Love in Its Heart – David Z. Morris

Love in Its Heart – David Z. Morris

It was the third one. The third ever, all in the same week. On the pipes, grainy handset video showed hulking masses, ungainly, asymmetrical, wobbling out of the sky. Tearing through level after level of the sprawling, towering city, girders screaming through showers of sparks. The first one on a Tuesday, a dozen commerce units over. Then another Friday, a little closer. And then on Saturday, just as the lights came on. Bang. Our zone.

It was still miles from my apartment, and I can’t say I felt much fear. In a city of two billion, even the parting of twenty thousand souls seems insignificant. Abstract. I got to the dispatch center by nine. It was in the east 370-by-fifties, perched in the fourth ring of a seven-ring office park, lit by a fairly convincing sun and circling a bedraggled courtyard garden. Better than my place, anyway.

So we all went, called out of our hovels, some still rubbing sleep out of our eyes as we loaded cleanup gear into the eight grey, sharp-angled trucks. Hoses and bins and sacks of absorbent crystals, and newly-scrubbed hazmat suits under the hard benches in the back. We were silent, not grim but indifferent, some managing troubled naps as our convoy navigated the arcing labyrinth of roads toward the crash site.

We unloaded in front of a shattered, three-story hulk. The ship had none of the sheen and polish that the movies would have you expect. It was ugly, had been ugly even before plowing through the anarchic layer-cake of a thousand thousand homes. The giant fragments left, like the cracked shell of a spent egg, were covered in wires and poles and tubes, embedded in mounds of rubble and fresh human corpses, buried and wedged and threaded and impaled. Not built for atmosphere, I could see that much — but I left the question dangling. I wasn’t paid to think, so I didn’t bother.

What I did notice was the sun — the real, actual sun — emerging from a ragged tunnel torn through forty, maybe fifty stories of solid nested humanity. It seemed to dance over the corpses, giving them in death what they might have gone years without in life. It glinted from the armor of the ranks of Seattle police, and from the nearly-identical gear of the upstanding men of the U.S. Army.

The Tuesday ship had taken out plenty of ups, middles, and masses. But by Saturday the heights were empty — even my two-bit bosses were calling the shots from private bunkers at some unknown depth and distance. The corpses were people like me — too poor to hide or flee, or to have ever travelled to any edge of the city.

Still, just people — what got me was the dogs. Most were close to the surface of the pile, among the twisted remains of the higher levels. Tongues rolling out of crushed and severed heads, eyes still waiting for unworthy masters. To be rich enough to own a dog, and just leave it behind — the thought confused and saddened me.

I fought off feeling, as I fought off theories about all of this. I just bent over, picked up a metal shard and put it in one vacuum chute, or some wet, biotic chunk, and put it in the other one. Three years at Extreme Recoveries, and it almost felt like what I was made for.

Three years of sifting other people’s shit and excrescence. Three years of their failed projects, lost hopes, by-products, accidents, leftovers. Like I belonged in the suit, with its empty yellow plastic slickness, a thing that never came to fit. Slogging through cisterns leaking unknown chemicals, pressure-washing breached biological facilities with hydrochloric acid, “remediating” leftover surface-to-space weapon installations.

It wasn’t the life I’d hoped for, of course. Who would? I went to school for bioengineering. Life as it existed, and as it could be remade. They had been powerful, those dreams, those ambitions. But they remained vague, and quiet, and unfulfilled.

My parents were of the generation who bought into the myth of equality — born under black presidents, working under black CEOs, a brief dream in a time of plenty. They had begun to forget, begun to think that maybe we didn’t have to work twice as hard. Maybe they passed that delusional ease down to me — or maybe I had just let them down. As the world became lean and hungry again, I learned how wrong they were. But not fast enough.

And with a only bachelor’s degree in bioengineering, you got to clean up other people’s failures.

I’m writing this now, after all that has happened, as the first and last serious product of my bioengineering research “career.” It will have no audience, and little scientific value. But it soothes my soul in a time of need.

It was on that day, the third year rounding into the fourth, in the depths of my uncaring, that I reached down and saw something … different. A smooth, chrome egg, no bigger than the palm of a hand, almost blinding in that new sun. Some sort of bomb? An alien grenade? But the army had already swept the place.

Just moments after I picked it up, the egg’s gleaming surface opened with a sharp crack. Startled, I looked around, but no one was close enough to hear. It truly was an egg, with a thin shell and inside — something.

A patch of black fur, neutral and mute — but with the aura of life. I picked up the tiny chrome fragment that had fallen away. It seemed machined, unremarkable. Unthinking, I let it drop into the metal chute, which snagged it with a breathy inhalation.

I opened up my suit and my coveralls, just at the neck. I slipped the cracked egg in against my skin, felt its warmth.

In the next second, with the feeling of returning from a dream, I cursed my stupidity. Some robot going through the waste might spot that shell fragment, trace it back to me.

I kept working, picking up stray bits of cabling, the slashed veins of the data pipes. I hadn’t had data in my apartment for years.

The chrome egg was still there when I walked off the site, aching, filthy despite the suit layers, back into the truck. Again, we were all silent, exhausted.

“Make a good haul today, ya black bastard?”

Except, of course, for Rollins, who had plenty of energy left to talk. I just barely lifted my gaze to meet that drawn and hungry smile, those hollowed eyes, the spiked ruff of blonde hair.

