by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
“There’s no flipping way,” one of the girls said, voice low but carrying, “that she’s the chosen one.”
Bent in half, hands on thighs, lungs heaving, Alice couldn’t help but think the girl had a point. She watched a bead of sweat drop through her field of focus and blur down into the grass.
“You don’t know that,” another said. “It’s not like we’re going to have to outrun them.”
“Good, because there’s no way–”
“Good job, everybody.” Signy, one of the volunteers orchestrating this…thing…came up behind Alice, her voice good-humored enough that it was clear she hadn’t heard the exchange. “That’s all we’ve got scheduled for this afternoon. Dinner’s in half an hour; you’re free until then.” There was a cheer from the back of the group–Alice wasn’t the only one who’d struggled with that last kilometre–and rising conversation. She watched as a tide of running shoes, custom-printed high-performance sports trainers, Community-issue hemp canvas slip-ons and a few pairs of the laminated paper art flats worn by the rebellious and fashionable drifted by her on the grass.
“You going to be all right?” Signy asked cheerfully.
“Fine.” Alice straightened, and winced at the throb in her right knee, which despite all the walking and gardening Alice did hadn’t been happy about going above a trot for more than a decade. It served her right for being foolish enough to try keeping up with these children.
“None of this is mandatory, you know,” Signy said.
“I know.” Alice wiped perspiration from her upper lip with the side of her thumb.
“You don’t have to push yourself when we don’t even know what we should be pushing towards.”
Alice lifted sweat-sticky hair off the back of her neck. “Do I really look that bad?”
“Not at all.” Laugh lines deepened around Signy’s lips and eyes when she grinned. “Do you know one of the reasons the old Earth military had training drills?”
“To make them better at following orders?” She’d heard a lot more about the traditions of warrior cultures in the last few months than she’d ever expected to, including the bizarre convention of doing what you were told without taking the time to mull over what you were getting into.
“To keep the soldiers from drinking and gambling and getting into non-military-approved fights all day.” Signy nodded towards the Hearth building, where a few of the girls who had declined the five-kay run were hanging around the doors; there seemed to be a lot of whooping and shoving. “What else are we going to do with a bunch of wound-up, cooped-up youngsters waiting for a chance to save the world?”
“Tire them out,” Alice said fervently. It didn’t seem possible that there had been talking all night, every night, but every time she’d gotten up to use the washroom at three a.m., there certainly had been.
“Exactly. At least until we have something to aim them at.”
“Or know which of us to aim.”
“Presuming the prophecy isn’t entirely non-compostable trash.”
Alice had her own complicated thoughts about that, starting with the fact that the prophesying First Founders had all been legendarily bonkers from oxygen deprivation and heading through prophecy, my bony old ass on the way to um, actually… According to the First Founders, weird things happened on Raogata that hadn’t on Earth, and she wasn’t here because she’d seen the news in her ticker and didn’t have anything better to do. What she said, though, was, “I guess we’ll find out.”
Mioja’s Community Hearth spread like a fan back from the lawn, its thermal mass of stone supporting the bamboo-beamed, cathedral-roofed meeting hall and three stepped storeys of light-filled rooms. At this time of the afternoon, the third floor was a kaleidoscope of clatter and activity. Several of the girls had folded their walls back to form larger chambers, or just left them open to the common room, or both; things were being shouted across the open space, or thrown from doorway to doorway. Two translucent music spheres floated in the corridor, one flashing metallic silver in time to chimes, the other whirling pink and orange to accompanying violins. Alice reminded herself that they probably found her generation’s music as grating as she found theirs insipid and it was none of her business how other people spent their charge ration, and shut her door behind her.
She looked longingly at her bed, knowing that if she gave into the temptation to lie down she’d nap through dinner and feel like retted hemp the next day. Instead she shucked her damp clothes and got into her robe, and went to check how many hot showers were still available. The counter showed plenty; most of the crowd were good kids, no matter how out of step she felt with them.
