Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

Tracker

The City Man was calling him.

Tracker lifted his head from his garden, distracted from the small fears and satisfactions of the black beetles sucking juice from the ruffled cabbages beneath his fingers. The scent of that calling came to him on the soft westerly winds that also carried molecules of ocean, fish, and seagull shit, dying shelled-things and hungry water-living mammals. It blew across City, too, and the scents it carried from that place bore images, but few names to Tracker’s mind. Only City Man’s calling carried a name.

But City Man was not really a name. His name was a complex of scent and touch, of not touching, tone of voice, and the small sharp veerings of emotion—a thread that strung Tracker’s days and nights and more days of remembered history into a contiguous thread.

City Man had created Tracker.

Jesse whined, and nudged his leg with her nose, her canine eyes on his face. She couldn’t hear City Man’s calling, but she knew Tracker heard him because her engineered brain let her know. Since she stared at him, he saw himself briefly through her eyes, a long face with planes and slopes like the cliff faces above the cove beach, his hair the tawny red of the clay soil beneath the winter rains. He caught a glimpse of his cabbages, fat and green and round at the edges of her vision. Their smooth green roundness filled him with brief satisfaction. These were old genes, unaltered, the same cabbages an old-days human might have grown, a thousand years ago, when their genes were equally innocent.

Jesse nudged him again. Conscience. Friend. Eyes.

“All right,” he said aloud. “Let’s find out what he wants.” He put out his hand, felt the hair-warmth-duty of her presence come up against his palm. She showed him the dirt path between the irregular boundaries of his garden beds with her sight, tugged him along with her silent urgency.

“He’s only going to want to play,” he said to her gruffly. “Show off one of his little creations.”

Jesse didn’t answer, marching firmly along, showing him the path she knew he should take. She was good at that—keeping his feet from stumbling. Tracker felt a birdwing shadow of fear and thought back quickly. How old was she? City Man had made her for him and he had no idea what lifespan he had built into her genes. Had never thought to ask. His step faltered, as he contemplated the cabbages and old-days plants with lost names, swept by her eyes. Smelled earth, and the tickling lifethought of small squirming things. His world.

She nipped at him. Impatient.

“Coming.” Beyond the tall wall of his garden, City waited. He gathered his senses tightly into himself as he absently admired the paving of white marble inlaid with abstract patterns of green jasper and blue lapis in front of Jesse’s paws. Too bright, he thought, but that would change, as soon as one of the City got bored. For a while—years or decades—it had been paved in mother of pearl. He had liked that, liked the subtle opalescent gleam that Jesse had showed him and the memory-song of the shells that had once held life. They walked a lot then. It had been a cloudy cool time, before someone turned up the sun. They passed a few folk on the wide street, but no City people. You rarely saw City people. Few that they were, they didn’t spend much time in City unless someone had made it new. No one had made it new for some time now.

They reached the City Man’s gate. Jesse would never look wholly at it. She looked aside, studying the thin-sliced agate that tiled the wall. He knew the gate by its feel beneath his palms. It was made of bones. He wasn’t sure whose bones they were, but they were delicate—a flying creature. They murmured to him of wind as a solid living thing as he pushed the gate open.

He was right. City Man had a visitor. Woman, he smelled, hormones in balance, full of life, unshadowed by death. He could always smell it—that lack of Death’s shadow. It shaded all the City creations, a hint of darkness on a sunny day. Not so, for City’s Residents. Death could not shadow them. They summoned it only at will, their servant, no master. Jesse wouldn’t look at the Woman or at City Man, so he stood still, admiring the raked sand and small, perfect shells that she showed him. It occurred to him that he had never really looked at City Man. Jesse wouldn’t do it.

“Of course he’s blind,” City Man was saying to the Woman. “He doesn’t need eyes. If I asked him to find you, he would feel you on the far side of the planet. Or on the orbital. On the Moon Garden. He’s that aware.”

“Oh, you’re so sure you’re the top Creator in the solar system.” The Woman sounded bored, but it was an act. He could feel her interest prickling his skin, mixed with a sharp edge of jealousy. Tracker studied the tight spiral of a shell the color of a rainy morning. A creature had made that, without thought or intent. City Man had made a tribe of men and women who built endless sand sculptures on the beach below his garden—sculptures that the tide daily washed away. Like the shell maker.

Slowly, he realized that the Woman had left the garden and that City Man was contemplating him. Jesse was leaning against his knee, wanting hard to be gone.

“Tracker.” City Man came close enough that the clove and sweat-scent of him, and that hard clean lack of Death’s shadow, filled Tracker’s senses.

“I want you to find someone.” He put a hand on Tracker’s shoulder.

Jesse flinched.

“One of my creations. She ran away once before, and I found her. This time . . . I don’t feel like going. I have better things to do.”

The jagged edge of his lie brushed Tracker’s mind and he stifled a wince. Jesse growled, so low and soft that City Man didn’t hear her. Tracker put a hand down on her silken head. Shushed her.

“Here she is.” He moved away. Something rustled, and then City Man thrust a spider-silk bag against Tracker’s chest.

He took it, felt softness and small bits of hardness within the folds of silk.

“She probably went to find the kite flyers again.” Burning like bee stings filled his words. “She stayed with them a long time, last time. Go find her.” He turned away, his scent and presence diminishing. “She’s mine, and I want her back, Tracker.”

