Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

Walking Awake

Walking Awake by N.K. Jemisin

The Master who came for Enri was wearing a relatively young body. Sadie guessed it was maybe fifty years old. It was healthy and in good condition, still handsome. It could last twenty years more, easily.

Its owner noticed Sadie’s stare and chuckled. “I never let them get past fifty,” the Master said. “You’ll understand when you get there.”

Sadie quickly lowered her gaze. “Of course, sir.”

It turned the body’s eyes to examine Enri, who sat very still in his cell. Enri knew, Sadie could see at once. She had never told him—she never told any of the children, because she was their caregiver and there was nothing of care in the truth—but Enri had always been more intuitive than most.

She cleared her throat. “Forgive me, sir, but it’s best if we return to the transfer center. He’ll have to be prepped—”

“Ah, yes, of course,” the Master said. “Sorry, I just wanted to look him over before my claim was processed. You never know when they’re going to screw up the paperwork.” It smiled.

Sadie nodded and stepped back, gesturing for the Master to precede her away from the cell. As they walked to the elevator they passed two of Sadie’s assistant caregivers, who were distributing the day’s feed to Fourteen Male. Sadie caught Caridad’s eye and signed for them to go and fetch Enri. No ceremony. A ceremony at this point would be cruel.

Caridad noticed, twitched elaborately, got control of herself and nodded. Olivia, who was deaf, did not look up to catch Sadie’s signing, but Caridad brushed her arm and repeated it. Olivia’s face tightened in annoyance, but then smoothed into a compliant mask. Both women headed for cell 47.

“The children here all seem nicely fit,” the Master commented as they stepped into the elevator. “I got my last body from Southern. Skinny as rails there.”

“Exercise, sir. We provide a training regimen for those children who want it; most do. We also use a nutrient blend designed to encourage muscle growth.”

“Ah, yes. Do you think that new one will get above two meters?”

“He might, sir. I can check the breeder history—”

“No, no, never mind. I like surprises.” It threw her a wink over one shoulder. When it faced forward again, Sadie found her eyes drawn to the crablike form half-buried at the nape of the body’s neck. Even as Sadie watched, one of its legs shifted just under the skin, loosening its grip on the tendons there.

She averted her eyes.

Caridad and Olivia came down shortly. Enri was between the two women, dressed in the ceremonial clothing: a plain low-necked shirt and pants, both dyed deep red. His eyes locked onto Sadie, despairing, betrayed, before he disappeared through the transfer room’s door.

“Lovely eyes,” the Master remarked, handing her the completed claim forms. “Can’t wait to wear blue again.”

Sadie led it into the transfer center. As they passed through the second gate, the airy echoes of the tower gave way to softer, closer acoustics. The center’s receiving room had jewel-toned walls, hardwood floors, and luxuriant furniture upholstered in rich, tasteful brocades. Soft strains of music played over the speakers; incense burned in a censer on the mantle. Many Masters liked to test their new senses after a transfer.

This Master gave everything a perfunctory glance as it passed through. Off the receiving room was the transfer chamber itself: two long metal tables, a tile floor set with drains, elegant mirror-glass walls which were easy to wash and sterilize. Through the open doorway Sadie could see that Enri had already been strapped to the left table, facedown with arms outstretched. His head was buckled in place on the chinrest, but in the mirrored wall his eyes shifted to Sadie. There was nothing of anticipation in that gaze, as there should have been. He knew to be afraid. Sadie looked away and bowed at the door as the Master passed.

The Master walked toward the right-hand table, removing its shirt, and then paused as it noticed the room’s door still open. It turned to her and lifted one of the body’s eyebrows, plainly wanting privacy. Sadie swallowed, painfully aware of the passing seconds, of the danger of displeasing a Master, of Enri’s terrible unwavering stare. She should stay. It was the least she could do after lying to Enri his whole life. She should stay and let his last sight through his own eyes be of someone who loved him and lamented his suffering.

“Thank you for choosing the Northeast Anthroproduction Facility,” she said to the Master. “At Northeast, your satisfaction is always guaranteed.”

