BOROSEVO HAD ITS URBAN farms, grand towers of glass that filtered the bloated sunlight into something kinder for the cultivation of terranic life, but they were not enough to feed the metropolis’s five million people, and man does not live by vegetable matter alone. The rest of the local food
came from the ocean, brought in from the fisheries to docks along the
southern face of the merchants’ quarter. Most of the city’s homeless stayed away: its cripples, its orphans, its broken men. But not us.
“You really don’t believe me?” Cat asked, scratching at her hair, rough where she’d hacked it shorter. Before the Rot reduced her, before the plague that swept the city in my second year laid her low, she was bright and fiery.
She was happy, truly happy, content to ply the streets and scrounge and
steal, as happy in her ignominy as I was in my freedom. It was what bound us together. “I swear, they’re real.”
Following her, I rubbed my permanently smooth chin—the follicles there had been burned out on my thirteenth birthday in accordance with Delian custom. I shook my head. “I just haven’t seen them.” Had Emesh even been on the list of planets Gibson had quizzed me on? I struggled to remember.
“I haven’t seen this planet you say you’re from,” Cat pointed out, smiling in a way that hid her teeth, “but I’m sure it’s there.”
“That’s different,” I said chidingly, following her down into an open
culvert that would take us under an indoor bazaar for offworld tourists and to the warehouse yard and packing houses where the fishing trawlers brought their catch. The fishing trawlers with their allegedly inhuman
“The coloni are real, Had.” She squeezed my hand. “They’re why the others don’t come this way.” She meant the others of the city’s poor. The fishery warehouses were poorly guarded, it was said, but everyone was terrified of the planet’s natives. The Umandh. From what I had heard, the creatures were squat, monstrous, and wholly unlike a man in shape: three-legged with flesh like stone or coral, their mouths thick with filaments like strong arms.
Rather than answer her, I gestured to the rough mortar above our heads. “Is this going to fill completely when the tide changes?”
She grinned, this time revealing her teeth. “It will a little, yeah.”
“A little?” I repeated her words, tone twisting upward to turn them into a question even as the old Marlowe grin twisted my lips.
“Move your ass and you won’t find out.” She laughed, shoved me down the flooded culvert.
We walked on for the better part of five minutes, knee-deep in seawater.
The water rose in gentle waves that brushed our thighs, and a fish swam past us, frightened by our passage. “Why don’t the others come this way? If it’s as easy to steal fish from this place as you say it is . . .”
“The coloni scare them!”
“Why?” I asked, genuinely perplexed. I had seen several holograph films on the coloni before: the subject-races of the Imperium, the primitive aliens who had been captured and downtrodden. We had found intelligent creatures on forty-eight worlds: some bright, some dim, others strange.
Forty-eight times we had enslaved them, for none was more advanced than the discovery of bronze. The Cavaraad on Sadal Suud, the Irchtani of
Judecca, the Arch-Builders of Ozymandias. There were more, many more. Some protected, others extinct, ground into the dust by the necessity of human expansion. Only the Cielcin were different. Only they were strong enough to resist.
The ancients used to complain that the stars of heaven were too numerous to suppose that we were the only life, the only inheritors of the universe. They used to think it strange that no other races cried out into the darkness, their radio waves and noise blasting across the unending Dark.
The truth we discovered when our long ships plied the oceans of night and planted flags on far shores was simple. We were the first. The Chantry took that fact to heart, declaring loudly and often that the stars were ours. That they belonged to the Children of Earth. They built their religion on that
essential fact as much as they did on a fear of the corrupting power of technology and the pollution of the human form. We had a right to
conquest, they claimed, as the ancient Spaniards had claimed when their sad ships crashed ashore.
Cat hadn’t answered my question but had walked on ahead of me in silence, a sudden tightness in her person belying a nervousness that
betrayed her in the shaking of her small-boned hands, in the taut line of her shoulders beneath the ripped dress she wore over her scant frame. I repeated myself. “Why do the coloni scare them?”
