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Them

A young woman seeks revenge against an alien species.

During the slow crawl over the vast, hard packed snow, Isse had to stay in her cabin, out of the way of the men working. Her father would absolutely beat her if she ventured out. She had her flingdisc, though, and spent the time teaching it to rove in circles around her small cabin or drop suddenly from the height of the ceiling, stopping dead just before it hit the floor. Or she would organize and reorganize her furs, making sure for the tenth time that they were all there, ready for when she would set foot outside.

The flat landscape did not change, although occasionally the ship had to lumber around crevasses and climb tiny inclines. The days were short and dim, the sun rising barely a hand above the horizon before sinking again.

They stopped once to check the drills and the equipment that would be needed to build the permanent rig. Some of the workers made a fire for Isse and her father to sit by, and her father’s servants gave them thick sheepskins to lay on their laps, but her father paced restlessly around the ships and called out to the men as they scuttled up the great sides to the massive gleaming pipes and drills folded on the top. It was so cold the air caught in the back of Isse’s throat when she breathed; her nostrils were soon aching, even with the mask she pulled over the lower part of her face, but it was delicious to be out under the black sky that spread over their cluster of ships and firepits, and the smell, too—fresh and clear, like the taste of snow. She had lived in the cold her whole life, of course, but in the palace in the heart of the fast-growing city, where the people were young, ruddy-faced men just as thirsty as the oil lords. There, in the palace, the oil-fueled heaters were always on, and in the hallways there was a brazier every six feet. People wore furs because it was stylish, but out here you needed them for survival.

Isse drank the hot broth offered to her and stared around at the silence, the black so clearly divided from the white-silver snow with no warmly-glowing windows or smoking chimneys to rise between. Soon, though, when her father had harvested all the oil he could with the rig and cleared out the parasites that lived in tribes here, other companies would move in and grow a new colony, which would continue to feed on the plentiful oil while more expeditions journeyed on in search of more virgin land.

The men threw snow on the fires and they set off again. Early next morning, Isse awoke to gritty snow rattling against the window like sand. The pungent, glutinous stench of crude oil filled her nose and mouth—they had stopped again to refuel, and this time, of course, they couldn’t light a fire at all close to the ships, with the oil sputtering everywhere. The galleys were empty, so Isse slipped outside.

The first breath of wind turned her hands almost numb, and she was obliged to plunge them into her pockets; the sky was a crisp pink at the edges, and the white land spread out before her. She was standing in the shadow of her father’s ship but one of the workers spied her.

“Miss,” he said, “I can’t have you getting hurt.”

“What do you mean? You’re finished drilling.”

Several yards off, a group of men was folding the drill into its wheeled platform by means of the lever on the side while others shoved snow carelessly into the jagged hole left behind. In the pale light, the dark oil looked like blood, a wound.

“We’ve got to leave in a hurry, Miss. Please, back to your cabin.”

She scanned around, eyes narrowed, but then the hulk of her father came out of nowhere and she flinched. His moustache and beard were frozen, his face ruddy with cold, and he was glowering at her.

“Seen and not heard, right, daughter mine?” he said, his breath steaming out.

“What for?” she said, even though his thick mittened hand was clenching and unclenching. She wondered if he’d hurt her with his men looking on.

He grabbed her arm; “I said, go on,” and shoved her back through the portal; the door thudded down.

She’d rammed her shoulder into the wall hard enough that if she was another girl, she might have cried, but instead she rotated it carefully until it felt looser and then slunk back into her cabin. She got up on the bed and knelt, nose pressed against the foot-thick plastiglass. It was blurry and scratched, but looking out past the men dragging the drill to the ship, she saw something that made the breath catch in her throat, and she knew why the worker had told her to get out of the way. Several figures, grayish in color and broad-shouldered, were making their way over the snow, too far away for the men to see them but close enough for Isse to tell that they weren’t human, with those large dark eyes. They carried bulky packs on their backs, and they wore no clothes or shoes. They moved steadily, not hurrying.

