Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The War of Heroes

The Heroes left the man dying on the field, one of the thousands they pitched overboard from their silvery ships at the end of each battle with Yousra’s people. Yousra brought him home and had him castrated, to ensure he spread no contagion, and put him to work in the village. The Heroes’ men tended to eat little and work hard, and with so few people left in the village, his labor was welcome.

Plague had killed most of the village men when the Heroes first came. In those early days, Yousra’s people had welcomed the castoff men the Heroes dropped at the edge of every battlefield as some kind of tribute delivered from the sky. Now they recognized them for what they were: plague-ridden bags of pollution, another weapon of war, their seed meant to sour wombs and turn babies into monsters. But her people still needed the labor, so they castrated them and hauled them home regardless.

It was Yousra’s task to kill the children resulting from such rotten unions; the plague ran deep now, rewriting the map of each child, so even now, three generations after they understood the threat, their children were still rotten. The children Yousra killed were already rotten and gangrenous in the womb. Killing such monsters did not frighten her.

The Heroes did.

The Heroes’ man had big, bloodshot eyes set deep in a broad, flat face. Black blood clotted his cropped genitals. His wrists were rubbed raw. She saw bruises on his face and thighs, put there by his own people, no doubt, or perhaps some of hers, before she decided she wanted him. When she looked at him, she was reminded of her own dying men on the hill of battle, the ones who tried to fight the Heroes when their big ships came overhead. Those men, she could not save. She settled for this one. They were not so different, the Heroes’ men and hers. The Heroes may have come from some other star, but Yousra’s people, too, had been born from the sky.

She took the man inside her house. He flinched under her hands. No one had ever seen the Heroes without their big suits of armor, only their men, so she supposed it was possible that the Heroes, too, looked much like Yousra. But she had always suspected they resembled insects, like the hard shells of their suits. It had taken eight of Yousra’s people with machetes to overtake a Hero, once, but even when they did, the Heroes’ reinforcements beat them away from the body before they could peel away the scaly layers of their suits. Why they left their men behind now, when all knew they were diseased, was uncertain. Perhaps they simply wanted to get rid of them, and could not bear to kill them any more than Yousra could.

“You’re a wreck,” she told the man. He whimpered. She pushed open his eyelids to examine his eyes. Gray eyes, unremarkable. Like her people, he had a clear, vestigial eyelid on the inner corner of his eye. Useful for the relentless sandstorms that wracked this part of the world . . . useful for the day when their crops were finally blown away and her people were cast back into the desert from which they came.

Prophetic times. End times. She did not expect to be alive by the time the desert reclaimed them.

She fed him milk of poppy mixed with afterdrake for the pain, then cleaned him up as he drifted in and out of consciousness. It was a wonder he had not bled out. Most did. She had to pinch and dig to find his urethra. She inserted a hollow bamboo tube to keep it open while the wound healed.

He did not recover quickly, or well. Yousra bathed him each day with water and diluted tea tree oil. She kept his wounds packed in precious honey to combat infection and ward off fever. At night, she woke to his cries, and soothed him like a child. As she held him, it reminded her of her own childhood, when she would hush her brothers’ cries so they would not draw the scavengers. The man babbled in some unknown language. It sounded mushy, as if he were chewing a gob of sap, sticky and sweet. Every time they thought they understood the Heroes’ language, they sent them men who spoke differently.

A few weeks later, when the village priest and his brother entered into an agreement with the potter woman on the edge of the village to form a marriage, Yousra was called to organize and bless the wedding, and the bride, and her most-likely rotten womb. Why her people married anymore, she did not know. She would bless this girl now and kill her monsters in a few months. Round and round, as their numbers dwindled, and the Heroes came through, building shining cities of glass and amber where once there were sprawling towns.

The bride dressed in the white of a martyr. Yousra had the Heroes’ man bring her tools into the bridal tent. When Yousra was a child, weddings took months or years to plan. Now the time of engagement was a matter of weeks.

She called the Heroes’ man simply, “Boy,” and he answered to it. He could walk, after a fashion, and that was good, because she had no use for a broken man. She bore some affection for the boy—how could one not bear affection for one you nursed and comforted? But she had born affection for monsters, too, the ones that went bad days or weeks after birth.

And she had killed them just the same.

The bride, Chalifa, was lovely. Her mother was one of the first births Yousra had tended after her predecessor, the village headwoman and priest, had died in childbed.

Yousra had always hoped to be headwoman herself by the time Chalifa married, so the girl’s wedding night would belong to her. Instead, Yousra merely outfitted the bride and gave her blessing.

“Will it hurt?” Chalifa asked as Yousra placed a circle of holly above her brow.

“It’s a ritual unblocking,” Yousra said. “It will make your first coupling much easier.”

Chalifa took a deep breath. “I didn’t mean the unblocking of the womb. I meant… the birthing.”

“That’s some time away,” Yousra said carefully.

