In an eyeblink, Lila lost all contact with the rest of the world. The silence was shocking, the sense of isolation unnerving, partly because she knew it meant the jet had penetrated the Defenders’ cloak and entered Australian airspace. For a moment she stared blankly at the stray tufts of gray hair visible over the seat back in front of her. That would be Gayatri Nadal, the Ambassador from India. Then she thought to look out the window
There was nothing to see yet; they were still above the smoky cloud-cover. It was hard to believe Australia was down there. Over the past twenty-eight years it had taken on almost mythical dimensions in Lila’s mind, and knowing she would see it any moment, see what it had become, set her heart pounding.
The Spanish ambassador, in the seat next to Lila, turned, as if noticing her for the first time. “Nervous?”
She nodded. The word didn’t begin to describe the shades and layers of what Lila was feeling, but it would do as a rough approximation.
The Spaniard’s white eyebrows pinched. “Were you even alive when the Luyten invaded?” Bolibar: His name came to her as he spoke. “Have you ever seen a Defender?”
Lila laughed, not sure if he was trying to flatter her, or if he really thought she was still in her twenties. “Oh, I’ve seen Defenders. And Luyten.” She closed her mouth. That was all she wanted to say on that topic. The last thing she wanted, given that she was the youngest ambassador on the plane, was to seem immature by getting upset on the flight in.
“Ah. I’m sorry,” he said, reading her face. “You were a young girl? I’m sorry.”
The second apology was for bringing up the painful topic, no doubt. It was impolite to bring up the Luyten invasion if you weren’t sure the person you were speaking to was amenable to the topic.
“No worries. Who doesn’t have invasion memories?” She forced a smile, turned back to the window, but it was too late. As they surged toward Australia, and humanity’s first contact with their saviors in twenty-eight years, Lila’s memories reeled out. She saw the Luyten, like enormous starfish falling from the sky, twirling in one direction and then the other, deadly flashes bursting from the tips of their five or six or seven stunted appendages. Lila squeezed the armrest, trying to let the memory be, let it play out if it needed to. She’d learned that if she resisted it would only pull her in deeper, turn into a full-fledged flashback, and if she went into PTSD mode the embassy might just pull her at the first opportunity.
She focused on her breathing, kept it smooth and even as she saw her seven-year-old self rushing into the shelter of the high school as the ground shook from explosions and the air crackled with the Luytens’ electric fire, which stank like burning sweat.
Where are they? Where are the Defenders? someone had said as they huddled in the cafeteria, watching human soldiers set up defenses outside. The soldiers had pointed their weapons this way and that, knowing that no matter what they did the Luyten would be one step ahead of them.
Then, that first glimpse of a Luyten up close: Much bigger than Lila had expected, galloping out of the trees on three arms, barreling over swings and slides, its free arms pointed forward; the blinding flash, the screams of burning soldiers who’d mostly been facing the other way, because how do you fight an enemy who knows your every thought?
Lila had squeezed her eyes shut as a half-dozen more Luyten broke from the woods. She’d tried to think of something happy—The Mermaid Frolly Show, her favorite television program. She’d resolved to keep her eyes closed and think only of the show until it was over.
Then: Her father, rushing outside with other parents to fight the Luyten, because the soldiers were all dead and the Luyten were coming. The parents trying to reach the makeshift bunker where the dead soldiers’ weapons lay amidst their toasted bodies. She remembered Mr. Suchy, her social studies teacher, swinging a fire ax at a charging Luyten, who cut him in two at the chest with a whip of its cilia.
Then: The warm wash of pee down her thighs when that watery voice—that impossible accent—called from outside: Over soon. Think of Mermaid Frolly. All over soon.
Lila’s mother covering her eyes, her trembling fingers not doing a thorough enough job, because Lila saw between the slats of Mommy’s fingers, saw Daddy’s shoulder socket when the Luyten pulled his arm off. Their stubby, fingerless appendages were deceptive, because the cilia on the end worked like long, powerful fingers.
Then: Cheering, as two Defenders leaped from the roof of the school, impossibly tall on three knobby, bone-white legs, their built-in automatic weapons blasting the Luyten with bullets the size of cannonballs, their razor sharp exoskeletons slashing the Luyten wide open as they grappled, spilling their steaming green goo insides onto the playground. The cheering redoubled when the surviving Luyten fled, with the Defenders in pursuit.
