The only way forward was through blood.
Colton sat on the wagon’s seat behind his two horses, his boots resting on the armored footboard. For the last few days he’d guided the day-fellow caravan along the dirt road through the mountainous forest. The road varied as the caravan traveled—sometimes overgrown, sometimes little more than an animal path, sometimes gently sloping as if the land welcomed their presence. The thick canopy of ancient beech and maple trees splashed perpetual twilight across the hills and valleys around them.
Every now and again Colton saw wagon tracks from another caravan ahead. Several times the caravan passed snags and limbs pushed off the road. Now they stopped before a massive fallen beech tree as thick as Colton stood tall. The fallen tree showed scorch marks from the laser used to cut the trunk and clear the road.
Mita, who drove the second wagon and served as the caravan’s warden, inspected the cut tree with Colton. She sniffed the laser’s lingering acid scent.
“The burn marks are fresh,” Mita said. “They’re only a few hours ahead of us.”
“Stupid to use a laser,” Colton said. “That’ll draw the grains’ attention.”
“Quiet,” Mita said, glancing around as if she could see the microscopic grains within the land. “Talking of this will jinx our travels.”
“Our caravan didn’t use the laser,” Colton protested. “The grains know the difference.”
“Drop it!” Mita snapped. She then sighed and shook her head. “Sorry. But you know everyone else will shit if they hear you talking boneheaded stuff like this.”
Anyone else in the caravan would have been insulted by Mita’s words, but Colton knew she was right. He didn’t understand how day-fellows saw the world. To him there were no jinxes. There were merely the grains, the microscopic machines which protected all the lands and existed in every animal and plant and insect and anchor. If the grains judged you wrong—decided you’d harmed the environments they protected—you were dead, jinx or no jinx.
Still, he’d been with these day-fellows the last eight years and had learned not to debate their beliefs. He also appreciated that Mita always used polite words such as ‘different’ to refer to him, instead of the terms the other day-fellows whispered behind his back.
Words like disturbed; sick; psychopath.
Mita, who stood a span taller than him and wore nano-reinforced leather armor and a sheathed short sword, punched him gently in the arm. Like everyone else in the caravan, she was wary of placing too much trust in someone as damaged as he was. However, she also really liked Colton in a weird way. He assumed this was partly because at twenty-one he was only a year younger than her and there were no others their age in the caravan. But mostly he suspected Mita liked him because of his willingness to drive the lead wagon instead of her.
After all, when anchors attacked caravans, the lead driver died first.
“You sense anything strange ahead of us?” Mita asked.
“Not sure,” Colton whispered. He reached with his mind to the remaining grains in his body. The tiny machines in his blood were severely damaged, unable to give him power and strength like when he’d been an anchor. But through them he still accessed the data—the memories—with which this land’s grains spoke to one another. “The grains here are calm. But the next land is... disturbed. Those grains act as if something’s wrong. But they aren’t sharing what’s happening there with any neighboring lands.”
“Is that where Elder Vácha is predicting the veil will appear?”
“Maybe. Can’t rightly say.”
Mita cursed softly as she glanced at the wagons behind them. Families stretched their legs during the stop and kids ran after one another in an impromptu game of hide and seek. The armored shutters and doors on the caravan’s ten wagons lay open to allow in the breeze while rooftop solar collectors deployed to catch what sunlight filtered through the forest’s green-leaf haze.
“I hope Elder Vácha is right about this gathering veil being worth the risk,” Mita muttered. “This road tastes like death. Like the land’s making it easy so we’ll ride willingly into a trap.”
Colton couldn’t argue with her assessment.
After the caravan made camp that night, Colton lay in his bunk inside the wagon. The box-like bunk was built next to the wagon’s armored wall and surrounded on top and bottom and both ends by shelves and communication systems. After he’d joined the day-fellows he’d quickly learned not to sit up suddenly in his bunk unless he wanted to bang his head.
Unable to sleep, he mentally counted over and over the basic emotions he lacked.
Fear. Surprise. Disgust.
He sometimes debated whether surprise and fear were truly separate emotions or merely different shades of the same. The same with anger and disgust. And mixes of these emotions created even more.
But whether there were four basic emotions or six, he felt none of them. He had memories of experiencing them, but the memories were dull, like watching a sunny day through a window so streaked with dirt that dimness swallowed every detail outside.
Around midnight and still unable to sleep, Colton rolled over and looked at Elder Vácha, the caravan leader. She sat on the other side of the wagon before a blue-light display analyzing information on the gathering veil. A number of day-fellow caravans had detected disturbances in the grains indicating an emerging veil, a phenomenon within which the grains’ control would weaken and die. Veils were rare, only happening in a region maybe once a century when, for still unknown reasons, a land’s grains malfunctioned and the tiny machines shut down.
Veils never lasted more than a few months before grains from surrounding lands moved in and reestablished control. Still, this would be a chance for day-fellows to cut wood and mine metals and use forbidden technologies to rebuild their wagons and lives without angering the grains.
After helping triangulate the gathering veil’s location, Elder Vácha had convinced her caravan to go there first to see if the land was safe. She was now transmitting information requests to other caravans in the region. Asking for more details on possible dangers associated with gathering veils. Preparing herself for what was to come.
Colton didn’t understand why Elder Vácha wanted their caravan to go first. He’d have preferred letting another group of day-fellows see if this veil could be safely entered. When he’d asked Elder Vácha about this, she’d said helping others always paid off—there might be a need for their own caravan to one day receive the help of others in return.
Part of him wondered if any of that made a difference. If the emotions of everyone around him really bonded them together or instead only gave the illusion that they cared what happened to each other.
Unable to answer those questions, and finding that the answer didn’t really matter to him, Colton returned to his habit of counting emotions until he drifted to sleep.
After another two days of traveling the forest road they encountered the anchors. Around noon, but a noon dark as night from the massive trees and a punishing storm. Lightning strobed the rain to dots and burned the road with quick bursts of sight.
The caravan would have stopped earlier except they were driving down a large hillside. Mita told Colton to keep going, saying it was better to reach flat ground than to stop on the steep road and risk the wheels washing out and the wagons toppling.
Because of the rain Colton didn’t see the anchors until his wagon was only twenty yards away. There were two-dozen of them, attacking another day-fellow caravan. Likely the caravan that had used the laser on the fallen tree. The heavy rain dimmed the anchors’s glowing eyes and hid their claws. If Colton ignored their massive grain-powered bodies he could almost believe they were as human as him.
Colton tapped the message pad beside him. “We’ve got anchors,” he said, transmitting to all the wagons in his caravan. “I didn’t sense them before. Too much interference from the lightning storm.”
“They angry?” Mita asked from the second wagon. With the heavy rain and Colton’s wagon ahead of her, she couldn’t see the anchors herself.
“They’re attacking the caravan we’ve been following.”
Mita fell silent. None of the other drivers, or the families and kids in the wagons, responded.
“Do I stop?” Colton asked. “Turn us around?”
The question was for Elder Vácha. Day-fellow elders guided their caravans using discussion and respect. However, dealing with attacking anchors was different than deciding which route to take or what to cook for breakfast. This was life and death. Elder Vácha’s decision wouldn’t be contested or challenged by anyone.
The armored shutter behind Colton opened and Elder Vácha leaned out. The sun had long ago baked her face past the wrinkles of old age into a solid leather toughness. But her eyes still showed the spark of the young woman who’d become a day-fellow legend a half century ago when, as a warden, she challenged three anchors to ritual combat to stop them from attacking her caravan. To the surprise of everyone, she not only survived but won.
Elder Vácha and Colton watched the anchors attack the three wagons ahead. Like their caravan, these other wagons were armored boxes riding wheels two yards tall. But the other caravan’s wagons weren’t hardened ceramic like theirs. Instead, Colton saw rusty metal armor with actual rivets. The wagons looked cobbled together from previously destroyed ones, as if the people driving them hadn’t bothered to create anything better.
Only the strongest wagons could withstand an anchor’s onslaught, and the other caravan wasn’t close to that. The attacking anchors no longer looked human, their bodies rippling to massive muscles and height, to silvered fangs and claws. One of the anchors stood twice as tall as the others and towered over the wagons, her long red hair burning actual fire through the rain and her body swollen on the power and fury of her grains. Colton had never seen an anchor this big—even his mother, who’d been incredibly powerful when angry, wouldn’t have come close.
Thankfully, the other anchors looked more normal, standing only half again as tall as Colton. But they were still incredibly strong, their large claws raking apart armored metal like scissors stabbing paper. Around the caravan flew tiny green-glowing fairies pointing here and there, directing the attack.
Colton sensed Elder Vácha’s fear and again wished he could still experience emotions without the grains feeding them to him.
“Do we turn?” Colton asked again.
“They may attack if we flee,” Elder Vácha whispered. “The grains give anchors a strong chase instinct. And turning our wagons on a soaked hill might topple them. Keep going. Steer us off the road to get around them, if you have to. Act as if we’re merely innocent day-fellows passing an unfortunate scene.”
Colton looked at that unfortunate scene. The anchors were now attacking the last wagon in the caravan, having disabled the others and cut the harnesses and tack, freeing the horses. Two anchors, including the one with the flaming red hair, grabbed the wagon’s rear door and ripped it from its armored frame. A woman inside fired a forbidden laser pistol, decapitating the anchor beside the red-haired one. Outraged, the red-haired one slammed a giant fist against the wagon’s side, crashing it over. The anchor leaned into the ripped-open wagon and bit off the woman’s head.
“You know that caravan?” Colton asked.
“Looks like Brother Anderly’s followers, a religious order that split off various caravans a few decades ago over fighting back against the grains. Strange they didn’t transmit to us that they were here.”
An armored shutter opened on the final wagon and a man in a robe and cowl leaned out, firing his own laser at the anchors. He sliced the arm off one before ducking back into the wagon and slamming the shutter closed.
“They’ll be furious about the lasers,” Elder Vácha said. She tapped the message pad beside Colton. “Shut everything down,” she told the caravan. “No power. No electrics. Nothing to enrage them. And everyone keep to hell’s own quiet.”
Each wagon acknowledged Elder Vácha’s transmission and began shutting down. Elder Vácha reached back into their wagon and pulled the master relay. With a loud clunk the power from the kinetic and solar collectors on their wagon stopped powering the wagon’s lights and message pads and other systems.
“Good luck, Colton,” Elder Vácha whispered. “Keep a steady hand.”
Colton nodded as she leaned back into the wagon and shut the armored shutter. Clanks and shudders from inside told him all the doors and windows were now double bolted.
He was truly alone. Which bothered him not a bit.
They were close enough to the battle that Colton smelled blood and shit and anger. The anchors had turned their attention to the second wagon, their massive fists denting the armored metal like a kid punching a muddy road.
So far, the anchors had ignored Colton’s caravan. As he neared the massacre the grains in his body overcame the interference from the lightning and connected with the scene before him. He felt his horses’ grains do the same, with the horses whispering to the anchors that they were also of the land and not worth killing.
The horses were loyal day-fellow steeds, but they had little desire to die if the anchors attacked.
Most day-fellows couldn’t sense the ebb and flow of the grains’ constant communications between all parts of a land, but Colton had been born an anchor. But his mother always hated the control the grains had over their lives. When he was thirteen she overdosed him on a special medicine to damage the tiny machines in his body. He’d had no choice but to join a day-fellow band and travel the world, never stopping in any place more than a few days to avoid the grains turning against their caravan.
Colton passed the first overturned wagon, which had been knocked from the dirt road. That was good because he didn’t want to lead his caravan off the road’s grooved path. While most grains didn’t consider wagons grinding a few wildflowers and grasses into the mud to be environmentally destructive, who knew how these grains might react, with the anchors’ blood up.
A young male anchor sat on the overturned wagon doodling on the dented armor with the severed leg of a day-fellow. He twirled the leg around and around, writing an ‘O’ as if the grains feeding his anger and power were caught in a loop. The anchor looked at Colton and threw a mix of entrails and ripped flesh into the air like party favors at a spring equinox dance.
The horses shivered in fear. Colton waved to the anchor as if he passed scenes like this every day.
The anchor waved back before returning to his bloody doodling.
The day-fellows in the second wagon were all dead. Their wagon partly blocked the road, but Colton was able to guide the horses around without damaging the surrounding forest.
However, the final wagon completely blocked the road. Colton pulled the reins until the horses stopped. He could almost reach out and touch the giant anchor with the long red hair as she attacked the wagon, alongside several other anchors.
The left horse, Butterlove, nickered nervously. “I know,” Colton whispered.
Colton was about to risk guiding the horses off-road when the giant red-haired anchor lifted the back end of the wagon and dragged it from their path, freeing Colton’s wagon to go forward.
The horses didn’t wait for Colton’s command. They pulled forward. As they passed the anchor she reached out and patted the back of the right horse, Patty, with a bloody clawed hand. The tension in the horses flowed away, as if this simple touch reassured them nothing bad could happen now.
The anchor smirked her fanged mouth at Colton. “You need a pat too?” she asked. “Or a hug?”
“I’m good. Thanks.”
The anchor growled a low laugh. Her dark face sparkled with what looked like glowing freckles. Colton realized the freckles were the grains clumping together and shining through her skin. She was barely keeping control of her powers. He’d never seen grains behave like that.
As Colton and his horses passed the wagon, an armored shutter opened and the robed man from before stood there, a laser pistol in one hand, his other pushing a young girl toward the window.
“Please” he mouthed. “Please.”
Colton looked at the man and girl in puzzlement, then back at the anchor who’d lifted the wagon out of the road. The anchor watched Colton as the grain clusters under her skin burned hotter and hotter. He knew he should keep going. Refuse to be involved. Elder Vácha would be furious if he risked the caravan’s safety for those already doomed.
Or maybe she would be angry if he didn’t help the girl. Colton was uncertain. Hard to tell about emotions experienced by other people.
But Colton also was enjoying life at this moment, if he could be said to enjoy anything. Life rang calm and true despite the bloodshed around him, as if hellfire itself wouldn’t burn him.
Colton stared at the giant red-haired anchor, who looked back with a puzzled expression. It reminded him of his mother’s face when he’d stepped onto Elder Vácha’s wagon to leave his land forever. Only two days before, his mother had overdosed him on the medicine. It had still burned like fire in his blood as his mother kissed his cheek and waved goodbye.
Colton again felt the last emotions he’d ever known. Happiness at his mother’s smile as she kissed him goodbye. Sadness, from realizing he’d never again know love like he’d felt for her. Anger at her forcing him to no longer be an anchor. Fear, from not knowing what would happen to him.
As Colton watched the red-haired anchor he shivered, then cried, then cursed. Surely his damaged grains weren’t choosing this moment, of all the moments over the last eight years, to allow him to feel human?
He again looked at the anchor, who wiped tears from her own eyes. Had her grains connected with his and caused this spasm of emotions?
The anchor smiled at him just like his mother had eight years ago. She then pointed at the monk and young girl standing in the wagon window. When Colton didn’t respond she pointed again and cocked an eyebrow while jerking her head, urging Colton to do... something.
Curious, Colton hopped down from the moving wagon. Trusting Butterlove and Patty to keep going, he walked calmly by the red-haired anchor as the others looked at him in shock. One anchor gave a howl of fury.
The robed man and young girl looked down in surprise, as if not comprehending what they saw.
“I’d do something, if I were you,” Colton said. “We don’t have much time.”
The girl pushed the man aside and jumped out the window, where Colton caught her. She cursed softly as he carried her back toward his wagon, which was still rumbling down the wet road.
Out of the corner of his eye Colton saw Mita watching him from her own wagon. Her mouth lay open in warning, or maybe shock.
“Behind you!” Mita yelled.
Colton turned as one of the smaller anchors leapt for him, the anchor’s fury too much to contain. Colton wondered what it’d feel like to be torn apart. Maybe he’d like the sensation.
Instead, the red-haired anchor grabbed the smaller anchor and ripped his head off. Colton stepped around the explosion of blood and continued walking. A second anchor attacked, but the red-haired anchor grabbed this one too and yanked him away from Colton, howling as she bit into the anchor’s throat with her fangs. Green fairies flew around the carnage, their mouths gaping in silent screams.
Colton watched this without emotion as he pulled himself and the young girl into his wagon’s driver’s seat.
“These new day-fellows are headed toward the gathering veil on my land,” the red-haired anchor yelled to the others. “They’ve done nothing wrong so I’m allowing them to pass. Anyone disagree?”
The other anchors glared at the red-haired one before deciding not to argue. They turned back to attacking the already defeated caravan.
The red-haired anchor stepped forward to look at Colton, the grain clusters under her skin burning so bright that Colton smelled meat cooking. The damaged grains in his blood resonated to her own. Sri Sa. That was her name. Sri Sa.
“See you when you reach my land,” Sri Sa said, smiling. She reached into the damaged wagon’s open window and grabbed the robed man, who screamed. She smashed his body against the wagon’s armored wall in a wet splash before ripping the window apart with a metallic screech.
Colton looked down at the girl in his arms, who was shivering from fear but had also watched the monk’s death. “Good,” the girl whispered. “He deserved to die.”
“It’ll be okay,” Colton intoned. “You’ll feel better soon.”
