Alexnya woke at midnight to the news she was to be arrested for murder.
“That wasn’t me!” she yelled at the glowing face of Chakatie on the message pad by her bed. “Frere-Jones killed those anchors. You saw it.”
Chakatie was sitting on the sofa in her house several leagues away—the message pad showed her wearing a warm wool sweater and holding a steaming mug of ale. From the melancholy look on her face, Alexnya guessed she had downed a number of ales before working up the nerve to call.
“Doesn’t matter if you did it, Alex,” Chakatie said. “The grains want blood. Look at it this way—you get to be the guest of honor at our first judgment festival in decades.”
Alexnya couldn’t tell if Chakatie was serious or sarcastic or a little of both. But she also knew it didn’t matter—she was screwed. No one was ever found innocent at a judgment festival. Instead, as they faced the hundreds of anchors who’d gathered to judge them, it was only a question of how quickly they embraced the fact that, to the grains, everyone was guilty of something.
The message pad turned off and Alexnya’s house dimmed, with only the flickering red glow from the altar still fighting the darkness. Alexnya cursed and punched her pillow and cursed even more.
Eventually she rolled out of bed and walked to her home’s altar. The carved stone pedestal and bowl, standing as high as her waist, was filled with countless individual nano-machines, each far smaller than a grain of sand. The mass of grains shimmered red as they flowed around the bowl, rippling like water against the three stone statues in the middle.
Alexnya had never removed the statue of her predecessor Frere-Jones from the altar, or the statues of Frere-Jones’s lifemate and child. Frere-Jones had been a good anchor for many decades, protecting this land’s environment from damage, as all her kind did, around the world. But six years ago Frere-Jones had forsaken that mission and killed dozens of fellow anchors in a single night.
Frere-Jones could no longer be judged—she and her lifemate were both dead. And Frere-Jones’s son Colton had been stripped of the grains that once powered his body and he now traveled with a day-fellow caravan.
That left only Alexnya, this land’s new anchor, for the grains to punish.
She lowered her hands into the altar. The nano-machines there connected with the grains in her own body and to the grains throughout her land and from there across the world, a never-ending murmur of conversation and memories and information that thankfully dimmed the farther from her lands Alexnya tried to reach.
But that didn’t dim the grains’ anger, which surged into Alexnya. She saw a far-off land burning, tasted the use of forbidden technology, heard the screams of people begging for life as the Earth rejected them. The images rampaged through her mind, everything moving so fast she couldn’t make sense of most of it. But through the overpowering din of the grains’ memories she clearly saw her own land and heard the word “judgment” repeated over and over.
She staggered from the altar, severing the flood of images and sounds. She breathed deep, forcing her mind to return to her own senses.
Chakatie was correct—the grains were angry, and they wanted Alexnya bound and taken to a judgment festival.
She burned to her own anger. She’d done every last thing the grains demanded—given up her old day-fellow life, abandoned her parents and friends, tried her best to be a good anchor and protect this land’s environment. She hadn’t even asked for this life! Instead, the grains had infected her body and ordered her to be Frere-Jones’s replacement.
And now she was to be judged for her predecessor’s crimes?
Alexnya ripped the tiny statues from the altar and smashed them against the tile floor. She cursed Frere-Jones’s name—that damn fool of an anchor, how dare she stick this on her! She powered up the grains in her body and wrenched the heavy stone altar from the floor and threw it through the window, showering the yard in red light as the nano-machines flowed across the grass.
Red fairies buzzed the shattered window, their wings vibrating in anger as they shook their heads at Alexnya’s heresy of damaging this land’s altar.
“Ungrateful little shits,” Alexnya muttered.
The mass of grains from the altar spasmed and boiled on her front yard, desperate to be returned to their place of honor within Alexnya’s home. But she didn’t care. She reached out to the rest of the land’s grains with her mind. She was still their anchor. While she couldn’t command the grains, if she was to be judged she could order them to reveal the evidence.
“Show me the killings,” she demanded as she walked outside.
Dozens of ghostly figures lit the fields around her, roaring as they charged the house. The figures in these holographic projections were anchors like herself but far bigger, their bodies engorged on the grains’ anger and power, their massive fangs and claws ready to rip apart anyone who defiled the environment. And six years ago they had attacked this very house, to kill the day-fellow family hiding inside.
Another grain projection flickered on her home’s sod roof—the ghostly image of Frere-Jones holding a laser pistol, forbidden technology no one on Earth should possess, let alone an anchor. The laser lit the dark land in a pale green light as Frere-Jones burned down the charging anchors. Those running across the sunflower fields flashed and ignited, causing the remaining ones to howl in fury. But Frere-Jones burned them all down without mercy. She killed two by the barn, more on the dirt road near the house. She sliced a giant anchor in half next to the house’s front door.
The projection of Alexnya’s predecessor burned and killed until the remaining anchors fled. She then chased down every one of the survivors and killed them even as they begged her to let them live. Alexnya hadn’t realized Frere-Jones had been so ruthless. She looked away as one holographic anchor fell to his knees and cried, which didn’t stop Frere-Jones from burning a hole through his skull.
Despite her pain at watching the projections, Alexnya ordered the grains to replay them. While the ghost anchors again charged and died, she walked around the outside of her house to her bedroom window.
The firing of the laser reflected off the glass, just as it had when this battle took place six years ago. On that day Alexnya and her day-fellow family had been hiding in the room behind this very window. Her memories from then were cloudy, uncertain, her body at the time still adjusting to the grains’ infection. But she clearly remembered the laser’s reflected light. How her little sister had clung to her in fear as their mother and father guarded them with knives.
