Itjtawy

by Takiguchi Aiko (滝口アイコ)
illustrations by 2013

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/180077.html)

illustrated by 2013

Peters was five months in the fallows when he met a child.

He had made camp in what had likely been a laundromat. The building itself had partially collapsed, but it was fairly surprising that it was intact at all. He spent the first month using the washers and dryers as construction materials, fortifying the walls. It made it obvious the structure was inhabited, but they served as good insulation and this far out in the endless vista of the fallowlands, he would see anyone coming from miles off if they hadn’t fallen in one of his traps or somehow didn’t ping on the radar.

He spent the heat of the day in the basement, sleeping uneasily and ignoring the sky as it crackled. At night he ventured into wastes, collecting water from cacti and dew from the underside of the brush and killing lizards and the occasional prairie dog. His clickgun made small, neat holes in the animals and he skinned and dried their pelts for amusement as much as anything.

He had filed the serial number and the Tranquility Incorporated logo off the clickgun before leaving the compound and sometimes found himself working down the rough edges still, like he was washing blood off his hands.

Peters stumbled across the kid when dawn was threatening the world and he was about to head back to his camp for the day. It had been a disappointing haul, some edible grasses, no meat. Peters had lost weight from living in the fallows, both fat and muscle, and hadn’t shaved. Gone native, except even before fleeing he knew fallheads often made a point of pride of being as clean as possible. The kid, for example, being menaced by a Chum, was wearing a jumpsuit that seemed newly sewn.

The Chum was dressed in the standard Tranq Corp uniform, tossing the girl around roughly as he looked at her arms and neck for a scan code that clearly wasn’t there. The girl was struggling, crying a little, distressed half-hiccups. She didn’t seem particularly startled when he shot the Chum through the neck, just blinked at him with big eyes, her nose watering. Peters wasn’t skilled in guessing the age of children, but she looked seven or so. Remarkable.

“You’re a long way from your people,” he said. He knelt besides the Chum’s corpse, stripping it of its protein packs. He didn’t bother removing the dead man’s mask, ignoring its benign, red smile.

She wiped her nose, looking wary, weighing her options. In the end she must have decided she had nothing to lose by trusting him. “My aunt and I were scouting.”

“Where’s your aunt?”

The girl’s mouth wavered and she pointed to a ridge fifty feet off. Now that he was looking, Peters saw a clump of brown hair, a drop of blood and a tooth. The Chum must have had a disintegrator. Peters rolled the corpse on its back and checked the inner pockets of the uniform’s jacket.

“Can you get home?” he asked her.

She fished a battered GPS out of her pocket and showed it to him.

“Good,” he said. “There’s a K-mart six miles from here. If you start now you can make it there before the heat of the day and it should keep you safe enough.”

“You come too,” she said.

Peters looked up from loading the disintegrator into his pack. “Excuse me?”

“You’re what we’re scouting for,” she said. “We’re looking for people. Met wants to talk to people from all the tribes.”

Peters went very still. “You’re from Met’s village.” It should have been his first assumption, actually, upon seeing a child. But five months in the fallows alone, it was surprisingly easy to shed some types of instincts.

She nodded. “We need to tell him that the Chums have moved this far into the fallows. That’s what Ruth said. We weren’t trying to fight him. We were just trying to get away.”

The girl sounded like she was in shock. Met’s people weren’t particularly cavalier about death. Peters stood up, slinging his bag over his shoulder. “I’m not part of a tribe. Met wouldn’t have any use for me. And you can tell him about the Chums yourself.”

She reached into her own bag – a pink kiddie backpack – and got out a headscarf and a pair of goggles. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll just tell Met about you and he can come talk to you himself.”

He could kill her. Test out the disintegrator on her. Lord knew how a low-level Chum had monkeyed with it. Going fallow, the idea had been to hide from Met’s village as much as Tranq Corp. But doing this, casting off his old life to be reborn under a red sky, was a decision made due to Peters’ abrupt discovery that he was unable or unwilling to kill children. And that had been in the abstract. Here was a real one, newly grieving with a rat’s nest for hair. A small, dusty impossibility.

“I have a bike,” Peters told her. “Back at my camp. Follow me, we’ll make better time.”

***

The few surveillance photos Tranquility Corporation had of Met were taken when he was roughly fifteen. In the pictures, Met was surprisingly pale for a fallhead, with a round, pixie-ish face and eyes like someone had traced the rim of a glass on a piece of paper. His hair had been dyed purple at the time and Peters, who had spent hours analyzing the photos, had often wondered if that was a teenage affectation, a political statement, or something in-between.

Met was likely nineteen now. It was hard to say whether that would make him look more like his mother or less.

It took a day and a half on the bike to reach the village. The girl was quiet most of the way, just ate the food and drank the water Peters gave her without comment. She wouldn’t give up the GPS though and would pipe up once in a while to tell him directions that Tranq Corp had spent several million dollars and neutralized countless people to find.

The first thing Peters saw approaching the village was trees. The second was a blinding dazzle.

He stopped the bike, ignoring the girl’s making a surprised, inquisitive noise, and flicked on the filters of his goggles. The trees were pine and mesquite, green against the sky. The light, which looked like the compounds skyline or a distant memory of the sun playing off water, came from glass. Shards of mirror and broken bottles, someone had tied them with string to the branches, to erected poles, to the lingering supports of destroyed houses. They hung from every available surface and twisted in the wind. The tinkle and clank almost drowned out the buzzing of the sky. It was like the whole town was encased in a chandelier or a kaleidoscope, protected in a bubble of fragments. The effect was dizzying and not at all subtle.

Peters felt the stirrings of a familiar anger. The grove was like everything Met and his people did: absurd and self-exposing and not at all practical or safe. Tranq Corp had assumed for years that Met’s stronghold must be subterranean, it was so expertly hidden from them, and here it was out in the open, blithely announcing itself to anyone who happened across it. And somehow it didn’t seem matter.