Not that he knew what it was she felt, or how soon her emotions would pass. But he’d learned from the day-fellows that mouthing inane words was always the proper thing to do when you didn’t know what else to say.
An hour later, once they were on level ground and far enough down the road to no longer fear the anchors, Mita called out. “Everyone okay? Sound off!”
One by one the drivers of each wagon yelled out that they were safe and whole. Only Colton didn’t answer.
“Colton, you still up there?” Mita yelled
“Yeah, I’m good.”
“Everyone keep the power off and stay quiet.” Mita banged on the armored wall of her wagon. “Hira, get up here and spell me as driver.”
Colton puzzled at that. He’d never known Mita to need a break while driving. But he understood a moment later when Mita ran to his wagon and pulled herself up.
“Move over,” she ordered. Colton did just that.
Mita didn’t demand the reins and Colton didn’t offer. Instead, she stared at the young girl leaning against Colton’s shoulder. The wagon’s overhang kept most of the rain off them. The downside to that was they were still covered in the blood of those killed during the anchors’ attack.
“You okay?” Mita asked the girl.
The girl nodded but didn’t look at Mita.
“What in the hells were you doing?” Mita hissed at Colton. “You might have gotten us all killed.”
“I couldn’t let her die.”
Mita scowled, as if willing to debate that point, especially with regards to how someone with no emotions of his own saw the world. But she kept quiet. They rode a few more minutes before Mita asked the girl if she wanted to go inside a wagon. The girl shook her head.
Mita leaned over and whispered so only Colton could hear. “I’ll tell Elder Vácha and everyone else that your actions were the bravest thing I’ve ever seen. But anything happens to this girl, anything, and you’re dead.”
Colton nodded. He always knew where his self-interest lay. That was why Elder Vácha let someone as damaged as him travel with their caravan—she trusted that Colton wouldn’t risk being exiled from these day-fellows. Not when a transmitted warning from her would ensure no other caravan would take him in. Not when life on his own in this grain-filled world would be a very short one.
“Keep going another few hours then look for a resting spot,” Mita said. “Preferably with running water nearby, but not so near we might get flash floods.”
Colton nodded again. Mita took another look at the scared girl before hopping down and returning to her wagon.
The caravan camped that night in a small glade beside a grove of massive maple trees, each trunk as wide as their wagons with giant limbs reaching for the sky like clawed hands. They parked the wagons in a protective circle and strung canopies to shelter the horses from the rain. Mita carried the young girl Colton had saved, who said her name was Ae, inside Elder Vácha’s wagon.
As Colton unhitched Butterlove and Patty he noticed they were eager to be led into the caravan’s protective circle. Something about this land disturbed them.
He knew they were right. There was an ebb and flow to all lands, including where he’d grown up. Death and life and soil and air and water all working and reworking a land, staying true to what it was and also forever becoming something different and new.
Yet this land lacked that ebb and flow. In the dark he saw a hill sitting where there shouldn’t be one. A gully where water shouldn’t flow. Sri Sa’s land felt like the vegetable gardens Colton helped his mother plant when he was young. While the garden was part of nature, it also wasn’t. It couldn’t exist without him and his mother.
Once under the canopy Colton groomed the horses and filled their feedbags with oats. Several red-fire fairies danced around the horses’ flickering ears and tails. Another looked closely at the brush Colton held as he cleaned blood and mud from Butterlove’s mane.
He smacked the fairy with the brush, sending the grain-created simulacrum buzzing away in irritation.
Colton resumed brushing Butterlove. More red fairies buzzed his face. He almost tasted the memories they stored within their grains. The emotions experienced by the anchors who’d lived on this land tingled over his skin. Emotions so close to understanding. But in the end the feelings faded to nothing.
“The fairies are now red,” Elder Vácha said as she stepped under the canopy. She picked up a currycomb and began grooming Patty. “The fairies on the land where that caravan was attacked were green. Since that giant anchor had burning red hair, I assume we’ve reached her land.”
“Most likely. Her name’s Sri Sa. Ever heard of an anchor going by that name?”
Elder Vácha shook her head. “Tell me what happened. And be specific about what you thought and felt as you saved that girl.”
Colton repeated what happened, from dispassionately watching the attack to the emotions he’d felt, which appeared to come from some interaction with Sri Sa’s grains. He then described saving Ae. Many of the day-fellows had already congratulated him on his bravery. But as Mita and Elder Vácha knew, Colton hadn’t overcome fear to save Ae. He wished he had.
“That anchor wanted me to save the girl,” he said. “I thought doing so would let me feel some emotions. But I was wrong.”
“You put the caravan at risk merely to feel emotions?”
“No. My grains connected a little bit with that anchor, Sri Sa. That’s how I know her name. But I also sensed she wouldn’t attack us. Otherwise I wouldn’t have risked doing what I did. I would never risk our caravan.”
Colton looked Elder Vácha in the eyes as he said this, impressing upon her the truth of his words. Which were, he was tempted to say, not totally true. While he’d learned Sri Sa’s name and had somehow connected with her, he knew nothing else about her. She could have easily killed him, or turned her wrath on their caravan for interfering in her attack.
Yet she hadn’t. And she’d urged him to save Ae.
Elder Vácha sighed. “Have I ever told you why I took you in when your mother overdosed you? Why I did that despite most damaged anchors like yourself having what I’d call psychopathic tendencies?”
This intrigued Colton. He’d ridden in Elder Vácha’s wagon for eight years, but she’d never shared such basic information.
“I’d known your mother for decades,” Elder Vácha said. “My caravan stayed on her parents’ land when we were both kids. While I only passed through her land every five years or so, we messaged daily. We shared everything. I think she liked having a friend who wasn’t ruled by what the grains wanted.
“After her parents died, Frere served for decades as her land’s main anchor. But over time she grew despondent. She felt the grains had trapped her in a cursed life of merely enforcing their will. She wanted to save you from her fate and wouldn’t hear otherwise.
“I told her that damaging the grains only reliably worked in young anchors, before they were four or five years of age. Otherwise an anchor’s body becomes addicted to the grains creating and maintaining emotions. Sadness, anger, happiness, fear—anchors can’t have those without the memories the grains create in their minds. The grains manipulate your bodies so if you ever try to leave, you’ll be what you are today. Emotionless.”
Colton shivered, just like the horses when that anchor threw blood at them. He remembered his life before the grains in his body were damaged, when they’d spoken to him through the memories of his ancestors. He’d felt anger after experiencing his grandfather’s memories of attacking day-fellows who’d harmed the environment. He’d known fear after seeing a distant relative’s memories of being hunted by fellow anchors. He’d embraced happiness after experiencing one of his mother’s memories of hugging him.
He’d often wondered how many loops those memories had cycled through. How many times the grains used those memories to manipulate anchors into doing what the tiny machines wanted. If a grain-stored memory showed you what it was like to feel afraid, did that mean the anchor who’d originally created the memory had also been fed a memory of fear, and so on, back across the millennia? Some anchor must have originally been able to feel emotions without the grains’ mental feedback and manipulation, but that was so long ago as to no longer matter.
Still, Colton wanted his emotions back, even if they merely helped the grains control him.
The red fairies buzzed around Elder Vácha’s head, one of them nuzzling her short white hair. “Sri Sa is watching us,” she said. “Will she hurt us?”
Colton wanted to say no, but he honestly didn’t know. In his mind he again counted emotions. Happiness. Sadness. Anger. Fear.
“Something’s wrong with this land,” he said. “Something really wrong. There’s more than a gathering veil happening here.”
“I know. But that’s the least of our worries right now.”
They finished grooming and bedding down the horses. Then Elder Vácha ordered Colton to follow her.
The young girl Ae lay on the diagnosis table in Elder Vácha’s wagon. As with most day-fellow wagons, there was little wasted space. On either side of the table lay a narrow path to stand and work with sleeping bunks arranged further out under stacks of locked storage cabinets and comm systems. This was the caravan’s main medical and communications wagon, with Elder Vácha’s systems able to diagnose and treat most illnesses and injuries using cures from humanity’s long data-history. And if this wagon couldn’t treat something, data requests could be sent to other caravans for needed information.
While the grains kept anchors healthy, day-fellows took care of their own.
Mita sat beside the diagnostic table tapping requests into the information system. The table, which doubled as an operating platform, was very familiar to Colton. He’d been examined there countless times as Elder Vácha sought ways for him to again experience emotions. His bunk lay to the right of the table. Sometimes at night he reached out and tapped the diagnosis system and paged through its database, wondering if anything there might help him.
Colton thought Ae was merely sleeping on the table until he saw the sedation patch on her arm. When he’d saved Ae he’d believed her nine or ten years old because of her small size. Now, though, the data projected in the air above the diagnosis system said Ae was fifteen. Her small size was a result of severe malnutrition. The diagnosis also showed her bones had been broken and mended numerous times, suggesting years of abuse.
Colton saw anger on Mita’s face and knew she was furious about what had been done to Ae. While he couldn’t understand her anger, he made a note that this might make Mita like him more because he’d saved Ae.
Elder Vácha closed the wagon’s rear door and the window shutters. “We plugged into the other wagons?” she asked Mita.
Colton was now truly puzzled. Elder Vácha’s wagon drew on the power of other wagons when the diagnosis system needed to perform complex operations. But the girl wasn’t injured in any way the system could help.
Colton shivered as the damaged grains inside him spasmed for a moment. He was being scanned.
“The wagon has been purged and sealed,” Mita said. “The only grains inside are Colton’s.”
Elder Vácha leaned over Ae. She turned Ae’s head gently to the side and lifted the stringy black hair covering the back of her neck.
“Ever seen one of these?” Elder Vácha asked Colton.
He shook his head.
“It’s a neuroconnector,” Elder Vácha said. “High nanotechnology directly accessing her mind and nervous system. Extremely illegal. My systems can identify the connector, but the ability to actually create and install a nano system like this is far beyond its abilities.”
The connector shimmered on the back of the girl’s neck as if an afterimage. Or a dream. “What does it do?” Colton asked.
“Connectors interface with a land’s grains. Make a day-fellow appear to the grains like an anchor. You can’t access the grains’ powers with one, but you could know what the grains know. Perhaps even manipulate the grains. The grains also wouldn’t attack if you violated their rules, such as by mining and smelting metals.”
Colton smiled. No wonder the grains prohibited such technology. If every day-fellow had a connector they wouldn’t be forced to wander the world, never stopping for long in any one land.
Elder Vácha started up the diagnostic table and told it to run a deep scan of Ae and her connector.
“Colton, did you know the girl had this implant when you saved her?” Mita asked softly.
Colton noticed Mita’s right hand rested on her sword’s hilt. He considered quickly. “No,” he said. “I didn’t.” He looked again at Elder Vácha and Mita. They knew him too well. “Honest. Run the diagnosis table on me and I’ll say the same.”
The diagnosis table could be used as a lie detector—many caravans used it for this when crimes occurred among day-fellows. Colton had thought Sri Sa stimulated the damaged grains in his body to create those emotions he felt, but could it have instead been Ae’s connector? Either way, he was pretty sure he could defeat Elder Vácha’s machine because it detected lies through physiological and emotional responses in people. Even though in this case he was telling the truth.
His offer reassured Elder Vácha and Mita. But that presented a bigger problem: if their caravan sheltered Ae and her illegal tech, the grains might attack all of them.
“That’s that,” Elder Vácha muttered as the table completed its scan. “I can’t safely remove it.”
“You’re going to kill her,” Colton said. “Or leave her behind in the woods.”
Both Elder Vácha and Mita frowned, with Mita looking at Colton with disgust. Colton mentally kicked himself. He had thought he was taking responsibility, but he’d obviously screwed up. Again.
“We won’t be killing anyone,” Elder Vácha said in a flat voice. “Especially not a young girl under our protection. What you will do, however, is link your grains with any anchor who discovers the girl. You will share with the anchors what you know, that we didn’t create her connector.”
Colton quickly agreed.
“We also want you to try accessing the connector,” Mita said. “Find out who created it. Our systems can’t connect. But your grains, even damaged, might be able to.”
Colton wasn’t sure how to access the connector. Before his mother damaged his grains, he’d been able to use their power and knowledge without even trying. He reached his hand toward the back of Ae’s neck. The connector looked solid, like a circle of silver, but felt slimy, as if submerged for generations in a swamp.
A static electric click jumped between the connector and his fingers. He fell backwards and collided with the shelves above his bunk. His hand twitched and he stared as his fingers closed into a fist by themselves. The fist slammed into his face and he collapsed to the floor.
The wagon blurred, and it took him a moment to realize he was staring at a different scene, a different wagon. This wagon was filled with glowing machines and displays far more complicated than his caravan had. He wondered how this wagon generated enough energy from solar and kinetic generators to power all of it.
Colton was trapped by metal bars in one of the wagon’s bunks. His sheets were filthy and his clothes loose and dirty on his body.
“Good morning to you, Ae,” a tall man said as he opened the wagon’s back door. The man wore the cowl and robe of a day-fellow monk. Colton flinched in fear as the monk sealed the door shut behind him and purged the wagon of grains. The man’s face was partly hidden by his cowl, but his pale skin looked smooth, like a baby’s face. Colton smelled decay from beneath the man’s face and almost vomited.
These were Ae’s memories, Colton realized. Had the connector shared them with him? He searched the memories and realized the monk’s name was Brother Anderly.
“Don’t worry, Ae,” Brother Anderly said. “I’m not here for you.”
Brother Anderly leaned over another bunk and removed the metal gate covering it. He ordered an emaciated young man to stand up. The man’s name flittered on the edge of Colton’s mind—Šenk. He had been a monk but was banned from the order for arguing with Brother Anderly about their upcoming plans.
“Please,” Šenk whispered. “I was wrong. Give me another chance. Don’t kick me out.”
“Prove yourself worthy,” Brother Anderly said. “Lie on the table.”
Šenk hesitated before staggering forward and lying on the wagon’s diagnosis table. The table stabbed a thin tubule into his arm and, with a gurgled sigh, he passed out. The table flowed like water around the man and lifted him into the air.
Colton again marveled at how much power all of this took. What looked like a silver drop of water detached from the table and rose to the nape of the Šenk’s neck, where a small connector like the one in Colton’s neck appeared. Despite being sedated Šenk screamed. Colton pressed his hands to his ears as tears flowed down his face.
The operation seemed to go on forever. Finally, Brother Anderly returned Šenk to his bunk. He then looked in on Colton.
“You’re leaving next week, Ae,” he said. “You will direct Brother Ains’ wagons toward the gathering veil and override that land’s grains before the veil reaches its apogee. Am I understood? Do not cause us any problems.”
After Brother Anderly left, Colton fell through memory after memory. Of anchors destroying the original caravan he was on and killing his parents as he ran in panic. Of wandering through forests by himself, afraid to start a fire or eat anything in case the grains ordered more anchors to attack. Of finding a new caravan and begging for help only to find...
Colton woke on the floor of Elder Vácha’s wagon. She held his head while Mita leaned over him. Colton cried big tears as waves of sadness and anger swept his body.
“Are you hurt?” Mita asked.
“We’re in trouble,” Colton gasped, sobbing and barely able to speak. “Really big trouble.”
The rains stopped by morning, but instead of the caravan leaving Elder Vácha announced they’d hold a gathering. Several large sheets of canvas were spread across the wet grass beneath the largest of the surrounding maple trees. Elder Vácha said the ancient tree would bring good fortune to their deliberations.
Colton didn’t believe that but said nothing to contradict the elder.
In the daylight the land around them seemed even more wrong. As people prepared for the gathering, Colton spent an hour walking up and down and around the small hills surrounding the caravan. The side of one hill had eroded away to reveal a shattered wall and a broken glass window. Colton looked in the window and saw a dark room filled with debris. He looked at the other small hills in the area. That was why he’d thought of his mother’s garden—this land wasn’t natural. A city once existed here. Destroyed buildings and so much more, covered up by forest and ground.
Unsure if he should say anything to the others, Colton walked back to the gathering and sat on the tarp.
Mita stood beside the tree in full armor, her nano-stitched leather breastplate and helmet covered in the red ribbons each member of the caravan had tied there for luck. Her sword lay unsheathed on the ground at her feet. A sign of peace, but also a sign that as warden she’d lay down her life for her caravan.
The caravan’s ten wagons carried fifty-eight adults and children, who sat on the canvas in family groups. Two wagons carried a single family—the extended Crowe clan, one of whose wagons was a rolling greenhouse. The rest of the families ranged from those with generalist wagons to those specializing in biosmithing, cooking, tailoring, and teaching.
As the families sat on the tarps, kids ran in and out of the gathering, shrieking in excitement at having time to play outside the confines of wagons. Mita watched them to make sure none ran too far or angered the grains.
“Rumor is we’re screwed,” Daner Crowe, the patriarch of his farming clan, announced. As the only family with two wagons, Crowe spoke first and loudest at gatherings, with Colton always fascinated that such a booming voice could come from such a thin, lanky old man.
“Don’t know about you, Daner Crowe, but I never let myself be screwed without a bit of sweet talk first,” Elder Vácha said, bringing laughs from everyone. “But in light of new information, we must decide if we want to go forward or turn back.”
