Chakatie followed a simple truth: when the whole world wants to kill you, live as if you’re too joyful to die. So even as she prepared for battle, she smiled at the thought of wearing a neon-blue three-piece suit and matching bowler hat as she fought for her life.
She also couldn’t have picked a more majestic place to defend. Chakatie’s caravan had camped a week ago alongside a small river in the shrublands, which despite the heat were some of the most beautiful lands Chakatie had ever seen. She loved how the blue skies here appeared far larger than any sky she’d ever dreamed of, and how the flowers of the chaparral sage defiantly lit the landscape in purple despite such dry and harsh conditions.
For the first time since being forced to join this caravan, she’d been at peace. So of course that was when the damn grains found them.
The anchors bolted from the east with the rising sun to their backs, their bodies swollen to razor claws, massive muscles, and glistening fangs. They howled and screamed and shrieked as they ran. Chakatie and her family stepped forward to fight for their lives as the caravan’s day-fellows closed up their armored wagons and readied their lasers.
Chakatie grew long claws from her fingers as the anchors neared. But just before she gave the order for her family and the day-fellows to attack, she noticed the wave of oncoming anchors spreading out across the land instead of aiming for the caravan.
“Hold your fire!” she yelled at the day-fellows. “No one move,” she told her family.
Scores of anchors ran past on either side of the caravan, not even pausing to attack. Thousands more anchors spread out across the land, only a few coming near the caravan. The anchors passing nearest to Chakatie showed a look of puzzlement on their faces, as if they weren’t in control of their own bodies. Then they all stopped and froze in place, spaced twenty yards from each other in a grid-like pattern like a vast chessboard full of frozen monsters.
“What the hell?” Sri Sa’s irritating voice said. “I was all ready for us to get ripped apart. Why’d they stop?”
Chakatie forced a polite smile to her face as Sri Sa ambled up as if this moment was the perfect time to be her annoying self. Bad enough she had to listen to Sri Sa’s advice, but the fact that this person was her grandson’s lifemate made things even worse.
If you could even describe Sri Sa as a person these days. Instead of an actual living body, Sri Sa was a collection of trillions of grains, nano-machines, joined together in an illusion of humanity. And the grains forming her were essentially a variation on the grains in the bodies of these anchors, that had compelled them to almost attack mere moments ago.
“You still blocking us from those anchors’ senses?” Chakatie asked. “And jamming the transmissions from their grains?”
“Yeah,” Sri Sa said. “I also messed with the minds of the anchors who came near us, so they went around the caravan. Just don’t touch them. Direct connections might fully reveal our position.”
Chakatie nodded as she stepped up to an anchor standing a half-dozen yards from the caravan’s wagons. This anchor, who’d come closest to the caravan, was a man twice as tall as Chakatie with blazing orange hair and massive fur-covered muscles. His mouth was frozen in the middle of a now-silent howl.
Chakatie snorted—anchors trying to howl always looked stupid as shit. That was why she’d avoided such silliness when she’d been an anchor in charge of her own land.
This anchor’s eyes glowed orange, in tune to his hair. Unlike the rest of his body, which was locked in place by some command from the nano-machine grains powering his incredible strength, his eyes still darted from side to side in a slow, eerie pattern. Chakatie powered up the grains in her ears, and all the others in her body, in case she had to suddenly access their strength. She heard the anchor’s slow breathing along with a slow heartbeat. It was almost like he was in hibernation, aside from his eyes moving.
Several orange fairies fluttered around him, each smaller than Chakatie’s hand. Additional fairies—in a rainbow array of colors, each created by the grains from a particular land—buzzed around the other frozen anchors. Grains were connected to specific lands, and while there were too many colors to know which of these anchors’ grains came from which land, more information might help Chakatie keep the caravan one step ahead of the danger posed by the strange actions of these grains.
“Don’t touch that anchor,” Sri Sa warned. “Damn, you were going to do it despite my warning, weren’t you?”
“If you’re really blocking us from their senses,” Chakatie said, “how’d they find us? Why’d they freeze rather than attack?”
Instead of answering, Sri Sa reached over and picked at a loose thread from Chakatie’s blue suit, like a cat who’d discovered a fun curiosity. “Your clothes aren’t practical,” Sri Sa said. “If you fully power up your grains, you’ll rip this suit apart.”
“Focus on the threat before us. This many anchors could have destroyed us easily, but they didn’t. Why?”
Sri Sa tugged again at the loose nano-reinforced thread on Chakatie’s shoulder, as if trying to unravel her entire suit. Chakatie pushed her hand away.
“I don’t know what they’re doing,” Sri Sa said with a chuckle, pleased to get a rise out of Chakatie. “But look at the pattern they froze in—it’s a lattice, spread for leagues in every direction. Like a fabric weave, with thousands of threads. One odd thread can stay hidden by fitting perfectly into the weave. But you’ll notice a missing or loose thread, as a gap in the pattern. If I had to guess, I’d say the grains are analyzing the combined senses of all these anchors, trying to spot gaps where I didn’t manipulate or block them correctly.”
Chakatie knew Sri Sa was probably correct. Even without connecting to the grains in the frozen anchors surrounding them, she could sense the massive amount of data being transferred between them. The grains were up to something.
“It’s some type of trap,” she said.
“Most likely,” Sri Sa responded, her red hair glowing brighter. “I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s kind of exciting.”
Chakatie glanced back at the caravan. All the wagons were unhitched from their horses, and it’d take them at least an hour to get moving. Her family stood on the ground next to the last three wagons, their bodies powered up by the grains inside them. The day-fellows hid behind their wagons’ armored walls, only the windows open with laser barrels pointing out.
The only exposed day-fellows were those on the roof of the nearest wagon. The caravan’s leader, Elder Vácha, had climbed to the roof with the day-fellows’ warden, for a better look at what was going on. With them was Chakatie’s grandson Colton.
Colton saw Chakatie and Sri Sa looking at him. He tapped his arm and waved, happy despite the near attack they’d just experienced.
“He picked the totally wrong emotion for this moment,” Sri Sa muttered.
“Maybe his lifemate shouldn’t have fucked him up like that in the first place.”
Sri Sa took a deep breath as if trying to calm herself, which amused Chakatie because Sri Sa’s body didn’t breathe. She created the sounds of breathing as part of her continual attempts to appear human. While Chakatie didn’t like Sri Sa, she was getting better at understanding her. Sri Sa was actually dead, having died long before Chakatie and her family joined this caravan. Sri Sa had been a powerful anchor in a distant land, with the grains in her body programmed differently from the grains that managed the rest of the world. When Sri Sa died, her rogue grains hadn’t been destroyed, and they preserved the essence of her memories and personality. Sri Sa now looked like a regular person—a short woman with red hair, in her early twenties. But if Sri Sa allowed it, the trillions of microscopic grains forming her body could collapse like dust. She could also manipulate the grains around her, which she’d been doing to hide the caravan for the last six months.
Chakatie looked closer at the frozen anchor before them. His orange eyes watched them even though Sri Sa had supposedly blocked herself and Chakatie from his vision.
“I don’t know you,” she said.
“He can’t hear you,” Sri Sa said. “At the risk of repeating myself, I’m altering the sensory input received by the grains in his ears so he can’t hear us.”
Chakatie halted her, then turned back to the anchor.
“My name’s Chakatie. Ever hear of me? I used to be an anchor like you.”
The anchor’s body still didn’t move, but his eyes and hair glowed a brighter orange. Sri Sa muttered that wasn’t possible.
“You’re wondering what the hell you’ve gotten yourself into, aren’t you?” Chakatie asked. “Probably never had the grains take control of your body like this. Thought you were in charge of your own life, until they planted you here like a tree.”
The anchor’s eyes and hair flared brighter and his claws twitched, as if straining to break free of the grains’ control. The orange fairies fluttered nervously around his face, their tiny bodies silently mouthing to calm down. One of the fairies flew across the ground, the grains that formed its body trying to escape Sri Sa’s jamming. Chakatie felt a low hum as Sri Sa reached out with her power. The fairy exploded, dead grains raining across the purple sage.
Orange flames flickered from the anchor’s eyes and hair as he struggled to speak.
“Talk to me,” Chakatie said. “Tell me why you and the others are here.”
The anchor’s mouth, frozen in that silent howl, erupted in a scream as he regained control of his face.
“You must... flee,” he gasped.
Chakatie was shocked. She’d expected the anchor to threaten them, or bluster, or all the other shit that people said when they thought they had the upper hand and were about to slap you down. Anchors weren’t known for expressing concern for day-fellows or anyone else the grains wanted punished.
“We don’t fear you,” she said. “This caravan has burned hundreds of anchors. We can do it again.”
The anchor smirked. “It’s your fault,” he said. “He’s looking for you. He did all this because he’s looking for you.”
“The grains have been looking for this caravan for a while.”
“Not the grains. Him. For you, Chakatie. Looking for you.”
That made no sense. The grains were what drove anchors, not a single person. And the grains in turn were driven by their programmed need to protect the environment. She would have understood all these anchors attacking the caravan because, to the grains’ perverted programming, her family and these day-fellows had defied this world’s natural order. But to freeze anchors like this wasn’t something the grains would normally do.
“What are you talking about?” she asked.
The anchor looked beyond Chakatie at both the day-fellow caravan and her family standing beside the last wagons. “The famous Chakatie, protecting day-fellows,” he said with a snort. “None of us believed it, especially after the grains showed us the memories of you defying their orders.”
“The grains likely edited whatever memories they showed you.”
“It’s strange to see you protecting day-fellows—you were such a wickedly great anchor. As a child I learned about Chakatie. Killing all those who needed killing. You were held up by the grains for all young anchors to emulate!”
“Doubt the grains do that anymore.”
The anchor laughed. “No. They use you as a bad example.”
“Who’s this person looking for me?
The anchor opened his mouth as if to answer, but only a gurgle came out. The anchor looked puzzled, then gasped, his body shaking as an orange mist flowed from his nose and mouth. Orange tears ran from his eyes, each drop exploding into more mist. He fell to the ground and screamed in pain, matching the screams from the other anchors spread out for leagues around them as they also collapsed.
“What the hell’s happening?” Chakatie asked.
Sri Sa leaned over the anchor convulsing in the dirt and touched his forehead, only to jump back with a shriek, a sound not coming from Sri Sa’s mouth but instead from the trillions of grains forming her body. Her body faded from view for a moment as her grains lost cohesion before reforming. But where before only Sri Sa’s hair had glowed red, now all of her glowed, as if her grains weren’t able to maintain their illusion of a human body.
The exception to the red glow was Sri Sa’s right hand. Where she’d touched the anchor, the red flickered and faded, replaced by an orange glow. With a scream Sri Sa dropped the hand from her body. It fell to the ground, where it was quickly consumed by its orange glow as it collapsed to mist.
“His grains have been programmed to recode my own,” Sri Sa said nervously, as a new illusion of a hand grew from her arm.
The massive anchor on the ground stared at Chakatie with a pleading look. He’d stopped screaming but still convulsed in pain as the skin on his face and body swelled. Almost as if the grains inside him were straining to break free. Everywhere Chakatie looked she saw the other anchors spaced across the land going through the same process.
“The grains inside all of them are rapidly multiplying,” Sri Sa said. “They’re devouring the anchors’ bodies to fuel their growth.”
“Can they infect my grains?” Chakatie asked.
“As long as these grains don’t access your body from a cut or through your lungs, you should be fine.”
“You sure? You were wrong about blocking us from his senses.”
Sri Sa crafted the creepy smile on her face that Chakatie and everyone else in the caravan hated. “So sure that I’ll bet your life on it.”
Chakatie sighed and kneeled by the anchor. She squeezed his clawed hand and smiled kindly into his eyes. While these anchors had come here trying to kill her and everyone in the caravan, she’d once been like them. An anchor of her own land. Protecting the environment from those who’d harm it. Forced to abide by the grains’ harsh rules and ideals.
While she’d been a powerful enough anchor to bend and tweak the rules here and there, she knew the grains could force any anchor to do their bidding. Perhaps with another turn of fate, this could be her in pain on the ground. So she held the anchor’s hand as the grains ate him alive.
“You... must flee,” the anchor gasped.
“Shh,” Chakatie said. “Don’t worry about us.”
The anchor gripped her hand so tight she had to power up to keep from having her fingers crushed.
“We are ingrained in the land,” she whispered, beginning the most sacred oath of anchors, which was also frequently said as last rites.
“...and the... grains are our land,” the anchor gasped out.
He died unable to even scream as the grains ruptured his heart and lungs, orange mist flowing from his eyes, nose, and mouth. But even once he was dead, his body continued to rumble and swell.
Chakatie and Sri Sa jumped back as an orange crystal burst from the anchor’s distended belly. The crystal grew alarmingly quickly to a yard tall, then two yards and more. All of the grains in Chakatie’s body screamed warnings at her.
And there were now thousands of anchors fallen dead across the shrublands, each with a massive crystal emerging from their bodies in glowing reds, blues, purples, yellows, browns, greens, and every other color Chakatie had ever known or dared to dream.
Once the crystals reached three yards in height, a rainbow of mists began flowing from them. Chakatie had previously experienced grain blooms, where the grains reproduced explosively to renew their control of a land. It was always difficult to breathe the air at those times. But vastly more grains were now being released by these crystals than in those blooms. Soon, no one would be able to breathe.
