In the night, the creatures stirred. They paused, scenting me, but I was still and so they carried on, as if I were not there. Little scuttling movements across the floor, little squeaks, little slithers… little moments of life above me, below me, and around me.
Little deaths, bright against the darkness.
It had been a while since I had felt that. There were no small scuttling creatures in the walls of the town. No small whiskered beings in the pantry. Mother, I thought wryly, must be blissful in their absence.
Some technology, I decided, of the grey ones. Or perhaps a foreboding by the small creatures, some recognition of a predatory species in residence. Something, I thought, I perhaps should have heeded.
I slept, eventually, lulled by the ebb and flow of tiny beings around me, and the drum of rain on the roof.
They delivered food in the morning, leaving it on the porch. I heard their heavy footfalls on wood fragile with age, the creak of it beneath their armoured weight.
If I had any doubt that they knew my location, the delivery answered it.
But they did not come in, knock or call out. They delivered, and retreated, leaving me alone.
I lay, in my blanket, and watched the shadows crawl across the room. There was a leak in the ceiling, and the steady drip of water into the room suited my temperament.
In the evening, they took the food away, and replaced it with something new.
The smell drew the rodents from the roof, and the rodents drew the snakes from the overgrown garden. The tussle over the food turned into a fight for life, and I watched, a spectator. A strike, and death, a swallow, and a fat sated snake, chiming china as he pushed past it.
I closed my eyes and wondered if it were as cold, travelling through space, as it was in this house, this room, this moment.
On the third day, they fixed the roof. I listened to the voices, the footfalls, the sound of the repairs echoing down into the silence of the empty house… They did not come in.
I woke during the night, to light as bright as daylight, and the sound of water pouring. They had done something to activate the old technology, restoring light and water to a house long without. I staggered through the rooms, blinded, seeking the source of the water – a bathroom tap. I turned it to off but did not know how to deactivate the lights, so I cocooned myself in my blanket, using it to return my world to darkness....
On the fifth day, I woke to find the female grey one who had taken me to see my parents sitting on the chair across from my couch, frowning at me. “This is not productive,” she said, with a hint of reprimand. “What do you seek to achieve?”
“Quiet, and peace, for a time?” I replied.
“You are not eating, you are not bathing,” she wrinkled her nose. “Nearly every light in the house is on, in daylight, whilst you’re sleeping. Do you think your one would like to hear that you have wasted away pining for him?”
“I am not pining, nor wasting away,” I replied. “I am… resting.”
“Odd way to rest,” she stood up. “Your people ask for you. You should go see them and be seen.”
“No, thank you,” I looked away.
“Have a shower,” she said and left.
There were fresh clothes on the chair where she had been. After a while, I took them, and went to the bathroom. I wept as the water beat down on me, soothing me with its warmth, and carrying away my tears as if they had never been. It seemed there was much to weep for, many of them nameless for all their weight upon me.
I cleaned the room that I had been using, wiping away dust, sweeping the floors clean of debris. And I ate a little of what had been left to me that morning.
I touched Lark’s pack - it seemed to carry a little of her energy with it, and that energy was mad. I put it away, inside a cupboard. Eris’ pack… I put it in with Lark’s – she’d like it that way, I thought snidely. I took the book from my pack, unwrapped it from its bindings, and opened it to a random page:
’There is word of war, of soldiers, and guns. Riots in the cities.
The Network does not show these things, but the reporters look tense, and tired, and their reports are thin of news as if they are not saying more than there is to say.
There are shortages in the markets, and people are panic buying essentials, afraid that shortages will increase, and they will have to go without.
My aunt has begun moving more things to the bunker, food, water purifier cartridges, medicine.
Each trip is dangerous, the reserves are reserves for a reason - we are not meant to go there. If she is caught, what excuse can she give for what she does?
I fear for my parents. They look tired in their VMs, and there is much they cannot say because the redaction application is very strict, phasing out anything that could be interpreted as negative, or related to Abnormals. Anything of substance that the corporations do not wish us to speak about.
I am afraid.’
I closed my eyes and tried to imagine where Thorn was and what he did.
“I am afraid too,” I whispered aloud to my ancestor.
