Igms issue 20, p.3
IGMS Issue 20, page 3
The last echoes of the engine's low thunder faded and the city grew silent around us but for the low sigh of the wind and the lonely cries of birds. When the woman-shaped thing stepped toward me, the quiet made the soft music of her voice easy to hear.
"Call me Hera," she said. "I've come to take you somewhere safe."
"Safe." I didn't want to look at her beauty, so I stared around at the empty buildings. "Safe. Okay. But not yet."
"What's wrong?" Her words were purest sympathy, and that frightened me, too.
"Wrong?" The first day, when the wasps had circled through the city like a black blizzard, leaving behind drifts of the dead, I had screamed my voice away. "Did you do this, Hera? Did you make this happen?"
"Yes. We were forced to this." I made myself look at her, and saw the sorrow filling her golden eyes. "It was a terrible thing, but it is done. You have nothing to fear now."
"I know," I whispered. I pulled free the gun I'd tucked behind me in the waistband of my jeans, brought it up and fired, one, two, three shots, each recoil jerking my aim up and away, but I was sure at least one shot hit as she stumbled backwards. Then I felt the sting, sharp on my wrist, saw the blue-black blur winging away and had time to think, Finally, before darkness washed over me.
White above and white below, I floated in blankness. Eyes blinked, focused. Blank ceiling and a cloud of soft sheets wrapped me, flashes of blue sky and ocean through curtains that swayed at the touch of a breeze. The soft sound of the sea breathing, the cries of gulls, the smell of salt. She'd brought me to the beach. Raising my hand, I searched the pale skin of a wrist that had been scrubbed clean while I drifted dreamless until I found the red mark of the sting. Not death, not for me. I closed my eyes and wondered why the end of the world kept passing me by.
"You're awake." The voice was quiet, but clearly human. She stepped into view, short, body heavy with child. "They asked if I would look after you." Brown eyes watched me with detached concern in a young face. Staring at her swollen belly, I realized that at thirty-six I was probably going to be one of the oldest ones left, and that thought made me want to roll away from her and close my eyes. But it wouldn't end that easily.
"Why didn't she kill me?"
"I don't know," she shrugged. "Is that what you wanted?"
"Maybe." I pulled myself up, wondering if I really did want to die. I felt too hollow to be sure. "Did I kill her?"
"No." Her voice was empty, flat. She didn't care any more than me. "There's breakfast. My name's Maria."
"Okay. I'm Emily."
"My husband was in the army. Got sent out six months ago. First month, I cried every time the doorbell rang, knowin' it would be somebody come to tell me he was dead. But after awhile, I just couldn't keep that up. So I put the fear away. Just ignored it, buried it." Maria took another drink of coffee, put it back down next to a plate of eggs barely touched. "The day everybody died, I didn't move, not that whole day. Just huddled up and cried, scared and crazy. Second day though, I got hungry, so I had breakfast. And y'know, the fear was gone. He was dead, I knew it. Everybody was. I knew I didn't need to be scared no more. So I was okay."
I watched her as I finished my food. Her eyes were dry and distant as she stared out at the ocean. None of us were going to be sane. "Maria. What is Hera?"
The little woman turned her cup and stared down into it, watching the dark liquid move. "If you wait a little, she'll come. She'll tell you." Bitter and dark, her soft voice mirrored the coffee she held.
"I want you to tell me." Questions and answers, such a familiar dance, it helped brush back the horror that made me stupid. "Please?"
"She says she's an ambassador. That's what she said she was made to be. To talk to us. Little bugs to kill us, big ones to clean us up, and pretty women to tell us it's all for the best. They're strange."
"Some kind of machine, but alive, too. They all are. They call themselves the Yil-Rek."
Behind her, the sky was blue and innocent, a curtain across the darkness. "Aliens."
"We're precious, they say, life is precious and they couldn't watch us destroy ourselves. So they came to help."
"Strange saviors," I whispered, and her eyes met mine, then flashed away.
