Light from her portable's screen field glowed on the dim ceiling, on the dull, unchanging walls. Upgrading to a base with better connectivity would blow her cover.
Some people called her Panther. Not because of her skin. Her skin wasn't black. Once she would have been called Black, because of her skin color. Which was a nice, even brown.
On the Island, and out here away from it, the ones she worked with called her Panther. Not because of her hair, either, even though it was black. It was long and frizzily curling, not the cat's cut velvet.
She'd picked her alias from an old book. Her "biological ally," Irene, had called her Pretty Pearl. She wrapped a springing curl around one finger, tighter, tighter —
The new fad for clone names revolved around phoneticized foreign phrases. Irene called Panther's replacement Mo Kree.
Grasp tendril. Wrap forefinger. Tug. Tug.
From the "Matched" file, the sweet, fat-cheeked face smiled at her. Seven apparent years, twenty-four calendar. Maybe a decade more to go before she ran out of cute. Cancer, osteoporosis, catatonia, dementia. . . all highly curable illnesses these days. Curable and causable by similar means. And clones' biological allies — their templates — chose the latter in creating their pets. Their expensive, highly beneficial pets.
Panther turned the file's pages randomly. She knew it by heart; knew how it differed from her own, how it was the same.
Her careless paging brought her back to the beginning, a sitter's raw recording of a talk between Mo Kree and a boy and girl named Shmex and Putti. The sitter's compound vision turned the sunny playing ground into a kaleidoscope of honey-tinted cells. The clones' conversation drifted in and out of clarity, broken by breezes and the yells of others playing nearby.
Putti: We couldn't really kill them.
Mo Kree: Right. Not all of them.
Putti: Not any of them! Killing is wrong. Ask Santa. Barbera (NOISE) just me.
Shmex: Anyway, they would find out. Wouldn't they?
Mo Kree: It's only a story to play.
Putti: A stupid story.
Mo Kree: But didn't someone say if a lally dies it's the turn of one of us? (NOISE) grow up to take their (muffled).
Shmex: (NOISE) says?
Putti: And — yeah, and —
Shmex: I bet you heard it, too, but —
Putti: — who would pick the one to get grown up?
Shmex: (NOISE) never knew someone who did (NOISE) being big. I don't think . . .
Mo Kree: It would be really nice. But not to have to kill somebody because of it, yeah, that's better.
Putti: Killing is wrong. It hurts, and (NOISE) your lally?
Mo Kree: Okay, we won't do that pretend, then. I guess you're right. But wouldn't it be nice?
Panther tightened her lips in a quick grimace. There was a small chance of Mo Kree being allowed to mature. She estimated the odds at roughly five hundred haystacks to one slim, golden needle. Kidnapping was a much more viable alternative.
Restless, she rose from her desk. As it shifted to maintain visibility, the map she was working with showed how empty the continent's interior had become. From her base in Chicago she could imagine straight lines radiating out, intersecting with nowhere all along their lengths. Austin, Boulder, and Santa Fe were it till the coast. Astoria, Sacramento, and Palo Alto.
The emptiness was inclined to wars, and some of them were highly mobile. Enclaves didn't like to venture very far beyond their boundaries. A 200K radius, a one hundred hour duration: No one had ever heard of a pursuit going further or lasting longer.
Panther was asking for extra spyflocks anyway. Bluebirds out on the prairie, starlings closer in. Magpies for near the mountains. The Island was stingy with its animal sentries. They might not see the need for back up. But this was Irene she was dealing with. Irene was insane. Obsessed. Panther knew that better than anyone ever would. Except, maybe, Mo Kree.
According to Linden, the Field Doc assigned to Austin, it was only a matter of time.
Grasp tendril. Wrap forefinger. Tug. Tug.
Lately, more and more biological allies had been tagging clones with transmitters. Trick was to avoid attracting attention till the Enclaves gave up the chase. Not to look like a fugitive clone, or a Treasure Seeker with nearly as many identities as years alive.
She stared in the dresser's mirror. Her face, now, not Irene's. Her nose was shorter, her eyebrows higher, skin slightly darker since the makeover. No one would mistake her, think they recognized someone else she had never been, but Panther could still see —
My lally is so pretty, and she hugs me very tight. She is strong, with curly, long black hair. If I grow up, I know I will look just like her.
We are on a landing of the stairs, halfway between Toytown and home. I could count the steps like last time we went up them. It was on my birthday. But there will be the same number, twenty-four. And the two numbers will still match, because I am still the same age.
Since I remember that time and those numbers, I don't have to do it again. By the Treasure Seekers secretly giving me less of my regular medicine, they are helping me be closer to my lally, even if that wasn't what they wanted. Even if they think it will be better for them to take me away from her.