She closed the door and walked away.

• • •

That night Sadie dreamed of Enri.

This was not unusual. Her dreams had always been dangerously vivid. As a child she had sleepwalked, attacked others in the confusion of waking, heard voices when no one had spoken, bitten through her lip and nearly drowned in blood. Her caregivers sent away for a specialist, who diagnosed her as something called bipolar—a defect of the brain chemistry. At the time she had been distraught over this, but the policies were very clear. No Master would have anything less than a perfect host. They could have sent her to Disposal, or the plantations. Instead, Sadie had been given medicines to stabilize her erratic neurotransmitters and then sent to another facility, Northeast, to begin training as a caregiver. She had done well. But though the other symptoms of her defect had eased with adulthood and medication, her dreams were still strong.

This time she stood in a vast meadow, surrounded by waist-high grass and summer flowers. She had only seen a meadow once, on the journey from her home anthro to caregiver training, and she had never actually walked through it. The ground felt uneven and soft under her feet, and a light breeze rustled the grass around her. Underneath the rustling she thought she could hear snatches of something else—many voices, whispering, though she could not make out the words.

“Sadie?” Enri, behind her. She turned and stared at him. He was himself, his eyes wide with wonder. Yet she had heard the screams from the transfer room, smelled the blood and bile, seen his body emerge from the room and flash a satisfied smile that no fourteen-year-old boy should ever wear.

“It is you,” Enri said, staring. “I didn’t think I would see you again.”

It was just a dream. Still, Sadie said, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“I didn’t have a choice.”

“I know.” Enri sobered, and sighed. “I was angry at first. But then I kept thinking: It must be hard for you. You love us, but you give us to them, over and over. It’s cruel of them to make you do it.”

Cruel. Yes. But. “Better than . . . ” She caught herself.

“Better than being chosen yourself.” Enri looked away. “Yes. It is.”

But he came to her, and they walked awhile, listening to the swish of grass around their calves and smelling the strangely clean aroma of the dirt between their toes.

“I’m glad for this,” Sadie said after a while. Her voice seemed strangely soft; the land here did not echo the way the smooth corridors of the facility did. “To see you. Even if it’s just a dream.”

Enri spread his hands from his sides as they walked, letting the bobbing heads of flowers tickle his palms. “You told me once that you used to go places when you dreamed. Maybe this is real. Maybe you’re really here with me.”

“That wasn’t ‘going to places,’ that was sleepwalking. And it was in the real world. Not like this.”

He nodded, silent for a moment. “I wanted to see you again. I wanted it so much. Maybe that’s why I’m here.” He glanced at her, biting his bottom lip. “Maybe you wanted to see me, too.”

She had. But she could not bring herself to say so, because just thinking it made her hurt all over inside, like shaking apart, and the dream was fragile. Too much of anything would break it; she could feel that instinctively.

She took his hand, though, the way she had so often when they were alive, and alone. His fingers tightened on hers briefly, then relaxed.

They had reached a hill, which overlooked a landscape that Sadie had never seen before: meadows and hills in a vast expanse broken only occasionally by lone trees, and in the distance a knot of thick variegated green. Was that a . . . jungle? A forest? What was the difference? She had no idea.

“The others think I came here because we used to be close,” Enri said, a little shyly. “Also because you’re so good at dreaming. It wouldn’t matter, me reaching out for you, if you weren’t meeting me halfway.”

Others? “What are you talking about?”

Enri shrugged. It made his shirt—the low-necked smock she’d last seen him wearing—slip back a little, revealing the smooth unblemished flesh of his neck and upper back. “After the pain, there’s nothing but the dark inside your head. If you shout, it sounds like a whisper. If you hit yourself, it feels like a pinch. Nothing works right except your thoughts. And all you can think about is how much you want to be free.”

She had never let herself imagine this. Never, not once. These were the dangerous thoughts, the ones that threatened her ability to keep doing what the Masters wanted or to keep from screaming while she did those things. If she even thought the word free, she usually made herself immediately think about something else. She should not be dreaming about this.

