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The Eternal Cradle

 

LEGEND OF ALM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE

ETERNAL CRADLE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GRAHAM M. IRWIN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life is a dream,

With my love gone away

So I’ll stay, it seems,

Dreaming of someday

 

 

-“Dreaming of Someday,” lyrics and music by Mart Hull

 

 

[]1

 

 

906 AF

 

 

“Is it you or me that isn’t real?”

The question was all Naia Solen could think of, despite her unbelievable pain. She had heard horror stories about medidose malfunctions before, but never considered what she would do if such a thing were to happen to her. Her insides felt like they had been ripped out and overstuffed back into her skin.

She slammed against the kitchen wall. Two pictures fell down, as did a small goddess statuette from a curio shelf. Naia pushed herself along the wall towards her telexchange, stumbling over the fallen artwork as she went. Her sweating skin stuck to the wall and made forward progress seem impossible.

Reaching the kitchen table, she fell, face-first onto the telexchange. Her cheek hit the green activator, which initiated an operator dialog on the information screen over the sink.

“Hello, Naia Solen. How can I help you?” the friendly face on the wall asked.

“My medidose…” Naia gasped.

“Excuse me?” the operator asked. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you. Please repeat: How can I help you?”

A shock went up Naia’s spine and made her limbs flail.

“I’m sorry, Naia Solen, I didn’t quite hear that,” the operator repeated after a short silence. “How can I help you?”

Naia’s seizure relented and she screeched, “My medidose machine is broken,” in the loudest, clearest voice she could force through her constricted vocal chords.

The operator on the screen idled for a moment, and then a soothing light and sound show took their place. Naia knew the ambulance was on the way, but she doubted she would live to see it arrive.

In a blur of torment and changing light, she was removed from her apartment and loaded into an ambulance. She felt a prick on her arm, and then her anguish began to recede in waves. Soon Naia could breathe again. Once she could focus, she looked at the faces of the paramedics in the ambulance. They looked both focused and removed, like every other face she ever saw in Great City. Except for that one face that dominated her thoughts, that phantom that broke into Naia’s life one day and asked her, “Is it you or me that isn’t real?” Nothing had been the same since.

Naia was only at the local hospital for a few hours, enough time for her levels to be readjusted and for her to meet with a doctor. The doctor informed her that she was perfectly healthy. And not only that, she was to get a special payout from her medidose machine manufacturer, to compensate for the malfunction.

“Naia Solen?” a nursewheel asked later that day as it rolled into her darkened healing room.

“Yes, that’s me,” Naia said to the machine. She stood up and gathered her things to leave. As she was doing so, she noticed that her intrabag wasn’t completely drained of Acquien. She checked over her shoulder to make sure no one was watching, pulled it from its clip, and slid it into her purse.

“Are you checking out today, Naia Solen?” the nursewheel asked.

“Yes,” she answered. She sat down in the transport, pressed her thumb on the identifier, and leaned back.

She was escorted to the elevator, which she rode down thirty-three floors to the lobby. The nursewheel carefully dodged patient traffic as it rolled out the hospital’s front doors. Naia got out of the transport and took her things from its storage shelf.

“Have a good day, Naia Solen, from all of us here at Gund Hospital,” the wheel recited politely, before rolling back through the automatic doors.

Naia looked up and saw the sun. A flock of birds coursed overhead, drawing a line to where a woman was walking her dog. It looked as if all was perfectly right with the world again.

A train station was only a short walk away from the hospital. Naia took a seat in a mostly empty car. She sank down as she stared at the screen on the seatback in front of her. The program playing was her favorite comedy, a mix of song and color. A tray came down the center aisle bringing her favorite beverage. She daydreamed about what she might do with her payout from the medidose machine manufacturer.

Sometime along the long route home, one of Naia’s friends happened to board the train. He stopped by her seat to chat for a while, about food. As Naia was speaking with him, it dawned on her that she was just saying the same things she always did. Asking the same questions and answering the same answers. She wasn’t conversing as much as following a script. It felt good; it was reassuring, pleasing, comforting. But Naia didn’t want to feel good. Having her levels drop had been painful, but it was also the most visceral thing that had ever happened to her in her life.

The next day, after a dreamless sleep of exactly eight hours, Naia boarded another train and rode into the skyscrapers downtown with hundreds of thousands of other passengers all silent and calm. None of them knew what Naia had been through. It might as well have never happened.

Naia walked along at an even pace with the thousands of other citizens on the sidewalk, listening to gentle music in her earpiece as the sun rose and changed the sky from gray to pink.

“Good morning, Naia,” a voice said as she passed through the doors of her building.

She had always responded before, but now wondered, what was the point? The machine wouldn’t care either way.

After a long trip in a bright elevator, Naia entered her office and took her seat in her cubicle.

“How are you today, Naia?” her friend Berri asked from the adjacent cubicle.

“Alright,” Naia answered. But then she thought again. “Actually, I feel sort of strange.”

Berri paid her response no mind. “I saw the funniest show last night,” she said.

Of course you did, Naia thought. Berri Lasz watched the funniest show every night. It was her primary personality trait.

“Don’t you get sick of watching the same show?” Naia asked.

Because she hadn’t ever asked this before, Berri didn’t respond. She pulled her headset on over her long hair that she loved to brush, and smiled before starting her first customer interaction of the day.

Naia had never been overly fond of her job. Since her career placement after youth walkabout, some seventeen years prior, she had lacked the passion that Berri and her other coworkers shared. She knew that her job at the biotech company, explaining dosing information to older patients, could have easily been done by a computer operator. But health was too close to the heart to be treated impersonally, and so Naia and the others at Medmore were there to smile and chat and make their customers feel loved and happy.

For some reason, Naia couldn’t bring herself to initiate a customer interaction. Her queue told her there were dozens waiting, but she didn’t care. She left her terminal, thinking a cup of brite might possibly perk her up.

At the percolator in the employee break room, waiting for the water to heat up, Naia thought about how she had accidentally spilled her brite back when the building had been robbed. It was the only thing she had ever spilled. It had made such a mess. She considered throwing her mug across the room now, just for the thrill of the discord.

One of Medmore’s senior technicians burst through the door into the break room where Naia was fantasizing.

“Oh!” he exclaimed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to… Can you tell me, do you have any extra bretton root up here? We’re all out downstairs.”

“I don’t think we do,” Naia said.

“Let’s see,” the scientist said to himself, ignoring her and rummaging through the cupboards. “Mart said he’d bring the bretton root in this morning, but then, you can’t rely on Mart, can you?”

Naia knew the doctor didn’t care if she was there or not. She could probably say anything she wanted to the stranger and he wouldn’t notice.

“My medidose system failed yesterday, and I nearly died,” she blurted out.

“There it is,” the technician announced, seizing a bag of bretton root. “I’ll replace this soon, alright?” he said happily, as he brushed past Naia towards the door. He stopped short before exiting and turned back around.

“Did you just say that your medidose system failed yesterday?” he asked.

Naia gulped. “Yes,” she said. He wasn’t supposed to have heard.

“Why did you tell me that?” the doctor asked.

Naia wanted to run. “I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s fine,” the doctor said. He studied Naia’s face for a moment and then asked, “What did you think? Of going off medicine?”

Naia didn’t know what to say. “It was painful.”

She garnered the courage to make eye contact with the stranger. She saw empathy in his gaze, something she rarely saw in Great City.

“But for some reason, I can’t stop thinking about it,” she admitted.

“You are more curious about life now, aren’t you?” the doctor asked.

Naia knew it was out of place for her to be talking about her feelings. A citizen’s private life was just that. But now here she was, exposed and vulnerable.

“My name is Doctor Zaan. Devon Zaan,” the man said. “That’s Naia, right?” he asked, reading the tag on her shirt.

“Were you here when we were robbed?” she asked, nodding and ignoring the anxiety inside.

“I wasn’t, but I heard about it,” the doctor said. “Why do you ask?”

“I met one of the robbers,” Naia said, leaning in to the doctor and almost whispering. “He asked me if I was real.”

The doctor raised an eyebrow.

“Have you ever… What is real?” Naia asked. Her words didn’t make sense even as she said them, but there was no other way to express what she was feeling.

“Real is relative,” the doctor said. “But it sounds as if you’ve found a way to get closer to it, haven’t you?”

“What do you mean?” Naia asked.

“The only way to really understand what I mean,” Doctor Zaan said, “Is to stop medidosing altogether.”

2

 

 

 

 

After their chance meeting at work, Naia and Doctor Zaan began telexchanges, which eventually led to dual social interaction, a rare phenomenon in Great City. They would visit parks together, ride bicycles, and play board games. And all the while, Naia would pick the doctor’s mind about medidosing.

“I’ve only ever been completely off it for two weeks, back a few years ago in college,” the doctor explained, as he strolled alongside Naia through a tunnel of trees. “I’ll do it again, when I can find the time. Probably when I retire, at this rate.”

“What is it like?” Naia asked.

“To be completely off dose? It’s incredible. It’s a lot like this,” the doctor said, waving his hand around at the scenery. “I mean, it is this. It’s just, well, we’re not really experiencing it right now.”

“But how is that possible? I am experiencing what I am experiencing, aren’t I?”

“Yes and no… Try to think of it this way: your morning cup of glint wakes you up, doesn’t it?”

“Not really.”

“What I mean to say is, you understand the concept of intoxication, don’t you? Altered states of consciousness?”

“Of course.”

“Well, medidosing keeps us in a state of permanent intoxication.”

“Why?”

“It’s quite simple. It keeps our bodies healthy and balanced. And part of that is taming our minds. Naturally, you see, humans are mad creatures. We’re irrational. Surely you’ve read your history. Thousands of lives lost over emotional reactions, warfare, torture. We’re capable of some pretty barbaric stuff.”

“Yes, I remember that from school.”

“Well,” the doctor said, “That same primitive, unmedicated mind of ours that has the propensity to act so nonsensically is also more clearly attuned to the universe’s true state of being, natural. As a function of symbiosis.”

“What does that mean?” Naia asked.

“I can explain it another way,” the doctor continued. He stopped to grasp a purple flower between two fingers.

“You see this flower here? When I, personally, underwent my experiment, when I was off the medicine, I could really see flowers. See here: this flower certainly appears beautiful and radiant. But there is no scientific reason for it to be glowing. I know this. That species is not bioluminescent. I can recognize that my mind is interpreting it through an artificial lens, differently than, say, a wild human’s would.”

