His father’s side of the family says that the boy grew up half-wild in the forest. But wouldn’t they have too, if they’d lived where he did? They wouldn’t have been able to resist the fluting trunks of the plaster-birches, serried to eternity before the subsiding sun, or the swish of tails in the undergrowth or the skitter of fire-beetles’ hot legs on bark either. They too would have felt part of a story ten thousand years in the making, and nowhere its end.
Of course, he doesn’t say any of this. He just smiles, and nods, as if he knew what they meant. As if he was a little embarrassed by it too.
The day his childhood ends he rides back after a morning spent stalking a deer. In front of him is the Manor, reclining between silky green paddocks and the gardens replete with polite shrubbery. Farther down is the green nook of the valley snaking to a distant floodplain, flanked by tired old hills, at its nadir the river named for his ancestors. The water is rich with coppergold flecks of early-afternoon sunlight. A fragrant afternoon wind sweeps up over the fields and the treetops and the terrazzo roofs and rushes in bearing a storm of aromas–grass, and livestock, and the stinging sweetness of spiralflowers blooming in glorious purple-red lakes on the otherwise bald hillsides.
Looming over all this in the distance is the Trapezoid. A giant tower of brute greyblack metal rising so high it scythes the clouds like the bow of a colossal ship. A thing neither seeking nor receiving welcome in this pleasantly aged land. A thing of grim purpose, and nothing else.
He lets his horse loose and notices a cluster of black cars parked by the Manor’s entrance. The knowledge that his father is back sucks the life from his blood. Grey-suited guards watch him approach with their arms crossed and their eyes hidden behind their sunglasses.
The boy halts in front of one of them.
“It isn’t sunny,” he says.
The guard scowls.
“You’ll address me as milord, thank you very much.”
The guard sneers and makes to say something. Then he pauses, and purses his lips.
“Why are you wearing–”
A pyroclastic blast of the boy’s father’s voice erupts from inside the house.
“Boy, is that you? Come here! We have guests!”
The boy gives the guard one last look.
“You’re going to ruin those nice city shoes in this country mud,” he says, and heads in.
His father’s in the main hall. The wooden beams latticed overhead, golden-brown and sinuously irregular, are older than the country the valley is now part of. On the far side is a bay window opening onto a balcony and a view of the valley and the Trapezoid.
There’s someone else there. A young woman, thin-lipped, large-nosed and severe, pretty in the way statues of goddesses are. She looks like she’d be cold to the touch. His father–bearded, dark, taking up more space somehow than just what his body does–at her and says, “Say hello.”
“Hello,” says the boy.
The woman looks the boy up and down like she was appraising a purchase.
“Hello,” she says.
“This is my protege from the city,” says the father. “She’s an immensely talented young lady, and will be very important one day. You are to be her husband.”
The boy looks out across the balcony. The sun slinks down behind the Trapezoid, and the half-night of its shadow slicks down the hillsides. In the gloom the valley is transformed. A truck full of goats bleats on their way to some distant abattoir down the road. The swirl and curve of a flock of birds flying back to the forest to roost. Yet even the distant hillsides, where the sun still shines, seem dim and bleached. Strange, he thinks, how the brightness of the outer world seems so much at the mercy of his inner one.
“I see,” he says.
The forest isn’t untouched. Humans have traversed it for a thousand years and their paths persist, deteriorating beneath the leafy hush. One of these leads up the ridge at the back of the valley and then down through a long and sloping expanse of giant ochrewoods with thundercloud canopies that split into two loves like a human brain. At its terminus is a lake and buried on its far shore is an old alien ship. A shambolic survivor of that long-lost realm, mostly lost to silt and the forest’s green creep. Like everything else from Betelguese it’s far tougher than it need be and so it’s still functional. When the boy was younger he’d lie face-down with his eye to a crack in the mossy ground and watch its glimmering insides sparkle and hiss and listen to its computers make announcements in an odd alien tongue that sounded like torrents of breaking glass.
He heads out before dawn the next day in the shadow of his betrothal. He hasn’t been through the ochrewoods in a long while and when he gets to them he slows his horse down. Their progress is muted by a rusty carpet of fallen needles and the air’s thick with the scent of resin. He loses himself in an interminable present, a golden-green space between cathedral pillars of the treetrunks and the stained-glass tint of the falling light. He notices the bear far later than he should have–a big black-furred thing, standing comfortably on his hind legs not twenty feet away, half hidden in some undergrowth. When he does notice it he immediately thinks there’s something off about its face, but in his slowboiling panic he doesn’t pay that much mind.
He reaches for his gun. The beast takes off, sprinting on two legs with amazing speed.
The boy gives chase. There are other things he only notices in hindsight. How his horse seems completely unafraid of his quarry, though normally it will snort and toss its head on chases. How the bear is bipedal, and how it seems to know all the gullies and obstacles in the old growth. Still, it’s not till it stops by the lakeside and turns with an arrow knocked in a sleek black bow that he realizes that what he’s hunting isn’t a bear at all, but a woman.
She snarls, sharp-cheeked, her eyes narrow and her face smeared with red warpaint. She’s wearing a great bear pelt and her face is pale beneath its gaping jaws.
“You got me, little lord,” she growls. “You gonna shoot me, now?”
The boy lowers his gun.
“I’m sorry, madam,” he says. “I mistook you for a bear.”
The woman lowers her weapon too.
“You’re a good tracker.”
“Why didn’t you identify yourself?”
“Because I wanted to see if I could get away.”
“I could have shot you.”
“No you couldn’t.” She snorts. “You’re from the valley, aren’t you?”
“I am. You?”
She points, to the low space between the two peaks across the lake.