Jesse nudged at him, panting with eagerness to be gone from this place. He wound his fingers in her silky coat, feeling her fear. “Why are you afraid?” he asked her softly as she pulled him through the bone-barred gate and back out into City’s white marble and lapis. “He won’t hurt you. He doesn’t care.”

Jesse licked his hand, then—deliberately—nipped the soft pad of flesh between his thumb and forefinger.

Tracker sucked in his breath at the sting of pain, pressed his hand to his mouth, tasting the coppery note of blood on his tongue.

• • • •

Twilight shrouded the fat cabbages with their innocent genes by the time he and Jesse reached the garden. They went inside and he told Jesse to go play. He didn’t need her here. His house existed as scents of comfort, curving walls, cushions and tables that held his echo and Jesse’s, static and welcoming. He crossed the thick carpet to run his hands along a sculpture of wave-polished wood, crafted by a young man who helped carve the sand sculptures that the waves erased with each tide.

Mindless and innocent, like the shell maker.

He fingered the complex twine of wood with polished wood and shook his head, frowning. Then he sat at his table with its not-quite-satiny grain and opened the slick folds of spider silk. It held a rumpled wad of fabric. He lifted it to his face, inhaling the scents of dust, wind, and longing. A picture flickered in his mind—a melon-colored kite diving through a cloudless sky. She probably went to find the kite flyers again. The small hard things were freshwater pearls, lumpy and irregular, that filled his mind with the timeless passage of slow, watery days. Gold wires had been threaded through them, as if they had been used for earrings once. The nip on his hand had scabbed over and he touched the grainy roughness of scab, wondering what had upset Jesse. After a while, he got up and went out into the garden, to harvest lettuce, leaf by crisp leaf, and pull tiny, sweet carrots from the loose soil. He ended beside his trellis of peas, face to the gentle breeze blowing fish scent and the evening-smoke of the sand sculptors in from the shore. Each carrot root and tiny sphere of pea-germ was a small death. Tracker tossed the last empty pod into the compost bin at the edge of the garden. Life lived on death, he thought. Until City and the people who lived here came to be.

They had defied Death.

The cooking fires on the beach were burning out. The distant scent of orcas came to Tracker. They were playing out in the dark bay, not hungry right now, just playing. He went into this house, comforted by the familiar textures and contours, and lay down on the cushions in the corner. After a few minutes, Jesse crept in beside him. She licked his hand where she had nipped it, turned around twice, and lay down with a sigh.

• • • •

They left City in the morning, walking face-on into the warmth of the rising sun. Jesse frisked like a puppy. The land outside City’s walls was desert. That surprised Tracker a little. It has been prairie last time he had been out here, full of flowers. How long ago? He tried to fix the time, gave up. Someone had decided that the land should be desert so . . . it was desert. One of City’s residents sculpted the land with glaciers. Tracker remembered City Man saying so.

They had time to sculpt a landscape with glaciers.

Away from the shore, the wind blew hot from the center of the land, and Tracker lifted his head, his hand on Jesse’s head, not bothering to look through her eyes. He could taste her. The one City Man wanted. Out there. The melon-colored kite dove and rose in the cloudless sky and he scented that hint of dust and longing, mingled with . . . joy.

They walked, living off the dried vegetables and meat in his pack, sleeping in the hottest part of the day, walking beneath the waxing moon. One of City’s members had sculpted the face of the moon. Dark lines and spaces crossed it, Tracker saw, as Jesse raised her nose to howl at it, stark against its white disk, a stain of crimson spread like a tortured rose near the center. He wondered who had made that stain.

On the morning after the full moon, on the day they shared the last of their water, they found her.

Her scent had been strong in his face all night, and an eager restlessness kept him striding on through the darkness, patient Jesse uncomplaining at his side. He stumbled on rocks, sometimes, and fell once, but he didn’t care. The wind, soft now, a desert breath against his face, stroking his cheeks like gentle fingers.

In the first faint warmth of morning, he halted, Jesse forgotten, letting the now-light pack slide from his shoulders. Ahead he sensed life, bright with flesh scent and laughter, and the joy of being alive in the warmth of a new day. The kiters. It must be. Then Jesse looked, and he saw the bright greens and blues, yellows and oranges of the kites as they soared and spiraled into the bright air, forming tightly only to break apart into explosions of color and reform once more, tails writing cryptic glyphs against the sky. A single melon-colored kite soared suddenly, briefly, circling the twined and ordered mass of the kites, a rogue dancing to its own tune.

She was there.

Tracker let his breath out slowly, and as if it had heard him, the kite veered suddenly, soaring away from the dancing spiral, straining toward him briefly, before it settled lightly to earth.

Tracker slung the near empty pack over his shoulder and strode forward. Jesse took her place at his side, her eyes showing him the rocks and scrub and small scuttling insects in front of them. He wanted her to look up again, to watch the kites, but she kept her eyes stubbornly on the ground. Then, abruptly, she stopped, and finally, she looked up. Tracker looked with her eyes, ready to see her, the melon kite in her hands, smelling of dust and longing.

It shocked him a little, as Jesse’s vision showed him his quarry. Golden hair tumbled around her face, and over her shoulders. Her eyes, the color of spring grass, laughed at him and she smiled, the kite in her hands, the curves of her body hidden by a loose shift of kite-fabric. Two polished horns sprang from her temples, curving gracefully to deadly points. Two more horns, smaller, also curved, sprang one from each hip. The shift had slitted sides so that the curved spurs could protrude and the hemmed edges revealed a flash of tanned and muscular thigh. She smiled, and the laughter in her eyes was familiar, as if they were old friends.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said, and held out one slender hand.