Lila took a deep, sighing breath. It had been four or five years since her last full-blown flashback, but it was inevitable. Seeing Defenders, actually standing before the massive things and talking to them, was bound to bring the memories back. It was worth it, though, to be one of the first to see how the Defenders lived, to see what sort of society they had built, and to have the opportunity to finally thank them personally.
“What are you anticipating from them?” Lila asked Bolibar.
Bolibar grunted. “That’s the big mystery, no?” He unsealed a pouch of dried fruit, offered it to Lila before helping himself. “I’m sure you sat through as many strategy meetings in your country as I did in mine, trying to anticipate why they suddenly want to reestablish ties.” He stuck out his lower lip, shook his head. “My guess is their focus is technology—they want to exchange ideas. They’re part machine, after all, and they’ve clearly made advances of their own since they segregated themselves.” Bolibar waved the air over his head, alluding to the cloak the Defenders had developed that repelled all attempts at surveillance and attacks.
Not that humanity had contemplated attacking the Defenders. No one could forget the debt owed them, even if their silent presence was unnerving. By necessity, they’d been designed to be powerful enough to fight off the Luyten, and intelligent enough to plan and execute the war without any human intervention. Once the war was over, though, what do you do with seventeen million A.I.s who are stronger and smarter than you? You give them what they want—Australia—and you hope they’re satisfied.
“That makes as much sense as anything, I guess,” Lila said. Everything seemed to make as much sense as anything else. The Defenders’ brains had been developed hastily; even the bioengineers responsible admitted they had little idea what the hodgepodge of neurological tissue and circuitry really added up to, beyond its military capability, and the Defenders retreated into self-imposed exile before anyone had a chance to find out.
Lila lifted her hand from the armrest, felt more weight than had been there a moment earlier. They were descending back into the atmosphere. She ran her hands over her thighs, wiping perspiration. Twenty-eight years of wondering and speculating, and in a few minutes they’d have their answers.
People were leaving their seats, crowding around the windows, seeking a first glimpse of Sydney. The cabin was hushed as the jet broke through the clouds and a city took shape below.
“Oh,” someone said, clearly disappointed.
The city hadn’t changed much. Visible below were skyscrapers, roads, vehicles. The jet descended, dropping far too quickly below the tops of the skyscrapers.
“Oh,” someone else said, his tone laced with surprise and disbelief. The skyscrapers were immense. Their jet was a toy that would easily fit through an office window. The Defenders had retained the look of the city, but had rebuilt it to scale to reflect their size.
“Of course,” Lila said softly. She meant it as a personal aside, but several other ambassadors looked at her, waiting for her to elaborate. “They’re brand new beings—their only point of reference is how humans do things.”
The landing gear ground into place beneath them, and the Fasten Seat Belts sign chimed. Reluctantly, the ambassadors returned to their seats. It was quiet as the jet descended.
A Defender met them on the tarmac. They’d always reminded Lila of the massive statues on Easter Island, if those statues were stretched, and stood on three legs, and were made of what looked like enormous shards of broken glass. Their faces were chiseled and angular, set on a long, neckless cylinder.
“Thank you for coming,” the Defender said as Lila stepped off the jet. He repeated this as each ambassador stepped through the door, which meant he repeated the same phrase sixty-four times. When they had all disembarked, the Defender grimaced (or perhaps it was meant as a smile) and said, “You must be hungry after your flight.”
The flight had been less than two hours, and they’d been served a meal, but Lila nodded politely, a tight smile frozen on her face as the Defender gestured to their left.
Something even larger than a Defender squeezed out of a hangar.
Even from a hundred meters, even after twenty-eight years, there was no mistaking the thing that rushed at them.
When Lila was next aware of her surroundings she was sprinting down the runway, her terror given voice by a tight squeal on each outbreath. A Luyten. It had been a Luyten that broke from the hangar and charged. One of the other ambassadors passed Lila, his arms pumping, his loose, old cheeks flapping, his eyes round with fear.
