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Molly Fyde and the Land of Light

Hugh Howey

Page 1

  Prologue - The Commons

  “In the commons, a singular event occurred . . . ”

  ~The Bern Seer~


  A cold wind twisted through the woods, weaving between the trunks of alien trees, then rushed out across the prairies of Lok. The frigid air joined other breezes, and together they wrapped around the remote outpost on the old frontier planet. Residents called it a town, but it was nothing more than a rectangle of shacks huddled together under another freezing, moonless night.

  Through loose clapboard siding, miniature zephyrs of forest wind invaded the homes, chilling inhabitants curled under sparse blankets in tight fetal balls. The town had not yet been named, its identity as vague and hidden as most of its residents. It existed on no book of official record, a condition many of its inhabitants found enviable. Almost everything and everyone in the collection of huts was wanted for something, but not in a good way.

  And the least lawful among them—as was such a group’s wont—continued to stir at that late hour. They gathered around the hearth of a dying fire, rubbed their calloused hands over the fading warmth, and openly dreaded the morrow’s toil.

  Their whispers travelled up the chimney, shrouded in smoke. In a meager trail, the wisps drifted out over the commons between the sagging huts, carried along by the wind from the woods. If the smoke and whispers looked down—if either could do such a thing—they would have seen two figures, foolish and desperate, staggering in the opposite direction.

  Clinging to one another—laboring across that patch of open ground—they seemed eager to reach that fire. From their mouths, streams of breath-smoke trailed out in plumes of precious warmth. And from the woman, something else leaked out: a path of wetness leading back through the trampled grass, her bodily fluids sparkling on the dark green blades, freezing alongside the next day’s dew.

  The woman clutched at the pain in her stomach, doubled-over, her feet sliding like broken skates.

  The other figure pulled her along, urging her with desperate whispers.

  The woman’s mouth parted; she fired a wail of agony over the sleeping village, a warning shot for what was to come. The insects across the prairie, and deep into the wood, stopped their nighttime twittering and seemed to wait. Expectantly.

  The woman’s legs went numb.

  She collapsed in the cold grass while the man grasped at the air for her, mouthing his own misery. The frosty atmosphere captured it all in smoke signals of suffering, puffing out in visible screams that rang through the loose caulking of the surrounding huts.

  The citizens of the village were used to such sounds. The fetal balls kicked in protest and turned, but they did not stir. There was more concern for the cold air seeping in through the back than for the chilling cries worming in from the front. They pulled their rough blankets high and continued to yearn for sleep.

  Out in the commons, Mortimor bent over his new wife, Parsona. “Get up,” he pleaded. “We’re almost there. ”

  Parsona cried out again. Her body folded in half, her thighs up against her swollen belly. She shook her head at the request; loose strands of sweat-soaked hair matted to her face and wisps of steam formed on her fevered scalp. The steam rose, along with her fever—but she wouldn’t be.

  Mortimor looked across the commons at the row of huts, at the one with a window flickering with the promise of a fire. Less than a hundred meters away. So close.

  He worked an arm under his wife’s back to lift her, to carry her the rest of the way, but the spasms of her tortured moans sparked through her and into his own body.

  The child would come there or not at all.

  “I’ll be right back,” he assured her. He flexed his legs to rise—to run for assistance—but Parsona’s hand, squeezing with the last of her fading might, clutched him in fear.

  Mortimor froze, unable to seek or provide help. So he yelled for it. Begged the heavens for it. He blasted his pleas in several directions—but no human stirred.

  Parsona’s shivering grew worse. Mortimor’s coat was a paltry barrier between her and the frozen ground. Her teeth chattered against each other in response to the cold, pausing now and then to grind together in paroxysms of pain. Mortimor tore off his thin shirt and draped it over her chest. He fell into a rhythm of crying for help, sucking in deep breaths of his own, comforting his wife, and cursing.

  When grunts and pants of labored exertion mixed their way into Parsona’s wails, Mortimor’s own body began vibrating with fear. The only two things he truly loved in the galaxy were being taken from him. Slowly. Horribly. Before his very eyes and on a miserable, cursed planet.

  A flash of movement caught his eye.

  He glanced up to find a tall, thin figure sliding through a crack in the darkness. It was a man, his skin so pale it reflected the starlight. He came to the couple with long strides, bony joints poking through his clothes. His head was bald and uncovered, but his face showed no sign of discomfort. He held a large wad of cloth against his narrow chest—a bed sheet.

  The strange man folded himself down to the grass at Parsona’s feet. “It’ll be okay,” he said, his voice fuller than his frame.

  Mortimor was too transfixed to thank him, or even nod. He was stricken by the man’s gaunt face and skeletal features. The stranger turned to him slowly. Bright, blue eyes pierced Mortimor, chilling him more than the removal of his shirt had.

  “Everything’s going to be fine,” the man assured him. He spread the thin sheet by his knees and arranged Parsona’s legs, one at a time, sliding the dry cloth between her and the ground. Both hands coordinated every movement with calculated efficiency and gentleness, his long, reedy fingers wrapping around each calf and moving them into place. He told both of them what to do, the confidence in his voice removing the fear and panic from Parsona’s screams—leaving just the pain.

  “Push when I say push,” he said. His narrow hands went under her dress, resting on her belly while eyes the color of ice squinted into the black beneath her hem. The slits widened into blue orbs, as if seeing something for the first time.

  “Push,” he commanded, a hint of excitement drizzled on top of his calm voice.

  Parsona grunted with effort, her head rising off the grass as she contracted muscles in a stomach formerly lean and hard. Her eyes narrowed with the strain, her ears closed off to all noise but her own pounding pulse.

