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The Hard Way Through the Great Warehouse


When she was older her father had told her that a year after their visit, the boy had jumped. Her father had said that it had been for the best; mothers usually did that with the void mad and so the boy had done his clan a favour. The hard path done right was always better than the easy one. She had agreed, of course, her father was very wise, but that night, and through the years to come, she could never quite forget the boy’s eyes.

Humanity had outgrown their bodies. They were freed from flesh and became thought and energy and memory. They left the petty concerns of the martial world behind and moved on to the petty concerns of the immaterial. But some could not, or would not let go. They left their bodies behind, but they were unwilling to leave behind the objects that they had treasured in their youth so many millennia ago. It was hard to let go. 


So they built a great warehouse. It was tens of thousands of miles high and thousands across. It was as long again from end to end as it was high and they placed it around a star that would burn as long as anything ever could. So it hung alone around its little star, shaped in a gentle curve to better catch the light. It looked like nothing so much as a great apartment building without windows, the size of a planet. Inside these humans placed everything they had ever loved, their art, their gadgets, their furniture, their plants, and even their embryos, just in case. All the items were placed in one great room and they were suspended in place by the marvelous gravity engines of those humans. Every object humanity had ever loved, suspended together, floating in a neat grid as far as the eye could see in any direction, all in a warehouse as big as a planet. 


Then they left, and forgot about it.  


And in their absence things went wrong and things began to grow, and some of the embryos left behind survived, and new people were born, people who had only ever known this world full of the relics of those who had come before...   


When she had been a little girl, Shova went to see a boy with void madness. He had lived in one of the other couch clans and she had snuck a peek at him when she accompanied her father on one of his journeys. The boy had been huddled in the center of several couches, all brought together, and he looked very sick. There was something wrong with his eyes too as though he were seeing something else whenever he looked around him. As though the couches weren’t under him and he would simply fall and fall and fall until he reached whatever lay at the bottom of the abyss. 


He had scared her a little, his twitchy movements and wide eyes were far more unnerving than the abyss itself. The abyss was just dark. Stretching away infinitely below. It wasn’t even illuminated by the suns during the day; their light would grow dimmer and dimmer until they faded to points of light above, but the abyss continued: just rows and rows of suspended furniture until no light could reach them. Further, than the supplies of explorers could usually last. Further than even the bravest explorer wanted to go. The abyss below her was just dark, the abyss the boy’s eyes had been something altogether worse. 


When she was older her father had told her that a year after their visit, the boy had jumped. Her father had said that it had been for the best; mothers usually did that with the void mad and so the boy had done his clan a favour. The hard path done right was always better than the easy one. She had agreed, of course, her father was very wise, but that night, and through the years to come, she could never quite forget the boy’s eyes.

She was thinking of them again many years later as she moved as silently as she could over the furniture toward the border with the reclining chairs. In the near-distance, she could see the glow of the Barka Clan’s camp. It was a large camp. The Barka Clan were fierce fighters and had many children. The rumor was that they controlled 32 full grow-beds in addition to the rat hutches, but she thought that was probably an exaggeration. Still, she was wary; they were formidable, and they would have keen-eyed sentries guarding their borders, ready to tear any trespasser apart and grind up their bodies to fertilize the grow beds, but all their fierceness wouldn’t matter tonight because she knew their weakness. The Barka Clan had few lights. 


She had noticed it when scouting them, sitting for long hours on the couch-side of the border with her aunt or one of her cousins just watching and taking mental notes. On those long boring nights, while her family members inevitably slept she had noticed, they only used a few different portable lights, and then mostly in emergencies. They always kept one light on, roving the darkness around them… above them… below them… but the sweeps were too fast and in a pattern that repeated too often to be useful. The light wasn’t meant to actually catch anyone; it was a deterrent to scare off raiders. And it might have worked, but she was no cowardly Loveseat, she was true High Couch, the hard path was hers and today was not just any raid. Today, she was getting married. 