He took it. Jesse growled and fixed her eyes on the woman’s leg, as if contemplating a bite. “Quiet.” Tracker no longer needed her eyes. The woman’s presence filled his senses so that vision would have been a distraction only. Life, he thought absently. She was life itself, a flame of vitality that radiated energy into the universe around her like a burning fire. Her fingers curved around his, holding his hand in a way that defined the casual phrase, as aware of the texture of his flesh, the tension of his bones, and the pulse of blood and neural synapses as he was.

She was so aware.

It disturbed him that City Man had made her, good though he was.

Jesse growled again, softly, uncertainty shivering through her.

“My name is Yolanda.” Her voice was low and as intimate as if they were lying side by side in a tumbled bed. “Donai sent you.”

He nodded, comprehending that “Donai” was her name for the City Man, attuned for her reaction. Anger, fear, flight, attack?

She laughed again, and he felt only sadness woven with silver threads of amusement. And . . . love. “He came himself, last time. But Donai never does anything the same way twice.”

Jesse growled again, sharply this time, pressing forward between them, her head forward, ears pricked. Tracker realized that the kiters had come, forming a shifting vortex of curiosity, hostility, and fear around them. Jesse’s eyes roved from form to form, tension knotting her body as they drew closer, reading threat in their wary stares. He put his hand on her, not bothering to look, because he didn’t need to see their faces. She quieted instantly, but her tension shivered through the skin of his palm and up his arm.

“Stranger.” One came close, radiating vitality and health, although the shadow of Death suggested that he was not young. Jesse tensed, attack hormones torturing her. “I am Karin.” He was source of the hostility Tracker had scented, although it was under tight control. “This is Sairee,” his tone indicated gesture. “She is Mayor. I am Center. We would like to know what we can do for you?”

They knew. Tracker kept his restraining hand on Jesse’s shoulders as he bowed slightly. “I came to speak with . . . Yolanda.” It impressed them that he told the truth. Certainly the Center—whatever that was—Karin, expected him to lie, and Tracker’s small truth cracked his armor of hostility. Roiling tensions seeped through the cracks. “You have been in City,” he said.

“Yes.” His sweat went acrid with suspicion. “If Yolanda wishes to speak with you, she may,” he said flatly. “If she wishes to go with you, she may. If she does not, she will stay. Is your dog going to attack? She wants to.”

“She is only afraid that you threaten me.” Tracker stroked Jesse’s head, impressed again by this creation’s awareness. “She only wants to protect me.”

“There are wild dog packs out here. They kill straying humans. I wonder where they came from.”

The Center was staring at his face. Tracker felt the pressure of his eyes, shrugged. “They were created,” he said. “As you were. And I. And Yolanda. I don’t know why they were put here.”

For a moment, everyone was silent. Then a hand touched his arm, and Jesse whined with his flinch. A soft, gray presence, a woman heavy with knowledge and authority stood close to him. “Come have water,” she said. “And food. The flight wind is past and it’s time to eat.” She took his hand and Tracker felt an odd sense of déjà vu, as if this had happened before. She tugged him forward—guiding him, he realized with a small twinge of surprise. She had guessed he was blind. He let her steer him around the scrubby tufts of thorn and ancient, worn stones. As Jesse fell reluctantly in at his heel—still growling—he realized that the sense of déjà vu was hers, not his.

She had done this before, and the memory was so strong in her that for an instant, a circle of vans wavered into being in his mind’s eye. Once, long ago, this woman had led Yolanda down to the vans, he realized.

They crested a low ridge and moved slowly down into a wide, flat channel that faintly remembered long-gone flowing water. A dusty scent of slow-living plants and small furry and scaled lives colored the wind. Jesse showed him a circle of colorful wooden vans, topped by canopies of neon-bright kite fabric. Sails, he thought. The roof could be raised to the wind, to drive the vans. Carvings of leaves and kite shapes decorated the painted sides. A cluster of small, wiry children watched from the shadow of the vans, their curiosity a brightness pricking at his senses. None of them were older than ten or eleven, Tracker guessed, and wondered where the older children were. Everyone scattered to a van, in small groups of three or four, stooping to greet the children who ran to them, glancing over their shoulders at Tracker and Jesse. They did not point, Tracker noticed. One did not point, among this tribe of creations. The Center, Karin, had joined them, his hostility a low simmer now, as the woman guided him toward a yellow van with a green and orange canopy/sail.

He gestured to Jesse to remain outside, and felt his way up the broad steps and into the close, life-scented interior. He felt a bench beneath his groping hands, eased himself onto it. It felt good to sit like this. The edge of a table or counter brushed his arm and he listened to the disciplined choreography of the three creations moving within the confined space. They had shared this space for a long time to move with such comfort. Small thumps told of containers being set onto the table top beside him. He smelled water and cooking food. He groped for them, aware of the man, Karin’s, sudden intense scrutiny, closed his hand around an earthenware mug full of sweet water. He drained it, thirsty.

“You are blind?” Karin’s surprise brightened the space.

“The dog is his eyes.” Yolanda’s voice, rich with certainty.

“Is that true?” Sairee, concerned. “You can bring it in here.”