The dinner tone sounded while Alice was still towelling dry her hair. By the time she dressed and made it downstairs, the line had thinned out and small groups were sorting themselves out at the tables. Of course they weren’t the only ones staying at the Hearth. There was the usual smattering of people temporarily and/or chronically down on their luck, and normally there would be budget tourists, although the current situation had put a damper on a lot of travel, but it was easy to tell who was here because of the prophecy. Mostly girls, with a handful of boys–swaggering and defiant, or quietly resolute–and at least one who had declared for a different team altogether. Young, and very young. New girls came in every day or two, and apparently some had already weeded themselves out and gone home, but some basic and eternal categories had emerged: the clothes horses, the drama kids, the science crew, the artists, the athletes. Alice caught sight of Signy’s fair hair at a table with no spare seats. She herself hadn’t latched onto any set yet. After so long on her own, sociability was proving an unexpected effort.
She sat down at the end of a table and stirred the drizzle of chili-and-garlic oil into her bowl of fish, rice and chopped greens. Community Hearth food was designed to be nutritious, filling and inoffensive to a variety of tastes, but there was always an extensive array of condiments set out in jars, and the daily sameness of the meals was more than made up for by the fact that she wasn’t the one who had to cook them.
She felt the gaze of one of the girls at the other end of the table, and turned to nod at her. Keiko, Katy, something like that?
“I like your hair,” the girl said.
“Thanks.” Alice had had pretty much the same haircut since her twenties, an inverted bob that tolerated being ignored for varying lengths of time when she had other things to think about. She’d kept up the dyed stripes, old-fashioned as they were, just because she liked them; currently they were a narrow streak each of purple, pink and green down the right side of her head, the hues more vivid than they’d been in the past to stand out from the grey. The girl’s haircut was much the same, though sharper, and her stripes were red. Her clothing was what was called vintage these days, long ruched sleeves and a multi-loop bow tie, everything showing wear on the edges, meaning they were probably not newly printed.
“I’m Kimiko,” the girl said. Alice introduced herself.
A second girl leaned forward from beside Kimiko. Long-faced and sharp-nosed, she was dressed in baggy clothing in one of the Community-issue styles, except for a long, skinny knitted scarf of many stripes wrapped infinite times around her neck. “So why do you think the visitors are here?”
There were as many theories as colours in the girl’s scarf. “No idea,” Alice said, and then, because that sounded terse, “I’m not sure we’ll ever find out.”
“But see we should totally ask them,” the girl said, “because we’re pretty sure they understand us, remember there was that thing with the dog, maybe they need like loudspeakers or speech synthesizers or whatever to talk back or maybe a translation bauble–”
The third one in their group, a big girl who had pushed her tray aside to draw in a paper notebook, shook her head. “Maybe they’re not about words. Maybe they’re artists, and they’re travelling to find inspiration.”
“Or musicians,” Kimiko said.
“Okay but what if–”
Alice ate, listening with half an ear. The conversation was lively enough, but she kept spacing out. The run must have tired her out more than she thought. It wasn’t until she was taking her tray back to the servery that the nagging sensation coalesced into awareness. The visitors were back.
She walked over to the wall that displayed a large paper map of the planet’s constellations of islands. Crimson pins marked the spots where the visitors had already appeared, the western atoll, the fertile fields of Elska, the Dreifa Hjarta rocky desert that would be under terraforming for a century yet. Her attention was pulled upwards. North? North-west. There, at the far reaches of Sykur Teninger, where the archipelago dribbled out into the sea like strung beads of bare rock.
She hit the link button someone had installed underneath the map, and the ticker feed, set to gather mentions of the visitors, sprang up to augment it. Over Sykur Teninger hung empty air. If the visitors emerged at a place where no one was there to record them, would anyone but her ever know?
Half an hour later, Alice sat and watched the feed with the rest of the girls as the visitors emerged as if out of a fog that wasn’t there, and stomped and trampled their way across rock and shallow sea. Apparently there was a research station up there, something about hot springs or permafrost or some other temperature extreme; Alice hadn’t listened closely, absorbed by the sight of the visitors rolling aside boulders, ripping sparse ferny trees from the clefts they clung to, pouring waterfalls of ice and sea and native amphipods from their massive cupped hands.
“That’s a new one,” someone said beside her.
Alice turned to see a dark-skinned young woman squinting up at the feed. Lina? No, Lisbet. She had a screen of her own, a good one, in projection mode on the tabletop, and was flicking her fingers through the swirls of data in front of her without even looking.
“The one with the pink… crest thing?” Alice asked.
“Yes. That’s the first new one in the last three visits.” A rose-coloured ribbon blossomed in the river of her data.