“My village’s over there. Some fuckers’re trying to convince us to sell a few plots so they can dig oil.” She spits, a practiced gesture, her gob flying bullet-true into the water. “My dad said I should fuck off while they negotiate so I don’t kill anyone.”
She squints at him.
“No you don’t.”
“Very well. I don’t.”
A moment passes. They appraise each other. Then the boy gestures with his chin to the west. “There’s something interesting over there, if you want to see, and pass the time.”
“The alien ship?”
“You know it?”
“I know it.”
“I’m heading there now.”
The woman thinks for a bit. She has green eyes, he thinks vaguely. Green eyes and a tiny flattened nose and skin the colour of butter. The boy isn’t certain why these details matter. He knows only that seeing them is like peering through the crack at the spaceship, at something seen in mere sliver, something that fills his imagination like an electric storm.
When his attention returns he realizes the woman’s watching him with the same look.
“It’s mademoiselle,” she says.
“You called me madam. I’m not madam. I’m mademoiselle.”
The boy nods.
“I see,” he says.
The boy tries to sneak out early again the next day and finds his father is sitting on the verandah. Bundled against the dawn cold, frowning at a sheet of paper picked from the slumped piles at his feet, he’s like some laudatory vision of patriarchy painted in ode to the nobility of fatherhood. Look at the fathers. See how they work for you. But the boy gets the only same clammy feeling he always does when he’s near his father. A feeling like cold slime running down his spinal cord.
“Morning, father,” he says.
His father doesn’t look up.
“I’m going riding.”
“Into the forest.”
The father writes something. The pencil is overslender between his fat fingers and he handles it with a daintiness repulsive in a creature so large, so full of battering edges. The boy flees. He saddles his horse and prepares his weapons and the building excitement of seeing the bear girl again warms him with the relentless progress of viscous lava.
When he leads his horse out his father’s standing, animated, talking to his protege. She looks over, scowling, and the father looks too.
“Where’re you going?” he snaps.
“To the forest.” The clamminess returns. “I told you.”
“This boy, always going to the forest. What’s so good about the forest?” The father’s voice engorges as he lectures. “Your responsibilities are here. Think about the people who rely on you. Look, your future wife is here. You won’t go running off when you should be showing her around. Anyway, the Trapezoid’s firing in a few minutes. You have to watch. I do all of this for you, who else? And now you run off like an ungrateful child. Act your age. Put that horse away.”
He walks into the house and the protege follows, a remora in his carnivorous wake.
The boy leads his horse back to the stable and returns to the house and doing so presses his chest inwards like slipping into a tub of cold water. The younger servants look harried and the older ones give him pitying looks and sometimes they touch him, gently, on the elbow. He joins his father and the protege on the front balcony and already great vines of electricity are crawling up the distant sides of the Trapezoid. The clouds at its thunderous peak drift circlewise into a heavenly iris and the trees sway back and forth though there’s no wind. An abrupt sheet of cawing skydogs swoop low overhead, their fleshy wings distended and reddish, their canine faces gaping with alarm. After a few moments there’s a series of droning booms and the whole vast structure on the horizon lights up. For a short while it looks like a blade still hot from the forging plunged into the earth’s soft skin. The cloudcover scatters and a blast of wind buffets them, smelling of iron and rubber and some acridity the boy can’t name.
The forest falls silent. Down in the valley, people stop and look at the Trapezoid. They talk and then some turn and look up at the Manor. Up, the boy realizes, at them.
“Magnificent,” whispers his father. He grabs the boy and holds him to his chest. “See what your father’s done, boy. He’s won us the war. Isn’t that right?”
The boy knows him well enough to know he’s not speaking to him.
“You have, milord,” says the protege.
“No more of that! You’re family now. Call me father.”
The father shoves the boy towards the protege and for an instant their hands touch. She catches his eye and then looks away. As if she knows the boy saw her after the Trapezoid fired. As if he noticed that it wasn’t pride he saw on her face, but something a lot like fear.
She steps away.
“Yes,” she says, quietly. “Father.”
“I heard she had an entire village moved for a dam,” says the bear girl. “I heard she didn’t even give them so much as a head’s up. Just popped up one day and told “em all to feck off.”
She climbs down a cleft between two damp and mossy lips of rock and the boy follows. The earth below is damp and pebbly and slathered with strings of lichen growing what slivers of sunlight can penetrate. Fungoids crawl on their weird fleshy legs, oblivious and serene, up the walls. Ahead is a shallow tunnel and the boy and the girl proceed along this with their breath and footsteps echoing, dulled, off the slick walls.
“She did?” says the boy. “Where did you hear that?”
The girl looks back over her shoulder, grinning.
“We’ve got our networks.”
They emerge into a small cavern. The far wall’s made up of the smooth cloudgrey hull of the ship, running angled from a pool of clear water into the rocks above. A chunk of ceiling is missing and roots dangle through this like dead hair. The girl adjusts her bear-helm and touches the metal and an aperture in the hull swivels open for her. Inside, lights react to their passing with the steady escalation and subsidence of breath.
“How long have you been here, then?” he says.
They come to another wall and the girl presses her hand to it and another entryway spins open. There’s a bedroom beyond, bright and warm, walls clad with moss and flowers growing sideways and up to the lights overhead. At the far side is a great sweeping console before huge window opening into the sunspeared depths of the lake. A bug-eyed fish four times bigger than the boy drifts by, grumpy-mouthed, staring and curious.
The girl tosses her bear helm on the floor and wanders over to the console. She sits with her feet up.
“It’s hard to tell in the forest,” she says. “I get lost in there sometimes. It’s like…there’s a thousand stories, and I can hear them all, even if I’ll never hear the end.”