Elder Vácha explained the caravan that had been destroyed was involved in illegal technology manipulation. “That’s why they weren’t transmitting their location to other day-fellows,” she added. “Their illegal tech is also why the anchors attacked them.”
People muttered about this development. Respectable caravans followed ancient day-fellow rules and traditions about technology and protecting the environment, to avoid exactly what had happened the other day. And while Elder Vácha hadn’t mentioned what had been done to Ae—who sat near Mita and enviously watched the other kids play—many of the families still glared with irritation at both Colton and the girl he’d saved.
“Why is this a problem?” Daner Crowe asked. “No one in our caravan did anything wrong.”
“The problem,” Elder Vácha said, “is Ae’s former caravan was sent here to manipulate the gathering veil. It’s highly likely another caravan with banned technology is attempting to do the same.”
Colton flashed back to Ae’s memories of the young man, Šenk, who had also been experimented on. Ae had told Elder Vácha that Šenk was now traveling with a second caravan, which had taken a different road to reach the veil.
Even though Ae’s memories were already weakening in Colton’s mind, remembering her pain and sadness caused him to break into tears. People sitting nearby stared at him in wonder, with the caravan’s tailor patting his back gently.
“You promised us there was no risk in coming to this veil,” Daner Crowe said. “You swore up and down of the benefits to our caravan. That we even had to be the first ones to reach this damn place.”
“I wasn’t lying,” Elder Vácha said. “This development is unprecedented.”
“We must turn back,” Mama Sundown, the caravan’s lead scholar and teacher, said. “No gathering veil is worth the risk of getting caught in more battles between anchors and tech lunatics.”
“You’re wrong. This gathering veil is the only thing worth embracing.”
People glanced around, trying to determine who had spoken, the voice having come from every direction. Colton’s blood shivered—the land’s grains had broadcast the words. His grains also vibrated in tune to someone approaching. “Mita!” he shouted in warning. She picked up her sword and yelled for the kids to return from their games.
The bright morning dimmed as a dust storm raged across the sky, dropping the temperature within seconds. Wind blew across the glade, stirring up dust devils which climbed into the sky and joined the building storm.
Colton leaned over and touched the ground. Dust wasn’t swirling into the sky—the grains themselves were being pulled out of the land’s trees, plants, and animals. He watched a pair of squirrels fall from the large maple tree and spasm on the ground in pain before a swirl of red motes rose from their mouths. The squirrels staggered away as their former grains joined the others in the sky.
As the cloud became thicker the grains interacted with each other, as if desperate to reconnect with the land they’d been severed from. The cloud sparked to neon colors—reds and blues and yellows and violets—as faint images appeared. Everyone watched as yesterday’s attack on the day-fellow caravan played before them. Colton saw himself hop down from his wagon to save Ae. But the scene wasn’t as Colton remembered it. Instead, it was seen from the view of the giant red-haired anchor who’d watched him.
Other scenes played across the sky. People fighting and loving and eating and laughing and living and dying, scenes that appeared to stretch back across the centuries.
Colton remembered the grains sharing memories with him when he was a young anchor. Were these images this land’s memories?
The cloud of grains above the day-fellows rained around the edges of their camp, surrounding them like a curtain as the grains’ memories shimmered to images of people and past events.
The gathering veil.
The day-fellows stared in shock as the veil circled them and their wagons. Butterlove and Patty whinnied in fear, joined by the other horses. Ae walked over and grabbed Colton’s hand and squeezed it hard.
“No!” Elder Vácha yelled to everyone. “This isn’t a true gathering veil. Don’t be fooled. Don’t do anything to risk the grains’ anger.”
Before anyone could argue, the veil next to the maple tree split from ground to sky. A short young woman with red hair walked through the split, which reformed behind her into the swirling veil of images. The woman wore roughly stitched leather clothes while red-glowing fairies buzzed around her. She plucked a fairy from the air, smashed it between her hands, and smeared the red-grains down both sides of her face. The grains burned into her skin, filling the glade with the scent of charred flesh.
Colton didn’t need his damaged grains to know this was Sri Sa, the anchor from last night. She’d powered down to human shape and size, only accessing the barest touch of the grains’ power.
Elder Vácha stepped before Sri Sa and bowed deeply. Everyone else, except for Colton and Ae, did the same. When Mita glared at Colton he bowed slightly, but Ae still refused to do so.
“We apologize for disturbing your land,” Elder Vácha said, still bowing. “With your permission, we’ll depart the way we came and never return.”
Sri Sa snorted. “I’m not stopping you. But if you leave, you’re dead.”
The day-fellows stopped bowing. Mita stepped between Elder Vácha and Sri Sa and kneeled before the anchor, her sword presented like an offering in her hands.
“My lady, I am this caravan’s warden. I accept any sins we have committed against your land. Any punishment should be mine and mine alone. All I request is you allow me to defend myself.”
Sri Sa laughed. “I’m not going to fight you, or punish you.”
Mita glanced at Elder Vácha, uncertain. As warden, Mita’s role was to keep the peace among day-fellows and, if the grains were angry, to accept ritualized punishments to spare the entire caravan from death.
“My lady,” Mita stammered. “If I’ve misspoken the words of the ritual...”
“No, no, you did fine. What I mean is your caravan can turn around and leave my land and I won’t harm you. But the anchors surrounding this land, oh, they’re pissed at you.”
“What did you do?” Colton asked.
Sri Sa pirouetted under the maple tree. “I may have murdered the other anchors who attacked that caravan.”
“But the grains will tell them that was you, not us,” Colton protested.
Sri Sa laughed. Her right hand grew long, sharp claws, with which she cut her stomach open. A burst of her blood rose into the sky even as the wound healed itself almost instantly. The blood mixed with the gathering veil, causing the images to change.
They again watched yesterday’s attack on the caravan. However, instead of Colton hopping down and saving Ae, this time he pulled a laser and killed the anchors. Mita joined in with her own laser, followed by others in their caravan.
“That’s the memory my land’s grains are sharing with the grains on other lands,” Sri Sa said. “You’re welcome to argue your innocence, but any anchors who experience that memory won’t be in a listening mood.”
Colton watched as anger and disgust rippled among the day-fellows. While he knew Sri Sa’s manipulation had trapped him too, he admired whatever game she was playing.
Mita jumped forward and swung her sword at Sri Sa, who caught the blade with her right hand. Even powered-down, she was far stronger than she should be.
She yanked the sword from Mita’s grasp and tossed it onto the grass. “That time you didn’t follow the ritual instructions,” she said. “Don’t worry—I won’t hold it against you.”
Mita picked up her sword and stepped back, keeping herself between the anchor and the rest of the day-fellows.
“What do you want with us?” Elder Vácha asked.
“I want you to share my land,” Sri Sa said. “Enjoy the gathering veil alongside me.”
Colton looked at the images swirling on the veil around them. He didn’t know memories copied by the grains could be manipulated like this. Was this an aspect of whatever caused a gathering veil, or was it something different at work?
“So this isn’t the true veil?” Elder Vácha asked.
“Not yet,” Sri Sa said. “But it’s a taste of what’s to come.” She held her hand out to Mita. Elder Vácha nodded, and Mita reluctantly passed the anchor her sword.
Sri Sa stepped to the massive maple tree and swung the sword at its trunk. The sword, bio-engineered down to the molecular level by a master day-fellow smith, cut into the side of the tree. Sri Sa yanked the sword out and screamed, her body growing larger and her muscles rippling to power. She hacked over and over into the tree.
While the sword was supposed to be unbreakable, Colton was still fascinated it remained intact. The maple shook and creaked and began to topple. Sri Sa grew her body even larger and pushed the tree backwards, toward the veil behind it. The images of people and deeds shimmered and split as the tree fell through them.
Sri Sa powered down her body. Her shirt had ripped open, as had her pants. She grabbed another red fairy and dashed it against her chest, painting her skin with the red grains like the anchor Colton had seen doodling in blood yesterday. Once Sri Sa was back to human size she stepped to Mita and handed back the unbroken sword.
“I like strong weapons,” Sri Sa said. “I don’t care what you people do. Go back over the border if you wish, but good luck convincing the other anchors you didn’t murder their friends.”
Sri Sa waved at the swirling veil around them. “Or you can come with me. This is only a small taste of what the true veil will be like. You’ll be able to do anything. Create anything. No grains will stop you.”
With a shriek the rotating cloud of grains fell from the sky. They swirled around Sri Sa like water down a red drain before being sucked into bloody rips on her body. Once they vanished into Sri Sa, the wind died down and the sun shined happily in a blue sky.
Colton reached out with his grains and couldn’t connect to anything around him. The ground around the caravan had no active grains within it. All the nearby grains had been absorbed by Sri Sa. Colton had never heard of anchors being able to do that.
Ae released Colton’s hand and pointed at the grass at their feet. She had reached out with her own connector and also noticed the grains were gone. She kicked the grass, popping a big divot out of the ground. She picked it up and threw it at the fallen maple tree, causing Sri Sa to laugh.
Ae walked over to Sri Sa and stared at her. The anchor kneeled before the girl and asked if she’d like to see more of what the gathering veil had to offer.
Ae laughed and clapped her hands.
“Your choice,” Sri Sa said to everyone. “But you don’t really have one, do you?”
The only way forward was through memories.
Colton and Ae and Mita worked all morning in the grassy moor deep in the heart of Sri Sa’s land, salvaging the ruins of a destroyed day-fellow caravan. Three wagons, like the one they’d seen ripped apart a week ago, the metal armor sliced by massive claws and dented by powerful fists. But these wagons had been destroyed several weeks earlier, the dead already picked apart by vultures and decayed to greasy bones and sun-roasted leather.
Colton stepped over the scattered bones and torn robe of a dead monk as he loaded another solar array into Butterlove’s satchels. She nickered before returning to graze on the grass around the dead monk. She refused to graze elsewhere, and Colton wondered if the decayed flesh and bones gave this grass a special taste.
Patty stood next to Butterlove, already loaded down with salvaged gear. Colton scratched her right ear. This was the third trip he and Mita had made to salvage these wagons since arriving in the middle of Sri Sa’s land.
Their caravan sat a half league away, arranged in a defensive circle on the edge of the grasslands close to the hills. Inside the circle people worked on the nano-forge, creating new parts and tools. Others repaired their current wagons or assembled the caravan’s new wagon.
In the distance Colton saw a lookout with binoculars waving at him from on top of Elder Vácha’s wagon. He waved back, satisfied the lookout was watching over them even this far away. While Sri Sa said they were safe on her land, no one trusted her word.
The memories dancing around Colton were proof of this.
The grains here projected continual shimmering memories. In the hills around the valley—where ancient buildings and homes lay beneath the soil and forests—flickering windows appeared to open at night, as if the long-dead people of the ancient city were watching the caravan.
And these grasslands were no better. Projections of anchors walked through the thigh-high grass, talking and speaking in silent words. Images of anchor kids played hide and seek among the wildflowers while teenagers kissed and held hands. Sometimes the projections were red and hazy, like a dream. Other times they looked like real people.
But the grains also projected darker memories. Images of anchors chasing down and killing day-fellows. Memories of caravans across the centuries torn apart and massacred. Day-fellows carried to the river in the middle of the valley and thrown to their deaths.
Colton had never seen grains project random memories like this. It was almost as if something had shattered the collective consciousness of the tiny machines on this land, forcing them to communicate without thought or reason.
“Let’s get back,” Mita said as she hopped down from a destroyed wagon, a spare data crystal in her hands. “This place creeps me out.”
Ae stood in the back of the wagon looking at the laser burn marks that had destroyed much of this caravan’s systems. Despite searching, they’d yet to locate the day-fellow laser which had done so much damage here.
“Learn anything?” Colton asked.
“The systems are too damaged to access,” Ae said. “But the grains here might know something.”
Mita frowned. They’d brought Ae with them because they hoped the girl’s connector could access the wagons’ systems to learn what had happened. While there was some risk in that, they’d figured it was relatively safe. But with the grains in the heart of Sri Sa’s land so dangerously unstable, there was no telling what Ae’s purer connection with them would do to her, or she to them. Which was why Elder Vácha had forbidden that.
But what had happened here? This caravan had been camping, not traveling, and was near a cluster of log cabins built by this land’s anchors. Was this where Sri Sa’s family used to live? If so, what had happened to them? Had Sri Sa invited this caravan onto her land, only to destroy it?
While there were plenty of dead monks here, they’d yet to discover the body of Šenk, the young man with a connector like Ae’s. According to her, Šenk had travelled with this caravan. Mita suggested that scavengers had dragged his body away, but Colton didn’t believe that.
“Let Ae connect with the grains,” Colton said.
“No,” Mita said. “Elder Vácha forbade it.”
“Blame me if she finds out. Whatever happened here could happen to our own caravan.”
Mita glanced at their distant wagons and lookouts. “Ae, get behind the wagon so no one can see you when you try it,” she said.
Ae clapped her hands and jumped down. She sat against a broken wagon wheel and closed her eyes. Colton felt her connector click through his body as it tried to establish a data link with his damaged grains. The connector then bypassed him to access the land’s grains.
Ae looked puzzled for a moment, uncertainty writing itself across her face. Then her eyes opened wide, and she screamed.
“What is it?” Mita asked.
“Sri Sa is... wrong,” Ae gasped, trying to stand and falling back down. “This isn’t how a gathering veil should go. Everything’s changing!” She smacked the connector on her neck, desperate to turn it off. Finally, with a groan, she disconnected from whatever the grains were showing her.
Mita held Ae as the girl nuzzled her face against her body armor.
“This is what we get for listening to you,” Mita told Colton. “Fetch her some water.”
Colton walked over to Butterlove but the canteen bag was empty—Ae had given the last of the water to the horses not long ago. Carrying the bag, he walked toward the nearest log cabin and the river beyond it.
The log cabin was massive, the size of ten wagons and built of rough logs sliced and smoothed by anchor claws. According to what Sri Sa had told them, generations of her family had lived in the log cabins here, rebuilding them continually over the centuries. This cabin, despite being empty, was obviously well cared for.
As Colton rounded the corner of the cabin he saw Sri Sa sitting beside an open doorway, her body powered down and normal looking. She wore a dirty flax-woven jacket and held one hand under it, as if hiding something.
“Water’s that way,” she said, pointing toward the river. “Follow the path to the pier.”
“Keeping an eye on us?” Colton asked.
“No. Just visiting old memories.” Sri Sa patted the logs behind her. “The wood on this side of the cabin is really old. My great-grandmother, who built this cabin, even mixed day-fellow blood with mud for the caulking.”
“Any particular reason why she used day-fellow blood?”
“She believed the blood of environmental defilers added a joyous tang to the air. That the scent reminded every anchor of our first duty.” Sri Sa snorted after saying this, as if any thought of duty was repugnant to her.
Colton nodded, not sure if Sri Sa was telling the truth or teasing him. The sod roof above her was still neatly groomed, as if someone had cut the grass only a month or so ago. The cabin’s wattle and daub chimney also looked strong. Without maintenance, those chimneys frequently collapsed. Despite Sri Sa’s words to him yesterday about her family merely being gone, someone had lived here recently.
“Is it true your mother killed hundreds of anchors?” Sri Sa asked.
“Yes. I wasn’t there when it happened.”
Sri Sa looked like she wanted him to say more, but he didn’t see a need. His mother’s crime was so infamous that news had traveled around the world. Every anchor and day-fellow knew of how she’d defied the grains.
Sri Sa giggled then coughed and coughed again, grains spewing from her mouth as the skin on her face split open, revealing red glowing blood. She closed her eyes, focusing to maintain control of her powers as her body quickly healed.
Leaving Sri Sa to her thoughts, Colton walked toward the river.
As he passed a small outhouse, he saw a splash of blood on the wood planks. He opened the door. The wooden seat was stained with dried blood. The hole stank of old shit but nothing fresh deposited within the last few weeks.
Colton closed the door and walked on toward the pier.
The river raged through Sri Sa’s valley, whirling and surging to unseen eddies and currents, pressed into an artificial canal running the length of the valley and funneling away the snow-melt waters from the surrounding mountains. It vanished in a massive waterfall behind the log cabins, the water collapsing into a hole carved deep in the earth.
Colton leaned over the bank’s sharp edge and saw the ancient nano-glass windows and walls lining the sides of the chasm. That meant the buried city was also under his feet. He imagined what it was like for the people who’d once lived in this city to look out a window and watch water thunder into this massive hole.
But he had no time for strange thoughts. At the end of the path from the house stood a rickety wooden pier extending over the chasm. Posts and ropes supported it, which led to both a great view of the waterfall and a weighted bag on a long rope for drawing water up.
Colton walked out on the wooden planks, which shook to his steps. He threw the bag over, pulled up water that he poured into his canteen, and walked back.
And stopped. From this angle the main log cabin reminded him of his own home, also a sod-roof dwelling. Sri Sa now stood on the grass roof as if waiting for someone. She looked at Colton with a strange grin on her face.
In her hand she held a day-fellow laser pistol.