“Isn’t it better to not be wild animals?” Naia asked.

“Perhaps,” the doctor answered, “But then, remember the legend of the Undiscovered Lands. Even Det the Incandescent chose to return to animal form. Our very own Descendants are pure human. However, all these questions you are asking, they tell me that you are seeking a deeper truth.”

“Oh, no, I’m not. I just don’t understand, that’s all,” Naia said. She stopped at a fountain for a drink. “I had never really questioned why we medidose. It’s interesting to me.”

“If you wished, you could stop medidosing for an extended period of time,” the doctor said.

“How? Doesn’t it hurt terribly?”

“The pain is only temporary. And it hurts the most the first time. You have that out of the way now. You could go on a spiritual retreat. You could visit a Cave, or a Cloudrest. That is, after you’ve thought about it. If you remain curious.”

“Isn’t it illegal to voluntarily stop dosing?”

“It is,” the doctor said, “But I can help you with that.”

In her bed later that night, Naia couldn’t put the idea of a spiritual retreat out of her mind. Medicine coursing through her veins kept her from delving too deeply into the question. She struggled to wonder what reality might be like, what death might really be like, but she literally couldn’t imagine any answers. She didn’t have the focus or capacity of thought. She wanted to pierce the fog that kept her from hearing her own mind clearly. She decided to take Doctor Zaan up on his suggestion.

After a week or so of mulling the idea over on Doctor Zaan’s insistence, Naia put in to use her accumulated sick days at work for a vacation. A week after approval, she was whisked up to a Cloudrest floating high above Great City. The retreat was one of the nicest available to basic citizens, boasting rustic architecture set amidst stunningly lifelike recreations of forests and waterfall-fed lakes.

Naia wasn’t at the Cloudrest for the scenery, however, she was there for the privacy. She had spent most of her life credits booking an unmonitored suite, something usually impossible for someone of her economic class, but made possible by a personalized recommendation from her friend Doctor Zaan.

After checking in, she bypassed the recreation courts and dining halls and headed straight to her cottage, where she locked the front door and settled onto the huge bed in the master bedroom, with the equipment Doctor Zaan had given her.

She opened the doctor’s metal suitcase and pulled out the machine inside, a small, computer-and-needle unit affixed to an armband. Naia strapped the unit to her arm, closed the window blinds, and waited.

The machine biocoordinated itself to her body, and Naia felt a prick under the armband. A second later, a dull pain at the back of her head began to throb. Her hands locked tight into balls and she couldn’t unfix them. She started regretting her decision. She wanted to call for help but had disconnected the telexchange to prevent second-guessing. The ringing in her ears grew to a wail and her watery eyes felt as if they were bleeding.

And then the pain redoubled its intensity, something Naia hadn’t suffered the first time. She began to sweat, which appeared to her as dripping wax when she looked down at her body. She felt her whole being sapped down into the bed, which was crawling with gruesome mutations.

Naia heard the echo of laughter, and then felt a spike crash down through the roof of her skull, to plunge deep into her chest cavity. She blinked and she was outside of herself, watching her body dance on the end of the spike like a puppet. She blinked again and she was gone.

When she next opened her eyes, she was on the floor. She had expelled all manner of vileness during detoxification, which felt and smelled awful. But at the same time, she was aware of it, which told her that at least her sanity hadn’t left her completely. And she could control her movement now, too. She dragged herself over the plush carpet, down the hallway to the bathroom, across the tiles, and over the rim of the huge whirlpool.

She sat in the dry tub for some time, scratching at her crawling skin and trying to manage her bleeding nose. She eventually turned the whirlpool faucet on, which helped to clean away some of the blood and waste. The tub filled and overflowed, as Naia spun like a lotus on the surface of the water. She slipped over the rim of the tub back onto the tile floor, where the water continued to cascade over her as she fell once more to sleep.

She woke up again, this time with a searing, blinding headache. It took her some time to realize that the water in the whirlpool was still running, and longer still to remember how to turn it off. She could hardly think through her crushing migraine. But she managed to, somehow, and then crawled out onto the soaked carpet in the hallway outside the bathroom. She fell onto her stomach and straight to sleep once more, this last time for two whole days.

On the third day, Naia awoke softly. There across the carpet she saw the running board. And above it, the wall. But she wondered, why was it all sideways? You have to sit up, she told herself. She did so. The wall was nice, she thought. A good color of beige.

Her stomach growled. At first, Naia didn’t know where the sound was coming from, until she identified it emanated from within. She remembered hearing stories of how the human stomach used to grumble when the organism was in need of sustenance.

“I’m hungry,” she said. Her voice sounded distant to her own ears.

The distortion caused a wave of panic to wash over Naia. Her heart raced faster, so fast that she could feel and hear it pounding. It filled her with dread that another seizure or round of torment was coming on. She could hardly breathe for fear. She wanted to run or to die. But she didn’t go over the edge; the pain stayed at bay. And so her panic abated too, and Naia was able to take in a deep breath.

“You’re okay,” she said to herself. “You’re okay.”

She snaked her way to the living room of her suite, slid up to the wall, pulled her legs to her chest, and waited to handle another surge of panic. Her stomach continued to growl, but she wasn’t ready to stand up and go to the kitchen. She felt alright, for the moment. She focused on her breathing and her heartbeat.

Memories began to flood through her mind after the sunlight left the bungalow and night took hold. Naia saw her mother and father smiling down at her, and a birthday cake with her name spelled out in icing on it. A flash interrupted the scene, and then she saw the back of her leg, when she had torn it open as a child, the muscles and bone so alive and glistening inside. Then another flash and she was on the back of a horse as a teenager, with the purple sky stretched out before her like the rest of her life. Retroactively, she felt something during each of these episodes. It was as if her mind hadn’t been able to process them when they really happened, and they were all backed up. The process of letting them go felt incredible, as the flashbacks were positive memories. But when Naia’s mind began flashing through her bad memories, the pain mounted and grew exponentially. Her parents forgetting her birthday. Her first pet dying. Her first rejection of a friend, her first rejection from a lover. All the pain she had never been able to work through reared up like a hydra, and beat the already weakened woman down even further.

The most difficult new emotion for Naia to deal with was regret. It was as if she hadn’t even lived her own life. It might as well all have been a film, for all it mattered. Of course, now that she could relive it and feel it, it wasn’t all for naught, but it made Naia angry. At herself, at Great City keeping her levels even and her life pointless up to that moment. Her depression spiraled. Her body didn’t hurt anymore, but she felt so utterly hopeless and despondent that she thought about tearing Doctor Zaan’s unit off her arm. She was almost desperate for medidosing. Surely this was why levels were ever thought to be adjusted in the first place. The anguish a feeling human mind could experience was nearly unbearable.

But then somehow Naia’s mood changed again, of its own volition. Perhaps it was because her hunger had grown so great that she could no longer ignore it, but she felt something like motivation. With this, the room regained some of its color. She was able to stand up. A rain of gentle grace began to fall down her shoulders.

When she tried to move, Naia’s muscles burned, but in the most unexpectedly amazing way. It was the best pain she had ever felt. It wasn’t even really pain, but rather intense pressure and strain. Every step stretched muscles she had never felt before, and gradually pulled her face into a smile she had never smiled before.

In the kitchen, Naia switched on a light. The room flooded with brightness, which startled her. She flicked the light on and off, amused at the fact that her eyes couldn’t keep up with it.

She tried a bit of everything in the refrigerator and the cupboards. The flavors danced on her tongue and up through her nose. It was the same food she had eaten for years, but she really tasted it now. She felt its texture, felt it go down her throat and move into her belly. If this was just eating, Naia thought to herself, imagine what the rest of the world must be like?

She staggered towards the door to find out, but caught herself in a mirror along the way, how unpresentable she was. Her clothes were filthy, her hair was a mess. But her eyes were clear and bright. She could really see herself in the reflection, maybe for the first time in her life. Every tiny movement and expression, every line on her face and spot on her arms. And she realized that she was both more grotesque and more beautiful than she had ever known.

“Plenty of time for gazing in the mirror later,” she said to her reflection, who smiled back.

Naia rinsed herself off with the shower in her bathroom, and put on one of the robes provided for her. She stepped into her complimentary slippers and opened the front door, only to slam it closed again when the enormity of the world overwhelmed her. The sheer expanse was too much for her to bear. No, she thought, I can handle this; this is what I am here for. She opened the door again, just a crack, and peeked through. There was such incredible depth to the world through unmedicated eyes. The stars looked so far away in the sky. Naia thought she might fall out it was so vast and boundless.

She convinced herself to be brave, and stepped out onto her bungalow porch. A bird swooped by, or at least appeared to, though it was actually far away. It only seemed so close because Naia could really hear its wings flap, and feel the same currents of air it was riding.

She was drawn to a huge tree at the edge of the sidewalk. As she walked from her porch to the tree, she could see its branches individually, all dancing and shifting about relative to her position. Trees had always appeared to her like solid mass before. But now they were airy, and let light play through. The simple tree was so absolutely amazing to Naia that she had to remind herself to close her jaw when another vacationer passed by, staring quizzically at her blissful antics.

Naia started to walk, and then skip, and then flat-out run through the low grass in the field stretching out from the grouping of bungalows towards a lake.

When she got to the water’s edge, she was disappointed. The lake was so obviously artificial, unlike the tree outside her suite. The water was a sickening color of green, and the waterfall in the distance was a filthy trickle over a rusted basin. It had seemed so beautiful when she arrived, so lifelike. But it was just a Cloudrest, after all. Naia could only wonder what a real waterfall looked like. What running through a real field felt like.

On the last day of her vacation from medidosing, Naia woke up early to watch the sun rise. The play of color and light in the sky was the most peaceful episode of her life up to that point. She knew she wanted to return to this state of being. Somehow, someday. But life, or some version of it, was waiting for her below.

She stared at her reflection in the bungalow mirror as she pulled the anadose machine off her arm. She took her first medidose in a week, and watched the image of herself in the mirror glaze over, and then she felt numb and happy. She left her bungalow just before checkout time, thanked the staff for their hospitality, and boarded the airship back down to regular life on the ground levels of Great City.

Later that evening, she met with Doctor Zaan to return his machine.