And yet, like picking at a scab, she could not help asking, “Could you . . . go to sleep? Or something? Stop thinking, somehow?” Pick, pick. It would be terrible to be trapped so forever, with no escape. Pick, pick. She had always thought that taking on a Master meant nothingness. Oblivion. This was worse.

Enri turned to look at her, and she stopped.

“You’re not alone in it,” he said. Whispering, all around them both; she was sure of it now. His eyes were huge and blue, and unblinking as they watched her. “You’re not the only person trapped in the dark. There’s lots of others in here. With me.”

“I, I don’t—” She didn’t want to know.

Pick, pick.

“Everyone else the Masters have taken.”

A Master could live for centuries. How many bodies was that? How many other Enris trapped in the silence, existing only as themselves in dreams? Dozens?

All of us, from every Master, down all the years that they’ve ruled us.”

Thousands. Millions.

“And a few like you, ones without Masters, but who are good at dreaming and want to be free the way we do. No one else can hear us. No one else needs to.”

Sadie shook her head. “No.” She put out a hand to touch Enri’s shoulder, wondering if this might help her wake up. It felt just as she remembered—bony and soft and almost hot to the touch, as if the life inside him was much brighter and stronger than her own. “I, I don’t want to be—” She can’t say the word.

Pick, pick.

“We’re all still here. We’re dead, but we’re still here. And—” He hesitated, then ducked his eyes. “The others say you can help us.”

“No!” She let go of him and stumbled back, shaking inside and out. She could not hear these dangerous thoughts. “I don’t want this!”

She woke in the dark of her cubicle, her face wet with tears.

• • •

The next day a Master arrived in a woman’s body. The body was not old at all—younger than Sadie, who was forty. Sadie checked the database carefully to make sure the Master had a proper claim.

“I’m a dancer,” the Master said. “I’ve been given special dispensation for the sake of my art. Do you have any females with a talent for dance?”

“I don’t think so,” Sadie said.

“What about Ten-36?” Olivia, who must have read the Master’s lips, came over to join them and smiled. “She opted for the physical/artistic track of training. Ten-36 loves to dance.”

“I’ll take that one,” the Master said.

“She’s only ten years old,” Sadie said. She did not look at Olivia, for fear the Master would notice her anger. “She might be too young to survive transfer.”

“Oh, I’m very good at assuming control of a body quickly,” the Master said. “Too much trauma would destroy its talent, after all.”

“I’ll bring her down,” Olivia said, and Sadie had no choice but to begin preparing the forms.

Ten-36 was beaming when Olivia brought her downstairs. The children from Ten had all been let out to line the stairway. They cheered that one of their year-mates had been granted the honor of an early transfer; they sang a song praising the Masters and exhorting them to guide humankind well. Ten-36 was a bright, pretty child, long-limbed and graceful, Indo-Asian phenotype with a solid breeding history. Sadie helped Olivia strap her down. All the while Ten-36 chattered away at them, asking where she would live and how she would serve and whether the Master seemed nice. Sadie said nothing while Olivia told all the usual lies. The Masters were always kind. Ten-36 would spend the rest of her life in the tall glass spires of the Masters’ city, immersed in miracles and thinking unfathomable thoughts that human minds were too simple to manage alone. And she would get to dance all the time.

When the Master came in and lay down on the right-hand table, Ten-36 fell silent in awe. She remained silent, though Sadie suspected this was no longer due to awe, when the Master tore its way out of the old body’s neck and stood atop the twitching flesh, head-tendrils and proboscides and spinal stinger steaming faintly in the cool air of the chamber. Then it crossed from one outstretched arm to the other and began inserting itself into Ten-36. It had spoken the truth about its skill. Ten-36 convulsed twice and threw up, but her heart never stopped and the bleeding was no worse than normal.