In the night, with the house brightly lit behind me, I went outside, to breathe the fresh air. It was raining. It seemed to have rained consistently since he had gone. I had listened to it striking the roof for ever, it seemed. But then, we were well into Autumn, and Winter was hard on its heels.
I thought of the farm, and the people there, and wondered how they fared.
There was movement in the garden. A shadowy form, gossamer on the night air, more memory than substance. A shade, an old, old shade. I stepped out into the garden, long overgrown, and walked behind it, intrigued. Sometimes shades lingered, where they had died, like their death had left an impression on the location, and replayed their last moments, again and again. I was used to seeing my grandparents, in the room my parents now shared, going about their last morning as a couple, together… this was not new to me.
Hidden in the grass and soil in the riverbank, I came across the skull. I could see it here, those last actions: a rope, a branch, a step into forever…
I dug the bones up with my fingers, long bones of legs and arm, little finger bones and toe bones, curving bone of rib… long disconnected by time, more lost than remained. I carried what I found back into the garden and laid them out upon the grasses there.
“Who was this?” The female grey one was on my porch, sitting on the steps, and eating an apple.
“A woman, from a time long ago,” I said. I was crying. “Alone, and lonely. Child and husband lost, shunned by the villagers for what she could do, for her power… growing every day more alone… until she took a rope, and hung herself down by the river. And no one knew, no one wondered, no one came to look and find her bones… She has lain there, ever since…”
“She’ll need a proper resting space, then,” the woman stood. “I will find something to dig with.”
And she did, an ancient shovel head, which she affixed to a new branch using a device from her pocket. She began to dig a grave. “You bury your dead?” I asked her.
“Sometimes,” she replied. She had laid aside the jacket of her armour, and worked in the fine, soft black body forming cloth they all seemed to wear below it. Her brow sweaty, and her hair straying from its braids. “Sometimes they are burnt, sometimes sent into space… it depends on the person.”
“Why don’t you use your names?” I said. “How is it that you can ask for a person, or after one, when you do not use names?”
“We use names,” she replied. “There are different ones, for different situations. Only your parents and your most trusted know your birth name. There is something friends call you, and something for work… something for your enemies… The idea is not to attach all the power to one name. Names are powerful – they hold your reputation, and they follow you through your life. Names,” she looked at me, “have meaning. Do you know this one’s name?” she asked me.
I hadn’t realised I did, until she asked me, and there it was, on the tip of my tongue. “Elizabeth, Libby her husband called her. Elizabeth Virginia Clay.”
“I will write it on a marker for her,” the grey one decided. “It is right that your birth name mark your grave. It is the name you came in with, it is the name you go out with.”
We found a flattish stone, and she drew out the device again, using it to burn the stone, carving the name in molten deep, in her language. We laid it at the head of the grave and stood back to review our work. “Do you still see it, the shade?” she asked me.
“No, it is gone now,” I said.
“Then, this is good work,” she said to me. “We will wash up, and you will share your meal, which I brought to you. It will be cold, but that will be fine, too.”
As we sat on the steps, the meal she had brought between us, the frogs chirping in the garden, and the snakes and rats watching with sharp eyes, I regarded her. “Are you a Seeker?” I asked her.
She looked at me with eyes like topaz. “You know the name,” she replied. “I assume your one told it to you.”
“Not my one,” I said, “but the… the leader.”
“Ah,” she nodded. “And what do you know of Seekers?”
“That you know when other people have powers.”
“Yes, but not so… so simply,” she dipped her bread into my broth. “Sometimes your language is so limiting. It is so similar, and so different at once. Finding the right words, can sometimes be difficult. Seekers can see the power, but without the detail as to what it is. Sometimes we must observe for a time, Seekers observe, more than anything.”
“You knew that I saw the… shade. If you knew, then another Seeker would also know?” I asked.
“I do not see, what you see,” she clarified. “Perhaps, in the past, that was a Seeker ability, but it is not now. Now I see that you see something and you’re clutching a bunch of bones, and if I know enough, have experience enough, I can speculate as to what it is therefore that you are seeing. Yours is an unusual ability. We call them Justices,” she said.
“Why Justices?” I asked her.