“Get your respirators on!” Chakatie yelled to her family and the day-fellows watching from the wagons. When no one reacted, she yelled louder, using her grains to power her vocal cords so her words boomed across the land. “Now! And seal the wagons!”
Chakatie sat inside the wagon of Elder Vácha, the caravan leader and her closest friend among the day-fellows. Vácha stood nervously before a blue-light display, analyzing information on the grains outside. Everyone in the wagon held their respirators in their laps as if prepared to strap them on at a moment’s notice, even though the wagon’s windows and door were sealed and the air system filtered out the grains.
“Damn,” Elder Vácha said, reading a message from another wagon. “One of the horses panicked and damaged its respirator. It strangled to death on the grains before anyone could help.”
“Maybe only my family should work outside,” Chakatie said. “Our bodies heal faster than day-fellows. If our respirators fail, we might have more time to get to safety.”
Elder Vácha pulled up a schematic of the massive numbers of grains outside the caravan. “There’s not enough of you to manage the horses in these conditions,” she said. “Worse, the samples I’ve analyzed shows this grain mist doesn’t merely target Sri Sa, they’re also programmed to rework the grains of any anchor. If you or your family breathes even a few of them in, you’re screwed.”
“Damn sure. I exposed a sample to these mists, and they reprogrammed its grains in seconds.”
“Only use passive detection to analyze the grains,” Sri Sa said. “Active scanning makes it harder for me to block us from their sensors.”
Elder Vácha rolled her eyes. “Pretty sure they know where we are.”
Sri Sa looked like she wanted to debate that, but Colton, who sat beside her around the wagon’s main table, squeezed her hand, and she kept her objections to herself.
Next to them sat the caravan’s warden, Mita, and a poorly nourished day-fellow teenager named Ae, who looked to be only twelve or so but was years older. On the other bench of the wagon sat Alexnya, born a day-fellow but later infected with the grains and forced to become an anchor, until the grains betrayed her. She looked troubled at Elder Vácha ‘s report. Beside her sat Chakatie’s son Pinhaus, who frowned at the indignity of sitting inside a day-fellow wagon, and Master Dandez, the caravan’s bio-smith, who fiddled with her respirator as if intent on discovering ways to improve it as soon as possible.
Everyone kept glancing at the projection on the wall showing the countless glowing grains forming the mists outside their wagons. The mists weren’t following the wind, instead charting their own chaotic course around the land. Mixed in with the mists were different colored fairies, which silently screamed in pain as the grains broke their bodies down then reassembled them, only to break them down yet again.
Chakatie wasn’t sure why the grains were torturing the fairies. The grains created fairies on every land, as an extension of themselves. To see the grains torturing fairies was like Chakatie punishing her own hand by stabbing it over and over. It made no sense.
The mists already rose far above the wagons, blocking the sun completely. And the different-colored grains grouped together into bright swirls within the larger currents of the mists, like some obscene children’s dessert served at a harvest festival.
“The mists are centered on our caravan despite the wind,” Elder Vácha said. “They also extend several leagues in every direction.”
Sri Sa looked embarrassed. “Sorry, everyone,” she muttered. “I don’t have enough power to fix this. There are too many grains for me to manipulate and command them all.”
“None of this explains how the grains knew to look for us in these shrublands,” Pinhaus said. “You kept us hidden from the grains for six months without a problem, but now thousands of anchors run up and do this? Doesn’t make sense.”
“I don’t understand it either,” Sri Sa admitted.
“Perhaps you grew tired of playing with us,” Pinhaus said, “and told the grains where we are.”
Sri Sa’s face flickered, as if the grains creating her couldn’t decide how to react. She knew the day-fellows and anchors only tolerated her because they needed her.
Colton stared at Pinhaus with a blank expression, as if debating the proper response to such an accusation against his lifemate. He reached to his right forearm, where four dots on his skin glowed a faint red. He touched the last dot, which Chakatie had learned released the grains in his body to make him angry. Then he jumped across the table and punched Pinhaus in the face.
Pinhaus was so shocked that he initially failed to power up his own grains. Chakatie let Colton punch her son a second time—she loved her son, but he sorely needed to learn to behave better around others—before she grabbed them both by the back of their necks and pressed them face-down into the table.
“Let me go,” Pinhaus said, now powering up to fight back.
Chakatie learned over. “End this,” she whispered in his ear. “Apologize for insulting Sri Sa.”
Pinhaus gasped as she tightened her grip on his neck. “I apologize,” he muttered.
Chakatie tossed both of them back into their seats.
“We must stay united,” she said. “Doesn’t matter if we’re anchors or day-fellows. At this point, the grains want all of us dead.”
“Wise words,” Elder Vácha said. “Still, perhaps Sri Sa could reassure us she hasn’t been playing any so-called ‘games.’ Not that I doubt her, but we need to rule out all possibilities.”
Chakatie fought down a smile. She’d been trying to teach Pinhaus how to achieve the same results without using force, anger, or his grains, a skill he’d need if he were to succeed her as leader of their family. Now Vácha was demonstrating exactly how to do that.
Sri Sa glanced around the wagon. For a moment Chakatie felt sorry for Sri Sa, who constantly had to prove that she deserved to be here. But she’d also nearly gotten them all killed six months ago at the biosphere, so she surely understood why people didn’t trust her.
Sri Sa’s projected face went as impassive as Colton’s when he wasn’t using his emotions. She held her hand in front of Ae, who took it and placed it on the back of her neck. Ae’s silver neuroconnector implanted there sparked and glowed as she connected with Sri Sa’s grains.
“She’s telling the truth,” Ae said.
“Then how did the grains locate us?” Alexnya asked.
“There’s something weird out there,” Ae said. “I can’t fully access it, but my connector’s been resonating to something since we came to these shrublands. It’s almost a weird... taste. Like drinking spoiled milk, everywhere I go.”
Sri Sa looked surprised. “I’ve also tasted that. I thought it was a glitch in my programming.”
Elder Vácha bit her lip as if to keep from cursing in irritation. Chakatie totally understood—they’d been camped here all week, and neither Sri Sa nor Ae had said anything about this weird ‘taste’ they’d sensed.
“Can either of you access the grains outside and figure out how they discovered us?” Elder Vácha asked.
“Already did,” Ae said. “The grains knew several days ago we were here, but I can’t determine who told them. They gathered all these anchors to attack us. But at the last minute, something changed their programming and caused the anchors to become seedbeds for these mists.”
Mita cursed. As the caravan’s warden she engaged in combat, ritual and real, with any anchors who threatened the day-fellows. But even she was appalled at thousands of anchors being eaten alive by their own grains. “Did the anchors know what was going to happen?” she asked.
“No,” Ae said. “They thought they were doing another one of their massed attacks. Then bam, they’re being eaten alive by their own grains.”
“Fucking hell,” Mita said.
“In this case, I agree,” Pinhaus said.
“Enough with discussing what’s already happened,” Chakatie said. “How do we get clear of this?”
“The horses have their respirators on and are now hitched to the wagons,” Elder Vácha said, “so we damn well move the caravan. The grains feed off bio-electricity, right? While the mists aren’t moving with the wind, for them to remain centered on a moving caravan may use up their energy, since they’re not inside an anchor’s body, or an animal or plant, with that body to feed on.”
Chakatie kept her mouth shut, not wanting to panic people by saying the grains could live for a long time on both their internal energy and solar power. And right now the wagon’s own solar panels that powered the electrical and air filtration systems were blocked from any sunlight, so they were running on batteries. While the generators on the axles would give some power once the wagons were rolling, that would only keep the wagons’ systems going for so long.
And the horses couldn’t eat or drink with their respirators on. If the horses died, the caravan couldn’t move—and everyone would then suffocate when the wagons’ power ran out.
“Because of the limited visibility, we’ll need to lead the wagons on foot,” Elder Vácha said. “I’ll split everyone into teams once we get outside.”
“Stand a sharp watch as we travel,” Chakatie said. “These grains aren’t acting normal. They may have more surprises for us.”
People pulled on their bulky respirators, the large glass lenses over their eyes almost but not quite hiding uneasy glances. Only Sri Sa didn’t wear a respirator. To keep the mists’ grains from attacking her own grains, she generated an electrical field that repelled anything near her. Colton tried to hold her hand, but it slipped from his grasp like an eel.
When the door unsealed, a flood of glowing mists filled the wagon. People climbed slowly outside.
Chakatie was about to follow when Elder Vácha stopped her. She learned close, their respirators touching.
“The problem isn’t only the wagons’ power levels and the horses,” Vácha whispered. “Our respirators and filtration systems are only for short-term use, when we’re in lands experiencing grain blooms.”
Chakatie nodded. “How long will your systems hold out?”
“No idea. Master Dandez will craft more filters and respirators in her wagon. But the nano-forges require a ton of energy, which we don’t have right now.”
“And that’s assuming people maintain good mask discipline. It gets claustrophobic in these things.”
“I’m glad we’re in this together,” Vácha said, giving Chakatie a playful soft punch in the shoulder. “Can’t believe I’d ever say this to an anchor, but I trust you. Most of your family aren’t thrilled at working with us day-fellows, but you’ve kept them in line.”
Chakatie nodded. And what Vácha said about her family was true. She’d already heard several of them say that if the mists stayed centered on the caravan, they could abandon it and simply run for safety on foot. But not only did Chakatie suspect that such an approach would fail—it would be easy for the mists to follow groups of people fleeing on their own—she also refused to betray her grandson and the other day-fellows.
As Chakatie and Vácha stepped outside, the mists swirled a dizzying array of colors around them. Chakatie had been an anchor for more than five hundred years. In all that time she’d never seen or heard of the grains creating a mist like these.
That dying anchor said some mysterious ‘he’ was looking for her. Chakatie tried to think of who that could be. Was it someone she’d wronged? When she’d been an anchor in charge of her own land, she’d thought she’d been even-handed. But traveling with the day-fellows had revealed to her the painful reality of being on the receiving end of the grains’ anger and punishments—pains she’d once inflicted on far too many people to count.
It couldn’t be good if someone was searching for her.
The glowing mists swirled in silence around Chakatie as she walked in front of the moving caravan, checking the path for dangers hidden by the mists. She’d expected to hear something, maybe the rapping of tiny particles like the sand storm that had pelted the caravan a few weeks ago. Or the faint popping sounds the grains made in her home’s altar bowl, where they tumbled and flowed as they contemplated the memories of the past anchors of her land and considered what their programming required Chakatie to do next.
Instead, these grains passed before Chakatie’s respirator like silent lines drawn in the air by a child with multi-colored glowing chalk. Worse were the fairies continually being destroyed and reformed, unable to speak as they floated past but their tiny eyes still showing looks of absolute horror.
Chakatie and Ae walked shoulder-to-shoulder, ahead of the lead wagon. The horses could barely see through the massive respirators covering their heads—hell, it wasn’t just the horses, no one could see more than a step or two in these mists—so the caravan’s route had to be carefully checked. If a horse broke a leg in a hole or a wagon ran into one of those tall crystals that was spewing the mists, the caravan’s odds of getting out of this deathtrap would drop to almost nothing.
“You hear that?” Ae said, grabbing Chakatie’s sleeve. Everyone was working in pairs to avoid getting lost in the mists.
Chakatie listened but heard nothing. Even Ae’s words sounded faint, as if the grains swallowed the sound even as it radiated out through her mask.
“What’d you hear?” Chakatie asked.
“Someone screaming. Like they were being killed.”
Chakatie wanted to pretend that Ae hadn’t heard anything, but she’d be a fool to do that. She leaned close enough to see Ae’s eyes behind the mask’s lenses. They were closed, which she often did when she was using her neuroconnector to access the grains around her.
“The grains making you hear things?” Chakatie asked.
“Yeah, but I’m not sure why. The data being shared between these grains is programmed differently than normal grains, so it’s difficult to parse.”
Chakatie checked behind her at Mita and Sri Sa walking the horses of the lead wagon. She could barely see them, and they were only a few paces away. Sri Sa whispered into the horse’s ears hidden under the large respirator, trying to keep it calm.
When Chakatie first met her, Sri Sa hadn’t cared much for horses. But in recent months Sri Sa had changed, spending more time with them. Now she helped feed and groom them, as though the horses had touched some emotion she hadn’t known she was missing.
But Chakatie didn’t have time to ponder all that as something startled Ae. She jumped sideways from whatever she’d heard and slammed into Chakatie, causing Chakatie’s bowler hat to fall off. Chakatie picked the hat up—the thing didn’t fit on her head properly over this damned respirator.
“Sorry,” Ae said.
“Either of you hear screaming?” Chakatie asked Mita and Sri Sa.
“No,” Mita said in a concerned tone. “But I do hear a spooky laughter. Like something out of a nightmare.”
“I still hear screams,” Ae said. She paused as if it was difficult to speak. “Like the screams in the wagon I was locked up in as a kid. Where those damn monks operated on me and jammed this connector in my neck.”
“I hear a woman talking about being betrayed by her true love,” Sri Sa said, her grains making a faint clicking sounds as if disturbed. “I can’t tell where these sounds are coming from—there are so many grains in the mists that my scanning abilities are blocked.”
What did it mean, Chakatie wondered, if the grains were creating sounds for everyone but her to hear?
“Pass the word,” she told Mita. “Something new is going on. See if everyone else is hearing stuff.”
Mita hurried down the caravan to check.