As Isse watched, a few of the men looked up suddenly. She heard their shouts as they pointed, then the passage outside her door thundered with heavy-booted feet as they rushed to collect weapons.

The men were magnificently well-trained. They lined up in standard formation, the front group kneeling, her father beside them, his fur cloak rippling. He signalled; there was an ear-splitting chorus of shots, and soon afterward fifteen bodies lay on the snow. After a quick inspection to make sure the parasites were dead, the men strode away, guns over their shoulders, and boarded the ship.

When the Oblique finally pulled away, Isse could see the white blood spilled across the chests and backs and stomachs and she turned away from the window. That was the first time she had seen parasites.

“I thought you were supposed to be trained honorably,” she said to one of her father’s men during the evening meal, their first at the permanent camp, where they would stay for the month while the men assembled the rig. The man’s name was Willem and he had prematurely gray hair and moustaches. He was quiet, humble, but not too worshipful of her, which she liked, and he was the only one of her father’s men who didn’t give her dirty looks because she was the only woman on the journey. They’d met at the start of the journey. Isse had been trying to light a fire to prove she could and badly burned her hand, leaving agonizing brown scorch marks down the palm. Willem had been close by luckily, and packed snow and salve onto it. He had sat with her in her cabin, fetching fresh snow and telling stories about his wife and children back in the city and pretending not to notice when Isse couldn’t hold back her tears of pain.

Willem sipped at his mug of bone marrow broth. “We are trained honorably, Lady,” he said.

“You killed unarmed opponents.”

“Your father’s orders,” he said. “Have to clear the land before drilling. Hasn’t he told you that, Miss?” He gave her a level, searching look. “Why did he bring you along?”

“To educate me for when I’m lord,” she said. “I’ll be seventeen in two and a bit month’s time.”

He sipped his broth. “Of course,” he said, but they both knew it wasn’t going to happen.

She took a stick from the stack nearby and stabbed it into the fire. Sparks crackled up into the black. “Wish I was a boy,” she said savagely. “Then Papa would let me come on all his expeditions. He wouldn’t beat me so much.”

“Ah, well,” Willem said. “Soon you’ll be married to a rich young baron, and you won’t have to worry about anything.”

“But that’s not what I want. This is what I want to do,” Isse said vehemently, gesturing at the fires and the ships.

Willem looked at her over his mug, his black eyes glinting in the flames. “Do you know how many men die on these expeditions?”

“Yes,” she said staunchly. “Anyway, I don’t understand why I can’t be lord. I’m his only child.”

“One of those laws that makes more sense on paper,” said Willem. He smiled. “I think you could be a great ruler.”

“Do you think the parasites will come back?” Isse said after a while.

“They always do. Or else we find them in their colonies.”

“What do they eat out here?”

“Arctic birds. Rodents. Don’t tell me you’re developing an affection for them, Lady,” he said, shooting her a sharp look over the flames.

“Don’t be stupid. I’m only curious. Aren’t you?”

“I know that they’re here in our place,” he said, draining his mug.

*

Isse was to continue her education, even out here in the white middle of nothing, so, while the men loaded their weapons into three trucks and set out across the snow, Isse stayed in the warm confines of her father’s study with the door locked and wrote endless columns of Latin verbs until she was nearly physically sick with them. Days ago, when she’d demanded of her father, in one of her most petulant moods, why the hell she had to learn a language that had perished along with the planet it came from, he’d told her that the knowledge of great rulers was not limited only to the planet they ruled; the truly great, if they were truly great at all, had knowledge of the farthest corners of the universe and speculated on what lay beyond that.

“Latin is the heart of every tongue,” he said. “Even ours, which is so different from Earthly languages.”

As Isse sat brooding, a manservant came in with a tray and kettle. It was real mencha leaf tea, not broth, with a pitcher of cream and a pat of butter to add to it and make it richer still. The cups and saucers were the second-finest china; her father had had it packed tightly in newspapers in its own case for the journey. They’d eaten nothing but very fatty bear meat and creamy stews in the past few days. At first the richness had sickened her, but now she craved it, and she needed it for energy, in this cold.

