Damien had discovered the marsh after their last Move.
A portion of his school’s portable fence had been damaged during the long trek from west to east: during recess, he and his friends could now wiggle between crooked wires and flump onto the soil beyond the playground turf. Mrs. Zemukil never noticed them sneak away. She was usually yelling at Timby Jenkins for some shenanigan or the other. Right now, Timby was near the shiny new playset, selling cups of his own color-dyed piss to classmates.
Mrs. Zemukil’s shrieks faded as Damien and his friends crept through the weeds around the school’s storage shed, giggling. The great marsh glimmered behind it, oozing with promise: it was here they always found all sorts of new bugs and spiders squirming beneath the mud.
“Okay, we’ve only got half an arcsec!” Damien told his friends when they reached the edge. They thudded to their hands and knees. Mud spattered their pants, but that was okay; last time Mrs. Zemukil had asked where all the filth came from, Timby Jenkins had asked her where all her filth came from, and Mrs. Zemukil had been quiet about the mud ever since. Damien didn’t like Timby Jenkins and his pranks much, but bless that boy’s heart for saving him and his friends from recess ban. “Whoever finds the biggest one gets to have everyone else’s cookie at lunch!” he added, because when sweets were the motivation, they usually found a monster.
The boys all got to work, punching fists through the mud in their search for alien critters. Damien glanced at the sun lodged low in the eastern sky. It was, the clocks read, about twelve degrees from the horizon. Mom said they’d have to Move again soon, when the sun sank two degrees lower and the bells started clanging, but he would be sad to leave the marsh behind. They’d been learning about the planet’s rotation in school; if only the Aro spun the other way—if only the sun rose in the east and set in the west like it did for other planets—the days and nights wouldn’t last so long. They might be able to survive the night, to Stay, and he’d be able to play at the marsh’s edge forever.
But as it was, the night was endlessly dangerous. The night would kill them.
He slid his fingers beneath a thick carpet of moss, trying to locate anything other than slimy sludge. Nothing. The marsh smelled like spoiled eggs, and the same old gnats hovered above its surface. The clattering sound of his classmates playing and screaming wafted over the storage shed, and the sun’s lingering warmth bathed his back. The boy kept digging, found a few familiar flopping worms. Then, after a quarter arcsec had passed, he felt a sharp pinch on his fingertip. He withdrew a hand dripping with muck and blood.
“Hey, check it out!” he hollered.
His friends came sloshing over. He showed them his finger, and soon they were all tunneling with sticks and rocks until they excavated the beast: a caterpillar-like beetle with pincers lining its back and a single, bulging yellow eye. As they passed it from palm to muddy palm, the beetle’s pincers clamped furiously. Its eyeball began oozing a sour green pus.
“It looks like a deformed penis.”
“Let me hold it!”
Damien opened his mouth to announce what he was going to name his discovery, but his mouth stayed hinged open. No sound came out. The creature fell between his fingertips and squirmed back into the mud.
His skin tingled. Goosebumps frosted his neck.
I’m having a reaction to the bite, Damien managed to think, staring wide-eyed at his friends. In the distance, the school chimes clamored. Half an arcsec had passed, but he couldn’t move. The tingles scuttled up his body.
“Damien, we’ve got to go,” he heard dimly. Slimed hands clamped around his wrists, tugging him away from the marsh. But the tingles were telling him something now, planting words into his head—not like a voice, but like thoughts, like he was talking to himself.
Go west, where the sun rises every sixty years. We need you in the west, Damien. It will not be scary. You will only be going back the way you and your community came.
His friends were shouting now, shaking his shoulders, but the boy merely repeated it to himself, tasting truth in the words:
I’ll go west, where the sun rises every sixty years. They need me in the west. It will not be scary. I’ll only be going back to where I came from. The tingles cocooned him, swaddling him in armor made of goosebumps and strange, brilliant new ideas.
I’ll go west, where the sun rises. They need me. Not scary. I’ll be going back.
Ignoring his friends, the boy shook off their grips and drifted toward the marsh. Going west would be easy. He wouldn’t have to squint at the sun. He was headed toward the purple part of sky, where darkness crouched and would welcome him with twilight arms. And they were there, the creatures who wanted to tell him something.
“Damien!” his friends wailed behind him.