“If it’s . . . If it’s gone bad . . . I don’t have to see it, do I?”

“No,” Yousra said.

“You’ll kill it?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

Yousra opened her mouth to tell Chalifa what a fine choice she had made, what fine children she would have—the same speech she had given a hundred doomed women—but as she did, a dull, vibrating hum stilled her speech. The holly leaves on Chalifa’s head trembled.

Yousra looked to the entrance to the bridal tent. The Heroes’ man had paused also, water bulb in hand. The fine hairs on his arms and neck stood on end.

The hum grew to a tinny whine. It was like nothing Yousra had ever heard. She felt the air tremble. Heard a heavy whump-whump, far off.

Yousra gazed outside the bridal tent. Something silver streaked across the lavender sky, like a giant thrush. The other villagers had come out of their tents. They, too, looked up—rapt, open faces gazing skyward.

“What is it?” Chalifa asked.

The world went dark.

• • • •

Smoke. Heat.

Yousra flailed in the darkness, pinned by the cloying weight of what must have been the bridal tent. She clawed for daylight. The air was bad. She gasped. Then screamed. Screamed and screamed and clawed at the tent, ripping and tearing at the hemp cloth. It wasn’t until the hilt of her machete knocked her hip that she realized she still carried it.

She pulled out the machete and sliced open the shroud of the bridal tent. Smoky air rushed in.

Yousra stumbled out. A low fog of blue smoke obscured her view. She heard muted screams. One ended abruptly. Loose clods of dirt blanketed the far side of the bridal tent. The remains of another tent poked up from a heap of shattered earth.

The rest of the village . . . she saw only hazy snapshots amid the smoke-fog . . . Curls of flame. Dark, bulbous shapes. Clumps of dirty meat. Smears of clotted blood and offal.

She stepped away from the ruins of the tent and lost her feet. She tumbled to the bottom of a deep crater. It stank of wet earth and copper and something else . . . sulfur? She clawed her way up the side of the crater.

A low rumble sounded overhead. Something blotted out the suns. She looked up and saw a slow-moving, silvery ship. Even in her terror, she gaped. She had never seen one of the Heroes’ ships up close. She saw her own reflection, distorted, gaping back at her from the impossibly shiny craft.

Yousra ran back toward the bridal tent. She called, softly, for Chalifa. She hacked at the tent, but found nothing. Half the tent was buried in the soil thrown up from the crater.

Voices sounded, close. Then other sounds, unfamiliar. Clicking. A soft buzz. Footsteps across the earth. Not sandaled feet, no, but boots. Metal. The crisp creak, whine, and hum of something Other.

Yousra hid in the crater, and peered above its edge.

Shapes appeared from the smoke—blocky, gargantuan. She had never seen a Hero, not like this. These were massive, twice as tall as the tallest man she knew, as wide as she was tall, encased in blackish-green material with the glossy sheen of a damp leaf. The pieces of their armor came together at the seams, moved like scales. The heads were mounted with a single horn, from which protruded a long mane of hair. In her mother’s time, they’d thought the Heroes were shelled creatures, bestial. It was a decade before they knew that the hard shells protected a soft interior.

As Yousra watched them approach, she had a sudden, intense desire to cut each of them open, to discover—for herself—the truth of that soft inner core and how it had polluted her people.

Someone cried out behind her. She froze.

A figure broke away from the smoke near the ruined bridal tent and ran toward the Heroes. It took Yousra a moment to recognize the castrated Heroes’ man. Had they come for him? Why? Curse me for a fool, she thought.

The boy babbled something at the Heroes in his mushy language. He prostrated himself and sobbed. Great, heaving sobs.

A strange sound came from one of the Heroes in turn. A chuck-chuck-guffaw sound that Yousra realized was laughter. The Hero struck the boy across the face with such force that it propelled him across the dirt and into the smoking heap of another tent.

The Heroes continued their chuck-chucking and walked on.

Yousra slid further below the lip of the crater. Squeezed her eyes shut. She heard the Heroes, not a dozen feet distant, crunching across the ruined earth. They spoke in tinny, garbled voices. She listened as they walked past her . . . and away.

She stayed huddled in the dirt until long after she saw their silvery ship shoot back across the sky over the village.

By then, dusk had settled across the world, and the massive glowing orb of the trade moon had begun to fill the sky, like a chalky skull writ large. As it rose, its pale glow chased away the dusk, blanketing the world in a harsh moonlight that was strong enough to hunt by.

Slowly, carefully, Yousra crawled from her hiding place and crept across the dirt. A little ways distant, she saw the still form of the Heroes’ man, crumpled in the dirt. She hesitated.

“Boy?” she called softly.

He did not move.

“Boy? Heroes’ boy?”

He lifted his head. His eyes were watery, bloodshot. The entire right side of his face was a black bruise.

“Come with me,” she said. “We aren’t safe here.”

He pressed his face back into the dirt.