Tracker shook his head. “It’s not important.” The van’s interior was taking shape around him, the dimensions defined by scent, the bounce of sound, pockets of stagnant air, and the casual movements of the three. Bed over there and another above. Food space beyond where he sat. All else would be cupboards for storage. He felt a finely crafted cabinet door behind his legs. The kiters had skill with wood, too. Sairee pushed an earthenware bowl gently into his hands. He found a carved wooden spoon, scooped up some kind of cooked grain, sweetened with berries that tasted of summer sun. For a time they ate silently, the sound of spoon against bowl and the warm comfort of swallowed food filling the van. Tracker finished the grain and set the bowl down on the table.

“You understand that if Yolanda doesn’t want to go back with you, you can’t force her.” Karin spoke immediately, as if he had been waiting for Tracker to finish, his voice edged with challenge and threat.

He had been in love with her. Tracker tilted his head, savoring the subtle play of chemical conversation. Not any more, but the echo was there, a duet with Sairee’s gentle sadness. She knew that Yolanda would choose to leave, he thought. As she had known immediately that he was blind. Aware, these creations, yes. Very.

“I’m going to go with him.” The air rippled as Yolanda reached to touch Karin. “It’s time.”

Karin didn’t speak, but the air moved with his abrupt gesture of denial. Sairee said nothing, but her sadness deepened. Tracker expected Karin to argue and protest, but it was Sairee who spoke, thoughtful. “How does your dog see for you?”

Tracker frowned, wondering what would make sense to these people with their kites and carved wood. “City Man engineered her,” he said slowly. “He changed the part of her brain that sees. It talks to me.”

A small, hot brightness woke in Sairee, like a tiny bright flower unfolding. “You know about City tech,” she said. “Is there a . . . disease that kills children?”

Tracker frowned, feeling the depth of their listening, and the bright desperate flower of Sairee’s hope.

“I mean . . . our children have begun to die. By their thirteenth summer. You saw them outside. It’s a sickness. Maybe City people know how to cure it.”

“Hush, Sairee.” Karin’s voice was rough and hard with old anger. “They wouldn’t share a cure with us anyway.”

How to say to these people that disease did not exist, not even out here? “I’m sorry,” Tracker said at last. “I don’t know.”

“Ah well.” The hope flower withered, leaving grayness in its wake. “I’m sorry.”

Tracker felt the stir of her rising. “We’ll let you rest, stranger.” She paused for an instant. “Will you share your name with us?”

Names were important here. “Tracker,” he said and felt their instant of hesitation. “That is my name,” he said.

They didn’t believe him, but they were polite about it and left, taking Sairee’s grief and Karin’s anger with them. He turned to face Yolanda, feeling the glow of her like sunlight on his flesh.

“These are gentle people, Tracker.” Yolanda touched his face with her fingertips. “Someone created them to be finite and this is how they are ending.”

“City Man—Donai—created them.”

She took her fingers away, her sudden anger like the flick of a sharp nail against his cheek. “How do you know that?”

He shrugged, because the silver music of their origin was written in their scent. “I just do.”

“He never told me that. I don’t believe you.”

She was lying and angry grief edged the lie. Tracker shrugged and stood. He went outside to the nervously waiting Jesse and squatted beside her, squeezing one silken ear, sorry for her anxiety. She thumped her tail and licked his face, telling him it was okay, even though it wasn’t. Climbing back into the van, he followed water-scent to a clay pitcher and returned to fill her small bowl and open a package of dried meat from his pack for her.

“Welcome to The Caravan.” One of the children, a bright flare of life and youthful joy-in-living squatted beside him, earning a wary stare from Jesse. Her eyes showed him red hair and freckles, and long legs like a horse-colt. “Did you have something to eat and drink?” she asked with a grownup reserve and a carefully restrained impatience that suggested the words were important custom.

Tracker nodded as he set the full water bowl down for Jesse. “Thank you.”

“Are you really from City?” Social necessity taken care of, the words burst forth, gleaming silver with curiosity. “What’s it like? Are there really all kinds of weird monsters there? And are the streets really paved with gems and polished agate? What is so awful there that Karin won’t talk about it?”

Tracker smiled, amused at the girl’s burning enthusiasm. “I don’t know why your Center won’t talk about it.”

“Silly not to.” The girl made a face. “It just makes me wonder about it more than if he told me everything.”

Wise child. Tracker smiled. “My name is Tracker.”

“Is that really a name?” Doubting.

“I don’t have any other.” He poured the dried meat out for Jesse. The girl burned like Yolanda, in a different way. Like a spring sun versus a summer sun, he thought.

She had been considering his statement. “My name is Karda.” She had decided he was telling the truth.

Karin’s daughter. Tracker scented it. And Sairee’s? “Do you want to go see City?” he asked, his hand on Jesse’s silken coat.

“Yes.” Her nod stirred the air. “Just to see why Karin won’t say anything. It can’t be that horrible. But I don’t think I want to live there.” Thoughtful. “I like this life. What does City have? I mean, all those people stuck in one place. Do they Fly?”

She meant kites. Tracker shrugged. “Perhaps some. I’ve never heard of it, but anything can be done.” People with millennia to live did everything eventually.

“Are you going to take Yolanda away?” Hard tone this time, warning him that she didn’t want to be lied to.

“She chooses to come with me.”