He felt himself trudge toward the bank, his shoes squelching and sinking deep into mud. He threw himself into the marsh, where he treaded thick water, leech-like plants clinging to his skin. There were many things beneath the mottled green surface, bugs he and his friends hadn’t dared to discover. He felt them bite his legs and fasten onto his arms, but the pinpricks were only an echo of pain, as if they were happening to someone else, not him.
When Damien finally kicked and clawed his way to the other end of the marsh and crawled up the bank, his body was covered in sucker slugs that had attached themselves to his neck and blood fish that dangled from his elbows.
West. Sun rises. Need me. Scary. Going back.
His friends’ shouts were distant now. The school chimes had stopped. Damien left the marsh and his classmates behind, stumbling toward the foothills beyond the community limits, where swaying grass rose high above his head. He barreled into the grasses, away from the sun, toward the darkness that whispered his name.
“Damien Fertheli. Ten years old.”
Joah Cadshaw read his notes as he weaved between vendors and whisked down an unnamed dirt street between trailer houses. “Mother: Lupita Fertheli. Father: N/A. Trailer Three-Five-One in the Dirt Slums. Three-Five-One, c’mon, where are you?”
Joah hated the goddamned road developers. They never assigned street names for the smallest trailers at the end of a Move. No, the poor could just clump together in one big marked territory and bicker about which pot to piss in. Joah had been summoned to break up a fight more often than the ice moon rose and fell in the sky.
The trailer numbers weren’t in order, either. Joah passed numbers five, four-fifteen, sixty-three… People sat on their portable wood steps watching him through the holes in their sunhats. A few children raced down the rows, hitting an old aluminum can with crooked sticks. One of the kids was naked. A nasty rash had turned his left butt cheek into a bloodberry patch.
“You need something, Mister?” a voice rasped.
Joah looked up, but didn’t locate the source of the noise until an old woman banged a saucepan against her wood window-frame. The woman’s wrinkled face poked between two flaps of blanket nailed to the outside of her trailer.
“Yes, actually.” The sun was half-concealed behind her house, but even at twelve degrees, it still made him squint. When they’d finally stopped Moving to set up camp here a little more than a year ago, it had been at a twenty-two-degree angle in the sky: fierce and hot and blinding. Joah had always shuddered to imagine ninety degrees, when the sun would blaze directly overhead. “Do you know where Lupita Fertheli lives?” he asked the woman. “Her son, Damien, went missing about seven moon cycles ago.”
“Ah, yes, Lupita.” The woman jabbed a thumb to her left. “Just keep walking till you get to the trailer surrounded by rocks—Jarold Hansen likes to mark his shithole with pebbles, it seems—and then make a right. Lupita’s is the one with all the mud holes in front.” She paused. Scratched her crinkled forehead. “Damien liked to dig.”
Joah strode on, trying not to catch all the eyes staring at him. When he found the mobile home surrounded by holes, he paused. Damien Fertheli had apparently liked to dig until the ground resembled cavitied cheese. Besides the demolished land, though, Lupita’s house was nothing remarkable: shabby, stained white trailer, its wheels sunk in mud, sheets for curtains.
The door opened. A woman flew down the steps, her hair in frazzled knots.
“Oh, thank God you’re here! Why’d it take them so long to send someone? You’re Detective Cadshaw, right? Come in, come in, please.”
The woman took him by the hand and tugged him up the steps, into the dim interior of her home. Joah wiped his hands on his pants when she released him—her fingers had been gloved with cold sweat—but Lupita Fertheli didn’t notice; she was too busy fussing over the fire stove, trying to pour him a cup of tea with shaky hands.
“Mrs. Fertheli, it’s okay. I’m not thirsty. Please just sit down.”
“Okay. Yeah, okay.”
They sat at the cramped table, facing each other. Joah brushed aside some crumbs and slapped down his notes, but before he could start, Lupita spoke through a plugged nose.
“Y-you look familiar, Detective. Have I seen you before?”
“No,” Joah said automatically, but he felt a chill despite the stuffiness of the trailer. This woman probably had seen him before. In the newspaper headlines. Or maybe she had been in the crowd lining the High Road during the incident itself. But that had been years ago, before the last Move, too long ago for strangers to remember the details.
