Categories > Original > Sci-Fi0 Reviews
Somewhere way in the future, the Dark Ages have returned. Two people deal with the developments in their individual ways.
She paused in the empty air, trying to think of what else was new to remember.
She pressed the stop button on the little gray stick and ran over to the entry hall. "Hey, Ted. What you got?"
He slung a furry animal off his shoulder. "I found a nest of Vamps. Killed all of them and brought this one home for supper."
"Did you get both parents?" She took the bat-like creature with sharp protruding teeth, huge sail ears and oversized claws on the points of its wings and looked it over. "It stinks."
"They all do. I got the male. The female wasn't around - probably getting food for the young. But you know the females' senses aren't good for much."
"Where was the nest? Can I use your knife? Mine's still in the disinfectant."
He handed her a stainless steel knife with a large textured handle of bone and a blade the length of his hand span. She started to take the hide off the Vamp while he studied a smaller switchblade, also of stainless steel. "I should stick this in the DI, too. I tried cutting some plants with it to test the juice."
She looked hopeful for a moment. "Was any of it any good?"
He shook his head. "I tried out four different plants, and each one's juice burned the rock I dripped it on. One kind even dissolved the rock."
She sighed and handed him the Vamp. "You take off the claws."
He took it with a grin. "Look, Alice. I'll do one claw, and then you are going to do the other one this time. Okay, bend it back toward the wing. Here you see the sinew," he pointed the knife's tip at the white fiber in the brown meat, "and here's the bone. You cut right at the connecting point, where the sinew's weakest, so, and make sure you have a hand on the claw or it'll snap forward into the wing and you'll never get it out. Now the sinew's cut and you just twist the claw twice and it comes off. You try."
"What are you going to use this set for?" she asked, probing in the wing for the sinew.
"I checked our store of grenades today and we only have a few left since the last time we went hunting."
"Did you take the claws off the other Vamps then?"
"So where did you say this nest was?"
"I didn't. It... Hold the claw!"
She grabbed it just as the knife snapped the sinew.
Ted took the wing from her and twisted the claw off. "The nest was down in Crater 6. On the edge, I mean, not actually down in it. There's lots of other nests down there, too, so we can hunt those Vamps for a while."
"Did you see anything on the highway when you came up?"
"Yeah, a Rack. It caught itself a Vamp."
"what, a Rack spun a web down there?"
"You know what, I didn't even check."
"We need water again, and it's my turn to get it, but you're coming down there with me."
He pulled the tail skin off the Vamp and stood up to hang it from the cave roof. "Okay. We'll let this thing bleed dry and go get water. I'll get the buckets. You get a knife."
Alice came back with a black fighting blade the length of her forearm hanging from her belt, a large switchblade in her pocket and a folding knife on a strap at her left shoulder. She took two heavy plastic buckets from Ted and both of them headed down the hall to the entrance of their cave.
The walls of the dark space they called home were a sickly yellow when you could see them. Passages ran off into the darkness every few steps. They could tell they were approaching the dangerous outside world when hot, sometimes putrid air crept into their nostrils.
Ted stepped out first, moving aside the old ghillie blankets they used to camouflage the entrance and filter the air. Alice followed and looked on a now familiar sight: A mountainside of black, red, and gray rock, falling sharply away on the left, with a clear stream of water gushing out of a boulder a five-second sprint away and crashing down into the pool in the crater which had destroyed the old six lane highway. The highway had run along these mountains back when... Well, when people still knew how to write and had names for distance measurements, and fresh green food wasn't a luxury.
Ted bumped his buckets against hers. "Don't think about it," he said. "You know nobody can for long. I need you alive with me."
He took the lead down the treacherous precipice over the highway and pool. The source of this stream was nearer, but it was separated from their cave by a deep cut in the mountain, rimmed with loose rocks. It was too dangerous for them to fetch their water there.
"The Rack is upwind of us but not very far away. We'll have to be quick," Alice said. She halted her descent a moment to look down to the pool. A spider almost as tall as her was crouched there on the near edge, its teeth ripping through a Vamp that was already nearly picked clean. The spider had bright red markings on its back, soft belly and the joints on its thin legs. Its eight eyes were red, too, and so were its two pairs of teeth and its pair of clawed grabbing arms.
Now it finished its meal and backed up. Alice remembered to look for a web, and she searched the landscape for any sign of the stinking black strands of thread that Racks called home and pantry. She couldn't see it anywhere near the pool. When she returned her attention to the highway below, the Rack was gone.
"Alice!" Ted was calling her. She slipped down the rocks and scrambled over to him.
"Make a guess what that is."
She filled her buckets before looking where he was pointing.
Across the pond there was a large red rock. It had been there before they'd settled here and Alice couldn't see anything different about it now.
"Can't you see the piece of meat on the rock?"
"Oh. Yeah. It looks like a rotting Vamp."
They looked at each other. The creatures that lived here never left meat lying around. It was hard to catch food. When you did, you never wasted any of it. Besides that, a Rack had just been here. A Rack had a keen sense of smell when it came to rotting meat - it wouldn't have missed that piece.
"Maybe the Rack's going around the bottom to get to the other side?" she suggested in a whisper.
"Let's hope so. Come on, we need to get out of here."
Ted let her go up the wall first. Both of them looked back every few seconds, half hoping, half dreading to find the Rack sitting there on the other side of the pond, finishing off the Vamp. But the Rack didn't reappear.
Back in the cave, Alice got to work washing the pieces of Vamp, as Ted carved chunks of flesh off its bones.