Yousra gazed out beyond him to where the thorn fence has been. It was broken now. Bloody, tattered strips of it lay in wrecked clumps and tangles for a hundred yards in either direction. The fence would let in the contagion all around them. Even if she could bring herself to stay in the village, the horror of the contaminated world outside would overtake her. She was dead already.

Yousra watched the great God’s Wheel rise in the sky, the incredible patina of stars—gold, silver, blue, green—that lent pinpricks of jewel-like color to moon’s white glow during the dry season. It was full dark, and the God’s Wheel had risen above the tops of the walking trees.

The sky was oblivious to her troubles. The sky moved on. She should too. She went back toward the heart of the village. Something cried out behind her. She gripped her machete. Her fingers were slick. She dared look in the direction of the sound. Saw the familiar outline of the Heroes’ man. He struggled toward her, clutching at his side. As he neared, she saw that though he was injured, he was not bleeding.

“Are you pleased with what your heroes did?” she said. A hot surge of anger filled her. She raised the machete.

He cowered.

She stared long at his bruises.

“You,” she said softly, and lowered the machete. She pointed out past the thorn fence, in the direction the Heroes’ craft had gone. “You know where they are, don’t you?” His expression did not change. She jabbed her finger at him. “There was a river that used to flow through our village to another, many years ago.”

Her village hadn’t heard from anyone outside the thorn fence in decades.

“Heroes,” she said, and pointed again.

His eyes widened. That word, he knew.

“Take me to the Heroes,” she said.

He seemed to weigh his options in the chill glow of the tiny moon. His stare met the hilt of her machete. Then, a small nod. Barely perceptible. He began walking out past the ruined fence, toward a twisted tree.

“Wait!” she called. “Wait!”

She pillaged the remains of the village and found water bulbs, red flour, rain clothes, and a torn knapsack.

Yousra shouldered the pack and started off after the Heroes’ man. How long until she succumbed to some contagion out here? Until some insect or blight or fungus ate her from the inside? But how many Heroes could she take with her, before the end?

She raised her head and saw that the Heroes’ man had paused at the base of the twisted tree that once marked her family’s farm. Her heart ached. Not for him, or the lost farm, or her dead people, but for the hope of some uncertain future, something that wasn’t already written.

Yousra stepped forward, like hurling herself into some nameless void, and started across the contaminated world to meet him . . . and his heroes.

• • • •

“There is nothing out here but desert,” Yousra said, but the Heroes’ man kept walking. He ate and drank less than she did, and that was a boon, because as the long days stretched out, Yousra found that she needed more and more of both.

Their first night in the desert, she had come down with some contagion. It bloomed amber-white in her mouth like a fungus. She thought herself dead right then, but the Heroes’ man breathed into her mouth—she was too weak to argue—and the next morning the pain was less and the moldy fuzz in her mouth was gone.

Still, the man walked, and he said nothing. He had already tried and failed to go back to his people, so what did he expect to find way out here that would help him? All of her people’s settlements out this way were gone.

The world spun into light and darkness another dozen times before Yousra finally smelled something salty and full of death, a scent she had heard of but never seen. They followed a long abandoned track through the desert, passing the ruins of what must have once been cities, but cities the likes of which Yousra had heard of only in mythic tales. Staggering juggernauts stair-stepped into the sky, or spiraled up from the sand in great corroded circles. Bits of shattered glass and rotten metal lay scattered across the way. She could make out the softer valleys of the roads, and elevated walkways with crumbling arches.

And there, at the far end of the broken city, was a flat, shimmering plain of water, dark as a stormy sky. She had never seen a body of water so great. It stretched across the whole of the horizon. She could not see the other shore. It made a great roaring noise.

The Heroes’ man picked up his pace when he saw it, and she had to slog to catch up. By the time she reached him, he was already at the shoreline, his toes sunk into a battered beach made up of tiny fragments. Yousra scooped up a handful of the stuff and saw that it was made of shells, rocks, knobs of metal, and other, stranger kinds of materials, like ivory or obsidian, but softer. Many of the shapes were knotted and irregular. Far off, she saw great iron spires jutting out of the water; waves crashed against stone and metal structures, and something else—great shimmering fins, like the hulking back of some great monster. She gazed across the water and saw more and more structures breaking the waves around them.

“Did the Heroes do this?” Yousra asked. “Did they sink this city? Is this our city or theirs?”

He did not answer. Instead, he waded into the water and went kicking out into it like he was made for the water.

Yousra walked up onto a weathered pillar and watched him swim out toward one of the great fins. Was this his plan all along? Some death rite where he drowned himself?

She looked behind her, into the wretched city, and back in the direction of her own ruined settlement. Her feet were beginning to itch already, probably with some terrible contagion. If she stayed here alone, she was likely to die here as surely as she would have died in the settlement.

Better to die in the water, then.