When Lupita nodded absentmindedly, Joah cleared his throat, whipped out his pen, and looked down at his notes.
“Okay, I have here that your son, Damien, never came inside from recess seven cycles ago. He was playing with friends off school grounds. All his friends returned to the school saying that he’d wandered off without them.”
“Yes, yes.” Lupita tugged at a hangnail with her teeth. Her eyes were puffy, like half-moons hiding behind swollen pink clouds. “That’s what Rayna Zemukil said, anyway. I never got to talk to Damien’s friends. Apparently, they were all upset and wanted to go home. But look, I know Damien wouldn’t just… wander off. I—I think maybe the N—”
“Do you remember what Damien was wearing, Mrs. Fertheli?” Joah said, cutting her off.
He knew what she had been about to say. At the word Nocturnal, his blood always seemed to freeze beneath his skin. Parents always wanted to blame their runaways on the Nocturnals, but the Nocturnals only chose one victim a year, and it was never a child.
Lupita didn’t respond. She stared at him wide-eyed, and Joah saw his hunched silhouette reflected in her glassy pupils. Fresh tears shined them.
“What was Damien wearing, Mrs. Fertheli?” Joah repeated gently.
“I think it was—yes, it was his green shirt with the cat on it. He always wanted a cat. He loves how wild they are, but I—I always told him no. I shouldn’t have told him no.”
“It’s okay,” Joah said. He paused. “Can you give me the names of Damien’s friends?”
“Y-yes, sure. There’s Pedar Montrone. Cale Lyle. Sampson—I don’t remember his last name. I’m not sure Damien ever said. And then he always talked about Timby Jenkins. I don’t think they were actually friends, but maybe you could interview Timby too?”
“Timby Jenkins,” Joah repeated, jotting the name down in his notes. “Thank you, Mrs. Fertheli. Now, tell me—what’s Damien’s behavior been like lately? Has he been acting out—throwing tantrums or avoiding you? Showing any other signs of distress?”
“No.” Lupita blinked up at him. She grabbed the swaying tail of the sheet hanging from her window, pressed the cloth to her nostrils, and blew.
“Can you tell me about Damien’s father?” Joah said, trying to avoid looking at the crusted red bulge of her nose.
“No, I can’t.” Tears leaked from the swollen humps of Lupita’s eyes. “I can’t tell you about Damien’s father because this has nothing to do with his father. Damien wasn’t acting out. He was a happy boy. He’d never leave his friends or his school or me.”
“Lupita,” Joah started.
“No. Detective, I know you want to uncover some shit reason why my son ran away, but he didn’t run away. I’m telling you—just like I told Rayna Zemukil—I think the… I think they got him.” She lowered her voice to a nasal whisper. “The Nocturnals.”
“Listen, Lupita.” Goosebumps tickled Joah’s neck, but it was no longer an iciness that flooded the pit of his stomach; it was heat. An old anger. “The Nocturnals have never infected anybody younger than twenty. They wouldn’t have taken a child.”
“Says who?” Lupita whimpered. “I’m sorry, Detective, but what if they wanted to change their… their taste in victims? My baby might be stumbling around in the darkness as we—”
“Your baby is not,” Joah said through a carefully clenched jaw, “stumbling around in the darkness. We can crawl faster than the sun moves across the sky.”
“Exactly. My boy could have walked to the Eternal Night by now.”
“He can’t have walked to the Eternal Night,” Joah said, his voice rising, “because first, the Eternal Night doesn’t exist—a night lasts the same as a day, thirty years. It’s not eternal. Second, there’s twelve degrees between us and the first signs of darkness, which means your boy would have to walk more than a thousand kilometers just to reach sunset. I don’t know if you’ve ever been at zero degrees, Mrs. Fertheli, when the sun is sitting on the horizon—”
“Of course I haven’t,” whispered Lupita, pressing a palm against her heart.
“Imagine all those times the sun’s hidden behind a tree or a hill or something, then. Even when it’s sunset, there’s still light outside. Sure, pink and purple light, maybe strange light, but light. Which means even if the Nocturnals had infected your boy, he wouldn’t have reached the darkness by now, okay? He can’t have—”
But this time, it was not Lupita Fertheli who cut Joah off. This time, the sound that crashed over them was more piercing and terrible than a grieving mother’s pealing wail.