She looked back over her shoulder at me, brow furrowed as if I were the stupidest man she’d ever met. “They’re demons, Had. Why don’t they scare you?”
I had no answer to that. Only a glimmer of the curiosity and excitement that had moved me through books and holographs as a boy. “You think we can do this?”
“Steal from the coloni?” She shrugged, pausing at a fork in the culvert to get her bearings. Dimly I could hear the tread of several thousand feet in the bazaar above our heads, dull and constant thunder covering up the susurrus of human voices, bleeding down through stone as from another world. “It’s not hard. They don’t guard the fish.” She moved down the path to the left.
I followed after her, kicking my knees up to move more precisely in the water behind her. My added height was a boon and made my progress
easier even as my head threatened to scrape the ceiling. “What’s the problem, then?” I kept my eyes on the swaying of her narrow hips in the gloom, on the way the damp fabric of her dress clung to her frame.
She looked back at me, eyes flashing in the gloom. “You ain’t listening.
They’re . . .” She shook her head. “They’re wrong.”
The first thing I noticed was the droning. At first I thought it was the flies; such a plague of the ever-present things was common in the blighted city.
Only this sound was deeper than any insect’s patter, deeper than the deepest human voice. All the air resonated as if we stood packed beneath the skin of some mighty drumhead, making all the little hairs on my arms tighten and
stand alert. Cat shrank back at the sound, cowering toward the spot where we’d clambered up onto the pier outside the tin-walled warehouse. For a
moment I thought the sound was coming from the rockets streaking overhead. This sound had no apparent direction, though it was obviously close. Two great fishing trawlers waited at the end of the pier, bobbing on the surf, their white-painted hulls long chipped and speckled with salt and rust. I darted across the pier, dragging Cat behind me into the shadow of a stack of refrigerated crates, steel-sided and slick with condensation. I
pressed my forehead to the metal, grateful for the cold and the brief feeling of cleanliness the brush of that fresh water brought to my salt-caked skin.
Looking up, I found what I was looking for: a fire escape, the brown metal structure bolted to the tin siding of the warehouse. I chewed my lower lip, gauging the height, the distance.
The droning had only grown louder. Cat’s jagged fingernails cut into the flesh of my arm, and I looked down at her. How clearly I remember that face. The smooth lines of cheekbone and brow beneath brown skin mottled by sun and salt; the eyes wide and alive and afraid; the small nose; the
crooked teeth of her smile, which was absent then, washed over with fear. I squeezed her hand. “We’ll be fine. In and out.” She didn’t say anything.
“You can wait here.”
“Alone?” Her amber eyes widened, “What if one comes out?”
“This was your idea!” I hissed, craning my neck to peer over the refrigerated crates and back at the ships. A pair of human douleters descended the gangway, khaki uniforms sticking to their fat frames, bald heads shining. I ducked lower, watching. One man carried a long lash coiled in his fist, the other a stun baton such as the prefects sometimes carried.
Cat averted her eyes, looked down at her bare feet, at the gray sand
crusted there. “I know, I . . .” I saw her jaw tighten, resolve stealing over her, through her. She released my arm, and I kissed her forehead before vaulting up onto the crate behind me, fingertips catching on the rubber seal that kept the cold air in. I turned, reevaluating the distance to the collapsed ladder hanging above. “Hadrian, wait! Help me up!”
“I’ll pull the ladder down!” I said back, struggling to keep my voice low. Turning, I leaped into the empty air, hands closing around a strut at the base of the ladder. My few months in Borosevo had boiled all the softness and
extra weight from me, and merely moving in the increased gravity had
strengthened me. Still, I was lucky not to be seen and luckier still that the horrible deep droning helped to mask the clangor and squeal of the ladder
as it came down. I gestured for Cat to hurry up, and before long we were on
the roof, the sea wind tearing over us. For a second it was like being home again, above and surrounded by the sea. The smell of salt was the same, though the pink-umber sky and the angry orange sun were wrong. The rippling, turbulent shadows of the air spun arabesques against the white gravel that covered the rooftop. We hurried to the door, opened it slow and steady onto an unlit stair, followed it down onto a catwalk of the same rickety construction as the fire escape.
