Karron leaned over the rail of her boat, the Tarik, and watched the meteor shower from its reflection in the river below. The bright streaks of light looked like underwater fireflies and the Ring more like a soft blue disk, a monochromatic rainbow that ruled their lives in constant reminder of how broken the world was.
“Water, water, everywhere,” she murmured to herself, the words half-forgotten, something she’d read in the Covenant Archive a world — and a lifetime — ago. In their case implanted at the top of her spine, her nanos stirred with the memory.
The Tarik rode low in the Missip river as it tacked up the shoreline. She was a smaller boat, fifty feet and built with a shallow draft for sailing rivers and canals. Usually she carried only Karron and Ishim, and whatever cargo they’d bartered for, bought, or stolen.
The ship wasn’t equipped to handle six people on board. Karron glanced at their passengers where they huddled on makeshift beds around the steam stack toward the aft of the ship. A man and woman, who had provided what were probably fake names, and two kids. A week ago now they’d appeared on a small dock upriver from Looston, asking about getting around the Covenant checkpoints between Looston and Ria, a good two-week journey if they did it straight. No papers for the kids, the woman, Jill, said.
Plausible enough story, and their Covenant coin would spend all along the river. The thirty gallons of pure water they’d offered as bonus had decided it. Karron and Ishim would smuggle the four up to Ria, where Nolan, the man, said his parents and jobs were waiting.
In the pale earthlight coming off the Ring, Karron could almost make out the little family’s faces. The adults appeared asleep under their blankets, but the two kids were awake, their dark eyes glinting. Oni, the boy, was supposedly seven years old, and his sister, Bee, was four. They were well behaved, the two kids. Creepily so. Quiet as fish lurking in the rocks, and as nimble as Button, the ship’s cat.
Karron bit her lip and glanced to the fore where Ishim stood keeping the ship steering smoothly through the dark water. She hadn’t told him her suspicions about the children. Her thoughts were impossible, and she knew as well as he that even if she was right about what they were, there was nothing she nor Ishim could or would do about it.
She’d always been too curious. Her instructors at the Academy had always said so in varying tones of annoyance or amusement.
Curiosity killed the cat, she thought, turning over the phrase in her mind, a phrase from the old times, before the Ring, before the sky broke and war came to the world.
“Satisfaction brought it back,” she whispered. She had to know.
Creeping over the deck — the shush of wind in the mainsail and the lap of water against the hull covering any sound she might have made — Karron approached the sleeping passengers. She brought her finger to her lips and saw both children nod. The adults to either side of them didn’t move, apparently asleep.
She knelt in front of Oni and reached for his head. He didn’t flinch, didn’t even seem to breathe as she slid her hand around the back of his neck and felt the base of his skull.
The hard knot was there, distinct and familiar beneath her trembling fingers. Oni reached up and touched her arm. Karron bent her head and let him feel her own knot for himself. Bee’s tiny hand replaced Oni’s.
“Not your aunt and uncle,” Karron whispered, her mouth moving but hardly any sound coming from her throat. The kids would hear her, if they were like she was.
“No,” Oni whispered back. “Help us?”
“Kill them. They are going to sell us.”
She shook her head. “Not my problem,” she whispered.
“You are like us,” the boy said. Beside him, Jill stirred, and all three of them froze until she settled again.
“Not anymore,” Karron lied.
For a long moment they sat in silence, watching one another. Then Karron crept away, her heart in her throat, and went back to her own blanket. Her head buzzed and her adrenaline spiked and the nanos at the base of her skull woke up, reacting to her heightened emotions. She took careful, slow breaths and forced herself to calm.
War Children, they’d been called. The program was dead, dismantled and torched fifteen years ago. She thought she’d been in the last generation, the last raised in the crèche in Deecee. Genetically altered, infested with nano-tech that even the Covenant didn’t understand, trained from the day they could walk to hunt, kill, be soldiers at the front of the Covenant peace-keeping forces.
She’d seen the Academy burn, seen her fellow Children burn with it. Only a few escaped that she knew of and many of them had been hunted down or gone insane. If Ishim hadn’t pulled her from the river, she would have died as well.
