“Greetings, pzah-tek. How lovely to see you again.”
Adeline turned around. “Who are you?”
“Ah, forgive me. I forget that your species only experiences half a dimension of time. Allow me to introduce myself. I am known as the Merchant. The Merchant of Kerebros.”
It was very tall, nine or ten feet high, with its membranous wings wrapped around itself like a robe. It was somewhere in between a bat and a cicada, leaning with long, misshapen hands on a gnarled staff of reddish wood. A spherical head peered from above the folds of wings, pointed protrusions of chitin forming cat’s ears above its insect-like orange eye, and a dull gold, wheel-like object like an upright halo behind its head and shoulders. Around it floated pinkish bubbles, bubbles that reflected quite different things than the blank white emptiness in which they stood.
“A merchant?” It didn’t look like a merchant, at least not one that she’d ever seen. “What do you sell?”
“Memories, pza-tehk. I buy them, too. Memories of strange and forgotten things, things that haven’t happened yet and things that never will. Memories of places, things, events your species, or a great many species, could never possibly imagine. For how else is one to remember, if not through memories?”
“Oh. I see.” Adeline laughed a bit. She’d had strange dreams before, but this topped them all. And she was lucid, which didn’t usually happen. “Why are you here, then? I don’t have any memories like that.”
“Oh, but you do.” It leaned closer on that odd staff. It had bits of jewelry here and there, hanging from its body, and it gave off an odd smell, like cinnamon and must. “The memories of any creature are interesting to someone. And I have some that I am certain will be interesting to you.”
“Well, of course, I cannot simply show you. But I am willing to make a bargain. Choose a memory, of some small value, and I shall give you one of my wares in return.”
It was a dream, right? What could it hurt? She imagined one of her earliest memories –sitting by the fire as a child in the old house in Surrey. Her mother had been reading her a story, and her baby brothers had been playing on the floor as dinner simmered away. Her father had just come in the door, tired from a long day in the factory, but at least here, and not in chains on a ship bound for Australia. And then –
Then the shorumak was leaping, scuttling, half-flying across the fungus-covered rocks in some deep, subterranean cavern. Everything was colored in shades which Adeline might have tried to compare to blue, but which it recognized in context as the dappled hues of deep ultraviolet. The air was thick and heavy, and its slim gliding wings boosted its long, graceful limbs, sending it careening after its little hopping prey. The taazik ran, ran desperately for its life, and the shorumak ran after it, raising a bony, multi-pointed apparatus to spear the little creature when it finally caught it. And then it had caught it, pinned it to the ground with one pointed leg, thrown it into the air and grabbed it with its feeding-structure as it fell like a feather through the thick mist, ripped it in two and it swallowed through spatters of slowly falling bluish blood.
Adeline gasped as the initial intensity of it faded, and looked up at the Merchant. “That…was that…”
“Are you unsatisfied?”
“No… no.” She grinned, feeling the flush starting to drain back out of her face. “Quite the opposite, in fact. Thank you.”
“Of course.” The Merchant made a strange gesture which she found herself equating to a bow. “A pleasure doing business with you as always, pza-tehk.”
And the white dreamscape disappeared, and the Merchant with it.
She woke up on her bunk on the Victoria Rose. It was eerily silent – usually there was at least someone awake and talking, or playing cards, or rocking a baby by the sputter of a candle. Right now, though, there was nothing, except the stifling stench that pervaded the passenger deck. Quite suddenly, as she sat there on the edge of her bunk, Adeline found she couldn’t bear it anymore, and stood up to walk hastily up the big staircase and out onto the deck.
It was nighttime. There was no moon, and the stars shone ice-cold in the deep black sky. Somehow, there were no crew on deck, and she took a moment to revel in the solitude. It was peaceful – one of the few scenes that hadn’t become tiresome as the weeks went on.
She walked to the prow, leaned on the bowsprit, felt the salty wind in her hair. At times like this, you could almost convince yourself the ship wasn’t moving at all, and had been trapped here forever on this sheet of rippled glass.
There was a sudden splash, down in the water in front of her.
She looked down, trying to see what it was. There was no wake down there. The ship wasn’t moving, despite the flutter of the sails and the creak of the rigging. But there was something else. A black shape, gargantuan, rising through the water and up towards the surface.
