Authors: Gregory Benford
She crawled toward it. Not even height to duckwalk. The slight wind got stronger. Cool to her fevered brow.
Smells: dust, leaves? A dull thump behind her. She hurried, banging her knees—
And spilled halfway out into clear air. Above, stars. A drop of about her height, onto dirt. She reversed and dropped to the ground. Scent of dry dirt. Flashes to the left. She went right.
She ran. Snapping crashes behind her. Dim shapes up ahead. Trees? A rising sucking sound behind. A brittle thrust of amber fire rushed over her left shoulder and shattered into a bush, exploding it into flames.
Trees—she dodged left. Faint screams somewhere.
The sucking sound again. Into the trees, heels digging in hard.
Another amber bolt, this time roasting the air near her. It veered up and ignited a crackling bower of fronds.
Screams getting louder. Up ahead? Glows there. She went right, down a gully, splashing across a stream. Not deep enough to cover her.
A spark sizzled down from the air into the trees up ahead. She went left and found a wall of brambles. Distant flickering gave her enough light to pick her way along, gasping. Around the brambles, into thick trees. She crossed the stream again. Deeper here. Downstream went back toward the open, toward the excavated tunnels. She ran upstream. The sucking rush came stealing up behind. She dodged, ducked, dodged.
Stay near the stream.
If the water got deeper…
The pain swarmed over her and pushed her into blackness.
ATER, AS SHE HEALED,
she and Seeker set out to search the forest further for bodies. To do something gave her strength, despite what she dreaded finding.
She had enjoyed no other steady lover, male or female, but she had known all the other Originals who worked in the Library. They had sported an ironic humor about their roles as Originals among the Supras, playing the role of the least gifted but well-honored surviving strains of Primordial humans. There had been many wry jokes between them.
Not that she had been immune to it all. She had gloried in her affair with Kurani, been whispered about and envied and criticized, even insulted. Enormous fun.
The anonymous charred remains they found were a blessing, in a way. The Furies, as the Supras called them, had been quite thorough. None had been left to rot. She could not identify them.
They searched systematically through the afternoon, finding only more scorched bodies. Even as she worked, she knew this was helping her. Better to act, not think.
Finally, they stood looking down into a broad valley—tired, job done, planning where to go next.
“I trust you are all right,” a deep voice said behind them.
Cley whirled. Seeker was already dashing with liquid grace among the nearby trees. A tall, blocky man stood on the outer deck of a brass-colored craft that balanced silently in the air.
He had come upon them from behind without even Seeker noticing, and this, more than his size and the silent power of his craft, told Cley that she had no chance of getting away. Blinking against the sun glare, she saw that this was a Supra.
It all came rushing up into her again, the smothered pain.
And she put it away. There would be a time to feel it, and that time was not now. The longing and passion had been part of becoming a young woman, a time she would treasure. Wondrous. That was over, and she knew with a leaden suddenness that it would not come again. She could not let it.
And this Supra—why did he survive? When my love died?
Her head spun with wild emotions. She hated this Supra; she needed him; she wanted him to fold her in his long arms and take away the anguish.
Then she made herself put all that away, as well.
Concentrate, the way Kurani did. See what is before you.
He carried all the advanced signatures: big glossy eyes; scalloped ears that could turn to capture sound; enlarged trachea to help food bypass the windpipe better. Forward-tilted upper torso, lessening pressure on the spine. Backward-curved neck with bigger vertebrae, counterbalancing the close-ribbed chest. His casual amble along the deck of the flyer told her that his knees could bend backward, muting the grind of bones in sockets. Heavier bones, thicker skull, an angular, glinting intelligence in the face.
The sight of him brought her memories of Kurani flooding back. This man was slightly different—muscles lean and planar, but of the same design era. She gazed at him, the yearning welling in her, and she forced it down. And after what seemed to her like forever, forced out some words. “I…yes, I am.”
He smiled affably. “One of our scouts finally admitted that it was not sure all the bodies it saw were dead. I am happy I decided to check its work.”