"The Rack couldn't have missed it," she said finally, voicing what they were both thinking. "It ignored the meat on purpose. Why?"
"Sometimes they do that to attract more food," Ted commented.
She shook her head. "You know they only do that in places where they can take the risk, places with a lot of food - in the south, or in the valleys. This place doesn't have enough food for the Vamps, let alone for anything else."
Ted stopped sawing at the sinews and looked at her. "There are only two reasons a mutant will leave food, and you've just said it isn't one."
Alice let the meat fall into the bucket of water. "There is nothing stronger than a Rack in this area. The Uurs and Fells don't come anywhere near here because there's not enough food for them. Arches and Racks have never fought - Arches take the Vamps out of the skies and Racks take them off the ground. What else is there?"
"Snakes," Ted suggested.
Alice picked the piece of Vamp out of the bucket again. "Oh, yeah. If it's a Snake we should be fine. Except there haven't been Snakes here for..." She stopped. "How did we ever forget the names of time measurements?"
"Don't think about it, remember?" Ted told her.
She threw the meat into the pile on the cloth on the floor. "Remember when we lived in Villa? Remember when we had internet, and you could see pictures of things that used to be here - all over the world - before... Before It?" She looked at the cloth on the floor. It was a reminder of before, just like the buckets and the knives and their clothes and the recorders. It was all from before. She looked up at him again. "Remember that? People were humans and only humans. Things weren't copies then. They lived in things built only to be lived in. They could get things done at the push of a button. They had... had things that we don't even have names for now. Internet had words in it then! Humans could read and write. You know that highway sign we found? They could read the markings on that, not just the picture. Even the dumbest humans could read that. And now you and me almost don't know what to say to each other. It's only because of the little recorders we don't forget any more."
"Stop it, Alice," he said, dropping the Vamp and coming over to her. "Things are the way they are now. And there's nothing you can do about it."
"Are we dumber than the humans were?" she demanded.
"You know copies are never as good as the first thing."
"Copies," she said bitterly. "When did humans stop making humans the real way and start wanting to live forever?"
"Forever," Ted repeated. "See, there's a time measurement we haven't forgotten." He gave her a hug. "Come on, Alice. Don't worry about what things were like a long time ago. It's not coming back, if it ever existed. We have pictures, but you know some people can just make pictures on the computers. Maybe this whole idea of how things were better before is just a made-up story from those computer people."
"It's not, and you know it. We have those two boxy things, and they have the markings in them that humans could read."
He sighed and handed her another piece of Vamp meat. "Alice, we need to think about staying alive, and nothing else."
"Alive," she retorted. "What's alive? What's the other option? People are so worried about staying alive. Even Vamps and Racks are worried about staying alive. Why? What makes being alive so special?"
Ted didn't answer. He didn't know.
They sat there in silence, preparing the meat, until Ted began to whittle at the Vamp's bones, making splinters for his grenades.
"We still don't know why the Rack left the meat," he commented after a while, hesitantly. He didn't want Alice to start thinking about Before again.
"Yes we do." He heard some spunk in her voice again. "A Snake came back here. Or a group of Snakes - that's more likely. Either we have a big Snake, bigger than a Rack, that's the strongest thing here now. Or we have a group of Snakes. I hope it's a group. The Arches will pick them off when they come back from the south. You know we haven't had any strongest thing here for a while. It might as well be a Snake. They're easier to hunt than the Racks."
"I'm going out to watch," Ted said, cutting off the last piece of Vamp meat and swallowing it. "It'll be dark out by now.
Dark was when the mutants hunted.
"Why watch?" Alice asked. "We haven't had trouble since that young Rack lost its way in here."
"And nearly bit you in the face. I remember that."
"It was a long time ago."
"No, it wasn't."
They stopped arguing when a hiss echoed through their cave. Ted grabbed two grenades off the wall.
They listened for approaching sounds, but all was quiet. They couldn't see each other in darkness. Alice started when Ted touched her hand. "It came from the front. I'll go check."
Alice fingered the knife in her belt as she heard him leave, but he returned soon after and lit a fat-covered stick in the embers.
"Come. You need to see this."
At the entrance of their cave, its head lying beneath the camouflage door, was a Snake.
Ted stopped her as she was pulling out her knife. "It's dead, Alice."
She stared at him, and then at the Snake. "But it's huge! I've never seen such a big one!" She cautiously went over to it and touched the cold eyes, then laid her hand over its head. "Look. Its head is wider than I can reach with my fingers." She stood up and looked at Ted. "What killed it?"
Ted stepped outside, and she followed. There wasn't much else left of the Snake. Alice lifted the stump of the body and showed it to Ted. "The mutant has a mouth as big as you," she said in shock, pointing to the bite mark. "And it was right here."
Ted took the Snake head from her. "I'll take out the poison and make some arrows," he said, stepping back into the cave.
Alice didn't follow him right away. She looked down at the black blood soaking into the thirsty red ground. There was a mark there, where the blood had softened the ground a little. A claw had dug into the dirt, a claw with a point as big as her finger.
This was a new mutant, and bigger than anything they'd had to face until now. Was it the same one that had killed the guy on Red Ridge? Had it known that this cave had humans in it? Had it left the Snake as some sort of warning? Was this mutant something with human traits, not just a monster animal like the Racks and Arches?
Alice shook her head violently. "No," she said aloud, "it left the head of the Snake because that's where the poison is. An Arch would have left the head too. And there are all sorts of deserted caves with camo over the entrance where people haven't been for a long time."