“Perfect,” the Master said when it had finished. Its voice was now high pitched and girlish. It sat down on one of the receiving room couches to run its fingers over the brocade, then inhaled the scented air. “Marvelous sensory acuity. Excellent fine motor control, too. It’s a bother to have to go through puberty again, but, well. Every artist must make sacrifices.”

When it was gone, Sadie checked the Master’s old body. It—she—was still breathing, though unresponsive and drooling. On Sadie’s signal, two of the assistants escorted the body to Disposal.

Then she went to find Olivia. “Don’t ever contradict me in front of a Master again,” she said. She was too angry to sign, but she made sure she didn’t speak too fast despite her anger, so that Olivia could read her lips.

Olivia stared at her. “It’s not my fault you didn’t remember Ten-36. You’re the head caregiver. Do your job.”

“I remembered. I just didn’t think it was right that a Ten be made to serve—” She closed her mouth after that, grateful Olivia couldn’t hear her inflection and realize the sentence was incomplete. She had almost added a Master who will throw her away as soon as she’s no longer new.

Olivia rolled her eyes. “What difference does it make? Sooner, later, it’s all the same.”

Anger shot through Sadie, hotter than she’d felt in years. “Don’t take it out on the children just because you can’t serve, Olivia.”

Olivia flinched, then turned and walked stiffly away. Sadie gazed after her for a long while, first trembling as the anger passed, then just empty. Eventually she went back into the transfer room to clean up.

• • •

That night, Sadie dreamt again. This time she stood in a place of darkness, surrounded by the same whispering voices she’d heard before. They rose into coherency for only a moment before subsiding into murmurs again.

hereHERE this place remember show her never forget

The darkness changed. She stood on a high metal platform (balcony, said the whispers) overlooking a vast, white-walled room of the sort she had always imagined the glass towers of the Masters to contain. This one was filled with strange machines hooked up to long rows of things like sinks. (Laboratory.) Each sink—there were hundreds in all—was filled with a viscous blue liquid, and in the liquid floated the speckled bodies of Masters.

Above the whispers she heard a voice she recognized: “This is where they came from.”

Enri.

She looked around, somehow unsurprised that she could not see him. “What?”

The scene before her changed. Now there were people moving among the sinks and machines. Their bodies were clothed from head to toe in puffy white garments, their heads covered with hoods. They scurried about like ants, tending the sinks and machines, busy busy busy.

This was how Masters were born? But Sadie had been taught that they came from the sky.

“That was never true,” Enri said. “They were created from other things. Parasites—bugs and fungi and microbes and more—that force other creatures to do what they want.”

Enri had never talked like this in his life. Sadie had heard a few people talk like this—the rare caregivers educated with special knowledge like medicine or machinery. But Enri was just a facility child, just a body. He had never been special beyond the expected perfection.

“Most parasites evolved to take over other animals,” he continued. If he noticed her consternation, he did not react to it. “Only a few were any threat to us. But some people wondered if that could be changed. They put all the worst parts of the worst parasites together, and tweaked and measured and changed them some more . . . and then they tested them on people they didn’t like. People they thought didn’t deserve to think for themselves. And eventually, they made something that worked.” His face hardened suddenly into a mask of bitterness like nothing Sadie had ever seen beyond her own mirror. “All the monsters were right here. No need to go looking for more in space.”

Sadie frowned. Then the white room disappeared.

She stood in a room more opulent than a transfer center’s receiving room, filled with elegant furnishings and plants in pots and strange decorative objects on plinths. There was a big swath of cloth, garishly decorated with red stripes and a square, patterned patch of blue, hanging from a polished pole in one corner; it seemed to have no purpose. A huge desk of beautiful dark wood stood to one side, and there were windows—windows!—all around her. She ignored the desk and all the rest, hurrying to the window for the marvel, the treasure, of looking outside. She shouldered aside the rich, heavy hangings blocking the view and beheld:

Fire. A world burnt dark and red. Above, smoke hung low in the sky, thick as clouds before a rainstorm. Below lay the smoldering ruins of what must once have been a city.