Colton had been traveling with Elder Vácha’s caravan for several years when his mother used a similar laser to kill hundreds of anchors. Colton’s grandmother messaged him about the crime. How his mother stood on the sod roof of their house protecting a day-fellow family inside. How she murdered every anchor who dared approach.
His grandmother even sent an image of the home after his mother’s death. Of anchor bodies burned and sliced apart and scattered around the house and nearby fields.
Had Sri Sa taken this laser from the destroyed caravan? And where she stood—his mother might have stood in the same spot on their sod roof when she attacked those anchors. Surely this was coincidence. But if Sri Sa was trying to tell him something...
She waved at Colton. A shudder ran his body as she accessed his grains. He felt a touch of... could he call it fear?
Colton ran for wagons. “Mita, Ae, get out of there!”
Mita was standing beside the wagon wheel with Ae leaning on her for support. “What’s wrong?” she asked, drawing her sword.
“Get the horses,” Colton said. “We’re in danger.”
Their caravan’s alarm bells began tolling before they reached the horses, the distant lookouts waving and pointing at the grasslands nearby. The grain-projected memories still danced and swirled in the tall grass, but the closest grasses were also moving. Something was sneaking through the grass toward them.
“Go toward the river!” Mita yelled, staying between Colton and Ae and the moving grass. An anchor jumped from the grass, landing on all fours and hissing. Others stood up from where they’d been crawling.
The first anchor swiped a large clawed hand at Mita, but she parried it with her sword, drawing a slash of blood and a shriek. She yelled the words to invoke a ritual challenge but the anchor ignored her, slashing with his unhurt hand as she dodged.
Mita walked backwards, her sword before her, as more anchors appeared. Colton yelled at Sri Sa, but she merely stood on the roof, leaning against the chimney and watching the other anchors attack. The laser dangled loose in her right hand.
They fled closer to the river.
“Get on the pier,” Mita yelled as she blocked the anchors from Colton and Ae.
Colton unsheathed his knife and stepped beside Mita.
The anchors advancing toward them appeared ill, staggering as if drunk and unable to power up completely. Fairies of various colors—blues and yellows and purples and more, every color but red—fluttered around them. None of these anchors were from Sri Sa’s land.
Elder Vácha had said that during gathering veils, anchors from other lands avoided contact with afflicted grains, for fear their own grains might become infected.
If that was true, why had these anchors risked coming here?
No matter. While the anchors couldn’t attack them from behind with the river to their backs, they could still overwhelm them through brute force. And if Colton and the others retreated onto the pier, the anchors might tear the wooden supports from the soil and send them plunging to their deaths.
The anchors approached closer and closer, stopping just outside the reach of Mita’s sword as if taunting her.
They were shivering and shaking, preparing to attack, when Sri Sa screamed.
Everyone, both day-fellow and anchor, looked at her in puzzlement. Sri Sa yelled again as she aimed the laser at the anchors and fired.
The beam ripped through five anchors to the right of the pier, meat and bone flaying and burning. Colton smelled rancid flesh and ozone flaring and the burnt-orange scent that meant the grains were angry.
The anchors charged Sri Sa. She shot three more before the laser died. She smacked it once with her hand, then threw it at the anchors with a laugh. She shrieked as her body quickly grew in size as grains from her land flowed into her flesh. When she jumped down from the roof she stood twice as large as the other anchors.
She slashed two anchors with her claws, decapitating one and ripping the other apart from chest to legs. The others howled and attacked, but Sri Sa was too strong. She slapped several aside as she bit into the throat of another. They mobbed her, but she fought them off, killed two more.
Sensing they couldn’t overwhelm her, three anchors broke from the fight and ran at Colton, Mita, and Ae.
“Get to the end of the pier!” Mita yelled. “I’ll stop them.”
Colton didn’t see how that was possible. But before he could move or speak a whirlwind of grains rose from the ground before them, startling the anchors and stopping their charge.
“No,” Ae said. “I can save us. But only if you two get out of the way.”
Colton felt the power flowing from Ae’s connector turn off, causing the swirling grains hiding them from the anchors to fall back to the ground. Colton grabbed her and ran to the end of the pier. Mita followed.
The three anchors stepped onto the decaying pier, which shook dangerously to their weight. Ae took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Grains flowed around the pier like barely seen dust. Grains even rose from the waterfall’s mists below.
The pier flickered as the grains wrapped around it. Where before a single wooden path had dangled over the abyss, now twenty paths diverged. The projected memories of every different pier that had been built here across twenty thousand years.
Mita cursed as the overlapping images rippled and flowed and mixed with one another. She leaned forward as if losing her balance. Colton grabbed her arm and held tight, steadying both of them.
Ae hummed to herself, oblivious to the projections wrapping around everyone. The three anchors advancing toward them froze. One looked right through Colton as if no longer seeing him. The anchor staggered to the side, stepping as if expecting to find wood beneath his foot. Instead, he stepped into the air and fell, swallowed by the thundering waters below.
Another anchor tried to backtrack to solid ground but walked off the edge, screaming as he fell. The final anchor closed her eyes and went to all fours, relying on touch and crawling toward Ae. Mita, holding Colton’s hand to steady herself, stepped forward and swung her sword, slicing the anchor across her eyes. The anchor bellowed, pawing at her face. She rolled sideways and fell off the pier.
Ae sighed and collapsed from exhaustion as the grain’s projections vanished. “Stay awake,” Colton said, shaking her. “Not a good place to pass out.”
Ae didn’t respond, instead staring blankly at Sri Sa, whose fight with the other anchors was nearly over. She ripped a final anchor in half and howled. Red light burned and pulsed from rips across her body.
The grains Ae had summoned dissipated like morning mist in the sun. A few combined into red fairies, which shook angry fists at Ae. The rest flowed over the edge of the pier and into the waters below.
Ae leaned over the edge and vomited. Colton grabbed the back of her shirt to make sure she didn’t tumble over.
The bodies of the anchors Sri Sa had killed glowed to the various colors of their own grains. The colors rose like smoke and assembled into projections resembling the fallen anchors. The ghostly images ran across the pier and around Colton, Mita, and Ae, silently screaming before falling into the chasm.
“Those anchors were from other lands,” Ae whispered. “Their grains are desperate to not be trapped here. They want to share the memory of what happened with grains and anchors outside this land.”
As if agreeing with Ae’s assessment, Sri Sa grinned and ran toward the pier.
“Oh shit!” Ae yelled. Colton pulled the girl tight against him so she wouldn’t panic and fall off the narrow pier. Sri Sa’s muscles launched her massive body high into the air, aiming for where Colton and Ae and Mita stood.
Colton nodded to himself. He’d wondered where the river waters disappearing below flowed to. Perhaps he would discover that before he died.
Sri Sa hit the pier with a massive crash, snapping the wooden posts and supporting ropes. Mita’s sword went flailing into the abyss as she grabbed Colton and Ae. Colton tried to keep hold of the pier, but the wood fell apart under him. He couldn’t stop the three of them from falling.
They looked straight down into the chasm swallowing an entire river.
Sri Sa grabbed them, nuzzling their heads with her fanged mouth. She launched herself into the air, pushing off the pier’s already falling remnants. They landed back on solid ground to the thump of Sri Sa’s muscles and bones.
“Isn’t that river a marvel?” Sri Sa asked. “Before I killed my mother and my relatives, I gave them a choice: Die or jump off the pier. See where the waters take you. Only my mother was brave enough to jump.”
Sri Sa smiled, fangs ripping her cheeks to bloody cuts. Mita threw up but refused to back down, spitting vomit from her lips while glaring directly into Sri Sa’s eyes. Ae hid behind Colton.
“Are we supposed to be impressed?” Colton asked calmly. He almost felt irritated at whatever game Sri Sa was playing. Almost. “Do you want to pretend to be my mother? Is that why you let our caravan come here?”
Sri Sa smashed a red fairy against her right breast and grabbed Colton’s arm. As Colton struggled she scooped up the red grains from her breast with a clawed finger and jabbed the claw into his arm.
Colton screamed. Mita and Ae dragged him away from Sri Sa as he screamed louder and louder, more pain than he’d ever known slamming his arm. He stared at his arm, which appeared to burn bright red and burst into flame, the skin falling to ash and the bone shattering. No, his arm was still there. It swelled up like a balloon as if infected, red maggots exploding from his skin. No, it was still there.
Mita held Colton down as he thrashed. Ae grabbed a handful of dirt and pressed it to Colton’s arm, which cooled the pain a little.
“This is the first emotion I’ll give you,” Sri Sa said as she leaned over Colton. He tried to push away from her, a panic building up in him that he hadn’t known he could feel. As if he was desperate to be anywhere but looking into Sri Sa’s eyes.
Fear. He felt fear.
Sri Sa laughed as she walked away, her body withering and shrinking, excess grains spewing from her skin like dust off an ungroomed horse. The grains spun into red fairies, which spasmed before falling apart and raining dead across the grass.
The pain in Colton’s arm flared. He saw memories of Sri Sa massacring her family and this day-fellow caravan. Saw her chasing people and ripping them apart. Saw her own mother, who chose to jump from the pier instead of fighting her daughter.
Colton recited his lack of emotions—happiness, sadness, anger, fear—to calm himself. But it didn’t work. He still saw Sri Sa. He still felt fear.
“What the hells did you do to him?” Mita yelled after Sri Sa.
“You’ll see,” she yelled back. “You’ll so truly see.”
Mita loaded Colton onto Butterlove, and she and Ae raced the horses back to the caravan. Colton was still screaming when they arrived. Daner Crowe helped Mita pull him off the horse and carry him to Elder Vácha’s wagon.
When Ae tried to enter the wagon, Elder Vácha told her to wait outside and closed the door.
Mita and Daner Crowe held Colton down on the diagnostic table as Elder Vácha turned on the system.
Colton stopped screaming. “The pain’s gone,” he whispered. “Thank you.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Elder Vácha said. “The system’s still scanning you.” She examined her diagnostic readings. “Interesting. It appears Sri Sa reprogrammed a few of the damaged grains in your body to create intense pain until my system scanned you. Is that her idea of a joke?”
“Talk about a bastard thing to do,” Daner Crowe muttered.
“How can she do that?” Mita asked. “No anchor can control the grains, let alone with that level of precision.”
“Not certain,” Elder Vácha replied. “Despite being impossible, it appears Sri Sa has reprogrammed her land’s grains to respond to her desires.”
Colton held up the arm stabbed by Sri Sa. He no longer saw his arm exploding or decaying or any of the dozens of other visions he’d experienced since being stabbed. He no longer felt fear running through him. But now a single red dot the size of a fingernail glowed near his wrist. He touched it...
... and back fell into fear. He again saw memories of Sri Sa killing people. Of her family and the monks begging for their lives. Of people so afraid of Sri Sa’s massive body and power that they couldn’t move.
Colton jerked his finger from the red spot. The fear slowly lessened even as his hands shook.
“Fascinating,” Elder Vácha said, staring at her diagnostic readings. “Colton, you just felt an actual emotion.”
“What did Sri Sa do to me?”
“There are new grains embedded in your wrist,” Elder Vácha replied. “They triggered your emotion.”
Colton touched the red spot and fear again flooded him. He’d been looking at Daner Crowe—that pompous old man terrified him! Colton felt Crowe’s dark eyes slicing into his mind and learning all his secrets. Learning how damaged Colton truly was. He’d reveal what he knew. He’d tell everyone to kick Colton out of the caravan.
Colton screamed and tried to jump off the diagnostic table, but Mita and Daner Crowe held him down until the fear faded away.
Colton took a deep breath to calm himself. “I can force myself to feel fear?”
“Yes,” Elder Vácha said. “The system says your touch activates the grains. They send their memories into your mind and nervous system and activate the physiological and mental components of emotions—exactly what your own grains did before they were damaged.”
“What good is only feeling fear?” Mita asked. “Can you deactivate the new grains?”
Before Elder Vácha could respond, Colton said “No.” Closing his eyes, he thought of Sri Sa as he again tapped the red spot. Fear! “Should I fear Sri Sa?” he whispered out loud. He saw her fanged lips grinning as she leaned in to bite him. Or maybe to kiss him.
“We can’t trust Sri Sa,” Colton said. “There’s something wrong with her.”
“No shit,” Daner Crowe said. “It took you feeling fear to discover this fact?”
Mita laughed, then reached over and hugged Colton. “We already know this about Sri Sa.”
“I understand. But making me feel fear, I think she did that merely for fun. It’s not tied in with whatever she’s doing to the grains on her land.”
“Colton may be correct,” Mita said. “Those anchors who attacked us didn’t even care about Sri Sa until she attacked them. That means the anchors came for us. But I can’t figure out why anchors from other lands sneaked here merely to attack some random day-fellows.”
“They were after Ae,” Colton said.
“What?” Mita asked.
“I suspect that’s also the reason Sri Sa didn’t attack our caravan last week,” he said. “She also prevented those other anchors from attacking us because I saved Ae.”
“Why do you say this?” Elder Vácha asked.
“Something I felt before saving Ae. It’s like the only reason Sri Sa led the attack on that caravan was to capture Ae. She didn’t care about doing her duty as an anchor—she wanted whatever person in the caravan had a connector.”
“Maybe she likes you,” Mita said. “The other day she asked me a ton of questions about your mother.”
“Maybe. But I suspect if it had just been you and me when those anchors attacked us at the river, Sri Sa would have let them kill us. Look, an emerging veil is when the grains on a land destroy themselves, correct? Delete all the land’s old memories and the land starts fresh with new grains. But something changed this veil. Two caravans were sent here carrying people with connectors to manipulate the grains. Those connectors must be tied in with this.”
“So those anchors snuck onto this land to capture or kill Ae?” Elder Vácha asked.
“Not her specifically, but whoever had the ability to manipulate this land’s grains. Ae told us the destroyed caravan by Sri Sa’s house was carrying the other person with a connector. Where is that man’s body? Every other body was left where they died. If that man even died.”
Elder Vácha, Daner Crowe, and Mita glared silently at Colton. He guessed what they were thinking. For the last week Ae had been forbidden to leave the caravan’s protective ring of wagons. This was the first chance the anchors had had to attack Ae while she was relatively unprotected.
“You wanted Ae away from our wagons to see what would happen,” Mita said.
“Yes,” Colton said. “But I didn’t know about the other anchors. I just wanted to see what Sri Sa would do around her.”
Mita started to say something but fell silent, shaking her head in irritation. Colton wondered if she was resisting the urge to call him a psychopath.
“All of you get back to your work assignments,” Elder Vácha said. “Don’t mention this to anyone. Especially not to Ae.”
“I apologize for causing trouble,” Colton said.
“Shut it,” Elder Vácha snapped. “Next time you don’t tell me of some plan of yours, your psychopathic ass is out of this caravan.”
Colton bowed deeply to mollify Elder Vácha. “It’s true, you know,” he said. “I make no apology for it.”
“What do you mean?” Elder Vácha asked.
“I have no emotions. If that makes me damaged, or sick, or a psychopath—whatever people want to call me—then so be it. Because I know you say those words without knowing their true meaning.”
“Your point?” Elder Vácha asked.
“None of you understand what a true psychopath is. But whatever the definition, Sri Sa may just be the first one you’ve ever actually met.”
Colton worked until midnight on the caravan’s new wagon. Master Dandez, the caravan’s biosmith, had fired up her wagon’s nanoforge and used clay and metals in the soil to craft ceramic armor plates and wagon parts. Colton and other members of the caravan assembled these parts into the new wagon or repaired issues with the current ones, and they installed the items they’d salvaged from the destroyed caravan.
A nanoforge used so many resources that running it on most lands for anything other than minor creations like knives or small parts risked the grains attacking them. But even though this land’s gathering veil was going strangely, Sri Sa had given them permission to run the forge. Colton could feel the land’s grains screaming about the desecration of their environment, but so far Sri Sa hadn’t responded to their demands for justice.
No other anchor could ignore their grains’ demands, but Sri Sa somehow did it.
Three days later Colton helped adjust the new wagon’s rear axle. He worked with several of Master Dandez’ apprentices, all still barely into their teens. The kids talked of new tools and technologies they wanted the nanoforge to create before the veil ended, and of boys and girls they wished to impress or kiss or avoid.
Colton took no part in their small talk, which he’d never been good at. Instead, he stared at the red dot on his wrist. He wanted to tap it again. To again feel an emotion, even if it was fear.
That night, after washing up and eating supper, Elder Vácha called Colton to a meeting in her wagon.
Colton squeezed in alongside Ae, Mita, Daner Crowe, Master Dandez, and several others. Elder Vácha sat by her displays at the front of the wagon, maps and diagrams of this land floating in the air around her.
“Any luck locating the remaining horses from the destroyed caravans?” Elder Vácha asked the head groom.
“We’ve spotted the trail of another pair,” the groom said. “Should capture them by tomorrow at the latest.”
The people in the wagon muttered approval. A number of new horses had already been captured. A caravan could never have too many draft horses.
Elder Vácha dismissed the groom and a few others. Once they left, she waved for Ae to step to the front. The girl squeezed past the diagnostic table and the people crowded around it.
“Tell them,” Elder Vácha said.