The girl’s sudden stabbing grief surprised him. He turned toward her, but Jesse’s attention was on her food, so he groped toward her spring-sun warmth, his fingers finding her shoulder, sensing the quivering control that kept back the tears. “I’m sorry,” he said, meaning it, because it was such an intense pain for something this young. “I’m not forcing her,” he said gently.

“I know.” Karda swallowed, fighting with her pain and her tears. “She said she wouldn’t, but I knew she would someday. She . . . lies about things like that. Sometimes . . . she lies to herself, I think.”

Tracker frowned, feeling truth in the texture of her words. She knew that Yolanda lied. He wondered if the kiters had been created to know truth. He had thought that he was the only one. Perhaps City Man had sculpted it into other creations, too. Not Yolanda. Jesse had finished, and now looked up into the girl’s face, her tail wagging, not worried about this one. Tracker saw the gleam of tears on her tawny cheeks, watched his fingers brush them away. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“I’m not angry at you.” Karda rose gracefully to her feet. “She would have gone when she was ready anyway.”

Eleven, he thought. If the kiter children were dying at puberty . . . He sensed it ripening in her, that rich change from child to woman, felt a sudden deep pang of regret. Jesse whined and nudged his hand.

“Tracker, I’m ready to go.” Yolanda’s shadow fell across Jesse, the curve of her hip-spurs elongated curves on the ochre soil, the shadow of her head crowed with twin curves.

“Right now?” Karda’s voice quivered.

Through Jesse’s eyes, Tracker watched Yolanda cross swiftly to the girl, cup her face in her long-fingered hands, and kiss her gently on the forehead and cheeks. “Right now, my love,” she said softly. For a moment her fingers lingered on the girl’s golden hair, then she turned swiftly away to face Tracker. “I brought food and water.”

Tracker hesitated. Now that he had found her, he had only to speak to City Man and he would send a flyer for them. He felt oddly reluctant to do so, and wasn’t sure why.

“Give me your water bottles.” Karda held her sorrow in a tight net of anger now. She seized them and hurried off, toward a distant van. Jesse growled and swung her head to show him Karin approaching, his expression grim.

Oh, yes, Karda’s father. You could see it in the shape of his face.

“Catch up with me,” Yolanda said. Fabric rustled as she swung a pack lightly to her shoulder and strode way, her scent trailing behind her.

Karin stopped, all churning emotion. “How did you know I was in City?” His voice was harsh.

Tracker shrugged. “It changes you. I felt it.”

“I went back with him—the man who came for Yolanda. He let her stay here. I . . . didn’t belong there.” Karin’s eyes narrowed, and for a moment a hint of fear gleamed on their surface. “What else do you feel?” he asked softly.

Your fear for your daughter, Tracker thought and didn’t say. The death that waits in her with her womanhood. Your knowledge of the twisted sculpture in your cells that sends your kites into the sky. Yes, kite-flyer, you felt it when you walked through those City gates. That you are a sculpture and not a human. “Many things,” he said aloud. He felt Karda approaching with the filled bottles. Again Karin’s fear surfaced, bright as the flash of an ocean fish. He heard the kiter get heavily to his feet and move to take the dripping water bottles from his daughter and send her brusquely away. He thrust the bottles, cool and dripping, against Tracker’s chest.

“Good-bye, stranger,” he said, his voice hard. “I don’t think we’ll meet again.”

In a small handful of years, they would all be dead, with no children to replace them. Tracker bowed his head, seeing the vans in the old woman’s memory, bright and beautiful, their sails fluttering in the hot breeze. He turned away and Jesse bounded along next to him, very happy to be leaving this place. Yolanda had covered a lot of ground and led him now, a beacon far ahead, against the distant murmur of City and sea. He didn’t try to catch up to her, content to follow, not needing Jesse’s eyes to follow her trail in the breeze. He could open his link to City Man any time and the flyer would come.

He didn’t open it.

They walked, separated by a space that grew neither wider nor narrower, until the sun’s heat faded from his face and small creatures began to stir in their hiding places from the sun. As the last of the sun’s heat faded, replaced by night’s chill, Yolanda halted finally. Her eyes on the scatter of diamond stars overhead, she didn’t move as Jesse led Tracker up to her. The moon was up, the red stain like a rose on its pale face as Jesse lifted her nose to it. She wanted to howl, but did not. Yolanda took Jesse’s face in her hands, her face large in Tracker’s shared sight. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, stroking the dog’s ears. “We were both cruel to you today.”

Jesse thumped her tail wearily and flopped onto the still-warm sand, her tongue lolling. It was all sand here, white as snow beneath their feet, radiating away the day’s heat as the air cooled. Water scented the air sweetly, and Yolanda pressed a bottle into Tracker’s hand. The water had been flavored by her mouth, and he tasted her as he drank. Thick fabric whispered, and Tracker guessed that she had pulled a blanket from her pack. It popped softly as she shook it out, then hissed against the sand. “Look at me.” She spoke to Jesse, and they both looked.

She lay back on a yellow quilt made of kite fabric filled with soft plant fibers. Her shift slid up her long thigh, baring it to the polished curve of her hip-spur as she tilted her head to the sky. Her hair tumbled down over her shoulders, parted by the horns springing from her forehead. Silver moonlight gleamed like water on the polished curve of those horns.

“Do you know why Donai made me?” she asked at last, her voice dreamy.

Tracker, squatting by his pack, feeding meat to Jesse, didn’t answer.

“He made me to love him. He made me to kill him one day.”