“Well?” he asked, as Naia joined him at the table he had been holding in a noisy cafe. “What did you think?”

“It was indescribable,” Naia said. “I already feel like I can’t remember parts. Really remember them, I mean, exactly how I felt.”

“I understand. It’s strange, I remember feeling incredible too, but I can’t remember why. That’s why I can’t wait to go off completely. Someday,” the doctor added with a wistful smile.

“You’ll live your whole life off dosing?” Naia asked.

“That’s what I’m hoping. That’s the dream.”

“But how could anyone ever do that? I know you’re a doctor, but even you aren’t rich enough to go without surveillance indefinitely.”

The doctor scanned the cafe for anyone who might be listening in, leaned in towards Naia, and said, “There is a world outside Great City. Beyond surveillance.”

“I know that,” Naia said. “There’s Opal Pools, and Cerinen. The other Cities.”

“No, no, what I mean to say is,” the doctor whispered, as he leaned in even closer, “That there is a world outside of all Cities. There is a true sky, and unprocessed air, and undammed rivers that chart their own courses through an ever-changing landscape. There is life.”

“But that’s not what the Descendants tell us, is it?” Naia asked.

The doctor chuckled. “I don’t think they’ve left their Temple in over a century, so maybe they aren’t the best judges of what lies beyond it?”

“And you don’t have to dose in the real world?” Naia asked.

“You can’t,” the doctor said. “It’s unavailable.”

“What do people do there?”

“I’ve heard they work, and play, and explore.”

“How does one get there? To the real world?”

The doctor smirked and leaned back.

“Simple,” he said. “All you have to do is leave.”

Naia grabbed his hand and said, “Show me how.”

3

 

 

 

 

“Follow me,” Doctor Zaan whispered. He ducked off a crowded street into a narrow alleyway.

“Where are we going?” Naia asked. She was teeming with excitement.

“This way,” the doctor answered. He pushed open a door marked with a Do Not Enter sign, turned around to wink, and then slipped through the doorway into darkness.

“But that’s a No-Entry door,” Naia said to herself, out of habit. Citizens weren’t supposed to use Great City’s tunnel system. But opening the door didn’t set any alarms off, and when Naia looked over her shoulder at the bustling street outside the alley, she saw that no one had noticed. She, too, pressed through the doorway.

She lost her bearings after a few steps and tripped. She didn’t fall, which she was thankful for when the corrugated metal walkway at her feet revealed itself to be caked with oil and grime. The walkway ran through a tight pipeline overstuffed with cables and wiring. A small amount of light defined the space, coming from dim network panels and gunk-encrusted displays along the walls.

“What is this place?” Naia asked as she looked around, unsure of where the doctor stood.

“This is an access corridor,” he answered from shadow.

“I know that, but it’s so dirty,” Naia said. “Who uses it? Why are we here?”

“No one uses it, which is good for us. And why we’re here, too. There’s no reason for anyone to reach the machines inside here; they don’t ever malfunction.”

“What do they control?”

“The whole world we just left. Temperature control, biometric readings, surveillance systems, they all flow through here. The system is citywide. Where did you think all of the Do Not Enter signs led?”

“I’ve never paid them any attention, I never wondered. I thought they were for the police, or the sanitation workers. Where does this all lead to? Who are the monitors for?”

“Well, the Descendants, really,” Doctor Zaan said. “Or, more properly, your representative government.”

“But… why?” Naia asked.

“To make running things easier, But none of that. Here: I brought you a gift.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t see a thing in here.”

“Follow me, there is better light a bit down the way.”

The two walked, or rather Doctor Zaan stepped nimbly and Naia tripped, down to the end of the walkway, and then descended a circular staircase. There, a larger monitor display provided better ambient illumination.

“Here,” Doctor Zaan said, handing a medium-sized book to Naia.

“What’s this?” she asked, taking it and flipping through the pages.

“The Wanderers Guide to Tripping the Gate. It’s written by a man who moved regularly between worlds. Ours, and the real one.”

“So… I can return?”

“That is a question I really cannot answer. I encourage you to read that book to get a better sense of what you’re headed towards. And how difficult returning would be. Your directions for escape are in there too, inside the cover. Written by yours truly.”

“But aren’t you going to come with me, to show me the way out?”

“I already have, by bringing you here. From here, you’re venturing to a place you must go to alone.”

“Oh. A personal journey?” Naia asked.

“Well, yes. But also, literally, the scanners at the end of the tunnels would detect two bodies worth of heat if we went together, and we’d be caught,” the doctor said. “They’d send in the drones. It’s a place you really have to go alone. As such, I’m leaving you here, with the book and this pack.”

“That’s it?” Naia asked. “But I’m not ready… You can’t leave me here alone. I don’t know what to do!”

“Just keep taking your medidose until you’re out, and then live for all of us still inside once you’re free,” the doctor said. “With luck, I’ll see you in about ten years.”

The doctor turned to leave.

“But wait!” Naia said. She wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the only person she had ever had real conversation with.

“What’s that now?” the doctor asked.

“I’m… going to miss you,” Naia said.

“Don’t get sentimental,” the doctor said. “Like I said, I’ll be out one day, too. We’ll see each other then. There’s no need to grieve about things going right.”

“Okay,” Naia said. “Won’t you miss me, though?”

“You’ve got to go now, Naia. Take a deep breath for me out there now, you hear?”

And with that, the doctor ascended the circular staircase again and was gone. Naia wanted to shout after him, but was scared of attracting attention. The bowels of the city seemed too aware.

“Now what am I supposed to do?” she asked herself. Her watch beeped. “Take my medidose, that’s what.”

A flood of familiar pleasure and removal melted over her after she dosed. She opened the book the doctor had gifted her, took some sheets of folded paper from behind the cover, and started to read them.

Step 1: Move south from the large monitor on your right until you come to a break in the tunnel.

“Where’s south?” Naia wondered aloud. She searched the backpack the doctor had given her, and, sure enough, found a ball compass attached to a chain. She put it on like a necklace and headed south.

The path didn’t waver for miles. Naia realized how horribly out of shape she was when she began to perspire, and her legs began to falter. In dreams, she had always been able to walk for long distances. But the reality of such a feat was much different. She stopped for another medidose, this one with a boosted pain response.

After four miles, despite the pain medication, Naia collapsed. She could taste the acrid flavor of iron in the back of her throat, and her sinuses burned. She coughed up a dark substance she couldn’t believe had been inside her, and felt dizzy and disconnected. It was nearly a half hour before her breathing returned to normal.

“I can’t do it,” she moaned, lying on the grimy tunnel walkway, covered in sweat. “Oh, but what else are you going to do?”

She knew she couldn’t just give up, in the middle of a tunnel, lost forever. She had to escape. She had to survive. There was no other option.

After a nap or a full night’s sleep, she couldn’t have been sure which, Naia awoke again, under the soft glow of blue light. She took out the paper with the instructions from the doctor again, and read further through them. It looked like she was going to be in the labyrinth of tubes for days. Endless turns, up and down, through and about, for five full pages worth of directions. And it all ended at another door.

Naia shook her head to clear or confuse it, gave herself another medidose, and rose on her achingly sore legs to start walking again. She lumbered forwards for many more miles through the belly of Great City, getting better at avoiding the random tubes and pipes that stuck up from the floor as she progressed. She came to another staircase, wound down it, and continued south.

She grew weak again, and stopped to take a meal supplement and another medidose. She was so thankful for her medication at this point. There was no way she could have taken the silent, claustrophobic misery of the dark tunnels in a clear state of mind.

Three days of monotonous corridors and mesmerizing display screens later, Naia came to a break in the walkway unlike others before it. Here, the path ended in a drop-off, into a wide and apparently bottomless chasm. Naia peered over the edge into the abyss, and then opened her directions again to make sure she hadn’t taken a wrong turn.

28. At chasm, listen for exhaust to time extent of current, then ride current (float) rightwards, to eastern corridor. You didn’t think this would be easy, did you?

Naia scratched her head.

The exhaust current came, roaring like a thunderstorm, from deep in the recesses of Great City’s mechanical organs. It knocked Naia off her feet as it ascended through the shaft in front of her, finding release through grates at the top. Naia had been blastsurfing before, at an amusement park. But did the doctor really expect her to do such a thing over a bottomless pit? In such an intense blast of air? If so, his directions couldn’t have been more understated.

After weighing all other possible options, Naia realized it was precisely what he had intended. She timed five of the blasts of air, and found that they were uniform in duration. To jump and reach the western corridor, some twenty feet away, Naia had exactly twenty-three seconds.

She positioned herself about ten feet back from the drop-off, listened for the coming roar of wind, and then ran forwards as fast as her hobbling legs would take her. She faltered and fell off the edge of the walkway when she came to it, but she was immediately buoyed back up by the air current.

She spun around head-over-feet twice, before sticking out her arms to stabilize herself. The other corridor was so close.

Naia flipped onto her back and tried to guide herself along the cylindrical walls of the shaft with her fingers. She had almost made it to the other side when the exhaust current ceased.

Her right shoulder fell hard onto the lip of the western corridor and her bottom half slammed into the wall of the shaft below it. Naia grabbed at the eastern walkway with her sweaty hands, but couldn’t find a hold. She slipped and slid off the path and down the shaft, nearly completely, but her right hand got caught in a grate and arrested her fall. Her hand bent under the weight of her falling body, went backwards, and then broke. She screamed in anguish as the bones in her wrist snapped and burst out of her flesh. The pain was so great that a surge of adrenalin washed over Naia’s muscles and she was able to somehow pull her body up and onto the walkway.

She winced and screamed as she extracted her mangled hand from the grate. It was a gory mess, but the blood had already coagulated. She took another medidose to make sure she wouldn’t feel the pain, and continued on to Doctor Zaan’s step twenty-nine.

An hour and some steps later, Naia still refused to look at her hand. Her injuries were always quick to heal, but she feared this latest might be more than her system could handle. Her peripheral vision started to sparkle and she felt faint.

Step number thirty-five required she swallow haxine, in order to lower her core temperature so that she could make it through the bioscanners in the air filtering system. She swallowed one of the pills and then made for the filters when she could wait no longer, shaking cold and numb.