If you’d asked him, he’d tell you he was just joking, being friendly. When I’d first gotten to Extreme Recoveries, I thought I’d be gone in a few months. So I never bothered educating the man. And now I was just too tired.

“Hey Nixon, c’mon, what’s up?” He kicked my boot with his — friendly.

I didn’t say anything. Maybe that made me the asshole. I felt a tiny movement against my chest.

“Aw, c’mon man, don’t be like that. I’m just fucking around.” Even after all these years, he was still confused, maybe even really hurt, when I didn’t return his ribbing with a smile. But I didn’t need it. Didn’t need friends at all, even if someone worthwhile had come along. As much as anything else, I was embarrassed to watch him try, in his painful, perverse way, to win me over.

I turned to catch the last disappearing wisp of natural sun. We rode on in glassy silence.

Back at base, I went into the white-plastic shower room, where I had my one moment of privacy during a ten-hour shift. I opened my shirt and reached in, and found that the shell of the egg had fallen away. I felt bits of it working deeper into the suit, sharp but pliable against my skin.

What lay revealed was black fur, a tiny nose, eyes shut tight to the world. I gently lay the tiny form, still tightly curled, on the shower’s cheap plastic bench. Then, perhaps responding to my touch, four paws unfurled from the darkness, huge and searching as black yawns. I watched rapt, while carefully fishing gentle metal shards out of my suit’s waistband.

Two pointed ears topped its small, sleek head. A tail twitched out, as long again as the tiny body. Like a kitten — but not quite. Too-long legs, lips that curved the wrong way around, strange, tufted antennae on the ears. I felt no threat.

I scrubbed myself without taking my eyes off of it. Its eyes stayed shut, but its thimble-sized chest rose and fell. Then I turned the water to a warm trickle, thought about it for just a moment, and lifted my charge into the flow. The creature went immediately tense in my hands, and I pulled it out the next instant. Still without opening its eyes, it flicked its head, just so, sending water droplets flying.

However persistent my scientific delusions, I can’t help but include the unscientific detail of that head-flick, that single gesture.

Because that was the exact moment it was all over.

I took her home, through the maze of shuttle pods and stairwells and catwalks that bound the city’s workers to the lower levels. Red light lit my steps down corridors of cold steel. Clanging boots on the walkways, the rattle of rails, delivery runners, beeping lifters, mumbled talk — the last bits of work mingling with the first bits of trouble.

We were close to the shadowed hellscape of the surface, and we all felt it. Some just schlubs like me. But plenty of predators, who saw the undercity as their safehouse, their escape route. Every time I made it into my single room without having to posture or threaten someone, I was grateful — but this time especially.

Once we were safe, I set her down. She mewled and stumbled around, her eyes still shut tight. I examined her, gently. I immediately sensed her gender, and never doubted my intuition — but there was no evidence to either support or falsify it. When I pressed the pad of one of her paws, a bristle of claws in ranked orders quilled out. I counted carefully — six toes, and hidden in each toe, twenty-eight claws, tiny and delicate. Her teeth, likewise, came in a dozen even ranks, receding back into the depths of her miniscule mouth.

I decided to name her Adesina, a name from far back in my family line. The name given to the first of my family born in America, a message to the rose-tinted future.

I didn’t have much to feed her. That first night, I mixed some water and nutrient powder, offered it in a spoon, and she blindly licked at it.

As I fed her, the free pipe news chattered out of its bulletproof screen, a constant educator bolted firmly to the wall. They were talking about the descents, and you could tell that even the government talking heads were scared. Sweat snuck down the anchors’ foreheads as they introduced wild speculation from suited experts. It was not just our city — these dead hulks, these uncontrollable wrecks, were hitting Jakarta, Delhi, Osaka, Minsk, Buenos Aires. All of them unoccupied, seemingly inert. They were of no known make or model, no obvious origins. One of the experts insisted it was a Russian ploy, cooked up on Io. Another suggested Chinese. Still a third shouted wildly that they did not come from any Earth culture. Theories sparked and sputtered.

My mind drifted from the debate, and I felt no fear. I caught myself laughing mildly as I watched Adesina soak her muzzle in grainy white liquid. All any of it meant for me was warmth and fur, tentative motions, awkward steps, strange sounds from a secret mouth. Another being. A new life.

The next day, I came directly home and fed her. She blindly pawed her way around my lap. On Tuesday, my day off, I trekked to the desultory, rattling library and read a decades-old book about keeping pets. It said small mammals could drink cow’s milk — a tiny cup would cost a week’s check. I also used part of my data allotment to browse newer books, but they were clearly for people other than me — a single book on cat care cost more than my entire yearly salary. It wasn’t until after I left that I realized I should have pulled up something on xenobiology.

On Wednesday, her eyes opened. They were large, yellow, with square pupils. Almost as soon as they opened, those eyes didn’t just observe, but sought. Asked questions. Understood. She would look directly at my face, serious, serene. Her square pupils slid shut like airlock doors at each hint of brightness, so I dimmed the lights.

I thought of my own parents. They were offworld, now — able to give themselves that, at least, thank god. But no work there for me. So we talked at most once a month. They paid for the calls.