The girl scrambled off the bike, her body language very different now that she felt safe. It was less coordinated and self-conscious, her arms pinwheeling. “Mom!” she called, running towards where the glass opened into something like a bower. Inside was the simple dark of tree trunks. There must be cameras here for her to think she’d be heard. The girl cupped her hands in front of her face. “Mom! Mom, I’m back!”

Two minutes later the branches parted and a woman, hair short and clipped away from her face but the same color as the girl’s, came out. She enfolded the girl in her arms immediately, breathing her in. “Oh honey. Oh, my baby.” She held the girl at arm’s length again. “Ruth?”

Eyes watering, almost guilty, the girl shook her head.

Her mother’s face went through a complicated twist of emotions before she buried it in the little girl’s hair again. “That’s okay, Beth. It’s not your fault, honey. I’m just glad you’re home.”

“It was a Chum,” Peters said. The woman looked up at him, eyes narrowing at the words. She didn’t seem surprised to see Peters and he looked around idly for the cameras. He supposed he was slightly insulted he had been so easily dismissed as a threat. “Who got your sister. He had a disintegrator.”

“Sister-in-law,” the woman said. She stood up, the girl — Beth, apparently — clinging to her leg, and held out her hand for Peters to shake. She was younger than Peters by a handful of years, but her face and palm were weathered in the way of fallheads. A lifer, maybe. “You take care of him?”

“Yes ma’am,” Peters said at the same time Beth chirped, “I found a straggler for Met, Mom!”

She looked down at her daughter, gaze liquid and open. “Well, didn’t you just. We’ll have to take him to Met then, won’t we?” Her expression, looking at Peters, was much harder. “For my daughter’s life, we’ll give you shelter as long as you need.”

“I’ll meet your leader, if that will make us square,” Peters said. “But I have no intention to stay.”

She looked more amused than anything. Met’s people had a touch of arrogance to them. “I’m Cal,” she said. “I’ll be taking your weapons before you talk to Met.”

Peters handed her his clickgun. It would have been useful in the village but not entirely necessary. Beth tugged on Cal’s sleeve and whispered theatrically, “He’s got the disintegrator, Mom.”

Giving her a bit of a look, Peters handed it over too. Cal took it gingerly, double-checking the safety. She fished a fine metal chain out of her pocket and handed it to him. “You’ll need this to cross through the threshold. And I’ll see your barcode too, if you don’t mind.”

He honestly couldn’t imagine what had given him away as compound grown and tagged, but fallheads had a knack for knowing. Silently, he rolled up his sleeve, exposing the scar — still tender, most days — the acid left after it burned off his code.

Cal whistled, low. “You didn’t want to be found.”

“Still don’t,” said Peters, tugging his sleeve back down. Cal ignored him, shoving his clickgun into the waistband of her jeans. He followed her and her daughter into the forest of shards.

***

The glass opened up into a shanty-town, cleaner and more organized than most, but otherwise indistinguishable from other tribes Peters had seen apart from everything growing. Shacks built from the flotsam of the old world, before the sky changed, circling around a main hall. Peters saw a cat though — it took him a full minute to recognize it for what it was — and some of the homes had rows of greenery near them that had to be gardens. And the children. Five of them were playing a game that involved shoving, shrieking with laughter. It sounded the way tonic bubbles tasted. Peters was helpless but to stare.

The kids saw Beth and almost as one charged forward, but shied away again when they spotted Peters though. Beth ignored them. She only had eyes for the man ducking his head as he exited the central hall. “Met!” she squealed and took a running lunge at him.

“Stringbean!” Met said. He picked her up in a hug and swung her around. Putting her back down on the ground, she aimed a punch at his solar plexus and Met doubled over dramatically, falling down in a heap, much to her delight. The other children, more coming out of the shacks every second, adults standing cautiously in the doorways they left behind, piled on top of him quickly, tickling whatever slivers of skin were exposed. Met was laughing, helpless and throaty.

Peters deserved to die here and he’d accept it peacefully, as his due, if he did. Life had been little more than a habit for a while now anyway. Just one difficult to break.

“Okay, okay, okay, time out,” Met eventually said, voice higher than Peters had expected. The kids backed off, winded and giddy. Met said, while getting up, dusting off his knees, “We have a guest.”

Met’s hair was yellow, not blond but a dyed dandelion gold. It was streaked through with reds and oranges; a torch or a phoenix. His face had smoothed into more of an oval since his adolescence, chin more prominent, although his eyes had stayed wide and wide-set. He was unmistakably Rochelle’s child.

Beth lead Met over to Peters by the hand, proud of her prize. “Met, I found a straggler! Look!”

“Good work, stringbean,” Met said, somewhat absently. He was studying Peters, taking him in. Peters had never been so absorbed by a glance in his life. “It appears we owe you a debt.”

“I was protecting my own as much as yours,” Peters said gruffly.

Met tilted his head, assessing. He grinned though, apparently liking whatever decision he had reached. “I’m Met,” he said, as if being Met were a common or casual thing. Back during the years Peters had spent hunting this boy, he would occasionally try to work out what the name was a truncation of. Metropolis? Metric? Metatron?

“Peters,” he said. No real use in hiding.

Cal came over, an older man in tow, dark beard neatly groomed. He studied Peters, eyebrows furrowed, but Franklin likely wouldn’t recognize Peters in this state. The times they had met had been brief and Peters had been one of many. “My uncle Franklin,” Met said. “And you’ve met Cal.”

“Ruth is dead,” Franklin said. “The straggler says it was a Chum.”

Franklin himself did not sound convinced. Met raised his eyebrows, sober but unworried. “It doesn’t seem like the straggler would have any real reason to lie about that,” he said, gently but chiding. “Beth will be able to verify it or not in any case.” To Cal, he said, “We will all miss her. She was loved.”