She made it through the punishingly loud, whirring machinery, and was surprised to find that she had reached her final destination on the other side. It was a bit underwhelming, being merely a simple utility door with a push-bar handle, but by all accounts, it should have led to sunshine. Still shivering from the haxine’s cold, Naia pushed into the door handle and tumbled from Great City into the world outside.

4

 

 

 

 

Naia choked on the acrid air outside Great City. She gasped and grabbed at her throat as she spun around to duck back inside the exit door, but it had already closed behind her. She fell to the ground, which sent into the air uncounted loose dirt particles that stuck to her sweat, and got into her eyes and mouth. The dirt burned and turned Naia’s stomach. She started to salivate as if she were going to vomit, drooling puddles onto the dusty ground. She could hardly see through the thick grime into which her tears and the dust had mixed.

Nearly blind, she started to hack and heave up various thick fluids from her lungs, brown, bright green, and black. Every gob of the stuff Naia would expel made breathing easier. Eventually, her streaming tears washed her eyes clear, and they began to focus in the bright light.

The world around her was filthy and ruined, even more so than the bowels of Great City, which was now just an impossibly large wall reaching up and out behind Naia, seemingly endlessly. There were mounds upon mounds of what appeared like broken and rusted household items piled everywhere. Skeletons of powertravs and airships were heaped alongside stacks of paper waste and busted furniture. Naia checked her directions again, reading over the last pages a few times to make sure she hadn’t missed a step. She hadn’t; she had followed them perfectly. The disgusting mess all around her was, apparently, the real world.

Naia didn’t have any more instructions to follow, and so began walking along the patch of bare land that ran along Great City’s wall, half hoping she might find a way back in. How foolish, she thought, to have left in the first place. What had she been thinking, anyways? She was a customer service representative, not a maverick. Now she was going to rot, like everything else in the other, mutant world in which she was lost.

After a few hundred yards walking alongside the heaps of waste, Naia started to wonder what their function was, and where they might have come from. She reasoned they must have come from the city. That this was where every broken implement went, every unwanted item that every citizen tossed down the chute. It was a dump, of course. Where else would broken and unwanted things go? So, Naia thought, if this was where Great City cast off its unwanted stuff, perhaps she had to go beyond it to find the actual real world. With trees, rivers, and all the other things that Doctor Zaan had promised. There was nothing else for her to do but try and find out.

There were three doses left in Naia’s portable medidoser, but she wished there were more. At least in Great City when she came off the medicine she had been in a luxury suite. Now she was going to be in a wasteland.

She found a patch of ground less fetid than its surroundings, where she sat on a broken crate to ingest a meal supplement. She could already feel that her legs were stronger, though they burned and ached. And her lungs were healing, too; she could breathe more deeply with every breath.

The sky outside the city wasn’t as remarkable as inside; it was so hazy that some of the tops of the trash piles were lost to Naia’s sight. She watched vapors rise from the piles of waste and mix in the atmosphere, as she struggled to choke down her meal supplement. In the end, she had to take one of her last three medidoses to swallow.

After a brief rest, Naia continued on her way. She had just reached the end of a long row of rotting mattresses, and was passing through the gutted frame of a bus, when she thought she saw something move. She stopped. There was a clatter of metal. Another noise sounded, from the other side of the bus, and Naia froze. She listened. There was nothing for a few minutes, and so she continued on.

Hours of nervous travel later, Naia was still lost amidst valleys of ruin. The sun must have been starting to set above the brown haze hanging over the wasteland, as the sky began to glow with the golden hour, and the temperature started to fall. Naia had no idea how much farther she had to travel. She took one of her last two medidoses and tried not to think too negatively.

She was wary to sleep. She knew she wasn’t alone in the wastes, despite the fact that she hadn’t heard anything since the bus, hours ago. She could sense something watching her. Despite her best intentions, Naia could not help but close her eyes after having her evening meal supplement.

When she awoke, her backpack and all of its contents were missing. She had never even been able to read the book Doctor Zaan had given her as a gift. Thankfully, her medidose was still around her wrist. She activated her last dose to stop her heart from racing and began to walk again, following the compass around her neck south.

The sun rose as she went, and the new day was hot. To make matters worse, just as her medidose wore off for good, Naia saw what she could have sworn were two people, lurking in the garbage ahead. One of the strangers came forward, from under a piece of corrugated metal. He was a hollow creature, with skin that looked purplish in the sickly light.

“Rioxin?” he asked with his toothless mouth.

“What?” Naia asked in response. The first waves of demedication were making it hard for her to focus.

“Rioxin? Lunnix? What do you have?” the stranger asked.

“I don’t know what you are saying.”

“What do you have to sell, you…” the man said angrily. He stopped to contain his ire. “What do you have to sell, ma’am?”

“Nothing,” Naia answered.

The filthy stranger scanned Naia from head to toe and then gave her a skewed look. “Did you just start?” he asked.

“Start what?” Naia asked.

The second man came forward from hiding. “What’s going on?” he demanded.

“She claims she doesn’t have anything,” the first man said. “I think she’s lying.”

“What, did Tay tell you we don’t pay?” the second stranger asked, smacking a balled fist into his other hand. “That’s crap, because we do. I’ll kill that sonofabitch.”

“Kill him!” the first man repeated for emphasis.

Naia felt an awful storm begin churning inside her as the medidose withdrew. She knew she wasn’t going to be able to hold her composure for long.

“So, come on,” the first man urged. “What do you have? Let’s go, let’s go!”

Naia could hardly hear him. She couldn’t stop her eyes from rolling back in her head. Her arms began twitching.

“Hey, what’s going on?” the second stranger asked.

“She’s losing it,” the first said. “I knew she was bad makra! Let’s get out of here.”

The two men ran away like dogs, leaving Naia to collapse on the ground. As her body was wracked with spasms, she reminded herself over and over again that they would end. She knew they would, but it was torture nonetheless.

Another group of garbage-dwellers came and watched Naia twitch on the ground for a while. She could see them when her body was contorted the right way. They laughed when she would howl or soil herself. Eventually they, too, left.

And then the pain began to abate, as Naia knew it would. It was only a few days more now. She tried to think of nothing, as the sun set and scavengers came to steal her clothes.

On the third day, Naia remembered herself and woke up, to chase off some young people who were tossing rings around her limbs for sport. She couldn’t have cared less about being naked. About being surrounded by trash. She knew she was past the worst of things. She was feeling clearer, better every second. But hungry, too.

She kept moving what she hoped was south, until what looked like the tallest trash-heap in the whole wasteland began to rise up out of the haze before her. Was she foolish to even think there was an end to it all? She now understood why the author of the book Doctor Zaan had given her had returned to the city.

But then the tallest trash-heap became clearer, and it wasn’t a trash-heap at all: it was a real mountain. As she got closer still, Naia swore she could see real plants growing on it. And when she finally came close enough that she could say for certain that it was a mountain, she passed out of the wasteland. The air began to smell sweet, and the garbage-mud under her feet turned to soft grass and packed dirt. She could almost see blue sky beyond the haze, up near the summit of the mountain. She had to climb it.

Climbing uphill was so much more difficult than the flat valley of waste or the littered tunnels of Great City had been. Going uphill, all new muscles had to be exercised. It felt like Naia was learning to walk all over again. Now, though, the plants called and the air sang to her. The shining blue dancing around the peak above beckoned to her. It was as if nature itself was encouraging her every movement.

As Naia worked her way up the mountain, more years of medicine were squeezed out of her body. Her sweat smelled so horrible that even she couldn’t stand it. And she began to feel dizzy, too. Whenever she would look back at where she had climbed from, she would get an intense feeling of vertigo, as if she was going to fall off the mountain completely. And so she stopped looking back.

A bright-eyed hummingbird stopped to say hello, just before Naia reached the banks of a cool, alpine lake. The lake’s waters were the clearest she had ever seen. And though they were frigid, Naia dove into them and washed herself clean.

As she was climbing out of the rock-bottomed lake, the rays of the sun sliced their way through the morning mist and hit Naia’s body, flooding it with warmth. She could feel her skin contract and every hair on her body stand up. She closed her eyes, and the brightness of the sun came through her eyelids as warm amber.

She lazed a bit on the boulders around the lake, looking at herself and her body reflected in the still water. She loved how wild her hair looked, how flush her skin was.

Naia was considering a flower, remembering how Doctor Zaan had said that flowers aren’t naturally bioluminescent. As she looked over the tiny, white petals of the wildflower with clear eyes, she knew then that it needed no enhancement. None of this place did. Nor did she.

“Hey!” a voice called out.

Naia was startled. She ducked down and searched around the lake for who had shouted.

“Hey, put some clothes on,” the stranger called. She came forward, her camouflaged clothing making her appear for a moment like a mirage.

“Clothes?” Naia asked.

The woman came closer still. “What are you doing out here, naked?” she asked. “Are you trying to get into trouble?”

Naia blushed. “No, I’m sorry,” she said. Was this another drug-seeking fiend, she wondered?

“What’s the matter with you, then?” the woman asked, cocking her posture.

“Nothing.”

“Are…are you new?”

Naia was afraid to answer.

The woman made her posture less threatening and repeated, “Are you new, honey? Did you just leave Great City?”

Naia nodded her head yes.

“Oh!” the woman said. “Welcome, child! Welcome home!”

She rushed to Naia’s side, and gave her a blanket from her backpack.

“I’m sorry for the rude welcome. But you’re too close to trouble to be walking around naked. Don’t worry, there will be plenty of time for that later. My name is Alya Wren. What’s yours?”

“Naia Solen.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Naia. How long have you been out? Are you demedicated?”

“I don’t know how long. Maybe three days? But yes, I’ve demedicated,” Naia said, taking a giant bite of a nutrition bar that Alya offered her.

“Who showed you the way out?” Alya asked.

“Doctor Zaan,” Naia said. “Really, he just gave me directions, though. He didn’t show me out at all.”

“Same as Grael Barnes,” Alya said. “That’s who gave me my directions. Just dropped me off and let me fend for myself. It’s a miracle I made it through alive! I mean, how crazy was that wind tunnel?”

Naia shook her head. “I didn’t think I could do it. Does everyone survive that?”

“No one knows who might come out, so no one knows if they go missing,” Alya said with a shrug. “Might be a bone yard at the bottom of that tunnel.”

Naia took another bite of her nutrition bar. It tasted incredible. Overwhelmingly so. She had to savor every tiny bite for as long as possible.