But that didn't cross out the fact that there was a new, big, hungry mutant walking these mountains, and that it had come so close to her and Ted.
She found Ted with the Snake head, split down one side, on the table. He was carefully going for the sac of poison behind the head.
She waited until he had it safely on the table and then said, "That big one is probably why the Rack left the food."
"And we'll have to move again."
"Sooner or later."
"Unless it finds us first."
"It already did."
Ted turned his attention from the Snake to her. "Alice, these mutants are always getting bigger and smarter..."
"No, they're not. Bigger, yeah, but not smarter. The Vamps had great hearing and smelling when they turned up in the beginning. Now they're bigger, and almost blind and deaf. The mutants change a lot, but it's not making them better."
"Until they breed with something else. And this thing that was outside was probably bred from a bunch of things. It's strong and fast, or it couldn't have killed the Snake. It's got some sort of thing that could tell it where the Snake was so it could kill it. Maybe it's got good eyesight, but Snakes aren't ever caught with eyesight alone."
"So it can find heat, or it can smell, or it can hear," Alice said. "That doesn't mean it knew we're here."
Ted shrugged. "Maybe not. But it will. Something like that will have to cover a lot of ground in one day to be full. This area is full of easier things to catch than a Snake. And speaking of Snake, this Snake isn't from here. It had Fell hair in its mouth." He handed a ball of wet fur to Alice.
She didn't take it. "So what are we going to do? Will we stay here like there's nothing new out there? Will we move before it comes back? Maybe we can stay here. Looking at the size of its bite, it must be too big to get in here."
"Bite size doesn't mean anything," Ted told her. "If you guessed how big a Poker was by its bite size, you'd think it was twice as big as me, even though I'm bigger than the biggest one we ever saw."
"Yes. But if the thing that killed the Snake is too big to come in here, do you think it just wants us to come out?"
"We'll go hunt it tomorrow and see what we're up against," Ted replied, dropping the fur on the floor. "Let me make the arrows."
Alice knew he was worried. He liked to be alone when something bothered him, and she sighed. "I'll go make a recording. Are you hungry?"
"Why do you make recordings?" he asked her as she was leaving. "Who cares about us? Who'll ever listen to them?"
"I do. I like to know how it was before."
"What if there wasn't a before, the way you think it was?"
"We can see things from then, Ted. We have things from then. Are you hungry?"
"We have another mutant here, a new one. A big guy. We might have to move again, unless it's too big to get into our cave. I'm tired. Ted is tired. Things are always changing. New mutants come, always bigger, fiercer, with more sharp ends. They breed anything with everything now. One morning we'll be eaten by a Rack with an Arch's wings and a Snake's head. The night before we'll have eaten a Fell with an Uur's feet. I have to go."
Alice switched off the recorder and dropped it into her bag, which was made of the same rough, patchwork stuff as her clothes. It carried knives, a tinder pouch with their fire rock, pieces of cloth, a flat pan for cooking, containers with disinfectant and a cream made of Rack fat, the only thing they had to put on hurts. She scattered the last embers and looked around the cave once more before making her way outside, where Ted was already waiting.
"We can leave our things here and go check around. We don't need to leave now. Maybe it was just passing by."
"That big one will be back. We might as well go."
Each carrying a bag and a bucket, they left the ghillie-covered cave entrance and walked over the cracked, red ground., the blazing sun at their backs. The wind was slow and hot. In the distance a gray haze covered the valleys and craters.
Alice shifted her bag from one shoulder to the other. They carried everything they had. It wasn't much, but even that little got tiring.
"Ever think about why you feel heavy when you leave another cave?" Ted asked. He led the way.
Alice kept her face down, in the shadow. She was listening to the silence of a dead world. She was smelling the rot of a dead world. She didn't want to think about a dead world.
"Heavy." A long time had passed since Ted asked his question. They were on the edge of a hill. The sun was on the other side, but it was still hot and bright. The ground reflected the light. The rocks flashed.
"What? Yeah, heavy."
Alice looked at him. "The humans would have had a name for feeling heavy."
He shook his head. "What's with you? You aren't usually this caught up with the humans before. You mustn't think about them. Haven't we always gotten by? Aren't we still here? The humans were just stories. It didn't happen. All that happened is happening now."
"Ted, you know things were different before. Remember Villa."
"I don't remember Villa." He kicked a red rock, and it crumbled into dust. Alice walked through the cloud. When she looked back beyond it, the dust was still above the ground. "I remember you talking about Villa a lot. I don't remember being there. We were never there."
"How could I remember it, if we were never there?"
He stopped and turned around. "Alice. What do you know? What are you sure of?"
She stamped on the ground, sending up another cloud of heavy dust that wouldn't settle.
He nodded and kept walking. "Nothing, Alice. You're not sure of anything except the ground we're on and the sky we see. It's always been this way. Villa is a leftover of... something else."
She didn't want to hear it anymore. "Ted, Villa was. We were there. There was water there. It came out of metal pipes, human-made. It had internet, and we could see people who weren't with us. We could talk to them, and hear them talk back. I remember. You don't remember because..."
"Why?" he asked, not turning around.
"Because. You said copies aren't as good as the first thing, remember? Your copy isn't good at remembering. My copy isn't good at going for a long time. Let's rest."
"Already?" he stopped, and dropped his bag at his feet. The red dust hung around their knees. "Hungry?"
"Give me a Rack leg to chew on. Do we have any?"