She was walking within a week — walking and more. She stalked the place, measuring and testing, pushing behind every piece of furniture. Sometimes she’d go into a tiny frenzy, ricocheting off the walls, clawing at anything soft or dangling. Twice in the first month, I came home from work, exhausted as always, to find the place a wreck, the kitchenette dismembered. Once even the fridge was open and ravaged, plastic wrap shredded, jars shattered on the floor.

Each night when I came in, I’d kneel down and scratch her between the eyes, a gesture I suppose I picked up from old movies. She would speak calmly in a strange, faerie voice. She’d rub her neck against my hand, and arch her back, and twitch her tail.

Then I made the mistake of trying to flip her over on her back and rub her belly. She exploded with rage, her ears furled and her eyes wide as her jaws gaped and her claws fanned out and down into my skin. It pricked and stung and bled, but after a brief retreat she subsided and licked my hand almost clean.

It felt familiar, earthly — but I was careful after that. I watched her with a biologist’s eye, feeling old, dry knowledge unfurl within me. She grew too fast, and saw too much. Her waste came in neat, dry pellets — once a week, tiny and uniform and odorless. Within a month, she was as long as my forearm.

She resembled a creature from Earth, but was something else.

I know now how insane this sounds, how selfish and stupid. I sheltered an alien, as my world was under attack by mysterious forces. I said nothing, drew no connections, fed the alien, protected it. My curiosity had curdled years before. And what had this world ever done for me, to expect my loyalty?

I started sitting with her on the landing, in the very early hours, when we could go unnoticed. Then one day she dashed away from me. I searched for her, my gut in a knot — and a few hours later, she showed back up at the door, with a rat as big as herself in her mouth. So I started letting her in and out, at obscure hours we wordlessly agreed upon and kept to like clockwork.

She kept growing, and the ships kept falling — though less frequently. Twice, three times a month, spread out over enough of the planet that any one place began to feel almost safe again. Sometimes they even fell outside the cities, and the free pipes showed panoramas of those awful expanses — lifeless wastelands, glass deserts, glowing with industrial despoliation, crawling with diseased terrors. The greater horror our steel confinement was saving us from.

One afternoon I stood at a hamburger stall, and on a screen above the grill I saw the President. “Our naval laser cannons and detection matrix are now eliminating these threats before they enter the American atmosphere. We are keeping America safe for Americans.”

But I knew different. I started spending more time at the trash bars — ugly places where trashmen like me were welcome. I’d known about them for years, but never bothered. Too good for them, I’d maybe thought. But now they were invaluable. I acted like other people, sipped beers, played pool, and heard rumors. Cities were still getting hit in America. One or two a month, no matter what the free pipes and the President said. Somehow the ships were dodging the lasers, or evading detection. Or maybe the lasers didn’t even exist.

I would come back from my little fact-finding expeditions, sometimes with a warm buzz, a thing I’d not allowed myself for years. And I’d lie down in my narrow, wall-mounted cot, and as I started drifting off, Adesina would pounce on my chest, with a little huffy squeak. She’d settle in, kneading those paws and their pincushion claws gently into my chest, pushing her head up against the bottom of my chin, making a slow, steady noise like the rattling of dry leaves.

Whatever she was, she loved me.

The months stretched into years. A small industry of crash-ologists sprang up, and Extreme Recoveries was acquired by a descent-consulting conglomerate. The dispatch center was moved into the bottom of a big, shining corporate campus, further up the sprawl. It was a hell of a commute, a daily pilgrimage to a more beautiful world.

There were little descent conferences there — big names on posters, all titles and prefixes. When I saw the posters, I noticed something in my chest — a hollowness, a pull. I thought, maybe in there, they’re explaining all of this. And I realized that knowing mattered to me, as it hadn’t in some time. Drinking coffee and listening to panel discussions didn’t fit into my schedule — but the emptiness remained.

Then, two years after the first descent, with Adesina now as long as my arm, there was a chance. There was a required training on disposal unit protocol, but I knew it like the back of my hand already. And there it was, another poster — “Game Theory and the Descents.” A stylized illustration of one of the falling ships. Right in the middle of the training.

So I just left Extreme Recoveries after reporting for the morning, and walked through scrubbed-clean elevated tunnels, glancing out over glowing gardens that hid the slums below. The radiating, white-lit auditorium was at the opposite edge of the campus. I sat in the back, trying not to be seen, hoping my swiveling chair wouldn’t squeak.

I was the only person in coveralls. There were others in suits, and a few of that particular breed of indulged slob — the rumpled academic scientists, in wrinkled shorts and flapping buttondowns and beards. I tried to make sense of the swirls of opaquely-worded speculation.

“This is psychological,” said one of the suited and slick types. “Some kind of ploy. If they actually wanted to destroy us, there would have been bombs in the ships. Fusion isn’t hard.

“That’s not an answer!” shouted back another man on the dais. “We must assume that this is all strategic. I propose this thesis — there is something about the ships we have missed. Perhaps a virus. A slow poison. They are a preparation. A vanguard.”

I thought then of Adesina. I had considered, of course, telling someone about her. She was information they could use, these big men, trying to crack the case. But I knew they would take her away from me. So I said nothing, to anyone. I began to wonder, very occasionally, if something was wrong with my mind.

But, I thought then, she didn’t fit into their war-game scenarios. She wasn’t a disease vector. She would never harm anyone. I’d lived in close quarters with her for two years, and I wasn’t just healthy, but — I suddenly realized — happy. I would have my curiosity, but the suits and thinkers could go to hell.