We walk by the red flowers. I want to touch them again. But another thing I remember always is the Belt. So I don't.
My lally has been working. She waved around the world finding out things for a book she's writing about what people do. The furthest places she went away to were in Africa and Japan. She says some of who she visited are going to send seeds to put in eggs here, to make a different kind of kid than me.
I wonder if that kind has to take medicine the way I do. If it would make them Spoiled, too, after a while. I don't ask that. But I look at my lally's face. Does she know how my medicine will hurt me? The Treasure Seekers say so.
Even though I don't want to believe them, I want to grow up. Which will probably not happen if I stay here.
That's the only reason why I will go.
I hope when it happens my lally understands.
When I leave will she want one of those other kind of kids? Will it make her happy, the way I do?
At the top of the stairs we stop. She bends down close. There's her smile, curving her lips like a heart. "Mo Kree," she says, "I've brought you a present, and here it is." She puts it on over my neck, a vine of flowers. They live on the air, she tells me. So many colors more than red. And all they need is sometimes they have to take a bath with me. In a city called Joburg a man sells this idea of how to grow them.
"Why can't we go there?" I ask.
"Mo Kree!" My lally is surprised I would want to. "It's far, very far away, my little girl." She takes my hand and we start walking again. The rest the way home she holds her lips together tight. No more talking.
And this is only just my first mistake.
I'm acting different, and the Treasure Seekers are right. They shouldn't tell me who they are if I don't already know them. They shouldn't tell me the island where we're going, or when they'll come to get me, or hardly anything.
But maybe some other mistake was first. The pictures I made in Toytown? Not to leave them there and tell my lally I did nothing, I made nothing, all those days and days? Which would be a lie.
Lies are a good way to get the Belt.
We come home, and the house is gold and purple. This is the same as on the night of my birthday party. Are these my lally's favorite colors? Not mine.
In the kitchen, I put the rolled up pictures on the table, next to the teapot and cinnamon cookies. She unrolls my work and my lally is so scared. I think she likes it, but her hands shake over the moons and flowers and machineries I have made. "Who helped you with this, honey?" she asks me.
"Oh, somebody," I say. It's true. Somebody named Mo Kree. Mo Kree I used to have, Mo Kree I decided now to keep.
All day, she watches me. I hope the Treasure Seekers come fast, before I get anybody in trouble. I don't know all their names. But Veeno. And Uncle Jeffers. And Dr. Linden, who is not so nice. Even he doesn't deserve to be dead as a bug, though.
At night, in bed, my lally gets up as soon as she thinks I'm asleep. What is she doing? Where is she going without me? I decide to follow, and if she gets mad I will say I have to pee.
She is on the wave. The transmitter. But it's turned off. She is just sitting on the bluegreen pad, long hair curling down her naked back. Her crossed legs are in bright yellow stretches. From the dark spots on them, that's how I know my lally's crying.
I come up to put my head in her lap. I want to touch one of her nipples, big and soft and rosy pink.
She grabs me and cries hard, for real now. "Mo Kree, Mo Kree, oh, what am I doing to you...."
My poor lally is scared. I start crying, too. Then she has to stop to make me feel all better. Kisses, and she picks me up and carries me into the kitchen, sets me on the counter near the fridge. I can feel its warm hum. A cool, wet cloth washes off my tears. Ice cream in a bowl. Soft, how I like it.
While I eat it she runs her hands up and down my back and front, all over my arms and legs. When I changed out of my clothes she did the same thing. Not like it should feel nice. Like she was looking for something.
I see what's wrong. Probably she thinks I'm turning Spoiled because of how different I'm acting. She is trying to find the bumps and sores the Treasure Seekers say will begin on me from too much medicine. And the holes and soft spots in my bones that will mean I'm dying.
I promised them not to tell her anything.
We go back to bed again. Tears have made us tired for real. I'm fast asleep when the Treasure Seekers come.
A smell and a sound wake me up. Like a big pie baking, full of flowers. I don't know what it is — maybe a fire? Orange lights are flashing criss-cross through the house, honking noises blasting my ears. Where's my lally? I'm supposed to crawl to the door in a fire, that's what teachie says all the time. So I go on hands and knees over the floor mats. A woman's voice is yelling, not my lally's. She has to get out by herself. If I get out, I can find someone big to help.
If my lally turned off the Belt for going outside the yard.
The front door is open. In the dark night, someone darker waits — my lally? How come she didn't wake me up — but no, this is hairy hands, a stranger picks me off the ground. Who is it? I don't know this man, I'm scareder than ever now, and he carries me away. "Stop!" I shout over the horns honking. "I have to find my lally!" No, he won't listen, he runs with me up the little hill. We're going out of the yard.