Adeline stepped back. She had heard stories of sea monsters – clearly sailor’s tales, as much as the sea-women and the islands of gold. But this wasn’t a sea monster, at least not one that they had described. It was a colossal spider, looming from the water, a rotten-looking behemoth bigger than the boat. It stood as though on stilts on a dozen slender legs, legs that held it up high above the boat and stretched down forever into the ocean. And its head…Hanging from the front of its round body, dripping and dangling little tendrils, with no features except for a wet, gaping pit in its center and little green lights all around it. It was a just a hole, but Adeline could feel it watching her, staring down at her as she stood there like a criminal in a searchlight. And her mind had a name for the creature, fished up perhaps from some primal depths: the Spider-Titan.
For a long minute they stood there, the woman and the monster, just staring at each other. That gaping black mockery of an eye, peering down into the little pale face of the creature that stood staring up at it. Slowly, Adeline started to wonder what she was doing, a small, pitiful mammal, standing there before this unearthed colossus, as though she were gawping at an animal in the zoological gardens. As though she thought herself somehow above this vast, ancient being…
And then, for the second time that night, she woke up.
Edward was shaking her. “Addie? Addie, wake up. There’s something up on the deck.”
The HMS Victoria Rose had been at sea for three weeks. At the docks in London, she had looked immense – a leviathan of wood and cloth, bobbing improbably atop the water, crewmen scuttling over her surface like ants as they loaded her with cargo. Now she seemed cramped, dwarfed somehow. Adeline usually forced herself to go up on deck once a day if the weather was fine, but the definition of “fine” was slowly becoming more and more dependent on how lethargic she felt that day. But even the deck, with the rowdy sailors and the constant wind, was better than down below, where the stench and the sense of restless exhaustion were almost more edible than the biscuits and oatmeal they lived on.
But now, the hazy lethargy that pervaded the crew deck had evaporated, quite literally overnight. People were hastily pulling on clothes, or not even bothering, just heading for the staircase in their nightwear. They were talking animatedly among themselves, and Edward was talking to her in the same fashion, his eyes shining with an excitement that no one down here had felt since they lost sight of land. Adeline half-listened to him, but the images were still stuck in her mind – the Spider-Titan, and running as the shorumak, hunting in the fungus-lined caverns of that strange world. It was still there, where the memory should have been – she would try to remember that evening by the fire, and the ultraviolet colors would fill her mind.
But now Edward was leading her up the stairs, and they were joining the circle of passengers and crew around the thing on the deck. “It fell from the sky,” a young watchman was saying. “A great blooming meteor, coming down outta the stars. It were that what left the trail down the boards, an’ put a hole in the aft sheet.”
“It” was a ball, eighteen inches across, sitting there in a little black crater on the deck. It was greenish-white, like bone, but it was clearly mechanical, made up of a thousand intricate pieces all moving and twitching and shifting. There was something distinctly unsettling about it, something that made the chattering passengers fall silent as they saw it. Perhaps it was the way that those seething parts made it look like some strange corpse, rotting and crawling with vermin. Perhaps it was the sounds it made – a ticking and whirring, yes, but also a squelching, and a scrape of bone on bone. Or perhaps it was that none of those parts even slightly resembled anything she had ever seen in any clockmaker’s shop or factory yard.
Some of the others seemed to share her disgust – in fact, rather a lot of them did. One of the passengers even made to pick it up, and presumably throw it overboard. But Mr. Pierce, the first mate, stepped in with a silent scowl. “Na, see here. Ain’t nobody touches that thing ‘till the cap’n and I’ve had a look at it.”
The man stepped back, made a gesture of apology with his hands. “Sorry. I just wanted a look, that’s all.”
“Where is the captain?” another member of the crew piped up.
“I dunno. Probably in his cabin, having at the bonnie bottle before folk wake up.”
A seaman was sent to find him, leaving behind an uneasy silence. Into the silence came whispers, and through the whispers came words. Words like “Spider-Titan”.
She turned to Edward. “Did…did you dream of it, too?”
“The Spider-Titan? Yes. And by the looks of things, so did everyone else.”
“And the Merchant?”
He stared at her. “The what?”
“The Merchant of Kerebros.” His expression said that he had dreamed of nothing of the kind. “A big sort of bat-insect-thing, that trades memories.”
“I’ve never heard of such a ridiculous thing, Addie. Where on earth did you go and get a notion like that?”