Both Joah and Mrs. Fertheli clapped hands over their ears. No, it couldn’t be. Joah checked his wristwatch. The hand hovered steadily at twelve degrees. He yelled at Lupita over the swelling noise of the bells.
“What’s your clock say?”
Lupita fumbled for a timepiece behind her and thunked it onto the table.
“Twelve degrees!” she screamed.
It was too early—two degrees too early—for the Moving bells to ring. The bells were only supposed to clang across the city when the sun had reached a ten-degree angle in the sky, when the first faint signs of pink laced the clouds; they still had about ninety moon cycles until that happened. Why the bells were ringing now…
“Excuse me, Mrs. Fertheli.”
Joah jumped up, bounded out the door, and raced down the nameless streets, pushing past streaking kids and shouting adults who had fled their trailers.
Three Moves ago, when they had set up base near an oil reserve, the warners had thrashed their bells through the open windows of moving vehicles. Now, however, the warners stampeded throughout the community on horseback, weaving between alleys with their brass bells held high above their heads.
“Pack your things!” one bellowed now, his voice hardly distinguishable over the clanging. He kicked his mare, who came trotting down the slum streets. Joah and the other onlookers stumbled back to avoid being trampled. “Check your wheels!” the warner called. “Time to Move! General Deckler’s orders! Pack your things!”
When the warner, his horse, and the cacophonous bell had rounded a corner, Joah hurtled his way out of the maze-like Dirt Slums and onto the edge of the black-tarred High Road.
He could think of only one man to go to for answers, a man he hadn’t spoken to since his own name had glowered on the front page of newspapers:
The leader of the community. Joah’s ex-boss.
General Aoif Deckler.
“Excuse me, sir, we’re not taking visitors at the moment.”
Joah stopped mid-stride to look at the secretary behind the office’s marble front desk—or, at least, the desk looked like marble, though it was speckled with gold. The miners must have found a new type of rock since they had settled here almost a year and a half ago. The secretary herself looked fairly new too.
“Look.” Joah turned back and leaned against the marble. The secretary’s cup of pens rattled as the bells continued wailing outside and footsteps stomped on the floor above their heads. “You can’t have been here long. I’m Joah Cadshaw. I used to work here. For General Deckler. I was a retriever.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” the secretary said, with a brave quiver of her chin, “but there’s only been one retriever who got relieved of duty in the last five years, and he’s not allowed here.”
“Yeah, I am,” Joah grunted.
He turned away from the secretary’s stutters, took the stairs two at a time—why Deckler insisted on stairs was beyond Joah; it had always made Moving a hell of a battle—and rounded the corner, to Deckler’s office.
Without pausing to knock, he hurled open the door and saw Aoif Deckler, with his white sideburns and boxy build, bent over a table, talking rapidly to a female assistant. They both turned to stare at him. The assistant’s eyes widened as she took in Joah’s panting figure.
“Joah,” Deckler said. His salt-white eyebrows raised for the tiniest second of surprise. Then, in typical Deckler style, he recovered from the shock and boomed, “Get over here, Joah, we need you! Thank God you’re here. I was trying to find someone to go with Crane.”
“Why the hell are the bells ringing, Deckler?”
Joah hurried to the table, which was strewn with various maps and documents. Deckler’s office was a mess. His desk had been rammed against the table to increase surface space, papers littered the carpet, and all the awards and certificates usually pinned to his wall had been crudely taken down, so that empty nails spotted the plaster. Only one poster still hung above a filing cabinet, but Joah didn’t want to look at the hunched, many-eyed drawing of a Nocturnal.
“What is it, Deckler?” Joah asked, moving closer.
“Look.” Deckler thrust a thick finger at the map that he and his assistant had been poring over. “The scouts came back just an arcsec ago. Brought bad fucking news. The High Road has been destroyed. Must’ve been a quake. There’s a deep fissure in Aro’s ground, about seven meters wide and two kilometers deep. Cracked the High Road in two. Maybe the retrievers’ crew could cross it with the right equipment, but our whole community? Forget it.”
Joah peered at the map, where new red ink marked the fissure the scouts had found.