It's on, the Belt is on, I twist and scream, let him drop me please oh please, it has to stop I'm good oh please let me down it's hurting me it has to stop!
The pie smell on my face and the hurting stops. And everything is gone.
Everything comes back. Slowly. Every new thing. I am in what is moving. I am moving, lying down on something hard. People talk. They say things I don't understand, things I can't exactly hear. I try to sit up to get closer, but I can't.
I have to pee. Not bad yet, but if I don't go to the bathroom soon, I'll wet myself. My lally will be mad.
"Can I check?" a voice asks, coming close. The soft covers pull back from my head and my eyes are open on this pale light, kind of grey, and kind of green. I'm looking up at a big, high ceiling. Part of the light comes through that, like if it was paper. A pointy-chinned face, smooth and pretty, puts itself in front of me. "She's awake!" the face says, and it smiles.
I smile, too. Nothing hurts, and someone likes me. Now I want my lally. I start to ask. "Where — "
"A sky-scow," the pretty face says. A kid, like me.
"No — I mean — " The words are hard, slow to my tongue.
"Over the bad lands. Come on, get up if you wanna see."
It's a wire mesh that was holding me down. This other kid rolls it back. Then I can push off my covers and climb out of the bin. I don't think I've been on a sky-scow before, just seen them on teachie shows. The space is enormously empty. I follow this kid towards one wall. A clear green stripe shines all along it, higher than my head. The rest of the wall is made of tiny bubbles. They look like pieces of rice smushed together. Too small to see anything out of.
Instead of trying, the girl is lying on the floor, on her belly. "Hold on," she says. Hold on to what I wonder, but I do lie down next to her. And am I glad I did, right away, because the floor, the part we just walked on, is opening. The floor folds back in a square shape and up comes the cold air, right in our faces. The girl sticks her head out over the hole, so I do, too. I look down.
Wrinkle-folds of red and purple-blue, and orange and golden-green are moving slowly below us. The land — why is it bad? "My name's Say Bone," says the girl next to me.
"I'm Mo Kree," I tell her.
"Well I know that." She makes a face. "The Treasure Seekers told me. You've been asleep for days."
"The Treasure Seekers — "
"They saved us. They took us from our lallies."
"My lally's not here? Where is she? Is she burnt?"
"Burnt? What are you talking about?" Say Bone looks at me and frowns. "You better ask somebody else." She rubs her hand on a bump coming out of the wall and the floor goes closed.
We walk back to the bin where I was sleeping. Suddenly I remember I have to pee. "Can I go to the bathroom, please?"
"The head. They call it the head on a sky-scow," says Say Bone. I don't think she looks so pretty now she's acting all important.
"Whatever you call it, can you show me where — "
"In the cabin, so you might as well meet them on the way." Say Bone keeps going past the bin, and on the other side there is another bump she rubs. This must be how she made the first hole, only I didn't see, because it happens again. Down this hole is a ladder to a room. People sitting in the room are eating and smiling.
Say Bone climbs down first, then me. When we're on the floor the ladder folds up and the hole we came through disappears.
Three people, and not one of them is my lally, or anyone else I know. A man and two women. The man holds a cup, with lots of hair on his hands. He grabbed me, and carried me to where the Belt came on. He smiles and looks worried at the same time. One woman is standing and she walks a little closer and then stops. "Mo Kree," she says. "My name is — you can call me Jane. And this is Panther." She points at the other woman, who waves from a pile of pillows. "And he's Squirrel. Welcome."
I want to say something nice to make them like me. "Please," I start, but Say Bone talks first.
"Mo Kree needs the head."
"Oh, of course," says Jane. "Say Bone, go with her and show her how it works." This sounds stupid, but when I see what they have behind the velvet curtains I'm glad. Maybe I could figure how to get into it, but I need help to make it let me out.
The cabin is strange. I see it better now I don't have to pee. My lally has a box for her jewels like this but small. Plus there are long ropes of silky cords. Rugs on the walls and pillows on the floor. Mirrors in the middle of glass windows in the middle of giant silver shells.
"Do you like it?" says Panther. "It's really old, a cabin from a sailing ship." I nod yes. "Come sit by me." I lean up under her arm. She smells a little like my lally.
After a moment, Panther asks me if I enjoy adventures. "Uh-hunh, yeah," I say.
"Good. This is an adventure. This is life."
"When will I see my lally?" I say. Which is a dumb question. The whole point of the Treasure Seekers is to take me away from her. I've only been making believe she should be here, ever since I've been awake.