The songs and operas, the holographs and poems and epics all say that the moment of revelation is a shock, a climax, an instant of crushing realization that alters the world. They are not wrong. Ask anyone who stood with me at Gododdin, who saw that murdered sun go down in fire, and they will confirm the truth of those tales. And yet we are quick to overlook the quiet revelations, the moments that dawn not from the chaos of the world but from a hollow seed in the pit of one’s stomach.
Cat and I looked down from that catwalk onto open crates packed with small, silver fishes in salt and larger ones on ice. We looked down on uniformed douleters with lashes and batons in hand and on their charges. I am not sure what I expected from the coloni, from the indigenes who had owned Emesh before it was a province of man, but it was not this.
The Umandh stood like pillars swaying in an unfelt wind, like walking turrets as tall or taller than a man, each balanced on three bowed legs that emerged radially from what I suppose one might call their waists. Where true towers had crenellations, crowns of time-eaten stone, these coralline creatures with flesh like white-pink rock had fleshy cilia wide as a man’s arm and nearly three times as long. Without being told I knew that they
were the source of the omnipresent droning. Despite the baking heat within the warehouse, I felt a chill wash over me, whispered, “They’re singing.”
Cat looked at me sidelong, but I did not linger to watch her. I only had
eyes for the inhuman things below us. I had spent years, countless hours, in study of the Cielcin: their language, their customs, their histories. Suddenly they—the implacable enemy of man—seemed very human to me indeed.
The Cielcin had two eyes, two arms, two legs, two sexes, however bound up one was in the other. They had a spoken language, wore clothes and
armor, ate at tables, talked of honor and family. They had blood that moved through veins in shapes so like our own.
The Umandh were different, as if Red-Handed Evolution, in her caprice, had wrought the Emeshi natives as a critique of our similarity with the Pale
Cielcin. Two of the creatures lifted one of the crates with their cilia, twining them round the massive carrying bars. Their trunks vibrated, changing the pitch of the droning song. For the first time, I noticed the thick collars tight about their midsections, the metal chafing their gnarled, pearlescent flesh an angry red. They put me in mind of trees about which a wire had been tied so that as time passes and the wood grows, it cuts deeper and deeper still.
One of the humans cracked his whip in the air. “Faster, you dogs!” he shouted, rough voice recalling for me Gila and the dock workers who had
robbed my unconscious body and looted Demetri’s ship. The huge creatures lurched, their steady droning flexing like a plucked harp string with the
“They’ll be taking it to a barge to go into the city,” Cat whispered, her breath hot on my neck as she leaned in close. “One of those boats. We need to hurry.”
It was my turn to grab her by the arm. “Wait until they’re outside again.” She sucked on the inside of her cheek, torn between hunger and fear. “And give me the sack.”
She glared at me. “I can do it, Had.”
“I know you can, but let me.” I kept watching, a frown deepening on my face. “Why are they using them as slaves? You’d think there would be
“They can live in the water,” Cat said. “They walk the seabed.”
“Shepherds?” I frowned again. “For fish?” The droning shook my whole body as I snatched the plastic sack from Cat’s fingers and shook the water of the culvert off it. We wouldn’t need much. A sackful would last the two of us a week, longer if we could find something to brine the fish in. As I
watched, one of the douleters lashed out with his baton, striking the narrow trunk of one Umandh. The creature let out a cry like an elephant’s trumpeting, like a whale song, like a choked human sob. I cannot describe it. No human word was meant to capture that alien agony. It lurched, going to one of its three knees, trunk sagging, wilting like a flower in the first rush of summer heat. The huge wicker basket it carried upended, spilling fish out onto the floor of the warehouse.