It’d been a futile gesture for her parents to think they could fight anchors armed only with knives, but she loved them all the more for their willingness to die protecting her. Luckily no anchors had reached the house. Frere-Jones had slaughtered them all.
Without Frere-Jones defending Alexnya and her family, she wouldn’t be alive right now. But the grains didn’t care. Just as they didn’t care that they’d ripped her from a family who loved her, or that she was to be judged for a crime someone else had committed.
Alexnya cursed and grew her claws, finger bones erupting from her skin into diamond points of hardness. She scratched the outside of the window, trying to calm herself down, but couldn’t. She powered up her body even more, muscles stretching like steel wires. She ran at the projections, attacking the long-dead anchors who’d threatened her family. She swiped claws impotently through the light show, then howled and ran at the next wave of ghost-like anchors.
But nothing changed the past.
She swiped at another approaching hologram. But to her surprise her claws bounced off.
What the hell?
Solid. A female anchor twice her size and glowing red, looking like the other projections but... rock hard.
Alexnya stepped backward, uncertain what was going on. The glowing anchor reached out astoundingly fast and grabbed her around the neck and slammed her to the ground. The field’s new-plowed furrows exploded in mud and seeds. Alexnya punched at the anchor’s massive body, to no effect.
She couldn’t breathe. She powered her body up to full-strength, but she still couldn’t free herself from the anchor’s massive claws squeezing her throat. The grains in her body kept her conscious well after she should have passed out, but even they had their limits.
The red-glowing anchor leaned over until her face was nearly kissing Alexnya’s, opening her lips to reveal massive fangs. Alexnya could see through parts of the anchor’s body. This anchor wasn’t a holographic projection from the grains, but she also wasn’t flesh and blood—and she appeared to be fading away before Alexnya’s eyes.
“You like history lessons?” the red anchor asked, nodding her head at the projections flickering around them.
Alexnya tried to speak but couldn’t. She felt blackness snaking into her mind. She punched the anchor in the face, refusing to give up, but the punch made no difference.
“Despite what the grains are desperate for us to believe, their history isn’t the truth,” the anchor whispered. “They only reveal what they want us to know. But that doesn’t mean we have to simply surrender to their views.”
Seeing that Alexnya didn’t understand, the red anchor smiled gently.
“I look forward to meeting you, Alexnya.”
How did this strange anchor know her name? Alexnya punched her weakly one more time, fear now mixing with puzzlement.
What the hell is going on?
But before she could wonder any more, she passed out.
“For such a powerful young lady you leave yourself deliciously vulnerable,” Chakatie said.
Alexnya woke to Chakatie staring down at her in the middle of the sunflower field. The night was gone, the morning sun already shimmering through the fog rising from the nearby river.
Alexnya rolled away from Chakatie and sprang into a crouch. She was still powered up, her large claws and muscles ready to fight. But she’d spent too long in this form, and her body ached and felt as stiff as a fallen tree. She was also coated in mud. And even though the grains had already healed her body, her neck throbbed from being choked unconscious.
She glanced around the field. The giant anchor who’d attacked her was nowhere to be seen. Had fighting the anchor been a glitch by the grains in her mind? Were they playing tricks on her?
Chakatie, despite being the matriarch of these lands and the most powerful anchor for a hundred leagues, wasn’t using her own grains’ power. She looked like a simple older woman in a neatly pressed three-piece yellow suit and yellow bowler hat. With irritation she brushed a spot of mud off her yellow pants.
Even crouching, Alexnya when powered up was taller than Chakatie. One swipe of her claws and Alexnya could decapitate her.
“Well?” Chakatie asked impatiently. “If you’re going to kill me, do it. Don’t twaddle away my time.”
Alexnya sighed and powered down, her muscles and bones shrinking back to normal size. She’d always liked Chakatie—didn’t totally trust her, but liked her.
Chakatie slapped Alexnya on the back, hurting even though Chakatie was also powered down. “Let’s get you cleaned up and packed. Then we’ll deal with this judgment thing. Don’t worry—we’ll think of something.”
“It’s not ‘we’ who’s going to be judged,” Alexnya muttered.
“I was being polite,” Chakatie replied. “And you’re correct—it’s not fair, being judged for something you didn’t do. But surely you’ve sensed it? The grains are angry. When the grains get angry, they are rarely fair.”
Chakatie spoke the truth. Even though Alexnya was a new anchor and still learning how the grains worked, she’d felt their anger over the last year. Something had happened, a few hundred leagues from here. The grains weren’t sharing what had happened, but according to rumor a large number of anchors had been killed and a massive explosion had damaged that distant land.
Maybe forcing Alexnya into a sham judgment festival was part of the overreaction by the grains to that disaster?
“Will you defend me?” Alexnya asked. “Tell the anchors at the festival that I tried to be a good anchor?”
Chakatie smiled. “I’ll do my best, Alex. But I also won’t lie to you—if the grains have decided you must die, I won’t risk my family or our lands in a futile attempt to save you.”
Alexnya nodded. As usual, Chakatie was both blunt and fair.
Alexnya glanced across the sunflower field. The only footprints here were from her own feet and Chakatie’s—no giant imprints from the anchor who’d strangled her. She would have suspected the grains had made her imagine the entire thing if her neck wasn’t still tingling from her grains healing it.