It was luck and staying calm and quiet that had kept the nanos from driving her insane, kept her from being caught. She’d told Ishim what she was, but he didn’t seem to care. Karron had warned him if she went crazy, he’d have to put her down.
“If you go crazy, will I even be able to kill you before you get me?” Ishim had asked.
Karron had looked away. They both knew the answer was no. No one man alone could take out a War Child.
Now there were three of them on this boat, though what training the two kids had, Karron didn’t know. At Oni’s age, she’d already run her first mission. Was there a program again? Why were these kids traveling with the suspiciously normal-seeming man and woman who Oni said were going to sell them? Sell them to whom?
Too many questions get smugglers killed, Ishim would say. Karron stared up at the Ring and pushed the questions away as stones fell out of the sky, flamed bright, and died away.
• • • •
The Missip branched into a hundred waterways as the Zouri joined up with it. Ishim and Karron knew many of those ways. Which ones were patrolled by Covenant boats or led to Covenant settlements, which ones were dead ends, which were safe for a boat with a shallow draft to pole down or steam up. Reeds and willow branches shivered in the cool spring air as they tacked west and north along one of these myriad of ways. By afternoon they would join up with a bigger branch of the Zouri and in another week they’d be able to steam toward Ria, the worst of the checkpoints and danger zones.
Ria itself was controlled by a Baron, one of the gang leaders set up by the Covenant to keep a semblance of order on this side of the Missip. Long as the trains ran on time and the tithes got paid, Covenant didn’t seem to care what else happened or how the Barons went about their lives.
Ishim was catching a nap and Karron had the wheel as she guided the ship, keeping the boat turned so the big sail held a bellyful of wind. This way would narrow too much for sailing soon and they’d have to break out the poles or risk the racket of the steam engine for a while. They’d decide when Ishim woke, probably with a shared glance, a look at the river conditions, and a nod. A decade and a half relying on each other made words irrelevant. Karron smiled to herself as a kingfisher dove into the water ahead. Sometimes they’d go weeks without words.
Not like their passengers. Nolan and Jill talked to each other a lot and sometimes attempted to engage Ishim or Karron in small talk, more and more as the days went by. They said idle things mostly. When they spoke to each other, they used Esper instead of Covenant. Their accents in that tongue put them from the south, maybe from as far as Nawlins. She and Ishim never sailed too far south. Too many sharks and crocodiles, too much heat, unstable weather, and biting insects. Too many Covenant Peace Keepers. The north was safer.
Nolan had insulted Karron and Ishim the second day in Esper, calling Ishim a night pig and Karron his little white slut. Ishim didn’t speak Esper and Karron had decided not to respond, curious as to why the man went off on them with such a pleasant tone and a smile on his face. She’d figured he was trying to see if she spoke the language. Her training was still there, lurking beneath her skin like the nanotech. So she said nothing, just shook her head as though she had no idea what he was saying.
This morning they’d been whispering about a broken bridge. Their excitement, the anticipation they couldn’t keep out of their body language, it scared Karron. Felt to her like the thick heat before a bad storm, air crackling with energy as the world held its breath.
War Children. She hadn’t told Ishim. No way to tell him without chancing being overheard. The kids had stayed aft all morning, crouched together and watching the world with dark, quiet eyes that didn’t quite meet hers when she risked looking their way.
Wherever they’d come from, wherever they were going, they weren’t her crèche, her brothers and sisters. Not her problem. Killing took her away, took her to the warm place it was hard to come home from. She wouldn’t go there for strangers. She couldn’t.
The children as she’d known them were gone. These kids? Not. Her. Problem.
The wheel beneath her hands creaked and started to splinter. She forced her grip to relax.
Ishim woke, and they shared a quick meal of flatbread and dried fruit. Supplies were low and it hadn’t rained in a few days. They’d have to start boiling river water soon, or use the precious gallons of filtered water on their passengers. They had filter tabs, but those made water taste awful, and Karron’s shit turn to tar, so she avoided them unless it was dire. There was a settlement nearby, just upstream where their Covenant coin would spend. Fresh water, maybe fresh fruit and vegetables. Maybe even game meat. Karron was getting tired of fish and flatbread.