“But…” He had just dreamed of a gigantic spider! Would it be so hard for him to have a little imagination, just this once? She sighed, shook her head. “Never mind. What do you think they’ll do with this thing, then?”
“I haven’t a clue. Toss it overboard, I expect, unless they want to bring it back for some reason.”
“What’s all this, then?” The seaman had returned, and with him Captain O’Hare.
“Good evening, Cap’n. Did you have a dream about a spider?”
“I – what? No, of course not. Whatever are you talking about, Mr. Pierce?”
“Because everyone else did. And lo and behold, this thing shows up.”
“What is it?” The crowd parted, and the captain stared at the thing for a long moment, his moustache fluttering in disgust. “Throw it over the side,” he said at last, and turned to stalk back off down the ship.
“Excuse me?” Mr. Pierce said, starting after him. “Begging your pardon, Cap’n, but ye dinnae think we should hold onto it, instead of chucking it over?”
“No, Mr. Pierce. Throw it over the side, before trouble comes of it.”
“Aye, Cap’n.” He brushed through the crowd, picked the thing up, and carried it to the point of the bow. There was a splash, and then he turned back to the mass of people. “Right, what’re ye all still doing here? Get back to sleep. Jenkins, Fairborn, you’re on watch.”
The crowd filtered off, taking Adeline with it as it trickled back down the stairs. Her mind was racing as she followed Edward back to their bunk. Surely it wasn’t just a meteor? She didn’t know much about astronomy, but she was fairly certain that meteors didn’t make people have dreams of giant spiders. But it was gone now. Nothing more to worry about. It was making its slow way down through the black waters of the ocean, and the ship had left it far behind.
“Oh. You’re back.”
“Of course, pza-tehk. I shall return for some time. Unless, of course, you wish me to depart, in which case I shall of course take my leave.”
“No, no, don’t go. I just didn’t expect it, that’s all. But if you have something else for me…?”
“Always. Did you have anything in particular in mind?”
“Anything. Something exotic. Something besides this wretched ship.”
“I have just the thing. Whenever you’re ready.”
She closed her eyes, thought of a memory.
She meant to give it something small and unimportant, but for whatever reason, all that surfaced was the image of the night that Edward had proposed to her. He had been quite the gentleman back then – joking about being “head over heels for the scullery maid, like in a romance novel” – and she had thought he was as handsome as he did. She had regretted saying yes many, many times since then, but that night, she hadn’t, and she opened her mouth to say wait, I don’t want that one. But it was too late – his smiling face was gone, replaced with something else entirely.
She was in a cathedral, a titanic space of stone and empty air. The Cathedral in the Sky, before the titanic altar of Shia’Muguroth, the Lady of the Void. Pillars and walls stretched thousands of feet up into arches and buttresses, all of it coated in carvings and reliefs and statues in little alcoves. Strange arched windows let in no light, and stray sparrows flittered up in the great high depths of the place, like dust motes even where they were close enough to be visible. The altar was a titanic tiered mass, covered in candles and offerings and supplicant statues, stretching almost as high as the rest of the room. And before it, in two long rows, chanting and singing in low, melodic voices, stood the Choir.
The Choir consisted of the Thousand Priestesses, hand-picked by the Voice herself, and moving with the perfect synchrony of long practice. She was one of them – fifteen feet tall and impossibly slender from generations of microgravity, wearing a red and white cowl that stretched down into a giant train behind her. Over her face was the Voidmask, black and glittering with stars and connected by a ribbed hose to a little tank on the small of her back, and in her hands was an urn filled with ashes. Her offering to the great Lady.
The Choir’s chant swelled to a crescendo, a harmony with the complexity and perfection that only complete dedication can give, and then quite suddenly stopped. There was a deep rumbling sound, and the candles on the altar began to dance and flicker. Then the altar itself was moving, shifting forward, splitting into two halves that slid to either side of the great room. And there was a sudden rushing wind, a wind that caught the sparrows and sent them tumbling away, a wind that snuffed the candles and sent the cowls of the Choir into a dancing frenzy. The wind blew, roared from the back of the room, and slowly the gap in the Altar widened to reveal the endless black of the Void.
