In my dreams, I felt the frost of that dawn as acutely as though I were there again. Crouched among the roots of an old, gnarled tree, turning the screw of a probe with numb fingers, counting down the distance I had left to go. The cold gnawed at me, even through the dense, self-heating layers of my coveralls. It had been a bad winter, and something in me warned that the coming spring would offer no respite. This year, the Old Man had come to stay a while.
Thirty-one centimeters in, the probe turned loose, its tip breaking through the hard edge of the wood layer into the spongy pulp of the tree's superconducting core. I fished in my pack for my thermocouple leads and clipped them to the probe's heads. Seconds dragged as the reading stabilized, registering a temperature much higher than usual -- close to body temperature.
A chill raced through me. Everywhere I'd surveyed these last few days, the trees has been hot. You weren't supposed to draw any conclusions from the data you collected -- that was what the Ministry eggheads were for -- but it's hard not to notice patterns in the details that make up your livelihood.
I shuffled through my pack again and pulled out my map, jabbed a new data point down at my location, like I'd done a hundred other times at a hundred other locations. Hard not to notice the big, connect-the-dots blob hanging off the side of that big red boundary line marked "Do Not Cross" in bold block letters. Elevated temperatures in conductive-core trees meant the transapients were using them, pumping current through them, turning them into enormous, natural antennae. Ministry scholars said the transapients had bred these trees for just that purpose, and the bulk of their activity always followed the boundaries of their amorphous territories, especially when those boundaries were changing.
The ultimate inference was hard to avoid. The transapient we'd dubbed Zulu 17 was expanding its realm. Which meant that big red line should have been about two and a half kilometers back
along the trail I'd come in on.
I packed the map away and backed my probe out of the tree. A breath of steam puffed out after it. I stood slowly and stepped back, boots crunching in the hard snow -- the only sound I heard other than the rasping of my own breath in my throat.
"No disrespect," I called. "I didn't mean to trespass. Sorry if I've disturbed you."
No answer, of course. I hadn't expected any. I beat my way back along my trail, trying to keep to the same footprints I had made coming in. I fooled myself into thinking I could hear the crackle of radiation seething from those hot-core trees, fanning out along the ground, waves of information coalescing and interfering, all at the behest of whatever thing had decided to make these woods its new home. They never spoke to humans, but in those invisible spectra, they screamed to one another. Whatever conversation was taking place in these woods, I knew I didn't want to be a party to it.
I ran. A dozen steps later, I tripped in one of my own footprints and fell face down into the crust. It grated like cold sandpaper across my cheek. The sharp impact with the frozen ground stung through the heels of my hands. I grunted and hauled myself up, digging through the snow around me for my pack.
"Be careful," someone said.
I froze. I couldn't localize the voice -- couldn't be sure if I'd hallucinated it. I lifted the muff off my right ear, straining through the cold quiet.
"Just me," came a reply, small and distant, echoing down from somewhere in the branches above me.
I picked my head up, brushed the fur brim of my cap out of my eyes and scanned the over story. Dense pine, packed in front of a slate gray sky. A light haze of ice fog drifted among the trees, blurring the details of the distance into a wandering canvas of green and white.
A splash of cognac amber against gray bark drew my eye. There was a girl up there, stretched out on her back along a horizontal branch about a dozen meters off the ground. Arms up along the curve of the bough, blonde hair hanging down like a rescue flag. Naked -- her skin was just a half-shade livelier than the milky white hoarfrost spackling the trunk beside her. I bit my tongue to keep from swallowing it as I scrambled to my feet.
"Who.? Uh -- what are you doing up there?" Of all the questions I could have asked, that was the first coherent one to enter my mind.
"Contemplating the existence of a tree," she said. Her eyes were closed. Except for the motion of her lips as she spoke, she lay perfectly still. From this distance, she didn't even appear to breathe.
I swallowed a prickly lump in the back of my throat, noting the conspicuous lack of footprints around the base of the tree. There was no sign of clothing anywhere, no scuffs in the delicate ribbing of ice crystals winding up the lower trunk of the tree, nothing to indicate at all how she'd come to be up there -- as though she'd materialized out of thin air.
She cracked an eye and looked at me. "Don't tell me you've never wondered."
She sat up, swung her legs over and dropped off the branch. On instinct, I lunged after her, but caught my foot on the strap of my pack and went down again. I came up spitting snow and rubbing ice crystals out of my eyes. I blinked away a stinging haze, squinted in the direction I expected to find her broken body, and staggered back in surprise when I found her standing there in front of me.
"Something wrong?" she asked. "You look upset."
Still no footprints. Nothing to suggest she had any substance whatsoever. It was like she floated over the snow . but she clearly stood there, feet against the ice, wiggling her toes through the dusting of powder the morning mist had deposited on the top crust. My mind reeled against the paradox of her existence. It should have been impossible for anyone to get this far into the Wilds with nothing. No vehicle, no equipment . no clothes.
My tongue rolled out its own words as my mind fumbled with a torrent of idiotic questions. "Aren't you cold?" I asked.
"Do I look cold?"
I couldn't really help but look her over. I tried to be clinical about it. She was slight, but sturdy -- nothing like what I'd expect a person who'd been stranded out here to look like. Smooth ivory skin with no hint of abrasions or frostbite. Not even so much as a goose bump to indicate she felt the frost wind swirling around her, playing through her hair, catching iriKeeperIndex crystals in the lashes of her eyes. Delicate bones, toned musculature, graceful curves . firm, shapely breasts ..