As he spoke, his ship settled gently near Cley, and he stepped off without glancing at the ground. Despite his bulk he moved with unconscious, springy lightness. She noted abstractly that he used “I,” which Kurani seldom did. Until now she had never wondered why.
She gestured behind her. “My friend saved me.”
“Ah. Can you induce it to return?”
“Seeker! Please come!”
She glimpsed a bulk moving through the nearby bushes, coming opposite from the direction Seeker had left. It must be quicker than it looked. There was scarcely a ripple in the foliage, but she knew it was there, still and cautious.
The man smiled slightly and shrugged. “Very well.”
“You came to bury my kind?” Cley said bitingly.
“If necessary. I would rather save them.”
“Too late for that.”
He nodded as several emotions flickered across his face: sadness, regret, firm resolve. “The scouts reported some bodies, but all had been burned. You are all I have found—delightfully alive.”
The word was almost flirtatious. His calm mildness was maddening. “Where
you Supras? They—it—hounded us! Tracked us! Killed us all!”
Again his face showed a quick succession of emotions, each too fleeting for her to read before the next crowded in. Still he said nothing, though his mouth became a tight line and his eyes moistened. He gestured at a pall of smoke that still climbed on the far horizon.
Cley followed his movement and said severely, “I guessed you had to defend your own, but couldn’t you have, have…”
Her voice trailed away when she saw the pained twinge constricting his face as her words struck home.
Then his mouth thinned again, and he nodded. “All along the Library valleys they attacked new work and old alike. We could not divine what they were about—killing Originals—and when we did, it was too late.”
Her anger, stilled for a moment by his vulnerability, returned like an acrid burn in the back of her throat. “We had nothing to defend ourselves!”
“Did you think we had weapons?”
“Supras have everything!”
He sighed. “Few were useful. We protect through our laboring machines, leaning on the genius of our past. These failed.”
“There was fighting in the past. I have heard—”
“The far past. Well before your time. We—”
knew how. Why didn’t
His expression changed again several times with a speed she found baffling. Then a grave sourness shaped his mouth with a sardonic twist. “Tell me who they were, and perhaps I can answer you.”
“They?” She felt sudden doubt. “I thought you would know.”
“I do not.”
She dammed up the bitter torrent within her and said quietly, “I saw nothing that looked human.”
She studied him for a long moment. He was twice her size, with an enormous head. Yet his nose was stubby, like an afterthought. Kurani had been a variation on the Supra theme, taller and more muscled. This other variation she found less appealing, but the focused intelligence in this man was reassuring now. “We, we depend on you, we Originals—”
“Ur-human,” the man corrected absently, distracted.
“Oh, I am quite sorry. We term your particular kind Ur-human, since you are the earliest form available of all Originals.”
Her lips whitened under pressure. “And what do you call yourselves?”
“Ah, humans,” he said uncomfortably.
“How can you tell which I am?”
“Earlobes, teeth narrowly spaced. Those were later modified in even early Original forms, I gather from my studies with the Keeper of Records.”
“Large spacings prevent food from accumulating and decaying. Even we use that design, as you can see, but also regrow a set every century to compensate for wear. If—”
“You don’t know what to do next, do you?”
The man’s raptly studious expression vanished as he blinked. “I merely hoped to enlist your aid.”
“You people run the world, not us.”
Soberly he said, “No longer.”
“What were those, those
, those Furies that killed my people, my…?”
He paced, his energy barely contained. “We do not know. You possess mostly those skills appropriate to tending the forests. None of us has mastered warring technology—it is ancient beyond measure.”
He gazed apprehensively at the sky, rubbing his shoulder as though he were stiff. She noticed that his light, loose-fitting jumpsuit was stained and torn.
“You fought them how?”
“As we could. We were surprised. Many died in the first moments. You say you saw humanlike forms in those fast geometric displays? It could be they were humans in warcraft. I saw only flame out beyond our shields—which soon dissolved.”