  Mortimor brushed the hair off her face with his palm. He cradled her neck as it rose from the effort, and with his other hand he tucked the edge of the sheet close to her body.

  “Breathe. ”

  The voice was so compelling they both heeded it without realizing they’d heard it. Mortimor kept an arm under his wife’s head; he leaned down to press his lips to her cheek, to whisper his love into her ear. Her eyes rolled back in exhaustion as she fought for long pulls on the night air.

  “Push. ”

  The stranger asked the impossible, but his tone demanded satisfaction. Parsona tried to tighten her abdomen again, wrestling against the stabbing pain that threatened to overwhelm her senses. She felt trapped in a nightmare that would never end.

  “Breathe. ”

  Something happened. Something different. A release. Parsona felt a path reveal itself, an opening that would lead her away from the pain.

  She forced her energy toward it.

  “That’s it. Push. ”

  She no longer needed to be told.

  Mortimor looked across his wife’s body at the stranger; he could tell something had changed. Hope swelled in him as he held his wife, urging her and the child along. He felt otherwise powerless. Guilty. He
wanted to absorb her torture, to wick it away like moisture from her brow. The forest wind dove down from the rooftops, peeling away layers of heat from his bare back as he leaned over his wife, professing his love.

  Parsona heard Mortimor above the roar of pain—and the words gave her strength. She fought for all three of them. Gnashing her teeth, her eyes flowing with tears of exertion, she pushed so hard the world went silent. All that remained was the distant thunder of discomfort and the weak thrumming of her pulse.

  And something marvelous happened. A reward for the agony. A living thing, long sustained by a cord and dwelling in darkness, moved into the universe.

  Under a canopy of stars, a baby girl was born.

  The stranger cradled her like a precious gift, her small limbs waving in protest of the cold, of the pain that came with breathing.

  Parsona reached for the baby. Unable to sit up, she extended her arms, her fingers writhing in a primal display of a mother’s want.

  The stranger moved the child to one arm, freeing his other hand. Steel glinted in starlight as a knife materialized from the folds of his shirt.

  A cord was severed, the child placed in her mother’s arms. And thus a single life became two, each heading in opposite directions. Both were destined for much suffering and heartache, one over a long and tragic life—the other during a slow and drawn-out death.

  But that was all to come. For one moment, during their brief crossroad of post-birth euphoria and perfect naiveté, they simply held one another. And over the soft cries from the newly born, a word was whispered. Parsona’s breath became visible in the cold night, ice crystals from her quiet exhalation swirling and coalescing like a nebula in the vacuum.

  They gathered, like a star at the center, to form a single name . . .


  Part VI - The Turing Test

  “We tend to discover only those things we seek. ”

  ~The Bern Seer~



  The words stood out in green phosphor on the nav screen. They would burn there if left too long, becoming seared as they were in Molly’s retinas. Still, she couldn’t tear her eyes from them. She looked across the simple sentence, left to right and back again, waiting for it to morph into something she could grasp.

  Her parents were dead. Her mother passed away during childbirth; her father had left her on Earth six years later and disappeared. And yet this thing—this computer—claimed to be her mother. And it insinuated her father might still be alive.

  Sitting in Parsona’s cockpit—the very ship her dad had named after her mom—Molly felt as if someone had keyed open the airlock and sucked every cubic meter of atmosphere right out.

  She scanned the sentence once more, waiting for it to change, to grow handles. In her peripheral, she could see Cole, her boyfriend and navigator, glancing from her to the screen. He started to say something, then stopped. He leaned forward and directed a single word toward the dash:


  He said it cautiously, as if it might set off a bomb. It pulled Molly’s attention away from the incredible sentence.

  “Hello?” he asked again.

  “You have to type something. ” She gestured toward his keyboard, as if the proper method for communicating with the deceased through one’s nav computer should be obvious to him by now.

  “How do we know it can’t hear us?”

  “Because ships don’t have ears—” Molly stopped. She looked at the radio mic on the dash, then glanced over at the intercom system. She turned to Cole; they studied one another, each of their faces reflecting their own confusion right back.

  A new message crawled across their nav screens:


  “What do I say?”

  Cole reached toward his own keyboard, stopped, then shrugged. He raised his hands up to his shoulders in quiet defeat.

  Molly exhaled. Loudly. She needed more help than that. And she needed more time. There were so many questions—it was impossible to know where to begin. Pulling the keyboard closer, she typed:



  Molly didn’t even know how to incorporate this dollop of new information. She turned to Cole for better advice than a shrug, only to find him rising out of his chair.

  “Where are you going?” she asked, a note of panic in her voice.

  “I have a hunch this is just Walter messing with us. I’m gonna go make sure. ” He bent down and kissed Molly on the top of her head, smoothing her hair with his hand. “If you see the airlock light flash on and off, that means the problem’s been taken care of. ”

  She started to complain, then found herself alone with the computer claiming to be her long-lost mother.

  What to ask? Where to start? Should she voice her doubts? The computer knew the original spelling of her name. Was that enough to believe it might be her mother? Why else would “she” be hidden in her father’s ship? What about the clues from her childhood that had led to its discovery?

  Once again, the atmosphere in the ship felt thin, the gravity panels weakened. She bent her fingers over the keys and managed the two most pressing questions, the ones still visible through her confused haze: WHERE ARE YOU? WHERE’S DAD?_

  The words flitted across the screen as she typed them, then bounced up as new text flowed across from the left:


  Molly closed her eyes; she could feel her questions multiply faster than they could be answered. What was there to do? Go where? What would be rash about rushing off to save Dad? She added these to her growing list, took a deep breath, then turned and looked over her shoulder down the length of the ship. She could see Cole beyond the cargo bay, standing at Walter’s door. He was right to be wary, and she knew she should be cautious as well.