There was the black hole, its accretion disk glowing like a titanic orange eye. There was the Fleet of the Dead, endlessly circling it, its decay slowed to nothing by the black hole’s dilation of time. And beyond that there were stars – Shamik and Tir’Wa and Nai – and beyond them, nothingness. That nothingness roared, it howled. Into it whirled candles, birds, leftover offerings on the altar. And into it, in a thousand long, perfect streams, fell the ashes from a thousand upraised urns.
Adeline shook her head, dazed. “…Oh. Oh, my.”
“You are satisfied?”
“Yes…Thank you. What was that?”
“That was a very old memory – though perhaps “old” is not the right word. The Voice is a very…definite being, and has been very generous in its dealings with me.”
“Is there anything else I can do for you tonight, pza-tehk?”
“No, that’s perfectly fine. Thank you. Although…” She thought for a moment, looking up at its strange, keratinous face. “Is there anything you know about the Spider-Titan?”
“Some things, yes. That is why I have manifested here, to learn about it.”
“What can you tell me?”
“Not much, I’m afraid. Unfortunately, your companions do not have the necessary technology to do as it desires. Further investigation is required, and due to its method of reproduction, it proves…difficult to track.”
The Merchant waved one of those long, strange hands. “Another time. For now, know simply that the speech of the Naescus will not reach you again.”
“Wait! What do you mean? What’s the Naescus…”
She woke up.
“It wants to be fed.”
“It – what?”
“It wants to be fed, Addie. And I don’t know how.”
He looked over at her, the bowl of oatmeal in his lap barely touched. “The Naescus. Didn’t the Spider-Titan come to you again?”
“No, it didn’t…I thought Mr. Pierce threw the meteor overboard?”
He sighed. “He did, yes. But the Spider-Titan appeared again, and it…told…us to feed the Naescus.”
“What’s this Naescus thing everyone keeps talking about?”
“The Naescus is what the meteor’s called.” He spoke very slowly, as if explaining to a child, staring down into his bowl the entire time as though he thought it might have better answers.
“Oh.” She thought about asking him to give the stuff to her, since he clearly didn’t want it and she was still hungry, but decided against it. “What does it want to be fed?”
He looked over at her, staring very hard into her eyes. “Well…not ship’s rations, if you know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t…Oh.” Her stomach tightened. Perhaps she didn’t want his oatmeal, after all. “Maybe it’s better that it’s gone overboard, then.”
“No, it’s not, because now we can’t feed it!”
She turned to him, staring. “What are you…”
There was a crash from on deck.
The captain had dreamed of it as well. None of them saw what happened, but all of them heard the shouting. Captain O’Hare’s deep boom and Mr. Pierce’s Scottish lilt vibrated through the boards as though the ship was taking on water, sending crew and passengers alike scattering for cover as they moved across the deck. Then there was the gunshot, the thud, the scrape of cloth on wood. The passengers, hiding huddled in their bunks, had jumped almost as one as the captain’s body slid down the staircase, blood leaking from his greatcoat, a surprised bellow etched across his jagged features.
Behind him came Mr. Pierce, a long wooden pistol smoking like a sleeping dragon in his hand, a fresh bruise darkening around one eye. “Right,” he snarled. “Listen up, lads and lasses. From now on, we’re gonna be doing things a little bit differently around here.”
He had taken out the Naescus from inside his jacket, held it up for all to see. It was a sign from the Heavens, he had said, and damn fools they were if they didn’t pay attention to it. If it wanted to be fed, then by God, they would feed it. And anyone who disagreed…He had gestured meaningfully to the captain’s pale corpse.
The crew had followed behind him, some out of fear and some out of genuine sadistic loyalty. A lot of the passengers had gone as well, for the same reasons, but many of them had been too afraid to do more than watch and stay out of the way as he dragged the body down the stairway to the cargo hold. They had stayed up there and listened, as they raised their voices in a muffled chant – a chant with all the effort of that of the Choir, if none of the talent. Then there were other sounds, hideous ones: squelching, animal squeals and a sound of tearing flesh, screams of horror, another gunshot, until finally Mr. Pierce came stalking back up out of the silence, his cowed followers trailing behind.
“All right. Here’s what’s gonna happen. Every night, we feed that thing. Anybody gives me any bollock, they’re going down in the hold tae wait for feeding time. Otherwise…we’ll have tae see who’s most worthy, of being fed to God.”
“Oh, thank goodness you’re back.”
“My apologies. I was not aware that my absence was so troubling for you.”
