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Molly Fyde and the Blood of Billions

Hugh Howey

Page 1

  Prologue: The Land of Light

  “Only time—that plodding mute—will tell.

  And only the blind will see it coming. ”

  ~The Bern Seer~


  The cabin is small and old, a hasty jumble of overlapping wood planks rattling on rusty nails. It appears more outpost than residence, like a shelter built for a specific purpose in a rugged land, then abandoned and forgotten. Something itinerant hunters might squat in for a night or two, but certainly not what it actually is: a permanent home.

  The poor structure bucks and sways as it races along at the edge of time. Now and then, it shudders mightily, responding to some major happening in the universe. Oh, and the noises it makes! Below the rotting joists, a dozen axles grind, groan, and wail in their ungreased housings. The overall effect is a symphony of decrepit sounds—decay and dilapidation in aural motion. It sings the song of things built long ago and in dire need of upkeep; it’s the peal and complaint of a slow dying, like an orchestra of the ancient. And it’s all paced by its perpetual rhythm section: the steady patter of rain beating on dented tin.

  A sheet of the simple metal covers the cabin’s forward wall as well as its roof. Forward is where the rain comes from. It doesn’t fall; it flies in with the eternal stream of photons parallel to the ground, hammering the thin metal incessantly. Coupled with the sound of the jostling, the groaning axles, and the creaking boards, the pounding rain allows sleep to come easily and linger a while. For the cabin’s sole occupant, it makes getting up a daily measure of her will. But the good thing—perhaps the only benefit that comes with living on the edge of time—is that one can never be considered “late” to anything. The lady inside the cabin stirs when she feels like it, which always makes it just the right time:


  And the start of her routine.

  First comes the pointless blinking, followed by some stretching as old joints pop and creak in time with the loose flooring. Eventually, she peels her single bed sheet back like the skin of an overripe pod, revealing the shriveled bean of a woman within.

  Legs, thin as saplings yet rough like old wood, swing out. They find the floor and test it. They test themselves. The woman rests her reedy hands on her sharp knees and somehow by pushing down on one part of her body, she helps raise the rest.

  Groaning, her back full of aches no stretching nor rubbing could ever reach, she staggers toward the sound of water drip-dripping in a nearby barrel. The cabin sways slightly, and the woman’s hands fly out for balance. Old knees bend and hips shift as she dances alone to gravity’s tune. It feels like a fast day outside, which means a lot is happening in the universe. Still, there isn’t any rush. Things will occur whether or not she’s there to witness them.

  The old woman shuffles to the barrel and grasps its rim to steady herself. A collection of hoses lead back from the forward gutters to keep the container full, enough so that another series of tubes can take the overflow and deliver it to the animals out back. Feeling for the ladle hooked to one side, she brings a few deep gulps to her lips and then wipes her narrow chin. With another dip, she fills a shallow pan and rubs some of the cool wetness on her face, refreshing herself and waking up just a tiny bit more.

  The woman next moves to the sagging pantry and considers its contents. Suddenly, the shack sways to one side. A hammock of fruit loses its tempo and swings wildly, one of the brass hooks it hangs from squealing against the wood. The old lady clutches the counter and waits for the occurrence to recede into the past, further up the surface of her cone-shaped land.

  As she stands there, some old memory brushes against her. It elicits a smile, even as she gropes for the details. But the recollection escapes, losing itself among countless others. It becomes a part of the faceless crowd that haunts her: another ephemeral ghost of some past adventure on a distant planet whose name she has long forgotten.

  She isn’t senile. Not yet. She’s just bumped against the capacity of the human brain to remember. So many years have passed and so much has been seen that not all of it can fit. As the new and more recent come in, the old memories are pushed down, compacted away somewhere deep, somewhere she can’t reach. But they can still reach her, sparking emotions devoid of details.

  Such moments seem to occur more regularly of late and always without warning. It feels invasive, as though bad things creep into her mind unannounced. She thinks of them as these twin burglars: Déjà-Vu and Nostalgia, who steal through her thoughts, rummage through her old memories, and leave behind a mess of feelings.