The High Road, which Joah’s community had been taking for decades, and which his ancestors had used the last time they had set foot on this continent, was dotted by fading black, showing the endless trek from west to east. They had been about to reach the Green Sea, a vast body of water Joah had only heard stories about, but the red ink sliced across the familiar dotted line, blocking their path.
Joah traced the fissure with his finger.
“Looks like it runs, what, five thousand kilometers north?” he asked.
Peculiarly, he didn’t feel the panic that Aoif Deckler seemed to feel. An iron sense of calm had sunk deep into his stomach. Ever since he had been relieved of his retrieving duties, he’d hated how the world kept its sickly slow spin and the people around him kept their plastered smiles, as if everything were okay, despite what had happened to him.
Now here at last was proof that something was wrong.
That the world was breaking apart.
“Yes, five thousand kilometers north,” Deckler said. “That’s how far the scouts went, anyway, but they said the fissure kept going. And it runs about a thousand kilometers south. Then the fissure tilts southeast and finally—right here—eastward.” He pointed at the curve of the red ink, which was like the graceful arc of a bowl.
Elegant, for a quake’s doing, Joah thought.
Deckler massaged the bridge of his crooked nose.
“At the rate we travel as a group—twelve measly kilometers a moon cycle—we won’t make it to the sea in time. We’re running out of working vehicles, not to mention fuel. The horses aren’t breeding fast enough. Even if we head south right now—which we’re going to, that’s why the bells are ringing—the sun’ll go down before we make it to the end of the fissure.”
Joah said nothing. Maybe Lupita Fertheli will get to experience sunset after all, he thought.
“We won’t have time to backtrack and continue taking the High Road,” Deckler continued. “We’ll have to keep going east into uncharted territory. At least, we’ll have to if we don’t want to get swallowed by the Eternal Fucking Night.”
Joah suppressed an urge to give his ex-boss the same lecture he had given Lupita.
“And then when we reach the sea,” Deckler sighed, “who’s to say we’ll have enough time to build ships? The Nocturnals might just find themselves a feast. C’mon, Joah. Why aren’t you saying anything? Say something or I’ll lose my goddamn mind.”
“Look,” Joah said obediently, “we’ll pick up the speed. Some people may need to abandon their things to lighten the load for the horses, or else we’ll travel in waves. The first wave can go on ahead, and the horses can come back for the second wave. Sunset won’t kill us. It’s a few cycles after sunset… that’s where… where they live. Trust me, I’d know,” he added.
“I know you know, Joah,” Deckler said. “Which is why I need you now. You working on any assignments for the law enforcement office?”
“Yeah, I’m searching for a missing kid. Never came in from recess. Why?”
“Forget the kid,” Deckler said.
Deckler glanced at his assistant, who Joah looked at properly for the first time. She was round-faced and pink with excitement. A silver pin gleamed on her uniform over her chest.
Ah, she was a recent graduate of the Retrieving Institute. Not an assistant.
“Look, Joah,” Deckler said, “I’ll tell your command that it’s an emergency and I need you. They’ll understand. Don’t argue,” he growled as Joah opened his mouth. “The kid’ll be found during the Move, mark my words. If he’s hiding in some alley, he’ll come to light when the buildings around him start rolling. If somebody’s got him, they won’t have him for long. You can’t keep a secret when you’re constantly Moving. Secrets only stay secret if they’re stagnant, and God knows our people can’t stay stagnant. He’ll be found.”
“I—what do you want me to do, then?” Joah asked stiffly. Behind Deckler’s blocky shoulder, the graduate was wide-eyed, leeching onto every word.
“You were the best retriever I had, Joah. Until the incident. You could find anyone within a thousand kilometers: miners who’d strayed too far, hunters trapped in a ravine, the Infected. Well, now we have hundreds of miners and hunters and gatherers who don’t know the bells are ringing early. I’ve sent out all my retrievers, every single one, to go find and warn them, but I don’t have enough. That’s why I’m sending her—” He jerked a thumb at the graduate “— but I need someone to go with her. Someone experienced. She doesn’t have a partner yet, see.”
“You want me to go retrieve people again,” Joah said, his stomach clenching.