The boy sits on her bed and turns her words over in his mind, wondering if they’re merely coincidence, or a sign.
“Why did you lie to me?” he says.
“About your father. And the village.”
“I didn’t lie. He did send me away.”
“But your village isn’t over the mountains.”
“It is. This is my ancestor’s ship. My people have lived over the hills since it crashed here.”
“I didn’t know you looked so much like us.”
She holds his gaze and then slips out of her coat and her tunic beneath. She’s thin, angular, her torso elongated and her hips wide. Her legs are covered in sparse bluish down.
She comes over and helps him out of his clothes and inspects his body also.
“Your legs are thicker than I expected,” she breathes.
The boy stiffens.
She runs her hands along his biceps and the fluff on his forearms and then down to the slight swell of his belly.
“I’ve never seen one of you naked before.”
“Why…” The boy gulps. “Why now?”
She knows what he means is, why me.
“I don’t know.” Her lips drift towards his. “There don’t always need be a reason for things.”
No, the boy wants to say. There’s always a reason, always, even if you can’t imagine it. But now is not the time to say such things. Now is the time for something else entirely.
The villagers have seen the beast on television and they all agree that nothing on television is really real. But then the groom’s sister’s boy, a soldier, gets some time off after a battle with the creature somewhere out west. Rumours spread within days of his return. He spends most of his time in a darkened room and pisses himself at night. He shivers when he sees insects. Sometimes he starts screaming for no reason, and doesn’t stop for hours.
The boy can relate. Dressed in his wedding day finery, he wants to scream too. He wants to run through the halls and rip down the garlands of white flowers and knock over the carefully arrayed clay lamps with their immobile coconut-oil flames. He’s devised a thousand ways to ruin the ceremony, and runs each scenario through his head. Then, behind him, a polite cough. The boy shoves the thoughts away, as if they’d be visible to anyone who looked.
It’s the groom.
“Milord looks very handsome.”
“Yes. Like a right little lord. Like when you was young.” The groom smiles. “Yer mother used to dress you up like that and you’d walk through the forest. Not knee-high, giving orders, organizing things. No one understood a thing you was saying.
The boy doesn’t remember. He nods at the Trapezoid through his window.
“Different times,” he says.
The groom joins him. He smells of sweat and manure and other honest things.
“It’s ugly, alright, but if it’ll win us the war…”
“Or kill us all,” says the boy.
“The beast has to be close when the Trapezoid fires.”
The groom runs his tongue over his teeth.
“Ah. That’ll explain it, then.”
The groom drops his voice.
“Me sister’s boy, right? He said the thing was coming. He could feel it, he says. In his bones.”
“I heard he was insane.”
“He’s no nutter, milord. He’s a good boy. Tough.”
The boy straightens.
“You’re not coming to the ceremony like that , are you?”
The groom looks at his feet.
“I weren’t invited.”
“What do you mean?”
“None of us was. Only milord’s family, and milady’s family.”
He’s right. There’s no one from the village at the ceremony. Not a single familiar or friendly face. The boy tries to push his anger away but every time he looks at the protege, pretty and demure in her creamy silk wedding robes, he wants to tip her off the side of the balcony. He tries to project his rage through his expression but he fails. Not because it doesn’t radiate from his every action and expression like radiation from leaking core, but she doesn’t look at him through the entire ceremony. Not once.
Afterwards he’s forced to walk about and take the unsolicited advice of uncles and aunts and strangers all speaking to him as if the very idea that he might know what’s best for himself is an affront to their dignity. The protege and his father luxuriate in their presence and speak about big things–empires and economies–as if they were very small, but their perfume gives the boy a headache. The first chance he gets he sneaks off to his room and locks the door. No one knocks on it until the following morning. There is no wedding night.
Some villagers come to the manor in timid delegation and stand, uncertain, at the foot of the stairs to the verandah. There’s the baker twins–two identical old women in black cardigans and grey skirts. Their heads are like sagging old pumpkins wrapped in paired black scarves, each blotched with neon blossoms. There’s the groom’s sister’s boy, the ex-soldier, out in the daylight with nary a sign of madness or piss. There’s also two other middle aged men the boy hasn’t ever seen before. Immigrants. These try walking up the steps before one of the bakers pulls them back, shaking her head.
“We’re worried,” says one of the immigrants to the boy. There’s a cigarette perched like a tiny syringe behind his ear. In the whitegold light his reddish hair looks like spun copper. “What’ll we do if the beast comes this way?”
We’ll die, the boy wants to say. The valley is too soft and too old to protect us. The beast will crush it all beneath its feet.
His father strides out onto the verandah.
“What’s this?” he says. “What do you want?”
“Forgive us, milord,” says one of the baker women. She raises her hands, steady and fat-fingered and veiny, and bows. “We’re worried about that thing there.”
“That there Trapezoid.”
“It’ll bring the beast here,” says an immigrant.
The father beckons them up onto the verandah, and turns to the boy.
“Don’t just stand there. Bring your people something to drink!” he snaps. “These are hard working people. We’d be nothing if it weren’t for them.”
The boy goes to the house and waits in the shadows to the count of twenty. He knows the servants started making tea and crumpets the moment the villagers arrived. When his countdown’s over he catches the first whiff of buttery warmth and a moment later two servants come past him, smiling and complicit, bearing trays of food and drink.
Out on the verandah the villagers are sitting at his father’s feet, eyes glazed by his pontification. One of the immigrants interrupts him.
“My lord, but the beast will come,” he says.
The father glares.
“Yes…” he says slowly. “I told you, though. It’ll stay down in the lowlands.”