“They couldn’t have been more than a hundred miles out,” said Franklin.

Met nodded acknowledgment, something sharper about him now. He turned back to Peters. “It seems like you came to us at an important time. We’ll hold a memorial service for Ruth at sundown. You’re welcome to use of the guest house until then and we’ll talk about Tranq after. Will you come to Ruth’s wake?”

“The service?” Peters said, finding it surprisingly difficult to keep up. So long without human contact, maybe it had recalibrated a few important things. “I didn’t know her.”

Met appeared genuinely confused. “Why would you need to?”

***

The guest house had plumbing. Water could be pumped into a basin, cold and tinged brown but resting docilely in the tin. Innocent of the miracle of its existence. Tranq Corps had often speculated Met’s village had a well system, creating all sorts of further hypotheses about water deposits and salt flats. Peters, at the sight of it, didn’t have it in him to take notes, just drank until just before his stomach rebelled.

He scrubbed off the worst of the layers of dirt and shaved as best he could with a shard of sheet metal tacitly left for that purpose. Again, he felt it should irk him that he wasn’t considered to be potentially dangerous, but instead he felt a sudden, simple exhaustion. He fell on the pile of blankets in the corner, sleeping through the heat of the day and into the evening.

The memorial service was simple. After a communal dinner of stew (which tasted oddly bitter to Peters as the vegetables weren’t laboratory-grown) the villagers built a bonfire outside the central hall and sat in silence. When one felt compelled, apparently by internal forces, they would stand up and make a small speech about Ruth. Her bravery and devotion to the tribe appeared to be her defining characteristics. The villagers spoke of mourning her loss, but Peters couldn’t help but notice there was no mention of an afterlife.

Met sat on the outskirts of the circle, firelight reflecting off of him in crackles and flashes. When he noticed Peters staring, he gestured him over. Peters went, helplessly, and settled down beside him. They sat in silence for a few moments while a man talked about Ruth’s sense of humor, voice wavering.

“Ruth and Ben were very close,” Met said to Peters, quietly. “They worked in the kitchens together.”

“Shouldn’t you be leading this?” Peters asked. It bothered him somehow, that Met hadn’t stood up to speak.

Met shrugged, eyes on the bonfire. “You can’t lead grief. You have to let it go where it wants to.”

“Were you close to her?” Peters asked. He had killed before but he’d never sent someone off to die. He imagined the after effects were likely different.

“She was my friend,” Met said. “She had vision and she was very kind.” His face went pinched and he stood up. “This’ll last an hour or two more. Walk with me.”

Peters followed him past a dense knot of trees, back out into the fallows. The night sky was the color of copper, of blood drying on sand. Met put his hands in his pockets, slowing his pace to a stroll, his silence companionable. Back in the old days, Peters had been issued earplugs when he would have to camp in the fallows but now he barely noticed the hissing crackle after sunset and during the heat of the day.

Met was studying the sky, displaying his tilt-nose profile. “Are you old enough to remember the moon?”

“I think I remember seeing it as a crescent, once,” Peters said. “I don’t remember what it looks like full.”

Met stopped for a moment, closing his eyes to an incoming breeze. “They say in the Tranq compounds the screens on the ceiling make it look like the real thing used to. Part of me has always been a little curious.”

The Tranq compounds mimicked the memory of the old world sky. Shading from blue to darker blue as they chased down the day, the domed buildings had a sun and a moon and artificial bird song as close to accurate as anyone could remember. Peters would be lying if he said he didn’t miss it. “Not enough to visit though.”

Met laughed. With the pitch of his voice, it was really more of a giggle. “I can’t say it’d be worth their hospitality.” He gave Peters a sidelong little look. “Franklin thinks you’re a compound agent. He thinks you staged the fight with the Chum and saved Beth’s life in order to infiltrate the village.”

“What do you think?”

Met sighed. “I think that says a lot more about how Franklin’s mind works than anything else. Tranq Corp has never been that subtle. You’re ex-compound and that’s fine. Your business is your own. But if the Chums are closing in though… That’s much more serious.”

“Beth said you want to bring the tribes together,” said Peters.

Met nodded. “I’m trying for… something. A conference. Banding together is the only chance we have.” He cocked his head, suddenly absorbed in something, and crouched down. Gently, he smoothed sand away from the roots of a small scrub.

Peters clenched his hands, bit his lip, sparks beginning to flare in his stomach. “Are you going to…?”

Met traced a finger down a branch. “You want to see it?”

“Of course I do. People have died to see it,” Peters said. He added, half to himself, “People have died to stop it too.”

He didn’t imagine Met’s flinch at that. Still, Met molded his hands into a circle around the root structure, eyes half-lidded. The plant grew, in small, even jolts, roughly an inch in height, branches unfurling and stretching towards the unknown. Tiny flower buds dappled the tips, likely white as the sky was staining them a light pink.

Peters had heard the stories, of course, but he still shivered, equilibrium profoundly disturbed. After a moment, Met let out a long breath, looked up, gaze eerily calm for a second. A flicker of the ancient and ineffable there. It was gone just as fast, leaving behind a precocious kid. He said, “You can ask.”

Do you talk to God?” Peters said.

Met smiled his crooked little smile. “In my experience, almost everybody talks to God.” He sat down fully, legs splayed in front of him. “He doesn’t answer me more than anyone else though.”

“So you’re not the messiah.”

Met ran a hand through his hair, leaving it a disoriented cloud. “My mother definitely thought I was,” he said. If he noticed Peters holding himself still, he didn’t show it. “Giving birth to the first child in the fallowlands, it made sense to believe that, I think. To martyr yourself for that. Me, though…”

“You?” asked Peters.