“There is no danger. No danger,” the Defender called, and as before, with “Thank you for coming,” it repeated the words over and over. Lila glanced over her shoulder and saw she hadn’t been mistaken: It was a Luyten, but it wasn’t chasing them. It stood beside the Defender on four legs, something balanced on its fifth.
A silver tray. With food on it.
Lila slowed, stopped. The Defender continued to shout, “No danger.”
“What the hell is going on?” It was Bolibar.
“Is it a … I don’t know, a reproduction of some kind?” Lila asked.
“It doesn’t look like a reproduction,” Bolibar said. He took a few tentative steps toward the thing. Lila followed. When the Luyten didn’t move they took a few more. Soon most of the ambassadors were standing in a loose circle, thirty meters out from the Defender and the Luyten.
“I am profoundly sorry,” the Defender said, bowing its head. “This was meant as a surprise, but not a cruel one. I will find out whose idea it was and surely he will be killed.” He gestured toward the Luyten. “But please, eat. It won’t harm you.”
No one moved. In the stunned silence the same question had to be running through every ambassador’s head: What was a Luyten doing here, alive? Hadn’t they all been hunted down and killed, their ship (which had hidden behind the moon during the invasion) destroyed? The moment stretched as the Defender held its gesture of invitation, its prominent brow leaving its sunken eyes hidden in a swatch of shadow.
Lila wanted to get as far from the Luyten as she could; the hair on her arms was prickling, her heart drumming.
Bolibar finally broke the circle. The Luyten extended the enormous tray toward him as he approached. There were a hundred delicacies on the tray, from caviar to a whole, steaming roast turkey. Bolibar was right—too much was riding on this to refuse a gesture of hospitality. Lila tried to followed suit, but her feet wouldn’t move. She kept seeing that Luyten breaking from the trees and charging at her school.
It must be reading her thoughts, this very moment. The thought horrified her, that this creature was in her head, knew that she was afraid, felt her repulsion.
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, focused on turning her fear into searing hatred. Let the thing read that. Striding into the circle, Lila plucked a croissant from the edge of the tray, held her smile and took a bite, resisting a desperate urge to flee from under the shadow of the massive beast.
Some of the other ambassadors followed suit. The Defender’s mouth stretched into a long, straight line of satisfaction.
Lila couldn’t take her eyes off the Luyten. Few had ever seen one from this distance and lived. Its skin had a stony, mottled texture, and there were bristles protruding at evenly-spaced intervals across it. The cilia protruding from the tips of its appendages was as thick as nautical rope, and transparent. A half-dozen randomly-placed apertures contracted and expanded like giant anuses. They were interchangeable, Lila knew—each could be used for eating, breathing, excreting, mating, speaking.
“I don’t understand,” someone said. “What is a Luyten doing here? Weren’t they all killed?”
“Most were killed. Some were kept.” The Defender lifted one of its legs and worked its claw. “Our manual dexterity is limited. Our fathers built us to fight, not to live afterward. Luyten perform tasks we can’t. Or don’t want to.”
Lila looked to her left and right. The other ambassadors looked as stunned and incredulous as she felt.
“How many of them have you … kept?” Bolivar asked.
The Defender wobbled its free leg. “Several million.”
“Several million?” the ambassador from China said. He sounded very far away. Lila’s vision went gray, and she was afraid she might pass out. She closed her eyes and took deep breaths, tried to clear her spinning head.
Suddenly, the lack of contact with the outside world seemed enormous. Through all of their strategy sessions no one ever brought up this possibility. Lila needed guidance. Several million?
After they finished choking down a few anxious bites of the feast, the ambassadors were whisked off to a limo the size of a house. Lifts took them to seats retrofitted to human size.
“Please relax and enjoy the sights,” their Defender guide said. He’d finally given his name as Walter. Lila had a hard time thinking of one of these towering figures as Walter. “I’ll show you our city, then I have a surprise for you that is very thoughtful of us.”
“I’m sure it will be,” the U.S. ambassador said, ever the diplomat.
The city was bustling—it was downright packed with Defenders. They were wearing clothes: Massive three-legged jeans, business suits with ties like tarpaulins. Luyten were also plentiful, following deferentially behind Defenders, repairing vehicles, cleaning the streets with steaming, high-pressured water.
