Silence was her one weapon, she had learned through the years. Stare, and wait, until people spoke slow Motion Rippling Water Droplets Up Close to fill it. My studio is closed,” Perrin told her.
I carved my masterpiece for the count. Nothing I do will surpass it. Mara is tying her hair back again, raking it into a topknot that tugs at her scalp. She’s been redoing it over and over, trying to calm herself, but her fingers are still shaking. She hopes her companion hasn’t noticed.
They’ve been lying in wait for a half hour, hunkered down in this crack in the basalt, under a sky that looks like a gaping black chasm. Mara has hardly ever been topside. And she has never been out here in Slagland, where orbital bombardment left nothing behind but fused glass and cooled lava. The emptiness is terrifying, and she can’t help but imagine radiation seeping into her body, rotting her bones. But she’ll do anything to get Io back—including hiring a half-savage scavenger. Mara sneaks another glance at the girl splayed out beside her. Circular gears are tattooed up the sides of her face, capping her sharp cheekbones, cobalt blue on sunless skin.
Her clothes seem to be layers of grimy plastics, and when she walks it’s with a limp and occasional spasm. She says her name is Scout, which is not a name. Mara knows someone like Scout would never be allowed inside her family’s hab or any other. Maybe that’s why Scout requested Mara’s chip as payment—maybe she thinks they’ll let her into a hab if she has a chip to scan. But having a chip is only part of it. Mara watches while Scout checks their equipment: two silvery cloaks meant to hide them from airborne sensors, a small canister with wires sticking out one end, and powered cutters.
Mara knows what those are for, and looking at them makes her sick. She doesn’t say that it’s harder to breathe out here, that the air is thin and tastes like burnt metal in her mouth. She bought a filter mask for this specific reason, kept it hidden under her bed for a whole week. She only realized she’d forgotten it when she was halfway to the meeting point and it was too late to double back. You’ve never seen them before, have you? Scout looks at her, lips curled, sucking at the inside of her cheek.
She holds up one of the camfoil cloaks. Mara takes it and pulls it on over her clothes. The material crackles, makes her arm hairs stand on end. It’s too big for her by half. Keep moving, and keep following me. Mara says, how she used to always insist to her parents, only half-believing it.
Scout’s mouth curls again, that expression Mara isn’t sure how to read, isn’t sure if it’s a smile or a sneer. Mara doesn’t know where to look, but then all of a sudden there’s an enormous black cube filling up the sky above them. No thunderclap, no sound at all, it just appears. A tremor runs through her whole body, and nausea hits her gut.
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Her ears are keening, her face is aching. There’s a rough staticky tongue licking her spinal column top to bottom. The cube is like nothing she’s ever seen, an enormous black box composed of a thousand shifting slivers breaking and melding, rippling, almost liquid. Blinking red sensors swarm around its edges like flies. She can’t tell how close it is—one second it seems right on top of them, the next a mile away.
Vertigo swamps her, and she retches. Mara suspects sarcasm, but she’s too dizzy to be sure. As she watches, an enormous oily black bubble forms on the underside of the cube, like water beading at the end of a nozzle, then falls. It splashes apart on the slag, revealing its cargo.
It’s an old man, scarecrow-skinny, naked, with skin so pale it almost glows against the pebbly black rock. But instead of a head, or perhaps enveloping it, there’s spiny black machinery, with a red sensor pulsing right where the old man’s face should be. Mara squeezes her eyes shut for a second, fighting nausea. She knows it’s real, but it feels like a nightmare.
When she opens her eyes, the old man is staggering to his feet. The liquid black remnants of his bubble pool together and climb up his naked body, then further, spiraling up into the sky as a single knarry tendril that hooks into the bottom of the cube. The other end latches to the old man’s machine-mask, jerking him fully upright like a marionette, and Mara can’t hide her flinch. Between the huffing-puffing and the not-breathing. Mara makes herself take a breath of the charred metal air as the other bubbles start to fall.
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There are dozens and dozens of them, and Mara searches for Io’s body. Her jutting ribs, her short thick legs. She wants to see her so badly, and at the same time she dreads it. By the time the black rain stops falling, there are nearly fifty men and women and children shivering on the basalt.
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Then the cube moves, sliding soundlessly forward, sending a ripple through the black forest of tendrils, and all of them start to march. Mara turns to Scout, trying to share the anguish, but Scout’s face is expressionless. Why would they do this to us? Scout runs a pensive finger down her tattoos. She’s never felt less ready for anything.
She wants to be back in the habs, back in the safe white cocoon of her family’s house. Scout leads the way out of the trench, camfoil cloak flapping behind her, and the hab girl follows good and close, keeping pace how she promised she could. Scout is more concerned with her promised payment, the access chip nestled in the hab girl’s blue-veined wrist. A small fortune on the black market, and it can’t be taken by force. Hab folk are clever that way.
Their bodies are all wired up with electricity that can fry the skin off your fingers if you touch them when they’re agitated. She already got a little burst of it when she brushed the hab girl’s elbow on accident. So she has to do the job, first. She’d have preferred to leave her client underground—less factors, less fuck-ups—but she doesn’t trust herself to spot the right walker, since hab folk aren’t so much for tattoos or scars or looking interesting in general. But keep your head down as much as you can. The hab girl gives a grim-mouthed nod. They’re coming up on the walkers from the rear, and as they pass into the shadow of the cube the tug gets stronger.