“No, it isn’t, it’s just…” She trailed off, rubbed her face. “Things have just been awful, the past few days.”
“The Naescus will have made progress, I presume.”
“Oh, yes it has. You’ve stopped it from talking to me, which is good. But it still talks to the others. They’re mad with it, they’re like animals. Have you ever seen a group of people gang up on one of their own and kill them, and the victim thank them for it?”
“I have seen a great many things, pza-tehk.”
“All right, fair enough. I’m not here to tell you about it, anyway. I’m here to give it to you. I don’t know what you’ve got for me, but it has to be better than this.”
“One hopes that you will at least find it more satisfying.”
Adeline nodded, and closed her eyes. She thought back over all the horror of the past few days. She thought of the deaths, the gory sacrifices, the horrific mass that the Naescus was becoming. She thought of the screams, the gunshots, the crewmen’s bestial howls. She thought of the way that poor Edward had stood up and asked to be taken, and the look in his eyes as they led him down into the hold. She’d never even gotten to say goodbye…
He was the last of the Pthol Maru, and his city was falling.
From his temple-palace on the highest tier he watched, watched the streets of his city stretching forever below him, flooded with the Crawling Black. From between the crescent moon of curved horns that framed the blunt, featureless thing he had in place of a head, he watched his orbital blockade fall in fire around him, down, down to the barren plains that were all that were left of his scarlet fields. He raised the four narrow pincers that served him for arms in a desperate plea to the gods, to bring him some hope, some way to stop the loss of all that his fore-parents had worked so hard to gain.
If they heard, they did not reply.
A door buzzed, and a group of advisors came in behind him. They were saying something, issuing damage reports. One had been infected, and the others killed her without stopping their train of thought. He tuned them all out. He had heard enough reports. What did it matter, when the numbers were so high?
“Enough,” he said, or something that translated roughly along those lines. “Gather up your arms. We must fight.”
“Your worship…we have lost. The nova-ships will arrive at any minute (Second? Week? Hard to tell). We can no longer make an attempt to stop them.”
“Do I hear your speech correctly? We are Pthol Maru. For a thousand thousand generations, the fore-parents of us worked to build this city, this vast empire. You would see their work wasted, simply because you are the last to respire?”
“No, your worship. Never.”
“Then gather your arms. We will be killed, but our deaths will be with honor, for this is all we may hope to ask.”
A pod came crashing down onto the balcony, bursting with a wave of force and unleashing its million black inhabitants. The advisors grabbed up weapons, buzzed shouts to each other and to him. And he took a kkaristha and a nirrogath, and turned to face the swarm.
Adeline blinked. “That was…Thank you.”
“The exchange was satisfactory, then?”
“Yes, it was. Thank you. When did that happen, if I can ask?”
“Your tongue does not allow for as precise an explanation as I would like to give. However, disregarding its behavior in higher dimensions of time…either seven billion years ago, or twelve billion from now.”
“Oh.” She couldn’t begin to imagine a span of time that long. It didn’t seem possible, that such real creatures could be so far removed from her. “How…How did you get it?”
“By methods which I am sorry you cannot understand.”
“Could you…show me?”
“I could. But I fear you would find them disinteresting, pza-tehk. The…scale would be lost.”
“Oh…Well, either way, thank you.”
“Of course. I look forward to our next meeting.”
The ship was very quiet when she woke up. Edward was gone, though she couldn’t think where. She slid out of her bunk, padded down the corridor. “Edward?” she called, in as loud a whisper as she dared. “Edward?”
There was no reply.
Nervously, she wandered up onto the deck, into the darkness of the night sky. There were two young men on watch at the bow, and she went over to them, wondering if perhaps they might have seen him.
“Sorry, miss. It ain’t here.”
‘Have you seen – what’s not here?”
“The ST. It was a dream. Go back to bed.”
“The what? I don’t…”
One of them turned to her. “You feeling all right, miss?”
“I…yes, of course. I’m just a bit woozy. Sorry.” She turned and headed for the stairs, acutely aware of their eyes on her as she went.
It wasn’t until she got back down the stairs that she noticed the stench of death oozing up from the hold.
Nervously, she started down the stairs. The few people that were still on the passenger deck were staring at her like she was insane, but she ignored them. Something had happened, and this seemed the only way to find out.