When the tour ended they were taken to a play. The marquis outside announced Richard II, in a limited engagement.
“I don’t believe this,” Bolibar whispered, sidling up to Lila as they were led down the aisle past hundreds of Defenders already seated for the performance, to the front row, where special seats had been reserved for them. Lila only nodded, afraid to be overheard. Her mind was reeling; this was beyond bizarre. She could see Luyten scrambling in the wings, working the lighting, handling props. The Prime Minister and her staff weren’t going to believe Lila’s report.
The Defender playing King Richard wore a long white robe with gold inlay, and a crown the size of a bathtub, but if the Defenders were attempting to act, it was not apparent to Lila. They recited their lines as if reading, moved about the stage perfunctorily, and as often as not looked at the audience rather than the character they were speaking to.
“You must have mixed feelings about the Defenders, being from Australia,” Bolibar whispered to her as the performance dragged on. He made it sound casual, but was probably more interested than he let on.
Lila felt uncomfortable speaking during the performance, even in a whisper, but it would be rude to shush Bolibar, or ignore him. She kept her answer brief. “No. I’m so grateful to them that sometimes I feel like I’m going to bust. I cry when they show those Victory Day tributes on TV. Giving up my homeland was so small a price to pay that it barely registers.” She could have elaborated, explained how Defenders had saved her life in a very personal manner, but their whispering was causing people nearby to glance their way.
Bolibar tilted his head in a very European gesture. “And the Americans and Canadians were kind enough to provide you a new home?”
He left it a question instead of a statement. The flat, cold region running from North Dakota to Saskatoon that was now New Australia was not prime real estate.
“Spain didn’t offer us anything, as I recall,” she whispered into his hairy ear. “There are degrees of stinginess.”
He laughed, loud enough to make Lila flinch and nudge his arm. “How very true,” he whispered. “We’re a stingy people, the Spanish.”
The Defender playing Richard stopped mid-stanza. He came to the edge of the stage. “Why are you laughing? Does this seem like a comedy to you? Maybe you think you can do better?”
Embarrassed, Bolibar shook his head. “I’m—”
Almost casually, the Defender reached out and slashed Bolibar with its front leg. “We’ve worked hard to get this right for you. And you’re laughing at us.”
Lila sat frozen as Bolibar’s insides slid out. His mouth hung open, his eyes wide with surprise as he slowly tipped forward.
“Uncalled for,” Walter shouted as he leaped onto the stage, whipping two arms around. “Deeply uncalled for.” A dozen other Defenders followed, roaring. Some attacked Richard, others leapt to defend him. One of Richard’s legs was torn, or bitten, or cut off, and it fell into the seats, landing on a fleeing ambassador and slicing him open. A few ambassadors crowded around Bolibar, crying out for medical attention as he bled out onto the seat and polished floor. In the seats behind them, Defenders roared and jostled. Lila could do nothing but stare at Bolibar.
One of the Defenders on stage fell into the seats, his nose hanging loose and nearly-severed, blood pouring from the gash in his face. He landed on the Tunisian Ambassador; Lila could hear his back snap before he disappeared under the massive Defender.
The fighting raged on until, by some silent assent, the surviving combatants broke off.
Walter, who was mostly unharmed, motioned to Luyten at the back of the theater. The Luyten scrambled to clean up the carnage. They dragged away Defenders and pieces of Defenders. One reached across half a dozen aisles and plucked the limp mess that was Bolibar. Lila stumbled to her knees and crawled out of the way.
She joined the rest of the surviving ambassadors at the back of the theater as pools of oily blood were mopped by the Luyten.
As the last of the dead were being carried off, Walter waved his arms at the murmuring crowd and said, “Please. Quiet, please. Please, sit. Let us continue.”
Lila was sure she’d misunderstood. Continue? As in, continue the play?
The lights dimmed and the actors returned to the stage. Not knowing what else to do, dazed ambassadors began shuffling down the aisles. Lila looked around, seeking—she didn’t know what she was seeking. The real Defenders, maybe—the ones who charged over her school and saved her life.