They doused the sails after losing the stern wind as the river narrowed, and pushed the boat with long poles through the smaller canal-like passage that should connect up to the Zouri tributaries. She hadn’t sailed this way since the previous summer, and the winter rains and flooding could have changed things. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Hours of poling felt good on her muscles, taking her mind off the kids. Something red caught her eye off the port side as she shoved the long pole into the canal bed. Metal, the remnant of a settlement here probably before the Ring, back when Earth had a moon and this whole land was called the United States. Fragments survived even in the wilderness, sometimes rising like the carcass of a long-dead beast from reeds and swamp.
Part of a bridge, Karron realized. She’d seen it before, the broken expanse stretching like an accusing finger pointing over the water. It hadn’t been red then. It was painted on the side toward her, bright and fresh.
She went still, pole in her hands nearly forgotten.
Ishim cursed and she made herself turn and look to the starboard side. Nolan had a .38 revolver pointed at Ishim’s head. The way the man held it, it was clear he had practice with a gun and was ready to kill.
“Pole over to the bank there by that bridge,” Jill said. She stood near the mast, another gun held in one hand, pointed down but with her finger near the trigger.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” Nolan added.
Karron contemplated doing something stupid. The nanos in her head were angry insects begging to be let free. They buzzed through her, little twitches of muscle and thought which she had tried to euthanize with time and quiet.
Jam the pole into the river, shove the ship hard right. Grab the gaff two steps fore, take five steps, remove gun from man. Throw gaff and rope at woman. Take gun, kill. Two shots.
She ran it in her head ten different ways. Every time, Ishim had a high chance of being shot before she got to the man. She had a high chance of being shot, too, but a bullet or two would only piss her off, not take her down.
The kids stayed aft, crouched on a blanket, staring at the deck. No help there.
Ishim caught her eye and shook his head, his graying braids swinging with the movement. Karron pressed her lips together and nodded. She would wait then; wait for the passengers to screw up. Humans always screwed up.
They poled over to shore. The hull ground into the reeds, and Jill threw a rope up onto the broken bridge. A man rose from above and caught it, tying the ship off. Two more men made their way out of the brush and slogged into the shallows.
“Lower the ladder. This is where you get off,” Jill said, motioning with her pistol. Covenant gun, the pointed cross clearly stamped on the barrel.
“I am not leaving my ship,” Ishim said. He folded thickly muscled black arms over his chest, chin up. “You want to go somewhere, we’ll take you. But I do not leave my ship.”
She and Ishim had checked all the bags. They’d made Jill and Nolan stand while they patted them down, too. Where had they hidden the guns?
Karron looked back at the kids. They hadn’t checked them. Stupid of her. She should know how dangerous children could be. He hadn’t told her, the other night. Karron wondered if the boy would have, if she’d agreed to help. He hadn’t said a word, because he knew the man and woman would force her hand if they had guns. It was how a War Child would think, what she would have done in his place.
Oni caught her eye now and mouthed a word of apology, looking decades older than seven. Bee clung to him, staring at the planks, her knuckles white where she gripped Oni’s shirt. There was a gun on the ship, next to the steam engine in a hidden compartment. Fat lot of good it would do her now. She had a small knife on her belt. Knife in a gunfight. Not so good either.
All scenarios led to Ishim being shot before she could fight back.
Her mind buzzed, her blood singing the song of death. The song of war.
Memories buried and half-forgotten arose, snapping into place like a joint of out of socket. She’d killed once before to protect the ship, to protect Ishim. She’d come back from the warm rage that time. She could return again from that bright place. She had no choice.
Karron raised her eyes from the kids to the Ring where it slashed the blue skies above, shining white in the sun. She was no more able to stop being a killer than the Ring was able to stop dropping rocks. Hating the Ring for the storms and the fires was as pointless as hating the sun for shining. Hating her nanotech and her training was the same. She could fight it, the way they fought the river to move upstream. But let go, stop for a moment, and she would drift like the ship, going the way nature intended.
Karron set her pole down slowly. It was too long to use as a weapon. She turned to Jill after a glance told her the men on the shore didn’t have guns in their hands.