People had named them, of course, starting with the Nihonjin community in the west where they had first appeared, then others. Aka-chan, Kitsune, Spider, Alfur, Aoi-kao. Animals and creatures from folklore, ridiculous nicknames for beings so large. If they were alive at all. Parts of them looked assembled, parts of them looked grown, and though they were all distinct they shared what might or might not be species characteristics: blocky shoulders, flexible joints, armoured surfaces. Robots, or engineered biomass, or cyborgs, or receivers for consciousnesses stored elsewhere, or small and fragile creatures who constructed carapaces around themselves with what they found, like gigantic hermit crabs. Aside from the damage they did and countless hours of footage, there was no further evidence for their nature; they left nothing of themselves behind to study.
With the ticker feed looping around to show the same images again for the umpteenth time, Alice watched Lisbet’s data spiralling instead. Science or art, she couldn’t tell, but it was mesmerizing.
“What do you think they’re here for?” Lisbet asked, patting the roil of colours as if she were trying to sculpt smoke.
“Not a clue. What do you think they’re here for?”
“We don’t have enough data to know.” Lisbet let her hands fall. “Their actions aren’t inconsistent with people looking for something in particular. Maybe they’re scientists.”
Alice supposed one could describe the visitors’ indiscriminate, destructive curiosity as looking for something. “Is that your working hypothesis?”
Lisbet chewed on a thumbnail. “I haven’t decided yet.”
The next morning, Blaer said, as they took turns desultorily breaking one another’s wrist holds, “Do you think they’re here to invade us?”
Alice stuck her arm out; Blaer braceleted it with a bony hand. “They haven’t done anything violent against people yet.” Property, certainly; crops flattened or uprooted, roofs lifted off of houses and sheds as if they were treasure boxes. There had been some high waves the times the visitors had come from the deeper ocean–which hadn’t seemed to affect them one bit–and a rock slide up in Falio, which had changed the coastline but not damaged the small fishing community on the other side of the island. So far, the visitors had only been seen in wilderness preserves, wind and food farms, sparsely populated outposts. Whether that was by design or chance, no one knew. What would happen when they emerged on top of one of the cities?
Alice pulled against Blaer’s thumb, and they released her immediately. “Does anyone think we’re going to be doing hand-to-hand combat?” Blaer held their wrist out as if Alice were going to take their pulse.
“Of course not.” No one had tried to fight the visitors at all yet; there had been a lot of discussion about whether or when to deploy the few weapons Raogata’s First Founders hadn’t prohibited, stun guns and fairy dust and molly balloons, things that caused confusion and in some cases elation, but no real pain or harm. A few of the Planetary Jury had suggested negotiating with other planets for real weapons, but there was a sizeable and vocal majority that had squelched that immediately. Some even suggested that the chosen one’s role was not to fight the visitors but to protect the Peace in a time of severe provocation. As First Founder Mitra Arnardottir had legendarily written, We can’t stop people from being idiots, but we can stop them from being murderous idiots on a planetary scale.
“Then this is silly.” Blaer linked their fingers and stretched their palms towards the rafters of the Hearth’s gymnasium.
“I think they’re just trying to expose us to as many different ideas as they can,” Alice said. “We don’t know exactly what the chosen one is supposed to do.”
“Or if there even is one.” Blaer shook out their fingers. “I mean, I’m here because I couldn’t stop watching the feeds. Does that mean I’m the chosen one? Is that what it feels like? Is that what it felt like for you, when you decided to come here?”
It had felt like one end of a rope tied around her spine and the other around a slow winch hauling her with gentle inexorability in the direction of Mioja. She’d fought it for days–she had seedlings to water and harden off and transplant, sections of drystone wall to restack, a roof that needed another coat of solar paint and a shed that was sagging worryingly at one corner–until finally, in the middle of one night, she’d thrown some clothing and a comb into a bag and paced her kitchen floor until she could catch the first tram of the day in the direction of the city.
From the other side of the room, one of the organizers raised her voice. “Does anyone here have any first aid training? Anyone?” On the floor beside her, a girl held a bloody wad of soft paper underneath her nose.
“I felt like I was needed,” Alice said, and went to show her where to pinch her nose to stop the bleeding.
At dinner, Signy pulled out the chair opposite her and sat down. “I hear you saved the day in hand-to-hand,” she said, shaking a thick blanket of furikake over her sweet potatoes.
“I keep my certification up.” Alice accepted the offered shaker. “If the instructor were doing that, she wouldn’t have needed me.”