She was speaking truth. Tracker looked up, his eyes narrowing. City people could die. It didn’t happen often, but they could. No disease could touch them, they did not age. They could heal nearly any injury.

But . . . they could die.

If they chose to.

“I don’t want to go back.” Sorrow shivered in her words like the silver light, cold and beautiful. “But I have to.” She rose to her feet suddenly, the twin moons above her head like a crown of light as she came to stand over him. Jesse whined, and lowered her head to her paws, tail thumping uncertainly as she banished Yolanda’s face. “Do you know why I’m leaving, Tracker?”

“No.” He didn’t need Jesse’s eyes. She filled his senses, as if the moon hovered before him, blazing with silver light and animal heat.

“I’m killing them. The children.” Her voice was low and full of pain. “He must have done it when he came to get me and I wouldn’t go. He changed me so that I poisoned them.” Her resignation held a bitter note. “He always gets what he wants.” She reached down, taking his hands and pulling him to his feet. His toe caught the kite fabric quilt. “Come sit with me,” she said, a mix of command and plea.

He sat on the soft slickness of the quilt that smelled of her. And of Karin. She knelt beside him to unlace his boots, burning like the spring sun, warming him, filling his senses with images of sun on bright fabric and clouds and blue sky. He felt her gaze on his face and suddenly, he understood. It was there, written like a silvery thread in the scent of her. Karda. Karin’s daughter, but not Sairee’s.

Yolanda’s.

She stood suddenly and kite fabric rustled. Her shift pooled on the quilt beside him and he felt her spring-sun heat as her leg slid across his waist to straddle him. He wanted to protest, but her heat drowned him, and as she pushed him back, he groped for memory of another moment like this, found shadows like slippery fish in the depths of his memory. Her mouth found his and her taut muscular body moved against his and the shadow fish of memory fled.

He woke to the faint, chill whisper of breeze that presaged the sun’s warmth. The scent of dew on dry leaves and stone filled his nostrils and the night-scurry of tiny lives all around. For a moment he had no idea of where he was or when, simply floated in a limbo of cool air and scent. Jesse was a furry warmth against his leg, and, head on his chest, Yolanda slept deeply. He felt the polished curve of her hip-spur against his side. A small pain drew his fingers and he felt a crust of dried blood scabbing a shallow gash in his thigh. He had no memory of her spur tearing his skin.

A small uneasiness crept through him, something . . . wrong. He sharpened his senses, gathering them, shutting out the scurrying insect lives that filled the space around him and opening himself to the rush of blood through her veins, the spiral dance of her cells. Yes. His skin tightened, although not from the morning chill. As Yolanda stirred, he sat up, newly aware, feeling Jesse’s flicker of wakening, her tail-thump of inquiry. He looked through her eyes to watch Yolanda toss the tangled gold of her hair back from her face, her eyes full of sleep and the memories of pleasure. Tracker swallowed against a sudden sharp ache in his chest.

“What’s wrong?” She touched his face. “Your skin is the color of desert flower honey when the sun hits it, you know.”

The invitation in her touch made him shiver again, and Jesse whined. Yolanda withdrew her hand. “Something is wrong.”

“You’re City.” The words came out in a hushed tone, almost a whisper. He couldn’t speak them aloud out here.

“I was born there.” Yolanda considered, thoughtful. “The woman I called Mother lived with me in a garden. There were huge flowers and some of them moved their petals, like butterflies bound to a vine. That was his hobby then. Plants. But that’s not what you mean.”

“No.” His throat was too dry; he had to swallow again to get the words out. “You are City. Like him. City Man. Donai. I can . . . I know it.” It was there, that bright absence of Death.

She was shaking her head, sadness deepening.

“Not possible, Tracker. I . . . have a daughter, remember? City people can’t breed with the beings they create. That has always been true.”

And it was, and it was true, he had sensed her relationship to Karda, had forgotten in the shock of his discovery. He groped for her hand, lifted the palm to his face, tasting that absence on her skin. She had to be City. Yolanda made no effort to pull her hand away.

“You scared me when I first saw you, blind Tracker. It’s as if I live on the surface of the world that you inhabit. You see things, sense things, that I can’t perceive, and that scares me.”

Jesse was looking at his own face now, carved with strain, but he could feel the emerald pressure of her eyes on him.

“And you scared me,” she went on softly, “because I thought you were City, here to claim me, not someone sent by Donai.” She paused, her stare warm against his skin. “At night, years ago, Karin would come to my bed. And in the morning, after he had gone back to sleep with Sairee, I would smell him on my hair and skin, as if his spirit was still lying in my arms. What are you sensing, Tracker? I am dying a little with every passing day, ticking off a finite life. What about you? Tell me about the woman who carried you, Tracker. I remember mine. I called her Mother, and she sang to me in the sun of the garden.”

“No.” It was sigh more than whisper. He wanted to tell her that he remembered, describe this woman for her.

He could not.

Grope as he might, all he found was a chain of days that disappeared into a far distance, endlessly. Before Jesse, another creature, lithe and furry, and before that one, before that one?

“City people don’t just breed.” Yolanda went on relentlessly. “They select genotypes, they match carefully. There are only so many who can live in City, only so many who can be admitted to share the universe. Donai told me about this, about the rules. That is the only rule they may not break, Tracker. To breed without consensus, without permission. I remember when he told me, Tracker. It was not long after I had left the garden, when I was his lover. And his words were bitter, but his tone was not, and I wondered about that.”