“You think you are the first to try to hijack our ship? Ishim and his brother built this ship with their hands, sweat, and tears. His brother’s name is on the hull, his brother’s blood in the nails and boards, his hair in the rope and sail.” Karron moved slowly to her left. One more step and she’d have the gaffing hook. She kept her eyes on Jill.
“A captain,” she continued, knowing Ishim would hear her, knowing he’d understand, “a true captain always goes down with his ship.”
Oni acted before she could. The boy crossed the deck in a blur of preternatural speed, whipping the blanket into a weapon before him. It caught Jill in the side and threw her off balance. The boy was small, and there wasn’t much strength in the blow, but the blanket’s momentum shoved her into the mast, distracting the woman for a precious moment.
Karron grabbed the gaffing hook. Ishim dropped to the deck, sweeping his own pole to the side and catching Nolan in the legs with it. Karron sprang and landed on the man. She plunged the pointed end of the gaff into his throat with her right hand even as her left went for the revolver. Blood sprayed from his mouth as a gunshot cracked out over the water.
Bee screamed. Karron wrenched the revolver from Nolan’s dying fingers and rolled to the side, pointing the gun where she’d last seen Jill.
Oni was down, holding his hands to his thin stomach, dark blood welling between his fingers. Jill turned, swinging the gun a little wildly. Dimly, at the edge of her battle-focused awareness, Karron saw movement as the man on the bridge jumped to the deck and the other two tried to climb the side.
The revolver was her hand, a metal extension of her killing will. Fifteen years without a gun, and she felt as though time had stood still. She was a Child again, full of light, bright and hot and deadly.
The laughter ringing over the water was her own, echoing back at her as she squeezed the trigger.
One shot for Jill, giving the woman a third eye and a baffled expression before she toppled over. Two shots for the man who had jumped to the deck. One shot for the man climbing over the railing.
Karron gained her feet and ran to the rail. The final man wasn’t trying to climb up anymore. He sloshed and slogged to the firmer shore, trying to run. She raised the gun. Two shots left, if the weight was right, if it was as she remembered.
Ishim’s voice broke her focus. The big man moved up beside her, carefully making noise and staying out of striking distance.
She kept her eyes on the escaping prey.
“Karron,” he repeated. “Look to the sky.”
Her arms shook with the effort of holding the gun without firing; Karron forced herself to look up.
“Ringlight,” she murmured. “Sunlight. Earthlight. Ringlight. Sunlight. Earthlight.” Over and over until the words became nothing but breathing.
Karron lowered the gun.
The man was gone, lost to the brush. She could have hunted him down, but the light was fading inside. She was tired, the buzzing in her head growing quiet as the moment passed.
“Help him,” Bee said, the little girl’s voice strained but strong.
“They are like me,” Karron said. “He’ll live. Get powder for the bleeding. He’ll live,” she repeated. “He is like me.”
Ishim went for the first aid kit. Karron went for the bodies. She cut their throats before she hauled them over the side, shoving away her aroused, visceral reaction to the salt and copper scent of blood.
They’d have to scrub the boards. The blood would stain. The coin would buy paint to hide the stains. Karron kept her thoughts flowing, simple, calm thoughts. Lists of things to do. She ignored the kids as long as she could, getting the boat unhooked. Oni would live. Ishim would help him.
Oni slept in a pile of blankets, Bee holding his hand. Ishim and Karron didn’t speak, just poled further up the channel. They would skip the settlement.
“He’ll need a good meal,” she said eventually, as the sun set and painted the Ring orange and pink.
“There’s an inlet ahead. I can hunt.”
The rabbit was slow and fat on spring grass. Karron used a thrown rock to bring it down. The hard earth beneath her feet felt strange as she made her way back to the river.
Ishim had brought the kids down off the ship and started a fire on the driest bit of land they could find. Oni’s color was better, his eyes bright and clear.
“You could have told me about the guns,” Karron said as she quartered the rabbit into the small kettle before adding precious pure water to the stew.
“You wouldn’t have helped us,” Oni said.
“You knew?” Ishim said, looking at Karron, making it clear he was talking about the kids, not about the guns.
“Only last night. They weren’t our problem.” She lifted a shoulder in a half-shrug. “Smugglers and questions, right?”
“We’re your problem now,” Oni said with the kind of smug smile only a child used to being the smartest person around could wear.