Ae pointed at the floating map of this land. “Sri Sa is pulling the grains from her borders,” Ae said. “As her grains retreat, the grains and anchors from other lands are advancing toward us.”
The map showed the borders of Sri Sa’s land collapsing, drawing into the central grasslands where the ancient city lay and where the caravan had spent the last week and a half.
“You sure about this?” Daner Crowe asked.
“It’s what the grains tell me,” Ae said.
Daner Crowe and the others looked at Colton, but he shrugged. “Her connector receives better information from the grains than me.”
“We need to take Ae’s warnings seriously,” Elder Vácha said, “The reports I’ve received from caravans on nearby lands back her up. The anchors have surrounded Sri Sa’s land but, after the attack earlier this week, they’re afraid to advance in case what’s affecting her grains also infects their own. But as her grains retreat, those anchors are moving forward.”
“How long?” Master Dandez, the bio-smith, asked in her scratchy voice. Decades of exposure to the chemicals and nanotech of her wagon’s forge had permanently damaged her voice and lungs, with her needing monthly repairs on the diagnostic table to stay alive.
“At least five days before they reach here,” Elder Vácha said. “Maybe a little more. Depends on how fast Sri Sa’s grains retreat.”
“We can finish the new wagon by then,” Master Dandez said. “I’ll also have time to apply a nano-bonded coating to all our wagons. The city under this land has existed unchanged since it was destroyed twenty thousand years ago. If I set the forge to mimic the nano-bonds in the buildings and apply those bonds to our wagons’ armor, it’d be extremely difficult for anchors to break inside.”
“While those nano-bonds may be strong, don’t forget this city was still destroyed,” Daner Crowe muttered. “Why should we trust protection that failed an entire city?”
Master Dandez glared as if she wanted to smack him. “Do you even know your history? The wars against the grains were fought with weapons far beyond anything we have today. Nano armor would stop regular anchors.”
Mita nodded approvingly, as had most of the caravan council when Master Dandez first pitched the idea last week. Everyone loved the idea of unbreakable wagons. But Elder Vácha again refused to consider it.
“Colton, you were once an anchor,” Elder Vácha said. “What would the grains on other lands do if we broke the rules by using nano-bonds like this?”
“They would force their anchors to swarm our caravan,” Colton said. “The anchors would kill our horses then wait as we slowly starved. Or carry our wagons to a river and drown us. While they may not be able to easily break nano-bonds, they still control the lands we travel through. The land always wins.”
“Then what’s the point of all this?” Master Dandez yelled. “Building a new wagon, making a new sword for Mita because she dropped the last one in a damn river. None of it matters.”
“The point is we live,” Elder Vácha said. “But while we won’t use nano-bonded armor, there is something we can do to escape this trap.”
“A trap you happily lead us into,” Daner Crowe muttered.
Elder Vácha ignored the comment and enlarged the map showing the advance of the anchors toward these central grasslands. “If Ae’s correct, the anchors are spread out around the land’s border like a noose on our necks. But the good news is they’re spread thin. I propose we follow the river out of Sri Sa’s land. When we encounter the anchors, maybe they let us pass. If not, we fight our way free and ride like hell before anyone catches us.”
Mita leaned in to look at the map. “Our wagons can make good time along the river—there appears to be an ancient road under that soil, keeping the land flat and clear. But are we seriously going to fight anchors? With only my single sword?”
Elder Vácha waved her hand, replacing the projected map with weapon schematics. Hand-held lasers. Laser rifles. “Remember what Colton’s mother did before she died? She killed hundreds of anchors with a single laser.”
“Wait,” Master Dandez said. “You won’t let us use nano armor because of what the anchors would do, but advanced weapons are a go?”
“If we break through the anchors’ lines and escape, we’ll throw the lasers into the river and pretend we never had them. The next group of anchors might not realize what we’ve done. We can’t do that with enhanced armor.”
“What if the grains report to others what we’ve done?” Mita asked.
“My guess is the grains will be so focused on fighting Sri Sa, they’ll miss us. Or maybe Ae and her connector can help us erase our tracks.”
“This plan reeks of ‘if’,” Daner Crowe said.
Elder Vácha agreed. “The biggest ‘if’ is what Sri Sa will do. But we’ll figure that out soon enough.”
As Elder Vácha said this, she nodded at Colton.
Over the next two days Colton worked on completing the new wagon, barely sleeping at all. There were already arguments over who would get the wagon, but he knew Elder Vácha and the council would decide that only if the caravan escaped with all their lives.
He was fitting the armored shutters onto one of the new wagon’s windows when Elder Vácha walked over. The nanoforge had finished fabricating the wagon parts and was being reset to produce advanced weapons. With a little downtime Elder Vácha had decided to inspect the wagon.
“Any issues fitting the parts together?” she asked.
“None,” Colton said. “The design’s perfect.”
Elder Vácha snorted, making Colton wonder if he’d again said something wrong. She walked around the wagon smacking the armor with the bottom of her fist, ringing the ceramic panels to a deep tone.
“If this had been a proper gathering veil, we could have built a masterpiece,” Elder Vácha said. “This design is functional but little more. We don’t even have time to paint it.”
“You’ve experienced a veil before?”
“As a child. Our caravan spent three months in a land where the grains destroyed themselves. It usually takes that long for new grains to populate a land. Most amazing experience of my life. I lived without my every action being analyzed and evaluated. I could reach for actual dreams. My master built three new wagons, which he’d spent his entire life designing.”
Colton nodded as if he understood, but Elder Vácha saw through him and sighed. She leaned against one of the large wagon wheels, looking exhausted. “Do you really think Sri Sa is a psychopath?” she asked.
“In some ways, yes.”
“That anchor is the unknown in all this. Is she causing this strange veil? Or did those monks and their connectors do it? I want you to seek her out and learn what she plans to do. While I agree she’s strangely interested in Ae, I suspect she also likes you.”
Colton right hand reached toward the red spot on his left wrist—he figured this was a good time to feel fear. But he held off on releasing the emotion.
“I need you to do this, Colton. The caravan needs you. And it’s in your self-interest. If we don’t learn what Sri Sa’s up to, none of us will make it out of here alive.”
Colton appreciated that. “I’ll do it.”
“Thank you.” Elder Vácha paused. “I know you won’t care about my words, but I am very sorry for making you do this. I never wanted any of this.”
Colton started to mention how Elder Vácha volunteered their caravan to be the first to explore this gathering veil, which seemed like a big part of the reason they were now stuck here.
Instead, he kept silent, not wanting to make her angry.
Colton prepared to search for Sri Sa. He filled a small backpack with food and a canteen and knife. As he left the wagon he saw Elder Vácha talking to Master Dandez and Mita about the designs the forge needed to create lasers. She refused to look in Colton’s direction, as if embarrassed at what she’d asked him to do.
Colton wandered outside the protective ring of wagons. He wasn’t sure where to go. Sri Sa had appeared and disappeared frequently since she killed those anchors near the river. Sometimes she returned covered in blood, suggesting she’d fought the anchors surrounding her land. Other times she stood near the caravan and stared at everyone for hours without saying a word.
As Colton walked past Master Dandez’s wagon, Ae stepped from behind the back wheel. She held a small bag.
“Dried bread and jerky,” she said, handing Colton the bag. “For your trip.”
Colton thanked her. The protective feeling he’d had to Ae after accessing her connector was gone. But he still appreciated how she worked so hard to fit in with the caravan. He’d done the same when he’d first joined.
“Were those anchors really trying to kill me?” Ae asked.
“You aren’t supposed to know that.”
“Every caravan lives on rumors. Daner Crowe said you took me to salvage that caravan merely to see how Sri Sa would react.”
Colton’s hand flicked towards his wrist before stopping. He knew he should feel something right now. Shame or anger or sorrow. But all he had was fear, and that didn’t seem like the correct emotion.
“That’s not true.”
Ae snorted and glared at Colton. “I’m not going to lose this caravan,” she said.
“I don’t understand.”
“My parents’ caravan was destroyed by anchors. The monks’ caravan took me in and I hated every minute of what they did to me. I like this caravan. I’m not going to lose it.”
“I feel the same way.” He paused. “Well, kind of. As much as I can feel anything.”
“Then don’t lie. Did you take me over there to see what would happen?”
Colton tapped his wrist and felt fear at people discovering the truth about him. At everyone learning he truly didn’t care about anyone here. That he was incapable of caring.
He pushed the fear from his mind. He was tired of hiding who he was. He was tired of so much.
“I did. Nothing personal, and I had planned to protect you. But I wanted to know what was going on with Sri Sa.”
“Everyone tells me you’re a psychopath. That you can’t care for or relate to anyone else.”
Colton kneeled so he could look Ae in the face. “I’ll tell you the absolute truth,” he whispered. “I’ve never told anyone this. Elder Vácha and Mita and others suspect it, but they’ve lived with emotions all their lives and can’t understand what it’s like without them.”
“And I truly don’t care. About anyone here. But like you, I know I can’t live without this caravan. So I’m careful not to let them know my lack of caring, or be caught doing anything that’d make them kick me out.”
Ae stared into his face with a look of... interest? Fascination? Colton couldn’t tell.
“When those anchors attacked us, they thought my connector was causing the problems with this gathering veil,” Ae said. “Some of the grains from those dead anchors surely survived to reach other lands, so other grains and anchors now know the problem is Sri Sa. They’ll be coming for her. And for us.”
“I’ll protect you. Not because I care for you. But because your memories let me experience sadness for the first time in years. You can trust me.”
“Or maybe you’re saying that to mollify me?”
“Smart. What do you think?”
“I think you need to ask Sri Sa to give you more emotions than just fear.”
“I plan to do just that.”
Ae hugged him, which wasn’t the reaction he’d expected from his honesty, then pointed west, away from the river and waterfall. “The grains say Sri Sa’s that way. Be careful. Sri Sa’s losing control of both herself and her land.”
“Thanks,” Colton replied before hiking away.
Colton walked for hours, looking for Sri Sa. He could sense her nearby but didn’t know if she was toying with him, hunting him, or simply ignoring his presence.
He encountered more evidence that this land’s grains were nearing whatever end-stage this strange veil led towards. Next to one hill a huckleberry bush waved its branches as if they’d become muscle and bone. The bush shook and shivered, its berries swelling to the size of his fist before exploding in a mist of grains. The released grains sizzled into the sky and showed images of a man in a fur coat standing beside this same hill. Except the hill was snow-swept.
The closer he came to Sri Sa the more the grains’ memories played around him. He saw projections behind every tree and hill. Anchors fighting each other. Anchors massacring day-fellows. Anchors carrying dirt and rocks across the land and dumping these loads over and over and over.
These last images puzzled Colton. But instead of worrying about the grains’ memories or Sri Sa, he merely walked on.
Most of the destroyed buildings he passed were covered in soil and rocks and trees, making the city look like a geometric pattern desperate to hide from the world; a forest drawn by a child who loved creating countless small hills.
However, not all of the city was hidden. Gullies revealed the edges of broken buildings gleaming a brilliant white as if they’d never been buried. The black mirrors of other buildings shown through tiny caves and crevices, as if the night sky had flowed down the sides of the hills.
If those buildings could remain after so long underground, Colton understood why Master Dandez had begged to coat their wagons’ armor with a similar material.
Colton also discovered buildings whose shattered entrances looked like strange doorways to even stranger worlds. He walked into one cave to discover a glass-like barrier preventing him from entering. This building hadn’t been completely destroyed like the rest.
Inside he saw a mummified human lying face down on the floor beside the glass. Other bodies lay in the dark beyond. Nothing moved in the room, as if even the air inside didn’t object to being preserved for tens of thousands of years.
Colton kicked the glass door, wondering if the mummies would collapse to dust if he broke in. But the glass was far stronger than him and refused to break. He wandered on.
Several hills over he found another door, only it was destroyed and open. He walked through the building’s rooms. Everything inside was decayed and gone, with only bats skittering on the ceiling above.
He walked through the dark rooms for a few minutes before realizing he could easily get lost. He turned around, heading back to the door, when he heard a low growl. He pulled his knife from its sheath.
And dropped the knife as he fell to his knees. He saw the room as it appeared when the city had lived. Several men hid here, whispering in panic, afraid of being found by the attacking anchors.
“Happiness, sadness, anger, fear,” Colton muttered, shaking his head to stay focused. He again saw the room as it existed today.
“The grains told me about you,” Sri Sa said as she stepped from a door leading deeper into the damaged building. “About your mother. That you whisper over and over the emotions you don’t feel.”
Her eyes glowed red, as did rips up and down her body. The blood dripping from the rips formed tiny fairies, which fluttered for a few moments before dying in silent spasms.
“Would you like to experience what the people back then felt?” Sri Sa asked. “Feel their true fear, as the anchors attacked? Touch your wrist. Release the fear.”
Colton’s fingers touched his wrist as if he couldn’t control himself. He gasped and stared at Sri Sa and almost pissed himself. He wanted to run but his legs wouldn’t work. Sri Sa stepped toward him, a low growl escaping her fanged lips.
Colton giggled, then chuckled, then toppled over and laughed so hard he couldn’t keep his face out of the bat shit on the floor.
“Not... the reaction I expected,” Sri Sa said.
“No, sorry, I’m faking,” Colton said, sitting back up without any emotion on his face. “I’ve seen people laugh when they’re scared. I thought it would help. It didn’t.”
“You need to feel actual amusement for that to work.” Sri Sa smirked. “Are you done rolling in bat shit?”
Colton watched a single red fairy fly to the ceiling and skirt among the bats, which snapped and chirped at it until the grains which fed the fairy’s body dimmed and fell like dust to the floor.
“Come on,” Sri Sa said, picking Colton up by his belt and carrying him toward the door. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
Colton bathed in a stream flowing between the hills. He washed his clothes and hung them on a branch to dry then scrubbed his body. The water was cold and clear and had eroded through the soil to a cracked white street below.
Memory projections danced around Colton. He saw people drinking water and bathing and playing in this very stream across the centuries.
Sri Sa sat on a branch high in an oak tree above the stream and watched Colton bathe. Colton knew anyone else would feel embarrassed by her gaze, but he merely puzzled at why she watched him so closely.
“I worked this stream as a kid,” Sri Sa said, leaning back until she hung upside down, her legs wrapped around the tree branch to keep from falling. “It’s a full-day hike over the hills to where the city ends. I’d carry a massive basket of soil on my back from there to fill in the erosion. Next week, the soil would be eroded away again.”
Colton remembered the grains’ projections of other anchors doing similarly pointless chores. “Why?”
“We made this land.”
“How can you make something that’s already here?”
“Do you know why the grains were created?”
“To save the world,” Colton said, repeating the memories he’d been shown as a kid. “To save our planet and ourselves.”
“Maybe. But not everyone agreed. Battles were fought. This city was the last holdout opposed to the grains.”
Colton hadn’t known that. But as his mother often said, the grains only showed people their preferred memories.
“The city had an energy shield and high-tech weapons to protect their people,” Sri Sa said. “The city had already existed for hundreds of years and was built to last thousands. The people here thought technology would save them.”
Sri Sa laughed. “They thought wrong. The grains created massive anchors, far larger than any this world had ever seen. Anchors built of land and water and stone instead of being crafted within human bodies. Anchors like mountains. They destroyed the city.”
Colton tapped his wrist. He shivered in fear at the thought of being attacked by anchors the size of mountains.
Sri Sa let go of the tree branch and fell, her head smacking the boulder below. Colton shuddered at the crack of skull on stone even as he saw a projected memory of another anchor hitting her head on that same boulder millennia before.
Sri Sa shook her head, the gash there healing as red fairies dripped from the wound. “Always wanted to try that,” she said. “Whenever I slacked off work the grains force-fed me that memory of an ancient anchor hitting her head. Supposed to inspire me not to goof off.”
“I still don’t understand why you carried soil here.”
“You want another emotion?” Sri Sa asked. “You can’t understand what I’m about to share without it.”
Sri Sa jumped into the stream beside Colton and grabbed his arm. “Emotions are like colors,” she whispered. “Only a few primary colors, combined, create all the others you see. It’s the same with emotions.”
A single claw grew from Sri Sa’s right index finger. She ran it from Colton’s elbow to wrist, stopping to tap the red dot there. “You need happiness this time,” she said with a grin. “Fear and happiness mix to create duty. You can’t understand why I’m angry without experiencing duty.”
Sri Sa stabbed the claw into Colton’s wrist.
Memories flooded him. He saw people laughing and loving and playing and dancing, each memory wrapping pure bliss through his body and mind. He held a newborn baby to his chest for the first time—his baby, a baby born of him and Sri Sa. He imagined kissing Sri Sa on the cheek as she whispered her love back to him.
“I created those two memories just for you,” Sri Sa said as she tapped his lips with a claw. “The next memories, though, are real. They’re my favorites.”
Colton laughed as he felt Sri Sa’s most precious memories, which came from a woman who’d lived in this city before its destruction. Colton experienced her life in the nano-built city among buildings gleaming to absolute whiteness or lost to perfect darkness. He played among gardens bursting with gene-altered flowers and cool-mist fountains. He learned in vast libraries containing all of humanity’s knowledge. He listened to innovative music flow from performance halls and theaters. He watched children play in beautiful parks and lovers hug as they walked warm-lit streets at night.
