“Old haunts never look the same,” Moss said.
“Would be a shame not to save it, no matter how shoddy,” Grayson said.
“Shall we save it, then?” Chen asked.
“No one else will,” Moss said, completing the ritual.
All the echoes of the other times, what they said when things went well, scrubbing what they’d said when it didn’t.
They did not truly speak by now. But thought their speech into one another’s minds, so that they might appear to any observer as calm and impassive as the dirt atop an ancient grave.
How could they dream of home? They saw it continually. They saw it when they closed their eyes to sleep. It was always in front of them, what lay behind, overwriting the places that came next.
Chen said they had arrived at the City under an evil star, and already they were dying again and knew they had no sanctuary here—only accelerant. But the three had been dying for a long time, and had vowed to make their passage as rough, ugly, and prolonged as possible. They would claw and thrash to their end. Stretched halfway to the infinite.
None of it as beautiful or glorious as an equation, though. All of it pushed toward their purpose, for they meant, one of these days or months or years, to destroy the Company and save the future. Some future. Nothing else meant very much anymore, except the love between them. For glory was wasteful, Grayson believed, and Chen cared nothing for beauty that declared itself, for beauty had no morality, and Moss had already given herself over to a cause beyond or above the human.
“While we’re only human,” Grayson might joke, but it was because only Grayson, of the three, could make that claim.
This was their best chance, the closest to the zero version, the original, that they might ever get, this echo of the City. Or so Moss had told them.
Grayson, the restless one, the leader, if leader they had, took point, and her blank eye was her gun, her hand her gun, and no aim ever truer. But all three had restless, dangerous thoughts. All three had minds that reeled from the imprint of strange constellations and distant coordinates. Hell lay behind them on that map—blood and murder and betrayal.
And because the three were home, and because they strode toward the City, which was everywhere the property of the Company, the enemy came for them. Tripped an invisible wire.
Apparitions sprang from the sand, dust devils formed like sand but not sand that took the shape of vast monsters with glittering eyes: Bio-matter with nanites instead of intent, to bring down upon them punishment for their rebellion. A digging gap-jawed leviathan that ate the soil and vomited it back out, transformed. A flying creature with many wings that blotted out the sun. Claws and fangs were to be expected and a lust to kill, grown more corporeal with each staggering step the creatures took, so that what might seem ghost matter or star matter gathered with a great soughing sigh and low guttural groan as it became strong where once it had been weak.
Only Moss ever found them sympathetic, and that was because she was closer to them in her flesh than to Grayson or Chen. Phosphorescent, dripping a mist of near-weightless biomass in emerald and turquoise torrents, as if they had emerged not from desert but from some vast and ancient sea. The brine of them hit the three in a wave, and the taste of them registered Paleo-Mesozoic, worthy of the respect one gave to old bones in a museum.
But these monsters had been made to combat some other enemy than the three, and not a one of the three hesitated in their step or paid these apparitions any heed—ignored the terrifying sounds, the slavering jaws, the shadow rippling across the heated sand—and when the molecules of the three met those of the defenders, the defenses fell away and again became like sand.
Sometimes this was not the case.
Sometimes, when they were not the three but just the one or the two or in some other guise and thus weakened, the sentinels devoured them, ripped their flesh and cracked their bones. Rendered their corpses down into dust, and then quarantined the dust and salted it, as if knowing how dangerous even the DNA of ghosts could be. They had taken readings, logged the evidence of this, knew it to be true.
Here, in this City, there came a second wave in the form of a giant lizard and Grayson dealt with the surprise with a leap and a swipe of her arm, for there appeared a blade at the end of her hand and then a red line across a scaly throat. This lizard erupting from the sand was not biotech but natural bred and thus natural dead in disposition.
Yet it hid the preternatural, for one limb of the lizard made as if to flee into the sky and became a wing that might flap and soar. A wing turning into a full-fledged bird that might report back to the Company.
But for Chen, who whipped his left arm up toward the heavens and allowed that part of him that identified as “hand” to leave him, to spin up to the wing as a sharp spinning star and to intercept the flying thing—and to shatter it to pieces, which fell like shards of green glass or some brittle candy.
While the star of his hovering hand shone golden there in the great empty sky, like a beacon.
The monsters were gone; they had passed the first trial. Yet it was different than before. More difficult. Each of them felt that, in some hard-to-define way.
“They will track us.”
“They always track us.”
“The duck with the broken wing?”
Sometimes it took longer, but true: The duck with a broken wing watched their approach from a dusty pool in which a dark smudge was all that remained of water. More reptilian than duck. Saurian. Teeth. Semblance of a duck. But only from afar. Up close, all that registered was monster. Sometimes they called it “the dark bird.”
The duck always waited for them in the City. The one constant, like a fixed compass, one that was broken or made to be false. The duck waited for them through all the versions, all the years.
The mantra went: “First the duck, then the fox,” and, lately, “then the fish.” (Or, sometimes, “the manta,” which soared off above the dry seabed like a memory of plenty.)
The first question, when they arrived: “Is the duck on our side or against us?”
For if the duck was against them, disaster became more likely. Perhaps the duck had seeded the earth with the monsters just defeated, but worse were the times when it stood before them upon first approach, analyzed their nature, and disgorged more specific weapons, and then they knew the duck truly opposed their purpose.
A presence existed in the ground below the duck, shadowed the duck from below and gave it power. They had never glimpsed this something, only felt it, like a curse.
“The duck is on our side here,” Moss said.
“You sound uncertain,” Chen said, other arm extended like the weapon it was, ready to inflict his mark upon the duck.
“It is at least neutral,” Moss conceded, but she still did not sound sure.
Which concerned Chen, concerned Grayson.
In the past, Moss had always known and was always right, they had discovered. When the duck appeared smooth in Moss’s mind, the duck would not hurt them. When the duck appeared rough there, the duck would hurt them. That was the only way she could explain it.
To Grayson the duck before them manifested as a tiny sun aswarm with rippling maggots of cascading light. Her special eye could not analyze it or penetrate that blinding aura, could not thus break down the elements of the duck. Could not say whether it was a pillar of salt or a cauldron of flesh. No percentages scrolled across her vision.
This was itself relief from the sight she could not now turn off, something gone faulty, the world so much incoming data that it was no data at all, and she must always recuse herself, tamp and withdraw when she could, for her sanity.
But Grayson welcomed the duck with the broken wing because it reminded her that even something broken could have a use. That nothing should be wasted. And that what might appear broken might in fact be whole.
“Then the foxes first,” Grayson said. “We parlay with the foxes.”
The ritual. If ever broken, what else might break?
The three picked up their equipment and as one they advanced across the sands into the City. While they felt as one the weight of the duck’s skeptical eye, recording all.
Their shadows were long and dangerous, flickered and seemed to catch fire as the light faded, and still they trudged forward, inexorable as any three people who had loved one another fiercely and seen nothing but the best in one another. Across so many years, and now with nothing left to lose.
They had failed in the last City, and the one before that, and the one before that. Sometimes that failure pushed the needle farther. Sometimes that failure changed not a thing.
But perhaps one day a certain kind of failure might be enough.
they needed no fire
for the fire burned