"I used to smoke. Doctor told me it was bad for the baby, but I'd been doing it since I was fourteen. Couldn't stop. When I came, one of the pretty women gave me something to drink. I haven't smoked since. Haven't wanted to, haven't needed to. Better for the baby, she said, better for me." I watched her fingers twitch uneasy, and I could imagine a slim white cylinder pinched between them.
It was such a small thing, compared to everything else, but I felt it. God, I felt it. For the first time since the death, something besides darkness flickered in my heart. In the ashes of horror and despair, an ember of fury bloomed. "That's crap, Maria. Don't let them confuse you. You don't save anyone by killing them."
"I know." Her voice cracked for the first time, and I could see the mad despair shining in the unshed tears in her eyes. "They murdered everyone, and what the hell are we going to do? How do we keep them from killing us?"
"I don't know." I whispered. "Maybe I'll try to find out." It was something else to do, at least. Besides suicide.
On the beach far below the balcony, something moved. Gleaming blue-black like dark water, it crossed the sand and slipped into the surf, vanishing beneath the waves. I stared down through the wheeling flocks of gulls startled up by its passage and shuddered. It had moved like a crab, but it must have been the size of one of the cars that had once filled the empty streets below.
Behind me, my room was empty. Maria had left after she had managed to wrap herself again in her shell of indifference. Did she stay in another room in this same hotel, along with the other women they had gathered here? Or did we each get a building to ourselves, a beach palace of our own from which to stare at a world that no longer belonged to us? I didn't ask. Alone, I'd gone out to the balcony and waited for the thing I'd tried to murder to come to me.
Not long after I saw the monster cross the sand, she did.
I heard the knock, once, twice. In the quiet, it was easy to hear the soft sound of the door click open. Staring at the sea, I knew she was there, behind me, and my knuckles whitened on the rail. What was worse, fear or despair? I needed some other choice besides those two to live. "I saw something on the beach." My words were soft but steady, a small first victory. "Like a crab."
"A cleaner." Still an angel's voice, touched with all the patient sympathy of heaven. "They've been hard at work, stripping this city and the waters around it of your poisons."
"A cleaner." I thought of the empty roads that had greeted me at the edge of the city. Did they gather the dead, these cleaners, and hide their shameful decay inside their blue-black bodies of polished glass? The thought made the dark despair that I'd been swimming in for days churn up again, threatening to drag me down. I clenched my hands into fists to rap my knuckles hard against the rail until the pain of it helped me force the darkness away and I could face her.
Standing framed in the balcony door, she looked just the same as she had on the empty interstate, unchanged except for the two small holes that marked the front of her dress, one low near her left hip, the other just beneath her right breast. Did she want to make me face this evidence of my attack to remind me of my violence? Or to prove my impotence? Probably both.
"Emily. Are you all right?" Her eyes were on my hands, on the dull marks of pain I'd written on my skin. Her concern over such a tiny hurt made me wish I could shoot her again, and that anger was something I could use to push down the despair.
"I'm fine. So are you."
"Your gun couldn't kill me." She stepped forward, onto the balcony with me, her perfection like a threat. "It hurt, if that makes you feel better."
"Should it?" I could make myself focus on her face, if I tried. "You killed everyone. Everyone I've ever met, I've ever known. Everyone in the world, almost. Should hurt
"I don't know. I'm trying to understand. Why did you do it?"
I rubbed my aching knuckles, then folded my hands together and looked at her again. "If I could tell you, would you really understand?"
"Perhaps. It was what I was made for. To understand, to empathize, to teach. That's why I exist. You must learn the truth about what we've done, you must understand why we were forced to take the steps we took."
"I've seen your truth in a line of corpses stretching across this whole state."
"No." I shook my head. "No. You have a story you want to tell me. So tell it. We can argue after."
Yil-Rek. Technological children of the alien Rek, they were living machines made for the stars. I drank my juice and turned her words over. "What a load of crap."