  Sometimes, rare though it may be, they even uncover good ones. They somehow stir up a pleasant sensation amid the clutter, freeing it to swirl up into her consciousness. Such as this one: a recollection warm and dry with a hint of companionship. Someone laughing, perhaps. Possibly even her—

  It passes and her smile fades; all traces of the event recede with whatever triggered the feeling, chased back into the past where it was made and still belongs.

  The woman sighs and reaches for her mixing bowl. With a heavy heart, she taps in some flour ground from a mixture of alien grasses. A buttery paste is cut in next, then one of the fruits from the hammock, finely diced. Strapping her iron skillet above the hole in the counter, she bends down and fiddles with the lens below.

  Through a small glass window in the tin wall—low down and behind the counter—a violent stream of photons enters the cabin. The rays of harsh light pass through a series of filters before slamming into the bulging lenses. They bend through them, curving and condensing, sliding and squeezing together before mirrors divert them up toward the hole in the counter. There, the powerful and focused beam of light strikes the bottom of the iron skillet with all the force of a laser, and the cabin fills with the aroma of hot oil.

  The concoction goes from the mixing bowl to the skillet, and old hands work fast, stirring it to heat evenly. When it smells just right, she blocks off the light and spoons the mixture onto the counter. It’s still piping hot, but her old hands hardly notice; what nerves remain have become calloused with more time and tragedy than they were built for. Now they’re lucky to feel anything, even a burn.

  While she shapes the treats with her palms, she listens to the rain ahead of her pepper the tin, roaring in occasional, thick sheets. The density of the sound makes her anxious to get out there and see what’s going on. Something about the day feels unusual. Momentous. She pops one of the plump morsels in her mouth, preferring them fresh and hot, and chews while her curiosity swells. She puts the rest of the dumplings in her old basket and hangs its woven handle in the crook of her arm. Turning, she moves to the solitary door at the rear of the shack, pushes it open, and steps out onto the small porch beyond. As she shuts the door, her home hits another large happening, and everything lurches to one side. Steadying herself, she cringes at the sound of things rustling and banging together inside her tiny home. When things move too far, it takes her a good while to find them again.

  Securing the basket, she crosses the narrow porch toward the thund-ering sounds emanating nearby: the deep and faithful roar of six Theryls, galloping in their tireless way. She opens the small gate in the middle of the porch and moves out onto the gangway leading down the center of the harnessed team, three of the majestic beasts to a side.

  Boo comes first, a habit she rationalizes as mere routine, but he really is her favorite; they’ve had too many adventures together to help from loving him more. The animal’s head swings over to nuzzle her, his nose like cold sandpaper brushing below her ear. Before she can even get the treat out of the basket, her old friend takes it from her, his coarse tongue scratch
ing her palm. She slaps his neck fondly, and Boo squeals with delight, sounding like one of the worn axles below her feet.

  Continuing down the tight boardwalk, she feeds each of the team members in turn, and they take their food and eat without breaking step. There’s more than enough calories in the bits of mysterious fruit to keep them galloping along for what she likes to consider a day. Another round of dumplings tomorrow will keep them going for that day, and so on and forever. Coupled with the overflow of water sloshing in the troughs ahead of each animal, the Theryls remain well-nourished, if over-worked.

  She thanks each of them in turn and wishes them well before feeling her way back to the porch. Turning right, she moves between the two old trunks that face each other. The woman lowers herself to one—the one she never opens—and lifts the lid on the other. She places the basket inside and pulls out the old flightsuit, neatly folded. First, she shakes it out in front of her, feeling for the zipper, and then she works it over her thin legs.

  The suit has plenty of room to spare, more with each passing day, it seems. She forces her stiff arms back and into the sleeves, then zips up the front. Next, she pulls out the old helmet. Her fingers brush over a dent; their wrinkled pads come across a deep scrape repaired with epoxy long ago, and those twin robbers return, tossing through her past and forcing her to gasp for air.

  She remains still for a moment, only her hand moving as it rubs the smooth visor. Eventually, she remembers where she is. Reaching inside, she makes sure the red band is arranged just so—the seam in the back. The shell comes down over her head, the fit still nice and snug. She tucks her longish, wispy hair down into the collar of her flightsuit before locking the helmet into place.