Chakatie and Ae left Sri Sa to manage both horses while they returned to checking the path. After a while Alexnya and Chakatie’s teenage granddaughter Wren arrived to give them a break. They explained, in voices muffled by their masks, that neither of them had heard screaming. Instead, they heard voices whispering about what day-fellows did to anchors they caught alone.
“The day-fellows are hearing the opposite,” Wren said. “People up and down the caravan are hearing voices describe ways anchors kill day-fellows who break the grains’ rules.”
“People are also saying something’s hiding in the mists,” Alexnya said. “I may have caught a glimpse of it—a large shape, just far enough away I couldn’t be sure it was there.”
“Shit,” Chakatie muttered. With the mask on she couldn’t see or scent that well, but the grains in her body hummed to an unusual nervous energy, as if they sensed an unseen monster pacing back and forth before them in the mists. She’d been hoping she was wrong, but from what Alexnya said, there might be something out there.
Wren didn’t say anything, but Chakatie noticed her tightly gripping Alexnya’s hand.
“You okay?” she asked.
Wren nodded, but even with the respirator hiding her face, Chakatie could tell she was scared.
“Don’t worry,” Chakatie whispered to Wren so no one else could hear. “Being scared is the normal thing to be right now.”
“Dad says anchors should never be afraid.”
Of course Pinhaus said that, Chakatie thought. “Bullshit. Anchors get scared all the time. Once we escape this, I’ll tell you about the time the grains punished your father by getting him lost in the woods. He wasn’t much younger than you. When I found him, he was so scared he didn’t let go of my hand until I got him home.”
Wren laughed, a bright sound even behind the muffling of her mask.
Even though Alexnya and Wren had arrived to give them a break, Chakatie felt uneasy leaving them alone just yet. So they walked on together, scouting the path for the caravan. While Chakatie still didn’t hear any strange voices, the pace of the everyone else stayed tense, so she feared they were still hearing things.
The caravan was moving far too slowly, but Chakatie couldn’t see a way to safely speed everyone up. She kicked at a snake hole, hoping it was too small for a horse’s hoof to go in, when the grains in her body shivered in fear.
She looked up and saw her old land, floating in the air before her mask. Her sod-roof house stood there along with the massive live oaks on either end, the seeds of which she’d planted as a kid so she could watch them grow across the centuries. And her sunflower and bean fields behind the house, in full bloom, with bees buzzing around the flowers as the afternoon sun eased down behind the treeline.
She reached her hand out but her home blurred and swirled, the grains that had projected the images flowing back into the random colors of the mists.
“What’s wrong?” Ae asked. “The grains in front of you looked brighter for a moment.”
“It’s nothing,” Chakatie said. The images had been so real that a touch of homesickness swirled in her heart. But she didn’t want to share what she’d seen until she knew exactly what the grains were trying to tell her.
“I need to check something,” she said. “You stay with Alexnya and Wren.”
Ae started to argue that Chakatie shouldn’t go into the mists by herself, but Chakatie didn’t give her time. Chakatie stormed ahead and in moments could see nothing but the glowing swirls. While the grains in her body still vibrated to fear, warning her to beware, she didn’t care. Even when she was a master anchor in charge of her own land, respected and feared by both day-fellows and her fellow anchors, she’d refused to allow the grains to manipulate her like this. And for the grains to taunt her with the home she’d lost was too much to bear.
A hundred yards from the caravan by her reckoning, she stumbled onto the old dirt road they’d been looking for, little more than two rows ground into the dry soil by centuries of day-fellow wagon wheels traversing this land.
The grains still swirled all around her. “Tell me what the hell you want!” she shouted into her mask.
The grains once again projected an image, this time of the shrublands around Chakatie but with a light dusting of snow on the ground. The image appeared to be from the point of view of this land’s anchor, who stood before an adobe house under one of the clear, deep-blue skies Chakatie loved gazing at.
“All this could be yours,” an off-kilter voice said, speaking in an eerie monotone that reminded Chakatie of the ticking of the old grandfather clock in her long-gone home.
“Who are you?” she asked. The grains never spoke directly in words, instead using the memories they’d copied from past anchors to get their meaning across.
“Doesn’t matter for now. What’s important is I can return you to being an anchor in charge of a land.”
Chakatie stepped through the image of the shrublands and house, the image swirling to distortions until the grains reformed it.
“I don’t want to be in charge of this land.”
“But you’re an anchor,” the tick-tock voice said. “You must have a land to protect. Otherwise how can you enforce the grains’ rules? How can you do nasty things to day-fellows who get on the grains’ wrong side?”
“Being betrayed by the grains changes your perspective.”
The voice laughed. “I can appreciate that. My name’s Brother Anderly. Ask your new friend Ae about me. I’m sure she’ll have many stories to tell.”
Chakatie had considered many different people who might be the one looking for her, but Brother Anderly hadn’t been one of them. They’d never even met before. Still, she had heard of him. He’d been the leader of a tech-based religious order that split off from the other day-fellow caravans over arguments about fighting back against the grains. He and his monks had experimented on various kids such as Ae, inserting connectors into their nervous system to enable them to control the grains.
“Are you helping the grains?” she asked. “Did you team up with them to create these mists?”
“Did you help the grains massacre day-fellows when they defiled your lands? Or did the grains force you to do their bidding?”
Chakatie didn’t answer.
“The rogue grains that form Sri Sa have panicked the regular grains, around the world,” Brother Anderly said. “So they’re offering a deal. If you help them gain control of Sri Sa, the grains will make you the new anchor of this land.”
Chakatie had thought she no longer cared about having her own land, but the grains in her body shimmered in excitement at the possibility, as if she’d swallowed a rainbow that promised to lead her back to her old life. But she quickly pushed those thoughts from her mind. She could guess what the grains might demand for this “gift.”
“Doesn’t this land already have an anchor?” she asked.
“Is an anchor still an anchor after she’s been turned into a crystal spewing clouds of grains?”
“What about my caravan’s day-fellows? Or my family?”
“Your family can join you, but not Sri Sa or the day-fellows. The grains want to make an example out of them.”
Chakatie had figured that’s what the grains would demand. “I won’t betray anyone.”
“But what if they betray you first?”
The images of the land projected by the grains vanished, replaced by mists’ swirling lines and colors. She heard screams behind her, coming from the direction of the caravan.
She turned and ran, bulling her way through the sage and other plants that reared up out of the mists at the last second before she struck them. She stopped when she discovered Alexnya holding Wren on the ground, trying to pull the respirator back onto her face. Wren could barely breathe after inhaling so many grains, each of her gasps whining like a scared puppy.
“What happened?” Chakatie yelled as she helped pull the mask back over Wren’s face. But the straps to hold the mask to her head were torn. Wren also had long, bloody cuts across her back.
“I don’t know,” Alexnya gasped. “A day-fellow ran past us yelling that something was chasing him. He fled into the mists to escape. We followed, trying to keep him from getting lost, but Wren and I got separated. Then she screamed. I found her lying on the ground, all bloody and her mask off.”
Through the lenses of her mask, Chakatie could see that Alexnya was crying. While Alexnya had never liked most of Chakatie’s family, she was friends with Wren. And they’d grown even closer in recent months, spending all their free time together.
Chakatie held her hand over her granddaughter’s face, using her grains to access Wren’s own. But the security protocols programmed into Chakatie’s grains immediately shut down the connection. Now that the grains in the mist had accessed Wren’s body, they were attempting to take over Wren’s own grains, just as they’d tried to do when they’d accessed Sri Sa earlier.
If the grains surrounding them took over Wren, they could kill her or force her to do their bidding, including attacking her friends and family.
“What direction did that day-fellow go?”
“I’m not sure,” Alexnya said.
Chakatie looked around but could see only a few paces ahead in the mists. Since she didn’t know where the day-fellow was, the priority was getting Wren immediate medical treatment and taking Alexnya to safety before whatever attacked them returned. Then they could then organize a search party.
She picked up her granddaughter, taking care to keep her torn mask on.
“Follow me,” she told Alexnya as they hurried back to the caravan.
Wren lay on the diagnosis table in Elder Vácha’s wagon, wheezing under an oxygen mask. Two other day-fellows lay on the bunks along the wagon’s walls, both also wearing oxygen masks. In all, three day-fellows had fled into the mists, apparently after being attacked by strange creatures that snuck up on them. Even more bizarre, the day-fellows and anchors reported that the voices they’d been hearing went silent moments before the creatures attacked, as if they were coordinated.
Only two of the day-fellows had been found. One had fallen and damaged her respirator, but the other appeared to have been cut by claws, like Wren. Although their lungs were injured by the massive numbers of grains they’d inhaled, Elder Vácha had stabilized them and was hopeful they’d recover.
Not so Wren. While they’d cleared her airways as best they could, the problem was that the grains had gained access to her blood system through her lungs. They were reprogramming her own body’s grains, the wagon’s medical display flashing ever-growing red patterns as it scanned Wren and tracked the changes.
And worse, she was losing control of her body. When Wren first arrived in the wagon she’d punched Alexnya in the face as the new grains temporarily seized control of her arm. Wren had been horrified. Fighting back tears, she’d hugged Alexnya and kissed her on the check while apologizing.
“I know that wasn’t you,” Alexnya had whispered back.
After that, Wren had been kept sedated.
The wagon’s door opened, blowing in a new surge of grains. Large horse blankets hung from the top of the wagon on both the inside and outside of the door, keeping the wagon from being instantly filled with grains. But a thick dust of them still lay on everything and everyone, as if the wagon had been dipped in orange dye. Chakatie’s ears buzzed as the wagon’s internal transmitters broadcast a decontamination scan, which didn’t penetrate living flesh but was fatal to any grains outside a human body. The wagon’s air filters were also purging the grains as fast as they entered, but both approaches used up even more of the precious power they didn’t have enough of.
Pinhaus closed the door and pulled back the inside blanket. For a moment he started to remove his respirator, then decided to leave it on. Chakatie wondered if he was worried about the grains in the wagon or if he instead didn’t want anyone to witness his emotions at seeing his daughter lying on the diagnosis table.
“The loose grains in here have been shut down,” Alexnya said from the other side of the wagon, where she was tending to one of the injured day-fellows. “The orange dust is dead grains.”
Pinhaus pulled his mask off and wiped his eyes. “Then kill the grains attacking Wren.”
“We’d like to,” Elder Vácha said. “But the grains in Wren—and the grains in you, Chakatie, and your entire family—are too similar to the attacking grains. We can track the different grains on my scanner, but being able to destroy one type and not another similar one inside a human body is beyond my ability.”
Pinhaus rubbed his fingers across Wren’s pale cheek. Chakatie had often told him to be more open about his love for his daughter, especially when the two of them fought, as all teenagers and parents did. She wished Wren could see how scared he was at the chance of losing her.
“Is there any way to heal her?” he asked quietly.
Vácha opened a drawer below the diagnosis table and pulled out a glass vial. “You know this, I assume,” she said.
“Medicine,” Chakatie said. Not simply a medicine. The medicine.
“We can program the powder in this vial to attack the grains in any anchor’s or day-fellow’s body.” Vácha gestured at the two unconscious day-fellows on the bunks; that was how she had killed the grains her people had inhaled outside. “But a day-fellow getting infected with grains is different from an anchor having their own grains shut down. If we use this, it will kill almost all the grains inside Wren, both her own and the invading ones. And your bodies sometimes have trouble fully functioning without those grains.”
Chakatie didn’t need to see Pinhaus’s face to know he was thinking of what had happened to Colton. Colton’s mother had wanted to save him from the grains and overdosed him on medicine. It killed or disabled the grains in his body, but it also made him unable to experience human emotions. Sri Sa had later injected Colton with her own grains to generate those emotions on demand, but he was still far from normal.
“What happens once the invading grains reprogram all of Wren’s?” Chakatie asked. Too many things were happening all at once—the caravan caught in these mists, Brother Anderly offering her an impossible choice, those strange creatures attacking people. And now her granddaughter was fighting for her life.
“No idea,” Elder Vácha said. “Easiest thing for them to do would be to kill her, but they’re not attempting that. So they must want to take control of her body.”
Elder Vácha held the vial of medicine out to Pinhaus, but he shook his head and she placed it back in the drawer.
Suddenly Pinhaus’s muscles swelled as he activated his grains. “You were supposed to protect my daughter!” he yelled at Alexnya. She looked stunned at his anger.
“Calm down, son,” Chakatie said.
“No! She probably did this on purpose. She’s always been nothing more than a day-fellow.”
“Where the hell were you when all this happened?” Alexnya shouted back.
“I was searching for one of the damn day-fellows who got lost in the mists. And I found her and lead her back to the caravan. Probably more than they’d do for us!”
“Both of you calm down,” Chakatie snapped. “This is what the grains want, to divide us.”
Pinhaus pulled his respirator on and turned to the door. “She should never have become an anchor,” he said. “Never.”
He pushed the blanket aside, slammed open the door, and jumped out. Chakatie closed it as a new wave of grains flowed orange across the floor.
“Alexnya,” she said quietly, “it’d be best if you stay here and help Vácha.”
“You worried Pinhaus might attack me?” Alexnya asked with a smirk. “Please. He does, and I’ll rip him to pieces.”
Chakatie looked at Elder Vácha for support and was relieved to find it.
“What Chakatie means is I’ll need your help with Wren,” Vácha said. “If I administer medicine to kill her grains, I’ll need an anchor to help me monitor things. Otherwise Wren might die, or be damaged like Colton.”