Yousra jumped off the pillar and swam out into the sea after the Heroes’ man. The water was so clear she could see the ruins below her. They were not buildings, she saw now, but vehicles. She was not a good swimmer, but the day was clear and the current was not too strong. When she needed to rest, she clung to the big fin of some wreck and caught her breath. The wrecks below her were ships very much like those the Heroes piloted to every battlefield, only they were not silvery pods, but black, tentacled things with great soaring fins and rotten, fleshy-looking hulls.

When she reached the Heroes’ man, he was standing on top of the largest vehicle. The water washed over his feet, coming as high as his ankles. He got onto his hands and knees and pressed his palms to the surface of the ship.

Yousra dragged herself up next to him just as the skin around his hands puckered and pushed outward. He stepped back, bumping into her, and she caught him against her so he didn’t fall over. He was warm and trembling, and did not pull away as the flesh of the outer hull pushed outward and opened up above the surface of the water.

He finally left her arms and descended into the ship. Its surface changed, conforming to his feet and hands, making perfect holds for him.

Yousra followed, fearful it would only respond to him, but it conformed to her body, too, and as her head sank below the lip of the wound, it sealed behind her. For a heart-pounding moment she feared she had been eaten, left to suffocate in the darkness. But as the Heroes’ man walked ahead of her, the corridors lit up with green, bioluminescent flora. She marveled at the walls, and ran her hands along them. The man led her into the belly of the thing; a great round room. It was featureless save for a bulbous dais at the center of it.

“You know how to work this ship?” Yousra asked.

The man said nothing. He walked slowly around the room.

Yousra said, “Can you power it? We could fight them. We could destroy them, with this. Are these theirs? Can you use them? I know you understand more than you can speak.”

The Heroes’ man did not look at her. His shoulders tensed, though. She gently stroked his arm. “They did this to you,” she said. “They polluted you, then threw you away to your fate. You are as much their victim as we are. Help us beat them back and reclaim the world.”

He said something in his Heroes’ language. Stopped. Tried again, in hers, “World is large.”

“It is,” Yousra said. She thought of all the grotesque, rotting babies she had killed, the women gone to rot, the men gone to madness. “But if you can pilot these ships, we can teach others. We can make our own army, large enough to take back the world.”

Yousra didn’t know if that was true. She didn’t know the extent of the Heroes’ armies. They came from the sky, and the world was large. There could be thousands, hundreds of thousands, of them. More than that? She could not imagine numbers so large. But whatever the number, she would fight them. She would kill them as she killed the rotting, monstrous children they infected her people with.

He made a little whimpering sound. She opened her arms to him, and he pressed himself against her like a child. And perhaps he was; they all were, fearful children stunted by this mad war that neither understood. What did the Heroes want? She found, more and more, that she didn’t care so much about answers as revenge. She closed her eyes and thought of her smoking village, the scattered body parts, the huffing laughter of the Heroes.

“Come with me,” Yousra murmured in his ear.

He raised his face to her. His eyes were wet. She kissed him, softly, as she would kiss a sister or a child. Yet when he pressed back, his need was evident. His body was hot against hers, and she responded in kind, surprised at her own desire. She pinned him to the floor of the ship and nipped at his neck, and straddled his wiry thigh. When her leg rubbed between his where his sex had been, he cried out, and pushed her away.

Yousra tumbled off him, sat hard on her rump, and came back into the world. Desire was a drug, a potent one, and it muddled all sense. It had been so long since it had carried her away that she felt drunk and disoriented now; it was like drinking a pot of liquor after a year of nothing but brackish water. Warm, delirious.

The man sat up beside her. He was breathing heavily. He did not look at her, but stared straight ahead, hands wrapped around his knees.

“What do they want, your Heroes?” Yousra asked. She reached for him, gently, and stroked his jaw. He flinched, but did not pull away. The skin there was fuzzy. He was too young for a proper beard, or perhaps his kind did not grow them as well as hers. Perhaps all their men were this hairless. She wondered, for the first time, if the Heroes’ men left on the field were lost children, like the monsters she murdered out by the thorn fence.

He took her wrist, not ungently. “No knowledge,” he said.

“They tell you nothing?”

His lips firmed. Not a frown, not quite. He touched his temple. “No knowledge,” he said.

“You must remember something,” she said. “You yelled at those Heroes. In the village. What did you tell them?”

He stood and walked over to the dais at the center of the room. He placed his hands in the middle of it, and the room became translucent.

Yousra gasped and scrambled up. The ocean surrounded them, full of derelicts and grimy whorls of rusty filth. It was only now, with a clear view of the ocean, that she realized there was nothing living here in the sea, either. It was as dead as the rest of the world.

The Hero’s man stepped up onto the dais. He pointed at Yousra, said, “Yours,” and then a fine mist of fleshy webbing descended from the ceiling and enveloped him.

Yousra shrieked and fell back against the transparent wall. She had a moment of vertigo, her mind fearing she would be cast out to sea, but the wall held. The webbing fully enveloped the Heroes’ man, rooting him into place like another fixture of the ship. But as it did, the ship itself came alive around her. The translucent walls flickered with blue and yellow lights. The ship shuddered; great gouts of the disturbed sea bottom clouded the water all around them.