Instead of answering me, Panther tells me what I really need to know. "Don't worry, Mo Kree. The fire was only a pretend. Irene didn't get burnt at all."
The Treasure Seekers have no cooker, and all the food we eat is in boxes. At least it is mostly my favorite kinds: chees, and chix, and soops. Also there's no dresser, which means I have much less to wear. Only what is already made and brought with them. And sometimes that's a bit boring.
It's the exact opposite with the way they don't have any teachies. The Treasure Seekers tell us things themselves. They talk to me and Say Bone, but not like our lallies. Like they talk to each other, fast, and we have to run with our brains to stay caught up.
Also, Jane and Panther show us how to fight to protect ourselves. Which is mostly to surprise someone a minute, and get a chance to get away. We practice feeling where the center of our weight will be at different moments. How to think of what will hurt, not what will make us happy when we hit it.
First Say Bone and me watch Jane and Panther fighting. They do not get mad. After that, they pretend to be bad guys. Panther takes me and Jane takes Say Bone. While they say where, we kick and hit them. Soft, but still it makes me feel real strange to do. It makes me imagine hitting other grown ups. Hard.
Sometimes I go to my bin and Bestill. For a while they call me, but when I keep on not answering they stop it. They don't have any way to give me the Belt. They say the Belt is wrong, it doesn't help us learning to grow up.
Jane comes with us exploring the ship, which is a she. She is called the Nesbit, after a lady who made magic stories long ago. This Nesbit is supposed to be carrying things from one Enclave to another so they can switch who owns them. Since we're on a secret mission, most of the storage bins are empty except for bags of rice.
Say Bone has already seen these things, but she gets excited when Jane says it's feeding time. We both take turns shoveling rice into the Nesbit's mouth, which is a pool in the bottom of one of her big center departments. In there goes the white rice, the same kind we can eat.
There are two other special sorts of rice. The blue rice is for going around, and the pink kind in the highest bins is for floating. And each of them has their own place to be put.
The blue is actually kind of disappointing. We only put it under a lid, into another, stinkier stomach. Later on what comes out of it will burn, but not now, and not anywhere nearby. It's too dangerous.
Say Bone runs up a ramp. Because she knew to ask to do it, she gets to lift up a door in a bin so the pink rice pours out. It hisses down inside a hollow tube to a huge, long see-through stripe on the Nesbit's side. Very pretty, the swirling of it in there, like each grain is part of a little dance. The light coming through the stripe is turned a bright, brilliant green by the liquid stuff inside, and the pink is sparkling against it. And the rest of the Nesbit's regular skin is almost yellow at this time because the sun is so strong.
Jane explains to us how the germs that eat this color of rice turn everything into a gas, an air that weighs hardly anything. Called hydrogen, she says. A word I will remember.
I don't understand how we know when the Nesbit is hungry? And which kind of rice she wants to eat? According to Jane there actually is some way, a sign Squirrel can see in the helm. I guess. But I don't get it. Say Bone says she does, though.
For a while I feel stupid, but then I think of something no one else ever decided to try. I climb up the framebones to the sky-scow's top. Like a huge white gymnoset. Jane looks worried but she's not going to stop me. Nobody is. Say Bone yells at me to come down. "Just because you're scared!" I yell right back.
Panther steps over the doorway (it's called a bulkhead on a sky-scow). She puts her hands in her pants pockets when she sees me and leans back for a good look. "Whoo-ee!" she shouts. "I always did want to see what kinda stress this frame could take. How much do you weigh, Mo Kree?"
I don't know that. I shrug, then grab the bone above my head to keep from slipping off.
"Well, when you're ready to come down we'll find out. Jane, where's the scale? Still in our room?" She goes to get it, and I shimmy down fast as I can to follow her.
Panther is always my favorite, no matter how nice the other Treasure Seekers try to be. I think lots about it. In her and Jane's room she has a necklace of stones hanging on the wall. Pictures of plants hang in a curtain for their bed, and one of them is red, the flower on the bush I kissed that day.
Panther hooks the scale's top part to the ceiling and loops the bottom underneath my arms. I have to lift my legs up off the floor and curl them under. It's not like the scale at Dr. Linden's. When I stand up again she says I'm thirty-two. "Is that good?" I want to know.
"Sure. We should probably check again in a few more days." It could change. My medicine is so low, I might be already growing.
Lots of time I spend on my belly, looking down. We go higher or lower, and I can see all sorts of things. Like those left-over roads. Panther says that's what they are, grey strips, and they go along rivers, over mountains and under. People could ride on them when they visited each other a lot. The road ends crumble off brown. A tech is taking them apart.
I can ask any question I can think of. I remember all of them, and all the answers.