“She was a last-minute replacement. Shiori had to go deal with a work emergency, but she should be back in a few days.”
“Why, what does she do?”
“She’s a senior economist with the Jury.” Signy laughed at Alice’s expression. “She told me that if she didn’t get to teach people to throw one another at the floor in her spare time, she’d have lost her mind years ago.”
“I can imagine. What do you do, when you’re not doing this?” Alice circled her spoon, indicating the lively dining hall.
“Draw pictures. You?”
“I used to be a teacher. I took time off when my partner was ill, and after…” Alice shrugged. “I think I just lost the energy for it. Or the patience, maybe. I raise vegetables in my Community Hearth’s market gardens, and last year I got a grant from the land bank to plant a small orchard.”
“I grew up on a farm out in Elska,” Signy said. “It’s not something you can do without energy or patience.”
Alice nodded to acknowledge the point. “But it’s peaceful. And I like being outdoors.” And it was therapeutic to be able to see her work through to the harvest.
The next day was lessons in chess, another thing Alice had no patience for and never had. After fifteen minutes she slipped out of the room and went for a walk down to the nearest konbini and back, just to get some air. When she felt the visitors come through, she dropped the crisp tail of her taiyaki and ran the last two blocks to the meeting hall and the map.
Live footage began to appear almost instantly from up near Nordurfjordur. Aoi-kao, Alfur, others that Alice didn’t remember the names of, kicking over stone walls like children on a delighted rampage through a snowbank, sending turf and boulders spraying across the pastures. And a great many of the planet’s strictly regulated quota of sheep, which, it quickly turned out, weren’t to be as lucky as the famous dog. The visitors plucked them up, tossed them to one another, examined their bodies with clumsy fingers. At least one disappeared into what was probably a mouth, only to emerge again in an unfortunate state. Another was cuddled to a broad, spiked chest, only to be put back down gently, motionless, a minute later. Alice could hear muffled and shouted commentary from the citizens capturing the footage at a safe distance–and one looking through a window at a distance that wasn’t safe at all, his camera shaking so badly that it made her dizzy–but it all blended together, screams and crashes and the wind hissing against microphones, and then they were gone.
“They must be here for food,” one of the girls said later, waving a skewer of dango around for emphasis.
“Wait, aren’t they robots?”
“No, they aren’t. Are they?”
“Even if they are, they must need to fuel up somehow–”
“I’ll tell you what I need,” Signy said in Alice’s ear, as she dropped down sideways onto the bench, “and that is the company of people more than half my age, and also a drink. How about you?”
They walked towards the commercial centre of town. The sun was low, so that they were in twilight, but the cloudless sky glowed rose and violet and azure above them. At the outdoor market, the solar lights bobbed colourfully from posts and trees, and most of the stalls were still open. They detoured to buy ponnukokur rolled around hemp skyr and jam, and wandered desultorily around looking at soaps and paper and preserves and Community-issue clothing modified in politically provocative ways.
A streak of pink caught Alice’s eye, and she backtracked to a stall stacked with colourful tableware painted with popular anime characters and representations of song lyrics. It was the new visitor, the one with the crest, dancing on the edge of a soup bowl. On a mug next to it, kawaii versions of Kitsune and Spider held hands and exchanged a chaste kiss.
“People.” Alice shook her head.
“Are fascinating? Mysterious? Able to survive by sublimating their fears through creative expression?”
“…out of their minds.” It wasn’t just crockery; over the past month she’d seen the visitors rendered as cartoonish knitted hats, on trading cards, as pendants, on pillowcases. She hadn’t seen them in porn, because she hadn’t gone looking, but she was reasonably certain it existed, because it had to.
“I know I am.” Signy licked a sticky blot of jam from her thumb. “I came here to work with the girls because doing something is the only thing that prevents me from spending all day shrieking in terror. If a cartoon monster could make me feel better, I’d be all over that.”
Alice felt herself go a little red. “I’m sorry, you’re right,” she said, and then, as further apology, “Buy you that drink?”