“I think I’m the beginning of something new,” Met said. “I think the world died and a new one is being born and I’m just the first sign of it. The children in the village, most of them are like me too, to some extent.”

The rumors about Met in the compounds were diffuse, everything from ridiculous to terrifying. He was a cult leader, a prophet, an avatar, a self-appointed boy king. To Peters, he seemed tired. Met continued, “It’s about sensing potential. The possibility for growth in the things around you. And then you just… encourage it. It’s difficult to explain. Beth’s particularly good at it.”

“Is that why you sent her scouting?”

Met nodded. He looked Peters full in the face. Looked him wide open. “And she came back with you.”

Peters did his best to ignore the jump in his pulse. “Bringing the tribes together – what’s that going to do?”

“Safety in numbers,” Met said. “Hopefully. I’m not here to start a war.”

“What are you here to do?”

“I’m the first,” Met said. His voice was filled with a thready resolve, letting Peters in on a grim joke. “I don’t know if that makes me responsible for the rest, but most of the fallowlanders seem to think it does. People need a symbol, something to stand for that’s greater than themselves. If being a symbol means I also have to be a leader…” Met shook his head. “Well. I’ll need help.”

“Like Franklin?”

Met stood up. He was going to allow Peters to sidestep the request. “It’s getting late. The ceremony should be almost over. We should head back.”

“It would be stupid of you to trust me,” Peters said, unable to stop himself.

Met looked amused. “I never said I did. But for an untrustworthy person, that’s a pretty interesting position to take.”

“You’re kind of a smart ass,” Peters said, a little pleased by the discovery. The supernatural fugitive fallhead rebel, whom Tranq Corp was convinced was determined to unpin the seat of civilization, could be cheeky. Mischievous.

Met laughed, a belly laugh, which made him look even younger than he was. “I should thank you for giving me the opportunity.”

Peters stayed the night in the guest house. Again, he slept like the dead.

***

Beth apparently had taken a proprietary shine towards Peters. She woke him up the next morning, prodding his neck with a finger. When he opened his eyes, she was looking very solemn and holding a bowl of broth. “I got you breakfast.”

Peters sat up gingerly. Sleeping on the blankets had given him more of a headache than sleeping on the cement basement floor of his laundromat, the dull pain of partial relief. He cleared his throat. “What time is it?”

She squinted. “Morning?” she guessed, like it was a trick question.

“Sorry,” said Peters. “Should have known better than to ask you.” Time was another thing he sacrificed in leaving the Tranq compound. Beth didn’t seem insulted, just thrust the bowl at him. Peters, not seeing a utensil, drank from it, mouth on the lip. The broth tasted like citrus and salt.

Beth clamored on the blanket next to him, side by side but not quite touching. Peters found himself again fascinated by her: the concept of a person in miniature, a person still unfinished. “You look better now that you’re not so dirty.”

“Thanks,” Peters said dryly.

“You need a job,” she said. “If you’re going to stay. Everyone here has a job.”

“Who says I’m staying?” Peters said. Beth shrugged. He added, “What’s your job then? You bring soup?”

Beth giggled. “I’m a kid,” she said, like the answer was obvious. “My job is to grow and learn and be happy until I figure out what my real job will be.”

It sounded like a comforting lie, given what Met had said about her last night, how she and Peters had met, but he was willing to let it go. “So did you have a plan in mind for what my job should be?”

“I dunno,” Beth said. “What are you good at?”

Peters had natural talents for destroying others and ensuring his own survival, both of which parlayed themselves into a plethora of secondary skills. “I’m a good hunter.”

She hopped up and grabbed Peters’ hand. He started a little at the contact. “Hunters are good! We should tell Franklin.”

Peters followed her out, sighing. “Perfect.”

Franklin, when they found him, was in Met’s cottage, the two of them going over a map. He reacted to Beth’s repetition of Peters’ statement as suspiciously as Peters assumed he would, searching Peters over again with a darker look now that Peters was clean-shaven the way he had been in his compound days. “Yes. I’m sure he’s an excellent hunter.”

Franklin’s gaze had twice the judgment and half the knowledge of his nephew’s. Met listened to Beth while resting the side of his head against his hand, biting down on a small, private smile. “Huh.”

“What?” said Peters.

“I’ve never met anyone who wanted to be here less than you do,” said Met. “You’re welcome to leave. Are you waiting for us to kick you out?”

“It’d be easy enough,” Franklin muttered.

Peters ignored him and looked directly at Met. His chest felt hollow and expanding, ribcage turned into a balloon. He said, and it was a challenge as much as anything, “Teach me how to garden.”

“You’re big,” Beth said. “That’s a weird thing to want to know how to do.”

“Never too late to learn,” Peters said. He felt askew, reckless. Met was quirking an eyebrow at him.

“Sometimes it is,” Franklin said dismissively. “Met, we need to go over the terrain.”

Met rose to his feet. “That can wait until the heat of the day though. Gardening is more time sensitive.”

And that was how Peters spent hours with his fingers in the earth. Met took him to an empty patch and gave him seeds. The dirt felt gritty and damp, worked itself under Peters’ fingernails. It had more dimension to it than sand and it was the color of the mesh material of the eyeholes of a Chum’s mask. Despite that, Peters found himself running his fingers through it compulsively. His lower back began to ache and he was sweating long before it occurred to him to ask what they were planting.

“Eggplant,” said Met. “Do they have that in the compounds?”

Peters shook his head.

“It’s good,” Met said. “Sort of meaty.”

“When have you had meat?”

Met brushed his hair out of his eyes. “Lizards. Snakes.”

Peters snorted. “That hardly counts. The texture is completely different.”

Met blinked at him. “So you are a hunter.”

Peters felt abruptly stupid. Synthesized beef was a luxury reserved for the top tier of Tranquility Incorporated personnel. Executives and operatives. He hadn’t counted on Met having intelligence on Tranq the way Tranq had intelligence on him.