Through a gap in the trees she saw the peak of the biosphere over twenty leagues away, the glass of the distant mountain-sized habitat glistening in the morning light. The judgment festival would be held at the biosphere’s base. As a child Alexnya had visited that very biosphere with her day-fellow caravan. She’d tried to peek through the biosphere’s opaque glass to see the perfect, grain-free world inside but couldn’t make out anything. Still, at the time she’d yearned to go inside and see what it was like to live in a world without the stupid grains monitoring her every movement and deed.
Guess I’ll get that wish, she thought. People being executed at judgment festivals were gifted the boon of living a single day inside a biosphere’s perfect environment.
She chuckled to herself—did the grains really believe living a day without them made up for being executed?
“You ready?” Chakatie asked.
“Not really,” Alexnya said. “But might as well get going.”
As they walked back Alexnya saw ten powered-down anchors—all members of Chakatie’s family—standing in her front yard around the destroyed altar. Several of them glared at Alexnya. She’d never liked Chakatie’s family and they hated her. They had never accepted that a day-fellow girl could become one of them.
All of them wore fancy suits and hats, as if preparing to go to a delightful party. Which Alexnya guessed they were. Only the large backpacks they carried indicated this was more than a simple trip to the neighbor’s for a potluck.
One anchor stood out from the rest—Pinhaus, Chakatie’s oldest son. Of all Chakatie’s children and grandkids and in-laws, Pinhaus was the only one who approached the power of Chakatie herself. Even with his body powered down his eyes flickered yellow to the anger of his grains. He smirked at Alexnya, as if daring her to challenge him.
“Be on your best behavior around my family,” Chakatie whispered to Alexnya. “I don’t feel like dealing with drama on the way to the festival.”
“What did you say?” Alexnya felt the grains in the old woman’s body click together as untold powers prepared to be unleashed.
“I said I won’t do it. If I’m going to be judged for someone else’s crimes, I get to act any damn way I want.”
Chakatie growled softly before a smile filled her face. “I like it when you’re defiant,” she said. “I hope you show the same attitude when you reach the judgment festival.”
“I’ll do that,” Alexnya said. She glanced again at the biosphere on the distant horizon, where she’d be judged. Any happiness at standing up to Chakatie fled at the realization that no matter how defiant she was, the grains were determined to make an example out of her.
They hiked two days to reach the festival. Chakatie didn’t tie or bind Alexnya’s hands as they walked, but the other members of Chakatie’s family continually surrounded her on the dirt road, preventing any escape. They even followed her into the damn trees every time she took a crap, no matter how much she protested.
Worse were the holographic rainbows and fireworks and dancing cartoon animals the grains projected into the air as the group walked down the road. When they passed homes on neighboring lands, little kids from anchor families squealed with delight and ran to watch.
“I’m just a fucking parade for people,” Alexnya muttered.
“Aw, don’t be down,” Wren, Chakatie’s teenage granddaughter, said. “This is going to be fun! I’ve never been to a judgment festival.”
Wren was one of the few of Chakatie’s family Alexnya could stomach. Probably why the family ordered her to hike beside Alexnya.
“You do realize I’ll be executed at this festival,” Alexnya said.
Wren grinned, her irritatingly happy face looking as if she couldn’t imagine Alexnya being concerned about anything as trivial as pending death. She wore a red-flower sundress and sandals, a cute outfit that was totally impractical for hiking two days to the festival. But then all of Chakatie’s family had dressed up. Only Alexnya had worn walking boots and jeans, not caring how she looked.
“You’ll be fine,” Wren said. “All you have to do is convince people you didn’t do anything wrong. The grains won’t hurt someone who’s innocent.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you’d ever been a day-fellow.”
Wren clapped her hands together. “That’s what’s makes this exciting!” she said, her voice so high-pitched Alexnya flinched. “We’re traveling just like a day-fellow caravan! I’ve always wanted to do this.”
Thank you, world, for letting her get even more irritating. Wren was only a few years younger than Alexnya and constantly bugged her for stories of her day-fellow times. Of living in horse-drawn wagons and traveling in caravans, always taking care to never harm the environment or stay in one place longer than a few days. Wren seemed to love how day-fellow caravans created deep bonds among friends and family—understandable, given how shitty many of Wren’s family could be.
But if Alexnya mentioned the bad things that anchors did to day-fellows, Wren always rationalized that talk away. When Alexnya told Wren about one caravan being destroyed by anchors, leaving Alexnya’s wagon as the only survivor, Wren shrugged and said the day-fellows must have harmed the environment in some way. When Alexnya described watching an anchor kill an elderly day-fellow because he was too ill to travel and the grains had ordered his caravan to leave, Wren said the grains had their reasons.
She wanted the romance of being a day-fellow, not the reality.
“You message your family about the festival?” she asked sympathetically, as if finally understanding that something bad could happen to Alexnya there.
“Nah. They’d just worry. And their caravan couldn’t get here in time—not that they could do anything to help if they did.”
As they walked down the road they passed an anchor’s sod-house with a day-fellow caravan parked nearby. They’d passed a number of anchors and day-fellows heading toward the festival—evidently the grains had notified everyone in the region and ordered them to attend.
The anchor and his family and all the day-fellows lined the road to watch Alexnya go by. Purple fairies fluttered above the anchor’s head, showing off this land’s power. Several day-fellow kids waved at her, excited by both the projected fireworks and cartoons and at seeing one of their own who’d become an anchor.
However, the adult day-fellows merely shook their heads and whispered to each other. While Alexnya might have been born a day-fellow, she knew they now saw her as the enemy.