Yousra climbed toward the dais. She touched the outline of the man’s foot, now covered by the ship’s flesh. The ship lurched again, and she stumbled back. The ship rose from the bottom of the sea, up and up and up. As it did, the motion of it stabilized, and Yousra walked closer to the transparent wall and gaped as the ship parted the waves and came up over the sea of dead.

She gazed back at the Heroes’ man, and the great dead village behind them. Why had the Heroes abandoned the ships here, if they could pilot them as easily as this man? Surely he was piloting it in some way. It seemed a terrible waste to leave all of this here.

The walls shimmered, then went opaque. The darkness was abrupt. Yousra feared they would fall out of the sky. Then, blinding white light. She raised her hands to her face. When the light dimmed, she pulled her hands away, and saw that the city below them had been transformed. Now it was a bustling metropolis with great tangled buildings grasping toward the sky. Massive floating bridges moved over the ocean. Ships like the one she road in traversed the air all around them. She thought herself mad until she noted the position of the God’s Wheel in the sky. It was in the wrong position. She was not looking at a current vision, but a past one. Somehow the ship had captured it; perhaps the ship was a living thing, and had remembered. Was the Heroes’ man tapping into that memory?

As she watched, a great rain of fire came down from the sky and destroyed the peaceful city. The bridges exploded. The ships turned and fought while the city burned. And then came the Heroes’ ships, the familiar shiny silver arrows.

The Heroes decimated the people. The ships that were being attacked fled to the water, seeking reprieve. Most were destroyed.

Then blackness. When light returned, the walls were again translucent, and the city was old and dead again, and the God’s Wheel was in its proper place.

Yousra felt a terrible fist of dread in her stomach. She turned back to the Heroes’ man, suspended now, merged with the ship.

“You’re not one of the Heroes,” she said. “You’re one of these people. Some other people they destroyed, like us.” Of course the Heroes had not piloted these ships; only people from this city could pilot them, the way the Heroes’ man was doing now. What a fearful, sick game the Heroes played, sending their own captives to Yousra’s people. What did they expect to happen? They knew Yousra’s people would torture them, murder them. She felt foolish, then. Why would the Heroes infect their own men and condemn them to such a fate? No wonder the man looked so much like her people. They were not so different, just separated by time.

What baffled her was that the city below had very clearly been dead for centuries. And though Yousra’s people had been known to live for a century and a half, this man was clearly very young. Where had he come from? What had the Heroes done, to keep him so young? And why throw him out now?

Yousra pressed her hand to his form again. “If there are more of your people, we can find them,” she said. “They can pilot the ships. We can seek revenge, together.”

The ship was hovering above the ocean now, motionless. The suns were lowering on the horizon. Yousra waited. What did she have to offer him? He had a ship, and a world that had been dead for longer than he had been alive. What must he have thought, awaking to find himself dumped in her village and castrated?

But she firmed her resolve. “I’m not your enemy,” she said. “The Heroes did this to us both. They pitted us against one another. They will not expect us to work together.”

Yousra considered the flesh of the ship. Clearly these were organic things, and she knew how to heal, and birth, and kill, if necessary. “If these ships are alive,” she said, “they could be changed. Transformed. Perhaps we don’t need to find your people to pilot each one. Perhaps there is a way to link them, and feed them.”

The ship began to move.

Yousra turned to watch as it sailed over the ocean, back toward the city. It settled down in a great dead patch of ground opposite the road, close enough to the sea that the waves lapped at its sides.

“Are you with me, or do you want me to get out?” she said.

The walls lit up again, and replayed the death of the city.

“All right,” she said. “This may take some time.”

And so began Yousra’s life at the edge of the sea. She had spent so long engaged in the act of death that she had almost forgotten what it was like to birth something. It did not take long to realize that the key to unlocking the ships was the blood of the Heroes’ man. Now that she knew he was not one of them, though, she tried to think up another name for him. Boy, Ship, Man, Child . . . Easy names. The names of things. But she could not get them to stick in her mind.

She bled him in the morning, cutting through the webbing the ship had wound about him and carrying it in one of the old water bulbs. Then she would swim down to another of the derelict ships, and pour the blood onto the dais at the center of each, and watch the webbing come down and devour it. The ships woke; lights rippled across their surfaces. Their skins shone. But she could not figure out how to link them. Could the Heroes’ man pilot them all, now that they were away? Could she connect them together, through some kind of umbilical system?

The ships themselves were very much like children. Abused, neglected children buried at the bottom of the sea. She began to learn their fits and starts, their needs and wants. It was why she could not bear to sleep inside the ship where the Heroes’ man stood trapped, because it was clear he had become the ship. Each day she bled him, there was less blood. The outline of his form in the webbing grew smaller and more twisted and disfigured each day. The ship was eating him, devouring him. She hoped some part of his consciousness would go on, but she feared that the ship would simply require more bodies, more death, to power itself.