They had plenty more motivation to seek out the blurring respite of a drink or two in the next few weeks, as visitors came through in the agricultural centre of Midoritown, the writer’s colony of Skaldsaga Havaer, and the outskirts of a few southern manufacturing towns. The visitors were coming closer to the populated areas now, whether by design or chance or their own shifting reasons. Part of the old historic tram line in Skrimsli, the only one that still had actual tracks, got torn up, pulled from the ground like a loose thread from an unravelling sweater. Several people in Midoritown lost their homes, the traditional stacked cubes modelled after the First Founders’ prefab survival units, when black-and-white Nattmara picked some up and shook them like dice. Aka-chan plundered an outdoor kiln yard, dropping sturdy crocks and platters by handfuls onto the adjacent stone patio, apparently just to hear the smash.
“Now they’re just breaking shit,” Keiko said, aggrieved.
“Maybe they don’t want anything,” Alice said.
Lisbet shook her head. “Invaders always want something.”
“If there really is a chosen one,” a girl named Yma said, twisting her long braid around her fingers, “why doesn’t she know?”
Alice recognized her voice from the aftermath of the five-kay run, and left the table before she said something sharp. She was in a cranky mood anyway; that morning she’d gotten a message from her Community Hearth. If she wasn’t going to plant before the end of the week, the Hearth Jury said, she should have the courtesy to let them know so the land could be granted to someone else this year, and what were her plans for the orchard, if she wasn’t going to be around?
Alice was more than ready to go home. She wanted to do right by her tomato seedlings, which she’d nursed through the fickle spring weather; she wanted her own bed, her own schedule, her own indifferent cooking. But every time she thought of leaving, a fist tightened in her gut, so forceful and unexpected that, rationality be screwed, she had little trouble believing it was imposed from outside herself.
“I don’t even know what I’m here for,” she complained to Signy, glowering at the sunset from their habitual bar’s patio.
“And how’s that new?”
“I mean why I’m here.” Alice’s drink wet the rim of her glass as she gestured at the view. “I’m not doing anything. I’m not really learning anything. Why is it so important that I’m here?”
“Maybe the chosen one isn’t here to fight. Maybe she’s just here to…I don’t know, bear witness?”
“What an awful idea.” Alice took a sip of her lemon chuhai, and on consideration followed it with a gulp.
“Eh, we all go eventually.” Signy waved at the barkeep for their third round. “Anything you want to do before it happens?”
It wasn’t a new thought. She and Michiko had talked about it a lot–about travelling, about checking off a list of all the things they’d never gotten around to–but in the end they’d mostly just spent time with one another, talking, reading, Michiko making her art as long as she’d been able to, in the home they’d built together.
“Not really,” Alice said. “You?”
“There are things I wouldn’t mind trying.”
The smile on Signy’s face was such that when they were walking home much later and Signy’s hand came up to rest on the small of Alice’s back, she wasn’t surprised. The midnight lullaby of the public address system came on, announcing that the Community-run streetlights and the art lightworks in the parks were about to be turned off, and when shadows enveloped them a few minutes later, Alice took a half-step closer to her and pulled her to a stop with a hand on her hip. Signy bent her head, and they kissed, slow but not tentative. They walked back to the Hearth with their arms around each other’s waists.
The bamboo walls of Signy’s room were folded up to make it a single, and blanketed with drawings on paper: detailed coloured representations of ordinary objects interspersed with words, an apple on an upturned kintsugi-mended bowl with nothing is ever truly broken in an arc around it, a fan of people’s hands that gradually turned into tarot cards surrounded by star and hanged and strength.
“They remind me of rebuses,” she said, looking closer at a quill pen balanced on a bird’s nest.
“Mmm.” Signy swept aside the hair at the back of Alice’s neck and kissed her hairline. Alice pressed back against her as Signy slipped hands under her sweater.
They undressed one another, kissing in between fumbling with buttons and ties. Under her loose layers of athletic wear, Signy was a picture of anyone who’d ever gone viking, tall and blonde and ample-breasted in sea-turquoise bra and briefs, and Alice felt briefly like a drab sparrow in her Community-issue singlet. But Signy’s thumb, then her tongue, against a nipple pushed that aside, and the sound Signy made when Alice worked a fingertip under the elastic of her briefs and slowly pushed them off her hips drowned it out completely.
They stood bare and kissing until the cool of the room chased them under the bed’s thick quilt. Signy wriggled onto her back and pulled Alice half on top of her.
“No fair, I only have one hand this way,” Alice protested, propping herself up on an elbow and sliding her free hand down Signy’s side to demonstrate.
“Fair,” Signy countered. She put her hands under Alice’s ass and boosted her up her body, mouth meeting her breast again, and Alice arched her back and conceded the point.