“Hungry?” Alya asked.

“I really am… Do you have any more food?” Naia asked.

“Child,” Alya sighed, standing up. “We’ve got a whole buffet waiting for you. You’ve just been born, sister! You’re free! Come on, let’s introduce you to everyone else.”

 

 

[]5

 

 

 

 

Naia followed Alya up the mountain. The peak was not much farther, though reaching it took almost two hours on account of Naia’s muscles simply being unable to match Alya’s after so many years unused.

“I’m sorry I’m moving so slowly,” Naia said. “I feel like my pores are going to start oozing blood.”

“I’ve only been out two years myself, so I remember feeling that way vividly,” Alya said. “Two actual years, of course, which are a lot longer.”

“Actual years?” Naia asked.

She noticed a small animal pop up out of a hole in the ground. It was startled to have company on the mountain and soon disappeared again.

“Actual years, kept by the actual sun,” Alya said. “Here, stop. Turn around and you’ll see.”

Naia hadn’t looked back over her shoulder since she had started to feel vertigo. She pivoted carefully around, bending slowly at the knees to be closer to the ground.

She gasped when she saw what Alya had intended her to: Great City itself, as vast and huge as anything on Alm possibly could be. It rose up from the filthy clouds hanging over the wastelands, a monolithic black cube like a void beneath the sun.

“The sun you’ve always known was artificial, an effect,” Alya said. “Better suited to medidosed biorhythms. You’ll find that a real day out here is actually pretty long.”

“That’s the sun? That tiny little thing?” Naia asked, squinting into the surprisingly small spot of blinding light hanging in the sky.

“Yeah, that’s the real sun up there you’re looking at. Probably the first time you’ve ever seen it,” Alya answered. “Don’t look at it if it’s not cloudy, though. It’s bad for your eyes.”

Naia thought back to warm summers at the beach. Had she really just been roasting under a heat lamp? And beyond that, if all such identifiers that comprised her memory were equally phony, who was she, anyways?

“It’s okay, child,” Alya said, sensing Naia’s grief. “The fake sun you’ve always known wasn’t bad for you. It was there to keep you safe, to keep you happy. Which you were then, and you are now.”

Naia nodded. “Okay. But it’s really kind of sad, isn’t it?”

“What’s that?” Alya asked, as she left the mountaintop to descend into the valley on the other side.

“I mean, my… How everyone’s whole life in there was a lie. Is a lie,” Naia said, following around the little peak at the crest of the mountain.

“No, it wasn’t a lie,” Alya said. “It’s not a lie if the people telling it believe it to be true. You did, didn’t you?”

“Huh?”

“You’ll understand soon enough, Naia, soon enough. Just get a breath of that air! And look at your new home!” Alya said, throwing her arms open wide to the vista below.

Naia looked up from the ground and saw a lush, verdant valley before her, coursed through with a raging white river fed by waterfalls that churned clouds of rainbowed mist up into the air.

“Oh my,” she said. “I’m here, aren’t I? The real world.”

“You sure are,” Alya said. “But we want to be down there,” she added, pointing down at the river. “Camp. So get up, let’s move, come on!”

It took the good part of the rest of the day for the two to reach their target, an outpost down along the Quick River. Their hike introduced Naia to groves of oak and hin, and fields covered in wildflowers. She wanted to stop for every new smell or sight she came to, which Alya was happy to accommodate. She said it was a thrill to be able to vicariously view the world through the eyes of a newcomer again, to see the childlike wonder that nature elicited.

“Where are you from?” Alya asked.

She and Naia had stopped for something to eat.

“I lived on Inlet Road, in East Bow,” Naia answered. She bit into a ripe red fruit that leaked juice down her chin.

“My Grandmother was from East Bow,” Alya said. “Before it was called that, back when it was just Lower Great Bower.”

“I never knew it by any other name,” Naia said, distracted by the sweetness of her fruit.

“Did you know your parents, or were you raised in a school?” Alya asked. She noticed a bird flying overhead. “Hey, look,” she said, calling Naia’s attention to it.

“Ahhh! It’s huge!” Naia cried. She instinctively ducked down and threw her hands over her head. “Is it dangerous?” she asked without looking up.

“No,” Alya answered. “Velcids are nothing to be afraid of, they’re stupid. Terrorwings, however, now they are another story.”

“Terrorwings?” Naia asked. She wondered what sort of beast could earn such a frightening name. “I don’t want to meet a terrorwing. We’re heading towards a camp, right? Shall we keep moving?”

“You really don’t have anything to worry about,” Alya reassured her.

“But, camp,” Naia insisted cheerfully.

“Of course,” Alya said. “Let’s get you some clothes.”

The two packed up their snack and continued with their hike, through a tough patch of honeymarrot.

“I was adopted, actually,” Naia said after her fear had abated, answering the question from lunch. “I had a mother and a father.”

“Two parents? Whoa! And still you weren’t happy with the city, huh? So much for that old belief.”

“I wasn’t unhappy. I never felt unhappy, anyways, even if in retrospect I may have been. Not until the robbery at work.”

“What was that now?” Alya asked, squinting up at the sun pouring through the honeymarrot boughs. “Stay with me, we’re working against the sunlight.”

“Oh, see, I worked at a biotech firm, answering telexchanges,” Naia explained. “Anyways, the building was robbed, while I was at work. And it did something to me. I wasn’t the same anymore, but I didn’t know why.”

“I know what you mean. Me, I was never too happy in the first place,” Alya said. “I was in a pretty run-down school. No parents. There was a lot of sadness being covered up, I realize that now.”

“I guess it was good then,” Naia said. “Feeling happy despite our circumstances.”

“Well, I’m free now,” Alya said. “But there are still a whole lot of people who aren’t.”

Naia was quiet for a while, walking and thinking back on her childhood. It had been pretty unhappy, Alya was right. Betrayal, loss, grief. But why was that so? Why would the natural response to growing up be pain? What was the human organism’s intent?

The trail started to level out. Naia and Alya were halted by two guards, who dropped down from trees hanging over their path.

“Who’s this?” one of the guards demanded of Alya, pointing at Naia.

“This is our new friend,” Alya answered, placing a foot between Naia and the guard. “She’s just made it out of the city.”

The other guard leered at Naia and said, “It’s really so good to meet you, Naia… what is the last name of a beautiful creature like you anyhow?”

“Back off, Rierdon,” Alya warned.

“It’s Solen,” Naia said. No one had ever looked at her the way Rierdon did. It made her uncomfortable, but she wasn’t sure if she didn’t like it.

“Naia Solen,” Rierdon said, rolling the words off her tongue as if they were poetry. “Isn’t that a beautiful name, Kat?” she asked her fellow guard.

“Sure,” Kat sighed. “It’s nice to meet you, Naia. Welcome home.”

“Come on child,” Alya beckoned, “Let’s get you some proper clothes.”

“I’ll be seeing you later, Naia!” Rierdon called, as the newcomer followed after Alya towards the sound of the rushing river.

“I’m sure you’d like to,” Alya said under her breath. “Watch out for Rierdon, she’s an animal,” she whispered to Naia. “She’s a great friend and a good guard, but she has no self-control.”

“Understood,” Naia said. “Is there anything else I should know?”

“So much,” Alya laughed.

Alya waved to a few other guards, who appeared visible to Naia only when they waved back from their cover and camouflage, as the pair proceeded through an increasingly well-worn path to the edge of the Quick River.

There, Alya put two fingers to her lips and made a loud whistle. A whistle came back, and then an older woman came out of the trees on the opposite bank. The woman moved slowly, up to the edge of the water, and then more slowly still over the stone path that spanned its foamy course. When she finally came to where Alya and Naia were standing, she smiled.

“Hello, child,” she said.

“This is Naia Solen,” Alya said.

“Thank you, Alya,” the woman said. “You can go now.”

Alya turned and started to leave. “I’ll see you later tonight or tomorrow, Naia,” she called back.

Naia wanted to leave with Alya, but she remained by the river in her blanket with the strange old woman eyeing her suspiciously. She gave a look that begged for the woman to stop staring. But the woman continued to smile, and gaze into Naia’s eyes.

“Hi,” Naia finally said, looking every which way to avoid eye contact.

“Naia,” the woman said. “My name is Rae. You are scared to be here with me, yes?”

Naia shook her head no.

“That’s not true!” the woman laughed. “But I feel strange, too. Don’t worry. We just don’t know each other yet! But we’re going to be family, I can feel it. So let’s talk, let’s get closer.”

Naia felt more comfortable. “Okay,” she said. “But first, is there a place where I can… You know… A facility?”

“Poop?” Rae asked. She giggled. “You don’t have to hide the fact that you poop anymore, Naia.”

Naia’s stomach turned and she blushed. “Ugh,” she said, “Could you please just show me where?”

“You have to follow me,” Rae said.

She waddled back to the rock crossing and started her way back over the river.

“Don’t lose your load on the way across!” she hollered to Naia over the roar of the river.

Naia was trying her best to stay calm as she stepped over and across the slippery rocks, all the while clutching her gurgling stomach. She was never going to make it, she told herself. It was so embarrassing. And Rae was so invasive, so rude. Even the roaring river seemed to be laughing at her situation.

She managed to make it across, and then ran as fast as she could to keep up with Rae, through yellow bushes and into tall trees. The woods didn’t last long; soon they opened up into a clearing, the camp Naia had been expecting. For a moment she forgot about her situation, looking over the dozens of rope bridges and wooden shelters that sprawled across and up through the clearing.

“Pssst!” Rae called. “Over here, Naia.”

Naia saw what Rae was calling her to: a proper toilet facility, at last.

Once Naia was feeling better, she rejoined Rae.

“Now let’s get you some clothes,” the woman said. “Or you can keep wearing the blanket, if you want to.”

“It’s pretty dirty,” Naia said. “I’d like different clothes, if possible. Only, I don’t have any money.”

“Here’s to hoping you never do again,” Rae said. “You don’t need money here.”

Naia followed the woman, who was obviously very popular, through the camp. She saw many men, women, and children working, and wondered why they were, if there wasn’t any money to be made. They probably had to work, just to live, she figured. Was she going to have to toil in the dirt? She didn’t want to.

She and Rae soon came to a clothier.

“We’ve got a new one,” Rae said to the man inside the hut. She thumbed at Naia.