“Do you miss it?” Met asked. “It has to be an easier life.”

Peters kept his eyes on his work. “Would I be in the fallows if I missed it?”

“Yeah, I imagine you could be,” Met said. “But here you are. Yesterday you said not to trust you and I’m not sure I do. But you must have had compelling reasons to leave.”

Met had said Peters was trying to get himself evicted. Peters wondered if he were aiming for something more final than that. “Are you going to ask me about them?”

Met thumbed in a seed, taking his time to cover it again with dirt. He said, simply, “No.”

His head bent over, Peters could see the beginnings of Met’s roots growing in. His hair naturally was a sandy brown. The same color as Rochelle’s, which had lain long and tangled, soaking up her blood. She had terrified Peters more than any woman he had ever met. Her son, gentle as he genuinely appeared to be, had the potential to be fathoms worse.

“It’s pretty stupid,” Peters said. “To not be curious about that. You just figured out I’m a Tranquility assassin, well done you. You might as well be sitting on a bomb, that’s what any right-thinking person would say. I’m not here to repent.”

“Apparently you’re here to garden,” Met said. “Stick with that and repenting will probably take care of itself.”

Peters sat back on his heels. “What does your name mean?”

“Met?” said Met. “It’s a name. It doesn’t have to mean anything.”

Peters was surprised by the sudden evasion. Rochelle wouldn’t have given her son, the savior of the fallows no less, a name that wasn’t drenched in symbolism. “Meteor? Metabolic?”

“Ill-met by moonlight, proud Titania,” Met said, nonsensically. He looked at Peters, curious. “Why are you goading me?”

Peters surprised himself by thinking about it. “I guess I wanted to see what you would do.”

Met scooted off the vegetable patch, hugging his knees loosely to his chest. “I like you, Peters,” he said. “And I think you can be useful, if you’d want to be. But I don’t have time for a project. I’ll offer you a deal instead. You don’t test me and I won’t test you. Sound fair?”

Maybe Peters was hoping for orders. He had lived his whole life linked into a chain of command. Being told what to do would have been comforting, even after fighting so hard for his freedom. But Met was letting him keep exactly that, his freedom, which was ruthlessly fair and terrible for it. Tranq Corp had been right. Met was as dangerous to them as anything could be.

At his silence, Met just patted Peters on the shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “It’s nearly time for lunch anyway.”

***

Peters was maybe the only one surprised when he continued to stay. No one said a word about it; he fell in the range between accepted and ignored. Franklin was mistrustful and Cal was kind and Beth lagged at his heels like a dog, but the rest of the villagers gave him a wide berth. He wasn’t one of Met’s people, just someone to whom Met had offered sanctuary, and Peters was unsure if or when a conversion from latter to former was supposed to take place. Peters told himself staying was less a decision and more a product of entropy, the enjoyment again of creature comforts, however meager. The acidic discomfort of his unease was softened by the lie.

In two days time he graduated from the guest house to the floor of the meeting hall, where all the villagers not clumped into a semblance of a family unit slept. He woke with them, hours before dawn, to be fed and then left to his own devices. Peters kept himself to himself and usually returned to his garden patch, watering and hoeing and selecting different kinds of seeds. This appeared to be greeted with a tacit approval, although he didn’t much care either way.

Once a day or so, Met would come. His duties appeared to be divided between internal matters of the village — organization of resources, arbitration of daily squabbles — and more shadowy activities. Scouts came back in drips and drabbles, often with representatives of other clans in tow. Peters recognized the green tattoos of the Bullyboys and human teeth sewn into the clothes of the Grenades. Met’s people had no such distinguishing marks, not even a real name, just the children running underfoot. They were a more ostentatious and powerful marker than any other tribes’ attempts at posturing. Met was unfailingly courteous to the other clansmen, feral as they often were, and spent long hours with them in his hut. Peters was not invited to these meetings, nor did he ask to attend.

Met would stop by usually when Peters was in his garden. Sometimes with the semblance of checking on his work — Peters suspected Met was quickening the growth unseen under the surface out of a misguided attempt to encourage — but often just to talk. It was likely as close to inconsequential as Met’s conversations could get: how the wind had undone some of the glasswork and now fragments littered the northeast barrier of the village, how the school Cal’s husband (dead now, Peters learned quickly enough, the two of them married in name alone in the first place) had established for the children was faring, the finer points of aerating soil. Peters began to wonder if speaking to him was less Met’s way of keeping an eye on Peters and more Met giving himself a break from his responsibilities. Which was an arrogant and alarmingly hopeful thought: the idea Met viewed their time together as a small reward.

When Peters retreated inside during the heat of the day, curled up inside fetid blankets to drown out the noise and the glare peaking through the covered windows, he found his thoughts lingering on the slope of Met’s neck. His long, thin wrists and delicate mouth. His paleness in a ruddy world. The images, the ideas, were easy enough to dismiss, dangerous and ridiculous as they were. One glance at Franklin’s scowl was usually all he needed.

Some things still fell through the cracks though. “Your name is Metaphor, isn’t it?” Peters asked Met over dinner, lighter than he intended.

“That’s just trite,” Met sniffed. He smiled though at Peters, who realized they were now in the middle of a game. That this was Met having fun.

Peters was not expecting it though, the day he walked to his garden to see Met already kneeling on the ground next to the patch. “I had a feeling it would be today,” he said at the sound of Peters footsteps. Met didn’t look up, but pointed gently at the end of one furrow.

Peters saw shoots. They were a pale green he had never seen before, lifting themselves out of the earth. Tenacious and vulnerable and so delicate. Peters dropped to his knees too, unexpectedly greedy at the sight. He wanted to rip them out, claim them, but found himself too afraid to do anything more than run a shaking fingernail over the crest of a tiny leaf.