They moved against one another, caressing with hands and mouths. Alice slid her hand down, dipped it between Signy’s legs. Signy thrust her hips up against the heel of Alice’s hand. Alice found her clit and circled, and Signy tensed as she gasped.
“Like that?” Alice asked, spiralling her fingertip out and back, stroking it through Signy’s slickness.
“Yeah.” Signy cupped one hand over Alice’s breast and moved the other down. “Um, is there anything else you’d like me to be doing?”
“Shush, and kiss me more.”
After a time, Signy shuddered. “Oh hell, wait, wait.” Alice withdrew her hand. Signy took a deep breath. “I’m close, but I like to finish this way better.” She tugged Alice over her again, so that Alice’s leg was between hers, and tightened her thighs around it. “Okay?”
Signy rolled up against her, and Alice slid a hand under her ass, pressing their bodies closer together. Signy arched back against the pillow, eyes half-closed, chasing the end now, breathing harshly in rhythm with her hips. Then she caught her breath; her back bowed and she cried out wildly, and again, the third time trailing down into a moan, the fourth a vibrating sigh. Someone probably heard that, Alice thought, and felt a shiver of heat.
Signy settled relaxed and pliant under her. “Mmm. That was a good one.” She brushed a lock of hair back from Alice’s face. “What can I do for you?”
In the past, Alice had found grinding to be entirely satisfactory, but menopause had done a number on a few things. She caught Signy’s hand and pulled it downwards. Signy slid her fingers over Alice’s clit and further, stroked back up. “I happen to have some lube in my bedside table.”
“Yeah?” That was something Alice hadn’t brought with her from home, not that she’d had opportunity to miss it. “Got any ideas about what to do with it?”
“Oh, you know. Slick you up, get you wet, get you off. That kind of thing.”
Alice inhaled sharply. “Let’s get right on that, then.”
She rolled onto her back as Signy stretched out a long arm and snagged a bottle from a shelf built into the wall behind the bed. Signy popped the cap, and the scent of vanilla filled the room.
“At least it’s not roses,” Signy said, and Alice grinned until Signy trailed fingers down her belly and rubbed a slippery fingertip over her clit, and then she had something else to think about.
And it felt good, it did, as much to have the warmth of another body in a long line against hers as the excitement of someone else’s hand on her. But as enjoyable as it was, the peak was elusive, as if she’d taken a wrong turn somewhere, and after a time Alice sighed. “That’s nice, but I don’t think it’s going to happen for me tonight.”
Signy kissed her lightly. “You’d know better than me. But would a toy help?”
“It might,” Alice said cautiously. Signy reached for the shelf again and produced something the size of her smallest finger, glazed red as a ripe pomegranate.
“That’s not–is that–”
Signy grinned. “A friend of mine makes them.” Alice seized her wrist and brought it closer to where she could focus on what Signy held. Aka-chan, rather more bombshellesque than usual, winked at her. “She’s pretty cute, no?”
“You think Aka-chan is a girl?”
“I hope she is, because I don’t do boys.” Signy twisted the bottom of the vibe, below the statuesque figure’s chunky pumps, and it began to emit a soothing harmonic. “So?”
Alice was still keyed up enough to want to try. “Sure.”
“Excellent.” Signy drew a buzzing line between her breasts. “So lie back and let’s see if we can make you come as hard as I did.”
Alice made a small sound at that, and Signy trailed the vibe down her body and between her legs. She stroked slowly, teasing, stopping and starting, letting Alice’s body get used to the sensation of need, and when Alice came it was with a sharp pulse followed by a long, slow wave of pleasure that rolled through her and took with it, for a time, all the frustrations of the past weeks.
That peace was fragmented the next morning at breakfast, when the visitors appeared south-west of Mioja. Alice didn’t even have to look at the map; the knowledge keened in her like high-pitched static.
She watched the feeds knowing and dreading what she’d see. Her own Community Hearth, not as large or as grand as Mioja’s, a comfortably shabby building for a modest suburban town. The stone outline of the walking labyrinth scattered into formless gravel by metal feet; the flags and garlands swept into the mud by a scaled tail; the picnic shelter deconstructed stalk by stalk like a massive game of pick-up sticks.