Would my lally like the way I'm changing?
Squirrel doesn't have much time from flying the Nesbit, which he does from a place we call the helm. The Nesbit's skin is really thin there, and like a window in one spot. And when we visit there he shows us maps. They slide onto this little box, then leap in pictures up into the air. Maps are like a toy of the world. The first time, he opens one for the mountains we are flying over. It knows the mountains' names. I learn them: Diamond, Grouse, and Leather Man. Snowyside. North Loon. These are the Salmons. Another mountain family lives next door: The Blues. Fanny Blue and Vinegar Hill. Strawberry and Grizzly.
Squirrel shows us where we went from. My lally's home has the name of Austin. Maybe there were other times I knew.
And here is where we're going. Well, not the exact place, but Squirrel shows some islands, other ones, to us. Green blops on the blue water of the sea. The sea has a name, many different names for different areas of the sea. "Pyoujet Sound," I say after the map voice. "What kind of sound would that be?"
"Squirrel!" Jane is calling from his desk. She's mad! "Cornhole it, Squirrel, come over here and tell me what this is!"
Me and Say Bone go, too, but there's only backs of heads for us to see.
"Limp and dry!" says Squirrel. "The juiceless cunts got us tracked! That's an Austin eyebot there — how far back's this pus-humping spyflock?"
"Day and a half's flight," says Jane.
"I can't believe they've followed us all this way. Why — "
Panther puts her hands on Squirrel's shoulders, pushing down. "All I care about now is can we lose them."
"Sure," says Squirrel, "if we can lose whatever empty-dick signal they've got to home in on."
Panther says "Oh, right. A twenty million cubic sky-scow, and all we have to do is scan its entire contents for an active tag."
Jane stares straight at me and Say Bone. "The signal's source is probably right in here with us."
"On the kids? And still broadcasting? Well, if it is… " Squirrel looks around like he'll see what he was going to say somewhere nearby.
Panther folds her arms. "If it is, so what?"
Jane walks over to a handle in the helm's wall and pulls. A drawer comes open. "First things first," she says, and gets out something soft and white and folded. She shakes it and puts it on. It's like two gloves that go up over her arms and come together in her front. "These are old," she says. "If they read clean, could just mean we need a new set."
"So what's the point?" Squirrel asks her as she comes over from the wall. "We're not going to just abandon them."
"Well, then what's our plan? Given the uncertainty — "
"Split," says Panther. "Divide the risk, multiply the chances of someone getting through. And the more time till we arrive, the less likely the tag will still be active."
She asks me who I want to go with. It's her, of course. Say Bone likes Squirrel, but he has to be the one to take the sky-scow to somewhere else, not the island. Jane says her biological ally used to visit around here. Which is a longer way of saying lally. "The land knows me," she says. She will show the way to Say Bone. Panther and I will travel to the island by taking the sky-scow's barge.
The Treasure Seekers tell us try to go to sleep. It's night. They have lots to get ready fast, and we would just be in the way. Instead of the ricebins, we curl up in a cabin bed and Bestill.
With her sleeves rolled above her elbows, Panther ran both hands through the finishing tank, scooping capsules up through the grey fluid. The warm light from her lamp made it hard to tell which were ripe and red, and which had a ways to go. According to Jane there was some room for error. Their ripening would continue for a while even after the caps were removed.
She sorted a few more wetly shining berry-shapes into a net bag for Say Bone and let the rest slip between her fingers, back into the shallow tank she'd be transferring to the barge. There'd be time and room on the river for this batch of medicine to mature. No danger of Mo Kree running low, at any rate.
Panther proceeded to the next tank. Guns, ammo. All done. She wiped them down and put them into Jane's duffel. Panther had vetoed bringing that sort of weapon on the barge. She and Mo Kree would be well supplied with food. Plus, this early in the year, river traffic was bound to be light. Guns were rare, their use likely to invite suspicion; the ops agent had reluctantly agreed that they should be grown only for herself and Say Bone.
The way Panther had planned, this was supposed to be the easy part, sort of a mid-job vacation cruise. She should have known. When she made her own escape, Irene had chased her as far as the Enclave allowed. Age had only strengthened her obsession.
Panther headed for the door to see if Jane needed help packing her selections. She met Squirrel coming in from topping up the Nesbit's intakes. "Food," he told her. "In the helm."
She wasn't hungry, but she followed him forward. The low-beam lamps they carried lit the cellulose "bones" they walked on with a cool, sherberty orange. To either side the same pastel fire caught itself in the delicate, subtly changing curves of the walls' rice-shells, gleamed dully from the uniform rows of the ethanol tank's stripping columns.