Behind one of the day-fellow wagons, Alexnya caught of glimpse of a red-glowing face laughing at her. The strange anchor who’d attacked her!
But when she looked closer, the face was gone.
Multiple times since they’d left home Alexnya had felt the glowing red anchor watching her. Not that she ever fully saw the anchor—only a glimpse here, like behind that wagon, or a blurred movement there. Still, she couldn’t quit the feeling that she was being watched by more than the grains themselves.
Alexnya glanced back to where she’s seen the red anchor, and there instead was a dancing cartoon bunny. The kids lining the road—both anchor and day-fellow—laughed and clapped excitedly.
“The grains are making a joke of my pending death,” she muttered.
“What do you mean?” Wren asked.
“That,” she said, pointing at the cartoon bunny. “I’d like to smack whoever programmed the grains to mix parades and festivals with judgments and executions.”
“You don’t like fireworks and cartoons?”
“Only if they shoot out Pinhaus’s ass.”
Wren laughed, only to jump from a low growl right beside her even though no one was there.
Several yards away Pinhaus laughed softly. While Alexnya really hated Pinhaus and knew that feeling was extremely mutual, she did admire his ability to throw his voice. At family get-togethers he often used it to amuse the kids. Alexnya had long wanted to know how he did that trick.
Not that she could ask him. Even with his body powered down Pinhaus stood a third again taller than Alexnya, and he was strong. He was also smug and conceited, never speaking more than a few condescending words to her.
“Apologies,” Alexnya said to Pinhaus. “I should have said we’d ask the grains to create the illusion of rainbows and fireworks shooting out your ass.”
Pinhaus’s yellow eyes sparked to anger, and his right hand swelled as long claws grew from his fingers. Alexnya tsked loudly at him showing such anger. He was so easy to provoke.
Chakatie stepped between them. “Pinny,” she said, “run down the road and let the festival’s anchor lord know we’ll be there in a few hours.”
Pinhaus froze at his mother saying his nickname, especially in front of Alexnya. He glared at her for a moment but quickly demurred.
As Pinhaus ran to do as his mother said, Alexnya snorted just loud enough for him to hear. Wren chuckled—Pinhaus clearly irritated her too.
“You have a death wish?” Chakatie asked. “Pinhaus doesn’t forgive slights.”
“Don’t you mean ‘Pinny?’” Alexnya asked. “Besides, with the grains angry, I’m unlikely to live long enough for him to kill me.”
“I was wrong.” Chakatie sighed. “I don’t like you when you’re defiant. You should definitely work on that—if you survive the festival.”
Alexnya glanced at Wren, but the girl wouldn’t meet her eyes. It was the same with the rest of Chakatie’s family.
No matter how big Alexnya talked, she knew she would face what was coming alone.
This was Alexnya’s first judgment festival, although she’d seen plenty of other festival grounds while traveling as a day-fellow. There were grounds like this one scattered across all the lands, always beside the main entrance to a mountain-sized biosphere.
Alexnya felt a touch of vertigo as they neared the shimming biosphere, which rose above them a half league into the sky. The dome was supported by massive arches and lattices and panels of ancient nano-reinforced glass. There were thousands of these biospheres around the Earth, built by the people who’d also programmed the grains. The biospheres preserved pristine environments and species as a safeguard against any future devastation of the environment.
The glass panels higher on the biospheres were clear, to let in the sun, but the panels at ground-level were opaque, preventing anyone from looking inside. Alexnya had heard of a few anchors and day-fellows who climbed up the sides of a biosphere to peek inside, but usually they all fell to their deaths before having the chance to see anything.
Despite that, there was plenty to see outside the biosphere. The open grasslands of the judgment festival grounds contained hundreds of clear stele made of the same nano-reinforced glass as the biosphere, each rectangular memorial rising to twice the height of any human. The stele were arranged in geometric patterns like an ancient graveyard, and each one played scenes from Earth’s long history. When not used for judgment festivals, the grounds were a place to learn the history of this world, always open to both anchors and day-fellows.
But today people were having fun. Hundreds of day-fellows filled the grounds, eating different foods and playing games and drinking home-brewed ales and whiskeys. A dozen caravans were parked on the outskirts of the grounds, their wagons not circled in protection but instead strung along in welcoming lanes. The wagons’ armored doors and windows were open as people traded food and different goods.
And anchors—there were at least a thousand anchors here too, their tents pitched all over the grounds. None of the anchors were powered up, and most of them wore nice suits or dresses, the same as Chakatie’s family. Alexnya saw anchors dancing and eating their fill of delicious foods and drinking so much that a few grassy spots on the festival grounds had been kept open so they could pass out and sleep.
But even in this sacred place where conflict wasn’t allowed, the anchors and day-fellows kept their distance from one another. The children of anchors played with other anchors and the day-fellow kids did the same, running and hiding and shrieking with joy but only among their own. A few anchors bartered with day-fellow traders, but everyone else stuck to their own kind.
“Did I mention how fun judgment festivals are?” Chakatie asked. “Aside from, you know, the judgment part.”
Alexnya grumbled to herself. She’d known she was in trouble, but was it really such bad trouble that the grains needed to gather this many day-fellows and anchors to see it?
As they approached the festival, the projections of fireworks, rainbows, and cartoons built to a climax, shooting across the blue sky to tell everyone the guest of honor had arrived. The crowds of anchors and day-fellows stopped their eating and drinking and dancing and stared at Alexnya.
Alexnya grew nervous at being the center of everyone’s attention and she stumbled, unable to move forward until Chakatie hugged her in a motherly embrace.