Met looked at him, satisfied. “It’s a good first step. Maybe you have talents we didn’t know about.”

Peters was only half listening. Moisture welled up in his eyes, unexpected to the point where for a few seconds it was difficult to define. He tried to hide a guttural sob behind his hand, helpless to stop to reaction itself.

“Hey,” Met said. He rubbed Peters back. “It’s new. It’s okay if it’s a little scary.”

Peters tried to compose himself, taking comfort in the fact that Met’s uncanny perception had apparently, for once, failed him, until Met added, “You do deserve this, you know.”

“You’re the last person in the world,” Peters said, “who should think that.”

Met’s hand stilled on Peters’ shoulder. His expression was confused, prodding at the edge of something overwhelming and unwanted. Silently, Peters willed him to understand. Met was alternately ferocious and kind. Like the wind, everywhere at once. Rochelle had been a creature entirely of fire.

Peters pushed harder. “Your uncle still hates me.”

It did not have the desired effect. Met snorted, settling into a more comfortable position and rolling his eyes as he mistook the implication. “My uncle thinks his job is protecting me. I’m old enough to judge things for myself.”

“Are you now,” said Peters.

“They all made such a fuss when I started messing with my hair,” Met said, a little sulky at the memory. “Saying it was a waste of resources, that I shouldn’t bring attention to myself.”

“Did you do it to piss them off then?”

“No,” Met said. “Well… it was a nice side-effect. But I’ve been in hiding since… well, since my mother knew she was pregnant. It gets… it’s easy to feel helpless when you can name all the people who’ve sacrificed themselves to keep your location a secret.”

“Guilty too, I’d think,” Peters said. He himself was newly exploring the structure of that emotion.

If Met saw it as a twist of the knife, he didn’t show it. He only blew a breath slowly out his nose, looking shuttered and reflective. Another weight Met carried heavier than most people would know. “I got tired of feeling helpless. Like I didn’t have control over my future.” He tugged on his hair, further explanation, but then he looked up to meet Peters’ eyes. His expression was calm and challenging. “I’m allowed to want some things for myself.”

Peters couldn’t look away. It would be surrendering. “Does that explain the glass forest too?”

Met’s brows knitted in confusion and then he laughed. “The deflectors? I’ve never heard them called that before. I like it. No, that was my mother’s idea. The reflection makes the village read as a heat pocket on most Tranq sensors.”

Peters asked, “Do you miss her?”

Met looked away with an empty smile. “It’s been two years now. They say it gets easier. I honestly don’t know if it has.”

He would leave tonight, Peters decided. There was nothing for him here except the sprouts and they would be just as well cared for by a stranger.

***

It seemed important though to say goodbye to Beth and maybe, to a lesser extent, Cal before he went. That should have surprised Peters more than it did. His entire working life, Peters had been smudged with Met’s fingerprints and they were engraved deeper now after direct exposure.

Beth cried, blubbery and loud. “Shh!” Peters hissed, fluttering around her, and then, trying for something comforting, “Hey, hey…” It seemed a rather showy display of loss for a child with a dead father and aunt, but Peters couldn’t pretend to know how kids worked. Maybe abandonment felt different from grief.

Beth grabbed his shirt and buried her face in it, leaving patches of tears and mucus that looked like a Rorschach test. “No! No no no! You’re ours, you’re ours.” She yanked at his arm, ignoring his wince when she poked at the acid burn. “See? See?”

Cal blew into the shanty, red-faced, followed quickly by Met. Beth let go of Peters to fall into Met’s arms. “Tell him! You tell him!”

Met looked from her to Peters to back again. “What’s going on, stringbean?”

“He’s leaving,” Cal said, flatly, a woman who knew the signs. Her arms were crossed. “Isn’t he, Beth?”

Beth nodded into Met’s chest. Met looked at Peters, astonished, before his features smoothed over like he had seen something on Peters’ face from which he needed to protect himself. He petted Beth’s wild hair. “Peters makes his choices the way the rest of us do, stringbean. We can’t keep him here if he wants to go just because you like him.”

Beth flailed with her fists, meaning to hurt. “You don’t get it!”

Met looked unsure and Peters felt a sudden swell of panic. There was only one way to end this, to bury whatever appeal he had for them. “Cal, can you take Beth out for a minute, please?”

She shot him a look, cool still, maybe only a little better at hiding disappointment than her daughter. “Come on, sweetie,” she said, ushering Beth out gently by the shoulders. Peters could hear her crying from behind the closed door.

Met straightened his shoulders, cleared his throat, acting formal. “Thank you for your time here. Saving Beth… our life here might not suit you but you’re always welcome if you need shelter.”

“Your mother didn’t die two years ago,” Peters said.

Met stilled. He said, carefully, “We know. She went missing then. But there’s always… I’ve always hoped…”

“She died seven months ago,” Peters said. “We held her in questioning until then. She never said a word though, not anything useful to the Tranquility Corporation. Eventually it was decided she was expendable.”

Met had gone chalk white and silent. Peters kept going. He would die here, in one meaning of the word or another. “I wasn’t her main interrogator, but I was called in once in a while to question her. The executives assumed that because I captured her, I might have more of an idea what made her tick. They made her choose between injection, clickgun, and disintegrator. She chose clickgun.”

Met nodded jerkily, throat working. “Are you still working for Tranq?”

The question felt like a punch, surprisingly painful. Peters rolled with the force of it. “No.”

“Go back to them,” Met said. “There’s no place for you here. The fallows won’t have you.”

Met walked out like a man about to faint. Peters watched him slipping through his fingers once again.

***

Peters had happened upon Rochelle almost by accident, although he left that out of the mission report as it would have affected his bonus. She was out hunting, clicks away from the village. Apparently she was known to leave for several months at a time when Met had become old enough to stay with his uncle, when a community grew around him when barren fallows women began conceiving after a month in the boy’s company.