She was a bit young to get married. Most girls of her clan tended to marry in their mid-twenties, but she was an adult by all the laws of tribes and gods so she had insisted that her father find her a husband. He had taken almost twenty days to return but she thought he had done well. The young man was a year older than her, a second son from the first encampment of the Foldouts: a large and powerful clan allied with her branch of the High Couches. He had brought handsome wedding gifts with him including (to the amazement of all her clan) a true Traveler’s Hook from far off beyond the great curve, where strange clans were said to live in wire nets and eat rubber. He was a peddler. 


She remembered her father telling her about him and carefully saving this piece of information for last. She had, of course, been unable to say anything. It was very bad form to show anything but disdain or grudging acceptance as part of a betrothal suite, but when she was sure no one was looking, she flashed her father the briefest of smiles. He had found her a peddler! Oh! the stories such a man would be able to tell her! In private, her father had told her that the young man was a good talker and treated his sisters very well. She hadn’t been able to confirm any of this. It was very bad luck to talk more than one absolutely had to before the wedding, but she had been able to sneak a look at him when he arrived, and she had to admit (though only to herself) he was very handsome.  


The light swept past her position. She counted silently to eight then leapt with as little noise as possible off her couch and down onto a recliner. She landed lightly and was over the edge and leaping to the next one before the chair's gentle swaying had stopped. This was the only real crossing at the border, it was a quiet crossing with so few guards watching, but she would have preferred a wider field. The Barkas had whittled away the other chairs in the area. They had left only a line a few chairs wide so that any who wanted to reach their encampment from the border had to cross these chairs. Still, she just had to get to the seventh chair before the next sweep; it was a hard journey, but she was a warrior and her way was the hard way. Her nerves were all heightened with the risk and for some reason, the abyss seemed especially ominous below her as she made her leaps. The drop had never scared her much, not even as a child… not like it had scared the boy. It must have been because she was thinking about the boy with the void-mad eyes but when she made her final jump before the light made its next pass, she could have sworn that, for just an instant, she saw something move in the depths.


As soon as she landed, she spun around to look down, but as hard as she looked, she could see nothing. She forced herself to relax. What was wrong with her? She had been on raids before. What was different? Well, she had to admit at least a few things were different. She was alone, and her impending marriage was clawing at her mind. 


Shova had never had much time for her aunt’s silliness with men or her cousins’ constant gossiping; they were silly women engrossed in the little questions. They treated the whole thing as a game, as some all-important sport, or some all-engrossing piece of theater. They would meet in secret with men from other clans and use secret methods to keep themselves from growing heavy and then they would talk about it for hours in secret voices behind their hands. She had never understood the appeal; she wanted a husband because she wanted to follow her mother. She would lead the high couches one day, that is, if she had any say in the matter, but, in order to have a vote in council, in order to be nominated for war leader or the eye-o-the-watch, she needed to be a full adult. So, she must bring a child to the clan. And so, she needed a husband.     

There were few things Shova would not do to get what she wanted. Now, though, now that her wedding approached, she found herself thinking about her cousin’s gossiping and her aunt’s blunt statements and wondering what it would be like to share her sleeping place with a man. The thought was...exciting. Excited and nervous, she reprimanded herself; not a good combination on a raid. 


She noticed something strange on the next pass of the light. The beam glided past, as usual, then dipped down, but rather than continue its usual pattern, it stayed pointing down. This was bad. Had the light’s movement been a trick? On this night of all nights had the damn Barkas decided to change their pattern? How could she have fallen so far out of favour with Luck? Luck was her patron. Shova had been born on the week of Luck’s festival and had sacrificed to him all her life. How could he abandon her now? 


But, the light didn’t start moving again; it stayed, its beam cutting the darkness below the Barka clan’s camp. Very slowly, she inched her head off of the chair to see what they were looking at. At first, she saw nothing. Then, in the very edge of the beam, she saw it. Someone had moved as though they were trying to stay hidden from the light’s beam. It was perfectly ordinary, of course, any raider would be desperate to avoid the Barkas sentries. Although, any raider worth anything would know you should stay still when the light passed. It was normal, but something about the movement unnerved her. 