He felt her smile, sharp and cold as a blade edge against his skin. “I think you are City, Tracker. Didn’t you ever notice? Were you too close to see it? I think you are Donai’s own son.”

She was right, oh yes, the memory was there, opening now, unrolling like an endless carpet, drawing his mind’s eye back though a storm of days and nights and days, faces, voices, hands touching, animal fur and cold noses, summers and winters . . . Drowning. All the time, City Man’s face, everywhere, in all the seasons. City Man. Donai. Drowning. Tracker sank silently beneath the endless, bottomless sea of yesterdays, weighed down by his sudden understanding of . . . what he was.

• • • •

He woke to nighttime cold, to the rough-wet caress of Jesse’s tongue punctuated by the cold thrust of her nose. He was lying on the fabric quilt and the crackle of flame and scent of smoke suggested a fire nearby. Jesse nudged him again. He reached out, patted her, dizzy briefly as the deep sea of past threatened to suck him down once more. For an instant, a hundred Jesses with different fur and form and faces nudged him. Treading water in those depths, he focused until he was aware of only this one, and sat up.

“I was getting worried.” Yolanda sat on the corner of the quilt, Jesse showing him her knees drawn up, her shift pulled down over her legs for warmth. “We’re nearly out of water. I didn’t find any communication device in your pack, so I assume you need to call Donai yourself. And the Caravan is heading east, not west. So we’re on our own.” But no trace of worry colored her words. “You’ve been unconscious for two days. I gave her the rest of the food.”

He might not have woken up. For a long time he had been lost in the depths of that huge, chaotic sea. He might never have found his way back to this moment, this time. Slowly, Tracker reached out to touch her arm. She accepted his touch, even put her hand on his with a gentle sympathy.

That acceptance was the same acceptance that Jesse offered him.

Tracker summoned City Man through his link. Then they waited for the flyer, which arrived as the day’s heat grew. He was not on board, and Tracker felt a moment of piercing gratitude for that. They climbed the ramp, Yolanda first, her cool composure tinged with sorrow, then Tracker, and last Jesse, panting in the noonday heat. The cushioned interior was cool and Tracker got Jesse a bowl of water from the refreshment wall. A tiled shower cabinet drew Yolanda to strip and step inside, turning so that the jets of warm water scoured every square centimeter of her lithe body. He looked through Jesse’s eyes at the sleek curves of her flesh, momentarily swept away by the memory of the night spent with her on the kite fabric blanket beneath the ancient and weary sky.

He grieved for it.

She emerged, dry, naked and glowing. She didn’t invite him to make love to her. She would surely accept if he asked, would no more refuse than Jesse would refuse his summons. That had been built into her, lay there as real as the shadow of Death.

He didn’t ask.

He could feel the swift approach of City. Beyond it, the sand people would be working on the sculptures that the waves would erase. The flyer skimmed above City’s silent clamor, settled into the quiet lawn behind City Man’s residence. Grass like living velvet gave beneath Tracker’s feet as he stepped out. Yolanda leaped lightly down beside him, but her sorrow clouded the air around them. Jesse kept her eyes low, tail down, afraid. He closed his fingers in her fur, tugging gently, and he felt her tail move briefly.

City Man was in the garden. Jesse showed him blue-flowered twining plants. The snaky shoots wove about his legs, not touching him, their blue flowers like eyes. As he and Yolanda and Jesse approached, the vines lifted and pointed in their direction. Jesse shouldered into Yolanda and planted her feet, refusing to move farther. Yolanda stood still, her knees against the furry barricade that was Jesse. Tracker felt her gaze fixed on City Man.

Tracker walked up to him, not needing Jesse’s eyes. The vine things twined briefly around his calves and then released him, retreating as if he poisoned them. They knew City when they felt it. Like Yolanda. “Donai,” Tracker said.

City Man’s attention focused sharply on Tracker. The plants cowered away from both of them, and City Man finally shifted his attention to them. “Waste of time,” he said. “I’ll have to start over. I never doubted you’d find her.”

“She’s not yours anymore,” Tracker said gently. “Donai.”

City Man’s attention was on him fully, now. “I can go to the City Council.” He enunciated each syllable precisely. “I can tell them what you did. What I am.”

Stillness. A spike of caution, quickly extinguished. “What I did?” City Man put on a good-humored tolerance that was as translucent as gauze. “And what are you, besides a very well created tracking dog?”

“I’ll go to the Council and tell them that I am . . . your son. Father.” The word made him sway, and the dark, bottomless sea beneath his feet nearly rose to swallow him again. But the effect on City Man was visible. He went still, and Tracker tasted his . . . vulnerability.

This was new. Never before.

“Yolanda couldn’t know,” City Man whispered.

“Oh no.” Tracker shook his head, demons shrieking in his head. “She doesn’t know. I simply . . . remembered.”

“You can’t,” City Man said calmly. “You don’t have the ability. I made sure of that.”

It was an admission and they both realized it at the same instant. City Man swallowed, an audible, dry sound. “They’ll destroy you, if you tell them.”

Tracker bent his head, wishing he could cry, but that ability had slipped away from him as he drowned in that vast sea. “They’ll destroy us both, Father.” Again. The name burned them both equally.

