I came home to find my door ripped off its hinges and lying in a snowdrift by the porch. Half a dozen pairs of boot prints had been trampled into the frost on the pavement of the walk, frozen hard there in the hours since. Old man Ettinger peered out of his second- story window through a cocoon of filthy curtains, only his nose and eyes visible through the web of lace. He had that guilty look of a man who'd seen things . but Ettinger hadn't uttered a word in twenty years. Seemed unlikely he'd break his silence today.
This time, they'd torn the bolts clean out of the door frame. The hinges were still attached. The knob had been broken, too. I wasn't quite sure how they'd managed that, or why they'd even bothered if they were just going to knock the thing down. Well, that was wrong -- I did know why. It was just that I'd never figured out how a thug like Sas could keep his job with that kind of behavior.
The air inside was thick. Odors clung in the confluence of hot and cold in the doorway. The escaping heat drew ribbons of savor out of the guts of the house. Fresh stew. I kicked off my boots in the entryway. Little beads of ice scattered from their soles when they hit the floor. I replaced the door, propping it as best I could in the ruined frame.
The third time always got her attention. "Yes, Turi. In here. Stop yelling, please. You keep up like that, you'll wake the dead."
I rounded the wall of the entryway into the kitchen, hung my hat on the nail sticking out of the corner, and kicked out a chair to catch myself as I sat down. I put my foot up on the table and rubbed my aching calf.
"The place is a mess, Mother."
She bustled around the kitchen, righting overturned furniture as she went about preparing dinner. She led herself by her nose and feet, sniffing and shuffling along like an old blind hound dog, squinting through a haze of age and wisdom. She never missed a beat. Mother knew her home, even like this.
"Some boys come looking for you," she said. She drew a draught of broth out of the pot, sucked it off the edge of the ladle with old lips so calloused they probably never felt the heat, and grimaced. "Good lord, Turi. I think this is the nastiest thing you've shot yet."
"Boys from where?" I knew the answer, but mother liked to hear herself talk.
"You know. Boys from Ministry. Say they have writ of discovery. Of course, I couldn't read it. Just told them to have at. Please, mind houseplants, I say. Of course, they find nothing. Always nothing -- but they enjoy looking!"
"Was it Sas? Maiyuri?" There was a black dot on the end of my big toe where it had poked through a hole in my sock. I picked at it. Cold and hard, like the ice outside. Going to have to break open the medkit. "Any idea who signed the writ?"
"Da. Sas it was. Didn't hear Maiyuri, but he's a quiet one. As to signature? Couldn't say. These old eyes, they see nothing but shadows, you know." She paused; sniffed the air. "You get those filthy feet off my table." She turned and brandished the ladle at me, smattering a residue of stew across the floor. "You're not too old to spank, you know. I'll have you over my knee, and I warn you -- my aim is not so good anymore."
"Sorry, mum." I pulled the fetid sock off my foot and tossed it under my chair.
"That's better," mother said, and went back to her cooking.
"Did he say anything about what he was looking for?"
"Sas? Evidence. What else?" She stirred furiously for a moment, scraped a crust of scorched broth off the rim of the kettle and folded it into the mix. "You know well as I do . he hates you. Wants to find reason for Covenant to tack you up on tree. Wants your job, I think. Too bad he's no good at it. Still . you should be more careful. Fraternizing with those awful creatures.."
"They're not awful."
of them. Only most of them. They don't call it Wilds for no reason. Would that it be my son who gets lucky and finds good one? Aiya! Thank Keeper! We are so blessed."
"Mother.." I tried to think of something to say but ended up just leaving it there. She didn't know the half of it, and trying to explain myself now would just make things worse. I switched feet, careful to pull the sock off the second one and send it down to join the first before lifting my heel onto the tabletop. No black marks on this one, though the arch felt like someone had driven a nail through it.
"How's things? Find any good eating this time out?" She came to the table with two bowls in one hand and a steaming pot in the other. She never bothered with oven mitts. She tossed the bowls down, one at a time, and delivered a dollop to each with one continuous sweep of her ladle. Then she put the pot back on the stovetop and sat down.
I passed a spoon to her from the silverware hanger by the doorway, and she slid a bowl across the table to me.
"No," I said. "Probably won't be anytime soon, too. Somebody's started up the old facility out by the lake. The activity's scared everything away."
"Somebody?" She lifted an eyebrow. "Your Little Friend?"
"No. It's too far out of her territory. Oh, but someone else has moved in just a little bit to the northeast of there. Sliding around her domain, I think. I haven't been able to tell for sure. The net traffic is all garbled up over there, like there's some massive reorganization going on. Wading through all that is like walking through a blizzard.."