It’s like tiptoeing a fucking precipice whenever she gets near the thing. But she has to stay focused. Partly because they’re barefoot, no boots or even gelwrap to protect them from the rock. Scout sees smashed toenails, flesh bruised blue and swollen underneath. They’ve been pissing on themselves as they go, sweating sharp and sour. Despite all that, every walker moves with the same plodding sleepwalking gait, never favoring their twisted ankles or pausing to clean a cut.
Scout throws a glance back, to make sure the hab girl is still following. Her face is red and agitated but her eyes are dry, which is a good sign. They all sort of walk the same. Scout casts an eye up at the sensor swarm. So far, so good: none of them seem to have noticed the cloaked interlopers.
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They’re in the thick of it now, weaving between bodies flecked with grime and gore. So many more of them than there were the first time she saw the cube. Scout recognizes a few by their skins and silhouettes. How would you really get around like that? Stepping three in a row with the left, I mean. Makes no fucking sense at all. No reply from the hab girl, who is stumbling along behind her, head on a swivel, green eyes winched wide.
Hopefully she’ll be sharp enough to recognize their target. One of the sensors finally detaches itself from the others and drifts down toward them. Scout hisses, dropping to her haunches. Scout makes herself as small as she can under the camfoil and is satisfied to see that the hab girl is doing the same thing beside her. The sensor, an angular black shard around a glowing red optic, buzzes back and forth overtop of them for a moment. Then it’s gone, back to the cube, and Scout motions for them to move again.
Her heart pounds happily in her chest. This is a game she’s played before, but it has an extra objective this time around, a new ending she’s never tried. It only takes them a moment to catch up to the walkers again, slip back into their midst. They comb through them in columns, up and down, up and down. Scout finds herself envying their smooth dreamy walk: so unlike hers, which is all slouch and twitch. But she doesn’t envy the heavy vantablack masks clamped over their heads.
Behind her, Meera says something too quiet and choked up to hear. Scout asks, but she already knows from the way the hab girl is stopped and staring. Mara has seen Io naked before, when they were little children and they bathed together, and later when they were older and made a solemn agreement to show each other their breasts, but this time, for the first time, she feels a hot sick wave of shame. The edge of her ribcage and the jut of her hipbone both look sharp enough to cut. And where her face should be, where her fiery eyes and smile should be, there’s a metallic mass of spars and planes. Scout says, darting a quick circle around Io, eyeing the cable that stretches up into the sky and shivers slightly as Io walks.
Mara nods, not trusting her voice. She and Scout fall into step alongside her thralled friend, and it feels unreal. For a moment Mara imagines they are walking through the hydrogardens in her family’s hab, but Io would never be able to walk so silently. She always had something to be overjoyed or over-furious about. You’re going to hold her still. Mara feels panic bubbling up from the bottom of her, eating away at her muscle. It would be better if her and Io’s roles were reversed, if Io were here to save her instead.
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Io would be quicker and stronger and more determined and less afraid. But also, in a tiny cold corner of her mind, Mara isn’t sure Io would come. The cutters come to life with a shriek and a shower of sparks, one of which sizzles onto Io’s moving foot. The cutters buck and vibrate in Scout’s grip. Mara remembers how Scout twitches sometimes, and she imagines the cutters accidentally shearing through Io’s flesh, lopping off her arms and leaving cauterized stumps. She dives down onto the basalt and wraps herself around Io’s legs. Normal Io would laugh, if Mara did something like that.
Laugh and ask what in the hell she was doing. This Io just stumbles forward and falls without making a sound. The black cable stretches taut, and Scout lunges with the cutters. Mara screams too, for the pain flaring through her eardrums and jaw and for fear. Scout’s knee ends up jammed against the side of her face.
She feels her heart slamming hard in her chest. The walkers are passing all around them. Scout grunts something she can’t hear, and when Mara looks up at her, she sees the red sensor swarm descending, weaving through the forest of cables. The cable that matters, Io’s cable, is barely a thread now, writhing between the cutters’ blades. The last shred of Io’s cable snaps, and Mara feels a jolt run through her friend’s entire body. Then Io is limp, dead weight in her arms, and Mara tries to pull the camfoil up to cover both of them from the approaching sensors.
The black shards are sprouting arms now, claw-tipped, extending. One of them reaches Scout and she turns the cutters on it, slicing it in half, but then two more drop from behind her and wrest the tool out of her hands. A sensor swoops down and grips at her cloak, peeling it off. She seizes the hem with her free hand, trying to tug it back.
A straggler lurches into her from behind and she loses her grip on both the cloak and Io’s waist. The silvery camfoil ripples into the air, but in that instant Mara sees Scout brandish her last piece of equipment, the strange stubby tube. The air seems to thicken, and all of a sudden the sensors freeze in midair. Scout gives a ragged shout of triumph and grabs her cutters back, fumbling them into her bag. She seizes Io under one arm, Mara takes the other, and they all three haul upright. Mara realizes it’s not only the sensors that have frozen: the walkers have stopped.
For an instant she wonders if time itself has stopped. It gets under their skin a bit. She takes a look at Io. She’s on the edge of mania, full of giddy adrenaline. Nothing makes sense, but Io is free.