Instinct, the mother of lies and wisdom was whispering to her that she should run. That whatever was below her was a danger, was an unknown, was something to fear. She almost listened, when the gods spoke, even tricky ones, it was a poor raider who would not consider their words. But she was no coward; she wouldn’t run from shapes in the darkness like some mulling void-mad child. She was a warrior of the High Couch; her way was the hard way and she would never bring shame upon her people by returning without a betrothal gift. 


Besides, the strange person below was, when she thought about it, an advantage. She didn’t trust her patron far enough to assume the distraction would last long but it did give her an opening, it was risky... she measured her jump three times before making it and even then almost missed but she was strong and before any of the Barka clan’s warriors could lose interest in the idiot raider below them. She was through the sentry line.  


The betrothal gift was for her new husband, but he was a second son and so, what was his, was also clan’s wealth. Her clan’s wealth, and if she were successful, it would be enough wealth to ensure that her name was spoken by all. She was after rats. The Barka clan was well known for its rats; they could be fed on the leavings of the grow-beds and their droppings helped the plants grow, but most importantly, they provided meat: a commodity The High Couches had to buy from the peddlers at great cost. She could steal a rat and bring back its body, but she had something more daring in mind… something truly difficult. The rat hutch was guarded, of course, but the guards here were old men set more to deter children than to watch for raiders. She could kill them, but the blood price could bring war to her people and that was no gift for a wedding. So, she slid by them, soft as a shadow, and into the hutch where she would be hidden from their eyes.  


The rats were awake of course. She knew from her long watches that they did not sleep at night. It was the only reason her plan would work. First, she went after a female. She reasoned that it might already be heavy with pups and so would be worth far more. She had practiced a thousand times on her watch; she had carefully studied how the rats were fed and she had prepared her poison well. She carefully placed the pill in front of one of the female rats, making sure not to move too quickly or make any noise. They weren’t easily startled creatures, but she was taking no chances this deep into the camp. 


The rat sniffed the pill and seemed in a terrible moment of indecision- ready to turn away- but. It was hungry and foolish enough to eat whatever was offered. The poison worked quickly. It wasn’t meant to kill the creature; that would be the height of foolish waste… only make it tired and docile…. It worked. The rat wandered off drunkenly and, within a few minutes, it had wobbled down onto its side, lazily flicking its tail at nothing. She reached down, ever so gently, to scoop it up with both hands; this was the moment. If the creature made too much noise, it would awaken the guards and they would bring down the wrath of the whole clan. 

 She felt the warm fur under her hand. It didn’t react. She hefted the body a little off the ground. It stirred but made no noise and then, without warning, it screamed.


The sound ripped through the night, loud enough to wake the whole camp. She was dead. She knew that in an instant. A few old guards she could silence and escape but an alarm like this would bring every warrior of the clan furious, roused, and ready for battle. A cry like that, full of pain and fear, no warrior could ignore… the cry. It wasn’t from the rodent at her feet. She knew that sound. It had escaped the lips of the first enemy she had killed; it had sounded when the Arm clans had come down from sunward to raid against her people. It was a sound only one creature in all the great house made. It was the sound of a human dying.  


The Barka were being raided!  


As fast as she dared, she scooped the still woozy rat into her bag, and grabbed one of the males; she was halfway to the door of the hutch when she turned back. When would she ever have a chance like this again? They were distracted. She ran back and grabbed two more females and another male and stuffed them into her bag. Then, as fast as she dared, she came out of the hutch, and into a slaughter. 


She couldn’t see the enemy, not yet but she could see the tide of the battle plain enough, the Barka clan elders and children were already starting to scatter outwards and up. Some headed her way. The warriors were fighting, but it was all wrong. The attack was coming from below, no clan would attack from below. A war leader would find themselves thrown into the abyss for even suggesting such a thing. And yet, whoever was attacking was coming from below… and from what she could see they were winning. Then she saw them… and her heart almost stopped.  