Midway through the third or fourth panel, I left. I was halfway back to Extreme Recoveries when a voice rang out behind me.

“Yo, Nixon!” It was Rollins. Jesus.

He peeled towards me from a group of cleaners on their way out of the complex. They must have finished the training early. Rollins smiled broadly, his eyes bright slits over a coathanger smile. “Hey man! You over at that conference?”

I looked him flatly in the eye. Awfully lucky guess. “Yeah. I’m already certified on the new protocol, so Jorgenson said I should go to that thing instead.”

“Huh,” replied Rollins, rubbing the back of his head, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Anything interesting?”

“Just a bunch of eggheads,” I replied. “They don’t know shit.”

“The bosses, they gonna make you a scientist or something?” There it was — the aggression masking weakness. I thought of the water-lizard, a lost species which had used a delicate, expansive neck ruff to hide its tiny body.

“I don’t have time to let you fuck with me, Rollins.” His face collapsed in confusion as I turned to head home.

And of course, that was the day they first followed me. I noticed two men, out of the corner of my eye, like motes or shadows. You get good at that — at first I thought they were muggers. I put my hand in my pocket, making as if I were hefting something there. But they kept their distance, and I lost them.

Adesina pranced to greet me. I made my hands into playful claws and ruffled her head, then turned to the pipe. A descent in China, one outside Lagos (that happened sometimes — a near-miss). None in the U.S. of A, of course. No sir.

It wasn’t until the next Sunday that they knocked on my door. I looked out of my peephole and saw them there, in dark blue jumpsuits. No insignia. More than a guy in a suit and tie, or even in body armor, you worried about those blue jumpsuits. Someone must have reported me, but no one knew.

I opened the door just a crack.

They told me my name. They said nothing about the conference, or the training I’d missed. They told me where I’d been and what I’d been doing two years before — cleaning up Descent Number Three.

Then they stopped telling, and started asking. I told them yes, I’d been on that site, but no, I didn’t remember tagging or chuting anything unusual, no. They asked if they could come in, and I told them, no, I’m really sorry, but I’ve got a guest in here, and I made with some eye-bugging and an uncomfortable laugh and a sleepy lascivious grin. It would have made my grandfather roll over in his grave twice — he was the Attorney General of Nevada.

They looked at each other, and I saw them thinking just what I wanted them to — these lower-level boys, they got nothing on their minds but pussy. One of them shrugged and tapped something on his wrist, and they left. Of course, the truth was I hadn’t had a girl around in years, but getting those jumpsuits off my doorstep felt better than any lay I could remember.

When I closed the crack of the door and turned around, though, Adesina had her back up against the far wall, her entire body arched and tense, her claws out in their terrifying ranks, her eyes glowing gold so bright it was almost blinding. Just as I shut the door to the outside world, her mouth opened and I saw her hundreds of razor-shard teeth, and a sound came out like the shattering of a tiny planet. It pushed me back against the door, knocked cans from a shelf.

Something changed after that. Snoop-theories started flowing through the trash bars — the jumpsuits were asking everybody questions, all the crews, and they all had their own ideas about why. For me it was a relief — they weren’t targeting me. They didn’t know about my Adesina.

But she started growing again. She’d still lie on my chest, her eyes closed as I stroked her. But within weeks of that unwelcome visit, her head tucked right under my chin and she stretched all the way down over my hips. By then she weighed nearly forty pounds. I got short of breath with her on top of me, and so I started pushing her off, leaving her to squeeze narrowly onto one side of the cot. She got used to it, I guess.

Things were even trickier when we played. One day I ruffled her ears, and she swatted at me, and I swatted back, and in the next second I noticed that the flesh between my thumb and forefinger was open like a wet mouth, a steady trickle of blood dropping to the floor. She hadn’t even tried to hurt me.

I was used to no one giving a damn about me, so I didn’t think twice about showing up to work with a bandaged hand. But Rollins noticed. I saw him stare at it — but he didn’t say anything. He had gotten quieter, and I started seeing something in his eyes beyond half-friendly stupidity. Something inquiring.

Men started following me home more regularly. I stopped letting Adesina out. She turned moody, would spend hours curled up in a corner, alone, uninterested in me, one sleeping eye open. But she kept growing, and started eating so much I had to feed her cheap cultured food — the sort of flavorless pseudo-protein paste the Light Church fed to indigents. She didn’t seem to care. Just kept staring at the door.

Then one night, she leapt up to join me on the cot — and the wall creaked. She halfheartedly tried to find a place to lay, but there was nowhere for her. I looked at her standing above me, searching, confused, and saw her as if I’d never seen her before.

The tiny thing I’d pulled out of a metal egg was now a hundred or a hundred and twenty pounds. Five feet long from nose to tail. And beneath that black coat I still thought of as warm and comforting — muscle, as hard as my own. Without leaving the room, without good food, she had grown into a creature of the jungle. Of another world’s jungle.

That night, she slept on the floor. I made a nest for her out of blankets. But we couldn’t stay. The net was closing.