“But we can’t be sure. It’s up north. The fastest way here is across the hills, and–”
“What do you do?”
The man blinks.
“I’m a systems engineer.”
“What sort of systems?”
“Um, industrial networking, mostly. I don’t–”
“Would you take anything I had to say about designing one seriously? Given I don’t know anything about it?”
“With respect, my lord, not really–”
The father claps and sits back, grinning.
“There you go.”
“I–I don’t comprehend.”
The boy passes the crumpets around. The baker twins accept them with big smiles and a bob of their heads and so too does the ex-soldier. The men don’t. The boy joins them on the floor and a few moments later the protege wanders out, immaculate in a magenta dress, and stands by his father.
“I’ve been working on this project for twenty years,” says the father. “My protege here–your lady one day–has for five. She can vouch for its safety. Can’t you?”
The protege nods.
“Fear not,” she says. “Your village is safe.”
“Our village,” says one of the baker twins. “If you’re our lady, it’s our village.’
The protege’s smile flickers.
They finish eating their crumpets and leave, dissatisfied. The father watches them go and then grumbles his way back inside.
“They’re good people,” he says. “But ignorant, ignorant. What fool told them the valley was in trouble?”
“Isn’t that man right?” says the boy. “The beast was last seen to the north. Over the hills. Won’t it come over them, across the valley, to the Trapezoid?”
The protege glances at him.
“You think I haven’t thought of that?” snaps his father.
“No, that’s not it, father. It’s that even if you have, you can’t predict–”
“Listen. That beast’s been here for thousands of years, thousands. Long before we came here. It knows the landscape. Why would it climb over mountains when it can just take a nice walk down one of those big valleys to the south? It’ll go that way, like it always does, and then loop up north. You stick to what you’re good at. Scrubbing horses and hunting rabbits and running about the jungle like your mother used to. Leave the big questions to we who know better.”
He stalks on. A moment passes and the boy realizes the protege’s still standing there with him. She turns to him, mouth open, but he walks out with his fists clenched, like some diminished doppelganger of his father in his rage. He heads around the house to the front drive, not quite certain where he’s going until he sees the delegation ahead. After a moment’s hesitation he breaks into a trot and calls out.
“If the beast comes, it wont come from that way.” He points. “There’s a huge grove of ochrewoods. They’re big enough to impede it.
“I heard it’s haunted up there,” says one of the immigrants.
“By good things,” says one of the baker twins. “Them’s that helped our people when we first got here.”
“There’s nothing up there but sunbears and wildfolk,” says the boy. “And neither will bother us too much.”
“We can’t just huddle in the forest,” says the ex-soldier. “We need to prepare.”
“Yes.” The boy chews his lip. “But this needs to be quiet. If my father finds out, he’ll put a stop to it. He’ll see it as us undermining him.”
The ex-soldier peers as if he’d never really seen the boy before. The baker twins step forward, smiling, and wrap him up in two pairs of muscly old arms.
“We’ll keep your secret, little lord,” says one of the immigrants.
“Our secret,” says one of the baker twins.
They let go and the boy watches the five of them head out the gates. Then he turns to head back up to the house and sees the protege standing not far away. She’s staring at him, her gaze probing and urgent and suspicious. He makes a point of walking past her without looking back.
It’s easy enough to recruit people from the village to help. They’re all frightened and relieved that someone shares their fears. Servants get involved, the groundskeepers, even some of the older children. They shuttle in and out of the green fastness at odd hours with shovels and ropes and little packs of concrete. Others make the trek up the long way around with boxes of canned beans and broccoli and chili. They have lookouts posted who at first hoot like owls when one of the father’s po-faced guards comes wandering near, preposterous in their sleek grey suits. Later, one of the children starts snorting like a pig instead, and soon that’s the noise everyone associates with them–the frenetic grumbling of the forest’s binkeepers.
The beast heads west. On the plains near the City of Star Machines it obliterates a division of tanks and kills four hundred and seventeen soldiers. Protests erupt in the City of Iron Beasts. This land belongs to the beast as much as it does to us, they say. They flood the streets on a festival day and dance and play bagpipes. Then someone ploughs through the crowd in a motorcycle, holding a sword, and kills seven. Huddled beneath the darkening trees, the villagers watch footage of bloody goop crawling like treacle into a drain and a young woman in a white t-shirt wailing over the body of an old man. They don’t know what to think.
A few days later a fresh contingent of people arrive in sleek convoy and set up shop in the manor. They’re all well dressed and well spoken but the boy notices a tightness to them, a nonspecific tumescence, like they’re always on the brink of some tissue-shredding detonation. His father walks one step behind them and calls them sir and madam and spends hours locked away with them in rooms. Then at night he stands on the balcony, staring over the village, chain-smoking and scratching his chin gently as if trying to dislodge a scab.
One night when the boy returns from the forest he finds the protege in his room.
“What’re you doing here?” he says.
She walks around, prim, with her hands crossed at her waist. Her immaculate hair’s frayed slightly from the day’s work–he’s seen her scurrying around after his father, snapping at other minions in the voice of someone certain they deserve to lead. She peers at the two landscapes on his wall and the collection of old dolls in the blackwood wardrobe by the door.
“You play with dolls?” she says.
“Those were my mother’s.” A brief glance. She’s worried she’s crossed some sort of line. The boy plays up to it. “Do you have a problem with them?”
“Not at all.”
She keeps wandering.
“I’d like you to leave my room, please.”
“What’re you doing up in the forest?”
“Cavorting with my alien lover.”
The protege scowls.
“Please don’t be vile.”
“What’s vile about aliens?”