“Justices speak for the Dead,” she replied, regarding me unblinking. “They give them a voice, and justice.”
“Does every shade I see, need something from me?” I asked her. “I have seen so many and done nothing for them.”
She stood and picked up the tray. “You will do better, now.”
In the morning, we ate on the porch again. “You make things grow,” she said, placing the cutlery neatly on the tray, ready to return it to the town and whoever it was that prepared our food. “That much the one you call the leader has told me of.”
“Yes, I do that,” I agreed. “Is that what Justices do?”
“Not to my knowledge,” she considered me. “But then, this is a new world, and your powers do not directly mimic ours. So, make things grow in this garden. There are plants here, amongst the weeds. Can you find them? Kill the weeds, and make the plants grow?”
“Why?” I asked. “What is the point?”
“The point is that it is a better use of your time, than what you have been doing,” she replied evenly.
I sighed. “You remind me of my mother,” I told her. “What you are asking for will take a very long time. If you wanted it all to grow - easy. But to be selective about what grows and what does not… I tried that, before, at the farm. I was making things grow, and lost control, and some plants went… too far. There were big patches of plants that were of no use anymore. So, I tried to make them ash, and refill their spot from the seeds they had dropped… It hurts to try to focus so specifically, on a larger patch. I don’t have that level of control.”
“So, do it in smaller patches, or one thing at a time,” she shrugged a shoulder. “Power is like a muscle. You must work it to find out how strong it will grow.” She sat on the porch and touched a part of the armour on her arm. It reformed itself to a control panel, and from this light rose, creating a page in the air upon which words and numbers scrolled.
“That is amazing,” I said drawing closer. “I never even knew that such things could exist.”
“It is basic technology; your ancestors had it,” she replied patiently. “Go, garden, I have work I need to focus on.”
I was dismissed, like a child. I sighed, of the two options, exploring her technology was more appealing. But, dutifully, I returned to the dirt and the greenery, to threading life into what I wanted to live, one plant at a time…
I had gardened since I was a child. It had always been my task to plant, to weed, to water. My parents had encouraged it: a constructive outlet for my ability. If power is like a muscle, I thought to myself, of all my family, I had probably spent the most time building that muscle. My father, of course, fixed things, using his ability, but that was only some of the time. Lark locked hers away inside a box in her mind. And mother… I guessed mother used hers sparingly, too. Perhaps, like Lark, she had a box in which she put it, neatly tucked away until needed...
I did not think that would be something I could ever ask her. My mother would not view discussing abilities openly and in detail as any more acceptable than comparing bowel motions, I thought. Though, maybe, this experience now would change her mind on that...
“Do all your people have powers?” I asked the grey woman.
“Most do.” She didn’t look up from her work. “It is less than what it once was, though, and there are a growing number of people who what have is as good as none at all.”
“You kill some of our people,” I said slowly. “The leader said, it was because they did not have power, and that they would cause problems. Do you kill those of yourselves, who have no power?”
She regarded me for a long moment, and turned off what she had been working on, by flicking her wrist. “This is going to be one of those conversations,” she said, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees, “that will take some time.”
“Did he lie?” I asked seeing as she seemed open to the discussion. “How much of what he told me, was the truth?”
“If you were to describe something to a child, it would be in a different way, to how you would describe it to an adult,” she said. “It would not be a lie. A simplification, perhaps, is a better term.”
I digested this. “So, basically, I can’t take anything he said, as being the total story.”
“It will be part. The part he wants you to have,” she met my gaze. “It does not mean that part is untruthful, nor does it mean it is the whole and complete truth.”
It reminded me of something Lark had said, about reading people’s minds. “Missing context, perhaps,” I said slowly.
“Perhaps,” she agreed. “Things are rarely done for one reason alone and sometimes a reason that in itself would not be reason enough, gains weight because it is part of many reasons. But, when you speak to a child, would you take the time to list and discuss completely every reason? No.
“We do not kill those of us who do not have power. We do not kill your people without power just because they have none, though they certainly hold less value to us, than those of you who do. And we do not kill all those of your people without power.”