Colton grinned. He saw why Sri Sa loved these memories
But then his happiness shifted to fear. Colton experienced memories of anchors as large as mountains approaching the city. The anchors looked human but with blank faces, lacking eyes or noses or mouths. They pulled nearby land and water together to create their bodies, which bled grains from massive rips opening and closing on them. They smashed their giant fists against the shield protecting they city. They smashed supposedly unbreakable buildings. They...
Colton came back to himself as the grains’ memories released him. He’d fallen underwater in the stream and choked and thrashed as Sri Sa gazed down without helping. He sat up out of the water and gagged, gasping for air as the memories and emotions drained from his body.
“Thanks for the saving me,” he muttered.
“Ooh, sarcasm. You wouldn’t have that without the two emotions I’ve gifted you.”
Colton looked at his wrist. A second red dot had joined the first.
“Sorry for the scare,” Sri Sa said. “I wanted the memories to end with happiness. But some of Dali’s later life bled into it. It’s so hard to edit memories. You always get the good with the bad.”
“I saw giant anchors attacking the city.”
“Yeah. Dali, the woman who created those memories, died shortly after the city fell. She witnessed the attack.”
Shivering from the cold water, or maybe from Sri Sa’s words, Colton climbed out of the stream. He looked at Sri Sa, seeing her in a totally different way.
“You aren’t a regular anchor,” he said. “At least not like I used to be.”
Sri Sa smirked. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
Colton reached out and poked Sri Sa’s bare arm. She felt human. Felt warm. But as he pulled back his finger a bloody rip in her skin opened. The rip pulled his finger into the wound—it tingled as if being digested before the rip expelled his flesh. Sri Sa laughed. Colton remembered how the giant anchors pulled other materials together to form their bodies.
“Humans created the grains to save the environment and force us to live as part of this world,” Sri Sa said. “They knew the grains’ collective intelligence and power could be dangerous—that’s why the grains were programmed to only work through certain humans, who we call anchors. This was supposed to limit their power.”
Sri Sa leaned against a tree and, growing a claw from her index finger, scratched a heart into the bark. “But this city resisted. Regular anchors were unable to defeat its shields and weapons, so the grains gambled. They created a special type of grains, ones with massive power which didn’t need to work through human bodies. Which could build their own bodies from the earth around them.”
With her claw Sri Sa sliced open her belly and slung her blood at Colton. When the blood hit Colton he saw the giant anchors rampaging through the city, destroying every building and person they could find, their blank faces uncaring, feeling nothing but anger. The regular grains screamed for the giant anchors to stop—they only wanted to defeat the city, not kill everyone within. But the giant anchors didn’t stop. Their grains had gone wild with blood lust.
Only when the destruction was complete did the renegade grains come back to themselves. They felt shame at the slaughter of so many innocent people. To hide their sin the other grains ordered the renegade grains and their giant anchors to carry soil and rocks from other lands to bury the city. As final penance, the renegade grains deactivated themselves, collapsing the water and soil and stone in the giant anchors’ bodies to join this new land.
“The rest you know, or can guess,” Sri Sa told Colton as her memories released him. “No more of these special grains were ever created. Regular grains and anchors spread across the world, helping the environment recover from centuries of war and destruction and maintaining all lands according to the grains’ programmed rules. Most who’d fought against the grains were allowed to live even if they could never again settle in one place. Over time they became the day-fellows.”
Sri Sa frowned. “The grains were also desperate to make people forget that they’d taken millions of lives. After all, the grains were supposed to be part of an enlightened new phase in human history. This land’s new anchors were told to continue covering the city under soil and stones and forests and plants. My family did this for twenty thousand years. Our most sacred duty—to forever hide the grains’ worst sin.”
“How do you know all this? The memories you’re sharing...”
“The grains mistakenly shared their true memories with me.”
Colton knew this was a lie, but he decided not to press Sri Sa. He reached toward his wrist, intending to touch happiness to show Sri Sa that he was on her side. She grabbed his hand and stopped him.
“Don’t activate your emotions too often,” Sri Sa said. “Those grains are merely transplanted to your body, not living there naturally. They weaken slightly each time you use them.”
“How long will they last?”
“Several thousand uses. Maybe more.” Sri Sa lowered her voice, suddenly self-conscious. “Of course, if you’re with me I can always give you fresh grains to keep your emotions going.”
Unsure what Sri Sa wanted, Colton stepped to the tree branch where his clothes hung, planning to dress. Sri Sa snatched his pants before he could and held them to her face, breathing deep like a bloodhound taking a scent.
Colton yanked the pants from her. Sri Sa playfully bumped her hip against his own, sending him stumbling from her greater strength.
“Want to feel more emotions?” she asked, grinning.
Colton nodded. Sri Sa held his hand and forced his fingers to touch the red dots. Happiness and fear and emotions blended from those two flooded him as Sri Sa kissed his lips.
Colton saw projected memories of previous anchors making love in this same spot. He shivered, this time not from the cold water.
Sri Sa pulled Colton to the ground, and he happily, nervously, followed her down.
Colton woke in the night. Sri Sa slept beside him, looking peaceful even though red-glowing rips opened and closed constantly in her skin. She coughed every now and then as if sick, a burst of red grains blowing from her mouth each time.
Colton stood and pulled on his clothes. The grove and the stream glowed to red light from hundreds of red fairies dancing between the trees and skipping along the rippling water. A hazy layer of red mist also floated across the ground. Colton reached out with his damaged grains and realized the mists were masses of this land’s grains flowing toward Sri Sa. The grains entered the rips in her skin as if she breathed them in.
The red fairies fluttered before Colton’s face and waved for him to follow. Colton trailed after them as they led him into the stream. He thought they were playing a joke on him, but the fairies danced upstream, still waving to follow.
Colton waded after them.
Fifty yards upstream the water had carved a sharp bank as it flowed between the hills. Halfway up the bank lay a small cave, into which the fairies flew. Colton climbed up and followed them inside.
The cave went back about ten yards. In the fairies’ red glow Colton saw what looked like himself staring back from a dark mirror. He walked forward to discover that the cave’s back wall was a large sheet of smoke-dark glass. He cupped his hands and looked inside. By the fairies’ glow he saw shelves of paper books and a large chair holding a mummified human. The mummy’s eyes stared at the glass while an open book lay in its lap.
“I’ve read every book in her library,” Sri Sa said. “I’ve lived her every memory.”
Colton turned. Sri Sa stood naked before the cave’s entrance. The rips on her body blew red grains in and out, panting like an enraged predator chasing prey.
“The room behind this glass is sealed,” he said. “How did you get in?”
“I didn’t need to.” Sri Sa leaned against the glass and kissed her reflected image. “Before one of the giant anchors deactivated their renegade grains, they noticed this home had escaped destruction. The woman inside begged for help. The renegade grains knew the other grains wouldn’t allow a witness to the carnage to escape alive, so the anchor covered the home under tons of soil and rock. The anchor also released millions of their grains into this room and sealed it off.”
“Why? What good would come of...”
Colton stopped speaking as the room behind the glass flickered to red light. The mummy in the chair stood up, her desiccated muscles moving under the remnants of clothes. The mummy’s eyes glowed red, as did tears in her body, which opened and closed like the rips on Sri Sa’s skin. The mummy stepped to the glass and held the book up, opened to a specific page.
“Thank you, Dali,” Sri Sa said. “I’ll read the book another time.”
The mummy nodded and laid the book down on the chair.
“I found this place four years ago,” Sri Sa said. “The stream had flooded and exposed the cave.”
“She can’t still be alive.”
“No. The renegade grains were never programmed to mesh with humans. They killed Dali when they merged with her body. But the grains lived on, occupying her shell, saving her memories, keeping the room sealed so no air or water or other grains could get in.”
“Until you found this cave.”
Sri Sa leaned against the glass, causing the mummy to lean against the other side. “Dali is my best friend. She held the books open for me to read. She mouthed her own stories. I learned to read her lips. I love her.”
Sri Sa started weeping, banging her fist against the glass while the grains animating Dali’s dead flesh mimicked her motion on the other side.
“I never told anyone,” she sobbed. “Not even my mother. This was my secret. I wouldn’t have told what the grains did to the city. I would have stayed quiet!”
Colton understood. “You’re an anchor. The grains copy all your memories.”
Sri Sa wiped her eyes. “It took several years, but eventually the grains figured out from my memories that some of the renegade grains had survived behind this glass. That’s why they created a gathering veil on this land. They planned to force my family to bury this room under tons of new stone and soil. Then, when the renegade grains were once again hidden, all of our land’s grains along with me and my family would have died. No one would ever know what had happened.”
“I see why you’re angry...”
“No!” Sri Sa yelled. “You can’t. You don’t even know what anger is. I hated being an anchor. I hated the grains forcing me to do their will. But at least I was part of something important. Something that would live on after I was gone. And this cave and Dali even made me happy. Then suddenly the grains wanted to destroy my life, my duty, my family, and my memories! Everything! All so no one would remember what they did to this damn city.”
Sri Sa’s muscles swelled and twitched. Her right hand spasmed as if to rip Colton to shreds. She took a deep breath to regain control.
“How did you do this?” he asked, deciding it was time to get the information Elder Vácha sent him to learn. “You’re controlling the grains instead of being controlled by them.”
“Look over there.”
Sri Sa pointed to a dark corner of the cave, where the glass disappeared back under soil and rock. The corner was strangely dark, not lit by the fairies, which avoided the area as if afraid. Colton made out a dark shape beside the glass. He walked closer. The shape moved. A face turned toward him.
Šenk, the young man he’d seen in Ae’s memories of Brother Anderly’s wagon.
“He can’t actually see you,” Sri Sa said. “He’s totally consumed by the grains’ memories.”
Colton leaned closer to the man, who sat against the glass wall. His connector stabbed out from the back of his neck like a cancerous silver dart into the glass behind him, blossoming like a flower on the other side. It hummed faintly.
“Šenk showed up with his caravan a month ago,” Sri Sa said as she squatted next to him. “My mother and I already knew the gathering veil was coming, so we were happy to host the caravan. Took our minds off our looming deaths and all.”
Sri Sa caressed the stubble on the young man’s face. “The monks wanted Šenk to use his connector to reprogram this land’s grains,” she said. “To make the gathering veil last for years instead of months. They’d then use that time to build technology to destroy the grains once and for all. However, Šenk didn’t trust them. While his caravan was here he and I grew close. He confided in me about their plans.”
The mummy walked over and touched the silver blossom on its side of the glass. A cloud of red grains burst from a rip on the mummy’s arm and flowed into the connector, through the glass and out Šenk’s mouth. Sri Sa breathed the grains into her body. Her skin spasmed and quivered as she giggled softly.
“Šenk’s connector reprograms the renegade grains in that room so they work in my body. And I use those grains to control the other grains on my land.”
She tapped a finger against a red fairy flying beside her, which shivered and flew toward Šenk only to dissolve on his connector. Šenk groaned as if in pain.
“Wakey, wakey,” Sri Sa said. “No more memories for you.”
Šenk gasped and opened his eyes. When he saw Sri Sa he tried to move away, but his connector rooted him to the spot.
“Go on, Colton” Sri Sa said. “He’ll tell you everything.”
“What did you do?” Colton asked.
Šenk wiped tears from his eyes. “She lied to me. Forgive me, Brother Anderly. I was weak and she lied to me.”
Colton held the man’s face to focus him. “I’m not Brother Anderly,” Colton said. “What did she do?”
“She said she liked me. Asked me to give her control over the grains within this glass room. But these grains are wrong. They should never have been freed.”
Šenk gagged, or maybe laughed. Colton couldn’t tell which.
The mummy bled more grains through Šenk’s connector. Sri Sa pulled them into her body and laughed as she hugged herself in happiness.
“Watch out for her,” Šenk whispered. “Those weird grains let her control the other grains on her land, but I must keep reprogramming them or giving her new ones. Otherwise she loses control. It’s too much power to contain.”
“Shush,” Sri Sa said. She grabbed a fairy and smeared its grains over Šenk’s connector. “Go back to dreams.”
Šenk’s eyes rolled back into his head and he sighed.
“He’s reliving Dali’s memories,” Sri Sa said. “Living her life over and over. It’s a nice way to die.”
Colton stepped away from Sri Sa toward the cave’s entrance. But he was under no illusion he could escape from Sri Sa unless she wanted him to.
“What do you need from me?” he asked.
“I want off this land. I want to keep my memories and power. But the grains on other lands know the renegade grains are free. They’re waiting for me. So you’ll help me escape. You and your caravan. If we fight together we have a chance to overwhelm the grains and slip away.”
“Šenk said you’ll lose control of those renegade grains unless he keeps reprogramming them.”
“Not if Ae goes with me.”
A logical plan, Colton thought. If Ae used her connector she could help Sri Sa maintain control wherever she went.
“Why not take Šenk?”
“His connector and mind are nearly burnt out,” Sri Sa said. “I’ve overused him.”
Which would also be Ae’s eventual fate, Colton realized. But that was a concern for later.
“What’s in it for me?” Colton asked.
“You’ll live. Your caravan will live. Isn’t that enough.”
“Please. Do better than that.”
“I’ll give you the last two emotions you’re missing. I’ll also take you with me so your emotions never run out.”
Sri Sa smiled as she said this last bit. Colton tapped happiness and smiled back, thinking that he really did like Sri Sa. She was so like him.
“What do you think of my offer?” Sri Sa asked.
Colton held out his arm.
Sri Sa laughed as she grabbed his arm and a single claw grew from her index finger. “Only one emotion to start, with the last one once you’ve done what I want. Which one then? Anger? Sadness?”
Sri Sa looked at Šenk. “Sadness it is,” she said, stabbing her claw into Colton’s arm.
Colton gasped and fell to the cave floor. But unlike before he didn’t experience any of the grains’ memories. Nothing to show what sorrow should be.
“There are no old memories with this emotion,” Sri Sa said. “Instead, I’m creating a brand-new memory to always remind you what sadness means.”
Colton stared, not understanding. Sri Sa grew claws from all her fingers on her right hand and stabbed them into Šenk’s chest. He woke from his memories and screamed as Sri Sa pulled apart his ribs and ripped out his heart, which she tossed into Colton’s lap.
Colton shook, the grains copying his own memory of this moment. He felt Šenk’s pain. Felt his despair.
Worse, Colton saw Šenk’s memories as he died. Saw him born and living and dreaming of more than his family’s little caravan. When they one day encountered the monk’s caravan, Šenk joined them, hoping for adventures and a new life.
Instead, he learned the horrifying truth that the monks wanted a war against the grains. But by then his family’s caravan was too far away to rejoin. He cried as he realized the trap he’d stepped into. Then he was forced to carry this connector. Then he was tricked and tortured into doing Sri Sa’s bidding.
Šenk screamed a final time before dying. Colton joined in the scream, imagining it was his own life ending. His own hopes and dreams forever denied.
“We’re escaping in three days, my sweetness,” Sri Sa said. “Don’t forget our deal, or I’ll kill you and your entire caravan.”
Sri Sa walked away, leaving Colton to scream on the cave floor until he passed out.
Colton woke later in the semi-dark cave. The sun slipped a few tints of morning light through the entrance, but shadows and dimness still flowed around him.
He stood. He didn’t see Sri Sa.
But he did see Šenk’s body. He did see the grain-powered mummy watching him from behind the glass.
There were now three emotions on his wrist: fear, happiness, and sadness. He touched all three and felt almost human. For a few moments.
Then he remembered what Sri Sa had done to Šenk. He collapsed to the cave floor and cried.
Thankfully his emotions never lasted too long. Once they were finished, Colton wiped his eyes. He waved goodbye to the mummy—which waved back—and hiked to his caravan.
The only way forward was through death.
An hour before dawn, Colton hitched Butterlove and Patty to the front traces of the four-horse harness. Butterlove nickered as if amused to be leading other horses while Patty seemed as nonchalant as ever. Colton double-checked their harnesses, checked the other two horses, then walked around the new wagon. Salvaged solar panels covered the wagon’s armored walls and roof while extra kinetic generators gripped the axels.
With four horses and not much inside except for power storage and strap-in seats for the passengers, the wagon would be as fast and nimble as any he’d ridden.
Ae sat in the back plugging the three laser pistols and one rifle into the wagon’s power system. “Which is mine?” she asked.
“Your choice. But leave the heavy rifle to Mita.”
Ae grinned as she looked at the pistols, deciding which to pick. She’d been excited ever since Elder Vácha told her she’d be riding in the lead wagon. Ae wanted revenge for what had been done to her, and to prove herself to her new caravan.
Colton looked at the lights of the other ten wagons lined up for their escape. With the horses they’d captured from the two destroyed caravans and their own extra horses, all the wagons were led by four-horse teams. The caravan would make excellent time.
Mita walked up as Colton again checked the horses. “Elder Vácha wants to see you,” she said.
Colton turned toward the elder’s wagon but Mita grabbed his arm. “I wanted...,” she said, hesitating, which was unlike her. “I mean, you did a good job, finding out what Sri Sa was up to. I’m glad you’re in our caravan.”