  The world outside falls pleasantly silent, reminding her of the vacuum of space. She enjoys the sensation for a moment before standing and pushing the side gate open. Keeping a grip on the rail, she steps out into the horizontal rain and works her way toward the front of the shack, the water droplets pelting her with more force than usual. They pop up and down her suit like gunfire, tingling and tickling. Now and then, a large drop explodes against her visor with a sharp crack. She ducks her head and pushes into it, her curiosity swelling even further.

  At the front of her shack, she turns to follow the porch around the wall of tin and crouches down where the rail splits. Ahead of her, sticking out beyond the forwardmost axle of her home, lies a curved wooden frame covered in slick leather, like a saddle for her entire body. With practiced ease, she stretches out and slides across the wet surface, grasping the metal handles at the far edge.

  Pulling herself into place, she wiggles until she feels comfortable enough to endure the unmoving hours. Once she’s perfectly settled, she gropes for the seeing-device mounted in front of her and makes a few adjustments. Lying on her belly at the front of her speeding cabin, she imagines she looks like a mermaid carved onto the prow of a ship, or a figurehead for some strange procession. She smiles and lifts her visor, the rain glancing off her back as she brings the old scope close to her helmet. Pressing the seeing-cups to her eyes, she lowers her chin to keep most of the driving rain out and blinks several times, her lashes whisking across the lenses they are so close.

  With the cover on the front of the device closed, her world continues to be as pitch-black as ever to her blinded eyes. The irony of it all never gets old to her: she lives in a place called the Land of Light and can’t see a thing. Can’t, that is, unless she stares right into the source of it all: the singularity at the end of her cone-shaped world. It’s the point in hyperspace through which all photons in the universe flow. Through which all time moves.

  The shack shudders again; she squeezes the saddle with her knees as it passes. On the other side of the cabin, the Theryls do a noble job of keeping her home in place, holding it against the inevitable slide back into the past. They toil while she watches. That’s their existence, hers and the animals’. It’s their lives at the edge of hyperspace: a daily vigil into all events, some of which have not yet happened. Her task is to sort through them, looking for the bad things, warning of them cryptically lest someone abuse the knowledge, lest things happen before they should.

  Mostly, though, she remains on watch for the worst things she’s foretold, things she predicted long, long ago. She continues to observe, looking for any sign of them and hoping to be daily disappointed.

  Rain streaks off the scope and flies back inside her helmet, a torment she has grown used to. The small drops gather forces, forming rivulets. They march in columns through her flightsuit, down her nakedness underneath and out the holes she’d cut in the bottom of the suit’s feet. She holds her eyes tight to the cups as she opens the cover at the end of the cylinder, letting the compressed photons slide through the tubes and their narrow slits.

  Inside the device, quanta of time and light do remarkable things. Approaching the side-by-side slits, the particles multiply, dividing and reproducing in order to pass through every gap, obeying simple but strange laws of physics. On the other side of the filter—before the photons can coalesce and continue their journey as one—they are interrupted by the woman’s eyes. They bombard her blind orbs while they’re still split apart, and thereby reveal their inner mysteries.

  The woman blinks reflexively, even though her ocular nerves no longer function properly. The visions that fill her head can be seen even with her lids closed. The sights move like neutrinos, boring straight through her skull and leaving hazy images behind. She sees visions of reflected events, of some things long-ago, and many things that have not yet happened.

  Not yet.

  She focuses on the day’s images while another bump rocks the cabin, the shudder followed by a sheet of thick rain. The woman watches the images blur together. The visions are like overlapping transparencies; bringing just one layer into focus requires a force of will, a practiced bit of mental gymnastics. It feels as if she must squeeze her concentration like a muscle.

  The visuals shimmy before forming into solid pictures, confusing at first. They’re large and jarring, hitting her like a bump in time.

  Her head comes away from the seeing device with a start, her lids blinking across brown eyes with their yellow starbursts at the center. She leans forward and peers into the light once again, wary from the many false positives she’s been fooled by in the past, the many strange things that always end up being nothing. Or at the very least, a different sort of something.