“They denied my petition for offspring.” City Man breathed the words. “My DNA contains too many flaws. But it also contains vast talent. I can twist that ladder to create people and tribes, plants and animals that no one has ever been able to rival. I can do things that nobody else can do, no matter how much they copy me. So what if you can sculpt glaciers, mountains, the face of the moon? I can sculpt races!” He turned to face Tracker, filled with a depthless calm. “They’ll destroy you. Think about that. You have forever.”

It was a weapon, those three sentences. Oh, he felt it, that tug of cells. Live forever. It weakened his knees, called to him with a Siren’s voice to go back to his garden, pet Jesse, and make love to Yolanda. He could do that. City Man would reward him for doing that. He would help him to pretend, and after a while, Tracker would . . . forget. The promise was there. And real. “Let’s walk,” he said and it was the first command he had ever uttered.

City Man complied, and that was another admission. They strolled away from the cowering vines, through a garden of growing green things, sweet with the scents of plant sex. Behind them, Jesse and Yolanda waited and Tracker felt a clench of sorrow for the similarity of their waiting. Tracker finally stopped, feeling the silence between them like a pair of crossed swords, a silent struggle. Tracker shrugged suddenly, fingers groping to find a fleshy blossom humming with a summer’s joy. He fingered the petals gently, did not pick it. “Who was my mother?” he asked.

“You don’t remember.” A silver thread of triumph wove City Man’s words together.

Tracker shook his head. “I just can’t find her.” She was somewhere, lost in that sea. “ I would like to know.” And he wasn’t challenging, wasn’t threatening, was merely . . . asking.

City Man walked on and Tracker followed, waiting.

“There was no other.” The words came slowly. “I used my DNA, recombined it to grow, and implanted it in a . . . creation.” He was silent for a long time. “I . . . sculpted you.” He spoke slowly, thoughtfully. “If I wasn’t good enough for them, then I could make you into whatever I wanted. I gave you a gift.”

Tracker felt his stare as City Man pivoted to face him, like desert sunlight on his skin.

“You can’t remember. Not for more than a few decades. Tell me about your last lover? Your last dog?” Sly triumph shaded his words. “I made you immortal, but I gave you a mortal memory.”

And by that, he could own Tracker forever. Tracker lifted his head, feeling the early starlight on his face, remembering the wide, bright eyes of the kiter girl. “You failed,” he said gently. He reached out to touch his father’s face, felt the hard edge of his disbelief. “I could wish you had succeeded.”

“You belong to me. If you tell, we both die,” Donai whispered. “Life forever. It’s not so easy to give up.”

“No,” Tracker said. “It’s not.” Then he turned and walked away, not needing eyes, back to where Jesse and Yolanda waited beneath the silver moon.

• • • •

The sun was barely peeking up over the horizon as Tracker crested the desert rise and spied through Jesse’s eyes the circle of kite-roofed wagons below. He halted, and Yolanda came up to stand beside him, still and silent, her awareness of his City flesh a thin and impenetrable wall between them, one that would always be there.

Her scent tickled him, overlaid with dust and the bright, spiraling joy of the kiters’ morning flight as their kites twined the dry sky. It had changed, her scent, richer now, tinged with tentative new life. He groped, touched the polished curve of her hip-spur, felt the texture of her joy. It matched the kiters’.

With a sigh he stepped forward, making his way with Jesse’s guidance, down the gentle slope of the sage-covered hill that had once been a roving dune, but was now netted to the earth with roots. Before they reached the bottom, a shadowy figure emerged from one of the wagons and ran to meet them.

“I knew you were coming.” Karda halted breathless in front of them. “I knew you were coming back.”

Yolanda stepped forward, arms outstretched, enfolding the child to her. The girl winced slightly as one hip-spur scratched her arm lightly, but barely noticed the tiny trickle of blood.

And so she was inoculated with the antidote to City Man’s lethal virus. And Yolanda would free the rest of the kiters from City Man’s vengeance. That had been part of his bargain with City Man. He looked through Jesse’s eyes and found Karda standing in front of him, looking up at him. “Are you going to stay here, too? Forever?”

“Yes,” he said.

She frowned, because she could sense truth, and this was not truth but it was not a lie, either. “For as long as you live,” he said, and that truth she heard.

“I’m a lot younger than you,” she said, with a child’s forthrightness.

“You are.” He smiled, because for the kiters, he was like them. Not City. Yolanda might know, but she would not say, and here he would be . . . not alone. And that tentative silver note of life in Yolanda would grow and strengthen, and, in a space of time, would be born as a child. His child, and Yolanda’s. You made me too much like them, Tracker thought. Enough to do this. Enough not to fear Death. He groped for Karda’s hand and she closed her small, slender fingers around his. For a while this would be an island, where he would learn to swim in the dark sea that lurked in his head. And when the child was old enough, they would leave. Because there were others like them. He felt them. Behind him, he felt the distant forever murmur of City rising beside the patient sea. Beginning and end, he thought. My gift to you. Father.

With Karda guiding his feet, they walked through the sage as the first kite spiraled upward to meet the rising sun, and for the first time Tracker felt a sense of peace.

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Mary Rosenblum

Mary Rosenblum

Mary Rosenblum is the author of four science fiction novels, including her latest, Horizons, and The Drylands, which won the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. Water Rites—a compilation of The Drylands and the three novelettes that preceded it—is recently available from Fairwood Press. Her short work frequently appears in Asimov’s, but has also appeared in Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and has often been reprinted in Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction annual.