“Don’t give them any fear to enjoy,” Chakatie whispered.
Alexnya swallowed and forced a fake smile to her face as she and Chakatie walked toward the center of the judgment festival.
She thought the crowd would be angry at her, but instead they clapped and cheered, both day-fellows and anchors. A number of people tossed pine boughs on the path before her to walk on. One day-fellow girl yelled for her to stay strong. A group of anchors bowed at her in respect.
Alexnya was starting to feel a little more at ease until she passed a young anchor.
“When will the grains kill her?” the child asked his mother impatiently.
“Hush,” the mother snapped. “That happens tomorrow.”
Irritating little snot. Alexnya glared at the kid and fought back a smirk when he flinched and darted behind his mother’s dress.
In the middle of the festival grounds rose a large glass stage. That was where she would be judged. Standing on the stage alongside a few other anchors was that simpering fool Pinhaus, who yet again smirked at her. Alexnya climbed the steps with Chakatie and stood on the stage so everyone could see her.
“Now what?” she asked Chakatie.
She found out a moment later when a mass of red grains began spinning in the air above the stage, like an inverted dust devil. The swirling grains quickly joined together to create the illusion of arms, legs, body, and face before their pixilation ended and they formed a near-perfect approximation of a giant person standing twice as tall as Alexnya.
The red anchor, who’d choked her.
The anchor smiled. “You must be Alexnya,” she said.
Alexnya stepped backward, unsure what was going on but not trusting this red anchor.
Chakatie grabbed her arm. “You know her?” she hissed.
“She attacked me at my house the other day.”
Chakatie looked the simulated anchor up and down. “Impossible. That’s the festival’s anchor lord. The grains base these simulacrums on the memories and consciousness of the original anchors, who died thousands of years ago. There’s no way you’ve ever met this person.”
“No... that’s her...” But Alexnya couldn’t explain what was had happened, which made the red anchor lord smile even more.
The anchor lord turned to face the crowd of anchors and day-fellows, her body of grains fading in and out but still looking solid.
“Welcome to the judgment festival!” she announced in a booming voice. “The grains, in their compassionate knowledge, have designated all of you anchors to judge these lands. And you gathered day-fellows are to bear witness to this historic event.”
She motioned at the history lessons being projected on the hundreds of glass stele around them.
“Grains and anchors and day-fellows, we all play a part in maintaining our world,” she continued. “Our history as humans is written in light on these memorials, available for anyone to see. As we all know, it is a sad history of death, destruction, and extinction, so the grains now keep us in check. But sometimes even the grains need help. Sometimes they need us to remember our purpose in life.”
The anchor lord motioned for Alexnya to step before her. When Alexnya didn’t move, Chakatie pulled her forward.
The anchor lord took her hand and raised it in triumph. “This is Alexnya, a day-fellow girl who became an anchor. A remarkable achievement seen only once in a thousand years! And she has been a good anchor, protecting her lands from all who would harm them. But what happens if her lands have gone wrong? Is it her fault? Ours? You anchors will be the judge. And you day-fellows will be the witnesses.”
The anchors and day-fellows surrounding the stage cheered. Alexnya struggled to free her arm from the red anchor’s grasp, but she might as well have been struggling against the weight of the biosphere itself.
“Judgment starts tomorrow,” the anchor lord announced. “For today, enjoy the festival. Enjoy all that the grains have given us!”
Again the crowd cheered. In the middle of the noise the anchor lord leaned over until her face was nearly kissing Alexnya, just like she’d done when she’d attacked Alexnya two days ago.
“My name is Sri Sa,” the anchor lord whispered just loud enough for Chakatie to also hear. “I am so happy to meet you both.”
Chakatie looked at Sri Sa with a troubled expression, as if suddenly understanding there were dangers here she hadn’t expected.
Sri Sa stood back up. “Mistress Chakatie,” she said, “would your family do me the honor of escorting Alexnya into the biosphere? Before someone is judged, they deserve a day in paradise.”
Chakatie glanced around nervously as if evaluating the situation. Alexnya had seen her tense up like this before, usually when Chakatie believed a battle or blood-letting was near. But why was she acting this way now?
Not that it mattered. At a judgment festival, everyone was supposed to follow the anchor lord’s orders—to do otherwise would mean taking on the thousand other anchors gathered here.
“It’d be our honor,” Chakatie finally said as she bowed to Sri Sa. She waved for her family to do as the anchor lord requested.
Alexnya followed Pinhaus and Chakatie and Sri Sa as they led her to the biosphere’s entrance. It was large enough for entire wagons to enter. The glass doors of the biosphere flowed with projections of rainbowed light that looked like glowing wax dripping from strange invisible candles.
None of the other anchors and day-fellows at the festival dared approach the entrance. But likewise none of them could look away, hoping to see the sacred world inside the dome.
If they wanted a look that bad, Alexnya would have gladly traded places with any of them.
The doors opened, and Alexnya and Sri Sa and Chakatie’s family filed through into an armored entryway. The outer doors then closed, leaving them stranded in the entryway before the biosphere’s inner doors.
“Those being judged are allowed the rare honor of entering the biosphere,” Sri Sa said to Alexnya. “This allows you to both experience the paradise Earth once was and be reminded of why we must never again harm our world.”
“I love it when you over-explain shit,” Alexnya said. “The more you talk, more it delays my judgment.”
Sri Sa looked irritated before forcing her lips back into a simulated smile. “Just touch the inner doors,” she stated. “The grains embedded there will wrap a necklace of light around you. You can’t enter the biosphere without that necklace.”