"Why so dark?" asked Panther.
"I know, I know. Barn door."
"What?" Even after sixty years of trying, Panther still didn't understand every reference a born human was apt to make.
"Sorry. I mean, I know we're probably laying a trail anyway, but I feel better blacked out like this."
"Fine." The narrow passage opened up into the forward compartment and their path curved over to a series of high, shallow steps. Panther leaned forward and took them on tiptoe. Squirrel, a little heavier, helped himself along with his hands. "What do barns have to do with it?" She'd always be a clone, but she could keep asking. She could learn the answers, though they might never make sense.
"Not important. Ask me on the Island."
If they got there. If they both got there.
The sight of lovely, capable Jane at the helm relieved Panther of her treacherous, momentary doubts. The op agent's long, straight red-brown hair was pulled back in a somewhat frazzled bun. She sat eating stoically from a box of bento, chopsticks steadily lifting bunch after bunch of crispy green and squishy pink-and-white to her waiting mouth.
"Food is fuel," as Jane had said on many another run. Many another, and there would be many more. Panther grabbed her own box and stood looking over the ops agent's shoulder at the spyflock's display. Squirrel picked up his from the counter top and sat down on the emptied space. "Well, it was a good plan, anyway."
"Right," said Jane. "And this one's just as good." She wasn't looking at Panther. The feed from the spyflock bathed her face in quick-moving lights and shadows.
Most of the glittering pinheads swooping past represented individual viewpoints, redundant data. The spyflock watched its own members for aberrant behavior. At the heart of their surveillance structure, a bar of cobalt blue shone with an antiseptic radiance, warping their symmetry. Tugging the pattern out of true as it sped toward them, north by northwest. The Austin eyebot.
"How much closer?" Panther asked.
Squirrel hunched forward, looked down at the desk. "About a day away. You want to send word to Wouldbe?"
"No." Better that this extraction should fail than that they take a chance of endangering the Island. The Treasure Seekers would go on rescuing clones without them. They had for over two hundred years. Since not long after the Bad Stuff.
"But if this indicates some sort of policy change on the Enclaves' part — "
"No," she repeated. "It's only Irene. She's insane. That's all. That's it." Only Irene.
Now, Jane did look up. Smiling; approving of her decision not to ask for help. Panther squeezed her shoulder. Reassuringly, she hoped. "When will we reach the drop-offs?"
"Three hours for the first," Squirrel replied. "Another two for yours. Approximately."
Nobody said anything for a moment. The taste of ginjer and the scent of toona lingered silently, traces of familiar comforts.
"Well, then," said Jane. "'Spose we'd better get on with it. You need me to spell you any longer?" she asked Squirrel. He shook his head. "Then I'll go ahead with the rest of the barge changes, see if there's anything else I think I'll need. Panther, you want to catch a couple hours nap, one of us can rouse you an hour before my drop."
It wasn't a question. They were in the field, and ops had spoken. Panther nodded, collected all their boxes, and went down to the cabin. She dropped them in the galley and made a quick trip to the head.
The clones were sleeping in her and Jane's quarters, but she'd be fine out in the main cabin with a pile of pillows. She stepped in just to check how they did.
Say Bone had two fingers in her mouth. She was curled up outside the covers. Panther tucked her in, leaning over in a try for a glimpse of Mo Kree's face. Her tangled hair hid all but Mo Kree's small, firm chin. Panther's hand hesitated a second before she smoothed back the black locks. It was hard not to get emotionally involved with the clones. And in this case it would have been completely hopeless.
The thick, gently arching eyebrows; the lashes, impossibly lush and long; the broad, stubborn nose; the clear, brown skin; the fine, brittle, kinking hair, exactly like her own at that age.
A clone was a copy, but in genetic terms only. Environment still played its part in forming any personality. In sleep, the differences disappeared, but Panther made herself remember them. This enchanting child was called Mo Kree. This was the one Irene
had called Mo Kree.
Lamp darkened, Panther curled around a velvet-covered pillow protectively, as if it were her younger self. She would sleep, defying memories, dreams of violence, nightmares. Many years since she'd suffered those. And as she drifted further into the weightlessness behind her eyes, the past kept its distance. Details of the current extraction buzzed by. One approached lazily, unfolded itself like wet paper stained with emotion, plastered itself across her face and drew her in.
Softness drew her out. Soft as melting snow, Jane's hands in her hair. Waking her. An hour more they'd be together. Not long enough. Never long enough. They made love anyway. And even had time to talk after.
"Mo Kree's made her transference awfully fast."