He handed her a stringy black stick. The sun had come over the top of the mountain, but they didn't go look for shadow.
"It's a long way to water," Ted remarked.
Alice didn't answer. She just sucked on the dry meet and tried, like so often before, to figure out why her eyes kept blinking and stinging.
  
The rocks were still red. The ground was still dry. They were still walking. The sun was still at their backs, but now it was a lot lower, and the sky was darker.
"I don't have any," Ted told her.
"Water," Alice repeated. "We're coming up to water."
He listened. She was right. "Let's find a cave."
The ground was even here, not steep. It was the top of a ridge. They saw some craters farther on. The six-lane highway split into three roads nearby.
"Think we'd be safer to leave the highway?" Ted asked as they followed the gurgling sound.
"Safe," Alice mumbled. "Wherever you go there's Vamps. Where there's Vamps, there's Racks. And Arches can go any... Do you smell that?"
They both stopped. The sound of water was strong, but so was the smell of wet, oily meat.
"Go into that crater." He pointed to a hole. "I'll go see."
She didn't argue. They had been walking for so long, and she was very tired. Taking his bag and bucket with hers, she slid down the crater side. Ted, armed with a grenade and his bow, was out of sight.
She closed her eyes. The air was stuffy, and it didn't move down here. The sun was on her face, but it was half down and things were getting darker. Dark here didn't mean cooler, though. It just meant hunting time.
Only a sliver of the red sun still showed over the edge of the world when a hiss woke her. Her hand was on the fighting knife before her eyes were open. She sensed the movement of the young Vamp.
The blade went straight through the mutant. It had barely stopped moving when that smell of oily meat suddenly floated over. Alice froze. The ground was trembling. Something very big was coming her way.
She pulled the knife out of the Vamp and wiped it off on her bag. Leaving the mutant where it was, she hurried away from the crater.
That was Ted's voice. She stopped. She couldn't smell the oily meat anymore.
The sun was gone, and she could barely see. But she felt him grasp her arms.
"We have to get away from here. Come on." He was still whispering.
"Did you see it?" she asked. "What is it?"
"A mutant, a big one, like a Poker, just bigger, with more claws, and part human."
"I don't know how they made this one. It has sort of a human's head, but a Fell's teeth and a Snake's eyes It has five claws, like a Poker's, on its hands and feet. It's big. Huge. It can open its mouth almost as big as I am standing up."
"It's what killed the Snake?"
"It must be. Something like that needs a lot of food. There wouldn't be enough to feed more than one of them."
Alice didn't answer. Her feet were tingling.
"It's blue," Ted said, looking at her wide eyes. "It has shiny blue spots on it. It's got lots and lots of muscle." He flexed his upper arm. "It could pick us both up in one hand."
Alice touched his arm. "There's the smell again."
He stopped, sniffed, and then grabbed her by the hand. "Come on. It's coming our way."
He led the way around a crater, keeping in the rocks, away from the shadow. Most mutants could see better in the shadow than in the light of the blazing sun. They hurried, but the oily smell still stayed in their noses.
"There's no wind," Alice gasped, tugging at Ted's shoulder. "Why can we smell it? I need to stop. I need to stop."
Ted shifted his weight from leg to leg as she caught her breath. "There's no wind," he repeated. "But I smell it better than ever. Come on, Alice. Come on."
She pushed herself up, brushing against her bag as she did. Ted took her hand, and then dropped it again. "Alice, don't move."
She heard the breathing behind her. It was ragged and whistling, like it was being sucked in through big teeth. There was a sound of a tail slowly moving through the dust, scraping the ground sometimes. And the oily smell was stronger than ever.
The mutant let its air out of its nose, and Alice felt it on her back. It wasn't hard for her not to move. She did this every time they hunted Uurs. The mutant took a step forward, and now Alice could see most of it.
Ted hadn't put a right picture in her head at all. This thing was more than blue and big and strong. It had sharp bones growing out of its back and arms. The arms were always bent, because at the bend the skin had grown to hold them that way. Its hands had four big claws on them, and the fingers were webbed together in a tough skin. Its legs were as big around as she was and twice as tall as her. It walked on its block-like toes that carried the same kind of claws as the hands. It had a long black tail with two more bones sticking out of the end. It was covered in a thick black skin that looked too small for it, because here and there, blue muscles shone out through tears in it. Along the tail, the skin had turned a kind of flashy blue that only showed in the light.
The only part she couldn't see was its face, but after breathing on her head, the mutant took another step forward and stood in front of her.
Its head was long and bony. The shimmery blue skin was stretched tight and didn't cover all of it. It had sharp little teeth with no lips to cover them, and the mouth went beyond the narrow blue eyes, all the way back to the huge, muscular neck. The mouth could only open part way because the top and bottom were attached by some skin, but behind this fake cheek, the other half of the mouth and the grinding teeth still showed. Three big bones stuck out of the back of its head. Without those bones, the head would have looked like a neck with teeth in it.
Alice stared at the mutant, not moving, not breathing. She saw its chest moving as it breathed, and she heard the air whistling through its slightly parted teeth.
It put out a hand as big as its head, and stuck a claw into her bag of provisions. She didn't think of resisting when it pulled the bag and bucket away from her. She couldn't tell where it was looking. Its eyes were bright blue all the way through.
It sniffed the Vamp's blood on the bag and licked it off, then tossed the bag aside.
Seeing this, Alice got her senses back again. This thing was more than a mutant. A mutant was food, something to be hunted. A mutant was something that would kill first if it could. This thing wasn't out to kill right away.