Lila was sure there was no way she could make it through the rest of the performance. Surely she would faint, or be unable to stifle her overwhelming urge to bolt. The seats around Bolibar’s bloodstained one were empty; ambassadors were glancing around, eyes wide, afraid to move or speak. Lila risked a glance back at the section where Defenders were seated. They were watching the performance as if nothing had happened.
The next morning they boarded a hyper-rail to the summit. The ambassadors were given no explanation for why they were directed to land in Sydney if the summit was to be held in Adelaide, four hundred miles away.
As the rail whisked them through the exurbs of Sydney and into the countryside, the Defenders’ motive became clear. They passed factory after factory, surrounded by mile after mile of weapons. Aircraft, ships, heat cannons, guerilla craft. Lila’s insides felt liquid as she surveyed the sea of shining metal. They must have a weapon for every Defender alive. Unless they were making more Defenders as well.
Were they capable of that? Certainly they hadn’t been engineered with enough intellect to accomplish that.
Overhead, Defender fighter aircraft, as big as skyscrapers, flew drills. They were the same models human engineers had designed for them to battle the Luyten.
“Look at those—they look like Luyten technology.”
Lila followed the British ambassador’s gaze. Row upon row of assault sleeves, similar to the ones the Luyten had used to drop from the sky, filled a valley paved in concrete. Hushed whispers shot about the cabin. Since they had Luyten slaves, it seemed they had access to their technological knowledge.
Another thought occurred to her: If the Defenders had Luyten slaves, the Luyten could tell them what the ambassadors were thinking. “Oh, shit,” Lila whispered. She closed her eyes, tried to calm herself. There was no indication the Defenders intended the rest of the world harm. They were paranoid, yes. Unstable, yes. That didn’t mean they were gearing up for war.
The Defenders didn’t have a leader—they had a triumvirate. All three were on a dais, sitting in enormous plush seats that looked suspiciously like thrones.
The triumvirate didn’t speak. Walter did the talking. Lila had become more relaxed as Walter talked of their admiration for humans, their recognition that without humans, they would not exist.
“We wanted this time of solitude to decide who we were, what life suited us,” Walter was saying. “We realize that we don’t want to be separate. We want to be part of the world, to learn from our mothers and fathers, to engage with them in athletics, to study in their universities.”
Engage them in athletics? Lila tried to picture a Defender playing tight end for the Dakota Bulls.
“Of course, to do so, we require some accommodations.” Walter stepped off the stage, squatted over the one vacant human-sized chair, pretending to sit. A few ambassadors laughed politely at the attempt at humor. Lila couldn’t bring herself to smile, even insincerely. The empty chair was Bolibar’s. “We are not designed for human structures. We cannot be dignified if we must squat and crawl through spaces not built for us.”
A map of the world materialized behind Walter. Some areas, highlighted in orange, were pulsing. “To successfully integrate we will require places of our own. Certain blocks, towns, states, and provinces. We have mapped out those places.”
New Orleans. The San Francisco Bay area. France. A large swath of central China. What looked to be much of Nigeria and Cameroon. There were dozens of separate spots, maybe a hundred. Was that Jerusalem? It was as if they’d purposely chosen locations that were crucial to humans for one reason or another.
“You want us to give you these places?” the Indian ambassador asked, her tone measured.
“We welcome humans to live in the areas we will control, but they will be refashioned to accommodate us.”
Lila wondered if Walter’s phrasing was intentional: The areas we will control, not the areas we would control. It could be his inexperience with the nuances of language, or it could be meant to convey that he was telling us them how things would be, not opening negotiations. Lila weighed the danger of asking directly, decided it was worth the risk.
“Are these locations negotiable?” she asked.
Lila half-expected Walter to look to the triumvirate for guidance, but he simply closed his eyes for a moment, as if searching for words, or patience. “Our cartographers worked very hard on this map.” He sounded almost hurt.
The huge door swung open and a Luyten padded in carrying refreshments. If the Defenders got what they wanted, there would be Luyten crawling around everywhere.
“After you’ve had something to eat, please, take some time to contact your respective governments and tell them the good news,” Walter said. “We have lifted the communications cloak for the evening.”