Alexnya had heard of this—everyone who was to be punished at a judgment festival wore a necklace of grains that kept them from fleeing and not standing judgment. If they didn’t go to the festival when it was time, or tried to hide in the biosphere, the necklaces choked them to death.
She wondered what would happen if she refused to touch the door and receive her necklace, but the eager look in Pinhaus’s eyes told her not to try. That fool, and others of Chakatie’s family, would no doubt relish dragging her forward and making her do as Sri Sa ordered.
Alexnya touched the inner doors. What looked like liquid light flowed from the door up her arm and around her neck, where it spun into a red necklace as thick as her thumb. The necklace felt like a lukewarm waterfall hugging her throat.
“Aren’t the doors supposed to open now?” Alexnya asked.
“They are,” Chakatie said. “Maybe it takes a moment.”
Nothing happened. The entryway was silent, all of Chakatie’s family eager for a glimpse inside the sacred biosphere.
Sri Sa, though, was smiling so hard her red simulated face looked like it was about to explode.
Alexnya tapped the necklace, as if that might do it. As an anchor she’d grown used to hearing the grains’ orders. Usually her land’s grains spoke using snippets of memories from the lives of past anchors. Once or twice when she’d angered them by mistake, the grains spoke to her with more pointed memories of people saying words directly relevant to what she was doing.
But here the grains had a simulated anchor to speak for them—and Sri Sa was laughing.
“Sorry, sorry,” she said as she appeared to catch her breath, which she didn’t need to do since she was created of swirling grains and didn’t breathe. “Just wondered how long it’d take you to figure things out.”
Chakatie stepped protectedly between Sri Sa and her family, which Alexnya was pleased to see included her. Chakatie’s grains synced together, preparing for battle.
“Are you playing with us?” she asked in a low, dangerous voice. “The grains said to deliver Alexnya for judgment. We did as ordered.”
Sri Sa shrugged, or the grains making up her body rearranged themselves into the reflection of a shrug. “Sorry, but everyone needs to touch the door,” she said. “The grains want your entire family to receive a necklace. While Alexnya’s the only one being judged, when she’s found guilty, the grains will kill all of you along with her.”
Alexnya watched realization flit across the faces of Chakatie, Pinhaus, Wren, and the rest of the anchors. She wanted to say something, to smart back like she’d done since learning she was to be judged and killed. But she was too astounded for words.
“Why my family?” Chakatie asked. “We’ve done nothing wrong.”
“What did you tell Alexnya the other day?” Sri Sa asked. “Oh yes, something inspirational and deep about it not being fair what the grains were doing. Well guess what, the grains aren’t fair to anyone.”
Sri Sa powered up her simulated body even more, as if challenging Chakatie and her family to defy her orders as anchor lord. Alexnya reached out with her power and analyzed Sri Sa’s grains—it was quickly obvious to her none of them could come close to her power, not even if they all attacked together.
Instead of waiting for Chakatie and the other anchors to come to this realization on their own, Alexnya sarcastically clapped her hands.
Chakatie and the others glared at her.
“You were right, what you told me in the field,” Alexnya said to Chakatie. “It appears ‘we’ will indeed be dealing with this together.”
Instead of doing as Sri Sa ordered, Chakatie’s family spent the next hour yelling at each other.
Chakatie was furious that Pinhaus had arrived early at the festival but had not sniffed out that they were also to be punished—evidently the main reason she’d sent him ahead was to scout for surprises just like this. And Wren and many of the other anchors were shocked and sick to their stomachs at what was happening, with several actually throwing up.
But there was no way to break out of the biosphere’s entryway—the outer walls were too strong. And even if they could the anchors outside would never let them escape.
Finally, Chakatie stepped to the inner doors and touched them, and her own red binding wrapped around her neck.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” she yelled at her family. “If I’m being punished, we’re all being punished.”
Her family reluctantly did as ordered.
“The judgment festival begins at noon tomorrow,” Sri Sa said. “Until then, relax and enjoy paradise.”
The grains making up Sri Sa’s body fell apart and vanished, followed by the words “we’re so dead” spoken from where she’d been standing. Alexnya looked around, puzzled, until realizing it was Pinhaus throwing his voice, so nervous over what had happened he didn’t seem to realize he was doing it.
The biosphere’s inner doors opened, revealing the habitat inside. A sweet blast of cool air splashed around Alexnya, smelling of green plants and fresh water and a beautiful, perfect spring day. And seen from the inside, the biosphere’s glass rainbowed the sky, sparkling and shimmering in beauty. Birds flew through the air and cicadas hummed invitingly.
But somehow, for some reason, right in the middle of this paradise was a day-fellow caravan, parked alongside a small lake, only a hundred yards from the entrance.
The day-fellows stared back in shock at the appearance of so many anchors, but that shock vanished when they began shouting at each other in warning. A young woman in nano-reinforced leather armor unsheathed her short sword and stepped between the anchors and her caravan as all the others ran for the shelter of their armored wagons.
For a moment Alexnya feared this was her former family’s caravan and they were to be punished too if she was found guilty, but the markings and sigils on the wagons were all wrong. And it looked like this caravan had been camped here for weeks—their horses were unharnessed and grazing in the grasslands near the lake. And the caravan had set up their manufacturing and tool creating nanoforges outside the wagons, something rarely done because of the risk of damaging the environment and angering the grains.
“Why are day-fellows in the biosphere?” Pinhaus asked. “Are we supposed to attack them?”