It bent its head down to her again and made a strange, growling sound. Alice looked into its eyes for a moment, then dropped her own, not wanting to seem aggressive.
The thing pushed her in the chest, but not in a way that hurt her, and it repeated what it had said.
Alice tensed. She dared a look at Ted. "I heard 'Come'?" she asked him, and looked back at the monster. "Did you say 'come'?"
The thing clamped a claw around her arm and pulled her up off the ground. Then it turned its attention to Ted and repeated the word. This time Alice was sure she understood "Come."
She didn't want to say anything. The monster might understand. But she didn't want Ted to keep standing there, either. She jerked her head.
He understood and spun around, but he'd barely taken one step when the mutant's tail lashed around in front of him and the bones touched his head. The monster grabbed him around the middle and picked him up, too. Then, still holding Alice by her arm, it started down the side of the mountain.
As they left the red sun behind the mountain, it got darker and darker. The highway was just a gray strip in the black.
Halfway to the highway, Alice's arms were hurting awfully, but she was afraid to complain. She would have had to, if the mutant hadn't suddenly dropped her and Ted and let out a roar.
Alice, stunned by her fall, still knew they had run into a Rack. Through the dark, she could see its faintly glowing red eyes. It was a big one, but the mutant killed it by tearing off its head. Then it took both of them up around their middles, stepped onto the road, and began to run.
It was fast, and it ran smoothly. Alice tried to keep track of where they were, but it got too dark to see. The thing kept running. Alice tried to brace herself against the fingers to stop bouncing with every step. She kept her face to the wind so as not to smell the oily meat. After a while she fell asleep in its fingers.
When she woke again the mutant was still running on the highway. The sun had risen, and Alice knew she had never seen this place before.
It was different from their old place. The red dust was still here. The red dust was everywhere. But things grew here. Bright green plants, with big, bright, meaty leaves and bright red flowers and fruits. Everything was bright, and so she knew everything was full of poison and acid. This place was new, but it wasn't better.
Over the sound of the mutant's claws striking the road, she heard water. They seemed to be going toward it. The monster carried them through some tall, dark plants. Alice, looking up at them, remembered they'd had these kinds of plants in Villa. Trees, they'd been called there. But in Villa they'd had thin, cool leaves, not these fat things that sent up sprays of goo when the mutant stepped on them.
Ted looked up at the trees in fascination, like he'd never seen anything like them before. She knew he didn't remember the ones from Villa.
They reached a pool. It sat at the base of a big waterfall. The water was clear. This would be where the mutant stayed.
It dropped them at the edge of the pool and roared. Alice couldn't move for all the cramps and aches of being held around the middle so long, but she looked up. She saw another person, a female, step out of the trees and run forward. The mutant began to growl, like it was speaking, but Alice didn't understand anything. She saw the female listen carefully, and sometimes the person would pull in her head with a frightened expression. Alice wondered if she understood any of the words, either.
The mutant stopped its noises. The female took Alice's and Ted's hands and pulled them toward the trees across from the waterfall. Behind her, Alice heard a splash and saw the monster had stepped into the pool.
Out of sight of the water, the female stopped. "Can you speak?" she asked, slowly, looking into their eyes. Her own eyes were gray and frightened. Her hair was gray, too, but her skin was burned red, like Alice's and Ted's.
"We're people, aren't we?" Ted retorted, feeling braver with the mutant out of sight. "Are there any people that can't speak?"
"There are people without mouths now," the female answered him, speaking in her quiet, nervous tone. "There are people with eyes that don't see, and people that walk on all fours. Do you have names?"
Ted looked at Alice. "First tell us yours."
"My name," the female said slowly. "My name would be Lin."
Frowning at the wording, Alice answered, "I'm Alice. This is Ted."
"Us," Ted said impatiently. "What is that?" And he pointed back the way they'd come.
"That's New," Lin told him. "I don't know any more. I've only been here a short time. It's not a male or a female. It's not a breed. It's just New."
"Why didn't it eat us?"
"It will. It will. But for now, it needs us to grow things for it. It keeps people to do work it can't do with its claws. It takes care of us. We can eat fruit and drink water. Sometimes it gives us meat. It hunts for itself, and if it finds people, it brings them back here. We grow its fruit. And then it eats us. It'll let you work longer if you work well, but in the end it'll still eat you."
"How long has it been here? How old is it?"
Lin shook her head. "Things like New always exist. They come in lots of shapes and sizes, only one or two at a time. If there were more, they wouldn't find enough to eat. New isn't as big as it'll ever get. It's young. It'll need a lot of food before the next thing comes along."
Alice looked from her to Ted and back to her. "How do you know all this?"
Lin didn't answer right away. "Have you ever heard of Villa?" she asked finally.
"That old story again," Ted grumbled.
"We used to live there," Alice said quietly, "a long, long time ago."
"Before we went to sleep Pat was still here."
Ted shrugged. "Some time we'll have been here before we went to sleep, too, and then nobody'll know about us again. New got hungry. The bigger it gets, the more it eats. Some time it'll pop, like the leaves of the trees outside."
Alice draped herself in wet cloth and lay down. "Do you remember Lin?" she asked, folding her hands behind her head.
"Lin. The person who took care of us after New brought us here."
"New brought us here? I guess it must have. No, I don't remember a Lin. I don't remember coming here."