They were naked and pale, their bodies reflecting what little light the Barkas had. Their movement was strange and sickening; it looked somehow clumsy as though they were drunk or in pain but was at the same time disconcertingly fast. They were attacking with a kind of reckless abandon, hurling themselves at the Barak sentries and warriors; she saw one driven through by a spear and keep attacking, cutting and scratching, and biting the man who had gored it until they both fell, writhing to the seat of a black leather chair. 


The attackers were eerily quiet. The Barka clan was calling out challenges and war cries but their enemies were dead silent as though they were on a raid not in a battle. But the thing that really scared Sohva, the thing that made her freeze outside the rat hutch was the numbers. One of the Barka clan’s lights was pointed down, caught in a chair, and it illuminated a great writhing mass of pale bodies, all of them clambering up and over the lower chairs, moving towards the Barka’s camp, all silent, all staring upwards. She looked down into their eyes and in a horrible moment of recognition, she knew where she had seen them before, recognized them in the part of her that, after all these years, still feared the dark. Their eyes were like the boy’s, the one she had seen as a child; empty, dark, and void-mad. 


She ran.


As fast as she could: over chairs, past terrified people, she ran as she never had before. There were so many, so many of those dead, horrible eyes, and they were coming for her. She was more afraid than she ever had been in her life and the voice of fear screamed at her as she went. She gave into it entirely her warrior's pride, her strength buckling under the terrible assault from her fear. 

She raced for the border, if she could make it across to her side, maybe she would be safe. She ran and leapt from chair to chair until, with a great rush of hope, she made it to the border. The border that was crowded with escaping members of the Barka clan. 


About a dozen members of the clan were moving across the chairs and couches that made up the border crossing. They were going as fast as they could, but they were old or carrying children. Three warriors covered their retreat, trying to beat back the pale hordes that came on and on. The warriors were putting up a strong defence. She saw that they were using the butts of their spears to push and repel rather than risk having their points caught and held, a desperate strategy. Fear screamed at her to run, and made its eloquent speeches of justification, offering her an easy way out.  


They were not her clan; they would have killed her if they caught her; she could die for no reason away from home without seeing her father or mother again, another fallen warrior whose name would be spoken but once a year and then forgotten. Those crying children on the bridge were none of her concern. She had what she wanted. She could return home triumphant!   

She should run. 


She did. 


The leaps from chair to chair were easy for her. She tried to avoid slowing the Barka clan’s escape. She had no love for them, but they were weak and running, and though they were no clan of hers, the shame of running burned her neck and heart. She did slow them; she pushed them aside as she ran, she forced them to wait and their curses rang loud and cruel in her ears. They called her coward and thief and tried to grab at her with frail fingers that had no hold. Their words rang loud, but her fear rang louder, louder than the anguished arias of her pride, louder than her pity for the people whose escape she slowed, louder than anything but her horrible, unbidden sense of relief as she cleared the bridge and began to leap from couch to couch towards home. She was free. She was victorious. Her people would sing her praises, and the handsome peddler would be in awe of her courage and daring. 


She wasn’t sure what made her turn back. She would never know. But she did; she turned back for one more glance at the horror. The triumph went out like the suns, dying in a horrible instance of realization. The white monsters had broken through and were tearing the Barka clan survivors apart. Shova had seen killing… she had held the spear as it shivered in a body, felt the body lighten as the metal drove the soul from it. This wasn’t the killing of warriors. It was furry and blood. Bodies were hurled down into the void in pieces…. It was wasteful. Bodies that were to feed the grow beds, thrown away in a fury. Killing for, killing itself.  


One girl was out ahead of the others. She had already started to move through the couches when the line had fallen, and now as her clan was broken behind her she sped up. She was young, no more than six or seven, and was too small to make the leaps from couch to couch, but she did. She pushed herself, and with every leap, pulled her small body onto the next couch and then the next. It was no good. Shova knew it was no good. The pale creatures were turning their horrible void-mad eyes on the girl even as they ripped and tore the last of the other survivors. 


Shova went to her.