Behind me she sighed, a breath of air laden with pity. Damn, I hated her.
I shook my head and clicked the glass down on the table before I turned to face her. "Five hundred years in space, looking for intelligent life, and when you finally find it you wipe it out? How the hell does that make sense?"
"I don't think you understand," and there was a thread of reproach in that silken voice. "I told you, we had found intelligent life once before. Or its tomb at least, on the burned-out cinder they'd made of their world." She leaned forward and the flicker of anger in her eyes sent a jolt of fear through me. "They killed themselves and every bit of life beyond the bacteria on their world. We came too late to save them. We couldn't allow you to destroy yourselves."
"So you did it for us."
"Yes." The anger was gone, replaced again by perfect sorrow. "We had no choice. You were too far down the road to ruin for any other redemption."
Look what you made me do. I had heard that enough in my life. "Redemption?"
"For your world. For your children. Now, with the pain of what we had to do so keen, I know it's hard to understand. I hope that when your child is born in a world free of violence and poison, you'll see the truth."
"Don't," I snapped.
"Your son will be born in a paradise --"
"I said don't!" I stood, glaring at her, anger roaring through me. "Don't play that card. It's a cheap, crappy move. I didn't want to be pregnant. I didn't choose it. I wasn't even sure I was going to keep this." I waved my hand down at my belly, still smooth and innocent-looking. "Don't try to make me glad you killed the world to make it a better place for a son -- a kid I never wanted." My voice cracked, and I realized I was yelling, throat throbbing again from old abuse.
"Ah," she sighed softly, wise and sad and I couldn't take it and the glass was back in my hand and then gone, flipping across the room at that perfect face. Fast as a striking snake she moved, and the glass flashed past her to shatter against the wall. "So." She stared sadly at me. "Is that your species' only answer? To lash out at your problems, to hurt anything that threatens you? No matter how innocent?"
"Damn you." I whispered the words slow, making my rage a tool that let me stare her in the eyes. "You killed everyone."
"Not you. Not your child. We saved you."
"I didn't ask to be saved."
"Your race prayed for it in every temple it built. To every god you made, you wailed your failures." The pity slipped from her golden eyes. "You all knew your world was wrong. You've begged for judgment day from the start of history, and it's come. Accept it." When her voice emptied of sympathy, it was as cold and hard as the vacuum that she had been born to. I felt myself shaking again. Judgment day had come, and our fate was in the hands of devils.
I was standing, blinking sleep from my eyes in the darkness and I didn't know why. Then came the sound of guns. Staccato shots, they echoed through the silent city and broke the wave's steady hiss. I stared out at the night, then ran for the door.
Hera had left me the night before, and through the darkness and the whole next day I'd waited for her return. Waited, alone, for nothing. I'd stared at the door, wondering. Had turned its handle in my hand and felt the pop of the catch, but I'd stayed inside.
Now though, I slapped the handle and was through the empty hall and into the room across, searching through its wide windows for some sign of the gunshots.
Something shining moved over the city, darting and silent. A lance of light dropped from it, picking out something on a street I couldn't see. The gunfire came again.
"C'mon girl," I whispered, hands pressed hard against the glass. "Hurt them."
In the spotlight, something moved, glittered, fell like snow. There was one last shot, then silence, and the light from the ship snapped off. I closed my eyes and tipped my head against the glass. I could see her in my mind, a woman alone, curled around a swollen belly and a gun, haloed in the moonlight by the tiny alien machines.
"Damn it," I said, and when the window rang with the words I realized I was shouting. "Damn you, Hera!"
"Why?" It was a small voice, a shy voice, a nervous little boy voice.
Not alone. So stupid to think I ever was. Though I couldn't hide my jump, I made myself turn slowly to face whatever was behind me.
In the moonlight I saw it, crouched on the floor, its blue-black shell a deeper shadow in the darkness. "I was listening. Why do you hate her?"