"Not a lot faster than Say Bone. At least she's attaching to the right Treasure Seeker." A faint, grey radiance filled the portholes — a half-moon behind thin clouds. It edged Jane in mother-of-pearl: her upturned face, the sweep of her auburn hair, now fireless, the line of her forearm flung above her head, all glowed hard and cool.
"The pheromones help. But when countertransference occurs — "
"When it occurs, you'll be ready. You'll handle it, like you've handled everything else."
"Irene — "
"Everything." Said firmly.
Clones were expensive toys, but they were toys. Who'd risk a prolonged chase into unsettled, war-infested areas just to get back the adult equivalent of a wind-up? Even a special, favorite wind-up? For a moment, Panther doubted what she'd tried so hard to convince Counsel of: the depth of Irene's madness. "Are you sure — "
"You heard as well as me. It was Austin." Say Bone had been rescued from the Santa Fe Enclave.
"So — "
Strong arms suddenly around her. "What are you afraid of, Panther? Wouldbe's protected by a hundred different techs. She'll never get anywhere near us."
"Well, then, what?"
"I'm afraid of her." A dry sob, as if at the end of a long cry. Relief at locating the source, the power behind her fear, which was still switched on. Still operational. "I'm afraid of my lally."
Someone shakes me. It's Jane. This must be the morning. Outside the windows is blue, heavy blue, but shining, not just dark.
"Come on," says Jane. She is wearing a hat like a sock and a thick, bear-looking coat. "Get up. Get Say Bone up. Meet us aloft."
Say Bone is hard to make her do anything. I pull off all the covers and drag her to the head. First I get in and pee and let it wash me off. The juice is warm and smells like melons. I remember how weird this seemed in here when Say Bone showed me, my first day. The pinky light and sticky, streaky walls. And how weird it used to seem to be able to remember. The floor is still so slippery to me, even with the rows of little bumps. But I'm sorry to have to touch the big bump on the wall for going out. Adventure is leaving what you get used to behind.
Say Bone is back asleep, curled on the cabin floor. I put her in the head anyway, touching on the juice. She yells, but I don't think she'll be really mad. Anyway, not long.
Now I have to get on clothes. Nothing in my cubby is like what Jane had on. I choose the thickest silk longjohns. On top go the pants and shirt with the most pockets. I will explore and find things to put inside.
I go up the ladder before Say Bone finishes in the head. Nobody is in the room with our bins, but a long shiny rope coils around next to the hatch.
The Treasure Seekers are three departments nearer to the tail. This is the room that has a barge growing, longer than my house in Toytown. I walk up the front to the high part, up little shelves or steps of white to where Jane and Squirrel stand. She tells him "The blue's the guides for the guard rail. Take a couple of days to grow. They'll have to stay off the deck till then."
"Why so long?"
"Pumping up the proximity alarms was a higher priority. I added an olfactory element to the aural — "
I don't understand any of this. "Where's Panther?" I ask.
"Down in the barge, the forward hold." That's what Jane says, and she points to a hole where I go.
It is darker here. I don't know if I'm going to like this. Nothing is pretty, and it's going to be cold, I can tell, because Panther gives me two of her sweaters. She shows me where we're each going to sleep. No head, only a bucket and tub. I can sit down in the tub, but I have to scrunch way up.
There's boxes of food on the shelves, bredstix and potato buds and other stuff. Nothing special or nice looking, but we're not giving a party or something. We're just going to be keeping ourselves alive.
Outside the hold comes some yelling. It's Say Bone. Is she really mad at me, or only playing, like I thought she was playing asleep? We go up to see.
Say Bone is wet and yelling, but not about me. "I want my Squirrel!" she is shouting. "Can't Jane fly this old sky-scow?" She's making lots of noise, but her voice sounds a little wavery, like she knows what she wants won't be coming.
"Squirrel can do it better," says Jane.
Panther is by Say Bone now, kneeling down. "Besides," she says, "he's the only one who's supposed to be here, the only one. We have to go before there's trouble, Say Bone."
With everyone closer to her Say Bone gets more quiet. She looks up at Squirrel and says "But we have a — a fin-thing. A finity."
I still can't get used to all these grown ups telling why. We're just supposed to listen and not get hurt. But Jane answers Say Bone's question to tell her she is right, affinity is important. "And we took that into account, It's just that these other factors managed to outweigh it."
Squirrel nods. "Yeah, Say Bone, I really wish I could share this one with you. But we'll have plenty of adventures on the Island, anyway." He smiles and winks, then holds out his furry arms. "Big hug," he says, and Say Bone bangs into him with her fists first, then her head. He holds her while she pounds on his chest, then her hands spread open and come up to rub through his tangly long brown beard. Then they are apart, and now Say Bone is smiling but Squirrel looks ready to cry.