The douleter swore. “The fuck’s wrong with you, Seventeen?” While he spoke, a man with a heavy console twiddled a pair of dials, altering the pitch and frequency of the great droning hum that filled the air. He was translating, I realized, and an ancient, half-forgotten part of me grinned
within, forgetting the horror of the moment. I wanted nothing more than to take the box apart, to sit and talk with the man and with the creatures he
was trained to speak to. Was it a language, then? Or something else
entirely? I wanted to know. Had to know. Until my stomach turned over within me, groaning with the hunger that had become a part of me, of my life.
The timbre of the drone changed again as the stumbled Umandh worked to pick up its fallen fish, tentacles grasping, shuffling across the smooth
concrete floor. It was strange, for most of the alien song remained unchanged, the difference something fine, something minute—counterpoint in a symphony whose notes were so indistinct I could not make out one from the next.
The man with the console spoke. “It’s apologizing, Quintus.”
“It had fucking better,” the first man said, and he struck his charge
again. The Umandh let out another groan, though the droning never ceased. “Look at this, fish all over the Earth-burning floor,” he hissed past his teeth. “You fucking . . . beast!” He kicked the spindly creature to the ground between the second word and the last, stomped on its midsection. Though it had no face I could see, I was reminded of that day—it felt like ten thousand years ago—when I had watched our gladiator stomp on the face of a mutilated slave in the Colosso. Here it was again: the face of our species, raw and red and exposed. The douleter, Quintus, spurred the fallen Umandh in the ribs. “Stand up!” It didn’t stand.
I tell myself now that I could have stopped it, that I could have stepped in, dropped off that catwalk and onto the hot-blooded overseer. It is hard remembering those brief years of powerlessness after all the power I held in the war. The gears of the Empire grind their human chaff to powder, and it is only the rarest creatures who endure. Who grow. Who rise. We sing
songs, spin tales of Sir Antony Damrosch—born a serf himself—or of Lucas Skye, stories I had shared with Cat by night a hundred times. We like to imagine it is easy to rise, to stand. The be a hero. It is not. This was not my moment. I was not a hero. Am not, or was not then.
I was only a thief.
“Stand up!” the douleter commanded, his assistant twiddling the dials to add this tone to the song. “Stand up, damn you!” The stony flesh was not
stone, and it cracked under the man’s boot, leaking something yellow and glutinous that filled the air instantly with a stench like the deepest pit of
hell. When the Umandh didn’t stand, the man swung his baton down like a lictor’s sword. Once. Twice. Three times. The creature’s groaning ceased, collapsed into blubbering as it bled onto the floor.
“Quintus, stop!” The other overseer let his console fall, dangling by the strap about his neck as he hurried to stop his companion. “Leave the beast alone!” Something in my guts unclenched, untangled, for there it was: the other face of humankind, Mercy. He caught Quintus by the shoulder, pulling him back before he could strike another blow. “Boss will have your bonus if you kill the colonus.”
The thing in my guts twisted back into place. Not the other face of humanity at all. Only old greed. Cat whispered beside me, “We need to hurry.”
“Not yet!” I said, resting a hand on her leg where she crouched at the railing beside me. “Soon.” I gritted my teeth, watching as the second douleter—with the help of another of the coloni—helped the wounded
creature back to its three splayed feet.
The droning shifted, rose in pitch, ululating, pulsing like a heartbeat.
The second douleter checked the screen on his console, said, “They wish to take Seventeen to the surgeon, Quint.”
“Fucking . . .” The slavemaster shook his head. “Fine! Do it! Engin will have my ass if we lose another one.” He massaged the arm that held his baton as if it pained him, as if it and not he were responsible.
Then they were gone, passing out the door and into the afternoon light. “I’ll be right back.” I patted Cat’s leg, dropped down the nearest ladder, hit
the floor next to one of the open crates. Acting fast, I dropped two large fish
—tuna, I thought—into the plastic sac, along with two snake-like creatures whose names I did not know. I proceeded in this fashion, stuffing fishes into the sack. I had enough for three days, then four. Enough to feed the little orphan boys Cat cared for when they couldn’t beg bread from the chanters.
Grinning, I mounted the ladder and climbed.