A snarl and thump behind her. She spun, her heart pounding, to find that the opulent chamber now held people. Four men and women in neat black uniforms, wrestling a struggling fifth person onto the wooden desk. This fifth man, who was portly and in his fifties, fought as if demented. He punched and kicked and shouted until they turned him facedown and pinned his arms and legs, ripping open his clothing at the back of the neck.

A woman came in. She carried a large bowl in her hands, which she set down beside the now-immobile man. Reaching into the bowl, she lifted out a Master. It flexed its limbs and then focused its head-tendrils on the man’s neck. When it grew still, the woman set the Master on him.

“No—” Against all reason, against all her training, Sadie found herself starting forward. She didn’t know why. It was just a transfer; she had witnessed hundreds. But it was wrong, wrong. (Pick, pick.) He was too old, too fat, too obviously ill-bred. Was he being punished? It did not matter. Wrong. It had always been wrong.

She reached blindly for one of the decorative objects on a nearby plinth, a heavy piece of stone carved to look like a bird in flight. With this in her hands she ran at the people in black, raising the stone to swing at the back of the nearest head. The Master plunged its stinger into the pinned man’s spine and he began to scream, but this did not stop her. Nothing would stop her. She would kill this Master as she should have killed the one that took Enri.

“No, Sadie.”

The stone bird was no longer in her hands. The strangers and the opulent room were gone. She stood in darkness again and this time Enri stood before her, his face weary with the sorrow of centuries.

“We should fight them.” Sadie clenched her fists at her sides, her throat choked with emotions she could not name. “We never fight.”

I never fight.

“We fought before, with weapons like yours and much more. We fought so hard we almost destroyed the world, and in the end all that did was make it easier for them to take control.”

“They’re monsters!” Pleasure, such shameful pleasure, to say those words.

“They’re what we made them.”

She stared at him, finally understanding. “You’re not Enri.”

He fell silent for a moment, hurt.

“I’m Enri,” he said at last. The terrible age-old bitterness seemed to fade from his eyes, though never completely. “I just know things I didn’t know before. It’s been a long time for me, here, Sadie. I feel . . . a lot older.” It had been two days. “Anyway, I wanted you to know how it happened. Since you can hear me. Since I can talk to you. I feel like . . . you should know.”

He reached out and took her hand again, and she thought of the way he had first done this, back when he had been nothing more than Five-47. She’d taken his hand to lead him somewhere, and he’d looked up at her. Syllables had come into her mind, just a random pair of sounds: Enri. Not as elegant as the names that the Masters had bestowed upon Sadie and her fellow caregivers, and she had never used his name where others could hear. But when they were alone together, she had called him that, and he had liked it.

“If you had a way to fight them,” he said, watching her intently, “would you?”

Dangerous, dangerous thoughts. But the scabs were off, all picked away, and too much of her had begun to bleed. “Yes. No. I . . . don’t know.”

She felt empty inside. The emotion that had driven her to attack the Masters was gone, replaced only by weariness. Still, she remembered the desperate struggles of the captured man in her dream. Like Enri, that man had faced his final moments alone.

Perhaps he too had been betrayed by someone close.

“We’ll talk again,” he said, and then she woke up.

• • •

Like a poison, the dangerous ideas from the dreams began leaching from her sleeping mind into her waking life.

On fifthdays, Sadie taught the class called History and Service. She usually took the children up on the roof for the weekly lesson. The roof had high walls around the edges, but was otherwise open to the world. Above, the walls framed a perfect circle of sky, painfully bright in its blueness. They could also glimpse the topmost tips of massive glass spires—the Masters’ city.

“Once,” Sadie told the children, “people lived without Masters. But we were undisciplined and foolish. We made the air dirty with poisons we couldn’t see, but which killed us anyway. We beat and killed each other. This is what people are like without Masters to guide us and share our thoughts.”

One little Six Female held up her hand. “How did those people live without Masters?” She seemed troubled by the notion. “How did they know what to do? Weren’t they lonely?”

“They were very lonely. They reached up to the skies looking for other people. That’s how they found the Masters.”