“What’re you really doing up there?” She comes towards him, looking as if she’s just noticed a stain on his chin that might be chocolate, or shit. “I’ve seen you talking with the peasants. I’ve seen you skulking around.”
“They’re not peasants. They’re freefolk.”
“Are you being disloyal to your father?”
“Disloyal? No. I’m not impeding him. I’m not getting in the way.”
“So you are doing something.”
“What’s it to you what I do?”
She blinks and bobs her head.
“You’re my husband.”
“Ah. Is that why you’re here?” He steps up to her. “Are we finally going to fulfil our nuptial duties?”
She walks backwards into the bed and pivots away before she can fall.
“Whatever it is,” she says. “Consider yourself under observation.”
“By my own wife?” The boy smiles, and steps towards her again. “As things should be.”
She snorts with alarm, and backs out of the room. It’s the first time the boy’s enjoyed her company, even if she didn’t enjoy his. Or perhaps–because.
The bear girl doesn’t understand what the boy’s doing and doesn’t help. She avoids him when he’s with the others and eventually he has to trek over to the sunken ship and wait for her to return from her day’s perambulations to speak to her.
“I want to show you something tomorrow,” he says.
“Not your bunker,” she says.
“No.” He kisses her fingers, her knuckles, the slim bones of her hand. “Something else.”
The next day they head east, where the hilltops grow sharper and the valleys sink and narrow into gorges. It’s cold despite the high spring sun and the gusting wind is heavy memories of the icy season past. The animals they see–cross-eyed marmot-likes, plump and purple, and sniffing foxes on long stalking legs– watch them not with fear, but curiosity. After a couple of hours they come to a strangely symmetrical valley hosting a series of large depressions. Each is fronted with some unreflective grey stone pocked here and there with determined little bursts of foliage. The bear girl jumps down into one and walks along with her fingers on the rough and gristly stone. Sometimes she stops and sniffs it. Sometimes she crouches and stares at the weeds and when she does the boy finds that she looks stranger to him than she’s ever seemed before. A peculiar and closed-off thing, a thing whose shape he’d been trying to discern, when really it was just shapeless.
“Who made this?” she says.
The boy puts down his bag and opens it. He has a picnic–boiled eggs, goat’s cheese that crumbles in a tart avalanche against their tongues. Bread also, still warm somehow, and a bottle of wine.
“My ancestors,” he says. “When they first came here.”
“To show their enemies they endured.”
He hands the bear girl an egg. She takes a bite, and then another.
“So they were beaten, and fled from somewhere?”
“From old Earth.”
“Why signal to your enemies that you’re still here?”
“To show them they’d failed. That my house still stood. That they’d have to try, again and again, until they were certain we were done. And we’d never been done.”
She looks at him askance.
“This is about the beast, isn’t it?”
The boy shrugs.
“Maybe. I just wanted to show you.” He looks up. A gossamer spread of clouds veils the sun and he realizes what he’s about to say is for him, not for her. “I know we could evacuate. But we want to live here, where we can hear the world grow old. People say they’re fighting for a place, but what they’re really fighting for is a time. Places endure. The valley was here before my people, and it’ll be here after. What’ll pass is our time here. What’ll pass is us, ploughing and growing and fixing our old second-hand airscooters in the open air. And when we’re gone, there’ll never be anything like us, ever again.”
The girl takes some cheese and eats it and leans against the wall.
“You can’t fight the universe,” she says. “My people learned that. Most of ain’t never seen our homeworld. Never will. It had huge cities and ancient temples, the lot. Now me and my family’ve gotta fight a bunch of oil men to stop “em from digging up our carrot patch. Carrots, by the way, we got from your lot.”
“What’re you saying?”
“What I’m saying is–the universe is huge and unfair. It’ll wipe out entire species, it’ll shit on entire civilizations, it’ll destroy whole planets. It doesn’t think twice. It doesn’t think at all. The good don’t win. The bad don’t win. In the end, nobody wins but the strong. I see people like you struggling against the beast and all I can think is, what if it just crashes through the trees? Then what? All your hard work, gone. And worse…” She pauses.
“No. You’ll be pissed off.”
She turns to him.
“And why shouldn’t he? I want you to survive. But this planet belonged to that beast. That beast and its brothers and sisters and enemies and prey and predators. And you killed them all. All of them, “cept this one, maybe four others. So–have you thought, maybe you’re the bad ones here? Maybe that Trapezoid your father’s built isn’t bad because it’s going to bring the beast to the valley, but because it’s a weapon built to kill a creature that should be able to go wherever it wants?”
The boy thinks about this, nostrils flaring and closing. Then he shakes his head, twice and with finality.
“Maybe. But my people have done nothing to deserve death. Killing those beasts may have been unjust, but destroying our valley won’t make it right.”
“What’s right depends on where you’re looking from, is what I’m saying.”
“I’m looking out for my people. There’s no other view that matters to me.”
The bear girl smiles.
“Spoken like a true lord,” she says.
He touches her face. He traces the spread of purplish freckles by her hairline and a dusting of turquoise motes on the inside of her lower lip. He loses himself briefly in the mica-bright flecks in her oversized eyes, twice the size of a human’s. She leans her face against his palm.
“I love you,” he says.
The girl pulls her face back.
“I know you think so,” she says.
“I know I do.”
“You don’t know me. You met me in the forest and we mated and spoke. That’s it.”
“I don’t know any other word for the feeling I feel for you.”
The girl shakes her head.
“Love ain’t just about feelings,” she says.
She watches him, sad and silent, and he sees she thinks he’s a fool. He sees also that this is the last time he’ll see her. He aches at the thought, but only for a short while.