Had it already been so long ago that Ted had forgotten about everything before living here at the pool? Alice felt the cooler air float over her. When they'd first come here it hadn't been this hot. They'd slept outside in the soft red dust. Now it was too hot to sleep outside, and it would be too hot to sleep in the tents if not for the wet rags. They had to work in the dark and sleep in the light because the light was too bright to see and too hot to move. New went out as usual and hunted, but the people had to stay in their tents and caves with lots of water. The red dust wasn't soft anymore either. It was hard and sharp. They had to wrap their feet so they didn't cut themselves when they watered the plants and picked the round red fruits.
Alice closed her eyes and thought back to the cave they'd lived in, far down the highway, before New had killed the huge Snake and dropped its head in, scaring them into leaving. She remembered that better than Villa. Villa was smeared and fuzzy. She still could imagine the houses, and the Internet, and some of the people, but they were fading.
"Are you happy here?"
"Am I what?"
"Happy. Do you like this as much as our old caves, before New found us?"
"Alice, I've lived here as long as I can remember. What caves?"
"You can't already have forgotten, Ted. We had a cave, down the highway. It had a cloth over the opening. It went off in all sorts of directions, but we only used a few of the rooms. There was a pool of water down the side of the mountain. We hunted Vamps and Racks. You made grenades and arrows out of the Vamp claws and teeth, and we dried the Rack legs and ate them. Remember you taught me how to cut off the claw of a Vamp without letting it snap into the wing?"
"Were there trees there?"
"No, no trees. There was just water and red dust. Soft red dust. Sometimes we'd find little plants, but they were full of acid and we couldn't eat them."
"I can't remember, but I'm sure I'd never want to live there."
"No plants. No trees. We had to get our own food. New feeds us here. We don't need to worry about Racks and Snakes and Vamps. They know this pool belongs to New, and they stay away."
"New will eat us some time, you know."
"Not if we work well for it. We're the best workers it has. We've been here forever. It needs people to tell the new ones what to do. It won't eat us."
"Lin was here before us, and New ate her."
"I don't remember a Lin."
Alice was quiet. Ted had forgotten all about how they'd lived before New.
"Why?" Ted asked after a while. "Don't you like it here?"
She propped herself up on one elbow. "We're not taking care of ourselves, Ted. We're being taken care of."
"I know. I like it."
"And it will eat us."
"No, it won't."
Alice must have fallen asleep, because the red sun was going down when she noticed her surroundings again. Ted was awake. "How'd you sleep?" he asked.
"As usual," she said, running her fingers through her hair to get the knots out of it. She studied it as she fixed it. "I used to have red hair."
"It's gray now."
"We've been here a long time, Ted. Hair turns gray after a long time. It was red when we came."
"Of course we've been here a long time. As long as I can remember."
"If I left, Ted, would you come with me?"
He nudged her aside so he could soak his rags in the pan of water, which needed a refilling. "You can't leave, Alice. Dan tried to leave, and New bit off his arm."
"When?" She looked at him in dismay.
"While you were asleep. I wasn't tired, so I walked in the trees a little. New came back with Dan, and Dan was missing an arm. New will probably eat him today." He laid a hand on her shoulder. "Besides, you wouldn't get very far. You get tired fast, you know. Why would you want to leave?"
"Because I don't want to get eaten."
He patted her back. "Even if you do, so what? You won't feel anything. New always starts with the head."
"On Dan it started with the arm."
"Just because Dan tried to leave."
"I don't want to get eaten," she repeated.
"Why? What makes being alive so special?"
She didn't try to remind him of the time she asked the same question of him. Instead, she said, "I don't know. But you can do things when you're alive, and you can't when you're eaten. And I don't like doing things for a mutant. It's not what we used to do."
He shrugged. "If you say so. But you'll die faster if you try to leave, and I like it here."
Somebody shouted outside. It was dark, and it was time to start working.
Alice wrapped her feet and followed Ted out of the tent. It didn't take long to walk to the fields, but she had to sit down and rest when they got there. Ted was right. She wouldn't get far if she tried to leave.
Pans of crushed goo from the fat leaves were lit under the fruit trees, so the people could see when they worked. The fruits were big. Now it was picking time. Ted brought her a bucket, and she started to pull them off the branches, carefully, so they wouldn't burst, and so she wouldn't disturb the fat leaves too much. New ate the fruits, and it used the leaves, too, to catch meat and to keep itself wet and cool when it was out in the light.
The ground shook. New threw a shadow over the trees. Alice looked up as she rested for a moment.
New was huge and fat. When it had stolen her and Ted from the mountain, it had been big, sleek and muscular, with sharp white teeth. It had smelled of oily meat then.
Now it stood five times as tall as Ted, and it smelled like rotten meat. Its muscles sagged, and its belly hung down between its legs. Its teeth were black and broken. It moved slowly and grunted and wheezed with every step. When it had been young, its skin had been too tight to fit over all of it. Now its muscles and fat dropped from every hole. The blue sheen of its tail was faded to a dusty gray. The bones that stuck out of it were partly broken, and partly dull, not sharp and dangerous anymore. It was always eating something. Only its size made it frightening.
Alice heard it crunch down on something and saw some legs dangling from its hand. That must be Dan. She went back to harvesting from her tree.
New stayed there with the people the whole time. It didn't go out to hunt, like it usually did. It wandered around, picking fruits out of the baskets and watching the workers.
When the first red streaks showed, the people stored away the fruit they'd picked and prepared to go back to their tents and caves. New watched until they were all walking away. Then it roared.