“Yes. Joah, this is Misla Crane.” The graduate smiled at him again, bouncing on the balls of her feet. “Misla, you’re going to do everything he says, understand? I’m sending you two west. To track down the grahsm miners and oil scavengers. You remember that cylindrical tower we passed on the High Road? The one every damn man, woman, and child wanted to gawk at?”
“Yes, General,” Misla Crane said eagerly.
“Good. Should be some scavengers around there searching for oil in an old reserve nearby. They left on horseback, but I’m sending you two in one of our last iron steeds so you can get to them within a few cycles. Should be about seven degrees where they’re at, but they won’t be planning to leave till five degrees.” He surveyed them both with gray-eyed sharpness. “It’s your two’s job to tell those scavengers and miners they need to Move right now. You’ll stick together, and you’ll head back in ten cycles. Am I clear?”
Misla Crane nodded. When Deckler glared at him, Joah hesitated, grunted, and bowed his head, all too aware that he was leaving the case of Damien Fertheli behind.
“Perfect. Now get the hell out of my office,” Aoif Deckler said.
The noise of the early bells dimmed as Joah and Misla Crane drove away from the city in a boxy steed, its hooded back filled with duffels of clothes, canned food, blankets, weapons, and canteens of water. They took the High Road snaking through the foothills, where bugs buzzed and the grass occasionally rustled with some kind of scurrying animal.
Nobody knew how the High Road had originated, only that it had always been there, stretching from coast to coast, constantly repaired by those who used it: Joah’s people, who called themselves the Sunsetters, and the Sunrisers who migrated on the opposite side of the world and sometimes left words carved on stones to mark their passing. Occasionally, whenever they found a place to settle, they’d find squashed and crinkled cans littering the ground like community shit that wouldn’t disintegrate, and they’d know the Sunrisers had found this a good spot to Stay for a couple years too.
But there were rumors of others besides them and the Sunrisers. Others besides the Nocturnals, even. Growing up, Joah had heard stories of the Leather Skins, a people who could endure the scorch of ninety degrees, who roamed freely throughout the day as they pleased, their tough skin protecting them from the sun’s death rays.
Must be nice, Joah had thought as a boy, to live in midday. You wouldn’t have to Move as often. He’d wondered why his community of Sunsetters couldn’t just catch up with the Leather Skins, keep away from the dangers of night.
Joah’s granddad, a retired retriever, had answered this question by dropping a purple squash in their stove and allowing it to crisp. When he’d speared the burnt squash with a poker and offered it to Joah, he had said, “You got leather skin, boy? Or would you blister?”
Joah’s dreams about taking the High Road to midday had disintegrated. And now it seemed a portion of the High Road itself had disintegrated, severed by some unknown force.
“I wonder if the Nocturnals use this road,” Misla Crane said now, jolting Joah from his reveries. Somewhere in the dim caverns of his mind, he realized she’d been chatting the whole time. “I wonder if they have, like, a Road Repair Crew.” She laughed. “Or Traffic Control.”
“Mmmm,” Joah grunted.
There it was again, that word—Nocturnals. Better to focus on driving than let the word bind him to his old anger and the terror that simmered beneath it.
The iron steed bounced as its wheels cruised over rocks strewn across the road. It had been years since Joah had operated a vehicle, but his movements were mechanical. He was made for this kind of constant forward movement. If only the miners could find more fuel for the tanks, more steel and latex for vehicle repairs…
Misla Crane, shattering his thoughts again, made a second stab at conversation.
“I know I look old for a graduate. I’m twenty-six. But I used to live with someone who didn’t want me to be a retriever, so I had a late start.”
She smiled at him. Joah kept his eyes on the High Road, fingers curled tight around the steering wheel. The sound of the bells had been swallowed by chirps, buzzing, and the swishing of grasses in the wind. It didn’t help that Misla had rolled down her window, so that warm air channeled inside, thrashing their hair and stinging their eyes.
“Are you going to ask why I decided to become a retriever anyway?” Misla said after a stretch of silence. The sleeves of her uniform flapped in the wind and whipped her in the face.
“No,” Joah said.
“And why not?”
“I already know how the story’ll go.” Joah had made up his mind that it would be best to quiet her. He had no interest in entertaining strangers with polite chattering, especially if that snaking whisper of a word was going to be tossed into the conversation as casually as sugar cubes in tea. “You realized your ‘true worth’ or ‘full potential’ or something fantastically uplifting like that. Frankly, I don’t really care.”
