou. “Tell me something. Why didn’t you kill Quel Naroo years ago? You must have had chances.”
“Surprisingly few. He’s a slippery devil.”
She bared her teeth at me, always a good tactic, but I stood my ground. Slowly her eyes closed and her grimace faded. “I tried. I failed. That was before—thanks to Fang—I attained the level of training I now possess. I was weak, frightened.” Her eyes opened and blazed with militant fervor. “I’ve changed.”
“Damn rrright,” muttered Fang.
“Well, that’s just dandy, and I congratulate you,” I said. “We’ll find a way to get Quel for you, but we still need to find Tel and Critter and formulate a long-term alien-fighting plan.”
“Er,” she said. “Critter.”
Fang began to scratch behind one ear, and wouldn’t look at me.
“Critter… you know, the big gal with the bad skin.”
She rolled her eyes at her son. “Revenbrook, you really should have waited for me to find you a more appropriate mate. Your father was wrong to let you spend so much time together.”
“I don’t care what you think of me and Rev. Where’s Critter?”
“It is being dismantled.”
“What? Dismantled?” So that’s what they meant by unzipped. I shoved her hard in the belly. She didn’t move, nor did she retaliate. The blasted woman was made of concrete. “What are you talking about?”
“We need the information embedded within her body. Don’t worry, she’s—”
“What? Just a bio? They’re used to that kind of treatment? Critter is my friend, my responsibility!” I shouted. The nursery was a-splash with excitable bios, and I didn’t care. Their fate would be just as dire as Critter’s unless bios got rights.
Yes! That’s what this was all about.
Bios needed the same rights as humans. The fight was no longer about abandoned pets, or slimy politicians, or even an advancing armada of aliens.
“You are being ridiculous,” said Rendou. “The Library is a resource, to be used by the inheritors of this world.”
“Fine! I’ll find her myself.” I stomped along the catwalk toward the door at the far end. Critter, or whatever remained of her, had to be back there somewhere.
The door opened as I approached. I was glad to find Rendou, Rev and Fang behind me, no matter what their reasons. We clustered at the edge of what had to be the universe’s biggest honeycomb. Transparent, unfortunately…
No wonder buyers were only allowed in the first chamber.
Back there, things were moist and dimly lovely; in here was proof of the industrial scale of production that serviced a world.
Harsh lighting illuminated a space much bigger than the butterfly cave, latticed with glassy struts, walkways, cells of all sizes, and constantly moving food and water conveyers. The babies were hungry.
Rendou said, “Don’t make eye contact.”
“But most of them don’t have—”
“Just don’t look at their… heads. Stay together and keep moving. We’re making for the top of those stairs over there.”
Rev took my hand and squeezed it. “Fun, huh?” he whispered, grinning.
“Yeah, sure is.” I climbed, trying not to look down as my feet clanged on the invisible treads. It couldn’t be glass, must be some kind of transparent metal. And that meant it was a leftover from the First People, because no way could humans on this world produce such a thing. If there still were humans elsewhere in the universe, maybe they could do it…
I launched myself through the door at the top of the stairs, into whatever next hell the First People had built. But once I stopped panting and opened my eyes, it turned out to be comparatively small. And crammed with throbbing computators, polished stone tables piled high with papers and drawings, and a crowd of serious-looking individuals—bio and human—all of whom were shouting. Minions rushed back and forth clutching recorder-bios. Brilliant clusters of glow-lights shed eerie green highlights on the cheekbones and other protuberances of the room’s occupants.
Three assorted telcats crouched in a corner, facing each other and flashing their little green dots in intricate patterns. Aided by a system of mirrors, they seemed to be receiving and transmitting information from somewhere else.
Wow. Things were happening fast. But the First People weren’t due for years…
Oh. Yeah. The bio revolution, Rendou’s contribution to rational political discourse. Rev had imagined that his faction in the city were going after Quel Naroo; turned out to be his mom’s. The revolutionaries she’d dragooned into her quest for vengeance had to be brought under control, or they’d demolish our civilization before the aliens could.
Tel was in the middle of the big pow-wow. I was glad to see a bandage clinging to his ear, processing the damaged skin. Some of the people milling around were Clan leaders. I knew my own, of course—the wily and beautiful Jenna Grey-Hunter—the others I recognized only by their troucats. The whole rainbow-hued lot of them were hip deep in this.
The noise level was rising. A shoving match was going on in one corner. Tel prowled the floor, bristling with frustration, and I sympathized. He was small, voiceless and without the fancy trappings of a leader. But I’d seen into his brain, and though I still wasn’t sure he was actually intelligent, I had seen that his personality and knowledge were just the antidote to the self-important twaddle being spouted at increasingly louder volume.
Everyone wanted to be Captain, no one wanted to be Ensign. The clash of agendas would be epic.
My agenda, however, was the best. I needed to find Critter.
Kat concurred. Hsssss likes you. Hsssss will help you.
“Really? You sure?”
Kat sent a warm pulse of affirmation into my hindbrain. My hindbrain lapped it up.