Spring dessicates into summer. The army establishes a base down in the foothills where the peaks meet the floodplains and the low grumble of helicopters and tanks judders endlessly in the night. Some of the soldiers percolate up to the valley and get drunk and pick fights with locals. The boy’s father confronts one of the generals outside the manor the next day. The general, a vast man with the looks and poise of a shaved boar, listens to him bellow with a small smile and then steps up and speaks in a voice as low and steady as the gurgle of the river in the valley. The father goes pale.
The soldiers stop coming after that, but his father never seems to recover. Two days later all the important people leave the house and take their secretaries and files and computers and uplinks with them. They leave a mess the servants take three days to clean up. The father spends the entire time on the balcony, silent, chain smoking and sipping on tumblers of whisky that’re never fuller than a finger or so, but never empty either. None of them bid him farewell.
Up in the forest they finish little three bunkers and a storeroom. They have a ritual now–plotting the beast’s approach on a map. The more they do this the less they understand the beast’s thinking. Five hundred years, the villagers grumble, and we still can’t figure out what it wants.
“Why not just let it be?” says one of the immigrants. “Why not just learn to live with it? Isn’t it a natural disaster like any other?”
“We live with landslides ‘n avalanches,” says the other. “This ain’t no different.”
“It is,” say the baker twins, in the same tone they explain to children why they can’t have cupcakes for free. “Avalanches got victims. Them beasts got prey.”
One evening the boy returns to the manor under the cover of darkness. All the way down the hillside he’s been practicing his mantra in preparation for encountering his father. You are worthy. You are good. Not all words need responses. They’re like spinning blades. If he says them fast enough, in his head, they deflect his father’s shouting. They pick up speed as he stables his horse.
As he comes out though he hears crying round the back of the building. He stalks around in the twilight. The grass is summerdry beneath his boots and the air carries the first hint of autumn’s distant sharpness. He finds the protege, face buried in her hands, sobbing with enough force to set her body aquiver. She looks up and wipes her face and tries to compose herself, but it’s hopeless.
“Go away,” she says.
The boy turns to go. Then he stops.
“No,” he says.
“Fine. I will.”
“Wherever you go, they’ll hear you crying.”
She blinks and tries to hold back the tears, but they ooze out anyway. Even in the darkness he sees she’s an ugly crier–her face reddish and crumpled and glistening with moisture. Perhaps that’s why she’s always expressionless, he thinks. Because all her expressions consume her.
“Then go where you can’t hear me.”
“Why’re you crying?”
“I’m not crying.”
The boy chuckles and goes back to the stable. He comes back with a mug of water. The protege takes it and scoops back her hair and drinks. Then she grimaces.
“What is this?”
“It’s stream water. That’s the mineral you’re tasting, city girl.”
She drinks again.
“And yet it quenches your thirst.”
She smacks her lips, and glugs down the rest.
“I know why you’re crying,” says the boy.
“No you don’t.”
“He’s angry. He’s lost control of his own project, and he’s taking it out on you.”
She gives him a look, somewhere between alarm and disbelief, half-blurred in the gathering dark. He can tell from her face that she thinks it’s a trap. He keeps going.
“He’s been doing it to me my entire life. If you want to be close to him, you have to learn to take it. You think I’ve never felt it?”
“You’re always so obedient.” She pauses, considering her next word. “Subservient.”
“It’s easier.” The boy sighs. “He doesn’t know the first thing about me either.”
The protege drops her voice.
“He’s always talking about you.”
She nods, and gulps, and wipes her face.
“Always. In the capital, it’s one of his favourite subjects. His son. His precious son. So close to the land, such a representative of his people.” She looks at him askance, briefly malign. “His perfect boy, who doesn’t even have to work for his approval.”
“Like I said,” says the boy. “He doesn’t know me. I could be anyone, and he’d say the same thing, just as long as I was his blood.”
They sit for a long awkward moment on the threshold of something neither of them expected. Then the protege cricks her neck and wipes her face again and says: “What’re you really doing up in the forest?”
The boy stands, and holds out his hand.
“I’ll show you.”
She stares at his fingers as if they were some odd mollusk that had just appeared on her doorstep, glistening and alien. In the end she comes, but she doesn’t touch his hand.
On her first visit the protege spends an hour or so asking questions and then listening to the answers with great absorption. Sometimes she writes things down in a little booklet. Those who speak to her always come away smiling and feeling important.
The next day, she joins them at dawn and sets to work. She finds the group of young men are supposed to be organizing logistics face-down and snoring with their dirty feet sticking out of their tents like strangely shaped mushrooms. By the time they wake the protege’s taken control of the whole operation. They mill around for a while, sheepish and sleepy, watching her work. Then she snaps at them, and they rush into action.
By the end of the week they’re her most loyal lieutenants.
The boy watches all this with a satisfaction that takes him by surprise. He doesn’t like it, or the peculiar warmth he starts feeling for her. It’s only at the end of the week that he realizes why. He’s clustered with a few others under a net, watching footage from the monster’s approach. A newscaster is in a helicopter, yelling over the sound of the rotors about how the villages in the creature’s path were evacuated, but the beast changed its course and now it was clear they’d been moved right into where it was going. Its feet, eightfold and as thick as ochrewood trunks, had crushed two or three hundred refugees.
“People are saying that the villagers were betrayed,” intones the reporter. “Betrayed by the same incompentence that has turned this latest attack into a holocaust, that has thus far claimed four and a half thousand lives.”
“Those poor people,” says someone.
“Shoulda done what we’ve done.”
“Not everyone’s this lucky.”
“Can’t blame the gods for your stupidity.”
“Can you blame them for bad luck?” says the boy.
The villagers shuffle.