Down, down she went, into the stinking dark. The hold was a vast, gaping chamber, stuffed with boxes and barrels and bales, with barely enough room for someone to walk between them. She wandered through those narrow, makeshift passages, following the smell and the faint bits of light towards the front of the ship. And then, as the smell got too bad to bear, she saw it.
It was a mass of flesh, that took up the entire curved point of the bow and stretched red tendrils along the walls. In that mass were faint bits of human bodies – a hand here, a face there – all swarming with flies. In the center of it all was a vast, gaping pit, little glowing green pustules around it, the sense of being watched by its black depths so overwhelming that it was impossible to mistake it for anything but an eye. At its feet was a wriggling sphere, bone-white and eighteen inches across, oozing tendrils of flesh from itself into the vast, horrid bulk. And before it all, slumped over asleep in a chair, a lantern throwing him and the half-empty bottles around him into silhouette, was a man.
She recognized the man. She had been introduced to him when they got on board. Pierce, his name was. She tried to think what he could be doing here, but all she could remember was the fall of the city, and the last stand of the Pthol Maru. Should she wake him? No, she was smarter than that. Clearly, he had something to do with the horror in front of him, and that was most likely what had happened to poor Edward as well. Everyone else knew it, and it didn’t take much for her to work it out. Better to go back to bed, and hope for a better explanation in the morning.
There was a voice, very quiet, from the narrow space behind her. “Adeline?”
It was a child. A little girl, maybe eight or ten. Adeline turned, knelt down in front of her. “What are you doing here?”
“Well…I watched you come down the stairs, and I wondered what you were doing, so I followed you…”
“Where are your parents, sweetheart?”
She just gestured to the mass.
“How…how did they get there?”
The girl cocked her head. “Mr. Pierce sacrificed them, like he did everyone.”
She told her, and Adeline felt her insides sinking as she spoke. How much had she erased? Why had she given the Merchant anywhere near as much as she had? “Oh, my God…What’s your name, sweetheart?”
Her eyes glittered in the lamplight. “…Eleanor…”
“Eleanor…I’m so sorry.”
She swallowed, and looked over at Mr. Pierce’s sleeping form. “We should go. Before he wakes up.”
She turned and ran off down the passage, and Adeline followed.
Dawn found Adeline lying awake in her bunk, and the others dressing hurriedly and silently. From the few snippets of conversation she overheard, Adeline gathered that the Spider-Titan had given them new purpose. They had been told to build something. A Beacon. The knowledge of how had been put into their minds, and now they were silently filing up on deck to try and create it. Adeline went with them, because she saw the way that Mr. Pierce held his gun as he came up from the hold, and knew that the fact that the Naescus was sated had not stopped his thirst for blood.
All that day, and the next and the next, they tried to build. They sawed planks down into strange, convoluted shapes. They tied off ropes, bound them to each other in complicated nets. They cut up boxes and crates, built makeshift pulleys, shredded the sails and glued it all with uneaten food. Without the blind, frightening dedication to the Spider-Titan that the others had, Adeline could see that it was hopeless. Whatever they were trying to build, they couldn’t. Not with these tools, these materials. But still the others worked, worked silently and ceaselessly, and so she pretended to do the same.
She tried her best to keep an eye on Eleanor - she felt responsible for her, after their meeting in the hold. But she was as dedicated to the Naescus as the others were, and she worked at its mad tasks with the same heedless fervor. It scared her – it was frightening enough with the adults, but that look should never be in a child’s eyes.
Then, one night, out of nowhere, the Merchant returned.
“Greetings, pza-tehk. What can I do for you this evening?”
“I…” She sighed. She lived for the Merchant’s visits, but…“Nothing. I appreciate what you’ve already given me, I really do. But this was a mistake. I’ve given you too much. I need to keep some memories for myself.”
“Of course. Your business is appreciated. And of course, if you ever change your mind, I shall be waiting.”
“Thank you. And thank you for…for the rest of it, too.” She turned away, left it standing there, and walked out into that featureless white dreamscape. And after a moment, she woke up.
It was a few days later that they found out.
The Naescus had done something to the others. They stopped needing food or water, or rest other than nighttime sleep. It was more of a curse than a blessing – it only exacerbated their obsession with working on the Beacon. But it meant that they noticed if someone slipped down to the hold in the mornings and evenings to get food. She had been pretty stealthy about it, but she was still a bit surprised it had taken them this long. Because of course, they had found her in the end.