“Oh, hey, yes we do,” the man said. “Look at that. What’s your name, stranger?”

“Naia Solen.”

“Well, Naia, let’s get you a temp sack, shall we?” the shopkeeper suggested.

“Temp sack?” Naia wondered.

“You’ll be shedding a lot of yourself out here,” Rae explained, pinching a bit of her own belly fat. “Newcomers just wear a temp sack, a robe, until they reach their more stable weight.”

Naia looked around and noticed that many of the people of the camp were indeed very fit and trim. Some people in Great City had been too, but more often they hadn’t. Naia didn’t know that she wanted to change, though. She liked her body. She always had.

“I hope I don’t change too much,” she said.

“You can’t help it,” Rae said.

“Here we are,” the clothier said, as he returned with a blue robe for Naia.

She put it on behind a changing screen. It felt soft, warm, and light.

“You look marvelous!” the shopkeeper said when Naia stepped out from behind the screen.

“Thank you,” she said. She didn’t know what to do next, as she was expecting an exchange of tender.

“You’re welcome, child,” the man said. “Off to the shocker now, eh Rae?” he asked, as he started re-folding rustled merchandise.

“Off to the shocker!” Rae said. She beckoned for Naia to follow her from the clothing hut.

“The shocker?” Naia asked. She didn’t like the sound of whatever that was.

“Don’t worry. The only thing, you see, is that you’re still full of medibots,” Rae said. “We’ve got to get them out. It won’t hurt a bit, though, don’t worry. You’ll feel great afterwards.”

Naia followed the woman through the door of another hut, one off the main path through the village. Inside it, an examination table stood in the middle of a dirt floor. Around the table were scattered several errant surgeon boxes.

“Oh, where is he. Bully?” Rae called. “Bully, where are you, son?”

A body sat up from a cot in the corner of the hut.

“Huh? Oh, Rae,” the technician, Bully, said as he fell onto the floor.

“Sleeping on the job?” Rae asked.

“I… but… there’s…” Bully stammered.

“Just kidding, Bully. Calm down,” Rae said. “Naia here needs a nanowipe.”

“Well, Naia, that’s my specialty,” Bully said, taking a gulp of a cold cup of brestle before standing up. “Sit down, child,” he instructed, with a wave of his hand towards the operating table. “Oh, and welcome home.”

Naia took a seat in the middle of the hut. She didn’t like all the directions being thrown at her. Where was her so-called freedom, anyways? But these strangers seemed benevolent. And she really had no idea what to do in the real world on her own.

“Now, here comes the shock!” Bully said. One of the surgeon bots flashed a red light, which filled the hut and temporarily blinded Naia.

“There it is,” Rae said.

“What?” Naia asked.

“Naia, your medibots have been fixing you up your whole life. We’ve got to get them out, so that your body can learn to take care of itself. You’re going to get a little sick,” Rae explained.

“But I don’t want to get sick,” Naia said. “You said I’d feel better.”

“You will, eventually. It’s either the wipe, or you go back into the city,” Rae said unsympathetically. “They can find you with bots in your system out here. So they have to go.”

“Who can find me?” Naia asked.

“We’ve got to extract soon,” Bully interrupted. “We’ve only got a few minutes left on the stun.”

“So, do you want to stay here or not?” Rae asked Naia.

“Yes, I guess so,” she answered.

“Lay back,” Bully instructed. “You’re going to feel a little prick.”

A surgeon box’s needle poked Naia’s arm, which stung, and then the area of injection when numb. The box extended a needle much larger than the first, stuck it into Naia’s red arm, and began extracting blood.

“What’s happening?” she asked. “What is it doing?”

“We gave the medibots an electromagnetic shock, to stun them. Then, the first shot attracted the bots to your arm. Now we’re pulling them out,” Bully explained. He took a bite from a crusty fold. The crumbs fell on his information system keyboard, which he flipped, to try to shake them out.

Naia started to feel sick to her stomach. She began to sneeze, and couldn’t stop. Her eyes and nose began to run.

“Oh, I feel horrible,” she moaned, as she rubbed her swelling eyes. “This is helping me?”

“I told you you’d get sick,” Rae laughed.

Bully joined in the laughter, while Naia whimpered at the hives bursting out all over her skin. This wasn’t funny, she thought. The real world had a sick sense of humor.

 

 

[]6

 

 

 

 

Naia was sick for five long days following her nanowipe. She spent that time alone, in a cool hut situated just off the main village path, listening to the noises of work and play drifting through her windows. Food and brite were brought to her two times a day, but she could rarely start them and never finished.

In solitude, she had time to think back over her life. There were so many memories. They had always been there, of course, and there were many that she had already revisited, in the wastes, but she had never walked through her life before as she was now. At first, the sensation was like watching the best movie she had ever seen, with herself as the main character. But then after a time she got angry over things that she had done wrong, over the way people had mistreated her and she had mistreated others without even realizing it. Her anger grew so intense, in fact, that by the time she was cleared to leave her healing hut, she was nearly boiling over with spite.

“What’s the matter, child?” Rae asked when Naia exited her hut. “You look ready to pounce.”

“What?” Naia growled. She saw that it was Rae talking, but didn’t wipe the sneer from her face. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I feel so upset.”

“Now what are you upset about?” Rae asked.

“Everything! How do you cope with remembering everything, all the time?”

“I still don’t follow, child,” Rae said. She offered Naia a section of an orange. “Here. Breathe.”

“I just can’t stop thinking,” Naia said. “About everything that has ever happened. It’s awful. It’s tiring.”

“Well, that’s one of the oldest problems. Keeping the wild mind calm is one of the mysteries of life here in the real world. Just remember that your past is nothing more than a memory. And it has nothing to do with the present, with you breathing and your heart beating. Try to always focus on the moment you are living.”

Naia tried to do as Rae said and focus on her breathing. Her diaphragm inflated and contracted, and her heart began to beat more slowly.

“But I still can’t stop thinking.”

“It’d be terrible if you did. Instead, let your thoughts come and go. They are like fish. Wait for a good one to catch. Come on, let’s find you a good place to call your own.”

Naia followed Rae through the village to a patch of dirt where Alya and two others were gathered around a whetstone, sharpening knives.

“Naia! It’s so good to see you again,” Alya said as the two approached. “You look like you’ve had a rough few days.”

“I have,” Naia admitted. “But I’m feeling better now. Glad to be here.”

“That’s good,” Alya said. “The nanowipe is the end of it. Now you’re really free. It’s the best place to be. Is it time to find her housing, Rae?”

“That’s right, child,” the old woman answered. “I think someone like Naia would do best in one of the north-western lookouts.”

“Me too,” Alya agreed.

“Just don’t get too used to it, Naia,” one of the other knife-sharpeners said.

“Jess…” Alya said, throwing her friend a steely glare.

“There’s no need to hide the truth from the girl,” Rae said to Alya. “She’s had plenty of lies told to her in her life. Naia,” she continued, “This camp won’t be here for long.”

“Oh?” Naia asked. “Why not?”

“They’re expanding the waste zone soon,” Rae explained. “We’ll have to move west.”

“Again,” Jess muttered.

“Who, Great City?” Naia asked. “They need more land for garbage?”

“They just want more land, doesn’t matter what it’s for. Even if they never use it. They’ll never get enough,” Jess said.

“And we are powerless to stop them,” Alya said.

“Don’t worry for us too much,” Rae said to Naia. “This is not our homeland, anyways. Our lands are far to the west of here, all the way across the Anir Ocean. Where Cities never rose and true nature runs rampant.”

“We’re still here for new people like you, Naia,” Jess said. “It may not be our home, but wherever we set up camp and lay our heads gets to feeling like it is.”

“We’re the greeting committee, if you will,” Rae said.

Jess gave Rae a look of contempt and continued, “They can keep pushing us back all they want. We’ll always set up a new camp.”

“How many people are outside Cities?” Naia asked.

“Enough,” Alya answered.

“What does that mean? And what about the Descendants?” Naia asked. “Why don’t you talk to them about the expansion? They wouldn’t allow you to be run out of this valley if they knew you were here. No one knows anyone is out here. Have you tried to talk to them?”

“They know full well what happens here, that there are people who live in the real world. They would certainly drive us out, and all the endemic species in the valley, too,” Alya sighed. “It’s the welfare of Great City at any cost for the Descendants, I’m afraid.”

Naia couldn’t believe what Alya was saying. She loved the Descendants like family, as anyone raised in the city would. As much as she had ever loved anything. They were the arbiters of truth and justice. They were wisdom. They were the children of Det, infallible.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “Do you not… Are you not respectful of the Descendants?”

“Absolutely not,” Jess said. “Liars. Think about it, Naia: they’re politicians, nothing more. I don’t care who their ancestors supposedly are.”

“But they’re messengers of the Gods,” Naia said. “There wouldn’t be anything without them.”

“Wouldn’t there be?” Alya asked. She looked around the camp. “You sure about that?”

Naia was less willing to let go of the myth of the Descendants than her body was its reliance on medidosing. What structure was there to the world at all, if the Descendants weren’t really overseeing things? If they weren’t mitigating relations between the universe and humanity? But now, she wondered, how could they be, really? They had no control of life outside Great City, if they had to wage war with it.

“I mean, the Descendants… Who do you think kept you medidosing for so long?” Jess asked. “Who supplied the artificial reality?”

Naia started to see red, and her fists clenched and sweat.

“But that was my life,” she said. “That’s been my whole life.”

“Don’t worry child,” Rae said. “Remember, that is all in your past. And the Descendants really believed they were helping you. Protecting you. Whatever Jess may imagine to the contrary.”

In that instant, Naia couldn’t handle another second of human company. She turned and ran off from the group without a word, losing herself in the nearby woods. She tore over the ground furiously, trying to burn up the anger filling her insides. She screamed so loud that it hurt her ears, and then even louder still, until the trees shook. And then she collapsed.

She looked up from her exhaustion and realized she had come up the side of the valley a good ways during her rampage. In fact, she was almost near the ridge. And so she pulled herself up again and climbed the rest of the way to the top.

At the crest, Naia could again see Great City. As she scanned the enormous black block, she thought of the hundreds of thousands of lives inside, all perfectly calculated to run efficiently and healthily. Every one decided without free will, by a group of purported Gods. What could the Descendants have known about life anyways? At one point, they hadn’t even been human. Damn Det. Damn the Incandescents and the Descendants. Naia wished she could see the walls of the city come crashing down.