“Thanks,” Colton said, puzzled. Mita rarely praised anyone.
As Colton walked down the line of wagons he saw Sri Sa approaching. She was powered down and waving at the members of the caravan, who either pretended not to see her or awkwardly waved back. While only Colton, Mita, and Elder Vácha knew the details of what Sri Sa wanted, everyone had heard rumors that the anchor was using their caravan to help her escape her land and fate.
“Going to be a beautiful morning,” Sri Sa said as she passed Colton. “You can taste the anger in the air.”
Colton watched Sri Sa walk to the lead wagon. Rips opened and closed across her skin, the red shining through her worn leather clothes. Red fairies spun around her, falling to the ground as their grains weakened and deactivated. She also coughed grains from her mouth. She had pulled all her land’s remaining grains into her body but was having trouble containing them, even with the power of the renegade grains. She’d told Colton that once she escaped, she’d stabilize herself by releasing some of her excess grains. Until then she needed as much power as possible.
But the downside of Sri Sa pulling all the remaining grains to her was that the anchors surrounding her land were now free to advance without the risk of their own grains becoming infected with the veil. In the still air he could almost feel the attacking anchors who’d be upon them within hours.
Elder Vácha was strapping down supplies in the back of her wagon when Colton approached. She waved him inside and closed the back door.
“You’ll drive my wagon today,” she said.
“But I always drive the lead wagon.”
“Mita will do it.”
Colton knew he should be pleased. The lead wagon, while heavily armed, would be the focal point of the anchors’ attack.
He stared at Elder Vácha. “You plan to sacrifice the wagon.”
“I hope not. But if needed, yes.”
“Is that why you have Ae on the wagon? So she’ll be there for Sri Sa to take? If we survive?”
Elder Vácha said nothing. Colton remembered Sri Sa and Elder Vácha speaking after he’d revealed Sri Sa’s desire to escape with Ae. He hadn’t been privy to the elder’s words, but...
“You’re actually going to give Ae to Sri Sa,” he said.
“Does Ae know this?”
“Why would she? She’s not part of our caravan. I owe her nothing.”
Colton tapped his wrist, releasing all three emotions at once. He remembered Šenk in that cave, tortured until he reprogrammed the grains, then killed when he was of no further use. He didn’t want that to happen to Ae.
But he also wanted his final emotion. And he wanted to stay in this caravan. He truly cared for them. When he had emotions.
Colton sat against his bunk and breathed deep, trying to keep his voice from breaking. “I must drive the lead wagon.”
“Why should I trust you? Don’t get me wrong, Colton. You’ve proved yourself these last few weeks and, if we survive, you’ll find yourself embraced by this caravan like never before. But you have always looked out only for yourself. Not through any fault of your own. That’s what you are. A psychopath.”
“But what? Have you seen images of what a massed attack of anchors is like? I have. If need be, Mita will guide the lead wagon away from the caravan, giving us a chance to escape in trade for her own life. You wouldn’t do that.”
Colton wondered if she was right. He was being offered safety and a permanent place in the caravan. Maybe even the chance for Elder Vácha to never again call him a psychopath. He should take it.
But as he’d realized while talking with Ae the other day, he was tired of this life. Feeling emotions, even incomplete emotions only part of the time, had intensified how tired he was of what he’d been.
He knew that if he did as Elder Vácha ordered, he’d have everything he wanted. But it would also only be what he’d used to want. Who he was now, not who he wanted to one day be.
“I will drive the lead wagon,” he stated.
“Again, why should I trust you?”
Colton tapped his wrist, flooding himself with emotions. “This is all I have,” he said. He tapped the emotions again. “I don’t know how long these grains will last, how many times they can make me feel human, but I want more.”
He tapped the emotions again. And again. He would use them all up if need be. “You can trust me,” he said, crying, shaking, afraid of Elder Vácha, laughing like the happiest man on Earth. Tap. Tap. “You can trust me. You can trust me!”
Elder Vácha grabbed his hand before he could touch the emotions again.
“How many times you plan to do that?”
“Until you let me drive the wagon.”
Elder Vácha sighed. “Fine. I’ll speak to Mita. But know this—if you don’t do what’s in the interest of our caravan, she will kill you.”
Colton grinned. “Don’t worry. I always know where my self-interest lies.”
The wagons rolled at first light. They followed the ancient road buried beneath the grasslands along the river. Sri Sa sat on the roof of the lead wagon, her feet dangling above Colton’s head. She looked pensive. Was she remembering her family’s twenty thousand years on this land and how she would never see it again?
“I’ve plugged your laser into the power system,” Daner Crowe said as he leaned out of the window behind Colton and handed him a pistol. “Try not to detach the laser from the power. If you do, the stored charge is only good for five seconds of firing.”
Colton placed the pistol on his lap and thanked him. That the arrogant Daner Crowe had volunteered to join the suicide wagon surprised Colton. When Colton had asked him why, Crowe had shrugged and said that some things in life needed to be done.
They did indeed, Colton realized.
The sun rose behind the caravan, casting deep shadows ahead of the horses. Elder Vácha hoped this would blind the attacking anchors, but the shadows forced Colton to keep a sharp eye out for holes and ruts before the horses stumbled into them.
A half hour after dawn, Mita climbed through the window and sat beside him. She watched the horses trot as she held the laser rifle loose in her hands.
“You good up there, Sri Sa?” Mita yelled.
“Perfect goodness,” Sri Sa yelled back.
“When we see the anchors, we’re going to let them get close before we shoot,” Mita said. “The wagon will generate a lot of power once the sun is up and with the horses running, but the lasers will still burn through our reserves really fast once we start firing. So we want to fire when we’re sure to hit. Sri Sa, you’ll be both bait to attract the anchors toward this wagon and our last line of defense if any get past the lasers.”
“Got it, sweetheart.”
Mita tapped the laser pistol in Colton’s lap. “You focus on driving. That pistol’s only if you really need it.”
“Got it, sweetheart,” Colton said.
Mita punched Colton gently in the arm. “I’m glad we’re fighting together.”
Colton took one hand off the reins and tapped his happiness emotion. “Me too.”
Mita hugged him before climbing back through the window.
The first wave of anchors attacked an hour after dawn. At least forty, fully powered and running across the grasslands. Mita stood in the roof hatch and cut them down in twos and threes with the rifle, the straight lines of the laser shining green as it sliced through the morning mists. The anchors shrieked and howled in anger at the use of forbidden technology, but none lived long enough to reach the caravan.
As Butterlove and Patty pounded through the char-burned smoke from the dead anchors, Sri Sa yelled, “That what you get for screwing me over!”
The next attack was an hour and a half later, with the sun shining in a clear-blue sky. Hundreds of anchors ran from the hills, their bodies shedding a rainbow scream of grains and fairies. Sri Sa powered up her body and rode the wagon’s roof laughing and clapping to each laser burst. Mita and Daner Crowe and Ae fired lasers from every window. Colton heard more lasers fired from the following wagons. Again, no anchors lived to reach the caravan.
The third attack came near the border of Sri Sa’s land.
Butterlove and Patty were thundering through the grasslands when Sri Sa yelled a warning. “There’s movement in the grass ahead.”
Colton saw it. Some of the thigh-high grass ahead lay still despite the morning breeze. Or moved in opposite directions to the wind.
Mita fanned the laser across the grass, igniting it and hitting several hidden anchors. With a howl dozens of anchors jumped from hiding places, so close that a few appeared right in front of Butterlove and Patty. Mita shot two of the ones in front of them but the beam missed a third, only for the horses to knock him aside. The wheels jumped as they crunched over the anchor but the horses didn’t slow down.
“Good horses!” Colton yelled. “Good horses.”
The wagon shook as an anchor jumped on, grabbing the side. Colton glanced back and saw the anchor reaching in the side window to grab Ae with a clawed hand. Ae shot him in the face, and he fell off to another bone-crunching thump of the wagon’s wheels.
“Eyes forward, Colton,” Daner Crowe called.
Colton saw an anchor jump for him, about to land on the seat beside him. He fumbled for his laser, but it was too late. But instead of ripping Colton apart, the anchor vanished, pulled onto the roof by Sri Sa. The wagon shuddered as the anchor yelled “No, No!” A moment later Sri Sa threw the bloody pieces of the body into the grass.
Mita continued fanning the laser through the grass until no anchors were left. The horses bolted through the fires she’d started, but Colton figured the caravan would be well past before the flames turned dangerous. He’d never witnessed so much destruction of one land. But if any anchors were pursuing the rear of the caravan, maybe the fire would slow them down.
“Everyone okay?” Elder Vácha broadcast to all wagons.
“An anchor got through and killed Hira,” one wagon broadcast. Mita cursed. Hira was from her wagon.
“Mita, how’s your power levels?” Elder Vácha asked.
Mita tapped the pad beside Colton. “We’re at 60%. The charge should climb back up with the sun and horses going full on.”
“Conserve firing if you can,” Elder Vácha broadcast. “The next attack will likely be the big one. If the grains stick to attacks that are in the historical record, they’ll order the anchors from all adjacent lands to mass and overwhelm us.”
Mita acknowledged Elder Vácha before leaning back inside the wagon and cursing again. Daner Crowe consoled her, telling her Hira had died protecting the caravan.
A few minutes later Sri Sa stepped down from the roof and sat beside Colton. She’d powered down her body slightly but still was twice as big as him. She coughed several times, spewing red fairies that floated toward the hooves of the horses and died.
“There’s the end of my land,” she said, pointing. “That’s where the city ends.”
Colton saw a slight change in the land ahead, as if the grasses were a little healthier or their roots a little deeper. He slowed the horses in case the ground was different, but they rolled over the border without anyone on the wagon noticing.
“The next attack will be the devastating one,” Sri Sa said.
“According to Elder Vácha,” Colton replied.
“According to me. It’s what the grains would order me to do, if they still could. As a former anchor, you should know.”
Colton did indeed.
“Sure you want that final emotion?” Sri Sa asked.
“Can you feel the grains’ anger? They’re furious at what we’ve done. They’re pumping memories into all the anchors nearby, making them so angry they can’t think straight.”
Colton reached out with his damaged grains but felt very little beyond a slight buzzing. He saw Ae standing inside the window behind them. She nodded, as if confirming the grains’ anger.
“You’re better off without anger,” Sri Sa said. “Anger is what made the renegade grains destroy the city and kill everyone. And if I hadn’t been so angry at what the grains were going to do to me and my land’s memories, maybe...”
“None of that matters right now.”
Sri Sa shook her head like Butterlove shaking off an annoying fly. She glanced into the wagon and smiled at Ae.
“Fine,” Sri Sa said. “Don’t forget our deal.”
She climbed back on the roof. Colton flicked the reins, urging the horses on and refusing to see if Ae was still staring at him or not.
Noon came and went, the sun hot in the sky. But no anchors and no attack.
Another hour passed. The caravan stopped to rest and water the horses. Still no attack.
After the break Colton set a slow pace, not wanting to wear out the horses. He worried the grains would delay the attack until after dark, when the caravan would be easier to sneak up on. But as they moved he began to feel the grains’ anger, which had grown so strong it pulsed even through his damaged grains. The horses also felt the anger and spooked, forcing him to keep tight hold on the reins.
The grains were so angry they wouldn’t wait much longer.
An hour before dusk, with the sun shining low in everyone’s faces and the breeze dead and the river roaring, the anchors attacked.
From the hills on both sides of the river the tree leaves shivered and rippled as colored lights boiled up like a storm aiming straight for the caravan.
“What is that?” Ae asked.
The storm of colors fell at the caravan like rain, washing over and past everyone. Fairies. Countless fairies of every color. Like a murmuration of starlings flowing in and around the caravan. Colton had never seen anything like it.
“Ignore the fairies,” Mita yelled, slapping the communications pad to transmit her words to all wagons. “It’s a distraction.”
Colton stared through the cloud of fairies. Behind them the hills flowed like an avalanche, splashing across the river and heading straight for them.
It took Colton several seconds to realize the hills weren’t moving. Instead, thousands of anchors were running toward the wagons.
“Get us away from the caravan!” Mita yelled at Colton. “Everyone else, fire!”
Colton flicked the reins, urging the horses to a gallop as lasers burned through the cloud of fairies and sliced into the army of anchors. He aimed the wagon toward the anchors running at them from the northern hills, hoping those crossing the river would follow.
“I’ll burn a path for the horses,” Mita yelled. “Just don’t stop. We need most of the anchors to follow us if the others are to have a chance.”
Colton yelled for the horses to run faster. To the credit of Butterlove and Patty the horses charged right at the wave of anchors without hesitating.
“Only half of them are aiming for us,” Daner Crowe yelled as he fired his laser out the side window. “The caravan will never get through that many.”
As they neared the first of the anchors Mita fired the rifle from the roof hatch, sweeping left and right. The lasers outraged the anchors, and their grains ordered more of them to attack the wagon. But it still wasn’t enough.
“Come on, you grain-fed idiots!” Sri Sa screamed from the roof. “I carry those renegade grains you hate. Take us!”
Even her taunting didn’t bring enough anchors their way.
Colton focused on holding the horses steady and hoped the other wagons could survive. But then a click shivered his body. He shuddered and, for a moment, felt a burst of emotions from the grains in his wrist.
He glanced back to see Ae had put down her laser and was sitting strapped in her chair with her eyes closed. Colton again felt a click as his damaged grains responded to her connector. He felt the urge to run towards Ae.
“She’s calling them,” Sri Sa yelled. Then howled. “Hells yes! She’s calling them toward us!”
Colton knew this was a time to feel fear, but he didn’t have a chance to trigger the emotion as the horses charged into the anchor army. Mita burned a path in front of them but only Daner Crowe fired from one side of the wagon—Ae had passed out from using her connector to call the grains. Daner Crowe grabbed Ae’s laser and fired with two hands out both windows but it still wasn’t enough. The wagon shook and shuddered as anchors climbed its sides.
“Keep them off me so I can fire!” Mita yelled at Sri Sa, who’d grown her body again and was grabbing anchors from both sides of the wagon and ripping them apart.
Wrapping the reins around his right hand, Colton fanned the laser with his left, killing any anchor who came near the horses. But there were too many. The wagon shuddered and shimmied as one of the back wheels splintered. Another anchor slashed the left flank of Butterlove before Colton shot him. They were killing hundreds of anchors, but there were too many.
The wagon shuddered again as the wheels bounced over dead anchors, nearly spilling Colton. Butterlove bled from her wound, but she was still running at full gallop. They’d also almost reached the hills. To the left Colton saw the caravan safely passing the anchor army. A few anchors pursued them, but the caravan’s lasers killed those and kept moving.
Before he could tell Mita the plan was working, a large anchor landed on the rear two horses, gutting both animals and killing them instantly. Colton shot the anchor but the horses were still dead, now dragging Butterlove and Patti down.
He felt the wagon losing control.
“Get inside,” he yelled at Mita. “We’re going to roll.”
Wanting to give Butterlove and Patti a chance to live, Colton fired the laser in front of his feet, severing the tongue, harness, and traces and freeing the horses. He then jumped backward through the window as the wagon rolled. Mita dropped from the hatch and Colton glimpsed Sri Sa’s burning red eyes and hair as she fought several anchors on the roof before the wagon rolled and rolled. The impact was weaker than he’d expected until he realized it was cushioned by crushing the anchors around them.
The wagon stopped rolling and settled on its side. Colton searched for his laser and found it just as an anchor looked in the front window. He burned the anchor’s head off.
“Get up and fight,” Daner Crowe yelled. “Ae, girl, you awake?”
“Yes.” Ae staggered and fell back down.
“Leave her be,” Mita said, picking up her rifle. “Anyone see the caravan before we crashed?”
“They were getting away,” Colton said.
“Good.” Mita plugged her rifle back into the wagon’s power system. “We’re got 30% power remaining. Stay plugged in and kill anything that comes near. We need to keep distracting the anchors until the caravan gets further away.”
“Where’s Sri Sa?” Colton asked as he shot another anchor reaching in the window.
Ae pointed to the right side of the wagon, which had once been the floor. “She’s fighting over there. They’re trying to swamp her.”
Colton fanned the laser out the window, killing and injuring several anchors. He saw Sri Sa to the right, towering over the others, ripping apart any who came near her. She’d grown her body to the size of two wagons, far bigger than before. Her skin rippled with multiple cuts and slashes which huffed red grains in anger.
Colton fired the laser for another second before it died. He looked at the pistol and realized he’d forgotten to plug it in.
An anchor charged the window. Colton slammed the hatch shut and bolted it. The hatch shuddered from the anchor’s impact, but it held.
While Colton waited for his laser to charge he watched Mita shoot out the roof hatch, now on the left side of the wagon. Daner Crowe fired out the hatch in the rear door.
“Here,” Ae said to Colton, handing him her laser. “The charge attachment broke in the crash. But it has a few seconds of power left.”
Colton tucked it in the back of his pants. His own laser was now charged. Leaving it plugged in, he opened the hatch and fired until they ran out of power.
They sat inside the wagon’s dimness, the only light the green indicator on the power system blinking the word DEPLETED. The wagon shuddered as anchors punched and clawed the walls, but the ceramic armor held. They listened as Sri Sa fought outside.