Alexnya’s bluster instantly faded. “I’ll stay,” she muttered. She sat on a stool beside Wren and bent over to kiss her cheek. Chakatie had never seen Alexnya show such tenderness before today, and realized she had also not noticed how deeply the relationship between her and Wren had developed recently. Chakatie couldn’t hear what Alexnya was whispering in Wren’s ear, but she could tell they were words of love.
Chakatie and Elder Vácha stepped behind the blanket to give Alexnya some privacy.
“We need to get the caravan moving,” Chakatie said. “The longer we’re not moving, the faster our power levels will drain.”
“I’ll get everyone going.” Chakatie pulled on her own respirator and stepped outside.
Pinhaus was waiting for her next to the horses of the next wagon along with the other eight members of Chakatie’s extended family—children and grandkids and in-laws, all waiting for her orders.
On the other side of the horses were an equally large group of day-fellows, including the caravan’s bio-smith, Master Dandez.
Chakatie noticed that several of the anchors had their claws extended while all of the day-fellows held swords and lasers. While she heard only silence from the grains surrounding the caravan, it appeared everyone else was again hearing different things, such as the grains whispering about anchors killing day-fellows or vice versa. The grains were sharing words from whatever old memories would cause the most panic in everyone.
Not that the grains need to do much to make us fight each other, she thought.
Ignoring her family, Chakatie walked straight to Master Dandez. “Elder Vácha wants the caravan moving,” she told her. “Same as before, day-fellows and anchors paired up with the horses or checking the path.”
“The creatures that attacked us are still out there,” Master Dandez said in her scratchy voice, damaged by decades of fumes from the nano-forges. “It’ll be harder to defend against them if we’re moving.”
“The wagons are draining the batteries every second we’re not moving!” Chakatie shouted so everyone could hear. “Without power, we can’t filter or kill the grains in the wagons, and we’ll all suffocate.”
Master Dandez started to argue, but Chakatie powered up the grains in her eyes, causing them to glow blue inside her respirator. Master Dandez and the day-fellows flinched and stepped back. Dandez cursed and began shoving the day-fellows, ordering them to get to their wagons.
Chakatie waited until all the day-fellows were gone before she grabbed Pinhaus’s shirt and dragged him away from the rest of their family.
“It took you a long time to find that lost day-fellow,” she said. “Did you try to see if you could escape these mists?”
Pinhaus stared at her from behind his mask for a moment. “Yes.”
“No matter how far I went, the mists followed me. And those strange beasts were still out there. Waiting for us. I saw them.”
“So you were going to abandon your family?”
“Never! I would have come back for all of you if I’d found a way out.”
“What about Wren?” Chakatie asked. “Now that you’ve seen how ill she is, will you leave her? You saw what they did to her.”
“Which ‘they’?” Pinhaus asked. “The grains, or the day-fellows?”
Before Chakatie could answer, Pinhaus knocked her hand off him.
“I’ve always loved you, Mom,” he said, “but you’ve been acting differently since we were forced off our land. You used to be the toughest anchor around. Now... hell, I don’t know what you’re doing now. I get why we had to travel with these day-fellows, but you almost seem to like it.”
“You challenging me?”
Pinhaus deflated before her glare. “No.”
“Then do what I need you to do. Help the day-fellows get the wagons moving.”
Pinhaus didn’t reply as he walked back to their family and put them to work.
Chakatie glared at the mists swirling before her mask. No scary voices whispered or screamed in her ears. No strange creatures attacked her. She wasn’t lying on a diagnostic table at risk of dying. But she also couldn’t help but think all that had happened was because of her.
He’s looking for you, that anchor said before he died.
Now Brother Anderly had found her. And she couldn’t figure out why that scared her more than the glowing mists and strange creatures waiting to attack.
Colton always drove the caravan’s lead wagon, but when Chakatie walked up to tell him to start the horses, the driver’s seat was empty. Butterlove and Patty, the wagon’s horses, blew and snorted in alarm under their massive respirators, disliking both the hoods covering their heads and the all-surrounding mists. But they were so well trained they weren’t attempting to move without a command.
Inside the wagon Chakatie found Colton, Mita, and Ae. Colton looked panicked and was repeatedly hitting the red dot on his arm that created fear in his body. Mita was trying to calm him while Ae worked the diagnostic panel to adjust the transmissions that killed the floating grains inside the wagon. The humming in Chakatie’s head increased for a moment before Ae tweaked the controls again and it vanished.
“What’s going on?” Chakatie said. “We need to get the caravan moving.”
Colton reached to tap more fear into his body. Chakatie grabbed his hand, stopping him. He strained against her powerful grip but couldn’t break free.
Someone was missing, Chakatie noticed. “Where’s Sri Sa?”
Mita pointed at a large pile of grains on the front bench and floor, which looked for all the world like a red sand dune that had blown into the wagon.
“It took too much of her power to keep the mists from touching her,” Mita said. “She couldn’t maintain her shape.”
“Is she alive?” Chakatie asked, surprised at being worried for someone she usually didn’t like.
“She is,” Colton said, having calmed down as the emotions he’d triggered died off. “But she’s scared. She needs to stay in the wagon so the grains can’t hurt her. I... wanted to stay with her.”
“It’s okay, hon,” Chakatie said, pulling him into a hug. “She’ll be safe in here.”
Colton didn’t react to the hug, all the emotions now faded from his body.
“The best way to help Sri Sa,” Chakatie said, “isn’t to hit the wrong emotion at the wrong damn time. Get out there and drive the wagon. The road’s only a hundred yards in ahead of us. We’ll make better time once we reach it. Maybe we can escape this deathtrap.”
“Don’t worry, we won’t let anything happen to Sri Sa,” Ae assured him.
“Colton, start driving,” Chakatie said. “Mita, Ae, you two scout the path with me.”
Chakatie hurried everyone out of the wagon. Before closing the door she looked again at the grains that were Sri Sa.
“I won’t let anything happen to you,” Chakatie said. “I know we don’t like each other, but you’re still family. I mean, damn, only family irritates me the way you do.”
The piles of Sri Sa’s grains flowed and swirled among themselves, much like the mists did outside. But their movements seemed happy at Chakatie’s words.
They reached the dirt road only twenty minutes after the restarting the caravan, then followed the packed ruts left by the caravans of previous years. Chakatie and Ae walked ahead while Mita walked beside Butterlove and Patty to keep them calm. Chakatie and Ae occasionally paused to let the wagon catch up, so they could know the caravan was still with them. Chakatie knew it was silly to think it, but she kept imagining the caravan vanishing if they walked too far ahead.
The grains continued to whisper into the ears of everyone except Chakatie. She felt certain the grains were replaying the memories they’d recorded from various people over the years, using those words to sow doubt and fear right when everyone needed to be united to escape these damn mists.
But it was still strange, because she’d never known the grains to act like this.
And something dangerous kept moving in the mists. Like shifting shadows.
The grains in front of Ae glowed brighter. She froze for a moment, then charged through them.
“You okay?” Chakatie asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “The damn things showed me the inside of Brother Anderly’s wagon, where he used to torture me. Even the blood on the operating table.”
Chakatie had heard about the horrors Ae had lived through. No one should ever go through something like that. She reached out and held her hand.
“He operated on ten kids,” Ae said, “fitting us with these damn connectors. Only me and one other survived. He also locked us in cages, and starved and beat us for good measure.”
Chakatie heard a creepy laughter in her ears and recognized the voice as the same one that had made her the earlier offer.
“For what it’s worth,” Brother Anderly’s voice sounded, “I don’t think Ae has the proper perspective on what happened.”
“Now you’re hearing voices?” Ae asked, sounding concerned behind her mask.
“Yeah. But it’s not voices out of a memory, like the rest of you are hearing. It’s an actual voice speaking with me. Claims to be Brother Anderly.”
Ae stopped. “What does his voice sound like?”
“Sort of ticks. Like a broken clock.”
“That could be him. But he’s dead.”
Chakatie was so shocked to learn that, she stumbled over her own feet and nearly fell. “When did he die?”
“Before we first met Sri Sa. Anderly and his monks had infiltrated her land, so she killed them. In very bloody and creatively painful ways, I should add.”
Chakatie couldn’t see much of Ae’s face inside her mask, but she seemed to be relieved as she said that last part. Based on what had happened to Ae, Chakatie could see why she wouldn’t be upset at Brother Anderly suffering a horrific death.
“You saw his dead body?”
“By the time I saw the bodies, they’d decayed so much it was hard to tell which monk was which.”
“So you don’t know for certain he’s dead.”
Ae didn’t answer.
“I’ve no idea if it’s really him speaking to me,” Chakatie said. “The grains record everything. Even day-fellows have a few grains in your bodies from living in this world. This is probably another trick being played on us by the grains.”
“I hope so,” Ae said, not sounding convinced by Chakatie’s words.
Chakatie was grateful her respirator hid her face so Ae couldn’t realize she’d been lying. Done to keep the girl from worrying too much, but a lie all the same.
The more Chakatie learned of all this, the less she suspected it was tricks played by the grains. The grains simply didn’t behave in this manner. And Brother Anderly had demonstrated the technical ability to implant neuroconnectors into humans, allowing them to access and reprogram the grains. She’d wondered if he’d also reprogrammed the grains in these mists to behave as they were doing.
But how did that play with him apparently being dead? Had he set all this in motion before dying? Was that even possible?
Walking in these damn mists was continually disorienting, but so was trying to understand why all this was happening. With every step she took she felt as if the ground under her—the very ground she’d relied on across five hundred years of life—was about to heave up and knock her down.
After traveling for two days, the caravan finally passed the last of the crystals spewing mists of grains, but the mists still followed them. And with each step the caravan took, the mists continued whispering their worst fears in their ears or showing terrifying images.
Or at least, to everyone but Chakatie.
Two day-fellows and one anchor panicked from a mix of the grains’ whispered words and the claustrophobia of the mists, but their partners were able to get them inside a wagon before they tore off their respirators. And Master Dandez created a large filtering hood that could seal around a horse’s head and neck, allowing the horses’ respirators to be taken off so they could eat and drink. But the nano-forges only had the energy to create three of the hoods, so it took hours to feed and water all the caravan’s horses.
All of that left everyone exhausted, including Chakatie. She ordered the grains in her body to keep moving her muscles. She feared if she took a moment to sleep, the anchors and day-fellows might attack one another.
And the worst thing was that, while everyone else in the caravan saw and heard things to scare them, she merely heard Brother Anderly’s voice. And saw images of different lands across the world. Beautiful lands. He’d upped his original offer by saying she could pick any of the world’s lands to be in charge of, if she betrayed the day-fellows.
She was tempted. The oath she’d sworn when she was first placed in charge of her own land—we are ingrained in the land and the grains are our land—echoed in her mind. To steel herself, she kept reminding herself of the new friends she’d made and all the joys she’d experienced since joining this caravan.
“The problem,” Brother Anderly said in her ears as she trudged along the dirt road, “is that the grains can’t change. It’s not natural.”
The grains projected images of a beautiful tropical beach before Chakatie’s eyes. She waved them away, obscuring the image back into the normal multi-colored mists.
“Not normal?” she scoffed. “You experimented on kids. You stuck a damn neuroconnector in Ae. You’re a fucking disembodied voice whispering in my ear.”
“I’m well aware of my sins. But you know the grains as well as any anchor living today. Our world is evil.”
The grains now showed Chakatie a scene from the ancient world, of a forest cut down and the new factory built there spewing poisons.
“I’ll admit humanity used to be horrible,” Brother Anderly said. “We nearly destroyed our world. We tore the planet apart and polluted it and killed most everything, including many of our own species. I understand why our ancestors created the grains to protect the environment from us. But the grains also pervert the world. This planet’s environments and the creatures in them are supposed to change and adapt over time. This world no longer allows that.”
“I agree,” she said. “We live in a memorial to what humanity believed the world should be. All because the grains can’t change their programming. They’re like those old statues of gods that humans used to build. Never changing, always watching.”
“Exactly!” Brother Anderly said excitedly.
“But why does any of this matter? The grains are what they are. They’ll be here long after we’re dead and gone.”
There was silence for the next hour. Chakatie walked ahead into the mists to check on Mita and Ae, who were partnered up to inspect the dirt road. Chakatie’s sudden arrival caused Ae to jump and scream before she realized who it was.
“You okay?” Chakatie asked.
“He’s out there!” Ae yelled. “Brother Anderly. The grains brought him back.”
Even with the respirator making it difficult to see, Chakatie saw Ae’s body shaking, which worried her. Usually Ae was so stoic and steady.
Mita wrapped her arm around Ae as she staggered. “She needs a break,” Mita said. “She hasn’t slept since all this started.”
“No,” Ae protested. “With Sri Sa not able to leave the wagon, I’m the only one who can monitor the grains and keep them from leading us into something dangerous.” She paused and adjusted her respirator, her hands shaking the entire time.
A large shape ran across their path in front of them, appearing and disappearing as the mists swirled around them. Mita pulled her sword from her sheath, still supporting Ae with her other arm.
“Third time that thing’s swooped by us in the last hour,” Mita said.
“It’s Brother Anderly,” Ae whispered.
Chakatie looked for the shape in the mists, but whatever it was had vanished. Mita halted the caravan and took Ae back to one of the wagons to rest. When she returned, Pinhaus was beside her.