Seeker spoke from beside them. “The lightning returned here, later, to burn the dead humans more thoroughly.”
Both humans were startled. Blinking, the man said, “That fits.”
Seeker shrugged. “You found no bodies unburned, anywhere?”
The man frowned. “Not yet.”
“I doubt you will,” Seeker said. “I believe they were crisping to destroy even the DNA.”
They stood without speaking until Cley asked, “The, the Library?”
“Come.” He gave the order without taking his eyes from the sky. His mouth echoed a quick flurry of emotion, and he held a palm up to Seeker. “We gather now, those who remain.”
This seemed enough for Seeker; it had made up its mind to go, and told her so with an arched shrug, close enough to a human gesture to convey meaning. The brass-bright craft tilted momentarily on its electromagnetic cushion as the procyon boarded. Cley went through the wide hatchway and into a simple, comfortable control cabin. The ship lifted with scarcely a murmur.
“I am Rin,” he said, as though anyone would know who he was. His casual confidence told her even more than the name, for he was well known. She responded to his questions about the last few days with short, precise answers. She had rarely seen Supras, growing up. Kurani had come as a revelation. This one was not winning her over.
But as they rose with smooth acceleration, Cley gaped, not attempting to hide her surprise. Within moments she saw the lands where she had lived and labored reduced to a mere spot in a vastly larger canvas. As a young girl she had dreamed of flying like this. Now the magnitude of the Supras’ latest labors became obvious. She watched the mountains she had admired as a girl reduced to foot soldiers in an army that marched around the curve of the world.
Her Meta had known well the green complexity of the forests. Below, many fresh, thin brown rivers flowed through narrow canyons, cutting. These gave the mountain range the look of a knobby spine from which many nerves trailed into the tan deserts beyond. A planetary spinal axis, as though the Earth itself had a mind. She wondered if in some sense this could be so.
Brilliant snowcaps crowned the tallest peaks, but these were not, she saw, the source of the countless rivers. Each muddy rivulet began abruptly, high in a canyon, swelling as it ran through rough slopes. The many waterfalls and deep gullies told her that each was busily digging itself in deeper, fresh and energetic.
Cley pointed, and before she could ask, Rin said, “We feed the new rivers from tunnels. The great Millennium Lakes lie far underground here.”
This land sculpting was only millennia old, but already moist wealth had reclaimed much of the planet’s dry midcontinent. Rin sat back as he silently ordered his ship to perform a long turn, showing them the expanses. She caught a brilliant spark of polished metal far away on the very curve of the planet.
“Sonomulia,” Rin said.
“The legend,” she whispered.
“It is quite real,” he said, running his eyes over the display screens that studded the space around them.
“Did they go there, too?”
“The attackers? No. I have no idea why not.”
“Does Sonomulia’s name come from an ancient word for
“What?” His lip twisted. “No, of course not. Who said it did?”
“It was a joke we made,” she said to unknit his eyebrows. “That you Supras had been walled up in there so long—”
“Nonsense! We saved humanity, holding on against the encroaching desert. We—”
“And that green spot? Far beyond Sonomulia?”
“Illusive? As in hard to pin down?”
“No! Those ancient terms do not apply to the purpose of our cities.” Rin’s eyes blazed. “Look, I do not know what you Ur-humans do for amusement, but I do not find—”
“I was merely recalling some primeval humor.”
Rin shook his head. His eyes never left the screens, and she realized he was looking for a sign that the attackers might return again. How they could vanish so readily and elude the Supras, she could not fathom. But then, the Earth was large, and in these sprawling lands there were many places to hide. But perhaps not, for humans.
HEY DESCENDED ALONG
the spine of snowcapped mountains. The craft was silent, save for the strum of winds at its prow.
Cley was surprised to find that seen this way, the soaring peaks were like crumpled sacks carelessly thrown on a tan table, all other detail washed away. She did know that in the long duration of humanity on Earth, even mountains had been passing features, froth stirred up by the slow waltz of continents.