Red puzzles through a labyrinth of bones.
Other pilgrims wander here, in sa ron robes or homespun brown. Sandals shu e over rocks, and high winds whistle around cave corners. Ask the pilgrims how the labyrinth came to be, and they o er answers varied as their sins. Giants made it, this one claims, before the gods slew the giants, then abandoned Earth to its fate at mortal hands. (Yes, this is Earth-long before the ice age and the mammoth, long before academics many centuries downthread will think it possible for the planet to have spawned pilgrims, or labyrinths. Earth.) The rst snake built the labyrinth, says another, screwing down through rock to hide from the judgment of the sun. Erosion made it, says a third, and the grand dumb motion of tectonic plates, forces too big for we cockroaches to conceive, too slow for may y us to observe.
They pass among the dead, under chandeliers of shoulder blades, rose windows outlined by rib cages. Metacarpals outline looping owers.
Red asks the other pilgrims nothing. She has her mission. She takes care. She should meet no opposition as she makes a small twist this far upthread. At the labyrinth’s heart there is a cavern, and soon into that cavern will come a gust of wind, and if that wind whistles over the right uted bones, one pilgrim will hear the cry as an omen that will drive him to renounce all worldly goods and retreat to build a hermitage on a distant mountain slope, so that hermitage will exist in two hundred years to shelter a woman eeing with child in a storm, and so it goes. Start a stone rolling, so in three centuries you’ll have an avalanche. Little ash to such an assignment, less challenge, so long as she stays on script. Not even a taunt to disturb her path.
Did her adversary-did Blue-ever read her letter? Red liked writing it- winning tastes sweet, but sweeter still to triumph and tease. To dare reprisal. Every op since, she’s watched her back, moved with double caution, waiting for payback, or for Commandant to nd her small breach of discipline and bring the scourge. Red has her excuses ready: Since her disobedience she’s been a better agent, more meticulous.
But no reply has come.
Perhaps she was wrong. Perhaps her enemy does not care, after all.
The pilgrims follow guides down the path of wisdom. Red departs and wanders narrow, twisting passages in the dark.
Darkness does not bother her. Her eyes do not work like normal eyes. She scents the air, and olfactory analytics ash into her brain, o ering a trail. At a particular niche, she draws from her satchel a small tube that sheds red light on the skeletons arrayed within. The rst time she does this, she nds nothing. The second, her light glints o a pulsing stripe on this femur, that jaw.
Satis ed, she adds femur and jaw to her bag, then banishes the light and wanders deeper down.
Imagine her in utter night, invisible. Imagine the footsteps, one by one, that never tire, never slip on cave dust or gravel. Imagine the precision with which her head swivels on her thick neck, swinging a measured arc from side to side. Hear (you can, just) gyroscopes whir in her gut, lenses click beneath the camou age jelly of those pure black eyes.
She moves as fast as possible, within operating parameters.
More red lights. More bones join the others in the sack. She does not need to check her watch. A timer ticks down in the corner of her vision.
When she thinks she’s found the bones she needs, she descends.
Far below the path of wisdom, the masters of this dark place ran out of corpses. The niches remain, waiting-perhaps for Red.
Even the niches stop, eventually.
Soon after that, guards set upon her: eyeless giants grown by the sharptoothed mistresses of this place. The giants’ nails are yellow, thick, and cracked, and their breath smells better than one might expect.
Red breaks them quickly and quietly. She has no time for the less violent approach.
When she can no longer hear their moans, she reaches the cavern.
She knows by the changed echoes of her footsteps that she has found the place. When she kneels and stretches forth her hand, she feels ten centimeters of remaining ledge, then the abyss. Strong cold wind gusts past her: the Earth’s own breath, or some great monster’s far below. It howls. The noise clatters o the bone mobiles the nuns make down here, to remind themselves of the impermanence of esh. The bones sing and turn, hanging from marrow twine in the darkness.
Red feels her way along the ledge until she nds one of the great anchored tree trunks from which the mobiles hang. She shimmies out upon the trunk until she reaches the bones of some ancient nun, hung by some other.
The countdown clock in her eye warns her how little time is left.
She cuts the old bones free with her diamond-sharp nails and takes her replacements from her pack. Strings them one by one with marrow twine, connecting skull and bula, jaw and sternum, coccyx and xiphoid process.
The timer ticks down. Seven. Six.
She ties the knots rapidly, by touch. Her limbs inform her that they ache where they clutch this ancient trunk above an unfathomable drop.
She lets the bones fall into the pit.
A rush of wind splits the earth, a roar in darkness. Red clutches the petri ed trunk closer than a lover. The wind peaks, screams, tosses bones about. A new note rises above the ossuary clatter, woken by the cavern’s wind whistling over precise uted pits in the bones Red has hung. The note grows, shifts, and swells into a voice.
Red listens, teeth bared in an expression that, if she saw it mirrored, she could not name. There’s awe there, yes, and fury. What else?
She scans the lightless cavern. She detects no heat signature, no movement, no radar ping, no EM emissions or cloud trail-of course not. She feels gloriously exposed. Ready for the gunshot or the moment of truth.
Too soon, the wind dies, and the voice with it.
Red curses into the silence. Remembering the era, she invokes local fertility deities, frames inventive methods for their copulation. She exhausts her invective arsenal and growls, wordless, and spits into the abyss.
After all that, as prophesied, she laughs. Thwarted, bitter, but still, there’s humor in it.
Before she leaves, Red saws free the bones she hung. The pilgrim Red meant to shape is gone, and the hermitage will be unbuilt. Now Red will have to x the mess to the best of her ability.
The abandoned bones tumble and tumble and fall and fall.
But don’t worry. The seeker catches them before they land.
Dear Red, in Tooth, in Claw,
You were right that I laughed. Your letter was very welcome. It told me a great deal. You imagined the re glinting o my teeth; knowing your ne attention to detail, I thought I’d put a little devil in it.
Perhaps I ought to begin with an apology. This is not, I’m afraid, the omen you were anticipating; while you listen to my words, you might give a little thought to whose bones are cored and pocked with this letter. That poor pilgrim who might have been! Why leave a selfdestructing paper trail when one can enjoy an asset-destroying scrimshaw session and let the wind take a turn tickling some ivory?
Don’t worry-he lived a ne life rst. Not the life you would have wanted for him, perhaps-unhappy but useful to posterity, harbouring the vulnerable, dimpling the future’s punch cards one new life at a time. Instead of building a hermitage, he fell in love! Made glorious music with his fellow, travelled widely, drew tears from an emperor, melted her hard heart, bumped history out of one groove and into another. Strand 22 crosses Strand 56, if I’m not mistaken, and somewhere downthread a bud’s bloomed bright enough to taste.
It atters me to nd you so attentive. Be assured that I’ll have looked long and hard at you while you assembled my little art project. Will you go still or turn sharply when you know that I’m watching you? Will you see me? Imagine me waving, in case you don’t; I’ll be too far o for you to see my mouth.
Just kidding. I’ll be long gone by the time the wind turns right.
Made you look, though, didn’t I? I imagine you laughing too.
I look forward to your reply,