This, apparently, wasn’t enough to quiet Misla Crane. As the High Road crested a hill and they rattled downward between patches of tall, swaying shrubs, she snorted with giggles.
“That was a good one, Detective Cadshaw. I get it. You want to play asshole.”
Joah tightened his grip on the steering wheel. He didn’t answer.
“Look,” she said, “Your cranky mask doesn’t frighten me, okay? I know you’re unhappy about doing this mission, because last time you came back from retrieving, your wife—”
“Stop,” Joah said.
“And I really am sorry about your wife.” Misla’s hair flapped backward as the wind gushed through her open window. “It was horrible, what happened to her. I was there when it happened, you know. In the crowd. I—”
“Stop it,” Joah said. His old anger flashed beneath his ribcage.
“But I bet you missed getting away, seeing the parts of the world we pass so quickly through,” Misla continued rapidly. “It’s part of the reason I—”
Joah roared. He rammed a foot on the brakes, and Misla Crane was finally quiet.
They had turned around a bend. A sea of white, like a blinding cloud, blocked the High Road before them, cutting across their path just like that vicious red slash on Deckler’s map. In the midst of the white, thousands of curled slices of orange glowered at them.
“Birds,” Joah grunted.
It was a horde of them, perched on the High Road and in the grasses surrounding them: skeletal, leathery, and blinding, it was as if their skin had been slapped by the moon. Their beaks were sharp and pale, but their eyes were like curved slits of sunset-orange.
“Well, there’s your Traffic Control, Crane,” Joah muttered.
“I’ve… I’ve seen these birds before,” Misla said, hushed. “Among the cotton trees at the edge of the forest. Right before we passed that tower General Deckler was talking about. They were picking at the cotton. For nests, I think.”
As they stared, one of the birds gave a crowing warble. Joah squinted at it. He hadn’t seen these creatures before, but he knew at once what they were doing in the grasslands: their homes, the cotton trees, had been drowned out by the thirty-year night.
The birds were Moving.
“Misla,” Joah said quietly, “roll up your window.”
“What?” She turned to look at him. He saw himself reflected in her pupils, and was momentarily distracted. But then his peripheral vision caught movement among the birds.
“Roll up your fucking wind—”
As if this were a signal, the birds on the High Road burst toward the vehicle like a white sea. More exploded from the shrubs, their leathery wings flapping like boat sails. Before Joah could so much as twitch, one had stuck its neck through Misla’s open window and begun tugging at her shirt with that pale, curved beak. Its wings thumped against the side of her door.
Joah punched his pedal to the steed’s floor and ripped through them. There was a dull series of thuds as the ones before them were pummeled, but then Misla was screaming. The bird clinging to her hadn’t let go; its wings flapped frantically as it tugged at her uniform, and now more birds were poking their necks through the window, screeching.
They wanted cotton.
“Your shirt. Just give them your shirt!” Joah said.
Misla shrieked as the bird ripped a strip of cloth from her body. One-handedly, Joah ripped off his own tunic and flung it into the abyss of snapping beaks, hoping it would satisfy them, but they only continued pecking at her, and now he was almost veering off the High Road.
He jerked the wheel back. Left and right, those curved beaks rammed into the glass, causing pebble-sized chips in the windows. A sudden violent crack in the windshield obscured Joah’s vision, and he swerved to narrowly avoid a crooked tree bowing over the High Road. Misla panted, practically playing tug-of-war with her shirt now. One of the birds had ripped it until it resembled a frayed blanket, but she hugged a sleeve to her bare chest.
“Let go,” Joah hissed. “Let go, dammit.”
“No, no, no,” she said, gritting her teeth.
Cursing, Joah reached across her lap and helped jerk her arm back inside. He twisted her window crank until the glass slid to a close. The birds were dispersing now, many having been bashed by the steed’s steel mouth, others flapping out of harm’s way, unable to keep up.
Misla sat back, panting. All that remained of her shirt was a tattered slip of fabric draped around her left shoulder. Her neck and arms had been pierced in various places, the bleeding cuts like oozing half-smiles, but Joah’s gaze was inadvertently drawn to her chest: right beneath the underwire of her torn bra, a burn scar as big as a dinner plate marred her skin. It was a raw, flaring pink, bumpy and textured with lines like veins.