“No, milord. I mean. I’m just saying–”
The boy pats the man on the shoulder. A big fellow, another ex-soldier, far more delicate than a man with his size or past should be.
“It’s quite alright,” says the boy. “I was just wondering too. Who to blame for all this? Because if there’s no one to blame, then there’s no one in control of anything, right?”
The villagers nod, eyes wide.
Afterwards the boy heads into the forest by foot. Even in the lightnessness he knows the path. HHe knows not to trust his eyes too much in a world where shadows move on shadows and the only light is inconstant bioluminescence intended for inhuman eyes. He heads through the cold tunnel to the bear girl’s room. It’s empty. He waits a while, watching the fish cruising in the black depths of the lake. They seem to know their world better than he knows his. At least, they know what matters most. Which vibrations to seek, and which to avoid. Which currents to follow, and which to swim against. They needn’t think about any of it, nor think about thinking itself. Just like the protege, they seem to know what they were put here to do, and how to do it. He, on the other hand, thinks too much. Or not enough. He can’t tell which yet.
They spot a sharkwolf one night. A skinny and stilt-legged beast stalking along with its triangular muzzle to the ground, unused to the spongy forest floor. It pauses and returns their gaze, a sad-looking creature with heavy eyes, sharing a moment of silent grief with the humans. We’re all scared, it seems to say. We’re all just small things adrift on a heartless sea.
The next day they find four dead goats. One of them’s been ripped in half, its guts draped like oily party favours down the street.
Other creatures follow. A flock of pugbats it streams overhead for an hour with endless fluid distortions, a noneuclidian sentience trying desperately to signal danger to those below. A cluster of ragged foxes dig around the bins in town. Tin-otters, sleek and chattering, slip joyously down the glassy reaches of the river as if en route to a holiday. As the beast draws near even the creatures of the valley flee along the dulled ridges, predator and prey wandering in wary truce through the morning fog.
Down near where the humans live their chattels and pets wail and bark and howl. They jump fences and break their legs. They gore each other in their panic. The boy’s horse bolts one day and torpedoes down the path from the manor and breaks both its front legs against an army truck. Soldiers come pouring out, stunned and apologetic. He just came out of nowhere, they say. We’re so sorry, they say.
There’s blood on the truck’s grill, and bits of shredded skin.
After they put a bullet in its head the boy stays by the horse’s cooling body. The tears slow and then dry up altogether but the wound within him has only just begun to bleed. He runs his hands down the smooth bulge of his friend’s dead cheek, and the bristle atop his jagged foreleg. The thought of them warm and alive and joyous are like undertow, and he lets himself be dragged under.
At dusk the protege comes down the path and crouches by him.
“Come,” she says. “It’s getting cold. They have to take him.”
“Get away from me,” he hisses.
But she doesn’t. She persists and he succumbs, like limestone to water. She walks by him up to the house and then up to the verandah where the father’s sitting, red-eyed and glowering, in the semidark.
“Where’ve you been?” he growls.
“His horse died,” says the protege.
“Not you.” He points, ice clinking in his tumbler of whisky. “Him.”
The protege sets her jaw.
“His horse died. He was tending to it.”
“You speak for him now? And where have you been?”
“There was nothing to do here, father.”
“Father? You’re not my daughter. Address me properly.”
The boy sniffs, and straightens.
“And what’re you doing,” he says, “Sitting here in the dark?”
The father takes a slow slug of whiskey, eyes fixed on the boy.
“What?” he says.
“I said, what are you doing here, sitting in the dark?”
“What’s it to you what I’m doing?”
“The beast’s coming. The villagers are panicking. What’re you doing–”
“The beast isn’t coming. It’s hundreds of miles away.”
“It’s ninety-one miles away. We heard it bellowing the other day.” The boy points up the hillside. “If you go up there, you can see it. Did you know that? Over across the hills, in the distance.”
“So? If your mother was here–”
“She’d be in the village, tending to her people. Not sitting here in the dark, drinking like a loser.”
A pause. The father gets up, slowly. The protege flinches. The boy begins to cower and then realizes that there’s no better time for him to feel this pain, now that he’s been numbed by something else. He squares up. His father looms over him like a tsunami.
“Say that again?” he says. “I couldn’t quite hear you.”
The boy holds his gaze. Then he looks away. His father runs his tongue over his teeth, and nods. He returns to his chair and downs the rest of his whiskey and ignores them.
The boy walks into the house and through onto the balcony and sits with his back to the railings. The protege joins him.
“I’m a coward,” he whispers.
“Retreat in the face of a superior enemy isn’t cowardice, it’s wisdom,” says the protege. “The good don’t always win.”
He glances at her. In the early evening glow, she looks as if she’s exactly where she should be. Then, in the distance, a great droning roar. It tears the night in half for a long and scathing moment and takes a long time to fade.
“How much longer?” he says.
“Two days,” says the protege.
He buries his face in his hands. She reaches out for him and hesitates. She pulls her hand back. The boy doesn’t see, but this is what happens.
The boy wakes to a high-pitched and violent howl that somehow provokes identical responses from down in the valley and beyond.
He rushes out and finds the protege already on her way down the stairs, bundled against the crystal cold of the autumn predawn.
“I’ll get the bunkers opened,” she says, sprinting into the forest. Soon all that’s left of her is the dwindling crunch of her shoes on the gravel.
He heads into the village. Thinking, it’s too soon. The beast should still be a day away. Then he hears the distant rasp of its breath and the strangely fluid ripple of its colossal legs shredding trees as it comes. It’s almost light by the time he’s woken everyone and bundled them out of their houses and up the narrow paths to the forest. Two fighters roar overhead trailing cones of fire from their tails and a few moments later the beast roars and the sonic stormfront of the noise barrels down the valley, so powerful it buffets hair and stills people’s hearts in their chests. Children cry and men shiver and women cast longing glances down at the terracotta rooftops of the village they were born in and grew up in and they know in their fearful hearts will soon be supine at the monster’s feet.
