by Harry Turtledove
Junior and me, we got up into the Black Hills country and the Badlands not far away. Yes, thank you, I know that’s not the kind of place where you want to end up. What do you mean, how come I’m looking at you like you’re some kind of natural-hatched fool? How else am I supposed to look at somebody who’s a natural-hatched fool?
Tell you what you can do, though. You can buy me a drink, and you can buy one for Junior, too. That’ll go some ways to makin’ amends. Or you can try the two of us out in the alley and see how you fancy that. Maybe you’ll have more sense after we bite some chunks out of you so it can get in.
Ah, thank you kindly. Much obliged. See? You ain’t a great big fool, anyways.
What d’you mean, do I know Junior’s a native? He’s my hatchling. I’d cursed well better know. No, I didn’t spawn him. We can’t breed with the natives. Anybody who tells you we can is a gods-damned liar. Junior’s my hatchling anyway. He’s been with me since he was tiny. Neither one of us’d know what to do without the other now.
Have I got that straight, Junior, or am I wrong? There! You see, stranger? He feels the same way I do, and as long as he does it’s no consarned concern o’ yours a-tall.
What d’you mean, he talks all mushy? You ain’t been out West real long, have you? He can’t help the way he sounds. It comes from the way his mouth is shaped. You can’t make proper native noises, neither.
You wouldn’t care to? This here’s the West, pal. You may need to one fine day, and sooner than you reckon, too. You just never can tell.
And I’d be farther along in my story if you didn’t keep bangin’ your teeth. You want I should tell it or not? Oh, you do? Well, then, I will—long as you keep your biter shut, I will.
We were by the Black Hills, like I told you. This was in the days when there was still a native kingdom there. No, Junior’s not from them parts. We met up years and years ago, a good bit farther south. You got to understand, this was before they found there was gold in them thar hills. Nobody cared about the natives running things there, on account of nobody reckoned the land was worth anything.
Ever see the Badlands? They look the way your hide does after you get over rinderpest, all bumpy and wavy and slaggy. I heard one fella say they look like what would’ve happened if the gods beat some of the white of the World Egg into peaks and let ’em get hard out there. I mostly don’t hold with that kind of language my ownself, but it does get the notion across.
Or it would, except the Black Hills, they’re home to different gods. You’ll have seen the stereoscopes if you ain’t never been there yourself, am I right? Sure I am. Them great big heads, all sharp teeth and eyeballs, carved into the mountainside . . . Shingto and Fferso and Incol and Oosev, those’re their names. You better learn ’em, too, before you go into that country.
It’s impressive work. It’d be impressive for us, and we’ve got iron and steel and gunpowder. The natives, they used bronze and stones and lots of people and lots of time. Nobody knows how long ago they made ’em. Nobody knows how long it took, neither. The natives don’t remember, and we ain’t found out.
No, Junior and me, we didn’t go up there just to see the sights. You travel for the sake o’ sightseein’, you got to be rich. Do I look rich to you? Does Junior? Didn’t think so. We were there for whatever work we could find, hunting or herding or playing guide for hornface hunters after a trophy.
Wasn’t my first trip there. I’d been in those parts years before. I knew my way around pretty good—for a fella whose scales are green, anyways. The natives, what they can do, you wouldn’t believe it if you didn’t see it for yourself.
It’s like they were hatched there or somethin’, you say? Oh, you’re a regular cutup, you are. They gods-damned well were hatched there. No, don’t get your feathers all ruffled. You don’t make any more stupid jokes, and I won’t sit on ’em. How’s that for a bargain?
Suit you? All right, then. I’ll go on with my yarnin’. . . .
* * *
It was a daytenth before sundown when Junior and me, we came within hailing distance of Fort Ironclaw. Folks who’ve never been anyway near Fort Ironclaw call it the Gateway to the Black Hills. Anybody who’s ever seen it—soldier or traveler, don’t matter a pinfeather—calls it that horrible shithole plumb in the middle of nowhere.
Which it is. Soldiers don’t get sent to Fort Ironclaw on account of they’ve won a promotion. They get sent there to work off their sins from somewhere else.
Somebody in the fort winded a horn while we were still a long ways off. I couldn’t spy anyone on the stockade yet. Hells, I could hardly see the gods-damned stockade. The sentry, he must’ve had hisself a spyglass with some juice in the tube.
We kept walking. Heads popped up on the stockade when I got close enough to make ’em out. You may have been a busted egg to get exiled to Fort Ironclaw, but you don’t dare stay sleepy once you wash up there. The natives would’ve liked nothing better than to swarm over the fort, and everybody in there knew it.
One of the sergeants bellowed at us through a big leather loudhailer: “Who comes?”
I didn’t have a loudhailer. What kind of use’d I have for one? I cupped my hands in front of my snout and hollered back: “Rekek and Junior. Don’t you recognize us, Snegor? I sure know your voice.”
“Keep on comin’. We won’t shoot you yet,” Snegor said, as full of himself as any sergeant ever hatched.
“They’re itchy about me,” Junior said quietly. You can follow him fine once you get used to how he talks. Wasn’t anybody ever gonna be more used to it than me.
“You hush. Long as you’re with me, everything’s jake,” I told him. He’s a native, of course. Anybody can see that, and hear it. But, like I say, he’s been with me since he was fresh out of the egg. No matter that his hide’s brown and he’s got feathers in funny places. No matter that he talks a little strange. He makes better people than most ordinary folks I know.
If you don’t know him, though, he just looks like a native. At the edge of the Badlands, that’s plenty to make soldiers hop and scratch.