After two hours on the mountaintop, she still wasn’t ready to return to camp. She got lost wandering down the side of the valley, stumbling across new plants and animals as she went. They, too, seemed like parts of the great lie she was uncovering. She wondered why, if these people outside Great City knew the reality of things, none of them had ever tried to change them. Had any of them told the citizens the truth? Who was controlling things in the real world?

She was lost in a tangent of thought and so didn’t see the beast come crawling up behind her. It was only when the terrible thing was not three feet away that she felt its breath on her back. She wheeled around to see a wiry, hairless creature twice her size menacing her with its wide display of sharp teeth. It reared up on its hind legs to tower over her and blot out the setting sun, letting out a wicked roar. Naia stared, in awe.

A powerful swat of the creature’s arm knocked Naia out of her stare. It just barely caught her chest, and knocked her to the ground. The only thing she could think to do was to run.

She scrambled up and tried to turn, but the creature knocked her to the ground again. She got up a second time, only to be toppled once more.

A smile wrapped around the creature’s snout as it played with its prey. It came in close and Naia kicked, barely grazing its nose, but repelling it nonetheless. The creature stared at her incredulously and shook its head to throw off the blow. Naia moved up into a crouching position, watching the creature as it wove around its tail and plotted its next move.

The creature stopped, wiggled its backside in anticipation, and leapt. It caught Naia between its huge paws and rolled over the ground, holding her tight. The creature’s claws were out, only slightly, but enough to cut grooves into Naia’s back and arms. After tumbling three somersaults, the creature let go, and Naia fell out and rolled to a stop.

She couldn’t stand now, on account of being so dizzy. As she tried to shake it off, the creature playfully swiped at her. Naia was ready for one such swipe, and caught the creature’s powerful arm in a tight hug. The beast couldn’t shake Naia for all its trying, as it pulled her through the air and beat her on the ground to try to force her to let go. But she wouldn’t. She clung tighter and tighter, and then sank her teeth into the creature’s leg.

It wailed and shrieked like a wounded baby, and then Naia bit again, getting another mouth full of skin. The creature tried backing away from itself to lose her, whimpering and fretting as Naia continued to try to take a bite from its leg. She hoped to tear through the flesh, though her jaws proved too weak. When she finally grew tired of trying and let go, the creature stumbled back and then ran away, giving a sad look as it disappeared into the bushes that said Naia had taken their play too far.

Naia was dripping with sweat, and blood from her scratches, and her heart was racing. She growled. She scanned the woods around her. She screamed wild abandon. She stomped her feet and rose her hands to the sky and roared.

Her wounds kept bleeding, which was strange. Usually when she got a cut, it was healed before she could remember how it happened. Like when she tore her hand open on the way out of Great City, that had healed before she left the wastelands. Now, though, the incisions from the beast’s claws covered over with hardened blood much more slowly. And they would reopen if Naia tried to investigate them. She started to feel light-headed. She knew she had to get back to camp.

Following no path but gravity’s pull, Naia stumbled down the valley, only happening to come upon the camp by accident. She fell into a stranger’s hut near the outskirts, as guards came rushing to her side. By then, she had lost so much blood that she passed out of consciousness.

 

 

[]7

 

 

 

 

Naia rubbed her bleary eyes. Simply touching them hurt. She moved to take a medidose, but her legs wouldn’t let her. She started to push out a panicked scream, but then remembered where she was. Holding up her arms, she saw the bandages wrapped around them. She tried to make out what she could of the room she was in. There was little sunlight coming from the curtained window, which made focusing difficult, but Naia could still see the outline of Rae, in a corner, knitting.

“Good morning, Naia,” the old woman said happily when she saw Naia start to roust.

Naia mumbled something incoherent.

“Here,” Rae said. She grunted as she pulled herself out of her chair. Crossing the room, she offered Naia something to drink. “Drink this all, you’ll feel better.”

“Thank you,” Naia said, taking the cup from Rae and nearly spilling it. She brought it to her lips and sipped slowly as she continued to wake up.

“You can’t go running off like that, not unless you can defend yourself against the wildlife,” Rae said. “Not without some training first.”

“What was it that attacked me?” Naia asked. “Was it a monster?”

Rae laughed. “No monsters here, child. Just different species from the ones you have known. Alm is not made for humankind alone, of course. There are more creatures from the ocean to the sky than could fill your wildest dreams.”

“Are they all so terrifying?”

Naia took another, loud sip of her drink, which was invigorating. It made her heart beat faster, and her vision focus.

“Some probably more so,” Rae said. “From the claw marks, it looks like you had a tumble with a waleseeth. It was probably just playing with you, though. They aren’t known to attack humans. If it had wanted you dead, you would be.”

Naia frowned. “That was playing?”

“To a waleseeth, yes,” Rae answered.

Naia too another sip and listened to the sounds of the camp outside. She thought back to the sounds of Great City, which had never seemed as bright or lively.

“Rae, do you feel bad, for all those people still trapped inside Great city?” she asked.

“Well…” Rae sighed. She thought for a moment, and then answered, “Most of them are happy, right?”

“In that they don’t know any better,” Naia answered.

“Well then that’s better than things could be, right?” Rae asked. “If the Descendants can build an artificial world and contain everyone as they do, at least they make it agreeable. At least it’s not a slavery machine. That’s how I make peace with it, personally.”

“Has anyone ever tried to tell the people inside the truth?” Naia asked. “Growing up, I never even heard of there being a world outside the Cities. Nobody knows.”

Rae folded up her knitting supplies and walked to the doorway of the hut. “Rest yourself, child,” she said. “There will be plenty of time for troubling talk later.”

After a short while’s recuperation, Naia was ready to leave her hut and start learning the ways of her new world. Alya was her teacher for much of this education, which included learning the different plants in the forest, how to hunt the game that lived in the Oar Valley, emergency preparation, and dozens of other survival skills. The two would walk and run through the valley from learning site to learning site, as Naia grew stronger and leaner. It wasn’t but a few days before she could keep up with Alya’s fastest pace. With focus and unwavering effort, before the newcomer’s waleseeth wounds had fully healed, she had transformed her body into a powerful machine.

“You let her win, right?” asked Maran, a friend of Alya’s and a lookout for the refugee camp, after Naia had beaten Alya in a footrace.

“No, she’s…” Alya panted, “She’s really fast. I have to admit, she’s faster than me.”

“Faster than Speedfoot Alya?” Maran asked.

“Not always faster,” Naia answered, standing up for Alya. “She usually beats me, actually.”

“Hey, you won fair and square today, Naia,” Alya said.

“And she’s been out of the city, what is it, two and a half weeks?” Maran asked.

“Eighteen real days tomorrow,” Naia answered proudly.

“Amazing,” Maran said.

“What’s amazing?” Naia asked.

“People don’t usually get in shape as fast as you have, Naia,” Alya answered. She moved from catching her breath to cool-down stretches.

“Must be good genes,” Naia said with a shrug.

Maran laughed. “You’re definitely just out of the city to be talking that way. Have you told Rae about her speed?”

“Rae knows, she was her Greeter,” Alya answered.

“Have you told Olus?” Maran asked.

“Not yet,” Alya answered. “And I don’t think I want to.”

“Told me what yet?” shouted a loud voice from behind the hut where the three women were congregated.

“There he is,” Maran said. “He sounds hot today.”

The shouter came around the corner. He looked familiar to Naia. That couldn’t have been possible, she thought to herself. Could it have?

“What are you blathering on about?” Olus asked Maran. “I heard you talking about me.”

“Olus,” Maran answered, “Good to see you too. This here is Naia… I’m sorry, what’s your full name?”

“Naia Solen.”

“Naia Solen,” Maran repeated.

“Oh?” Olus asked. “Why should I care?”

“Guess how long she’s been out of the city,” Maran said.

Olus sighed as if the prospect were a waste of his time, but scanned Naia top to bottom cursorily.

“Three months?” he asked.

“Try eighteen days, tomorrow,” Maran said.

Olus was surprised enough to stop grimacing. “Really?” he asked.

“She’s even beating me in footraces, Olus,” Alya added.

“Only three times,” Naia insisted.

“Alya’s one of the fastest we’ve got,” Olus said. He rubbed his stubble and squinted in thought. “Let’s race, you and me,” he said to Naia.

“That’s alright,” Naia said. “I’m sure you’d win.”

Alya and Maran goaded her on.

“Come on, you and me, let’s race. Right now,” Olus said.

“But there’s no way…” Naia began. Something about the way Olus was posturing made her want to beat him. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll race you, I’m not afraid. I don’t have to prove anything to you.”

“All right, then,” Olus said. “Maran, count us off.”

“Olus,” Alya interrupted, “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Three…Two…One!” Maran shouted gleefully.

Naia beat Olus to the start, throwing herself into the most intense run she could muster. Olus caught up to her after twenty yards or so, and then the two overtook and ceded to each other for another hundred yards, before they reached the thicker forest. Naia hurdled over a log and hit the ground running. Olus soared over it after her, nearly overtaking her in his bound.

Naia barreled downhill, kicking up dirt and weeds as she went. Olus was soon beside her, then he gained first position. He leapt to clear another fallen tree, a shortcut, but failed. As he bounced back onto the ground with a groan, rebuked by the forest, Naia ducked under the same tree, somersaulted through its tight passage, and rolled out the other side back up onto her feet.

She had a clear lead now, but couldn’t maintain it; she simply didn’t have the endurance. She slowed, despite her hardest trying. Olus was soon again at her heels again, and then beyond and gone. When Naia couldn’t see him anymore, she collapsed, with her hands on her knees.

As she stood with one arm on a tree for balance, wheezing, Olus reappeared.

“Gotcha,” he said.

“Well, I told you you would. I’ll beat you next time,” Naia managed to say through gasps.

“That’s just the kind of attitude I’m looking for,” Olus said. “And the physical ability, too.”

“What are you talking about?” Naia asked. It seemed to be becoming her catchphrase.

“I run one of the refugee pickup operations here, Naia. And I think you would be an excellent addition to my team.”

Naia had almost finished drooling. “Okay, I’m sorry,” she said, standing up and adjusting herself. “You want me to what?”