She had just finished and was turning wearily back to the books when she heard men shouting at the tops of their voices and boots pounding in the passage.

“Get a medical, he’s losing blood!”

The door of the study burst open and the manservant came in, wide-eyed. “Lord Menk says you are to stay put, Miss.”

“But what is it? What’s happened?” Isse was on her feet, book flung aside.

“A soldier’s been wounded, Miss. A parasite attacked the troop on their excursion.”

“Who? Who was hurt?”

He hesitated.

“Dammit, who?” Isse demanded, slamming the flat of her palm onto the table and making the pen and saucers jump.

“Your father said you are to stay put,” he said, reddening behind his moustaches. “You must promise not to leave.”

“Is it Willem?” she said.

She watched him debate with himself, knowing he was duty-bound to obey royalty above all other obligations.

“Yes,” he said finally. “It is Willem who was hurt.”

Throwing on her shawl, Isse barged past the stammering servant and into the passage, where she looked left and right. Strangled yells were coming from the door at the end, and she hurried that way, the servant at her heels. She had a little time before her father caught her.

The door was already open, and a thin dark-haired medical came out, his forehead glistening and his gloved hands wet with red and white blood. She pushed past him, ignoring his shouts, and inside.

Willem lay on his back, surrounded by medicals. His stomach was ripped open and bleeding; his clothes were covered in the white parasite blood, too, though the medicals were sealing the wound as quickly as possible, and Isse felt faint looking at him. She ran to the head of the bed. Willem was drugged with duermine, but his head was tossing and he was moaning fitfully.

“Willem,” she said, holding his head between her hands. “Willem, you’re alright.”

His eyelids twitched. “Lady Menk?” he muttered.

“You’re almost stitched up,” she said. “Oh, Willem, what happened? Why didn’t you kill them before they got to you?”

“Too many,” he murmured.

She watched as the medicals applied quicksalve to the wound, making the bleeding stop. After that began the complicated, delicate process of making the flesh bind together again.

“Isse,” Willem said, and it was the first time he hadn’t called her Lady, “Isse, you must avenge me.”

She merely looked at him, stunned.

“Avenge me,” he said. “Your father will not.”

She glanced around. The medicals were intent upon Willem’s wound and her father’s servant had apparently given up trying to entice her into the study, but she knew she would be beaten later.

“I will,” she whispered to Willem. She squeezed his shoulder. “I will avenge you.”

*

A few days later she went to Willem. He had finally been released from the medical bay and was sitting up in his own cabin, bandaged and wide awake.

“Now, you can’t embrace me too tightly,” he said, laughing. She felt the thick bandages around his midriff.

He took out a folded map from his shirt and spread it out on the little glass-topped table beside the bed. It showed the way to the parasite settlement, eight miles away.

“That’ll take me at least five hours by foot,” Isse said, “and I can’t take a truck. I’ve never walked that far before.”

“Leave early,” Willem said. “Dress warmly. The winds are at their cruelest at sunrise and sunset.”

Then he pulled a small touch-pistol from under the sheets. “You must kill it with this gun,” he said. “It is my own gun.”

It was light, fitting easily into her fingers. Willem guided her hand, showing her the positions. “Above all, don’t hesitate,” he said.

Isse thought of the gaping wound in Willem’s stomach and nodded fervently.

*

Early the next morning, when the stars were still out, Isse awoke. By the light of the oil-lamp, she pulled on her thick wool leggings over thinner, silk ones. Next she put on her warmmesh shirt, and over that a vest lined with wanderwolf fur. She was sweating in the heat from the brazier now, but she pulled on her soft-shelled pants, then long, elbow-length gloves with her father’s insignia embroidered on the palms, and over it all she zipped her lightweight parka up to her chin, tucking Willem’s pistol into the left sleeve pocket; she’d be able to reach across to it with her right hand. Lastly, she pulled on her mittens. She wouldn’t be able to use her fingers now.