Lila burst into her gymnasium-sized room and lit up her com. She’d almost finished setting up a secure connection when she noticed the Luyten. It was pressed into a corner of the room, like a crayfish backed between two river rocks.
She inhaled to scream.
“If you cry out, I will be killed,” the Luyten said.
Its bizarre accent made her shudder. Its speech was full of hissing air and background sounds like water draining. She inched toward the door. The only clear thought she could form was to get away.
“Please.” It dropped to a prone position, three appendages on the floor, three folded. “We must speak.”
Lila paused. She didn’t want to speak to this thing, but this was not about her. She was an emissary. “Then speak.”
The Luyten returned to a standing position. It towered over her. “You hate us, yes, but you feel sympathy as well. You know what is being done to us is abominable.”
“Don’t tell me what I think,” Lila said.
“There’s no need for you to speak. Propriety demands I wait while you form words, but it slows our exchange.”
She opened her mouth to tell it to stay out of her head, then considered her situation. She was alone with it; it could pull her limbs off in an instant. Unbidden, an image her father being dismembered flashed through her mind.
“I have no reason to hurt you,” it said. “We’re not like the Defenders. Violence is not our default response.”
Tell me what you came to say, she thought.
“They are breeding us by force, ignoring our affiliative patterns. It is intolerable.”
I’m sorry, she thought, grudgingly, because it was the diplomatic thing to think. They had invaded, murdered, terrorized, and now they wanted her to feel sympathy for their plight?
“We had no choice but to invade. Your species would have done the same.”
“No choice?” she said aloud. “You—”
“We’d been searching for a habitable planet for four hundred generations. Finally we found one. We heard your thoughts, we knew before asking what your answer would be. You would never allow us to immigrate—you would fight. Why ask aloud when you already have your answer?”
So you opted for genocide, rather than go on looking? How noble. She thought, and left it at that. There was no excuse for killing except self-defense. It was the clearest moral distinction, the closest Lila knew to a line that separated good from evil.
“That line is an illusion,” the Luyten said.
She kept forgetting the Luyten could read every thought she formed, not simply those she wanted it to hear. It was a staggering advantage, as her species had discovered when they invaded. Lila wondered how far into her mind the thing could reach. It had said she felt sympathy as well as hatred for them, but she didn’t remember a moment wasted feeling sorry for the Luyten.
“We hear layer upon layer. Your brains are compartmentalized; there are always a few lines of dialogue, often contradictory.”
“What is it you want to say to me?” Lila asked. She wanted this thing away from her. She found herself monitoring her own thoughts as she reeled them out, then monitoring the thoughts of the monitor. It was a maddening loop.
“I’m sorry. I’ll state my message. The Defenders are a grave danger. You see that now. They will seize territory from you until you are in no better position than we are.” It took a step toward her; she tensed, resisting the urge to step back. “If you will attack, we will aid you. We can serve as ground forces. As soon as your commanders know what they want from us, we’ll know, and we’ll comply—”
“Don’t be shocked.” The Luyten interrupted itself as waves of shock tore through Lila.
You’re proposing we ally with you against the Defenders? And if we did? What would keep you from turning on us once the Defenders were gone? It was an insane notion. Yet what did the Luyten have to lose by proposing it?
“There will not be many of us left, after such a war. Maybe none. And as I said, violence is not our default; we prefer reason and compromise. Unlike the Defenders.” Its voice shifted, suddenly came from a different orifice, as if the first had grown fatigued. “They are crazy. You made them too quickly.”
Lila barked a bitter laugh. “Yes, well, we were in a hurry.”
“I know. I’m sorry. We’re sorry.”
Lila couldn’t believe she was having this conversation. “Why did you choose me? Why not the U.S. ambassador, or India? They’re the ones with the military firepower.”
If she hadn’t known it was impossible, Lila might have suspected the Luyten hadn’t heard her. “Well?” she finally added.
“Mermaid Frolly,” it said. “All over soon.”
Lila yelped, like she’d been goosed. How could it know … then she remembered it could read her thoughts, even the ones deep down. She composed herself. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I chose you because we have that connection.”
There was another long pause. Lila waited.
“I once spoke those words to you. Long ago.”