I thought about it for days, on my way to and from Extreme Recoveries, watching over my shoulder, in and out of the dark hole I called home. The free pipes regularly streamed their panoramas of the desolate and unlivable land beyond the city. But there were different stories in the streets, in the trash bars. I’d heard them from my family, too, as a kid — tales of places beyond the city, where people could go. Some said they even knew people who had gone — people who were never heard from again. Nothing more than vague whispers passed among the cities’ dreaming miscreants. A talisman of hope, like an unscratched lottery ticket.

It wasn’t a good option.

I packed up a few things, put on a long coat. We left in the latest part of night, climbed down stairways that became more and more rickety, jumped across jagged walkway gaps, until I was finally climbing hand over hand down masses of rebar, tangled through skeletal steel frames that cut and ripped and shuddered with my weight.

I worried at first what Adesina would make of this place, how she would behave, whether she would even stay with me — but she followed without hesitation or confusion. Where I panted and teetered and hurled my body like a wobbling football, she gracefully arced through the darkness, flowed with light feet down impossible rails, dropped with cold certainty into one black pit after another, and waited for me, unscathed, at the bottom.

We were alone for a time, but as we went deeper, we began to see others. These were the scarred and twisted denizens of the lowest places, unwanted by anyone or anyplace else, even in the vastness of the city. There were lean-tos of blue tarpaulin, wrapped tight into hovels and wedged against pilings. Under them sat men with no noses, no eyes, no hands. We saw huddled clutches of children, naked and squalling like puppies at their dying mothers’ dry teats.

And of course, there were the other kinds of outcasts — the toughs who banded together here, out of sight of the authorities. We glimpsed neon now and again, heard voices raised in brittle revelry. The welcome warning of danger.

But we couldn’t avoid all trouble. From above, I’d spotted a rope bridge, a delicate pathway over a seemingly bottomless chasm — and at its head, a massive, hooded figure, holding a spiked iron club in one meaty, deformed hand. I scouted for ways around, but there was no other path.

So I approached him, and was relieved when Adesina seemed to disappear. I held myself straight, my arms at my side, unsure even of how to look menacing.

“There’s a toll here,” said the hulking man, a not-quite-human voice emerging from the darkness of the hood. But before I could reply, Adesina emerged beside me, her shoulder now as high as my elbow.

The tollman regarded her coolly for a moment, in shock or indifference. Then she stepped forward mildly, dropping her head as her jaw unfurled, and loosed that planet-splitting hurricane of a roar.

The brutish tollman tumbled back, his club ricocheting into the chasm as he scrambled to keep his balance. Then he turned and fled across the bridge, into the shadows. We didn’t see him again.

And then finally, finally we reached it — the muck on which the city floated, the end of our descent. The light here was red and thin, like sickly blood. There was dirt — not the groomed dirt of an elevated garden, with its fluffy clumps that rolled out of your hand. This was dead earth, sticky, frozen in glutinous waves, full of bits of garbage fallen from higher levels; iron bars and rusted car parts and split batteries spilling acid; glowing slicks of strange lace over every diseased surface.

Great lichen grew on the carcasses of ancient traincars. Tremendous, pale-eyed rodents gnawed at tangles of rust — and fled at Adesina’s scent. Every twenty yards stood the mass girders, so often hidden on the higher levels. Like steel tree trunks, forty feet around, spattered with filth and hard-earned graffiti — the foundations of the world.

This, certainly, looked like the outside world shown on the free pipes — nothing but mud and the skeletons of a dead past. Still, we were lucky. It was January, cool and dry. Three months later, the place became a floodcatch for the summer.

Adesina moved through it all with such smooth and untroubled confidence that I couldn’t shake the suspicion that she had been there before, somehow — that she had gone far beyond the boundaries of the neighborhood on those early morning wanderings, that she had dreamed her way here as she lay entombed in my bedsit.

But still, she was alert, orbiting me like a nervous moon, flitting from one shadow to the next, disappearing and reappearing as I moved in the vague direction of a half-heard memory.

Any threats were gone before I knew. More than once, I felt the air go tense, heard an abbreviated grunt or hiss, and waited as she slunk back to my side, breathing heavily, her jaws dripping.

We moved for days, barely stopping to rest. There was no change in the light — not even the half-imagined traces of sun I treasured at high noon on a low city Saturday. I had only ever moved through the city on lifts and trams and winding walkways, and had no sense of when we might reach its edge. After ten days, I was out of food. After two weeks, when she brought me the corpses of sick and diseased and horrible creatures, I shared them with her, gratefully.

On the fifteenth day, or the twentieth, we rounded a corner — I in front, and Adesina roaming loosely at my heels — and there was a huge black shape there, and something flashed white in it, and I felt a violent blast to my chest. There were sharp pinpricks as I fell back, then rending pain — and then came another blunt impact, lifting the weight from me.

I scrambled to my knees, and saw Adesina grappling, hissing, clawing with a ferocity I’d never dreamed of — tangled with another creature that looked exactly like her.

In the next second, another figure emerged, running — a woman with red hair, matted and tangled, her round, defeated face contorted in panic and sadness as she ran towards the enraged pair of beasts.

“Stop, stop!” she cried, and she threw herself into the fray, and somehow she wrapped one of them in a bear hug (I could not tell them apart) and separated them bodily, even as claws and spittle flew around her.

She lay there, panting, not half as big as the creature she gripped. It roared and twisted and flailed, but the woman did not let go, though a flap of her face lay open like a curtain, streaming blood.