The cold struck into her the second she stepped outside, catching in the back of her throat, and she hastily pulled her mask up over her lower face. A cruel wind was gusting across the vast plain, kicking up powder and slicing through to her skin. She wished intensely that she’d brought a scarf to wrap around her face, too, but she’d already slid the door shut behind her.

Pulling her hood down low over her eyes, she set off, her boots breaking through the shell of ice that lay over the snow.

When she thought she’d been walking for an hour, she looked back and saw the three massive, bulky ships rising above the snow, blacker than the sky.

She trudged on until the sky was a hard citrine blue, as if it too had a layer of ice covering it. When the sun rose and melted through, Isse stopped because she was hungry. She had heard that if you sit and rest you won’t be able to get up again, so she chewed on the bit of dried meat she had brought standing and then kept going.

Eventually the movement started to warm her blood, and the rising sun, although it gave little warmth, touched the fur edge of her hood and face, and she felt comforted by its light. It was so dazzling on the snow that it brought tears to her eyes, and she had to pull her hood down lower. On and on she tramped, and she grew tired of the monotonous white spreading out for thousands of miles around her. It felt as if she hadn’t made any progress until she looked behind her and saw the three ships, small as models in the distance.

All day she walked, occasionally avoiding crevasses, identifiable as bluish gashes in the white, and when her legs were aching and she was nearly weeping with exhaustion, she saw the settlement; a group of low domes whose color was only a shade darker than the snow. She stood for a moment looking at the settlement, her warm breath gusting out in smoky bursts, her lips and the tip of her nose numb. She reached into her pocket for the little tub of fat and rubbed it over her face to prevent chapping. She had thought the settlement would be more primitive; she was picturing wanderwolfskin yurts, but these domes, with no one outside, looked smooth and completely invincible. She reached over and fingered the smooth handle of Willem’s gun, then pressed on.

It took her a little over a half an hour to reach the cluster of domes, and she found, standing among them, that they were her height, not very tall at all. The wind gusted through suddenly, spraying snow into her face.

Isse expected to find the nearest dome completely smooth, but immediately spied a doorway with a sensor. Drawing the gun, she waved her hand over the sensor and stepped inside as the door slid upward.

The room was large, stretching out ahead of her and lit by a band of red-orange light turned very low and casting the space in dimness. She could see low dark cots lining the walls, laid on the floor. Then she saw that they were all filled with sleeping bodies, and her heart jumped in her chest. She could hear their soft breathing, and then she smelled them—a smell like the freshly cut stem of a plant, green and sharp and so different from the cold clean smell of the snow. Which one had attacked Willem?

“Wake up!” she shouted, raising the gun and clenching it in both gloved hands.

The blankets stirred, and bald gray heads emerged.

“I said wake up!” she commanded. I will be better than my father, she thought of Willem’s stomach slashed open, and anger roared in her heart. She kicked the nearest body, and it hissed, the head and shoulders rising out of the cot. She backed away, aiming Willem’s gun at each of them. She was afraid of them now, but she would rather die defending her friend than run.

They were shrinking against the walls, all hissing and looking from her to each other with those huge dark eyes. The sound tautened Isse’s nerves. Would they attack her?

“One of you hurt my friend,” she said, loudly and clearly. “Which one of you hurt my friend?”

She turned the gun on each of them. Were their hearts located in the same place, or would she have to shoot them in the head? How many bullets did she have?

Then one of the parasites ran forward and seized her wrist. She was so tense that she tapped the sensor accidentally, and a bullet zipped out and punched into the stomach of the parasite across from her.

It keeled over, hands clutched to the wound, and dropped to its knees. It drew a ragged breath and began sobbing and whimpering in agony, white blood seeping out between its long fingers.

Isse, stunned, dropped the gun, and at the same time, the parasite that had grabbed her wrist clutched her forehead in its hands. Suddenly she felt something open deep within her, and a current of emotion flowed into her, so intense that she gasped. She felt fear and confusion from the creature, and heard the words Weapon? Death? as if they were her own thoughts.