Two caregivers were required to be with the children anytime they went up on the roof. At Sadie’s last words, Olivia, sitting near the back of the children’s cluster, frowned and narrowed her eyes. Sadie realized abruptly that she had said “they found the Masters.” She had intended to say—was supposed to say—that the Masters had found humankind. They had benevolently chosen to leave the skies and come to Earth to help the ignorant, foolish humans survive and grow.

That was never true.

Quickly Sadie shook her head to focus, and amended herself. “The Masters had been waiting in the sky. As soon as they knew we would welcome them, they came to Earth to join with us. After that we weren’t lonely anymore.”

The Six Female smiled, as did most of the other children, pleased that the Masters had done so much for their sake. Olivia rose when Sadie did and helped usher the children back to their cells. She said nothing, but glanced back and met Sadie’s eyes once. There was no censure in her face, but the look lingered, contemplative with ambition. Sadie kept her own face expressionless.

But she did not sleep well that night, so she was not surprised that when she finally did, she dreamt of Enri once more.

• • •

They stood on the roof of the facility, beneath the circle of sky, alone. Enri wasn’t smiling this time. He reached for Sadie’s hand right away, but Sadie pulled her hand back.

“Go away,” she said. “I don’t want to dream about you anymore.” She had not been happy before these dreams, but she had been able to survive. The dangerous thoughts were going to get her killed, and he just kept giving her more of them.

“I want to show you something first,” he said. He spoke very softly, his manner subdued. “Please? Just one more thing, and then I’ll leave you alone for good.”

He had never yet lied to her. With a heavy sigh she took his hand. He pulled her over to one of the walls around the rooftop’s edge, and they began walking up the air as if an invisible staircase had formed beneath their feet.

Then they reached the top of the wall, and Sadie stopped in shock.

It was the city of the Masters—and yet, not. She had glimpsed the city once as a young woman, that second trip, from caregiver training to Northeast. Here again were the huge structures that had so awed her, some squat and some neck-achingly high, some squarish and some pointy at the tops, some flagrantly, defiantly asymmetrical. (Buildings.) On the ground far below, in the spaces between the tall structures, she could see long ribbons of dark, hard ground neatly marked with lines. (Roads.) Thousands of tiny colored objects moved along the lines, stopping and progressing in some ordered ritual whose purpose she could not fathom. (Vehicles.) Even tinier specks moved beside and between and in and out of the colored things, obeying no ritual whatsoever. People. Many, many people.

And there was something about this chaos, something so subtly counter to everything she knew about the Masters, that she understood at once these were people without Masters. They had built the vehicles and they had built the roads. They had built the whole city.

They were free.

A new word came into her head, in whispers. (Revolution.)

Enri gestured at the city and it changed, becoming the city she remembered—the city of now. Not so different in form or function, but very different in feel. Now the air was clean, and reeked of other. Now the mote-people she saw were not free, and everything they’d built was a pale imitation of what had gone before.

Sadie looked away from the tainted city. Maybe the drugs had stopped working. Maybe it was her defective mind that made her yearn for things that could never be. “Why did you show me this?” She whispered the words.

“All you know is what they’ve told you, and they tell you so little. They think if we don’t know anything they’ll be able to keep control—and they’re right. How can you want something you’ve never seen, don’t have the words for, can’t even imagine? I wanted you to know.”

And now she did. “I . . . I want it.” It was an answer to his question from the last dream. If you had a way to fight them, would you? “I want to.”

“How much, Sadie?” He was looking at her again, unblinking, not Enri and yet not a stranger. “You gave me to them because it was all you knew to do. Now you know different. How much do you want to change things?”

She hesitated against a lifetime’s training, a lifetime’s fear. “I don’t know. But I want to do something.” She was angry again, angrier than she’d been at Olivia. Angrier than she’d been throughout her whole life. So much had been stolen from them. The Masters had taken so much from her. She looked at Enri and thought, No more.

He nodded, almost to himself. The whispers all around them rose for a moment too; she thought that they sounded approving.