“Wren’s worse,” Pinhaus said. “Elder Vácha says she’s got a day at most before her grains are totally reprogrammed.”
“If you want, Mita and I can handle this,” Chakatie said. She was worried to death about Wren. If Pinhaus didn’t decide to give her the medicine soon, she’d take the decision out of his hands.
“I’d rather be helping than sitting in a wagon being useless.”
Chakatie hugged her son, then told him to check the path for the lead wagon with Mita.
As the caravan started moving again, Brother Anderly’s tick-tock voice resumed. “All of you are being pushed beyond your limits. You know what’s coming. The grains will wear you down until you’re all too exhausted to move. Then you’ll die.”
“You showed the grains where we were, didn’t you?”
“I have ways of tracking Sri Sa.”
If that was true, how long had he been tracking the caravan, Chakatie wondered.
“That still doesn’t answer why you did it. You’re a day-fellow, or you were. I thought you hated the grains.”
Instead of answering, the grains projected an image of a new land before Chakatie. Or more accurately, an image of Chakatie’s old land.
Chakatie stumbled and her stomach felt sick. The grains had copied the scene before her directly from her own memories, an incident she remembered all too well.
Nearly fifty years ago, a day-fellow caravan had accidentally leaked toxic chemicals from a broken nano-forge as their wagons crossed her land. The grains had demanded immediate punishment. While Chakatie knew it’d been an accident, and the day-fellows had offered to clean up the spill, the grains gave her no choice. She allowed most of the caravan to escape but had to attack the bio-smith’s wagon containing the leaking nano-forge. Chakatie shattered that wagon’s ceramic armor and killed the bio-smith.
“My mother was our caravan’s bio-smith,” Brother Anderly said. “I watched you kill her, from the wagon she’d hidden me in as the rest of the caravan escaped.”
Chakatie swatted at the grains before her face, but the image of Brother Anderly’s dead mother inside the destroyed wagon kept reforming before her eyes. An image the grains had copied years ago from Chakatie’s own mind.
“I didn’t have a choice,” she said. “The grains demanded blood for defiling my land. But I choose not to kill anyone else in the caravan. You’re alive because I made that choice, even though most other anchors would have massacred everyone.”
“I realize that. Doesn’t change how I feel, though.”
“Is this revenge? You think you’ll feel better if you help the grains kill my entire family and all these day-fellows? If you’re angry at me, kill me. Leave everyone else alone.”
The scene from fifty years ago vanished, leaving only the swirling colors of the mists and the silent-screaming fairies being torn apart and recreated by the grains.
Chakatie was tempted to rip off her respirator right now, to die as Brother Anderly watched, to offer herself for the safety of her family and the day-fellows. But she also didn’t trust him, and feared that if she did die he wouldn’t free the caravan from this deathtrap.
If Brother Anderly could even control the grains he’d partnered with.
Chakatie walked back toward the caravan to tell Elder Vácha what she’d learned. But she froze when the grains in her body began vibrating in alarm.
She was being watched! And not merely by the grains and whatever tech Brother Anderly was using to monitor her. The colors of the mists shifted their flow, as if going around something massive in their path. The ground shook slightly, as if to giant footsteps.
A dark shape like a massive oak tree appeared before her, like an incomprehensible strangeness rising out of the early-morning mists of some distant river. But this wasn’t a tree, it was a creature. It stepped before her and stopped, far taller than her, so tall it disappeared up in the mists, with long arms and sharp knives for fingers tapping the ground before her.
“You made a choice when you killed my mother,” Brother Anderly whispered. “So I’ll let you make another choice. You and the caravan can continue as you are. I won’t interfere, and you all either escape or die on your own.”
The tree creature ran its knife fingers across the ground before Chakatie, cutting several deep grooves in the soil. She now saw that she’d mistaken for bark was instead a wax-like covering that bubbled and flowed up and down the creature’s body. From Brother Anderly’s tone, she was sure that this creature was under his command.
“Or,” Brother Anderly said, “you can take your chances with me. I’ll give your caravan rest and protection from the grains. For a little while.”
“What do you mean by ‘take our chances’ with you? I need to know more before I discuss this with Elder Vácha.”
“No. Decide right now, or I’ll make the decision for you by leaving your precious caravan to die in these mists.”
Chakatie stared at the wax tree creature before her, its knife fingers rotating in the ground like hungry drills. She didn’t trust Brother Anderly, not after what he’d done to Ae. But she also didn’t see any way out of these mists. She had a responsibility to the everyone in the caravan, both her family and the day-fellows. As he’d said, the grains would exhaust them and wear them down until they died.
“We’ll take our chances with you,” she said.
Brother Anderly didn’t say a word. Instead, the wax tree jammed its knife fingers deeper into the ground, the fingers spinning and drilling down until its arms followed. The wax covering its body glowed brighter and brighter orange until it burned like the sun, the light appearing to push the mists away.
As the mists cleared around Chakatie, the wax tree creature returned to a dull orange glow. Now that she could see it clearly, it resembled a giant human being, except with four arms and a blankness where there should have been a face. The creature was also growing, already standing a dozen times taller than her and becoming wider and taller by the second as sand and dirt flowed from the ground into its body. The purple flowers of the chaparral sage surrounding the wax tree wilted, followed by the sage itself, the plants turning brown as if their very life was being yanked out. Chakatie’s skin tingled and a shiver ran her spine, as if whatever killed the plants was also trying to pull out her own life.
The ground heaved and tossed from the wax tree’s roots, and Chakatie stumbled backwards. Pinhaus and Mita appeared as the mists cleared around them, then Colton’s horses and wagon, then more wagons until the mists were pushed away from the entire caravan.
When Colton saw the giant creature, he wordlessly turned the horses and lead the caravan back to a safer distance. Pinhaus and Mita ran to help steady the horses as both day-fellows and anchors yelled out warnings and positioned the wagons in a defensive circle.
The wax tree continued growing until it stood a hundred yards tall with arms reaching both into the ground and to the sides of its body. The mists swirled in a ball, pushed back another two hundred yards beyond the reach of the wax tree. The mists circled some invisible barrier keeping them away from the tree, as if Chakatie and the caravan were inside a glass ball.
And while the mists were still silent, as Chakatie watched, the different colors of the swirling grains and fairies began to change, going from a rainbow of colors to deep red.
As if the mists were angry at something.
Or was this Brother Anderly’s anger? Now that Chakatie knew how her actions had affected him, she was certain this was anger.
“Rest,” Brother Anderly said to her. “Breathe fresh air. Get some decent sleep.”
“There’s no need to involve anyone but you and me in this,” Chakatie said. “You’re angry, I get it. Let everyone else go, and you can punish me as you see fit.”
“How can I punish you before your friends and family learn who you truly are?”
Brother Anderly laughed in his off-kilter voice, which hung in Chakatie’s ears for far longer than any laugh should ever linger.
Chakatie didn’t get a chance rest. Not after she told Elder Vácha of the offer she’d accepted from Brother Anderly.
“What the hell have you done?” Vácha yelled.
They stood outside Vácha’s wagon. Behind them, the wax tree now glowed a calming array of blues and pinks, the wax-like substance of its skin no longer flowing up and down but circling the trunk like hundreds of translucent snakes. The ring of dead plants had also stopped spreading, ending only a few dozen yards from the wax trunk. The few day-fellows who’d entered the dead area said they’d felt the same strange tingling Chakatie experienced and had quickly backed away.
And the bubble of mists surrounding them—she’d already heard people describing it as a fish bowl, with all of them who were trapped inside obviously being the damned fish—no longer glowed red. Instead, the mists projected massive images of Chakatie attacking and killing Brother Anderly’s mother, as if trying to prove to everyone how horrible Chakatie truly was and why the entire caravan was being punished for her deeds.
Chakatie was horrified at having one of her most shameful deeds shown in public.
“We should discuss this inside the wagon,” she said, noticing that all of her family and many of the day-fellows were listening.
“Better to talk outside where everyone can watch,” Elder Vácha said. “Because what everyone’s seeing is you killing that day-fellow over and over. And now you tell me that’s Brother Anderly’s mother, and you’ve been speaking to him for days. And didn’t tell me!”
“I should have told you when he first spoke to me,” Chakatie said in a low voice. It did sound bad when Vácha explained it like that. “But I was trying to learn what was going on.”
“Well shit, if you feel bad, I guess we’re all good. No need to worry about the caravan’s safety or anything.”
Chakatie took a deep breath to calm herself. The wagons were parked in a protective circle. Day-fellows with lasers sat on the roofs watching for danger. Despite Elder Vácha’s anger, the deal with Brother Anderly had given them some breathing space. The horses had been unhitched and were being washed down, fed, and watered. And while the grains surrounding them still prevented sunlight from reaching their solar collectors, the back of each wagon was jacked up off the ground so people could spin the wheels with their hands, rotating the axles through the generators underneath and slowly recharging the batteries.
“I was given a choice,” Chakatie said calmly. “We could have kept going in the mists—we both know we’d already pushed this caravan to our limits—or I could take Brother Anderly’s offer. What choice would you have made?”
Elder Vácha cursed again, but not as loud.
Chakatie leaned close to her ear. “I was also offered a deal by Brother Anderly, to give Sri Sa and all you day-fellows to the grains. If my family knows I turned down letting us escape in order to save you, how do you think they’ll react?”
Chakatie didn’t mention that she now suspected Brother Anderly’s offer had been fake. If he was angry at her for killing his mother, it was unlikely he’d have honored a deal to return her to a land as an anchor. Instead, he was likely trying to see if she’d betray the day-fellows she now lived with.
“Fine, dammit, you made the best choice,” Vácha said.
“Even a single day free of the mists will give us a better chance to escape,” Chakatie said.
“That depends on what games Brother Anderly is playing.”
They looked yet again at the giant images of Chakatie killing Brother Anderly’s mother, and at the wax tree creature that was the only thing keeping the grains from again covering them in mists.
“I’ve always liked you,” Vácha said. “Even when Colton’s mother and I were kids. Even back then I knew you tried to do right. But seeing that shit projected up there, it’s making me wonder if I misjudged you.”
“Do you still trust me?”
Vácha pointed at the images of Chakatie stabbing Brother Anderly’s mother in the chest with her claws. “For now. But my people seeing that, it’s going to be hard to convince them you’re one of the good anchors.”
There was nothing Chakatie could say to that.
Three days later, little had changed. The caravan still sat in a fish bowl surrounded by the mists. Chakatie’s worst sins were still being shown to everyone by the grains. And Brother Anderly still hadn’t spoken to anyone about what he wanted or had planned.
“I will never again keep a pet fish,” Master Dandez announced as she replaced an air filter on the side of one of the wagons. “I never guessed fish bowls were this creepy.”
“It’d be animal cruelty, a fish having to see what we’re watching day and night,” her assistant responded. “I mean, seriously, who’d have guessed we lived for six months with a monster like her?”
Chakatie groaned to herself but otherwise pretended she hadn’t heard the their words. She lay on the ground under the wagon where no one could see her. She’d been trying to sleep, but it’d been no use.
For the last three days the grains had projected images of all the horrible things she’d done across her five centuries of life. Shown every day-fellow she’d been forced by the grains to kill, and each caravan she’d attacked. Shown her also killing anchors who defied her, along with anchors she’d hurt and cut down for lesser wrongs.
Now she heard day-fellows talking about her “eating kids.” Even without looking she knew which scene the grains were now showcasing. Decades ago a caravan had camped on her land during Samhain, and the day-fellows had asked Chakatie to help scare everyone as part of the night’s celebrations. She’d done just that by growing her fangs and chasing the kids, who shrieked and screamed and then laughed.
She assumed the grains had deceptively selected the worst images from that and hadn’t shown the pleasant ending, where she’d given sweets to all the kids.
Bare feet walked around the wagon and stopped by Master Dandez.
“She’s under the wagon, you know, listening to your bullshit,” Sri Sa said.
Master Dandez and her assistant went silent. Chakatie’s enhanced hearing heard their hearts beat faster.
Sri Sa leaned over and stared under the wagon. “I didn’t think the caravan could hate anyone more than me. But spend a few days watching the worst of someone’s life and hey, guess what?”
“Is there a point to this?” Chakatie asked.
“I want to show you something.”
Chakatie sighed and rolled out from under the wagon. As she brushed the sand off her clothes and placed her bowler hat on her head, she looked at Master Dandez.
“I’ve never killed kids,” she said, pointing at the images in the sky. “The grains aren’t showing the whole story.”
Master Dandez and her assistant both stepped back slightly. “We were just talking,” Master Dandez said in weak voice.
Chakatie scented fear on both of them. Not wanting to feel even more depressed that people now feared her, she followed Sri Sa down the circle of wagons.
With the grains still being held back by whatever power Brother Anderly had access to, Sri Sa had quickly regained her ability to safely walk among people. Both day-fellows and her own family glared at Chakatie as she passed and refused to greet her. She also scented yet more fear from many of the people. Even the kids briefly stopped their games—after the adults had tired of spinning the wagon wheels to generate power, the day-fellow kids and teenagers had stepped up and taken over. The wheels were spun to the rules of a game Chakatie didn’t understand, with prizes awarded to whichever groups generated the most power each day.
But the kids refused to look at her as she passed. Up until now she’d been their favorite anchor.
“Don’t let it get to you,” Sri Sa said. “They’d all be dead if you hadn’t agreed to Brother Anderly’s demands.”