Isse felt her heart stop with the innocence, the softness of the creature, and she was suddenly sure that the parasite was female and very young. She looked at the dark eyes and felt more afraid of them than ever. Don’t hesitate. She held up the gun again, but she was still shaken from the parasite touching her, and the crying of the wounded one made her hesitate. She had never shot anything before.

Isse looked at the wounded parasite, surrounded by its fellows, and felt something falter and stumble inside her, because Willem’s stomach had been wounded in the same way. She was causing the creature the same pain.

She dropped the gun and buried her face in her own gloved ones. She sensed the group backing slowly away from her.

When she could look up again, she met the eyes of a parasite across from her. “Why did you attack my friend?” she said, pointing to her stomach. “Why did you hurt him?”

Immediately, those who were not tending to the wounded parasite laid their cool hands on the bare skin that wasn’t covered by clothing, and she felt a thousand words and emotions flow into her. She shivered, overwhelmed, but found them as familiar as the voice of her own intuition. She made out a coherent story.

Your friends ran at us with guns and shot at us. Here she felt their collective fear break over her. They attacked, so we defended. Your friends attack too often. They burn our homes and torture us with electricity for the oil under the snow. Our children live in fear, and we can’t hide them.

Isse felt surges of sadness breaking over her, not her own, but so painful that she felt it in her, too.“Why didn’t you attack me?”

Because you were uncertain. You did not want to kill. And Isse understood that by “you” they meant her inner self, her heart or soul, though how she perceived this, she couldn’t have said.

She reached into her pocket and brought out the quicksalve and bandages, and handed them to the parasites clustered around the wounded one. She watched them spread salve over the wound, after which the flesh smoothed over, and she felt strangely calm and clear-minded after the touch of the creatures’ hands.

They aren’t parasites, she thought, watching them murmur and hiss among themselves. They’re people.

You won’t hurt us? asked the female who’d first talked to her.

“No,” she said. She took Willem’s gun and opened the cartridge with a loud, satisfying click, then dumped the bullets into her palm and showed them to the parasites. They told her they called themselves a name that sounded most like “ankaali” or “ankaalay.” They were in awe of the quicksalve, and gave Isse a mug of a hot, creamy substance that was so rich she could drink only a few sips of it.

Whether it was her exhaustion or the current of gentle feeling from the ankaali, she found herself getting soft and drowsy. The creatures were touching her high cheekbones, so unlike their own faces, and her copious dark hair; her father often said it was the color of fresh oil, and he forbade her from cutting it. "Let it flow," he said, "like the black gold. If I cannot have a son, let me at least have a daughter who represents her father’s wealth."

If only he could see me now, she thought. The ankaali’s hands stroking her hair was lulling, and soon she fell deeply asleep.

*

Over the next few days, Isse came to know the ankaali and their ways. They were mostly nocturnal, though they sometimes had to make pilgrimages in daylight, to make a new camp, though this was the main settlement. All the others had been demolished by the oil lords who had come before. They were trying to scout out a safer location further north, where there were no oil reserves, but this was difficult, they said. The land was glutted with oil everywhere. Right now they were expanding the settlement to accommodate the refugees who were coming in from the remains of the other communities. The ankaali led Isse down into a complex system of underground tunnels which led to the other buildings. Here were kitchens and more beds, the rooms packed with the ankaali, all hissing and murmuring amongst themselves. They shrank back in fright when they saw Isse, but when she began to talk to them and showed them that she had no weapons, they got on very well. Many of them had children, who clung to their parents, peeking out at Isse with their large black eyes. She let them touch her hair and face, and spoke in Chidk with those who could understand her. She felt awkward and towering among them, clumsy next to their lithe, quiet forms, and she even felt self-conscious speaking, an entirely different act from the flow of meaning and emotion which passed between the ankaali. She offered to help prepare meals, and then she felt better—the ankaali had dexterous hands and feet, but they moved slowly and methodically; with the help of her quick fingers, they plucked feathers from the small brown arctic birds, and toasted seeds for flat, baked bread much more efficiently. The food had a hearty, nutritional taste, and very little of it could keep you satisfied for hours. Isse’s favorite was the creamy drink they had given her when she first arrived, which they told her was made from the milk of wanderwolves. When Isse asked where they had gotten the seeds in such cold weather, the ankaali showed her a room much like a greenhouse, where leafy plants grew in tidy rows, and behind them, great vaults full of all kinds of seeds.