A moment later the creature crests a distant mountain at speed and half-tumbles into the valley before. A giant spidery thing that seems to decide what its precise shape will be only when its feet hit the ground. A weird disk-shaped cloud hovers over its head. Its face looks like that of some rabid dog skinned and stretched over a skull three times bigger than the one it came from. Pieces of it fall to the ground in great gobs and burn the forest without flame and the stink of this unnatural combustion wafts over the crepuscule in nauseating miasma.
The boy feels an odd warmth on his back and hears a rumble. He looks over his shoulder and sees the Trapezoid crackling to life in the distance. Great tongues of lightning lick the air and a mouth of cloudless sky gapes overhead. The thudding of the beast’s approach speeds up and soon it breaks into an impossible gallop that takes it across valleys that would take an hour for a human to traverse in one or two strides.
The boy takes a step towards the bunkers. Then he stops and screws up his face and sprints down to the manor. Halfway down he sees the protege coming up towards him. She’s crying.
“What happened?” he says.
“Nothing.” She grabs his arm. “Come on.”
“I’m going for my father.”
“He doesn’t want to come.”
“How do you know?”
She grabs him by the shoulders and fixes her eyes on him and he sees the livid stripes of an open-palmed strike emblazoned on her face.
“He doesn’t want to come. He says we’re being fools.”
The boy looks down at the sweet old building and sees someone standing in a window, watching him through the curtains. A moment later the beast erupts over the crest to the left and thunders down the slope, obliterating rock and shredding trees and churning the soil six feet deep. It sweeps the manor away as if it was made of wet cardboard. It crushes one part of the village, and then another, and leaves wreckage smeared along the ground like roadkill. Then it charges the Trapezoid. The last the boy sees of it is its vast silhouette haloed against a titanic blue-white blaze.
He turns to run into the forest, but it’s too late.
The boy regains consciousness a few minutes later, in another world. His first thought is for the bear girl. Then he remembers that she’s gone and that he hasn’t missed her in the slightest and the guilt that comes with that thought is a wan and shivering thing that doesn’t survive long.
Black snow is falling from the sky.
The boy gets up and watches the flecks descend and realizes it’s some sort of ash. Talcum-soft and ethereal and smelling vaguely like hot metal, it settles on his skin with a brief warmth and crumbles. After a while it irritates him, like unwanted kisses, and he heads back down into the valley.
The protege’s nowhere to be seen.
He wanders down, shell shocked. The devastation before him is as he expected. A black film coats everything and everything stinks of ruin. A series of great gouges scar the ancient landscape, green skin giving way to moist red-brown soil in mimicry of human lacerations. The manor’s gone. Half the village is gone. Far off a seething tower of dense black smoke rises where the Trapezoid used to be. Overhead it hits some jet stream and disperses in a malign black hood over the landscape. Crumpled beneath it, at the foot of the smoking Trapezoid, is the ruined corpse of the beast. Its massive legs crooked and cracked, its torso leaking a million gallons of blazing ichor into the infected land about it. The boy can smell it from where he is, a stench born aloft on the same winds carrying the Trapezoid’s wreckage.
The villagers come stumbling out of the bunkers a few minutes after he finds his first body. An old woman he may or may not recognize, lying half in one of the trenches the beast’s feet carved. Where her left leg and half her left hip should be there’s nothing. The baker twins come jogging down the hillside, grinning, waving their thick arms. They pile onto him and crush him between them.
“We won!” says one.
“The beast is dead!” says the other
“The beast’s dead, little lord!”
They part, and look up at the manor, and then back at the boy.
“Not little lord anymore.”
“Yea. Lord. Lord of the Valley.”
They bow, grave. The boy blinks and looks away from the body.
“Have you seen my wife?” he says.
“Up in the pastures, behind the manor.”
The boy walks back up past bewildered and then cheering crowds pouring out of the forest. It takes him a long time to navigate the jollity. How can they be so pleased in the face of such destruction, he wonders? Then he realizes: they didn’t think they’d survive. They didn’t think anyone cared.
Somehow, his grief lightens.
He finds the protege up in the field, sitting on the slope with a laptop balanced on her knees. She’s typing furiously, frowning, hair flecked with black ash. She looks up briefly when he approaches, and then back down.
“I was looking for you,” he says
She clicks. “I can’t get a connection.”
“You probably won’t for a while.” He sits next to her. She smells vaguely of blood, and sweat. “What do you need it for?”
“Didn’t you see? It’s chaos. We’ll need to make sure we have supply routes. We’ve got enough to last us for a week or two but we need to evacuate the wounded.” She blinks, and wipes away tears, and sets her mouth into a hard gash. “I saw dead down there. We’ll need to move them too.”
Her laptop pings. Her eyes widen, and she begins typing furiously. He watches her for a while, feeling something kindle. Something he isn’t willing to put a name to yet.
“Alright,” he says. “I’ll go start organizing.”
He looks up at the forest. It sighs in the wind, unchanged, enduring. The beast’s passage will be just a brief chapter in its story, the boy thinks. As will he. As will they all.
As he stands the protege squeezes his hand. An unthinking gesture, swift and familiar. The boy heads back to the village. The black snow doesn’t seem to bother him anymore.
Subodhana Wijeyeratne is an academic and author living and working in Tokyo Japan. He’s been writing speculative fiction for nearly twenty years. You can follow his latest at subowijeyeratne.com.