“Go ahead, keep staring,” Misla muttered, crossing her arms over her breasts and looking out the window as the last of the birds gave a final squawk and fell behind. “You’re the first one to see it. I hope you feel honored.”
Joah forced himself to focus on the twisting road before him as they bounced over rocks, his cheeks warm with the guilt of looking at something she had so obviously tried to hide. He wanted to tell her to put some antiseptic on the fresh cuts, but his words got tangled on the way out of his mouth.
“What happened?” he asked quietly, fully expecting her not to answer.
She surprised him, wiping her tears with her remaining slice of sleeve.
“When I left my partner a few years ago, he—he didn’t want me to leave.”
“Didn’t want you to…”
“Leave, yes. He threw a lantern at me. It shattered and… well, you can see what it did.”
Lantern. The word was vaguely familiar. Joah imagined orange, sparkling glass.
Misla smiled weakly.
“It’s what the miners invented to see underground, where the sunlight can’t reach. He—my ex’s dad had been one. A mineworker. My ex, he liked to remember his dad by nailing these thick black blankets over all his windows to keep the house dark. Like a cave. He lit candles and oil lamps for light. He taught me how to make fire out of friction and a whisper. But then I decided to leave, and—well, he decided to use his light against me.”
Joah felt his jaw pop. He was suddenly glad, for the first time since joining, that he worked for the law enforcement office instead of the retrieving unit now.
“What’s his name?” he said immediately. “I can turn him in when we get back. Unless—did you already tell someone? Is he in jail? If not, Crane, I can put him there.”
But Misla just smiled. As they bounced over a rut, she covered her chest with her hands, smearing blood on the top of her chest. “I think it’s a little too late for that. But thank you.”
Joah swallowed thickly. He had the rest of this mission to convince Misla to report her abuser. For now, she needed bandages to stop the bleeding.
“There’s a red case in the back,” he said, eyes flickering toward the cuts on her arms and hands. “You’ll find some tape and antiseptic cream in there. And take a couple of those green capsules while you’re at it. It’ll relieve the pain.”
“I don’t need—” Misla began.
“Now, Crane,” Joah growled. “Deckler told you to do everything I say. Find a couple of new shirts for both of us while you’re at it too. I packed some in my duffel.”
She relented and turned, rummaging in the back. As the ravine to their right sunk lower, however, and the hills to their left became steeper, a flash of green caught Joah’s eye. It was brighter than the deadening grass around them, a color he recognized as the exact shade of green the community seamstresses had collected from hillside plants and made into dye in the last year.
He slowed. Parked the steed. There were no signs of the cotton birds. Still, he peered in all his mirrors, ignoring Misla’s inquisitive, flushed face, before hopping out and crunching over to what lay like an alien lizard in the dirt, the air stale and brittle against his bare back.
It was part of a ripped shirt, ripped like Misla’s had been. It showcased the left side of a cat’s slender yellow face. The spray of loose yellow threads was like drooping whiskers.
A green shirt with a cat on it.
His chest hammering, Joah bent and rubbed the fabric between his fingers. He looked around, but there was no sign of the boy who had once worn it—no sign of the boy who must have wandered this far west, who must have been ambushed by the same cotton birds they had. The last remnants of grass patches surrounding them were still.
Joah stood, clutching the shirt. The ice moon was mounting Aro’s sky, reflecting UV rays with such intensity that the back of his head pounded. They would have to stop and sleep for a dozen arcsecs until the moon fell again, but as he returned to the steed and told Misla to prepare the beds, Joah had never felt less tired.
Lupita had been right. The Nocturnals had, for the first time ever, infected a child.
Numb, he let Misla take the half-shirt from him to examine it. Despite her earlier chatter, she didn’t ask him why he had stopped to pick up a strip of kidnapped cotton. She only turned the fabric over and over. Her fingernails traced the cat’s canines etched with white thread.
The Nocturnals have infected a child. The Nocturnals have infected a damned child.
Which meant Joah wasn’t leaving the case of Damien Fertheli behind at all. He and Misla Crane were following the boy toward what everyone called the Eternal Night.
And they would, Joah promised himself, find him.