“I want you to help me help others that were recently in your situation,” Olus said. “Help them with their transition to the real world, help them make it through the wastes.

“No one helped me,” Naia said. “I did it alone.”

“Oh. I am sorry that we missed you in your hour of need. Unfortunately, we cannot be there for everyone,” Olus said. “But clearly, the Gods have given you the power to survive on your own.”

Naia swiped a dismissive hand through the air and began to walk back towards camp.

Olus called after her. “Naia? What about my proposition, then? You’ll need to do something out here, you know. We all have to contribute.”

“I’ll think about it,” Naia said.

Olus ran to her side.

“I don’t think you understand,” he said, trying to stand in Naia’s way. “This is a very prestigious position you are being offered. People don’t walk away from this.”

“Thank you, Olus,” Naia said, dodging around him. “But again, I’ll have to think about it. I’m new here. And I’d like to do some exploring before deciding the course of my new life.”

“Hey, sure,” Olus said. “Take your time. But remember, skill like yours could potentially save a lot of lives.”

“I’ll really have to think about it, Olus,” Naia said half-heartedly.

“Okay,” Olus said. He left her side and broke into a run. “But I’m going to ask you until you say yes, okay?”

Soon he was gone, and Naia was left alone to make her way back to camp.

Alya and Maran were there waiting for her, and the results of the race.

“He won,” Naia said when she caught their anticipatory gazes. “But I’m going to beat him next time. Or the time after that.”

“You two just raced? That’s it?” Maran asked. “Where is he now?”

“I don’t know,” Naia said. “He ran off. Not before he asked me to join his group, though.”

“You were right,” Alya said to Maran.

“And you said yes?” Maran asked.

“I said I’d think about it,” Naia answered.

Alya laughed. “Naia! I’ll bet no one has ever said that to Olus. I love it!”

Naia didn’t understand what was so funny. “Whatever. I’m hungry,” she said.

“Well,” Maran said, “Let’s get the tough gal some food, then.”

After a hearty vegetable lunch, the women sought out a well-trodden trail some two miles from the main camp, where Naia continued her speed training. She also proved to be incredibly adept at hurtling logs and swinging from branches on a nearby obstacle course, though this was no surprise to Maran or Alya.

“It’s not even fair, how good she is,” Maran laughed as Naia beat her own personal time through the obstacle course for the third time. “She’s brand-new!”

“She’ll be flying before long,” Alya joked.

“What’s that?” Naia asked.

“Just saying you’re an incredible natural athlete, that’s all,” Alya answered.

“I’m just doing what my body will let me,” Naia said with a shrug. “There’s nothing incredible about it.”

“You’ll come to see how special you are,” Maran said. Her eyes lit up. “Alya! Do you think she could double back?”

Alya looked at her friend incredulously for a moment, then considered the suggestion. “If anyone could…”

Naia raised an eyebrow to ask for further explanation.

“Doubling back,” Maran explained, “Is when you re-enter Great City.”

“Why would anyone want to?” Naia asked.

“Well, for example, Olus…” Maran started.

Alya interrupted by clearing her throat.

Maran rethought her words and continued, “Some people go back for supplies that you can’t get out here.”

“Like what?” Naia asked.

“Like medidoses,” Maran answered.

Naia didn’t understand. Then she did, and she remembered where she had seen Olus.

“That man who I raced… he’s a thief, isn’t he?” she asked.

Maran shook her head at Alya. “She’s smart, too.”

“How did you know that, Naia?” Alya asked.

“Because he robbed where I work. Used to work,” Naia answered. A piece of her still felt like she had to return to that workplace soon, that she was only vacationing or dreaming. “Medmore, in Great City. Why would anyone out here want that horrible medicine? Isn’t the whole point that we don’t have to take it?”

“Because it still feels damn good, that’s why,” Maran said.

“Then what’s the point of leaving the city at all?” Naia asked.

“That’s exactly how I feel about it, Naia,” Alya said. “I haven’t touched the stuff since I left.”

“Eh. I can’t say I haven’t. And I can’t say I won’t again,” said Maran.

“But why would you use that horrible junk out here, where you have the sun, and clean air, and freedom?” Naia asked.

Maran rolled her eyes. “Everyone’s different,” she said.

“Yes, but to use mild-altering…”

“Naia,” Alya said, “Everyone is different. If another’s actions are not hurting you, it’s best to keep your opinion to yourself.”

Naia disagreed intensely. She dropped out of the conversation to take another lap around the training course.

“See?” she said when she returned to Maran and Alya, panting. “You can’t do that when you’re medidosing.”

“I don’t want to do that,” Maran said.

“Naia, your new reality is not the only reality,” Alya said.

Naia scrunched up her nose. “Huh?”

“Your new frame of mind, off of medicine. I know it’s new to you, but try to remember that your thoughts are only your own,” Alya cautioned. “You are closer now to your true nature, not the truths of nature itself. You’ll find much more variety in humanity out here in the real world. And you will have an easier time of things if you don’t try to impose what you think is right on the others you meet.”

Naia thought for a moment. “But if you were about to fall, wouldn’t you expect me to tell you to watch out?”

“Not if I was falling into a warm pool,” Maran said. “Some people like falling. Just, take it easy, you know? Like, I hate exercise, but I can still respect that you are a hell of athlete.”

“Okay.”

“Anyways, I do think you’d be a great candidate for doubling back.”

“Is there any reason to go back other than stealing medidoses?” Naia asked.

“Of course. There was once a great hero who was able to return multiple times,” Alya explained, “They managed to bring the citizens there cures for oncel and alorosis.”

“But I thought Bariandas Hull invented the cure for oncel,” Naia said.

“Of course Great City’s history says it was someone else,” Maran said. “But there was a man named Guren Frie, who managed to infiltrate, and enter the cures he had discovered into the database. We’ve got cures out here you wouldn’t believe, that they won’t use because it would disrupt protocols. Ancient cures, long forgotten. And Guren was never captured. Lives across the Anir now, in the Hallowed Islands.”

“I had a book about Guren Frie,” Naia said. “My friend, Doctor Zaan, who showed me the way out, he gave it to me. Though, I had it stolen from me in the wastes.”

“Of course you did,” Alya sighed. “The wastes are even worse than the city, to be sure. I wish we could just erase the whole disgusting place.”

“But men and women live there,” Maran said. “Would you erase them, too?”

“How did Guren get back in, anyways?” Naia asked.

“The trick is to make it back in before your biotag expires. You’ve got a month. See, most people take a lot longer to get back to living after a nanowipe. This is why you’re so impressive, why you stand a chance at doubling back. It doesn’t happen very often,” Maran said.

Naia thought for a moment. “What could I do, if I were to reenter Great City?”

“She could plant the Seed,” Maran whispered.

“Come on, tell me what you’re talking about,” Naia said to the two women. “Just tell me, I’m right here and you’re going to anyways.”

“The Seed,” Maran said, “Is an information virus that would shut the city down. It would open the gates. There would be chaos, surely, but if we outsiders were ready to handle the refugees and the hundreds of thousands of sick people, it would be the greatest thing to ever happen. Since the building of Cities, of course.”

“I’ll do it,” Naia said without a second’s thought.

Alya and Maran laughed.

“No, child, it’s not that easy,” Alya said. “It would be very complicated.”

“So what?” Naia asked. “What else am I going to do? What else could I do? Work for Olus? Knit with Rae? You said it yourself, a situation like mine doesn’t happen very often.”

Maran and Alya exchanged doubtful looks.

“I understand if you two don’t want to be involved. Just tell me how to do it, and I will,” Naia said.

“It isn’t that easy,” Maran said. “You don’t just walk back through the front door.”

“Let’s go talk to Rae,” Alya said. “Let’s see what she thinks about all of this.”

The women found Rae tending to her garden.

“It’s sad, to think that this will all be gone so soon,” Rae said with a bittersweet smile as they approached. She cleared some dirt from the base of a flower sprout. “But then, everything must go, to be born again. What are you girls up to? What brings you all here?”

“Hi Rae,” Maran said. She pinched at a cojito from a nearby plant. “Do you mind?”

“No, go ahead. They’re perfectly ripe right now,” Rae said.

Maran popped the little green fruit into her mouth. She tossed one to Naia, who spat it out after tasting how bitter it was.

“It’s an acquired taste,” Maran assured her.

“Rae,” Alya started, unsure of how to continue. “Rae, we have… Naia is in unbelievable shape already, and she’s not out even three weeks.”

“That’s very good for you, Naia,” Rae said. She took a huge sniff of a pink bush. “Aaah…” she said, “Now that’s good jundarose!”

“Rae, what I mean to say is,” Alya continued, “Maran and I think she might be a candidate to plant the Seed.”

For a moment, it seemed as if Rae hadn’t heard.

“Rae, did you hear me?” Alya asked.

“I heard you, child,” Rae answered. “But that’s out of the question.”

“But why?” Maran asked. “It’s been so long since anyone tried.”

“It’s been so long for a good reason, Maran,” Rae said sternly. “And Alya, you should know better. With another move coming up so soon, we can’t afford to be wasting time with talk like this. We have to move three camps in the next week.”

“But we wouldn’t have to move at all if she were successful,” Maran said.

“Do you remember how they punished us after Guren?” Rae asked, stopping her gardening for the first time since the women had showed up. “Is that really how you want to live? It’s out of the question.”

“That’s it?” Maran asked. “We’re smacked away like a wulf puppy once, and we give up? What are we saving out here, if such cowardice is the law of the land?”

“Don’t speak to me about cowardice, Maran,” Rae said coldly.

Maran looked like she wanted to lash out at Rae, but instead folded in on herself and grew quiet.

“What’s the hurt, anyways, Rae, to just try?” Alya asked, redoubling her efforts. “It would mean so much to everyone, to the whole movement.”

“You’re too smart for this, Alya,” Rae said. “Naia, you shouldn’t waste your time thinking of anything other than rest right now. I want all three of you to give up this foolish pursuit, understood?”

“Yes, Rae,” Maran and Alya said in concert, as if they had lamented the same way many times before.

Naia didn’t say a word, as she was still trying to make sense of the truth behind each argument.

***

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The Eternal Cradle

  • Author: Graham M. Irwin
  • Published: 2016-12-07 23:50:10
  • Words: 78642
The Eternal Cradle The Eternal Cradle