Lila dropped her com and sank to the edge of her bed. “You once …” Barely a day had gone by in her life when she didn’t hear those words, the twisted attempt to console her with words spit from the hole of a monster coming to tear her to pieces. She looked at the massive thing standing over her. “You, personally?”
“Did—” She could hardly get the words out. “Did you kill my father?”
“I don’t know,” it said, and maybe the extra draining sound it made then, like water down a flushed toilet, was to them a sound of regret, or apology.
“You traumatized me. You may have killed my father. You think that’s a connection worth exploiting?”
The Luyten deflated noticeably. Maybe it was exhaling, or sighing. “It was the only connection I had. We are desperate. Perhaps it was a mistake.”
Lila didn’t know where to begin. Everything bad, all of the suffering in her life could be reduced to this Luyten.
“As I said, if you cry out I will be killed. You can choose this. I would understand.”
She pressed her hands against the sides of her head, trying to stop the room from reeling. “I don’t need your permission. Or your apology, if that’s what you’re offering.”
“No. But you need what we’re offering.” The Luyten raised two of its appendages and took another tentative step toward Lila. “The Defenders were designed to kill, and they will go on killing until there is no life left.”
“Do you feel remorse for the people you killed?” She wasn’t ready to move back to business. She might never have another chance to speak to her father’s killer.
It settled on the floor like a giant Labrador. “It’s difficult to kill when you can hear your enemies’ fear. It’s more difficult still to hear your pain, all these years later. We feel more remorse for killing you than you can even imagine.”
Anger rose in Lila at the suggestion. They dropped out of the sky with their guns blazing, tearing little girls’ fathers to pieces.
“Fair enough,” the Luyten said. “Perhaps one day we can begin to make it up to you.” It rose, and moved toward the door.
“Don’t you want to know if I’m going to pass on your proposal?” Lila called, then realized how stupid the question was. It knew she would pass along everything it said, whether she wanted to or not.
The eighth ambassador to be killed, Laban Ogego of Kenya, happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Two Defenders got into an argument over the placement of a chair alongside a parade route, and one of them fell on Ogego before he could flee. Skipping such invitations was not an option, as Francisca Villagran, Ambassador from Guatemala, had discovered when she accidentally drowned hours after reneging on a promise to attend a Luyten footrace with a Defender named Baxter. Ambassadors were celebrities— highly sought-after (and fought over) as guests or escorts.
“Any word?” Faruk whispered to Lila as they were leaving Ogego’s funeral.
Lila shook her head. “There won’t be. Either it’ll happen or it won’t.” They speculated in coded whispers; everyone had an opinion, but no one knew for sure. Meanwhile the Defenders were busy making plans for their diaspora.
Lila said goodbye to Faruk as he headed toward whatever event was awaiting him next. Lila had a free hour, and decided to walk in Victory Park.
The ambassadors were split on whether invading Australia would be a good thing. A quick strike while the Defenders were still contained, aided by millions of Luyten, might be their best chance. On the other hand, the ambassadors would all be killed as soon as the Defenders detected the invasion.
Lila spotted a glint of green plastic buried in fallen leaves. She kicked it loose: A flattened Lido Lemonade bottle. She chuckled. “Bits of us are still here, even twenty-eight years later.”
A Luyten burst out of the brush just ahead. Lila nearly shrieked, still not completely accustomed to the sight of them.
“Hurry,” it said, rushing at Lila. “Your people are coming. The first will reach the shore in minutes. You’re in great danger.”
Lila gaped at the thing as adrenaline coursed through her.
The Luyten gestured at Lila. “Come, Mermaid Frolly, it’s time for me to make amends.”
She hadn’t recognized it, of course. They all looked the same.
A shrieking beat the air, on and off in two-second bursts. A warning system to scramble the troops, which probably consisted of every Defender.
Lila stepped toward the Luyten. “Where can I go?”
“We’ve set up an underground bunker. You must stay hidden until we reach it.”
Lila tried to think of something the Luyten could carry her in—a crate, a rug.
“No Luyten would be carrying a crate or a rug during an invasion. Here.” One of the Luyten’s apertures expanded. “Here I can keep you safe.”
She didn’t understand what it wanted. Why was it opening its mouth/anus/womb?