The people stopped as New lumbered over. Looking around, the monster finally focused on Alice and, pointing at her, said, "Come."
She walked over to it, slowly, watching its dull blue eyes. It bent down and took her arm when she was within reach. Lifting the arm, it looked around and roared again. Alice knew she was the next Lin.
Chewing on a piece of fruit, Alice held her face in the coldness of her wet cloths. Her thin gray hair stuck to her head. It kept getting hotter. The sun shone red through the opening of the cave. It was too hot to live in tents anymore. The sun just burned them up.
Ted was dozing in a dark corner. He'd cut off all his hair to ease the heat, but now his head was red and burnt. He'd run to the pool for water, and the sun had burnt him.
"I can't work anymore," she said.
Ted opened his eyes. "You have to. New doesn't keep people that don't work."
"I know. It'll eat me. It always eats the leaders. It'll eat you, too, some time."
"I'm not a leader. I'm still working."
"I can't. I can't even walk out of the cave without having to sit down. I'm too tired, Ted."
He sat up. "I've known you forever, Alice. I wouldn't want you to be eaten."
"Then take me away. If I don't go to work tonight, New will look for me, find me, and eat me."
"It's too hot. The sun would kill us."
"We can leave when the rest go to work. New never goes hunting any more. It just watches the work. It never goes looking for more workers. It lives off the trees that are left, and off the people. Nothing comes in."
Ted thought about this for a long time. Finally he nodded. "I'll carry you out. New will catch us and eat us both, of course, but I won't have to work without you. We won't feel anything. It always starts with the head."
It got dark., like always. When the red was gone from the sky, Alice walked to the mouth of the cave and gave a shout. ""To the trees!" Then she sat down.
Ted laid a hand on her shoulder. "We may as well go now."
He went into a squat and pulled her arms around his neck. Then, his arms around her legs, they left the cave.
Ted hadn't walked very far when he asked, "Which way is away from here?"
Alice thought for a moment. "New brought us by the highway. We should get some water from the pool and go back that way. The highway goes to the mountains. We can live in the mountains."
"No," Ted shook his head. "We'll need water, so we may as well follow it. We'll climb up by the waterfall and follow the water. We'll go to the pool, but not through the trees."
"There's water in the mountains," Alice told him as he started for the pool. "If we follow the water from the waterfall, we'll go toward the sunset. It's flat there. Nothing but red dust. No rocks, no plants."
Ted stopped. "How do you know?"
She didn't answer right away, and when she did she was quiet. "I remember a drawing from Villa."
"A drawing. Alice, New ran all night to bring us here from the mountains on the highway. We don't know when we'll find water on the highway. There's always food by the water. We'll follow the water."
She didn't argue anymore. Maybe he was right. Following the water would be easier.
They passed alongside the trees with the fruit. They saw New watching the workers. Maybe it would miss them soon, but maybe not. For a while now, Alice had taken a long time to get from her cave to the trees, because she tired out so fast.
Ted was strong, and soon they heard the water of the pool. Alice kept looking back, thinking she would hear New roar. But the lights at the fruit trees, and New kept his head down, looking at the workers and not moving much.
"Now we go up the rocks," Ted told her. "Hold on by yourself. I need my hands now."
"I can climb a little bit," Alice said, sliding off his back. "It's not that far."
Ted led the way up the rocks. They climbed close to the water and were glad for the cool mist.
Alice had to rest three times. Ted kept within her reach the whole way, and when he climbed over the top, he turned around to help her up.
It was just then that New roared, and some lights bobbed away from the trees and began to move outward. Alice and Ted ducked behind a rock.
"Do you think it knows we came this way?" Ted asked.
"It knows we need water. I think it'll come this way first." She looked at him. "Maybe if we'd gone to the highway, we would have found rocks and places to hide."
"We wouldn't have had water, Alice."
"We should have thought about it first. We could have carried some."
"We didn't, though."
Ted patted her arm. "The lights are gone. I'll carry you again. Maybe we can be faster than it." He lifted her onto his back again and set off at a jog. It was too dark to see, and sometimes he stumbled, but he kept following the sound of water. The sound of New roaring and the lights got farther and farther away.
"We didn't think about this at all - about what happens after we leave, what we need," Alice said as Ted slowed to a walk.
"I didn't think we'd get this far," he answered.
"But what happens if we meet a Rack or a Vamp? We don't have any grenades or arrows."
"Oh Alice," he said. "Do you really think we're going to get away from here?"
"What do you think we're doing?" she asked.
"We're taking an easy way out of the work. We have two things we can do. We can work for New until he decides to eat us. Or we can decide when New eats us, which we're doing now. You said we used to live in our own cave and hunt our own food and decide things ourselves. I don't remember it. If we ever did that, we'll never do it after New."
Alice said nothing. New was old and fat, but it could still run short stretches. If it didn't get them, a Rack or a Vamp or an Arch or a Snake would. Ted was right. What she considered a choice came out to the same thing in the end. They needed things to get away from New.
Sometimes Ted carried her; sometimes she walked herself. They kept following the water until the sky began to turn red.
Alice stopped to look around. They would need a cave or place to stay while the sun was up. It was already getting hotter.
The river wasn't very big here. It was lined with small rocks and the red dust. There was no place to hide. There were no trees or grass or plants, not even bright, fat, poisonous ones. She could see the red dust in all directions. In one place was a thin line - the highway. It looked flat, but she knew it had rocks and caves around it. She wondered if Ted saw it.