Then, so familiar that it gave her an electric jolt, the Hearth market gardens, furred with the green of new growth. Gummi and Spider raced each other across the open space with thunderous enthusiasm, smearing bean shoots and rows of ruffled lettuce into the loam. At the east end was the orchard, separating the market gardens from the new residential district beyond. The visitors stopped and gawked at the trees, some still in bloom, some speckled with tiny green fruit. Then they bent and began to pick them like flowers.
Alice’s eye went to her own small patch, the trees barely larger around than the stakes that supported them. “Not my cherries,” she pleaded. She hadn’t been able to afford established ones, so they were young and spindly; most were barely blossoming, and wouldn’t begin to bear for years yet. But Spider yanked them up, sniffing, chewing, casting aside.
“Not my pears.” That was where she’d put her money, real heritage nashi pears that had come with pedigrees and registration numbers. Gummi stripped them of branches like a sprig of thyme stripped for the teapot.
“They’re coming into more populated areas now,” Signy observed. “What the hell do they want?”
Not exploration, not learning, not conquest; nothing but gleeful destruction, it seemed, to plunder thoughtlessly and move on, like gigantic toddlers with no one to rein them in. “I don’t give a damn,” Alice said shortly, and narrowed her eyes.
When the visitors came to Mioja, it was just after dawn. Alice was out of bed and pulling her shirt on with adrenaline-clumsy hands before she realized that the Hearth was silent and that the alarm was something she was feeling, not hearing. She was dressed and almost to the front door before the public address system began sounding the three-chime emergency alert, the euphonic tones echoing through the stillness.
Internal sense certain and insistent, Alice pelted in the direction of the market. “Stay alert for further instructions,” the recorded voice of the p.a. said soothingly. “Check in with your neighbours. Ready your survival kits for evacuation.”
Trees and buildings blocked her view, but not her other senses. She could hear, not the traffic and gentle bustle of the early commute, but something deeper and louder.
“Remain under shelter. Stay off the streets until given further instructions,” the p.a. system intoned, as Alice reached the arch of the bridge that led to the town centre and had an unobstructed view down to the open space of the market.
They all seemed to be there this time. Alfur had gotten a string of lights wound around its ankle and was trying to shake them away, bringing down the cloth roofs of surrounding stalls in the process. Aoi-kao was waving a tray of cinnamon buns, either amused or upset by the fact that the buns were sticking to it, the tray barely the size of its thumb. At the side of the square, the colour wheel light sculpture emitted a cascade of sparks as Spider tore it out of the ground, and a crystalline smash as Spider dropped it again. A stream of people was sprinting up the road towards the bridge, most not wasting breath in screaming; Alice recognized the cinnamon bun seller.
“Stay alert for further instructions. Check in with your–holy shit,” said another voice, breaking into the recording. “Yeah, they’re in the market. Calling all members of the Emergency Response Committee to the market.”
Alice stepped to one side of the road, ceding the centre to those fleeing in panic, and made her way towards the square. Kitsune was further down one of the spoke-like roads heading out of the market, head visible above the roofline; Alice couldn’t see what it was doing, but heard a rhythmic thumping ending in a splintering crash.
Flattened against the side of a building at the entrance to the square was a short, round man wearing an orange Emergency Response Committee vest flung over a nightshirt and thermal underwear. “Uh, don’t come by the western road,” he said as she passed him, and Alice had the disorienting experience of hearing his voice both live beside her and amplified across the public address system. “Repeat, the western road is impassable.”
“What’s the plan?” Alice asked, and he flicked a distracted look at her.
“Your plan is getting the fuck out of here.” His words reverberated around the square, and he winced. “Citizens, ignore that last bit. Shelter in place and await instructions.” He lowered the transmitter from his mouth. “Fuck.”
“I’m from the Community Hearth,” Alice said. “The girls. You know.”
“Yeah? Well, hey, prophecy or not, I’m up for suggestions,” he said, rubbing his balding hairline. “My training’s in paramedical services and social dynamics. What do I do when invading robots trash our market square? Fucked if I know.”
Alice felt much the same. The urgency still pounded inside her, clamorous and distracting, making it hard to think. Across the market square, Aka-chan had started peeling the heritage solar tiles off the dome of the theatre.
“Is anyone in the theatre?” the man said into his transmitter. “Vacate if you are, repeat, if you are in the theatre, get the fuck out now!”
According to the plaque in front of the building, the theatre was original to the First Founders’ time, a geodesic almost-sphere built with obsolete nanotech. Unique and irreplaceable. And a baffling invader from an unknown world was pulling it apart as if they were reclaiming the bamboo from a rickety garden shed.