“Get in,” it said.
Lila almost laughed. “You want me—”
“There’s no time. Yes.” After a moment it added, “It won’t be comfortable for me, either.”
In the distance, the sound of snapping trees joined the din of the siren.
The Luyten waited, its sphincter still pushed open.
“No.” She’d rather die.
“No you wouldn’t. Half of you is screaming at the other half to move. Listen to the sane half, the half that your Defenders did not inherit. Hurry.”
A hundred yards into the wooded area to her right, a tree crashed down, then two more. They would kill her as soon as they saw her. They would slice her open without a second thought, just as they’d done to Bolibar.
Lila approached the Luyten.
“Remove your shoes, please,” it said.
She pulled off her shoes, leaned one palm against the Luyten’s marbled skin. It was thick and warm, and gave under her hand like a soufflé. She inserted a foot into the thing’s mouth. It felt moist, warm bordering on hot. Her leg sunk to the thigh, lubricated by slime. Still steadying herself with one hand she swung her other leg up and in, unable to suppress mewls of disgust as she sunk to the waist. The muscles around her spasmed—tight, loose, tight again.
“Arms,” the Luyten said, speaking from another hole. It did not sound comfortable.
Lila pulled her arms in, whimpered as she slid further, to her neck. She felt the muscles clench around her, squeezing to keep her from falling further and suffocating.
Then the Luyten was hurtling down the path, perpendicular to the coming Defenders. It cut into the trees and squatted, motionless, not even breathing. Lila heard the Defenders pass, their feet crunching brush.
When the noise receded, the Luyten released an enormous puff of air, then rose and continued.
This time it was humans who dropped from the sky, jet-booting rather than spinning. They dropped out of compact fighters flying low beneath the Defenders’ cloak.
Lila watched, her heart in her throat, as hundreds of Luyten swarmed into the street to surround the soldiers as soon as they landed, leading them to cover.
A half-dozen Defenders in guerilla fliers appeared over the rooftops, circling above. They fired canonbursts at a scrum of Luyten and soldiers. Bodies exploded; pieces flew in every direction as her Luyten hugged the walls, moving on two appendages.
Above, a lone Luyten flew into view, clinging to the outside of a guerilla fighter not designed to accommodate its size and shape. It steered into one of the flying Defenders. There was a blinding flash, like a sudden burst of fireworks.
“We’re almost there,” her Luyten said. “Almost safe.”
An explosion tore at her eardrums; not ten yards away, the wall exploded, spitting bricks and glass. An instant later, she was struck deaf, as the world flipped upside-down. They hurtled end-over-end, heat scorching Lila’s face, flames, rooftops, shouts closing in from all sides.
She hit the ground with a tooth-rattling jolt, and she and her Luyten lay still.
Lila tried to lift her head, but it dropped back to the pavement. Feet rushed by.
“Come on,” she called to the Luyten. She was confused about what had happened, where they were, but it was clear they weren’t in the bunker. She closed her eyes for a moment, opened them again. The world came into better focus.
Two of the Luyten’s appendages were gone. Its blood was pinwheeled across the pavement and up the side of a storefront. Puffs of hot air pushed past Lila as the Luyten’s center rose and fell, rose and fell.
“This way!” Ambassador Nadal waved frantically to her from a swing-up steel door in the sidewalk.
Lila scrabbled at the pavement, trying to pull free. She came out a few inches, then slid back. She pulled harder, groaning with effort, and felt a rippling in the Luyten’s muscles around her waist and feet. She spilled partway onto the pavement, spit out by the Luyten.
“Thank you,” she said. The Luyten was still, its center no longer puffing.
Lila ran, bent at the waist, to the safety of the door. On the third step down to the cellar she paused, turned to look at the Luyten for a moment. A Defender lay close by, dead, its face caved in, its legs smoking.
There was no way for her to make sense of what she was feeling, so she didn’t try. She climbed down to join the other ambassadors who had made it. There were about a dozen so far. As Ambassador Nadal swung the door shut and they were plunged into near-darkness to wait out the assault, Lila wiped tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand, roughly, as if they had no business being there.
© 2011 by Will McIntosh.
Spread the word!