“I will give you death,” she whispered to her ship one night while the God’s Wheel whirled in the sky. The skin of the ship seemed to murmur beneath her fingers. She took comfort in that. “Will you help me, in exchange for bodies?” she asked. Another ripple. The skin of the ship warmed beneath her fingers.

She slept well that night.

It was months into her life on the beach, bleeding and waking hundreds of ships, that she found the sepulcher. She was scavenging for food in the city, hunting rodents and beetles. Much of her diet was fried grasshoppers and withered tubers. Her gums bled now, and the vision in her right eye was not the best. Two lumps had formed on her ankle, and another on her wrist. She had lacerated the one on her wrist, and it had oozed thick, gummy fluid. Not cancer, then. Perhaps. But it would come for her, out here in the toxic world beyond her village.

She found a rodent’s burrow, and dug into the rubble around it to try and ferret it out. Her stick hit a spongy spot, and poked right through it without resistance. She cleared away the debris and found that the metal over the spongy surface had rotted away. Beneath the metal was a scabby substance, clotted. She dug through it and peered into a great black space. When she pushed her head through, the space lit up with green, bioluminescent organisms. It was a vast space, far larger than she had anticipated. It went on and on.

Yousra slipped down into the cavern. All along the walls, on both sides, ran coffin-like indentations in the fleshy corridors. Inside were bodies, row after row of bodies, their faces serene, their flesh—

Yousra touched one of them. Its flesh was cool, but still pliable.

Bodies. Like a gift from the gods.

Yousra did not think about why they were there, or how to wake them, or how long they had hidden here while their city was destroyed. No, she focused on her goal. She made a sledge and hauled them—one after another—across the dead city and into the sea and into the ships that littered the ocean bottom.

She went to bed smelling of the sea. Tasting it on her lips. Sometimes she thought about the lives the bodies must have had before she had found them, but mostly she thought of her village, and the babies.

The twenty-eighth body she pulled through the ocean and deposited on the dais of a ship woke up.

Yousra saw the eyelids flicker. He began to cough. His skin warmed. She patted the dais and yelled at the ship, willing the webbing to come down faster.

As the webbing crept up over the man’s feet, he began screaming and screaming, babbling at her in some language. She recognized it. The same one the Heroes’ man had used. She did not look away, but met his gaze until the ship wrapped him in its fleshy embrace.

Then she patted the cocooned man and murmured, “You belong to me now, ship. Follow me, and I will keep you fed.”

When she ran out of bodies, she went back to her own ship, and found that the dais that had once contained the Hero’s man had grown upward to touch the ceiling. His body was gone, absorbed, but the ship had built something in its place. When Yousra pressed the pillar now, the ship shuddered under her touch.

“Let’s find some Heroes,” she said, and the ship rose from the beach.

Yousra stood in front of the pillar, back pressed against it, and pointed to the horizon. “They come from the sky,” she said, “this way,” and the ship moved the way she pointed.

The ship moved across the sea, so fast that they reached the other side in just a few breaths. It slowed as they reached land. Yousra saw a glimmer of silver below, and just as she thought to tell the ship to get closer to it, the ship sank toward the glinting metal.

The metal was not a large ship, not like the ones that had moved over Yousra’s village and destroyed it. It was much smaller, with room for perhaps just a handful of people. Two Heroes stood just to the left of the vehicle, inspecting a tall mound scattered with the detritus of living that a family would leave behind when they fled quickly.

“Destroy their ship,” Yousra said.

The ship around her hummed. Yellow lightning crackled across the surface outside. Then a brilliant flash.

When Yousra could see again there was a great crater where the Heroes’ ship has been. She told her ship to land, and it did, and she walked out to see what she had done.

The air outside smelled like stone after a hard rain. The fine hairs stood up on the back of her neck. The Heroes’ ship had been liquefied, its parts melted down and splattered across the crater. The bodies of the Heroes lay thirty paces away. Their bodies had collided with large trees, and shattered their trunks to pieces.

Yousra made her way to the bodies, her bare feet making prints in the loose soil, and stood over them. One had been run through with a great tree branch with such force that it severed through the suit. The other had lost its head; bits of ship debris had blown clear of the crater and cut the head neatly from the body.

Yousra found the great helmet and picked it up. A head rolled out and settled at her feet. She crouched beside it and turned it over so she could see its face. Blood and bruising mottled the features, but it was not some alien, chitinous thing, as she had suspected. Yousra sat beside the body and pulled the gory head into her lap. She rubbed the brow and fingered the braided hair and wondered how a people so like hers could do what these Heroes had done. She had thought them monsters from some other star, but the face in her lap was not so different from the man who had sacrificed himself to power the ship, not so different from hers.