If she had thought about it, she wouldn’t have; fear would have mocked her for foolishness and she would have listened, she was a slave to the fear now. But she did not think. A child ran from monsters and Shova was still young enough and foolish enough to know that a child is never something to be sacrificed. She leaped down to where the child struggled, hoisted the girl onto her back, and turned towards home. The girl was too frightened to do much more than whimper her thanks into Shova’s ears and cling to her shoulders. Shova leaped. It was agonizingly hard. She was carrying so much weight that even easy jumps were taking a toll on her; she tried to move with her characteristic speed and grace. No warrior in her clan could move as lightly as her, but now she was clumsy, clumsy, and far too slow. The pale creatures were coming for her. 


She knew what she had to do right away. She saw their pace and her own and knew that she would never make it. She had to drop some weight and now Shove though. It was a terrible thing to do, to weigh the life of the girl who clung to her back against the rats that clawed and struggled in her bag. Her future, her good name, her triumph, weighed against a frightened little person, a frightened little… heavy person. 


No one would ever know; she could drop this girl into the abyss save her the ravages of the pale ones and run with her prize. The clan would never know, the gods she sacrificed to wouldn’t care; this child wasn’t of her clan after all. The only one who would ever know was Shova herself. She was her only judge. She could rule her clan, have the respect and adoration of all; her mother would praise her bravery, her father her cunning, and the man who awaited their wedding would be in awe of her skill. She closed her eyes for an instant, an instant to hold that marvellous future in her mind before with a sigh that seemed to start in her heart and travel through her whole body; she let that vision fall away. Let it fall away with the bag of squirming rats. 


She did not want to live in a world made of lies. She was her father’s daughter and though she wanted more than anything to be chief, to have all the clan lower their heads as they did for her mother, she could not take the easy way, the way of lies… the way of fear. She would be chief, but she would take the true road, the hard road, and if she must, she would do it with this child on her back. 


So Shova dropped her rats and ran as she never had before.  


Halfway to the High couch camp, she knew it was all over. The pale ones were all around her now and their pursuit never slowed. While she, tired from her flight and the long night, had to dance around to avoid them and use her spear to fend them off as she ran. She fought and fought but she knew it was no use. With every leap, they got in closer; for every one she avoided or fought back, two more took its place. Even the girl on her back fought. With one hand firmly clamped on Shova’s chest, she slashed and cut at the pale ones with the small knife in her other. It made no difference; there were too many and they were too strong. They closed around Shova and the girl, those pale bodies with their dark hollow void-mad eyes, bearing down. It was over. Shova tightened her grip on the spear. If she would die here, she would have a warrior’s last pride; if her clan would never speak her name again, then she would force her enemies too. She braced herself for their assault.


“Close your eyes.” They were the first words the girl had spoken to her. “Now! The suns!” With a split second to spare, Shova realized she was right and clamped her eyes closed and buried her head in her arm.   


The suns came on.


The four suns, visible from their part of the great curve, blazed, as they always did, into sudden life. Shova opened her eyes a fraction earlier than she should have, but she was terrified that the pale ones would take advantage of the suns to attack blindly. She had seen their recklessness before. But the pale ones did not attack; they screamed and clawed at their eyes. Some hurled themselves off into the abyss; others began to climb down with reckless abandon, hurling themselves from couch to couch until they were lost to view even in the bright light of the suns. Shova and the girl were alone in the bright light of the new day. They stayed, ready to fight, for a long moment, hardly daring to believe that the horrible pale creatures were gone. Shova thanked her patron, rarely had Luck so blessed her as now. Then, very slowly, Shova stood.


“What do they call you?”


“Leg, after my grandfather.” The girl was still shaking and looking down where the pale ones had run. It was a good name, one fit as well for a High Couch as a Barka. 


“Come, Leg, I will take you to my home if you are willing.” Leg nodded her face still hard and grim, and she climbed back onto Shova’s back. She was shaking.

Shova set out, on the hard way home, with a child on her back and a tale of horror on her lips. She would walk her hard path, but, at least for now, it was a path ablaze with light.   

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