I shook myself and tried to look her in the eyes. "You, uh . live here?"
She circled me, head cocked, a hint of a smile playing at the corners of her lips. A dusting of ice crystals, collected out of the air, muted the rich gold shades of her hair. She brushed a stray lock over her ear.
She stopped after coming full circle, back to where she'd started, and stared me down with eyes the color of the lake in midsummer. I saw my own reflection in her pupils, my jaw hanging slack, my hat sagging off to one side of my head, my right earmuff tucked back behind my ear, holding it out -- bright red in the cold. I looked like the idiot I felt.
"You're not a gypsy, are you?" she asked. "You don't look like any gypsy I've ever seen."
"I'm Covenant," I said. "A scout. I'm sorry -- I didn't mean to trespass. I'll get out. I didn't realize you were--"
She put a finger to her lips, breathed past it and clicked her tongue. "No worries, scout. No harm. I don't get many visitors. I'm happy to welcome one, for a change."
She paused for a moment, regarding me coolly, boring through me with those glittering eyes. "Odd how you say that," she said. "You are
Covenant. Do you have any idea how egotistical that sounds? Of course you're Covenant. We're all
Covenant. This whole world is Covenant. You just happen to come from that small subset of the population that is sufficiently stuck on itself to claim the name as its own. You are a citizen of the Associated Commonwealths of Covenant . but you're not the
Covenant, are you?"
"Uh . no. Sorry."
"It's not your fault. Just a quirk of the language, I suppose. And maybe a little bit of egotism on the part of some politico somewhere."
"You're a transapient," I choked. "Zulu 17?"
"Awful name. Who came up with that?"
"Strategic designation," I said.
She cocked an eyebrow. "Strategic? You people are
full of yourselves."
"So you are
The quirk of a smile blossomed into a full blown, pearl-toothed grin. "In a manner of speaking," she said.
She bit her thumb. "That's tough to answer. I don't think the language is properly equipped. Maybe an analogy?"
She circled behind me and put her hands on my shoulders. Their weight pressed through the sleeves of my coveralls. Her breath fell hot on the back of my ear as she spoke.
"How about this." She wheeled me around to face a nearby tree. "Let's say you're standing with your back to the sun, looking at a wall. You see a shadow there. First, it looks like a square. Then, it changes into a diamond. Eventually, it looks like a triangle . and then a diamond again. A myriad of shapes, and all those shapes represent the same thing, floating in space somewhere behind you. That thing is me. What do you suppose I am? What is the nature of a thing that casts such varied shadows?"
I felt as dumb as the tree she had me staring at. What creature has a human shadow.?
She must have taken my silence for an admission of ignorance. "A pyramid," she said. "Standing on one of the points of its base. Don't they teach you geometry? Really . I think that's the most I can boil it down."
"What does that have to do with you?"
"Nothing literal. It's an analogy. It's the difference between us: I see my world in all its dimensions, but your senses are restricted. You have to settle for a projection. And that's what I am. A shadow. Just a sliver of the totality of my being -- a cross section passing through the plane of your perceptions. If you could see the whole pyramid, you'd see how different it is from the shadows it casts. It's more than just depth of substance . it's color. Texture. Taste.."
She licked the lobe of my ear. I jumped. All my life, I'd been prepared to fear the gods as things unknowable -- but none of the doctrine I'd been raised with meshed with the organic reality of her presence. My livelihood revolved around skirting their domains like a moth skirting the edge of a flame, probing the boundaries of their invisible presence to bring my community the warning it needed to stay out from under foot. And now I'd gotten too close . and something burned inside me for it.
"How do I see you?" I asked.
She hesitated, drawing me out. Teasing me. "You turn around," she said.
"And how do I do that?"
She gripped my shoulders and hauled me around to face her. I staggered, but she caught me and held me upright. Then she put her open palm under my nose and said, "With this."
I looked down at it. Nestled in the crease of her hand lay a little opalescent lozenge, like a pill made out of ice. "What is it?" I asked.
"Swallow it," she said, "but don't chew it. You want to see me, don't you? Well . here's your chance. Don't tell me you came all this way just to turn me down."
All parents admonish their children against accepting gifts from strangers. Mother was no exception, and had always been careful to add, "Is no talking critters stranger than those in Wilds." Never take a gift from a god. There's always a catch.
I knew that then, but even in my dreams, I couldn't stop myself from reaching out to take that glassy little bead. It felt soft between my fingertips, like wax. The girl watched me hold it, hands pressed together in clear anticipation, beaming at me. Goading me. I kept my eyes fastened on her as I tilted my head back and dropped her pill into the back of my throat.
I swallowed hard, but it didn't go down. It caught on the back of my tongue. I choked. Something sharp raked the back of my throat, like the thing had sprouted little legs and was trying to claw its way out. Horrified, I realized the sensation wasn't my imagination. I clutched at my throat with one hand, crammed the other into my mouth and tried to reach after the thing. It scrambled up the back of my soft pallet into my sinus cavity. I choked and retched . and screamed when it bit into something up there, driving a shaft of fire through the back of my face. I dropped onto my knees, holding my throat, reeling and spitting, shaking to dislodge it.
Too late. I felt it burrowing through my flesh. A weird tingling sensation ran across the base of my skull. My vision began to swim.
"Sorry," the girl said, leaning over me. "I didn't realize it would be this distressing for you. I'm really new at this.."
I blacked out.
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