Rochelle had fought Peters like a demon, gave him a scar he still had across his chest. He’d had to stun her into submission seven times before they arrived at the nearest Tranq Corp compound. She hadn’t said a word, then. Peters remembered the sunburn peeling off her high cheekbones, the haughtiness in her gaze, her hair whipping back into his face where he had thrown her hog-tied on the bike. Her capture was the highlight of Peters’ career and he told himself he should be proud. The interrogators called her crazy, talked about delusions of grandeur. Privately, Peters thought she was a witch woman. For months, he’d question her, she would stay silent, and he would go back to his quarters to stare at pictures of her son.

The last time he was asked to interrogate her, Rochelle’s death was all but a certainty. She sat in the white room, hands bound behind her, staring straight at Peters with a steely calm. Her voice, when she spoke, was throaty and deep. “Tranq Corps wants to kill children.”

Peters had been surprised, straightened his cuff. He’d always been well-dressed back then, when not on assignment in the fallows. “We want to neutralize your child as a threat. That’s hardly the same thing.”

Her mouth twitched, almost a smile. “My son is beyond Tranq’s ability to understand. God has sent him to greet the dawn.”

“Tell me where he is and we’ll spare your life,” Peters said. It was almost a plea. “I promise you.”

Rochelle’s eyes were dark, burned to cinders with insanity or ambition or belief. “I’m not afraid to die. Especially not now.”

“Everyone’s afraid to die,” Peters said. “In the end, everyone begs.”

“Do you want to spare me that?” Rochelle asked, and Peters realized, feeling sick inside, that he did. That he wanted to let this mad woman preserve her dignity. “Don’t worry. I’m glad for my death. It will inspire Met in ways you can’t imagine yet.”

Peters was excellent at his job because he had an instinct for important details. “Yet?”

Rochelle smiled, at peace. “Your part in this is just beginning, Agent.”

“You’re not a prophet, Rochelle.”

“You think I have to be?” she said. “Look at you. You’re not like the others. You do your job because you think it preserves order and order creates hope. One day you’ll realize the real hope is Met, not Tranq Corp. You’re obsessed enough with him now. Imagine what you’ll do for him when you actually meet?”

Peters had left after that, not getting anywhere with her that day. He had been shaken, badly, and drank more that night than he had in years. It meant he attended Rochelle’s execution hungover, headache pealing like a bell before the clickgun even fired. Rochelle hadn’t begged.

Peters knew how to go underground successfully because he had apprehended five previous agents who had tried. He was in the fallows a month later, where the noise during the heat of the day almost drowned out his dreams.

***

Franklin found him when Peters was preparing his bike, getting sand out of the motor. He was red-faced, bristling. “What did you do, Chum?”

“I was never a Chum,” Peters said. He felt hollowed-out and concentrated on the machine.

Franklin yanked him up with unexpected force and a fury born from panic. “Met’s gone.”

Peters felt his eyes widen. “What?”

“He gave me his key,” Franklin said, dangling a silver chain identical to the one Cal had given Peters in order to enter the village. Likely microchipped to disable a protective fence. “And hugged me and left without a word. What the hell did you do?”

Peters scanned the sky. The heat of the day was not far off, the air already humming a warning.

Franklin was still talking, words coming fast. “He’s exposed out there! A walking target! Every Chum for a hundred miles has him marked as their number one priority, and if he stumbles across even one of them–”

Met could take care of himself against a foot soldier. Peters was more worried about him being directly exposed to the heat of the day. “Give me the chain.”

Franklin narrowed his eyes. “No.”

“I’m going to find him,” Peters said. “And when I’ll do he’ll need to come back through the gate. Give me the key.”

Franklin scoffed. “You think I’d let you go look for him?”

“It’s an hour to the heat of the day,” Peters said. “Give or take. And I’m expendable. If the worst happens, you want to lose two people you care about today?”

Franklin scowled. Peters repeated, “Give me the chain.”

“You still have your key,” Franklin pointed out. “And you’re leaving, last I heard from Cal. People have died to keep these safe. Find Met and give him yours. I’m not risking two.”

Peters tried to glare him down but Franklin, for all that he was, was not a coward nor a particularly changeable man. Peters adjusted his goggles, wrapped his scarf around his neck. “Fine.”

“If any harm comes to my nephew,” Franklin said, with all the blind terror that came out of love, “I’ll make you regret the day you were born.”

“If any harm comes to your nephew, it won’t be my doing,” Peters said and was surprised to realize, as he gunned the engine and drove off, that he meant it.

***

There was a beauty to the fallows. Peters had always thought so; it had made him suited for fieldwork. Sand and infinite absence. It soothed something troubled inside of him. The air hung dry and scorching like a fevered palm, crackling now.

Peters had survived the heat of the day once, just barely, by taking shelter under his bike. He knew of others who buried themselves in the sand, hid under rock. It was difficult, but not impossible if you were determined to live.

It only took him fifteen minutes to find Met’s tracks. At first Peters thought they might be deliberate, baiting, but they wove aimlessly like the footsteps of someone drunk or concussed, certainly preoccupied.

He found Met lying on his back, shielding his eyes from the sun with one hand. A lizard sat next to him, basking like he would on a warm rock, but it scurried off when Peters killed the engine, rested the bike on its kickstand. Met didn’t acknowledge him for a long moment and Peters honestly had no idea what he could say.

“Punish me, if you want,” he settled on. “You’ve got every right. But not this way. Your people need you too much.”

After a second, Met peered up at him with a glimmer of his usual curiosity. Peters felt a tentative but palpable relief. Met asked, “This is punishing you? What do you think I’m doing?”

“The heat of the day could start any minute now.”

“Not today,” Met said. “We’ve got four more hours at least.”

“How do you know?” Peters asked, believing him instinctively.

Met sat up laboriously, still not looking at Peters. “It’s in my name.”