“Tell them that,” she said, irritated that Sri Sa was one of the few people in the caravan who understood that.
They left the wagons and walked toward the massive wax tree. Blue and pink still circled its trunk, the colors alternating back and forth in a mesmerizing up-and-down pattern as if trying to calm anyone who looked at it.
They jumped over the small creek that flowed from an artesian aquifer, the water allowing a patch of grass and small trees to grow in the otherwise dry shrublands, at least beyond the reach of whatever force killed the plants around the wax tree. The horses grazed and drank their fill, and the caravan had topped off their drinking tanks.
“He planned all this,” Sri Sa said. “I doubt there’s another water source for twenty leagues. He wants us to stay here for a bit.”
“The less we worry about dying, the more time people can watch the horrible things I’ve done,” Chakatie said.
“You mocking me?”
Sri Sa formed an image of a smile on her face. “Should I?”
Chakatie groaned again.
They stopped a dozen yards from the wax tree creature’s trunk. On their first day here Chakatie had returned to this spot despite the tingling in her body as if the wax tree was draining her life. She’d touched the wax-like substance making up its body, which was warm like blood. The creature didn’t appear to have any eyes or ears, and she had no clue if it was sentient or not. Despite growing so large, the wax tree had retained its shape like a giant human, aside from having four arms. And its face was still a circular blankness, as if a dinner plate had been dipped in disgustingly thick wax.
Dozens of smaller versions of the wax tree creature walked slowly around the massive trunk. The day-fellows called them wax golems, and it was hard to fault the name. They were the same height as Chakatie, generally human shaped and, unlike the wax tree, only had two arms. But just like their massive sibling, their faces were blank.
Chakatie was pretty sure these were the creatures that had attacked people in the mists. But now the golems ignored them and simply circled their giant sibling.
“Did you find Brother Anderly?” Chakatie asked.
“I still have no idea where he is. But watch this.”
Sri Sa pointed her right index finger at the trunk of the wax tree. Her finger separated from her body and narrowed into a large needle as her grains created a new finger on her hand. The red needle hovered for a moment then exploded forward like a bullet and hit the trunk.
Neither the wax tree or the smaller golems made a sound or even seemed to notice. A single spurt of what looked like waxen orange blood shot out, splattering on the ground before the wound healed itself. The blood then pulled more sand and dirt to itself, building a body from the very ground it stood on until a minute later, it’d formed into a new golem.
“I’ve experimented a few times by injuring these creatures,” Sri Sa said. “Always the same result.”
“Why the hell are you creating more of them?”
“Because we have to be prepared to fight them. But how do we fight something that, if wounded, creates more of themselves? If we end up fighting, we’ve no chance of winning.”
“This just keeps getting worse.”
“I can’t access the creatures, or manipulate them or anything. That waxy coating blocks my transmissions. But in the split-second I wound them, I have a momentary access to what they are. The grains created them. And not just any grains. My grains.”
Sri Sa formed her hand into a miniature of the wax golems.
“The rogue grains you’re made of?” Chakatie asked.
“Yes. They appear to have been modified, but the grains powering all this are essentially me. Almost all the grains in the world have their power deliberately restricted—that’s why the grains are programmed to reside inside a human anchor before releasing their full abilities. But my grains were programmed without this restriction.”
Sri Sa paused as she pulled the sand and dirt around her into her body. Her body grew like the wax tree had done days ago until she stood twice as tall as Chakatie. She smirked before collapsing back to normal size.
“I won’t let myself grow much larger than that,” she said. “I did that once and I... lost control. I can’t risk that again.”
Chakatie remembered what she’d heard of Sri Sa’s history from Colton and the others—the battle where all of them fought against a massed attack of anchors.
“Brother Anderly somehow accessed your grains,” Chakatie said. “When you were alive.”
“That’s my guess.”
Chakatie glanced back at the caravan and lowered her voice, even though no one could hear them. “Why are you telling me this? If the others knew...”
“They’d hate me even more. Shit, this would probably convince Pinhaus or Elder Vácha that I’ve betrayed everyone. Colton would defend me, but hell if anyone else would.”
“We’d both be screwed.”
“I think that’s what Brother Anderly wants.”
Chakatie chuckled grimly. “If I ever get us out of this,” she said, “I’m going to do something very, very bloody to Brother Anderly.”
Sri Sa smiled again. “You and me both.”
While Chakatie knew it was merely a simulated facial emotion, like all the others she created, it also felt like the first genuine smile Sri Sa had ever shared with her.
Chakatie knew she was the very system Brother Anderly hated. She also had killed his mother. But what type of human, she thought, would do all this merely for revenge?
She stood outside Elder Vácha’s wagon, trying to decide whether or not to enter. The day-fellows who’d been injured by the mists had already been released from care, so the only patient inside was Wren. The grains infecting her body had completely reprogrammed all of her own a few days ago. Even though Vácha had kept Wren sedated, everyone was afraid about what Wren could do when she woke up.
But her grains were breaking down the sedation. Chakatie knew the safest thing to do would be to kill all the grains in Wren’s body with medicine, but Pinhaus refused to allow that. He’d been ignoring Chakatie in recent days, with even him shocked by the violence she’d done during her life.
Colton and Sri Sa held hands as they sat on the ground a few yards away. Since Chakatie and Sri Sa returned from the wax tree a few hours ago, the two of them had spent all their time together. As if Sri Sa needed reassurance that she wasn’t evil and was a good person at heart.
Chakatie opened the door and entered the wagon. Pinhaus sat next to Wren, holding her hand. Elder Vácha stood before a floating projection, examining Wren’s condition through the wagon’s medical analysis display.
“How long until she wakes up?” Chakatie asked.
“Within the hour,” Elder Vácha said.
Pinhaus looked away from his mother, avoiding her gaze.
“Could you excuse us for a minute?” Chakatie asked.
Elder Vácha stepped outside, leaving Chakatie and Pinhaus alone.
“You have to give her the medicine,” Chakatie said.
“It’s not right,” Pinhaus said. He wiped his eyes with the back of his wrist, taking care not to release Wren’s hand.
“Elder Vácha has a lot of medical experience. If she’s careful and gives Wren the correct doses over time, she shouldn’t be damaged like Colton was.”
“But she’ll no longer be an anchor.”
“If she wakes up, she may attack all of us. Or those grains could simply decide to kill her. We can’t risk either option.”
Pinhaus glared at her. “Why are you here? Trying to show your precious day-fellows that you actually care for people?”
Chakatie growled, having to fight back the anger she felt at her son questioning her at a time like this. “I want to save Wren. I want her to live a happy life even if she’s no longer an anchor.”
Pinhaus laughed. “There’s always a problem for you to solve, isn’t there? Always something only you can fix and make right. But you never really understood anything, Mother. You never knew how to relate to anyone who wasn’t causing problems for you.”
Pinhaus wiped more tears from his eyes. Chakatie didn’t know what to say.
“We’ll give Wren the medicine,” Pinhaus said. “Not because you ordered it, not because she’s a problem to be solved, but because it’s the only way to save her life.”
Chakatie reached out to caress Wren’s face, but Pinhaus pushed her hand away.
“Everyone has seen what you are,” Pinhaus said. “I won’t let my daughter die. And I won’t follow your orders any more. Our entire family will back me on this, so don’t you dare go against it.”
Chakatie’s hands shook. She’d lead her family for centuries, and fury burned her at Pinhaus’s words. She felt her grains powering up her body and claws emerging from her fingers, her every instinct telling her to not allow this disobedience.
But then she looked again at Wren’s sleeping face. Even if Wren could no longer be an anchor, she still had her entire life ahead of her.
If they escaped from whatever game Brother Anderly was playing.
“Take this advice,” she said. “Do better than I did. If we survive, Wren will need to live with the day-fellows. She won’t be an anchor anymore. There are worse ways to convince this caravan to take in Wren as one of their own than for you and our family to continue helping them.”
Pinhaus seemed surprised that Chakatie hadn’t tried to argue with him. He nodded at the wisdom of her words as he squeezed Wren’s hand tighter.
Chakatie left the wagon. As she walked away, she took a deep breath and powered down.
There was no night, with the fish bowl’s images of all that Chakatie had done wrong illuminating the caravan twenty-four hours a day. But the wagons’ internal readouts said it was near midnight when Brother Anderly spoke two words in everyone’s ear:
“I’ve waited long enough. Defend yourselves.”
Chakatie raced out of Vácha’s wagon, where she’d been sleeping. “Did you also hear that?”
“Yeah,” Vácha’s said. “That’s definitely Anderly’s shitty little voice.”
They climbed the ladder to the wagon’s roof and watched as hundreds more of the wax golems appeared, walking out of the mists on the other side of the massive wax tree from the caravan. Even as this distance their blank faces stood out, the wax glowing a sickly orange.
Elder Vácha yelled for everyone to prepare for battle. The horses were brought inside the protective circle and harnessed, although Chakatie knew it would still take time to hitch the horses to the wagons if they needed to flee. But fleeing would be a desperate move because the golems would be able to attack them even more easily in the mists, where everyone would have to wear respirators to protect against the grains.
As Elder Vácha was telling most of the day-fellows to shelter inside the wagons, Pinhaus approached her and asked what she wanted his family to do. Vácha looked shocked that Pinhaus was leading the anchors instead of Chakatie. She glanced at Chakatie, who nodded approval. Elder Vácha placed Pinhaus and the other anchors to the side of the caravan directly facing the golems. They’d defend the center where the golems would likely attack, with her day-fellows and their lasers to either side.
Alexnya stood near Chakatie, having watched the entire exchange.
“You okay?” Alexnya asked.
“Why the hell wouldn’t I be?” Chakatie snapped. “I love my son. He’ll do a fine job leading the family.”
“Er, that’s not what I meant. You haven’t seen what the mists are showing?”
Chakatie looked up at the fish bowl. A few hours ago the grains had shown images of the anchor Frere-Jones overdosing her son, Colton, on medicine. Chakatie had figured the grains had taken a break from showing her worst deeds to show what the medicine did to anchors, trying to stiffen Pinhaus’s resolve not to do the same to Wren. Obviously it hadn’t worked, because he’d still used it.
But now the grains projected images of Chakatie killing Frere-Jones, her own daughter-in-law. The images appeared to be copied from Alexnya’s memories, who had taken over that land after Frere-Jones’s death. In the images, Frere-Jones lay on the new-spring grass, staring up happily at the sun. Chakatie saw herself walk up to Frere-Jones, pick up the laser pistol lying next to her, then shoot her in the head.
Her heart raced. She turned to Colton, who was guarding the right-front of the caravan with a laser rifle while Sri Sa stood protectively next to him. He watched raptly as the grains replayed the scene of Chakatie murdering his mother a second and then a third time. His fingers reached out to the four dots on his arm, then hesitated, as if unsure which emotion to release in response to what he was seeing.
Colton watched Chakatie kill his mother a fourth time. He again hesitated, not sure which emotion was correct. He turned to Sri Sa.
“How should I react to this?” he asked.
“Your grandmother loves you,” Sri Sa said. “Ask her what happened.”
He followed Sri Sa’s advice and spotted Chakatie watching him. “Well?” he asked, in his emotionless voice.
“Your mother killed dozens of anchors. She agreed to this punishment. I didn’t want to do it, but I had no choice.”
“Because the grains ordered you to?”
Colton considered this before tapping two emotions on his arm. Fear and happiness, which Chakatie had been told combined to create a sense of duty.
“I understand,” he said. “But maybe you should have tried to be more than merely the grains’ tool all those years.”
The words hit Chakatie like claws ripping her gut apart. While she loved all of her family, she’d always been especially close to Colton, even after he’d been overdosed on medicine and forced to leave their land. And for him to say this—it staggered her.
Because he was right.
And as his words whipped through her mind, she remembered someone else telling her similar words long ago. Even then she’d known those words were true, but she’d been afraid to truly embrace them.
Before she could respond to Colton, a sound like linen ripping echoed around the fish bowl. The blank faces on the hundreds of golems split up the middle, a vertical red line shining between the broken pieces of their wax plates. The giant wax tree’s blank face did the same.
“Oh shit,” Sri Sa said. “That doesn’t strike me as a good sign.”
“And red’s your color,” Alexnya said. “The color of your grains’ power.”
She was right, Chakatie knew, and it made sense because Sri Sa’s grains were powering the wax golems. The golems didn’t make another sound as they charged the caravan. The giant wax tree didn’t move, but the glow around its arms weakened as the fish bowl partly collapsed, allowing the mists to circle closer to the caravan.
“This will be interesting,” Brother Anderly whispered in Chakatie’s ears. “Your life’s path has been etched in blood. But now it’ll be your friends and family dying, not mine. What will you do?”
“Did either of you hear that?” Chakatie asked Sri Sa and Alexnya. They shook their heads.
“What do you want from me?” she demanded. “What can I do to end this?”
But Brother Anderly didn’t respond.
Unsure what else to do, Chakatie ran to where the battle would take place, extending the claws from her fingers and lighting her eyes to blue fire.
“Don’t hit the wax tree!” she yelled. “If it collapses the fish bowl, the mists will be on us and we’ll be screwed.”
Lasers fanned the air on the left and right of the wax tree. Chakatie cursed. The caravan’s true power was the lasers. But if they aimed at the center of the charging golems, they’d risk hitting the tree. That meant her family, in the center of the line, would have to stop those golems.