I stood, stunned, my mind reeling. The other creature backed nervously towards me, away from the entwined pair, and I thought it must be Adesina. I put my hand on her head, gently, and she calmed. I saw she was missing tufts of hair.

Then the other two slowed, untangled, and turned to face us. We all panted.

I looked at Adesina, and at the other creature. This was not how animals worked. Not how life worked. Variation was the heart of any natural species — different tones, eyes, shapes, angles. But these two were not simply of the same kind — they were truly identical. The same size, precisely. Their ears tufted in the same strange way, twitching with the same tension. Their eyes were the same shape and size. They were indistinguishable — except that Adesina now hugged close to my side.

“What … what is this?” It was all I could manage.

The woman ignored her mauled face, staring numbly at the ground, not meeting my confused eyes. Her clothes were ragged and torn, and stained with blood all over. I thought of my hand, still carrying its accidental scar.

“You haven’t seen others, then,” she said, not a question, but an inflection of disconnected madness echoing sorrow into the space between us. “They are Drexal,” she continued. “They are heralds. Bait. Traps.”

Her hand rested on the other creature’s head, and absently scratched between its eyes. It stared at Adesina, and Adesina stared back.

“Did you find an egg?” I dared to ask.

“It found me,” she said, her lips moist and loose. “They found us.” Then I saw the tag on her wrist — a medical designation of some sort, condemning its wearer to one of the towers for the sick or disturbed. The woman was on the verge of tears. “She made me happy, damn her.”

And with that, she backed away, eyes darting. The great beast backed after her, its head low and haunches tense, its eyes not leaving us until it had disappeared into the bloody shadows.

We travelled for many more days after that. I became wasted and sick with bad food and poisonous water. But finally, a thing began to happen that I could hardly fathom — the city began to fade above us. When I looked up, I could distinguish the shadow of one looming tower from the next. During the day, true light began to reach us, first in a putrid yellow wash — and then, one day, there was a dusty, golden sunbeam, and I stood and let it warm my face for three hours.

There were scraps of grass, then plants, and then, as if in a dream, we were outside. And it was nothing like the pipes showed. It was like a platform garden that went on and on. The wind was an animal, playing against my face. In the distance, during the daytime, I saw the earth rising to meet the sky, covered in more green than I had ever seen, but also brown, and far away, farther away than my eyes had ever reached before, beautiful rising angles of grey and blue and white.

Adesina was unnerved. She twitched at every waving blade of grass, ripped bushes from their roots when they brushed her flanks, pawed at pools of water and hissed at her own image. But before long, she once again wandered far afield, and hunted, and brought me a new kind of prey — rabbits and birds, things out of books, more and better food than I had ever known. I knew that we were supposed to cook them, but I had no clue how — and they were still delicious.

I regained my strength, and then some. With Adesina curled beside me, I slept in beds of grass, and dreamed shapeless, vertiginous dreams. The world inside my head expanded to fill the world outside.

Then I thought of something, and for the first time looked back at the city. It was a massive aberration, smoking, flashing. It revolted me — but day by day it shrank behind us, until it was no bigger than the distant mountains.

I thought about the woman, and what she’d said. Adesina, and the other one like her — the woman had called them Drexal. They had found us. She’d been a madwoman. Yet she had pushed me closer to a certain dark knowledge. But now more than ever, I needed my strange companion, and I evaded that knowledge fiercely — just as I now saw, for the first time in the flesh, rabbits and grouse frantically evading eagles.

After leaving the shadow of the city, Adesina had grown again, now to six or seven feet long. We moved easily over the rolling, open land, unconcerned for many days about anything but the ground beneath our feet, and where the whispered promised land might show itself. But then, one morning, there was a low whirring in the air — a mechanical sound that drew me jarringly back to the city. I hissed at Adesina, who disappeared, and hid myself behind a rocky outcropping.

It was a large delivery drone, hefting a man-sized crate beneath its rotors. I watched its path, and when it was gone, we moved cautiously to follow it, keeping a lower profile. We spotted two more craft in the next few days, one some kind of menacing scanner luckily spotted from afar — but one a passenger vehicle, a large clear bubble showing the profile of dozens of people. It was hard to be sure, but I caught an impression of leisure from within that bubble.

It was not long before we came upon its destination. In a valley, a wandering row of boxes spread along a river and up an embankment — buildings, the kind that were common before the cities rose. From a faraway perch, I saw opulent silver statues and expansive gardens, carefully sculpted paths, playing fields and geometric pools of water. More drones came and went, in many directions, as tiny human shapes moved among it all. And, intermittently, a menacing laser would scan the surroundings, or a martial robot fly or roll into sight. We retreated before we could be spotted, taking a wide circle around the place.

This, I realized, was what the ups were hiding, why the free pipes insisted that the world outside the city was poison. I imagined dozens of opulent settlements like this, escapes from the city and its rabble. We kept the engines pumping for them, ran the hydroponic farms and the toothbrush factories, programmed the drones and crafted vapid distractions for the premium pipes. We stayed out of the way, confining our trouble to the lower levels of pocket worlds, while they wandered the unspoiled earth. I hoped that these were not the Edens that had been whispered of, for my soul knew they would execute me on sight.