She gazed up into the sky at the God’s Wheel, still faint now in the daylight. She imagined a whole people who had gone up there and come back here to see what had become of their ancestors, only to destroy them for being too weak, too tied to the soil and the seasons. What they wanted did not concern her, but she mourned the fact that they were able to do what she was about to do, and that what she was about to do was only what she had learned from them.

Yousra set the head beside her and picked up the helmet. It fit her head easily. Instead of tunneling her vision, it gave her a full, enhanced view of her surroundings. Like the ship she rode in, it was transparent here inside of it, so every way she turned, she could see the world, only augmented with symbols and shapes and mists that appeared otherwise invisible. Perhaps these suits detected heat or gases and gave them form. She did not know, but she could learn, the same way she had learned the ships.

Yousra had her suit. She had her army. She was ready.

• • • •

It took a long time to burn down the world.

Yousra would not have thought it would take so long, with so much of it destroyed already, but there was far more of the world than she was prepared for. The Heroes inhabited great swaths of it. Her living army of ships was two hundred strong, and they rose from the sea at her command and destroyed at her word. There may have been a large armada of Heroes’ ships when they first came to Yousra’s lands and the lands of the man whose people had made the cities. But there was no longer an armada of ships that strong here. What the Heroes had left to mop up what remained of the people here was small in comparison to what Yousra had seen in the vision the ship showed her.

Her army of ships blew their silver vehicles out of the sky, rained molten metal and torn, suited bodies across the world. She traveled over great barren spaces, inhabited by nothing but rocks and dead, rolling weeds. The remnants of thorn fences made for abstract art pieces, scattered and broken across the lands at the edge of the worst of the blight. She found a large fleet of silver ships—thirty, in total—camped at the base of a craggy mountain range, and rained lightning-fire down upon them until the bases of the mountains were coated in molten silver.

As she watched smoke rise up from the dead forests surrounding the camp, she wondered why the Heroes had not destroyed them as she was doing. Perhaps, after decimating the man’s people, hers were not considered a threat. And why would they be? They had no ships, no cities. Just death and disease. No, the Heroes had done something more terrible to them. They had toyed with them, as if they were nothing but insects or rodents. Murdering Yousra’s people would have been too easy. The game was in watching them slowly suffer and die.

Her murdering went on for some time, until she dreamed of steaming craters and molten silver, and woke to see the same. Her ships were taken down one by one, a battle at a time. It did not alarm her, though, because this was the end she expected. This was a war of attrition.

She had just three ships left when she approached the last of the Heroes’ settlements. She had to assume it was the last, because she had traveled across the world for days and days and seen nothing but death and ruin and rot. The cancer in her left leg had gotten worse; her ankle had swelled up so big that she walked with a painful limp. A lump in her neck was the size of her fist now, and it pressed against her windpipe as she breathed. She was not long for this world; she was poisoned. This was likely her last camp.

She commanded the ships to fire, but as they did, four silvery Heroes’ ships emerged from the muddy lake bottom. They fired on her ships, downing two. Her ship screamed into defensive maneuvers and fired at them, speeding in and out of range on its own, powered by the will of the man it had eaten. The Heroes’ ships exploded, but the wreckage cloud was so vast that it clipped her ship, and suddenly she was hurtling down and down, and she hoped this would be her death, a fitting death, ground into the mud with her ship.

• • • •

Smoke. Heat.

Yousra crawled up through the suffocating flesh of the ship, tearing her way out, sucking for air. Her skin ached and burned and she feared the ship was eating her to save itself.

She popped free of the ship and slid down its surface and into the long poppies in the field. She wore her Heroes’ suit, but not the helmet; it had been wrenched free in the accident.

Yousra pulled off her gloves, as well, because she felt too hot. Behind her, the ship that had led her glorious army burned hot and white. She shielded her eyes and limped away, sucking heated air and smoke.

When she reached the tree line, she pulled off the rest of the suit and cast it into the poppies. It was strange to see something alive, out here, but she had reached the very end of the world, the end of everything. She leaned over and tried to smell the poppies, but her nose didn’t register any scent. She rubbed her smoke-stung eyes. Something moved at her left.

When she turned she saw it was a Hero, her own armor battered and smashed as Yousra’s. The Hero, too, had removed her helmet and gloves. She was a young woman, half Yousra’s age, hair braided back from a lean face that reminded Yousra of Chalifa, the bride from her own village.

Yousra cast about for a weapon, but saw nothing. The Hero had none either that she could see, but would be trained in war, and the only war Yousra knew was fought from inside a ship.

“You deserved all of this,” Yousra said.

She didn’t expect a response, but the Hero said, “It was necessary.”

“Necessary to who?” Yousra said. The Hero spoke with an accent, but not a thick one. They knew her language, at least. Probably that man’s, too, though. It meant nothing. They would kill anything. Knowing her language made them better killers, in fact. “You murdered my people. You murdered the world. What do you have to say to that?”

“We were civilizing you,” the Hero said.