Chakatie stepped up to Pinhaus, who was calmly watching the charging golems.
“Where do you want me, son?” she asked.
“You can fight beside me, Mom,” he said.
Chakatie powered up the rest of her body, ripping her neon-blue suit to pieces until only her bowler hat remained unharmed. She could accept dying. She could accept being humiliated, tortured, and anything else that might be done to her. But the thought that all of this was happening to the people she loved and cared about, because of what she’d done years ago, infuriated her.
The lasers cut down large numbers of the wax golems, but Chakatie could already see those golems reforming into new ones, doubling the attacking army, then doubling it again and again as the lasers kept injuring them.
For the first time in her life, Chakatie had no clue what to do. If they didn’t fight back they’d be quickly destroyed. But fighting back only delayed their inevitable defeat, as Sri Sa had predicted.
And then the middle wave of golems was upon them. Chakatie, Pinhaus and their family fought outside the circled wagons. The red lines of the golems’ faces glowed even redder, as if rage drove them forward.
The anchors were all powered up and stood twice the size of the golems, but that didn’t help them as much as it should have. Chakatie cut two golems in half with her claws, then decapitated a third. As the golems fell, the chaparral sage and other plants died, their lives devoured along with the sand and soil that flowed up to remake the golems’ damaged bodies.
The golems slashed at the anchors with their drill-like fingers. A few day-fellows on top of the wagons aimed laser pistols down at the ground, taking care to not to hit the anchors. But once the golems were that close, the lasers’ firepower wasn’t as effective. And while the caravan had recharged the wagons’ batteries as best they could, the lasers were draining them incredibly fast. Chakatie heard day-fellows yelling that they needed more power as the lasers holding back the left and right side attacks weakened.
A golem slashed Chakatie’s thigh before she threw it backwards. She wondered if it was better to throw the golems back instead of injuring them, but there were too many to do that. And the end result of being overwhelmed by them would be the same.
Two golems stabbed Pinhaus, in the gut and leg. Chakatie screamed as she ripped both of them apart and pulled her son back to safety. All of her family were bleeding and injured. The day-fellow lasers stopped the golems for the moment, giving the anchors time to regroup.
But there were too many. As the ground of this land boiled and flowed into the fallen golems, double their number rose up and charged yet again. There were so many that this wave would simply wash over the wagons like a flood. It was like Brother Anderly was ordering these golems to reenact the countless times anchors had attacked day-fellow caravans...
That thought rang in Chakatie’s mind. The attack she’d lead that killed Brother Anderly’s mother had been small compared to most attacks against day-fellows committed by anchors over thousands of years. But what would the attack have seemed like through the eyes of Brother Anderly as a child?
She looked at Pinhaus, bravely fighting to defend their family and the caravan. Memories continually changed as people passed through life. If Pinhaus had seen her cut down when he was a small child, what would that memory be like today? Would it look like hundreds of faceless creatures aiming to kill the one he loved?
She ripped the head off a golem and kicked its body away. As she stared into its blank face, the glowing red line there resonated to the grains within her. For a moment imagined an image of hundreds of herself attacking a day-fellow wagon decades ago.
“Pinhaus!” Chakatie yelled. “Get the family behind the wagons.”
“What are you doing?”
“We can’t win. We’re fighting a memory.”
Pinhaus hesitated, likely not understanding, but Chakatie knew he saw how hopeless their current situation was. As he led the anchors back to the relative safety of the wagon circle, she fought on, the lasers aiding her in covering her family’s withdrawal. The golems mauled her, ripping her flesh and stabbing her with their drill fingers. They piled on top of her and tried to press her down into the ground.
“You don’t know all that happened,” Chakatie yelled. “This isn’t how your mother died. You’re misremembering.”
Every golem froze. The injured golems fell and reformed as new ones, but they didn’t attack.
“How can you pretend to know my memories?” Brother Anderly asked, in Chakatie’s ears.
“You were a child,” she said, trying to push herself free of the unmoving golems piled up on top of her. “You were so traumatized that the memory of the attack morphed into all this. You turned it into what you’re reenacting right now.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“It does. Your mother didn’t die like this. Don’t you want to know what really happened.”
Brother Anderly hesitated. “It doesn’t... matter.”
“Your mother said something before she died. Call off this attack and I’ll share it with you.”
“I’m not. I understand, you want revenge. But you also need to know the rest of what you lived through.”
She heard the lasers still firing but the golems remained unmoving, still piled on top of her. But she definitely had Brother Anderly’s attention.
“If you’re lying, I’ll keep you alive to the very end,” he said. “I’ll let you watch as my golems torture everyone you love.”
Despite being surrounded by creatures that moments ago were trying to kill her, Chakatie had to fight down a laugh. This was the second time Brother Anderly had offered her a deal. But she’d make sure this one turned out better than the last.
The golems climbed off of Chakatie and stepped away from her. She heard Elder Vácha yelling for the lasers to stop firing. As Chakatie sat up, she saw that the wave of golems had halted only a few yards from the wagons.
As she watched, the red lines on every golem sealed shut, the red vanishing back into the nothingness of a blank waxen face. The mass of golems then parted, opening a path toward the giant wax tree.
Chakatie stood up. She looked around for her bowler hat, but it wasn’t anywhere to be found. Even though she knew she should be happy at still being alive, the loss of her hat irritated.
Pinhaus walked up, bleeding from his wounds but his grains already healing his body. “Mom, what happened?”
“I’m going to talk to Brother Anderly.”
Before Pinhaus could say anything, Chakatie hugged him, hoping this wouldn’t be the last time. “You’ve done good, son,” she whispered.
Pinhaus’s cheek twitched several times before he smiled.
Chakatie waved to Sri Sa. “Would you come with me?”
“Go to the heart of all the stabbing things trying to kill us? Hell yes!”
The two of them walked toward the wax tree.
As Chakatie and Sri Sa walked the path, the wax golems closed up behind them as if Brother Anderly was showing there was no hope of escape.
“He doesn’t embrace the whole idea of being subtle, does he?” Sri Sa said.
Chakatie chuckled. “Your humor usually annoys me. But you do have your moments.”
“Do we have a plan?”
“I’m going to tell Brother Anderly exactly what I promised to tell.”
“That’s not a plan. That’s merely changing where we die from one place to another.”
“And the moment’s passed—your humor’s once again annoying.”
The land the golems had passed across was devastated, the sage and plants gone and the ground ripped to pieces as they had rebuilt their bodies over and over. Chakatie was shocked by the destruction—she’d never seen this much damage done to a land. She was reminded of the damage done to the ancient world, as she had seen in the historical records, which had lead to the creation of the grains.
When they reached the wax tree, the golems shoved in around them, pushing them back-first against the massive trunk.
Chakatie resisted the urge to power up her body again. She noticed Sri Sa struggling against the golems, with the grains that formed her body starting to lose coherency in an attempt to escape.
“No,” Chakatie said. “Let them do this. We need to see where they’re taking us.”
Sri Sa groaned but kept her body solid.
The tree’s rings glowed a faint orange behind them as the wax grew warmer and warmer, turning hot to the touch. It bubbled and popped as Chakatie and Sri Sa sank into it up to their bellies.
“Ugh. You are really going to owe me for this,” Sri Sa said.
Chakatie wanted to laugh but couldn’t as the wax swept up her chest and swallowed her face.
She felt the wax tree pulling her up through its trunk. Thousands of voices whispered around her as images of the world—as seen through memories copied from countless eyes over thousands of years—flashed before her. She couldn’t make sense of the words or images, which blurred to the flow of the hot wax encasing her body until she felt like she was flying back through time, experiencing every memory ever recorded by the grains.
The images and voices ended as the wax exploded like a boil popping around Chakatie. She found herself in a large room on a floor made of cold wax. The hot wax she’d been encased in dripped off her like bile. She fought the urge to vomit.
Beside her, Sri Sa broke apart her body and reformed it, to get the wax off her.
“Let’s not go through that again,” Sri Sa said. “Want me to peel that off you?”
Chakatie nodded. Sri Sa’s body glowed red as her hands dissolved into individual grains, which swirled around Chakatie until all the wax was gone.
“Don’t suppose you can fix my suit?” Chakatie asked. Powering up her body had ripped the nanothreads in the legs and arms and split the seam down the back.
“Told you that outfit wasn’t suited for fighting. But I did pick this up when the battle paused.”
The grains forming Sri Sa’s chest parted, and she reached in and pulled out a neon-blue bowler hat.
Chakatie tried not to smile too goofily as she placed it on her head. “How do I look?” she asked.
“Like a bad-ass anchor no one should fuck with,” Sri Sa said.
They looked around the room, which was twenty yards in diameter and equally as tall. Images flickered on three of the wax walls, showing the ever-changing sequence of memories Chakatie had witnessed earlier. The fourth wall showed the current scene in the fish bowl as seen from the wax tree’s blank face. They could see the hundreds of wax golems below them, all halted in place. And just beyond was the caravan, the anchors and day-fellows still crouching behind cover and ready to defend themselves.
“If you try anything,” Brother Anderly said, “the attack resumes.”
He stepped through one of the wax walls, which reformed after him. He wore the orange robes of his order, his face partly hidden by his cowl. Even from several paces away Chakatie smelled a disgusting scent of decay coming off his body like bad cheese. She remembered a similar scent centuries ago as her grandmother lay dying because her grains had malfunctioned.
“You can’t stop my golems,” he said. “It’s a no-win situation.”
“We kinda figured that,” Sri Sa said.
Brother Anderly pulled back his cowl, revealing a bald head and pale skin. Part of his scalp was covered in the wax that formed the room, except this wax glowed the same orange color as his robes.
“It’s wonderful to finally meet the famous Sri Sa,” Brother Anderly said. He gestured at the room around them. “All of this is because of you. You might even say, you birthed this!”
As Brother Anderly spoke, a bit of the orange wax on his scalp dripped down the side of his face. The droplet glowed brighter for a second before disappearing into his skin.
“I remember you,” Sri Sa said. “You led those tech fanatics who invaded my land a while back. I thought I gutted you.”
Brother Anderly opened the top part of his robes, revealing massive scars on his pale chest and belly. There was also more of the glowing orange wax.
“My body healed,” he said. “But more importantly, when you gutted me you left your grains in the wounds. I realized these weren’t the same grains found in the rest of the world. They could duplicate themselves. And they weren’t programmed with their powers restricted, like the grains within anchors are.”
The scars on Brother Anderly’s chest and belly vanished as he talked, then reappeared, as if he’d gotten distracted and forgotten they existed. He smiled as he closed his robes.
“Then you also know my grains are unstable,” Sri Sa said. “I died a while back, because I lost control. The only reason I’m still here is because those grains saved the essence of who I am.”
“Are you ready to discuss what happened to you mother?” Chakatie asked. “And what happened to you?”
“What happened to me is you killed my mother,” Brother Anderly said. He pointed at Sri Sa. “But that one gave me the means to change this damn system. I reprogrammed her grains. I learned how to replicate them and use them to take control of other grains. With that, I’ll free the whole world from the curse we’re suffering under.”
“And me?” Chakatie asked.
“I’m going to hurt you. For what you did to me. For what you did to my mother.”
Chakatie nodded, amazed at her calmness so soon after the recent battle. “I wondered if it was you. Not just these wax creatures but the grains killing thousands of anchors and forming the mists. And making the mists show the horrible scenes from my life. You controlled all that.”
The grin on Brother Anderly’s face grew wider than was humanly possible, like wax stretched to its breaking point.
“Have I been unjust?” Brother Anderly asked. “Anchors kill day-fellows in response to the grains’ orders. My mother was murdered because of an accident! An accident! She tried fixing it. She begged for her life. But you still killed her!”
Chakatie glanced out the translucent wall at the wax golems halted before caravan far below. At Brother Anderly’s whim, the attack could restart. She also saw the land the golems had destroyed. How many centuries had this environment existed only to be destroyed in a single day? While she didn’t like the grains, there was a reason humans created them to stop the world from being destroyed. How many people throughout history had done just as Brother Anderly, harming the environment or other people for reasons that seemed justified?
She walked over and touched one of the other wax walls, which flickered to images of different memories from long ago.
“I agree the grains do wrong,” she said. “And I’ve aided them, so I’m no better than they are. But what you’re doing is also wrong. You destroyed this land. And if these creatures you created spread, they’ll destroy other lands.”
“You wouldn’t understand,” he said. “You’ve always been an anchor. You can’t know the pain we day-fellows experience.”
“Perhaps,” she said. “But do you? Are you really Brother Anderly? Or are you just his memory?”
Brother Anderly and Sri Sa both stared at her.
Chakatie touched the wax wall beside her, pushing against the memories recorded from anchors and day-fellows long dead, and from people even further back in history.
“All the grains speak to us through memories,” she said. “That’s one of the limitations the grains are programmed with. There are others. The grains inside me can only increase my strength and abilities to a certain point, and they can’t use most of their power outside of an anchor’s body.”
Chakatie tapped the wall beside her. “But Sri Sa’s grains are different. This wax tree creature—the grains you stole from Sri Sa allowed it to grow to immense size. And the golems, with their ability to replicate themselves—no anchors can do that. And Sri Sa’s grains can also reprogram and control other grains.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Brother Anderly asked, the wax on his head now dripping down his face and changing colors, from orange to brown to red to yellow.