Peters leaned forward on his handlebars, swallowing. “Yeah?”

“Sekhmet,” Met said. He laughed a little, dry. “Mom picked it out before I was born. Ridiculous, isn’t it? It was the name of a lion goddess who created the desert and healed the sick.” Met plucked a rock off the ground, skimmed it along the sand. “She wasn’t going to let a little thing like my actual gender get in the way of a good idea.”

“She loved you,” Peters said. “Very much.”

Met scrubbed a hand through his yellow hair. “My mother loved the idea of me. She loved that she was responsible for me. And her plans. She named me after a lion who was paid tribute in blood but who also cured the dying. It’s not an easy line to straddle. My mother wasn’t an easy woman to love.”

Peters was silent. They both were, with the sun beating down.

“I did love her though,” Met said quietly. “And she’s dead because of you.”

“She’s the reason I ran,” Peters confessed. “Watching her die, it broke something in me. When I met Beth, part of me thought it was because of Rochelle, somehow. That she sent me to you so you could finally get revenge.”

Met finally looked him in the eye. He was ageless and tired and bizarrely beautiful, made of and in and for the wastelands. His name wasn’t ridiculous at all.

“That’s not why she sent you to me,” Met said.

Peters got off his bike, moved close enough to Met to feel Met’s breath on his face. Met didn’t look sad anymore. His expression was simpler, more primal than that. “Don’t go back to the compounds,” he said, leaning in.

Met’s lips were chapped and kissing him was a vaguely bloody experience, raw. Met seemed eager, if clumsy. Peters was bent over him as Met craned up to meet the kiss. Met’s mouth was a tentative, nipping little thing. He was mimicking Peters’ movements, when Peters sucked on his lower lip or licked into his mouth. Peters wondered if Met had ever done this before, if there ever had been anyone with whom Met could have done this before, and the thought inspired a growl. He pushed on Met’s chest until his shoulders met the earth, covering him with his body completely.

Met whimpered and hooked a leg around Peters’ thigh. Peters could feel his cock, thick and insistent. Met’s hips started to move and Peters pinned him down, arm a bar across the jut of Met’s hipbones. He rucked up Met’s shirt, sucked on his nipple, the thin skin over his ribs, listening as Met made high, reedy sounds. Met kept trying to stroke his back, put a hand in Peters’ hair, but got the idea soon enough that Peters wanted him to lie prone when Peters would bite or push his arm away.

Peters wanted to worship. He wanted to give offering. Unfastening Met’s pants, he wanted to cement his conversion. This was his purpose in the dying world, to serve in this way. Peters would support and comfort the man who was going usher in the new order and he could no longer feel uneasy in his role. Hiding in the fallows was only one of his more desperate attempts to run. Peters had been fleeing this knowledge from the first time he saw surveillance footage of a teenager with greasy purple hair and wanted him with the purest clarity he had ever experienced.

Peters drew out Met’s cock. It was pretty like the rest of him, uncut and pink. Now perhaps Peters wanted to take, too, surrender to the inevitability of this evolution on his own terms. The sun was heavy on his back like a living thing when Peters wrapped his hand around the base of Met’s dick and put his mouth on the head.

Met made a loud noise of genuine surprise, back arching. “Oh,” he said, dreamy. Peters watched, hungry for it, as Met closed his eyes and turned his head to rub his cheek against the sand. Peters began to suck, slurping without finesse, barely any rhythm to it. Met curled his hand in Peters’ hair again and this time Peters let him.

It must be new to Met. His eyelashes fluttered and he kept trying to contort into himself, making helpless noises only a few degrees higher than the hum of the sky. “Please,” he said at one point, when Peters finished exploring the slit of Met’s cock, his shaft, his balls, with his tongue and open mouth and settled back into suction, moving his head at a regular pace now. Peters wondered what he was asking for, if Met himself even knew. If Met were succumbing to something himself, the promise of blood or change, while being taken in the heart of the fallows.

Peters savored the taste of skin, the discomfort of pressure against his soft pallet, the ache in his jaw. He closed his eyes and felt full.

He swallowed it down when Met came. Suddenly, much too suddenly. Met’s come was gritty, different from the grittiness of sand. Peters made short work of himself, coming over his own stomach, as Met traced the skin behind his ear.

“You gave Franklin your key,” Peters said after a long moment, weakly almost.

Met’s voice was hoarse. “I didn’t – I didn’t want anything around to remind me of home. I needed, I don’t know, to meditate. Without distractions. I didn’t come here to punish you. You’ve been punishing yourself more than I ever could. I just wanted to think.”

Head pillowed on Met’s bony thigh, Peters craned his neck up. “Oh?”

Met was staring directly at the sun. It shouldn’t even be possible for him to do that. “I knew you belonged with us from the beginning. It just didn’t seem fair – I was angry I had to trade my mother for you.”

Peters closed his eyes, remembering having Met inside him. He still did, in a sense and licked the taste from his teeth. “It wasn’t a trade.”

Met sighed. “No?”

“We’re not preserving equilibrium,” Peters said. People who broke the nature of the world didn’t have enough left inside them to keep living after they had discharged their purpose. No wonder Rochelle hadn’t begged. She had played the limit of her part. But there would be growth, when for so long there had just been static. “I’m yours for as long as you’ll have me, but it wasn’t an exchange.”

“So what was it?” Met asked.

Peters looked at the sky and for a fleeting moment tried to patch together his few memories of the moon. He sat up on his elbows to look at the creator of the desert and handed him his key. “The sun came up.”


Notes

Thanks to the usual suspects – beeblebabe, relvetica, and especially ladysisyphus who actually solved the riddle of Met’s name for me so I didn’t have to. And a special thank you to dacoise for the beautiful art.

The title is the name of an Egyptian city of which Sekhmet was the patron goddess.

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