Chakatie didn’t say anything but held her hand up, holding her family back.
Now that Alexnya looked closer she saw that all of the day-fellows wore the same red necklaces as she and Chakatie’s family. And the woman standing before them in the leather armor was clearly the caravan’s warden, tasked with protecting the day-fellows and answering any challenges from anchors. While she looked tough, armed with that sword she wouldn’t stand a chance against Chakatie and her family.
Or she wouldn’t have stood a chance if a laser pistol—technology forbidden to all humans by the grains—wasn’t also holstered to her hip.
Alexnya acted like she hadn’t noticed the laser, praying none of the other anchors had seen it either. But naturally Wren, being the perfect annoyance she was, spotted it.
“What’s that on her belt?” she asked.
Pinhaus glanced at the caravan warden and his lips twitched into a straight line. His body instantly swelled to his grains’ power as he shook in anger.
The warden laughed. But she didn’t pull her laser. Instead she sheathed her sword.
“You’re pretty brave for a fellow prisoner,” she called. “But I’ve been told all about you, Pinhaus. You can’t do a thing without your mommy’s approval.”
The warden grinned. Pinhaus shook in anger, but the warden was correct—he wouldn’t attack without Chakatie’s approval.
Chakatie stepped forward and Alexnya followed. She remembered the images of Frere-Jones cutting down dozens of anchors with a laser, including that crying man who’d begged for mercy. How quickly could this person draw her own pistol and fire?
“Do I know you?” Chakatie asked when they stood face to face with the warden. “Seems you’re familiar with me and my family.”
“The name’s Mita,” the warden said, bringing her hands together politely before her chest and bowing slightly. “And no, we’ve never met. But I’ve heard plenty about you. Sometimes can’t get him to shut up about all of you.”
Alexnya started to ask what Mita meant when a young man walked toward them from one of the wagons. He held a laser pistol in one hand but didn’t aim it as he closed the distance. He also didn’t smile or look nervous, as if walking up to a group of anchors while carrying illegal technology wasn’t anything to worry about.
The young man paused before Chakatie. “Hello grandmother,” he said.
Chakatie hugged him tight, and Alexnya saw tears in her eyes.
“Thank the grains,” Chakatie said. “Colton, I never thought I’d see you again.”
The young man didn’t react, standing stiff as if being hugged by his grandmother wasn’t anything worth getting emotional over. But once Chakatie released him, he holstered his pistol and touched a finger to a series of glowing red dots on his left forearm. Then, to Alexnya’s surprise, he suddenly smiled and hugged Chakatie back.
“Grammie,” he said with the loving emotion not there before. “I’ve missed you so much.”
Chakatie also looked surprised by the young man’s emotional outburst. She whispered something to him, which Alexnya didn’t hear because she’d finally recognized this bastard.
This was Colton, the banished son of Frere-Jones, Alexnya’s predecessor as anchor.
The only emotion Alexnya felt was the urge to beat him bloody for his mother getting her into this mess.
Alexnya and Pinhaus sat in the caravan elder’s wagon along with Mita, Colton, a young day-fellow girl of maybe twelve years of age, and two other day-fellows who hadn’t bothered to introduce themselves. Alexnya knew how they felt—socializing with anchors was one thing, but to invite them into a wagon? Into the only place where day-fellows felt any safety from attacks by anchors?
Such a thing was never done.
The caravan’s leader was Elder Vácha, a tiny woman whose face had been so weathered by the years that it resembled fine leather. As befitted her position, this solar-powered wagon was packed with the caravan’s medical and communications equipment, including a very powerful diagnostic table in the middle. Everyone sat around the table on small folding chairs or on the sleeping bunks jammed between storage cabinets and the armored walls.
While it was tight quarters, being back in a day-fellow wagon filled Alexnya with so many happy memories. She felt that if she turned around, her mother would be there to tuck her into bed, or her father to kiss her on the cheek, or her sister to argue over what game they should play the next time their caravan stopped for a breather.
The wagon shook as Elder Vácha and Chakatie climbed back inside, then closed and sealed the armored door behind them.
“That ought to keep everyone happy,” Elder Vácha muttered. “I handed out the good wine. Not the best, mind you. We never give uninvited guests the best. Not unless they first blow tons of sunshine up my ass.”
“Your manners definitely haven’t improved with age,” Chakatie muttered.
“Nah,” Elder Vácha said. “But while I’m now old as shit, at least I don’t look it. You, though—did age make you give up on looking presentable?”
Alexnya gagged a laugh—she’d seen Chakatie kill people for insults like that. But to her surprise Chakatie laughed and embraced Elder Vácha as if they were old friends. Others in the wagon chuckled, the tension broken but only slightly.
Only Pinhaus didn’t laugh, but Alexnya figured at this point nothing could make him happy about how his day was going.
Chakatie flashed a grandmotherly smile at Colton, who stared stone-faced back at her. Since his earlier embrace of her, he hadn’t shown any further emotions.
“Mita, is the wagon sealed and secured from the grains?” Elder Vácha asked.
Mita tapped the diagnosis table, which shimmered into projected measurements and readings. “Yes. There are still no grains in the biosphere and no loose grains in the wagon. But we do have grains in these damn necklaces. And I can’t do anything about the grains the anchors carry in their bodies.”
Elder Vácha shrugged. “Is what it is.” She looked at Alexnya and shook her head sadly. “So I hear you’re the reason we’re all gathered here.”
The day-fellows at the table glared at Alexnya, and a few looked like they wanted to curse her out.