Ae leaned against Colton. She’d been passing in and out of consciousness since using her connector.
“How much charge you two have left?” Mita asked.
“A few seconds in both of mine,” Colton said. Daner Crowe said he had the same.
“Seven seconds in my rifle,” Mita said. “We’ll wait, see if Sri Sa can finish the fight.”
They sat in the dark for fifteen or twenty minutes as the fighting outside increased. The wagon shuddered as if an earthquake hit the land. Sri Sa screamed and shrieked. A heavy thud dented the back door next to Daner Crowe.
“Think they’re—” Crowe began. Then the door beside him banged open and a bloody anchor stabbed him with a clawed hand. He cursed as the anchor dragged him outside. They heard the buzz of a laser followed by silence.
Mita aimed her rifle at the broken door. “Hold your fire, Colton,” she whispered. “Save your power in case I run out.”
Two anchors ripped the door partly off but Mita shot them before they could enter. Several more rushed in but she fanned them with the laser. Three more tried to enter and she killed them too.
“Are they trying to kill us or get inside to hide?” Colton asked.
Mita shrugged. Her rifle showed empty and she tossed it aside.
Nothing moved outside. They sat in the dark for several seconds before Mita stood and stepped outside. After checking around, she waved for Colton to follow.
Ae had passed out again. Colton laid her on the floor, knowing she’d be safer inside.
Night had fallen. Fairies lit the sky, as did burning bodies and grasslands. Colton could barely walk without stepping on the dead. The fairies flew in strangely complex geometric patterns before crashing to the ground, as if in shock over what had happened.
Mita and Colton found Daner Crowe injured beside several dead anchors. Crowe braced his laser to his chest, ready to fire again even though its power was exhausted.
“I’ll carry him,” Mita said. “Cover me.”
Colton followed Mita. The grains on his wrist begged him to engage their emotions. He refused them.
Three anchors jumped them right outside the wagon. Colton shot them all. He had no more charge left in his pistol and only a few more seconds in the spare Ae had given him.
Mita carried Daner Crowe inside the wagon, where he coughed blood. “Did the caravan make it?” he asked.
“They did,” Mita lied, since they couldn’t know.
Daner Crowe was hurt too badly to help, his broken ribs spasming to each breath. Unsure what to say, Colton stayed outside the wagon. Closer to the river hundreds of anchors were still attacking Sri Sa, who moved across the battlefield like a mountain, standing at least fifty yards tall. Soil and rock and water swirled within her body, which hemorrhaged red grains and lit the world alongside the fairies and the grassfires. She ripped the anchors apart like they were nothing. Like they were trash. Like they were the world.
For a moment Sri Sa looked at Colton with boiling red eyes. At first he didn’t know what to make of her expression, but it finally clicked with him.
Happiness, he decided. She’d looked at him with happiness.
Colton remembered the blank faces of the giant anchors he’d seen in memories. At least Sri Sa still had her face. She hadn’t lost total control.
Colton climbed back inside the wagon and closed the damaged door as best he could.
“It’s too dangerous outside,” he said. “We’ll hide here until morning.”
Daner Crowe died sometime after midnight. He knew he was dying and kept his final words and pain to himself, not wanting to let any surviving anchors know anyone was still in the wagon.
Sri Sa’s fight with the anchors ended not long after that. But even after she killed the last of them, she still thudded around like a living mountain. As if uncertain where to go or what to do.
She kicked the wagon once, sending them tumbling. She later stood beside it and screamed “I’ll kill all of you!” But she didn’t. Instead, the wagon rolled and dipped, as if the ground it rested on had turned to water. Sri Sa slammed herself against the ground over and over as if plowing a field.
Colton wondered if the grains’ power had so overwhelmed Sri Sa that she’d forgotten who she was. Or if, instead, she remembered perfectly and had finally embraced her true self.
“I can taste Šenk’s programming,” Ae whispered after Daner Crowe died.
“What do you mean?” Colton asked.
“Sri Sa is barely keeping control of her grains. She used to hide her grains from my connector, but she’s weakened so much I can now sense a program from Šenk helping her stay in control.” Ae laughed softly. “Well, that and you, Colton. Sri Sa really likes you and doesn’t want to kill you. That’s also helping her stay in control.”
“You can access all of that?” Mita asked. “Lucky us.”
Colton couldn’t tell if Mita was being serious or sarcastic.
“Colton?” Ae asked. “Why can I detect the aftertaste of Šenk’s connector within Sri Sa’s grains?”
“How do you know it’s Šenk?”
“The monks forced us to train together after they implanted our connectors. I’d know Šenk’s programming anywhere. Why can I detect it?”
Mita shook her head at Colton—Ae hadn’t been told what Sri Sa wanted with the girl and her connector. But Colton refused to lie.
“When I found Sri Sa the other day,” he said, “I also found Šenk. She’d used him to reprogram some strange grains from long ago. That’s what gives her so much power.”
Ae sighed. “I thought I’d sensed Šenk’s touch within Sri Sa a few times, when she slipped up and let me access her grains for a moment. But I’d ignored it. Thought it was merely another of the grains’ lies.”
“That’s what the grains do,” Colton said. “They only show us the memories they want us to see.”
“No. Some of the memories are total lies. Many of the first anchors were like Sri Sa. Monsters. Massive killers hunting down the good and bad, friends and enemies. That’s how the grains took over the world. Lasers and forbidden tech couldn’t stop anchors like that. But those anchors were also unstable. Psychopaths. That’s why all anchors today are less powerful. Easier to control.”
“How do you know this?” Mita asked.
“Dig deep enough through any memory and old truths are there. They just need to be remembered.”
Ae fell asleep, still exhausted from her connector. Mita and Colton listened to Sri Sa thunder around outside the wagon searching for more anchors—for more of anyone—to kill.
“So Sri Sa is now like the original anchors?” Mita asked. “I thought only the renegade grains allowed anchors to be so powerful and dangerous.”
“Maybe that’s why the grains don’t want people to know what happened to the city. Because what happened there happened everywhere.”
Mita didn’t respond to that and eventually dozed off. After listening to Mita’s steady breathing for a while, Colton nudged Ae awake.
“Just listen,” Colton whispered. “Can you break Šenk’s program with your connector? The one helping Sri Sa stay in control?”
“If I tell you to break the program, you need to do it immediately,” Colton said.
“She has more power than I’ve ever seen,” Ae whispered. “If I break Šenk’s program, I don’t know what will happen.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll handle it.”
“Thanks for watching out for me,” she said.
Colton didn’t answer. Instead, he listened to Sri Sa thunder across the land outside. He tapped fear into his body, and that emotion felt perfectly right for the moment.
In the morning Sri Sa banged on the damaged wagon door. But a small bang, from a human-size fist.
“Anyone still alive?” Sri Sa yelled.
Colton, Mita, and Ae pushed open the door. The land was totally different than they remembered. The nearby hills and trees were gone, leveled flat as if by a massive plow. The river flowed a new path through the land, spilling around a massive mountain of stone and boulders blocking its channel. And no bodies of anchors lay anywhere, even though the ground had been covered with them only hours before. Instead, the ripped-bare soil gleamed red in the sunlight, as if Sri Sa had pounded her victims until they were merely wet dust.
Sri Sa stood beside the wagon powered-down and naked. Red rips still ran her skin and she coughed over and over, her hands and body shaking if she was cold or coming off a powerful drug. But she seemed to have regained control of her grains.
“Your caravan is five leagues that way,” Sri Sa said, pointing west. “The grains are so shocked by what happened they can’t develop coherent memories to understand everything, so your people should be safe. As an added measure, I’ll have Ae upload fake memories of what happened, to throw the grains off the scent.”
“I’ll have to rest a bit before doing that,” Ae said, “but it might work.”
“You can rest on the way,” Sri Sa said. “We need to get out of here before new anchors come sniffing around.”
Ae looked at Mita, then Colton. “What does she mean?”
“The deal Elder Vácha made with Sri Sa was for you,” Colton said. “She agreed to help Sri Sa escape if Sri Sa helped us. In return you go with her to continually reprogram her grains, so she stays in control of her powers.” He paused. “That’s what Šenk did before he died.”
Ae glared at Colton, her lips snarling as if she wanted to kill him. She hit Colton and kicked Mita and cursed. But she also looked like she’d seen this betrayal coming. As if she would deal with it as she had dealt with everything else rotten in life. Colton wondered if that adaptability was how she’d survived the torture of living with those monks.
“Ae, get some food and water from the wagon,” Mita said gently. “You’ll need it for your trip.”
“Go shit yourself,” Ae said but did as she was told. Mita looked away, obviously not liking this deal but bound by what Elder Vácha had ordered her to do.
“Cold,” Sri Sa said. “Still sure you want that last emotion?”
“No, I’m not sure. You still want to take Ae?”
“What are you talking about? A deal’s a deal.”
Colton stepped back from Sri Sa as he pulled the spare laser hidden in the back of his pants. He aimed it at her.
“You think you can kill me?” Sri Sa asked. “Didn’t you see what I did last night?”
“I think you’re weak right now,” Colton said. “I think you’re exhausted.”
As Colton said this Sri Sa’s body shook violently. Red rips opened up and down her skin. But the rips didn’t close again, instead trembling as if desperate to cry out in pain.
“What do you want?” Sri Sa asked.
Colton kept the laser aimed at her. “The grains won’t leave you be. Look at what you’ve done.” He gestured at the devastated land around them. “They’ll track you down. Even with Ae helping you control your powers, you’ll never escape. They’ll eventually wear you down and kill you.”
The rips on Sri Sa’s body shivered, as if silently screaming. “Then what can I do?”
Colton glanced at Ae, who had returned with a water bag and a pack of food and stood beside Mita.
“Ae,” he said. “What we talked about last night. Do it now.”
His grains shivered as Ae reached out with her connector. He kept the laser aimed at Sri Sa in case she attacked. But as he’d hoped, she didn’t.
Sri giggled, as if being tickled. She smiled, then laughed. “What the hells did that girl just do to me?”
Colton tossed the pistol into the dirt and walked over to her. “Ae destroyed Šenk’s program. The one that helped you maintain control of the renegade grains.”
Sri Sa backhanded Colton, knocking him to the dirt beside Mita and Ae. But she stopped herself before attacking again. Her body spasmed and she gagged, grains spewing into fairies which fell from her mouth. She took a deep breath and fought to regain control of herself.
“You’ll die with me,” she hissed. “All three of you. Unless Ae reprograms my grains.”
Colton walked back to Sri Sa. “Or maybe you can let us go. Let Ae go.”
“Why the hells would I do that?”
“No matter what you do, Ae’s not going to help you. Either we die along with you, or we don’t. Your choice.”
Sri Sa fell to her knees and pounded the bare soil with her fists, hitting harder and harder until the ground shook like water. Colton stumbled back a yard until she again calmed down. Then he walked back over and hugged her. Her skin felt less solid than he remembered, as if unable to contain what was building within her.
Sri Sa wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “You are a colossal ass. Fine, you can go.”
“You’re doing the right thing.”
“Don’t push it,” she said. She kissed Colton as she forced his fingers to release happiness into his body. As Colton hugged her tight and kissed her back, he felt her body heating up like a fire. But he refused to let go before she did.
When they finished embracing, Sri Sa stood up and took Colton’s hand, pulling him to her.
“I’m not doing this because you tricked me,” she whispered. “I’m doing it because I like you.”
Unsure what to say, Colton tried to step away, but Sri Sa grabbed his arm. “Uh uh,” she said. “You’re not going anywhere without anger.”
Sri Sa grew a single claw and jabbed it into his wrist.
Colton legs collapsed from under him and he fell face-first into the dirt as he experienced Sri Sa’s full anger. Her betrayal by the grains. Her hatred of being their puppet. Even her anger at what Colton had just done to her.
All her anger and all her rage building into a glass wall which could only shatter when touched.
Colton rolled over and gasped, breathing deep, trying to calm himself. He counted his emotions, refusing to let any of them control who he was.
The anger passed after a minute. He was Colton again. He stood back up.
“If it could have been any other way, would you come with me?” Sri Sa asked nervously.
Colton tapped happiness again. “I would have. I think I’m learning to love you.”
“Might have been fun, eh?”
Colton smiled. He glanced at Mita and Ae.
“We need to go,” he said. “Now.”
“I don’t understand,” Ae said. “My connector’s receiving strange readings from Sri Sa.”
“That’s why you should listen to Colton,” Sri Sa said with a laugh. “All of you need to run. Run really fast.”
Colton and Mita and Ae were a half league away and still running when they looked back.
Sri Sa was rising into the sky. Her body had grown until it reached a hundred yards tall. And she was still growing.
“Hells,” Mita yelled. “Run faster.”
They ran faster as Sri Sa continued to grow. The wind howled and blew towards her while water and land rose to join her body. She towered over everything. She strode the world like the giant anchors of the past.
“She can’t control it anymore,” Ae screamed. “Get down!”
The three of them dove into a gully beside a small hill. Mita and Ae huddled on the ground but Colton remained standing, staring back at Sri Sa’s face. She stood a league away but still looked directly at him.
He remembered the blank faces of the ancient anchors and was glad Sri Sa had kept her own. He waved. One of her giant hands waved back.
“Down, you fool,” Mita yelled. She tackled him as Sri Sa’s powers exploded.
A blinding light slammed them. The land shook and cried and rolled in waves, trees falling and snapping as the air screamed and burned. Mita dove on top of Colton and Ae, protecting them. Colton tapped all his emotions and, despite feeling fear, admired Mita’s willingness to yet again protect anyone in her caravan.
Even someone like him.
When they finally stood up, the trees around them were knocked flat. A massive red cloud boiled into the sky where Sri Sa had stood. Colton brushed the dead grains and dirt from his clothes.
“What the hells?” Mita asked. “Did you know that would happen?”
“I had an idea.” Colton’s finger edged toward triggering sadness, then stopped. He didn’t know if he could handle that emotion right now.
“How did you know she’d let us go after Ae deactivated that program?” Mita asked.
Mita looked around the devastated land. Colton wondered if she was imagining what Sri Sa would have done to them if she hadn’t given them time to flee. Mita’s face flushed to anger. Her mouth opened and closed, as if unable to speak. She cursed, stopped, cursed again.
Ae tugged on Mita’s leather body armor. “What?” Mita snapped.
“Don’t be mad at Colton,” Ae said. “Besides, he’s emotionless right now. He won’t care if you’re angry or not.”
Ae laughed, which made Mita sigh and also laugh.
Colton walked over to Ae. “I told the truth about protecting you,” he said. “I’ve never cared for anyone these last few years. But that’s changing.”
He tapped happiness again and smiled at Mita and Ae. Then, still feeling the emotion, he hugged them both.
They found Butterlove and Patty two leagues further on. After cutting them free from their broken harnesses, they rode them back to the caravan.
Colton pulled his rain jacket and hat from the drawer under his bunk. A big storm had blown up in the days since they’d escaped. While the rain and lightning helped hide them from the few anchors in the area who’d survived, the bad weather also meant he’d be slammed by the elements all night.
He slipped the coat on as Elder Vácha opened the back door and stepped inside. Water dripped from her leather hat and dribbled across the diagnosis table.
“Ae wants to live in Mita’s wagon now,” she muttered. “With Hira dead they’ve got room, I guess. But I can’t figure out if Ae just likes Mita or instead doesn’t want to be near me.”
“Definitely you,” Colton said. “She knows about the deal you cut with Sri Sa.”
Elder Vácha glared at Colton. “You agreed to the same deal. You sold her out as much as me.”
“Maybe. Can I speak freely? Without you kicking me out of the caravan?”
Elder Vácha laughed. “Hells, Colton, you won’t be kicked out now. Mita wouldn’t let that happen, nor would most everyone else. You’ve earned your peace with us.”
Colton’s finger tapped anger. “How dare you call me a psychopath. You, of all people.”
“You raced to get our caravan to that damn gathering veil, risking our lives without knowing what might happen. You pretended to welcome Ae while knowing you’d sell her out in an instant.”
“I did that to protect our people.”
“Did you? You told me about living in a gathering veil as a child. I think those memories made you want to experience another veil. Instead of what our caravan needed.”
Elder Vácha fell silent.
“I won’t say anything to the others,” Colton said. “You took me in as a child. I’ll never forget that.”
Elder Vácha snorted. “Please. I only took you in because even with damaged grains you were useful.”
“I know. Guess we’re all psychopaths in one way or another.”
Colton donned his hat and stepped into the pouring rain.
At the front of the wagon, Butterlove and Patti nickered at him. He rubbed their necks. “Just one more night and then we’ll rest,” he said.
Colton sat down on the driver’s bench and lead the caravan forward. As Butterlove and Patti pulled the wagon along the road, he tapped sadness. He thought of Sri Sa smiling at him as she’d attacked that caravan several weeks ago. He remembered her laughing and kissing him and pulling him to the ground to share a moment of her life.
He remembered the glass room, and the books Sri Sa loved reading. How all she’d wanted was to be left alone with her happiness.
Colton cried, and continued crying long after the emotion should have released him.