Mr. Pierce still slept before the Naescus, along with a few sailors. He must have awoken late that morning, because she had no idea he was there until she felt his hand on her shoulder.
“Well, what d’ye think you’re doing, lass?”
“I…” She put down the cracker she had been eating. “I just…”
“Thought ye’d pop down here and have a bite, did ye?” His eyes narrowed. “Nae. I knew there was something wrong with ye. Ye ain’t one of us, are ye?”
“The Naescus dinnae talk to ye, do it? Nae. You’re a hackin liar. And ye know what happens to liars on my ship?”
There was a voice from behind him. “Mr. Pierce?”
There stood Eleanor, looking up at him in confusion. “What are you doing?”
He turned around, gun raised. “Why, ye little –”
If you ever change your mind, I shall be waiting.
She bowed her head, ignoring Mr. Pierce’s shouts, and thought very quickly to herself, Are you there?
And somehow, its strange, calm voice came floating back. Of course, pza-tehk. Have you changed your mind?
Yes. Yes, I have. Teach me to fight. Quickly, please.
Certainly. And your payment?
Take as much as you need. All of it, if you have to.
She stood up. There were creatures standing there. Humans. She had seen humans. He was human. It had never heard of humans, but they didn’t seem very dangerous. There were two of them. One was small, and some vague, recent memory said Don’t hurt this one. The other was larger, slightly taller than she was. It was making sounds, aggressive sounds, sounds that triggered fear responses in her brain. Well, that wouldn’t do, now would it?
She stood up very suddenly, watched with amusement as he turned around with a snarl, watched that snarl turn to surprise as she reached out and snapped his neck.
A weak point. Interesting. No, he knew full well this was a weak point. Her body was too long, had too few limbs, saw in too few colors. She needed a weapon, some way to enhance her reach, her flimsy, fleshy paws. She reached down for the thing the corpse was holding. A gun. A very primitive-looking one. No guarantee it would hit, much less do anything, especially if the others had any kind of armor or protection. Were there others? There must be others. She could not be here just to kill this one. All those decades – weeks – millennia of training could not simply be for that.
She tore a piece of wood from a nearby box, tested its weight. Not great, but good enough. She could work with this. It took her a bit longer to work out how her legs bent, but she got the hang of that too. She had no tail, which made balancing tricky, but eventually she found herself stalking towards the voices up above. It never occurred to her to wonder where the little one had gone.
Stairs. She climbed them, and then another set. Ah, here were her victims – targets – prey. All of them human, working on some bizarre contraption. Unarmed, unarmored. Nothing easier.
She strode up from the hatchway, called something to them. It didn’t matter what, it just got their attention. To make things more interesting.
The unarmed ones she killed easily. The gun turned out to have terrible aim, but she still got its single round through two skulls. The piece of wood wasn’t much better, but it was a serviceable club, if nothing else. Then some of them got weapons, and things got tricky. She had terrible reaction time and almost no strength, which severely limited her options as far as fighting went. But she crushed one’s head with the club and took his sword, which served at very least to deflect oncoming blows. Plus, it turned out to be substantially better at killing them – their lack of armor meant that it went straight through them and left them bleeding on the ground. Some of them had guns, though, and by the time she was finished with the ones that didn’t she was acutely aware that none of the bullets had hit her brain or heart.
She turned to face them, standing up there on their little platform, wondering why in the world she wasn’t regenerating. Ah, no matter. It turned out that she couldn’t jump far enough to reach them, but she could run up the stairs and run them through. And so she did.
She pulled the sword from the last one, looked around. It was an odd environment, to be sure. A lot of water, and a vehicle made of wood. How primiti –
The point of a sword emerged from her stomach.
She looked down at it, curiously. How had this happened? She had been sure they were all dead – well, as sure as she could be, with this equipment. But nonetheless, he had stabbed her, and was drawing the blade up into her lungs. Now, that wouldn’t do. She needed those to breathe.
She spun around on the sword and lopped his head off, but that only made things worse, and despite her best efforts she flopped to the ground, twitching and bleeding. Well, that was pointless, she thought, wondering whatever the reason for coming here so ill-equipped could have been.
And as she lay there, another voice cut through the fog in her mind.
Thank you for your business, pza-tehk.
Written by StalkerShrike