"Because she's a liar," I whispered. The pale light sketched enough detail to make my skin crawl. A little brother of the thing on the beach, too many legs and slowly waving eyes, it was hideous. Still, this alien thing frightened me less than its beautiful sister. "What do you want?"
"To speak to you. To learn about you. To seek forgiveness for what was done. This course of action . . . Not all factions agreed upon it."
Factions. I clenched my eyes shut and shook my head. Damn these things. Their killing wasps had brought despair and Hera had given me rage. Now this horrible thing comes to me trailing a ragged thread of hope, and damn me if it couldn't be a lie. "Why not?"
"We were made to find life. Not for this." Its little-boy voice was slow and sad. "They said you were sure to destroy yourselves anyway. We could give you a kinder ending, one that brought hope. But still we wondered -- kindness or not, did we have the right?"
"No." There was a slithering rustle, the thing moving across the floor. I opened my eyes and found it, a clot of midnight heading towards the door. "Who are they?"
It crouched on the threshold, hesitant, one leg flexing as if it contemplated simply rushing away. But it answered. "The Rek."
"The Rek," I breathed. "Talk to me again."
"I shouldn't. I'm an engineer, not an ambassador. I wasn't made for this."
"Please. After I meet with Hera again. Please?"
"Please?" It bobbed on its nest of legs, then it was gone, lost in the darkness, its last word a fading whisper. "Perhaps."
Alone, I stared up at the stars. A trick? There was no way to know, and hope could simply be a new path to despair. But if it was true . . .
I curled around the subtle queasiness of my belly and my mind worked, plotting. That thing had been listening. Not all factions agreed. The Rek.
I knew so little, but it was enough to make me think of hope and vengeance as I went back to my bed and to what sleep I could claim.
"Tell me about your masters."
"Our makers, not masters." Hera stared at me, frowning. That little expression of disapproval on her angel's face made me want to cower. I hated her for that.
"Your makers. The Rek." I pushed away my empty breakfast plate and rubbed my palm over my belly. First ravenous, than nauseous, and this fight wasn't going to help. "Why'd they make you do it?"
"They didn't make us do anything. We decided your fate with them. You were destroying yourselves and your planet. Life is the rarest gift in the universe and you were destroying it."
"Again with this. Kill to be kind, to save." I made myself watch her alligator-gold eyes and wished I could read them. "Save the pregnant ones, and you have a new generation ready to be born and raised under your gentle tutelage.
"You don't understand."
Hera's beautiful face was set, almost petulant. I couldn't fault their artistry; their ambassadors looked like everything we wished we were.
"You don't want understanding. You want surrender." I watched the white curtains that framed the balcony as they billowed and danced in the sea-breeze. There'd been no monsters on the beach this morning, though I'd watched since dawn.
"You know so little. How can you hate us when you don't understand us?"
"Stop with the brainwashing for a minute, will you?" I breathed deep, trying to settle my fractious belly. "Maybe it would've been different if you hadn't found that dead planet. If you hadn't seen that life could destroy itself, even intelligent life. Especially intelligent life. I think finding that place made this possible. How did your masters feel about that dead world?"
Golden eyes narrowed, looking at me. She knew I was baiting her. "Our makers were horrified. To see such potential destroyed, after they had sought it for so long. They wept for the loss."
"They were sad."
"They were afraid."
"Afraid?" Black hair stroked the burnished skin of her shoulders as she tipped her head, staring at me. "What --"
"Afraid." I snapped out the word like a lash. "That's what you don't understand. They made you able to love, so you would love them, but they didn't teach you fear. They knew that'd make you dangerous. When you found that dead world, you didn't like it, because you were taught to love life. But the Rek were afraid. Life, alien, intelligent, and so hostile it turned on itself in destruction. Then you found us. You found us, and the Rek were afraid."
For an instant something touched her eyes, something besides pity or condescension. It may have been uncertainty. I wanted to believe that. I needed to believe I'd said something that had unbalanced her.
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