“But where did you get them?” Isse said.

The ankaali exchanged looks, and then one of them, who wasn’t very fluent in Chidk, said the word for imitate.

“Oh!” she said. “These are cloned?”

“Cloned,” they repeated, nodding.

The ankaali didn’t feel the need to bathe, but when she told them she wanted to, they showed her a small room used for washing bedding. Snowmelt flowed down through the pipes and could be heated by means of an oil heater beneath a large metal tub. At home Isse would have been helped by an assistant as she bathed; it would have brought her water and lotions and face cloths, and a dry towel when she was finished, but even in this short time of living amongst the ankaali, she was beginning to understand the satisfaction in working manually, in seeing a task completed by your own hands, in bathing oneself with your own hands.

*

One morning, in the minutes before full consciousness, as she surfaced from the deep gulf of sleep, Isse heard a rumbling, as of something heavy rolling over earth, but when she sprang from her cot, she heard the lumbering creak of treads and came fully, horribly awake.

Close to panicking, eyes burning, Isse sprang to the door and waved her hand frantically over the sensor and stumbled outside. The sky was covered with uniform, blinding white cloud, and as she took her first steps, there seemed to be no difference between sky and snow; separating them both, making sure that the world was solid, was herself, and the heavy, massive ship approaching the ankaali dwellings, with the cargo ship and the six trucks following. Isse struggled towards the Oblique, waving her arms.

“Oh, stop,” she called breathlessly. “Please, stop, for god’s sake, stop, stop!”

When the caravan did not stop, she ran at the Oblique and pounded at its hull with her fists, but all that did was bruise her hands. She went up to the trucks and jogged beside them, hammering on the thick glass; by now she was almost crying. The third truck stopped, so the ones behind it had to stop too, and then the ships halted with a creaking of treads and silence fell. They were just yards from the settlement.

The door of the Oblique opened for her and she rushed in. The lights were on, but for a few moments her eyes saw only greenish-yellow-tinged darkness after the outside glare.

She knocked on her father’s door and he opened it at once.

“Isse, what the hell are you doing?”

He grabbed her arm and twisted.

“Papa, you can’t destroy the settlement,” she said, struggling fiercely. It was the same arm he’d twisted before.

“What are you talking about?” he growled, shaking her. “Where have you been?”

“Lost.” The sinews of her arm felt as if they were coming loose from her shoulder, and with them the tears she was trying to hold back.

“Yes, I know. I sent searchers out for you!”

“Please, Papa, let go,” she cried, and miraculously, he did. She stood back from him and they looked at each other, Isse glaring at him in her rumpled furs like an angry animal.

The ship had started moving again; she felt the floor vibrating.

“The parasites only attack if they’re threatened,” she said desperately. “But they’re harmless, really. They only attack if you hurt them. They don’t understand our machinery, or what we want. All they know is that we’re here to torture them. They’re afraid, Papa, they’re afraid.”

She grabbed onto his cloak, but he shook her off and turned to speak into the radio. Next moment, the ship was lumbering forward again.

“No, Papa!” She leaped forward, throwing her arms around his shoulders.

“Stop acting like a child!” he said, prying off her arms.

“I’m not coming back,” Isse said, blood thundering in her ears. “I’m staying here and living with them. If you want to kill them, you’ll have to kill me too.”

He turned, but before he could stop her, she ran from the room and down the hallway to the door at the far end. She passed her palm over the sensor and the door slid upward, letting in a rush of freezing air.

Pausing for only a second, she leaped into the white.

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