"If you report on that, you do Sas's job for him." Her voice turned cold. She jabbed her spoon at me, dripping stew broth onto the tabletop. "You're getting careless, son. Loose-tongued. You know better than that."
"It won't go in the report," I said. "I report on what I see with my eyes. And, anyway, I probably won't report on the newcomer anyway. No proof it's not just the same transapient pretending to be someone else. At least, no proof the Covenant would accept."
"The Covenant is not interested in proof," she said through a mouthful. "The Covenant was never interested in proof. Their interest is the antitheist of proof."
"Antithesis," I said.
She glared at me. "I know what I say."
She shook her head, stirring her soup and laughing, low and rough in her chest like a cough that wouldn't quite come up. "Turanov Michaile . you will be the death of me. But I am glad that you are home."
We ate the rest in silence. She scrubbed the bowls and put the stew out in a covered pot while I fixed the front door, prying the frame out of my own room to replace the splintered parts. We settled into bed early that day, with the sun still well above the horizon. For once, I didn't mind wasting the hours. It had been a long week, and I was glad to be home.
I dozed until just after sunset, when a buzz of unrest somewhere in the back of my mind drew me back to wakefulness. I kept my eyes closed, focusing on that sensation, following it down its rabbit hole into the nether regions of my own thoughts. Patterns etched themselves into my vision -- patterns of thought, drawn from a source outside myself; drawn out of the vortices of dark red and neon green that inhabited the sightless space behind my eyelids. I waded through an invisible sea of radiation that bathed my world, conscious of an underlying sense in the crackling disorder. A perfectly encrypted signal looks like noise. All you need to make sense of it is an invitation..
"Turi? Is that you?"
"Yes," I said to no one -- to the voices in my mind. They heard with my ears. To simply think it was not enough.
"You're a long way out this time. That's good. You're growing. Pretty soon, you'll be too big for your own head!"
"I wasn't trying this time," I said. "I don't know how it happened. It just did."
A flash of amusement flittered through my thoughts, unbidden and alien. The voices never really spoke in words. There were always words accompanying their thoughts . but to call it words alone would have been like comparing a symphony to a lullaby. They called it a gestalt. I'd never heard the word before . but I would never forget it now.
"I have to give a report tomorrow morning," I said. "The Survey Ministry will want to know where I've been."
"What are you going to tell them?"
I smiled. As much as they insisted they couldn't read my mind, sometimes it seemed like they could. They knew so often what I would say before I said it.
"What they want to hear," I said. "I wouldn't dare tell them anything else. It would be too much for them. Cause too many problems."
"You should come see me soon, Turi. I miss you."
"I will. They'll send me out again, and I'll come see you."
"Turi!" My mother's voice carried like the screech of a courting cat down the narrow hallway between our rooms. "Are you talking to Little Friend again?"
"Well, talk more quietly! Let an old woman get her sleep!"
"Yes, mum." I willed myself toward the seashore, out of the glittering waves of another world. "I'm sorry," I said. "It's been a long day. I have to go."
I felt its touch, deep in the base of my skull -- a broad, creeping warmth that swept across my thoughts, filling my head with an empty calm. Invisible fingers played along the strings of my brain, strumming chords of sleep. My inner eye drifted shut, lulled by that symphonic lullaby.
"Good night, Turi. Sweet dreams.."
I fell back into myself, repackaged in my own thoughts and returned to the shelf of my world. This time, as every time, I felt subtly different -- as though the skin that held me stretched a bit, straining to hold the breadth of me.
It could never hold all of me again. Inevitably, this time, as always, some small part of me remained in that other world. It drifted with them -- with the creatures of that abstract space, beyond vision, beyond hearing. Free of the bindings of the Covenant. It made me long to be free with them. To bridge the gap that had split my being to its core.
A month ago, I had been much more certain about my place in the universe. The life of a Covenant field scout is a simple, predictable thing. You go where you are told, you take the readings you are asked to take, and you return with your findings to your supervisor at the Survey Ministry, who collects your report and relays it to the higher authorities. If you happen to discover something of importance, you might be called upon to testify to the Council of Lords about your discovery. But, more often than not, the most important things you find are the rabbits and squirrels that put some variety into a diet of dry rations.
Now, every night, I dreamt about the day that life had slipped away. This night was no different. As soon as the daylight was gone; as soon as the whispers I gathered, minute by minute, were stilled by the quiet of sleep, my mind began to manufacture its own entertainment. These days, my thoughts never stood still. They roamed the wasteland of my memory, hunting for characters to populate their plays. They always started in that same place -- a few weeks ago, a few dozen kilometers outside the border, into the Wilds.
There, the days of Turanov Michaile Zolevski had come to an end, and the days of something else found their beginning.
Table of Contents
- Chapter Two