"There was one other thing that could happen," Ted remarked, looking across the flat land. "We could get roasted. And that's what we will be."
"No," Alice said quietly. "No, I think we've decided when New can eat us."
Ted turned to look at her, saw she was looking behind them, and realized New was approaching in a jog, its fat shining in the red light.
Ted watched it come closer. Then he sat down and put his legs in the water. "We weren't even away long enough for the sun to go down on us alone."
"I'd rather be eaten here than back at the pool, where New can tell us what to do."
Ted looked up at her in surprise. "What difference does it make?"
"I'm going to be eaten here; because New is angry I left. I decided that I would leave. I decided to make New angry. I decided I would be eaten. I didn't decide anything back at the pool. I wouldn't have."
"I don't see what difference it makes," Ted answered, looking at himself in the water.
New had reached them by now. It slowed down to a walk until it stood over them, throwing a shadow on them. They both looked up at it, studying it. They hadn't seen it in the red sunlight for a long time.
It looked so much different than when it had taken them from the mountains by the highway, Alice thought.
It stank worse than a Rack. It reached out a big hand and closed the claws around her middle. The claws were black and broken. The fingers were fat and could barely move. She slipped through its hand a little as it lifted her.
Holding her close to its ugly head, it looked from her to Ted. She saw its blue eyes were dull and almost totally covered in bumps of fat. It could barely see.
It opened its mouth and said something, but neither of them understood what it said until it ended by stretching out the other hand to Ted. "Come."
They looked at each other. "It thinks you only left because I wanted to," Alice said.
"That's what happened," Ted agreed.
"Will you go back with it?"
New turned on her and bared its broken, black teeth at her, breathing an air that knocked her out so she missed Ted's answer.
"I think it's going to eat you, Alice."
"Of course it will. Are you going back with it?"
"If I don't it'll eat me, too. I can't live out here. The sun will roast me. You talked about grenades and knives, about hunting Racks and Vamps and eating them and using their claws, but I don't remember. If I ever did that, I can't do it anymore."
She shrugged as best she could around the fat fingers holding her. At the same time, New nodded and ran one claw softly down Ted's arm. "Come."
New handed him one of the fat leaves from the trees by the pool. Ted split it and rubbed it over himself to keep him safe from the sun. Then New picked him up, too, and set him on its shoulder. It started to jog and went back the way they'd walked that night.
As New ran, Ted called to Alice. She looked up.
"Maybe it isn't going to eat you after all."
"Of course it will. It's angry I left. You heard it roar when we climbed over the waterfall."
"I can't tell it's angry. How do you know it just didn't want you to run into a Vamp or a Snake? Maybe it is a new thing, newer than just being bigger and sharper. Maybe it's not like the things you say we used to hunt, that always would have killed us if we hadn't killed them first."
"In Villa they called that kind of new 'good'."
"Villa," Ted snorted. "There's another thing. I like you, Alice. I really like you. But you keep talking about things I don't know about. You say I've forgotten them, because we're copies of things that used to be, and we're bad copies. But I've never heard anybody else talk about it. I believed you until now, but I don't think I will anymore. You just made Villa up, and you made up those stories about us hunting Vamps and Racks, too. They never were. The only things that are, are here now. New is, and the pool is, and the trees are. Villa isn't and wasn't, and we never hunted anything. New is, what'd you call it?"
"New is good, and I'm happy to be going back to the pool. You'll see it's good. It won't eat you."
"Ted, if New is good, why did it eat Dan?"
"Why shouldn't it? It takes care of us, doesn't it? We're its, and if it decides something, it'll know what it's doing. Dan wanted to leave too. Maybe a Rack bit him, and he was sick. Maybe he could have made the rest of us sick, so New took him away."
Alice looked into New's eyes before she answered. There was a glint there, just a spark of the bright blue that had been the whole eye the first time she'd seen him.
"Ted, if I'm not around soon, what will you think?"
"New ate you. That's not bad. You can't work anymore."
"Will you miss me?"
"Of course. But there are other ones of us."
The scenery was changing. Some grass and big rocks were appearing. Up ahead, they could see bushes. The green of the plants got brighter the further they went. New was still jogging, though now it was breathing hard.
Alice didn't say anything until Ted spoke again. "We've lived with New for a long time. For all that time I thought it was bad, that it did whatever it wanted. That it was just a big kind of Arch or Rack. But it hasn't eaten you, even though you tried to leave it. And it told me 'Come', even though I went with you. What we did wasn't smart, you know. There was no place to go. The sun would have roasted us."
"I wanted to go back to the rocks, to the time before New," she said quietly.
"There was no time before New! Look, we're already at the waterfall. See? It took us so long to try to get away from here. New got us back so fast."
New carried them right to their own cave and laid them both inside. Then it disappeared toward the pool.
"I'll work hard tonight," Ted said, taking a fruit from their pile and biting it. "Everything is just like we left it. It wasn't smart of us to leave. Alice, you should put some leaf juice on. You're burned."
She lay in the front of the cave, wrapped in wet rags, and didn't answer. She couldn't go out, and there were no leaves in the cave. Ted wasn't looking at her. He was eating the next fruit. She was hungry, too, and maybe some fruit juice would help the red on her skin. She leaned back and closed her eyes. She was tired. "Ted, will you give me a fruit?"
He went through the pile to pick the best one, and turned around to give it to her, but she wasn't in the entrance anymore.
He waited a bit for her to come back, then got up and went to look out. No one was around except New, walking down the red dust path, chewing on something as usual.