Outrage billowed up in Alice, anger and frustration and exasperation, laid to rest over the last six weary years but not, it seemed, gone. Love and choose and build a life, and watch random chance hollow it out and leave you bereft. Struggle alone against entropy, rebuild a new life, a garden, an orchard, only to have them taken from you by careless oversized children who have no idea how much effort it is to build rather than demolish.
“I have had enough,” she said under her breath. She seized the transmitter from the man’s hand. She heard him squeak, but ignored him, striding along the side of the square to where Aka-chan was wringing a solar panel until it shattered in a discordant arpeggio.
“You!” she said sharply into the transmitter, pointing up at the face twenty feet above her. “Just what exactly do you think you’re doing?”
Aka-chan swung its head as if trying to locate the source of the noise, and started to pry another panel off the roof.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you!” Alice felt her dressing-down voice, neglected for years and rarely used even before, effortlessly surge back full throttle. “Who told you you could touch that?”
Aka-chan’s broad red head tilted downwards towards her.
“Do you think those panels grow on trees?” Alice demanded, hearing her voice boosted across the square and down the streets. “Which you also destroyed! Do you know how much work people have put into preserving this building? And then you come along and take it apart as though you think it’s there just for you to destroy!”
Alfur had stopped stamping his lighted-up foot and was turning towards her. Spider took a step closer to her, eight spindly arms waving uncertainly.
“It’s not just here. Everywhere you’ve arrived, you’ve ruined things people have worked hard to build. Their homes, their gardens. Not to mention what you did to the poor sheep. Were you born in a barn? Have some consideration for others!”
Kitsune had crept back down the road to the entrance to the square. In one furry hand it held a cluster of splinter-edged beams; now it placed them on an adjacent roof and patted them gently. Spider appeared to be hanging its head.
“If that’s how you’re going to behave, you’re not welcome here,” Alice said sternly. “Get out. Go home and think about what you’ve done. And don’t come back until you know how to behave yourselves!”
A sound came from Aka-chan’s throat, high and hesitant, like the warm-up drone on a bamboo sho.
“I don’t want to hear it,” Alice said. “Go on, go!”
Aoi-kao gave a wail that sounded like nothing so much as a distraught toddler. The visitors shuffled a little in place, and then they faded as if eclipsed by clouds and were gone.
“I should think so,” Alice said, mostly to herself. She trudged back up the street to the Emergency Response man. He flinched as she held out the transmitter for him to take. “Where around here sells good coffee at this hour?” He held out an unsteady hand, pointing, and Alice marched in that direction. She was more of a tea drinker, but being up this early called for something with more of a kick to it. And there weren’t even any cinnamon buns left. The visitors had a lot to answer for.
“What will you do now?” Signy asked, shifting her bare arm so that there was room for Alice to snuggle up beside her on the bed. “What do you want to do?”
“There’s still time to get some seeds in the ground.” Her tomato plants would be a little leggy, but not beyond hope. Plenty of people in the garden would be replanting now, and she was pretty certain she could handle the Hearth Jury if they tried to tell her again that she’d have to forfeit her plot.
“What will your public do without you?”
“Ugh.” Waiting for the flood of fascination with her to dry up was why she hadn’t gone home yet; when she finally got back there, she wanted to be able to enjoy some peace and quiet. Not strangers offering to buy her coffee and a cinnamon bun, not people gleefully calling Were you born in a barn? after her and applauding, not girls begging her to autograph various body parts. One had even threatened to have it tattooed in place before the ink faded. As a tribute, Alice almost preferred the trading card and the painted dishware, though she was pretty sure she’d never looked that good awake that early in her life, and as a symbol of her victory, she’d have preferred, say, a pear tree in bloom over a public address transmitter. “If the visitors come back, somebody else can deal with them.”
“Do you think they will?”
“I hope not.” Alice yawned and stretched. “I’m too old for this shit.”
“Oh, you are not. In fact, I bet you’re ready for round two.”
“It sounds like someone is.” Alice fumbled under the pillows, and managed to locate the Aka-chan vibe before it rolled off the bed and onto the floor.
“Be careful with that, it’s a collector’s item,” Signy said lazily, pushing the sheet off their bodies.
“Let’s make good use of it, then,” Alice said, and they did.