We were inside easy rifle range when Sergeant Snegor picked up the loudhailer again. By then, I could spot the soldier with the spyglass. Reckon he could count my feathers, and Junior’s, if he was so inclined. READ MORE
by Alec Nevala-Lee
And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?
—The Book of Jonah
* * *
“This is it,” Eunice said, looking out into the dark water. At this depth, there was nothing to see, but as she cut her forward motion, she kept her eyes fixed on the blackness ahead. Her sonar was picking up something large directly in her line of travel, but she still had to perform a visual inspection, which was always the most dangerous moment of any approach. When you were a thousand meters down, light had a way of drawing unwanted attention. “I’m taking a look.”
Wagner said nothing. He was never especially talkative, and as usual, he was keeping his thoughts to himself. Eunice corrected her orientation in response to the data flooding into her sensors and tried to stay focused. She had survived this process more times than she cared to remember, but this part never got any easier, and as she switched on her forward lamp, casting a slender line of light across the scene, she braced herself for whatever she might find.
She swept the beam from left to right, ready to extinguish it at any sign of movement. At first, the light caught nothing but stray particles floating in the water like motes of dust in a sunbeam, but a second later, as she continued the inspection, a pale shape came into view. She nearly recoiled, but steadied herself in time, and found that she was facing a huge sculptural mass, white and bare, that was buried partway in the sand like the prow of a sunken ship.
Eunice lowered the circle of brightness to the seabed, where a border of milky scum alternated with patches of black sediment. Her nerves relaxed incrementally, but she remained wary. She had seen right away that the fall was old, but this meant nothing. Something might still be here, and she kept herself in a state of high alert, prepared to fall back at any second.
Past the first sepulchral mound, a series of smaller forms stood like a row of gravestones, their knobby projections extending upward in a regular line. To either side lay a symmetrical arrangement of curving shafts that had settled in parallel grooves. All of it was crusted with a fine down of the same white residue that covered the seafloor wherever she turned.
It was the skeleton of a gray whale. From its paired lower jawbones to the end of its tail, it was thirteen meters long, or ten times Eunice’s diameter when her arms were fully extended. She increased her luminosity until a soft glow suffused the water, casting the first real shadows that this part of the ocean had ever seen. Her propulsion unit engaged, cycling the drive plate at the base of her body, and she swam toward the whale fall, her six radial arms undulating in unison.
Wagner, who was fastened around her midsection, finally roused himself. “Now?”
“Not yet.” Eunice advanced slowly, the ring of lights around her upper dome flaring into life. She had not been designed to move fast or far, and she knew better than to lower her guard. There were countless places where something might be hiding, and she forced herself to go all the way around, even though her energy levels were growing alarmingly low.
Every whale fall was different, and Eunice studied the site as if she had never seen one before. Decades ago, a gray whale had died and fallen into the bathyal zone, delivering more carbon at once than would otherwise be generated in two thousand years. The cold and pressure had kept it from floating back to the surface, and a new community of organisms had colonized the carcass, forming a unique ecosystem that could flourish far from the Sun.
Eunice checked off the familiar inhabitants. Mussels were wedged into the empty eye sockets of the curiously birdlike skull, which was a third of the length of the body. Tiny crabs and snails clung unmoving to the bones. Everywhere she looked were mats of the bacteria that broke down the lipids in the whale’s skeleton, releasing hydrogen sulfide and allowing this isolated world to survive. Otherwise, they were alone. “All right. You can get started.”
Wagner silently detached himself. He was a black, flexible ring—a toroid—that fit snugly around her middle like a life preserver. When necessary, he could unfold a pair of tiny fins, but they were less than useful at this depth, so he kept them tucked discreetly out of sight. As he descended to the seabed, Eunice automatically adjusted her buoyancy to account for the decrease in weight.
The toroid landed half a meter from the whale’s remains. Anchoring himself loosely, he gathered his bearings. Wagner was blind, but exquisitely attuned to his environment in other ways, and as Eunice headed for the heart of the whale fall, he began to creep across the sand. His progress was so slow that it could barely be seen, but the path that he traced was methodical and precise, covering every inch of the terrain over the course of twenty hours before starting all over again.
A circle of blue diodes along the toroid’s outer ring matched an identical band on the lower edge of Eunice’s dome, allowing them to communicate along a line of sight. He flashed a rapid signal. “All good.”
“I’ll be waiting,” Eunice said. She headed for her usual resting spot at the center of the fall, where the whale’s ribcage had fallen apart. Maneuvering into a comfortable position, she nestled into place among the other residents. A whale fall might last for a century without visible change, but it was a work in progress, with successive waves of organisms appearing and disappearing as it left one phase and entered another. Eunice saw herself as just another visitor, and she sometimes wondered if any memory of her passage would endure after she was gone.
To an outside observer, Eunice would have resembled the translucent bell of a jellyfish, mounted on a metal cylinder and ringed with the six flexible arms of a cephalopod. Her upper hemisphere was slightly less than half a meter in diameter, with six nodes set at intervals along its lower edge, each of which consisted of an electronic eye, a light, and a blue diode. She could switch them on or off at will, but she usually kept them all activated, allowing her to see in every direction. It affected the way in which she thought, as a spectrum of possibilities instead of simple alternatives, and it sometimes made it hard for her to arrive at any one decision.
Eunice pushed her arms gingerly downward. Her ribbed limbs could relax completely, when she was moving with her peristaltic drive, or grow rigid in an instant. Each had an effector with three opposable fingers capable of performing delicate manipulations or clamping down with hundreds of pounds of force. Now she worked them into the sediment, allowing her to remain fixed in place without using up additional energy, but not so deep that she would be unable to free herself at once. READ MORE