“You died on Sri Sa’s land. No day-fellow recovers from being gutted like that. But you were indeed infected with her grains, and they copied some of your memories as you died. And then they created this... simulacrum of who you’d once been. Similar to how Sri Sa died and her grains brought her back.”
Chakatie looked out the translucent wall at the golems facing off against the caravan. “Your attack earlier on our caravan—as I fought it, I realized it felt like a child’s memory of what I’d done to your mother. What I did hurt you horribly, but you were so young I think you didn’t remember it as it happened. Children’s memories are fragile and malleable. So I became a blank-faced golem, in your memories.”
Brother Anderly didn’t answer. He looked confused, as if trying to force himself to remember things that no longer existed in his mind. His face bubbled and popped, and his hands stretched down to the floor as if they were melting.
“What you did to my mother... to so many others...”
“I’m a monster,” Chakatie said. “We anchors are supposed to be monsters—that’s what the grains want. But sometimes, even monsters can change.”
As Chakatie said this, she couldn’t help but look at Sri Sa, who had changed perhaps the most of any anchor she’d ever known.
“You remember your mother’s death clearly,” Chakatie said, turning back to Brother Anderly, “but do you remember the happy times with her? What was her name? Did you have any brothers and sisters? Or what about Ae? Why did you torture her and the other kids? What was your goal with installing those connectors?”
“You can’t remember, because the grains that created you only copied a few of Brother Anderly’s memories, before he died.”
Brother Anderly’s entire face drooped in sadness, sagging towards the floor. He reached his melting hands to Chakatie as if pleading for help. His clothes and shoes also lost their form, merging into the wax floor he stood on.
“I’m with you,” Chakatie said as she approached Brother Anderly. She sat on the floor and held his melting form. “Do you want to hear what your mother told me before she died?”
Brother Anderly’s body had melted so much he’d lost the ability to talk, so he nodded.
“Your mother knew she was going to die,” she said, “and only resisted because it gave the rest of the caravan—and you—time to get further away. She didn’t trust that I’d hold to my word to only kill her.”
Brother Anderly stared raptly at Chakatie’s face.
“When I finally ripped open her wagon, your mother faced me without any fear. ‘This is wrong,’ she said, and I told her I agreed. But I still had to kill her. ‘Because the grains ordered it?’ Yes, because of the grains. I stabbed her in the chest, wanting to end it quickly, hating myself for what I was doing but afraid to defy the grains, afraid to lose all the power and privilege I had, by virtue of being an anchor.”
Brother Anderly struggled to hold his body together, desperate to hear all of Chakatie’s words.
“Despite all that, your mother didn’t curse me or hate me. She merely looked into my eyes as she died, and she whispered, ‘Do better.’”
Brother Anderly paused his melting for a moment.
“Your mother was a good person. I’m a monster. Be like your mother, not me.”
Brother Anderly’s partly melted body bubbled several times, as if considering these words. Then with a sigh, he finished collapsing into the floor.
Chakatie hoped her words had made him—or the creature crafted from his memories—a little happier, but she knew she’d never know for sure.
“I can’t sense Brother Anderly anywhere,” Sri Sa said. “But if you’re right and he’s merely a construct created by grains, he may return.”
“I know,” Chakatie said as she stood up. She grew a claw and slashed the wax wall next to her, revealing the red grains beneath. When the wall tried to heal itself she slashed it over and over.
“Access his grains while whatever remains of him is distracted,” she told Sri Sa. “We need to shut this down!”
Sri Sa’s body exploded into trillions of pieces as her grains flew at the openings in the wall. The wax making up the wall hardened and cracked, with the cracks flowing into the floor and from there into the rest of the wax tree.
Chakatie looked out the translucent fourth wall. The wax golems were again attacking the caravan, but their attacks looked scattered and unorganized. She hoped her family and friends —her charges, her responsibilities, her loves—could hold out.
The room shuddered and tilted toward the caravan. The translucent wall slammed into her as she realized it wasn’t only the room—the entire wax tree was falling down. She heard a howl of happiness from all around her and realized it was Sri Sa.
“What are you doing?” Chakatie yelled.
“We need to destroy the wax golems below to save the caravan,” Sri Sa said in a voice that vibrated from the walls themselves. “You might want to hold on.”
“There’s nothing to hold onto!”
“Hmm, I didn’t consider that.”
Chakatie cursed as the wax tree toppled, and didn’t stop cursing until the tree smashed into the ground.
Chakatie woke in a puddle of waxy water that stank like vomit. The fish bowl of mists was gone, replaced by clear blue skies, while the remnants of the wax tree were splattered for hundreds of yards around her. The golems were also gone, collapsed back to whatever pieces of sand and soil and plants their grains had used to build their bodies.
In the distance she could see the caravan. People there still were sheltering behind the wagons, looking unsure whether the attack was truly over.
In front of Chakatie lay her crushed bowler hat. She plucked it from the stinking water, but it was too far gone to put on her head. She tossed it back in the waxy water.
Sri Sa walked up, having reformed her grains into the illusion of a body.
“Is the caravan okay?” Chakatie asked.
“There were some injuries, but they weathered the last attack. Once I shut down the grains pretending to be Brother Anderly, the grains in the golems and the wax tree were easy to deactivate.”
Sri Sa sat down in the putrid liquid next to Chakatie. “How’d you realize all that about Anderly?” she asked.
“Five centuries of being an anchor,” Chakatie said. “I don’t like the grains that rule our world, but they’re not capable of killing thousands of anchors and damaging a land’s environment like this. When you told me the wax creatures were created with your rogue grains, I realized Brother Anderly was connected with all that had happened.”
“No, I mean how’d you know my grains hadn’t copied all of Brother Anderly before he died.”
Chakatie dipped her fingers into the vomit-smelling water. Could Sri Sa not smell the stink? Did she not care? Or was she being polite and ignoring it since Chakatie was sitting in it?
“The grains speak to us through memories,” Chakatie said. “But what if our memories are nothing but rage?”
“I don’t understand.”
“When someone dies a bad death, like Brother Anderly, the grains in their body fixate on their last memories. On their life flashing before their eyes, as people like to say. Most grains in the world, this wouldn’t matter—the memories would simply be recorded and stored. But your grains are different. Your grains assert power without being inside an anchor’s body. The grains that infected Brother Anderly stored the memories that raced through his mind at the moment of his death—his rage at dying without avenging his mother—and recreated him using that limited aspect of who he was. The grains thought those memories were him, but they weren’t. Part of him, but not all.”
Sri Sa didn’t say anything.
“What were you remembering as you died?” Chakatie asked softly.
“How much I loved Colton. I swore that if I had a second chance to spend life with him, I’d do far better than I did in my first go-around.”
Chakatie knew she had to stay quiet, to let Sri Sa figure out the painful truth on her own.
Sri Sa slammed her fist into the liquid, splashing both of them. “I’m not her, am I?” she snapped. “My grains didn’t copy all of the original Sri Sa as she died.”
Chakatie reached out and squeezed Sri Sa’s hand. Not long ago she’d have hated to touch Sri Sa, let alone comfort her. But now Sri Sa was family.
“No, you’re not the original Sri Sa,” Chakatie said. “But you’re also not like Brother Anderly, who only cared about anger and revenge. You’ve been growing and changing since you returned to life. I mean, hell, not long ago I couldn’t stand you. But now I’m leaning toward actually liking you.”
Sri Sa tried to smile, but the expression dissolved as the grains in her face rearranged themselves back into sadness, as if willing to admit that Chakatie was right but not yet able to fully accept it.
“None of that matters,” Sri Sa said. “When the day-fellows learn that my rogue grains caused all this pain and trouble, they’ll banish me. And that’s before the rest of the world’s grains discover what happened and come after me yet again. And what will Colton do when he learns what I am?”
“Colton loves who you are right now, not just the memory of who you used to be. Just tell him the truth. He’ll accept it.”
Chakatie released Sri Sa’s hand and hugged her close.
“If a monster like me can change, I think you’ll do just fine,” Chakatie said. “As for the rest of what you’re worried about, I have some ideas on how to fix that.”
The wagons were parked below a small hill in the grasslands, near a copse of trees beside a large creek. From the top of the hill Chakatie could see the horses grazing on the other side of the creek. The caravan had lived here for three months already, but the horses still wandered back every morning expecting to be harnessed to the wagons.
Old habits were hard to break, she thought as she adjusted her new bowler hat. Master Dandez had crafted it in her nano-forge to be an exact replica of Chakatie’s old hat, even down to the neon-blue color.
Loud cursing behind Chakatie announced that Elder Vácha was walking the path up to join her. As Vácha sat down and wiped the sweat from her face, she cursed a final time.
“Must we climb up here every night to watch the sun set?” Vácha asked.
“We need keep an eye on this land. This is the best way.”
Even with her senses powered down, Chakatie could tell that Vácha was rolling her eyes. But instead of saying anything, Vácha took a sip of whiskey from the flask she carried and handed it to Chakatie.
“I thought you were overseeing the plowing?” Chakatie asked.
“I was until Alexnya and Wren announced they’d studied up on farming, and besides, Alexnya had plowed her own fields back when she’d been an anchor. ‘So thank you very much Elder Vácha but, politely and with respect, we know more than you on all this.’”
Chakatie laughed before taking a long sip of whiskey.
Vácha pulled a pair of binoculars from her pocket and scanned the horizon.
“The grains are still leaving us alone,” Chakatie said. “They’ll honor the agreement with us as long as we do the same.”
Once Sri Sa and Chakatie had returned to the caravan after the collapse of the wax tree, everyone had been horrified when Sri Sa announced that her grains had caused all this. But while the day-fellows and anchors argued about what to do about Sri Sa, Chakatie had told Vácha this was an opportunity to change the same old story they’d been experiencing all their lives.
“The grains will be furious when they learn the true risks that Sri Sa’s grains pose,” Chakatie had told Vácha. “But Sri Sa doesn’t want to challenge them. She wants to live her life with Colton. We can make a deal.”
Chakatie took another sip of whiskey as she watched the day-fellows and anchor plow their first field. Wren was guiding the plow pulled by two horses while Pinhaus proudly watched her. He’d gotten used to her no longer having grains and also saw how happy she was as a day-fellow. And while it’d been a difficult adjustment for him, he’d decided his relationship with his daughter was too important to do anything but support her.
Sri Sa and Colton walked side by side through the already-plowed ground, planting wheat seeds, while Ae tapped on a scanner analyzing the soil composition. When Wren stopped the plow to check on her progress, Alexnya ran up and gave her a canteen of water before kissing her for good measure, despite everyone being able to see their display of emotion. Alexnya and Wren had hidden their love for so long that Chakatie was thrilled they could now freely show it to the rest of the caravan.
Chakatie’s grains hummed, announcing the reception of another broadcast from the grains outside this land. The outside grains wanted yet another verification that Sri Sa’s rogue grains were still obeying their new programming.
Ae had been the one to reprogram Sri Sa, removing her ability to duplicate her grains, an ability that Brother Anderly’s actions had proved could threaten the entire world. The caravan had also guaranteed the grains that Sri Sa wouldn’t leave this land. She and Colon could live their life here as long as they desired.
And most importantly, Chakatie had sworn that they would show that people—both day-fellows and anchors—could both work together and protect a small slice of this world’s environment without the constant threat of being killed.
Chakatie confirmed to the grains that Sri Sa was still reprogrammed and not attempting to leave. And as long as that held true, and as long as all of them took care of this land and didn’t harm it, the grains would leave them be.
Chakatie started to take a third sip of whiskey, but Vácha snatched it from her hand.
“Don’t be greedy,” Vácha said.
Vácha sipped the whiskey in silence for a few minutes. But Chakatie could feel the tension building from whatever Vácha was considering.
“Whatever you want to ask, damn well ask it,” Chakatie said.
“When you killed Frere-Jones, what were you thinking?”
Chakatie reached for the whiskey but Vácha held it back, waiting for the answer.
“I hated doing it,” Chakatie said. “I know Frere-Jones was your friend, but I loved her too. She had a good heart. She was my family.”
Chakatie looked back at Sri Sa and Colton. They’d spilled all the wheat seeds and were trying to scoop them back up off the ground, but they were laughing so much they were picking up more dirt than seed.
“Actually, killing Frere-Jones finally opened my eyes,” Chakatie said. “Someone had told me to ‘do better,’ but I’d been too afraid at what defying the grains would mean to actually understand. I was an extension of the grains’ programmed need to save the environment, and I was proud of my role in protecting my lands.”
“The grains see everything in black and white,” Vácha said. “Though that’s not how life actually exists, or how this world has survived for billions of years.”
“I know. After I killed Frere-Jones, I couldn’t stop remembering those ‘do better’ words. When I reunited with Colton and was forced to join your caravan, I realized this was the time to actually do it.”
Vácha punched Chakatie in this shoulder, this time pretty hard.
“Uh, ouch,” Chakatie said.
“You’re a strong anchor. You can take it.”
Vácha smiled as she handed the whiskey back over and Chakatie drained it.
“I don’t know how this will turn out,” Chakatie said. “The grains say they’ll leave us alone as long as we contain Sri Sa. But Colton is human. One day he’ll die. Or maybe their relationship won’t last. I don’t know what Sri Sa might do then. I don’t know how the grains will respond.”
Chakatie knew Vácha also didn’t know what might happen, but thankfully she didn’t respond with false assurances. Instead, they watched the happy people below them for a while longer before walking back down the path to their wagon.