“And where do you expect us to take you? Ria?”
“We have been paid to take them that far,” Karron offered.
Ishim looked at Karron and shook his head with a small smile of his own.
“No,” Oni said. “Sanctuary.”
Karron laughed, the sound barking from her throat, surprising her. “That’s a myth. Hell, we told each other that myth in my crèche.”
Sanctuary. A place where they had tech that could take out the nanos. Tech to calm them, make a War Child normal again. A place where no one would make you kill, a place where no brothers or sisters went insane and had to be put down like rabid dogs.
A myth. A bedtime story told by motherless children. Told by killers.
“I have a map,” Oni said. “Give me your knife.”
Karron drew her knife, trying not to think of the throats it had cut today.
“Wait,” Ishim said, reaching for Oni as the boy cut into his own arm with a sure stroke.
Karron caught Ishim’s forearm and pushed him back. “He’s like me,” she said.
Oni pulled a small tube from under his skin. Already his nanos were closing the wound, the blood welling, slowing, and stopping even as she watched. He handed the knife back before opening the tube.
Inside was a map on thin paper. No, Karron saw, not paper. Leather of some kind. So thin that when he held it up in the firelight, the flames shone straight through. Illuminating lines. River lines. Numbers. A small star, done in red ink, like a drop of blood.
“Zouri to James, James to Dakota. Then west, to the Yellowstone and into the mountains. I have coordinates, see those numbers? Not a myth. It’s real. The ones who made us, they came from there. We were to be the new generation, the new kind of Child.”
“I am Eve,” Bee added. “I hate being Eve. Wanna be Bee. Bees can sting.”
“Jill and Nolan were from Sanctuary?” Ishim asked.
Karron was silent, still staring at the map, holding her breath, trying to decide if a legend could be real.
“No, they worked there. I don’t know what happened. Funding dried up. The Covenant doesn’t want more Children, I guess. They ended the program, and we were supposed to be destroyed.”
Karron tore her eyes from the map and looked at Oni. “History repeats,” she said softly.
“Marta, the woman you call Jill, she stole us. Said a baron would pay for us. She killed the others, but not before Sandy, the woman from Sanctuary, gave me the map and told me how to find it.” Oni leaned back against the piled blankets with a pained sigh and carefully rolled up the map.
The stew started to boil over. Karron turned away from the kids, from the map to an impossible place, and settled for dealing with dinner.
Later — her belly full of spring roots and rabbit — she stood at the edge of the river and watched lights smear across the darkening sky. Ishim came up beside her, making no attempt to hide his approach.
“Do we take them to this place, this Sanctuary?” he said.
“Tarik is yours,” Karron said. She turned and looked at her friend. Her real words were unspoken. Don’t make me decide.
“We been on the river a long time,” Ishim said. “Drifting up and down. Been a long time since I did anything but sail with my grief and try to outrun old memories.”
“We are alike,” Karron said, her mouth twisting into what felt like a smile. At least on the outside. “I like the river. Sanctuary is a dream, nothing more.”
“Maybe it’s time we stopped drifting,” Ishim said with a too-casual shrug. “Can’t just leave two kids on their own. But if you don’t want to go, we’ll set them down in Ria. That boy is smart as ten men. He’ll figure his way and take care of his sister.”
Karron nodded and looked back to the sky as Ishim moved back toward the camp. She walked to the very edge of the river. Water soaked through her boots, her toes going numb as she stood on the muddy bank. Oni and Bee. Children like she had been. Like she still was, in the bright moments she couldn’t quite seem to escape.
“Water, water, everywhere,” she murmured. Bending low, she dug her fingers into the mud and squeezed, feeling the gritty earth slide over her skin.
Sanctuary meant healing, meant being free of insanity, free of the things in her head. Myth. Myth like War Children were becoming a myth. Another generation, and they’d be as forgotten as most of the texts and histories from before the Ring, as much legend as the Archive was legend, as the great Wars would become in thirty or fifty more years.
Ishim was right. She had been drifting on the river. But now she had a brother and sister again. And they had a map. A map to a dream.
Karron bent down and let the river wash the last traces of grit from her hand.
Maybe it was time to dream again.