I hug him too.
Squirrel goes back up to his helm. Jane and Say Bone are leaving first. Panther and I help them get their stuff. Say Bone's dress is one of Squirrel's sweaters. Over that goes a piece of dead skin from the Nesbit. "Not that it's likely to rain," says Jane. "But it'll cut the wind." They have skins full of food and things like soap and fire, and medicine for Say Bone. Not as much as can go on the barge. Jane says they will have to hunt and forage. On her belt she wears a killing thing, a gun, and one for Say Bone when she has learned to make it work.
We drag bundles of Nesbit-skin over to the hatch, the place where Say Bone showed me to look out the first day I woke up here. Then Panther goes down to check with Squirrel. She comes back right away. "Drop-site in view," she tells Jane. "Might as well open up the hatch." They grab and kiss each other's hands, hug. "See you there."
I lie down on the floor and look out below. The land is a lot closer than ever before. Mainly, it is water, a big wide river. Smells come up in my face, wet and clean.
Suddenly, a clear yellow light sweeps across the grey and touches everything with gladness. The sun. There are sharp cliffs with bright edges and waving golden grasses growing on top, and way below a flock of little gold and yellow birds. They fly out of our shadow, shining. The land is going slower now, which really means we are. And it gets closer quick from the cliffs being so high. And then it stops.
Something down there is a big circle like of grey blocks. This is the war memorial Jane was telling about to Say Bone and me, Stonend. If you remember the wars that are dead and over, they stay where they're buried.
From here they want to walk to the Horse Heaven Hills. If they each can catch a wild toy one there, they will be able to ride them to the Sound. They don't know how they're getting to the island from that place. Maybe we will get there first and send somebody back to find them.
I lean away from the hatch. Someone tied the bundles to the beginning of the rope, which is running through a row of frame bones. I was beginning to wonder what they were for. "Come on, help me," says Say Bone. She is kicking the skin bundles to make them go up over the ridge around the opening of the hatch. Jane and Panther hold the rope's other end. Then when me and Say Bone get the bundles falling, they let the rope slide slowly through the bones until it dangles to the ground. From here it looks like it might almost even touch.
Jane gives me a quick hug. Her arms are thin and strong. She smiles down at me. "You're going to love it. I promise you, Mo Kree." Panther helps her out the hatch and she is gone.
Say Bone's waiting for a hug. We are both going to know a lot of different things when we see each other again. I can think about this, I can make plans to show off to her on the island, and save up things to say to show I'm smart. Say Bone's not someone I will forget. I don't have to cry.
Panther helps her, then pulls up the empty rope and I bump shut the hatch. The Nesbit is moving once again, further down the river.
We spend some time putting our things in the barge hold. It will be brighter there when we get out on the water. Then I go to the hatch and watch the change our travel brings beneath us. From dry and crispy gold to green and wet. Tall spirals of mist reach up and pass their fingers through us.
We fly low. It must be time to leave. Much lower now. Am I ready? No, but I go back to the barge anyhow. Panther is already rubbing the bumps to make the Nesbit let us loose. The sky-scow pulls back in waves, and as we climb up the steps the barge is sinking down slowly, down through the floor, so we hurry to our beds.
Everything is all put away so it can't slide around but us. Under the covers, quick! And with a new brightness we fall into the air. It's over with a loud whomp! as we hit the river, spinning a little. I can feel us swimming, I can hear the rushing sound of water deep around us.
Panther gets up. Me too. Hushh, says the river. Making so much noise, telling us to be quiet. The soft floor goes up and down when I walk on it, or when it passes over something hard beneath. Panther's on the ladder up out of the hold. "Oh, Mo Kree," she says, "don't you want to come and look?" She makes room for me at the top, and we both stick out our heads.
I see the shoulders of the land rising up out of the water, lonely and beautiful. Shoulders of a queen. This land is my new lally. What the new me, the new Mo Kree, will be made from. What I will grow myself up to be.
Nisi Shawl is a writer and critic. Her stories have been published in Asimov's, Strange Horizons, and Lenox Avenue, and in a number of anthologies, incuding the groundbreaking Dark Matter series and So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy. With the critic Cindy Ward, she teaches "Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction." She is a board member for the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and a 1992 graduate of the workshop.
"Matched" is excerpted from Nisi's novel, The Blazing World, which is co-sponsored, along with the Infnite Matrix, by the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, City of Seattle. She will be reading from it at the University Bookstore, 4326 University Way NE, Seattle, on Friday, June 17, 2005, at 7pm.
More Nisi on the web: Looking for Lilith, Momi Watu, and an excellent interview at Lenox Avenue.