I took a deep breath and pushed my way over to Hsssss, aka Tel. He snarled and flattened his ears, but I picked him up anyway and placed him on my shoulder.
I could feel waves of animosity emanating from that brain I so admired. Was it animosity toward humans? Argumentative bios? Or maybe military inefficiency?
I cleared my throat. “Where is Critter?”
No one paid any attention. Everyone was shouting about how to halt the revolution. The fun was over. The real war was about to start.
“Where! Is! Critter!” Somewhat louder.
Rev pulled out his shocker, raised it high and discharged it into the ceiling. Everyone shut up for a split second. “Hey!” he bellowed. “The lady is asking a question!”
“Thank you, Circ-haut. Ahem. What has been done with Critter? You know her as the Library.”
A large bio, crusty with age and anger, shoved close. “Another meddling human.” He leaned over me, balancing on his long, scaly arms.
“She’s with me,” Rev shouted, “she’s the one who found—”
The bio shoved me. I staggered back.
Both Kat and Tel leapt off my shoulders and onto the bio’s head, where they began scratching. Rev jammed a fist in its blocky face. “Hands off my girlfriend!”
“I can take care of myself,” I yelled, without basis in fact.
Jenna Grey-Hunter, never the shy type, leapt to my side. “Yeah—hands off my operatives! Mag and Kat liberated the Library,” she proclaimed. “Hail them!”
“Uh, thanks, but no. Please don’t hail us.” At least it made Crusty step back. I straightened and tried to look soldierly. “I need to find Crit—the Library. I must commune with her.”
A relative hush fell. Even Jenna, my own Clan leader, started to examine her boots. “My dear,” said Rendou, “The Library has been dispersed already. This is a crisis situation. We don’t want to wreck this world ourselves, before the First People even get here.” She scowled around at the others crowding the room. “Right?”
“We’re only reclaiming what is ours,” grumbled Crusty.
“Oh yeah?” retorted Clan Red’s leader snarkily. “You bios were screwing up pretty good, until we came along!”
“Quiet!” I bellowed. “What do you mean, dispersed? You cut her up?”
Rendou snorted. “Calm down. The Library is formed of redundant segments. Each can survive on its own. It has been taken apart into eight independent, but identical, units.”
“Did it hurt her? Is she all right? Where is she—are they? Did she even get a say in this?”
Rendou said, “She didn’t need to. She’s—”
Crusty pounded a forelimb on the table. “Here we go! Just a bio! This is exactly why you humans—”
Rendou shoved him out of the way and jumped onto the nearest table. “Quiet, you idiot! The Library is the one bio that doesn’t need to agree or disagree about anything. It tells us what to do.”
I reflected that someday I should get an outfit like Rendou’s. Black leather bustier, thigh-high boots, sword belt… She had a good oratorical style, too. “We all think we know what’s best for this world. Well—I’ve had a mere glimpse into what the Library holds.” She pointed at me. “This young woman has seen the whole story through Hsssss’s eye, and you would do well to listen to her. And to him.”
Tel, on my shoulder once more, reached a small grey paw out and gently pulled my chin around until I was looking directly into his face, a finger width away. His eye glowed, the green light source focused into my retinas.
He looked at me. My head suddenly bulged with words and images, scrambling for a place in line to get out my mouth. Okay… apparently I was going to do his talking for him.
I didn’t have a choice, I’d been drafted. I steadied Tel on my shoulder and jumped up beside Rendou, sending papers flying. “Everyone! Tel—I mean Hsssss—wants to talk!”
I felt my gels squeeze and shift in my eyes.
He said, directly into my brain, “After the Masters left, we survived. Barely. We were slowly building a civilization of our own. Then humans came. We were glad to see you at first… you kept out of our way, fed us, gave us hope that we had found friends in a cold universe. All was well, at first. But then…”
I heard myself speaking. I was echoing Tel’s words; as they entered my brain they exited my mouth. I knew he wanted desperately to speak for himself. He couldn’t—he needed me, his chatty pal. Everyone was looking at me, not at him. The story kept coming.
“But then the humans found we bios could be used. Changed. You began to tinker with our genome. Some of you are very clever…and some of us were willing collaborators.” I tried to shut myself up, but I couldn’t look away. My eyes throbbed and began to water. Or maybe I was crying.
“Some of us hated you, some of us loved you. I hated you. Hated all humans. I… told the First People about you… sent a message forty years ago.”
A collective gasp, then everyone started shouting. Rev shot the ceiling again.
My mouth kept flapping. “They heard me… and now they are coming back. But…” Tel’s words in my brain stopped for a second. I gasped air.
I knew what he was going to say. I’d seen it in his brain already.
I said it for him. “But during that forty years, Hssss came to understand something. He needed us. They needed us. Humans and bios make a good team. The First People want chattel. Humans and bios want friends. Partners.”
Complete silence reigned, probably for the first time in this room. Rendou took advantage of it. She said, her voice softer than I ever imagined it could be, “All of you know Fang. He isn’t my pet, or property, as some of you may assume. He’s my comrade.”
Fang emitted a rough growl. “I do not want to be a pet, owned by masters. I want more. I want the universe.” The hair on his neck rose and fell. The hair on mine did too.