“Then, why kill, at all?” I dusted my dirty hands off on my skirt and stood, to move closer. “Surely it does more harm than good if you want people to be happy here. Why steal whole villages in that way? Why not… talk to us?”
She considered me. “Expediency,” she answered with care. “And because it is what we were tasked to do. You have been told about our home planets, and the division between our governments as to how to incorporate compatible colony worlds.
“The division goes deeper than whether to join you here, take you to us, and whether you join us as equals or as slaves. That is a simplified summary of the current three most popular methodologies.
“Within our approach, joining you, there was also the option of using force, or co-operation. This outpost is charged with testing force – we established a location and increased our numbers by taking from the surrounding area the population we require for this experiment. We then use varying methods of intimidation and manipulation to retain that population for long enough integration occurs.
“The other outpost established a location and began approaching the surrounding area with resources and aid, in the hopes of obtaining a population from volunteerism, and retaining it through goodwill.”
“I think that would work better,” I said.
“Would you?” her lips quirked. “But, it has not. The peoples of the surrounding area have mounted numerous attacks against that outpost and against the forces sent into the community to render aid. Volunteerism is minimal, and the community gained by it, fractured.
“Of the two outposts, ours has been more successful. We have the greater population, and that population is more submissive and productive. Integration is currently almost equal between the outposts.”
“At some point, the people here will rebel,” I predicted. “People don’t like to be forced into things.”
“Your people don’t seem to like to volunteer either,” she replied mildly. “In five of this planet’s years, attempts to co-ordinate a rebellion against this outpost has arisen many times, and been quickly extinguished. Neither option seems to be a perfect fit, which would support the third planet’s viewpoint that for expediency’s sake, extreme force is warranted.”
“What does that mean, exactly?”
“The third planet’s focus is on the production of the next generation, rather than integration with the current one. They would achieve this through varying methods, including voluntary and involuntary artificial insemination, and artificial wombs.”
“That,” I swallowed bile, “sounds disgusting and frightening.”
“It does raise many serious moral dilemmas, as well as legal ones.”
“You are here, and you are from the first planet,” I said, a coldness settling into the pit of my stomach. “My one was here, and he is from the second planet…”
“Yes, the third planet will be here too,” she agreed, calmly.
“Taking people, and…” I felt ill.
“Yes, their birth rate would be considerably higher than ours. That factor alone would indicate to some that theirs is the more successful method.”
I closed my eyes. “That is absolutely hideous to think of.”
“Hopefully,” she said, “it will never be a direct concern of yours.” I opened my eyes and looked at her. “If your one is successful, we hope the second planet will support the outpost plan, and we will gain the majority. This will legitimize the current two outposts and allow the extension and development to new sites.”
“And it would mean the other planets stop what they’re doing?”
“Yes, though, to my knowledge, the second planet has primarily been engaged in surveillance, and has not become active in the removal of individuals from the planet at this time.”
“That’s nice, at least.”
“Ineffectual,” she replied dismissively. “Have we concluded this conversation?”
“Conversations don’t really work like that,” I told her. “Or not with my people. Do they work like that with you?”
“They do if you want to get work done,” she replied repressively.
“I’ll go back to gardening.”
“You are only doing half the job,” she told me, with a hint of reprimand. “You are making things grow, but not making things die.”
“I don’t like to kill things.”
“But you can do it and have done it.”
“Yes,” I had turned plants to ash. “Not as often, I am not as good at it.”
“Then you should practice,” she retorted. “And not just focus on what you’re good at.”
“When things die,” I looked away from her, her gaze made me feel exposed, open to the bone, no secrets within. “There is a… a power.”
“There is a power to most things,” she said.
“What will happen, if I were to… take that power?”
“What do you want to happen?” It was not a question, but also a statement. “It is an energy, in its rawest form. You can do with it, what you like.”
“What would I like to happen?” I repeated. “I don’t know.”
“You are young, and somewhat lacking in imagination,” she was amused. “I will teach you to not be scared of what you are and to use your imagination better.”
“I would imagine… my one… back here, if I had the power,” I said regretfully.
“That would be beyond your ability,” she replied.
“Has there been word?”
“Too soon,” she shook her head. “Word will come, in one form or another, sooner or later.”