So we moved on and on, and my clothes had nearly fallen away by the time we saw the first people. They appeared far in the distance, on a green expanse, and I felt Adesina hide herself. Over the next day, I spotted them again and again, moving closer, and I walked towards them, Adesina trailing invisibly behind. Finally, we met, and they approached me openly, easily and calmly — a group of four men. They carried long spears, and the tallest among them held a primitive gun. Their hair was matted and wild, their skin darkened by the sun, and they wore beards — all now true of me, as well.

When they were thirty feet away, they stopped, and then I stopped. There was something joyous about their manner, nothing of threat or anxiety.

“Hello,” the tallest one said. “Do you mean us harm?”

“None,” I replied. And I held out my naked palms.

“Then welcome.”

 The village was crude, but beautiful — buildings of wood and stone, touching the earth, full of children. It was surrounded by lush farmland, and I adapted quickly to tending the plants, mending tools, digging trenches to carry water from streams and wells into the rows. Some of the people had childhood memories of the city, but most had been born in this place. They listened to my descriptions of life in that tangle of metal and electricity with rapt horror.

Adesina disappeared after I went with the men — but I knew she hadn’t gone far. A week after I arrived, as I tentatively explored the forest near the village, she quietly emerged from the shadow of a massive tree to meet me. She was larger still, now — her shoulders as high as mine, her body ten feet long, her ear-tufts brushing the lower branches. But she lowered her head, and I rubbed between her eyes, and she butted me in the chest playfully. Then she sat, looking down on me, her eyes more gentle and sad than I had ever seen.

We continued to meet there, in the woods, but she never showed herself to the villagers, and I never spoke of her. So we lived separately for those months, and I imagined her joyful life in the wild as I reveled in the warmth of the village. Extreme Recoveries, the falling ships, Rollins and all he stood for, seemed like distant things. Nothing but stories. I spent my nights welcomed in the modest huts of my new family, nestling into my new life.

I had been the first arrival from the city in half a generation — but suddenly, more began to come. First two, then five, then ten. The village took them in as they had me, and like me, they rejoiced in the place, and there was no strife.

But these new arrivals also shared stories explaining their exodus, huddled around fires like the primitives of the deep past.

“All the same. No motive, no suspect, just piles of gore, heads severed. High up or low down, doesn’t matter a bit,” said an old woman, a miracle she’d made it out.

“They found my son, in the play yard, he was …” The young mother couldn’t finish.

“I walked into the garden, he had just been out to tend the tomatoes. He loved a fresh tomato.” I loathed the widowed heiress, even as I pitied her.

Blood dried into ribbons across the streets, unnumbered thousands cut down.

“Even on the elite pipes, we pay good money for information, and they gave us nothing — NOTHING.” The businessman, in the soiled remnants of the suit he had worn in his rush to flee, was indignant and terrified. “Dark shapes, they say. Huge but unseen. The ramblings of a bunch of lower-level drunks,” he huffed. Then, remembering himself, he apologized with his wounded eyes.

I wondered if his world was more shattered than mine.

“It isn’t the murders,” said a preternaturally calm young man, the fire glinting against his cracked spectacles. “A thousand deaths, ten thousand — who would notice? The problem is the unknown. The paranoia. Panic is starting to set in. Streetcorner doomsayers. New cults, dark prophecies. Hate groups, blaming the gays, blaming the blacks …” And he trailed off, looking at me, as if this would surprise me in the least.

Again my mind dredged up the sick woman, with her madness and her medical tag, and Adesina’s furious twin. Yet I refused to understand. I see that now, and I blame myself — but what could I have done?

So I continued to farm, began to think of the rest of my life out there in beauty, let the city and its problems devolve to someone else. I built a hut of my own, a crude thing of mud and thatch, at the edge of the woods.

Still Adesina came to me when I went into the trees, and lowered her head, and sometimes we even wrestled, and she was gentle and joyful. She seemed to sense when I was alone in my hut, and some nights she wriggled through the door, and lay next to me as we once had — but now she cradled me on her rising and falling chest. I had never slept so well.

Then the final new arrival came. He stumbled across the grasslands, just as all the others had — and I carried a spear as we went to meet him. He looked at me, and looked at the others with me, and I saw in his wide eyes wonder, fear, disbelief, suspicion, hope. It was Rollins, the edges of his face softer, the angle of his body opened. I felt a tiny curl of the past rise in my chest, but said nothing as we took him back. All that was over now.

He also said nothing, did not nod or wink or smile. He only spoke of the city, lost, toppled, burning. It was not the descents, no — the cults had risen, fear had taken hold, chaos reigned. Refugees had fled in every direction, he said, more bloodshed as the remnants of the police and army tried to stop them, penning them in the cities ‘for their own protection.’ When we retired that night, I was worried no more or less than the rest of the villagers.

The next morning, he was at the door of my hut, polite and still. I didn’t let him in, because Adesina was inside, breathing deeply, curled against the length of two walls. But we sat in the grass, and he asked me about my life here. I told him I was happier than I had ever been, and the sadness that washed over him, the sudden tenderness of him, surprised me.

But suddenly the past came back to me, in the form of paranoia. “How …  how did you come here? Of all the directions to flee, how did you choose this one?”

“Oh, you know,” he said, “Just street rumors.” He gave a forced laugh, and something flared red within me.

“I have to ask you something, too.” He plucked at the grass with a wonder only barely overshadowed by some other darkness.

“Go ahead,” I replied, old caution suddenly remembered.