“There is something you can do,” he said. “Something we think will work. But it will be . . . hard.”

She shook her head, fiercely. “It’s hard now.”

He stepped close and put his arms around her waist, pressing his head against her breast. “I know.” This was so much like other times, other memories, that she sighed and put her arms around him as well, stroking his hair and trying to soothe him even though she was the one still alive.

“The children and caregivers in the facilities will be all that’s left when we’re done,” he whispered against her. “No one with a Master will survive. But the Masters can’t live more than a few minutes without our bodies. Even if they survive the initial shock, they won’t get far.”

Startled, she took hold of his shoulders and pushed him back. His eyes shone with unshed tears. “What are you saying?” she asked.

He smiled despite the tears. “They say that if you die in a dream, you’ll die in real life. We can use you, if you let us. Channel what we feel, through you.” He sobered. “And we already know how it feels to die, several billion times over.”

“You can’t . . . ” She did not want to understand. It frightened her that she did. “Enri, you and, and the others, you can’t just die.

He reached up and touched her cheek. “No, we can’t. But you can.”

• • •

The Master was injured. Rather, its body was—a spasm of the heart, something that could catch even them by surprise. Another Master had brought it in, hauling its comrade limp over one shoulder, shouting for Sadie even before the anthro facility’s ground-level doors had closed in its wake.

She told Caridad to run ahead and open the transfer chamber, and signed for Olivia to grab one of the children; any healthy body was allowed in an emergency. The Master was still alive within its old, cooling flesh, but it would not be for much longer. When the Masters reached the administrative level, Sadie quickly waved it toward the transfer chamber, pausing only to grab something from her cubicle. She slipped this into the waistband of her pants, and followed at a run.

“You should leave, sir,” she told the one who’d carried the dying Master in, as she expertly buckled the child onto the other transfer table. An Eighteen Female, almost too old to be claimed; Olivia was so thoughtful. “Too many bodies in a close space will be confusing.” She had never seen a Master try to take over a body that was already occupied, but she’d been taught that it could happen if the Master was weak enough or desperate enough. Seconds counted, in a situation like this.

“Yes . . . yes, you’re right,” said the Master. Its body was big and male, strong and healthy, but effort and fear had sapped the strength from its voice; it sounded distracted and anxious. “Yes. All right. Thank you.” It headed out to the receiving room.

That was when Sadie threw herself against the transfer room door and locked it, with herself still inside.

“Sadie?” Olivia, knocking on the door’s other side. But transfer chambers were designed for the Masters’ comfort; they could lock themselves in if they felt uncomfortable showing vulnerability around the anthro facility’s caregivers. Olivia would not be able to get through. Neither would the other Master—not until it was too late.

Trembling, Sadie turned to face the transfer tables and pulled the letter-opener from the waistband of her pants.

It took several tries to kill the Eighteen Female. The girl screamed and struggled as Sadie stabbed and stabbed. Finally, though, she stopped moving.

By this time, the Master had extracted itself from its old flesh. It stood on the body’s bloody shoulders, head-tendrils waving and curling uncertainly toward the now-useless Eighteen. “You have no choice,” Sadie told it. Such a shameful thrill, to speak to a Master this way! Such madness, this freedom. “I’m all there is.”

But she wasn’t alone. She could feel them now somewhere in her mind, Enri and the others. A thousand, million memories of terrible death, coiled and ready to be flung forth like a weapon. Through Enri, through Sadie, through the Master that took her, through every Master in every body . . . they would all dream of death, and die in waking, too.

No revolution without blood. No freedom without the willingness to die.

Then she pulled off her shirt, staring into her own eyes in the mirrored wall as she did so, and lay down on the floor, ready.

N.K. Jemisin

N. K. JemisinN. K. Jemisin lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY, where she is hard at work on her sixth novel.  Her other works have been multiply nominated for the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award, and she’s won the Locus for Best First Novel.  Samples of her work, and essays on speculative fiction, anti-oppression, and general silliness, can be found at nkjemisin.com.