“This?” Yousra said, gesturing to the steaming craters, the dead ships, the dying poppies. “This is civilization?”

“There can be no civilization without war,” the Hero said.

“You are a twisted, corrupt people,” Yousra said. “You have no idea what living is.”

“We had to break your villages,” the Hero said. “Wreck your world. Or you would not walk into the light. You would never explore the stars. You would never come after us.”

“You’re mad,” Yousra said.

“This is what happened to us,” the Hero said. “A people from another star rained fire on us, and lifted us up. We had to lift up another.”

Yousra thought she should feel something. Like the Hero had torn some piece of her. But as Yousra stood before her, barefoot, bloodied, her hair a matted tangle and what was left of her robe a tattered ruin, she realized they had nothing else left to break. It had all been done.

“You wish to break me?” the Hero asked softly. “As you have been broken? I am sorry, dear one, but you are not the first we have civilized. Nor will you be the last. Soon we will rise again, and take another star. An alliance of Heroes the like of which the universe has never known.”

“Heroes . . .” Yousra said.

“Yes, Heroes. It’s fitting, isn’t it? What your kind call us.”

“You don’t know what the word means,” Yousra said.

“It translates very well into our language,” the Hero said. “A Hero is one who not only slays monsters, but creates monsters to slay. That is what we have done here. It’s what you have become. A Hero. Now you, in turn, will make Heroes of others.”

“What if I kill you here?” Yousra said.

The Hero shrugged. “All the better.” She dropped to her knees. “Do it. Complete our mission here. Continue the cycle. Raise up another. Colonize the stars.”

“No,” Yousra said.

“Then we will find another,” the Hero said. “Do you understand yet? You sacrificed a boy to your cause. Murdered babies born wrong. Left men to die outside your fence. And my people, yes, we are people, though we are ruthless, you destroyed us with as much care as if we were insects. This is who you must be, to rule the universe.”

Yousra sat across from the Hero. “I don’t want to rule the universe,” she said. “I want two husbands, eight children, and a village full of friends. You took that from me.”

The Hero leaned toward her. “Take it back.”

“That’s what you don’t understand,” Yousra said. “I am too old to believe it can be returned to me. There is no substitute for my life. You are young, you don’t know that yet. But you will. You should have chosen a younger woman.”

Yousra got painfully to her feet. Her ankle throbbed. She began to walk toward the lake.

“Wait!” the Hero said. “We can cure you. Give you resources. We can give you a whole army. As many husbands as you desire. Have children, surround yourself with a new family. Your people have passed the test of personhood. You are civilized! You can be uplifted now! You are true people, and as true people, we invite you to join our federation of worlds.”

But Yousra was already at the end of the lake. She kept walking. The water brushed her ankles, cool and calming after all that heat and death. She gazed up at the God’s Wheel in the sky, brighter now as the light withdrew from the heavens.

The Hero was right, in that there was nothing she had not sacrificed to get here. But now, at the edge of the lake, under the eye of God’s Wheel, she found that after all this time, she did not like what she had become. The choice of what to do now that she could not go back was still hers, and it was a welcome choice, easier than anything she had done so far.

Yousra walked into the lake. It was so clear she could see the ruins in the bottom; the derelict boats and scattered stone animal pens and circular foundations of old houses.

The Hero was shouting at her, but there were no more silvery ships in the sky. No one to save either of them. They were left to their own choices.

Yousra closed her eyes as the water lapped up above her head, and she remembered all those dead babies. The castrated men they thought belonged to the Heroes, the broken cities, and the ships she had melted away.

She could reward herself for becoming this woman, and take the spoils granted. But the spoils were not hers. They were rewards taken from the bodies of others. Rewards built on death and lies and revenge. If that was the universe these people wanted to build, she wanted none of it.

The water was very cold. She swam down and down and looped her belt through a hole in a derelict boat, and when she could stand it no longer, she took a breath and inhaled cold, clear water, and screamed and screamed into the darkness.

• • • •

“Run it again,” the girl said.

“It’s just a simulation,” her mother said. The barren waste of the world being terraformed behind them came briefly back into their vision as the headwoman’s watery grave faded from the viewing lens.

“Again,” the girl said. “I want to know if she makes a different choice.”

“She doesn’t,” her mother said. “It’s why there was still a world here at all, when we came back up from the banks underground after our long sleep. If she had chosen differently, we all would have died, or become part of her terrible army. We would have been different people.”

“Again,” the girl said.

Her mother frowned. “Would you have chosen differently?”

The girl said nothing.

Her mother played it again, and again the Heroes left their men on the dying fields, and again, Yousra made her choice.

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Kameron Hurley

Kameron Hurley

Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire, Empire Ascendant and the God’s War Trilogy. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer; she has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, Locus Award, BFS Award, the Gemmell Morningstar Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Year’s Best SF, and Meeting Infinity. Her nonfiction has been featured in The Atlantic, Locus Magazine, and the collection The Geek Feminist Revolution.