“You found one, didn’t you? One of the eggs.”

He watched my face. After years of control, of yes sirs, of the mask — in that moment, when I needed it most, my face betrayed me.

He looked back down. “I’m sorry we couldn’t be friends, Nixon. I tried. But I tried wrong, I know that now.” He paused for another moment, looking up at the clear morning sun.

“I really hoped we could be friends. But they didn’t give me any choice.”

And then I saw them — a dozen men in blue jumpsuits, carrying heavy packs, hefting black guns, flanked by robots crawling on six legs. They appeared over a gentle rise, as if from nowhere.

Rollins stood. From somewhere, he pulled a pistol and trained it on me. His hand shook.

“They told me you have one of the … the creatures that’s doing this,” said Rollins, his eyes weirdly distant, his voice taut and fearful. “They have to be stopped. You left before they made their move — you’re a sharp one, I always knew that.”

Two soldiers seized me from behind, and two others advanced on my hut, hunched as turtles, large guns held before them like holy relics.

My knees were weak. “Rollins … Rollins, what have you done?” Of course, I knew the answer. But I had nothing else to say.

Adesina rocketed from the door of the hut, and there was only one tiny, pitiful pop before the advancing men lay dead, obscenely mauled. The soldiers holding me dropped my arms and scrambled for weapons.

She moved like water, like smoke. She crushed one of their heads in her jaws, the metal of his helmet plinking with a hundred diamond punctures. I heard a horrendous sound, like a wet mattress tearing, and felt a spray. I looked, and saw Rollins holding his spewing guts as if cradling a baby. Adesina flowed sinuously towards the woods.

As Rollins lay down to bleed to death, I saw more shapes moving in the woods — and in the village. The soldiers raised their guns, trained them on my daughter, my love — and the villagers rushed the soldiers. In moments, dozens lay dead or dying. But I saw Adesina’s shadow move smoothly into the trees.

Rollins was whispering something through bubbling blood. “There are hundreds of them … thousands.” He coughed and shuddered. “Help. Find them. Save us.” And then he died.

Then came the firestorm. Over the next few days I saw more and more of Adesina’s kin, if that was the right word. Black monsters, roaming freely now — all of them identically long and clawed and tufted. Impossibly identical. Such uniformity could not even be engineered, by any means I’d ever heard of. The environment had too much impact on a growing creature; even clones wound up slightly different.

But not these. Identical in form, and in function. Fighting the soldiers, fighting the villagers — though fighting wasn’t the right word. Killing everything. The robots, the armor, the machine guns were useless.

Then came thundering choppers, hovering as they spewed lasers at the Drexal — but again and again, I saw the great beasts unleash their unnatural roars into the sky, saw the craft judder and slide to the ground.

Then came the jets and bombers, and when each missile or explosive whistled its descent, their targets fled into the trees faster than the wind, leaving the bombs to destroy only the land, to kill more and more of the survivors.

In all of this, some of the creatures were harmed — but not many.

I watched as the battle decimated the village, and watched the flashes of other battles, across the plains, on the flanks of the distant mountains. I knew I could do nothing to save my new family. Even the ups, in their mountainside playgrounds, would barely outlast the cities. But Adesina endured, appearing, covered in gore and radiating violence, to stop every threat that neared my hut.

Her protectiveness remained — but her affection was gone. And that is the truth of the Drexal. They found us in our deepest need — a need that was everywhere. They found homes, they found love — real love, I still choose to believe. The Drexal (I will never know where the name came from, whether the ramblings of a madwoman, or some secret singular connection to its source) did not know what plan they were a part of. Their lives, for them, were not stratagems or affectations — they loved, and were loved, in the way they had been made. This, I still choose to believe.

But the Drexal’s love was destined to take on the enraged and defensive character of our own selfish regard. To feed terror with passion. When the time came, they showed their love in the way our world had taught them. They settled scores. They cleared ledgers. They protected — with a determination that was final.

This was how they were made. And how we made them.

So I sit to write this, as death mounts ever higher. I sit, and I wait, in this village, desolated like villages and hovels and secret resorts and burning cities across a world bigger and more beautiful than I had ever imagined.

I am alone now, save for Adesina. All I see of the final few beloved are the Drexal that roam on their behalf. They rage against each other, too — though always to a stalemate. Adesina comes back to me wounded, slinking, and with the last of each day’s strength she fetches some new corpse — beasts, men, women, children. Unloved. I cannot scold her, I cannot stop her — she is fifteen feet long, and must weigh nearly five thousand pounds.

And I am hungry beyond reason, so with a heart full of horror, I eat what she brings me, and nestle in her blood-drenched fur.

I wait eagerly for those who gave us these gifts. Not because I long for an end — but because I long to know the shape of what we’ve invited.

What will the ships be like? The real ships — not the shattered eggs that ferried the hidden Drexal to the surface, but the chariots of their masters? Will they glitter fearsomely, as they descend onto this forsaken planet? Will they be black and unreflecting? Will they open to reveal something with limbs, and heads, and eyes? Or will there be something more terrible, something shapeless, or spaceless — something unlovable, twisting out of lost dimensions to take its prize?

Will we even know them when they come? Perhaps they are already here. Perhaps they are nothing but the return of this darkness to my heart.

Adesina, my dearest, our love has burned a path.

Let the bastards have what’s left.

Your thoughts?

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