The universe. Yeah, I was crying.
I said, “The First People are coming. They can’t arrive to find a warring world of freaks and outcasts.”
Crusty got in my face again. “You think we’re freaks? Primitives?”
This time I shoved him in the chest. “We all are! We’re pathetic. Admit it!”
Rendou chimed in. “But we don’t have to stay that way. The Library will be used for its huge store of intel. Magdelena, for reasons of security and expediency, the segments must remain apart. There are eight Libraries now: one for each city, one for the clans, and two for the bios.”
Counting on my fingers, I piped up, “But that’s only six.”
“Correct! Another segment will remain here at the Blue Caves, along with the bio known as Truck, to oversee decommissioning the sterilization tanks. Bios will now be able to reproduce sexually. Or any way they like.”
The bios in the room looked poleaxed. I didn’t blame them. “Okay, so, seven.”
“The remaining segment goes to Magdalena Grey-hunter and Revenbrook Karel.”
Rev and I looked at each other. Kat hummed, wrapping his tail possessively around my neck. “You’re kidding. We get a Critter segment?”
Rendou’s nod confirmed it. An upwelling of mutinous rumbling from the war council was silenced with a look. “The Library itself has requested it.”
My very own Critter! Well, and Rev’s too. Bet I didn’t look so bad as a daughter-in-law now, did I?
Crusty decided he’d better get on board before it was too late. He did some fist-thumping and regained the attention of the crowd. “As we speak, bios are containing and instructing the human population. Diplomatically! Get your fist out of my face, human. We expect opposition, but it will be overcome. Diplomatically, drat it!” He sounded serious. Maybe he wasn’t so bad after all.
Fang’s mouth lolled open. “Humans arrrn’t so bad, except forrr the smell.”
I felt a warmth spread through my chest. Maybe it was pride, and hope… or maybe it was the thought of all that pent-up reproductive energy about to let loose.
“So… Critter. Critters I should say. When do we get ours?”
Rendou hummed happily as she spread tangy relish on slabs of bread, piled them with sliced meat and cheese, and slapped them together into sandwiches. She had a stack to her right that I, standing beside her, was endeavoring to wrap without devouring one on the spot. Picnics were so much fun. Especially ones by the river.
Rendou turned out to be okay, once she unwound a bit. She liked parties, kids, shopping for attractive military attire, and training with Fang.
But what she really loved was picnics. By the river.
An hour or so later, the usual gang had assembled on the shady banks of the waterway that Rev, Critter and I had once sluiced down, in fear for our lives. The day was sunny, the food plentiful, and the liquor laws lenient.
Everything in Nagala city was pretty much back to normal. If anything ever was normal, that is. All the crackpots who’d wasted time developing mechanical bios were vindicated, as it turned out that something other than spunk and verve might be necessary to fight aliens. Progress toward space flight was accelerating rapidly, now that everyone had access to the Library’s ancient records, and had suddenly sprouted rampaging cases of esprit-de-corps.
“There he goes,” said Rev, munching a sandwich.
We all watched as a balding man, dressed in nothing but sagging underwear and a neck chain, waded into the river. We could hear a constant stream of invective from him as he flopped forward and began to breast-stroke out toward the middle.
A deep, satisfied sigh came from Rendou, and she reached for another pickle. “I love to watch a professional at work.”
“Heh, heh. Pass me one of those cheesy-puff things, will you, Mag?” said Rev.
I did better than that. I popped it directly into his mouth, and helped myself to one too. In another four months I could have wine again. Kat was already asleep, having been first at the spread. His ears twitched gently as he snored in the sun, tendrils catching the warm breeze. Tel, who was visiting, was curled around Kat. He actually looked sleek, instead of scruffy. Truck, who circulated among the various Critter-units, was in Arderia right now.
Quel Naroo, once Trent-haut of Nagala-sur-mer, took a breath and upended himself, diving under the surface. We watched the trail of bubbles.
A flyer hurtled by overhead. I could hear the excited yelping of the bio pilot, dopplering away to the east. Turned out they loved teaming up with crackpots. Estimates predicted six years to spaceflight, ten to a fully armed orbital station. Even the dungeon’s impervious cell membrane was coming in handy.
In a minute Quel popped up, spitting water, his hands full of squirming river worms. Awkwardly, he churned his way toward the shore, where Critter Junior was eagerly waiting.
Quel really should be better at this, I reflected, considering he’d been doing it every day for the last year. And would be doing it every day for the remainder of his life. Critter Junior—C.J.—was getting big and plump. She was almost ready to bud a new segment, and someday might attain the grand bulk of her original self.
Quel Naroo gave us a dirty look as he deposited the worms by C.J. We waved jauntily at him as Fang prodded him back in for another load.
Rendou said, “Have I mentioned that I really love picnics?”
Sally McBride, born and raised in Canada, lives in Idaho with her husband and cat. Her stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, Tesseracts, On Spec and many more magazines and anthologies. In between skiing in the winter and biking in the summer, she’s working on more stories and a fantasy novel.