“Calm down,” Elder Vácha ordered. “Bigger things are going on than one young woman being judged. We’ve got to pull together all we know and figure out a way to survive.”
She tapped the table and an image appeared of this caravan.
“All of this was recorded a year ago,” Elder Vácha said, “about two hundred leagues from here, in a land controlled by an anchor named Sri Sa.”
Alexnya frowned. “Sri Sa? That’s the name of the anchor lord running this judgment festival.”
Elder Vácha shook her head. “Can’t be. The Sri Sa we knew is dead, and there’s no way the grains would create a simulacrum of her life. She wasn’t exactly a model anchor.”
But when Elder Vácha tapped the controls to project an image of Sri Sa, it was indeed her. Alexnya’s grains clicked together in anger, and she felt her claws growing—she shoved her hands under her legs to avoid alarming the day-fellows.
“That’s her,” Chakatie said with far more calm than Alexnya felt.
“Wait,” Mita said angrily. “This festival’s anchor lord is Sri Sa? Our Sri Sa?”
“So it appears,” Elder Vácha said with disgust.
Alexnya noticed that Colton responded to this revelation in a strange manner. Instead of getting angry like the other day-fellows, he reached out to touch the glowing dots on his left arm. But both Mita and the young girl sitting beside him stopped him. “Save it for later,” the girl said.
Elder Vácha shot them a stern glare then continued playing the recording. Alexnya had grown used to the immediate nature of the grains’ communication, which recorded and shared the memories of anchors. But she’d also never forgotten the lessons she’d learned growing up in her own day-fellow caravan. As a child she’d been forced to sit in a communication wagon much like this and watch holographic recordings of anchors butchering day-fellows who’d been accused of harming the environment.
All day-fellow kids grew up seeing disturbing images like that in the hope it would keep them safe, as much from harming the environment as from doing anything to anger the grains.
Like those videos, the images now being projected had been recorded by tiny cameras on the outside of the caravan’s wagons, and some of the recordings were in bad positions or from a distance. But Alexnya still watched in fascination as the caravan entered Sri Sa’s domain, only to discover she had murdered all her fellow anchors and gained the ability to control both her land’s grains and their power. The recordings also showed the little girl seated next to Colton having an illegal neuroconnector embedded in the back of her neck, which allowed her to likewise manipulate the grains, although not a powerfully as Sri Sa.
Because of Sri Sa’s heresy and the girl’s neuroconnector, countless anchors from surrounding lands had attacked this caravan. But the day-fellows had teamed up with Sri Sa and escaped, using forbidden technology such as laser weapons. Alexnya fought back horror as the recording showed Colton and Mita and others burning down anchors by the hundreds in cold-blooded slaughter. The killings by Frere-Jones paled to what these day-fellows had done.
“The recordings of what happened next were lost to us with the destruction of one of our wagons,” Elder Vácha said. “But it turned out the grains which powered Sri Sa weren’t like the grains we all know—they were an ancient variant of the nano-machines and were programmed differently. In the end Sri Sa used so much of her grains’ power she lost control and destroyed herself and everything around her. Mita, Colton, and Ae were the only ones to escape that wagon’s destruction.”
Alexnya couldn’t fault these day-fellows—they’d done all this merely to survive. But from the anger on the faces of Pinhaus and even Chakatie, she knew no other anchors would see it that way.
“Not much more to tell,” Elder Vácha said. “We thought we’d escaped punishment, but a few weeks ago as we were passing through this region, a couple of large groups of anchors surrounded us and forced us into this biosphere. Where we each received one of these glorious necklaces.”
“Surprised you didn’t fight back,” Pinhaus growled. “Add more dead anchors to your tally.”
“Sometimes it’s smarter not to fight back,” Mita said. “Live to kill anchors another day.”
“You used illegal technology!” Pinhaus said angrily. “You murdered hundreds of my people, yet you have been allowed to enter this sacred paradise? We should kill you all right now.”
“And yet here you are, being punished alongside us,” Mita said, tapping her own red necklace. “Makes me wonder about your own sins.”
Pinhaus jumped across the table and tried to grab Mita’s throat, but she deflected him with a punch in his face. Alexnya powered up her right arm to punch Pinhaus herself, but Chakatie pulled him back.
“Calm down, you fools,” she snapped. “Anchors hate day-fellows, day-fellows hate anchors. I get it. But the grains are playing games with us. Unless we all want to die, we have to figure out what’s going on.”
Pinhaus sat back down, as did Mita.
Alexnya felt the grains squirming within her body, demanding she act like a true anchor. But what did that mean, when both anchors and day-fellows did good and bad? When the grains themselves didn’t care about manipulating them all or wrongly offering her up as a sacrifice?
Alexnya noticed Colton looking at her, his hand poised over the series of dots on his left arm. She realized he probably came the closest of anyone in this wagon to understanding what she was going through—he’d once been an anchor and was now a day-fellow. Exactly the reverse of her own life, but still closer than anyone else here.
Colton touched one of the dots on his arm. He smiled as he waved awkwardly at her, as if trying to say he did understand. Alexnya waved back and, for the first time since learning she was to be judged, didn’t feel like she was facing the entire world by herself.
After another hour of pointless bickering between the groups, Elder Vácha and Chakatie kicked everyone else out of the wagon so the two of them could discuss things in private. Alexnya eagerly jumped to the ground and grabbed her backpack. It was already nighttime. She was tired and just wanted to sleep somewhere.
Chakatie’s family had pitched their tents close to the biosphere’s doors. But when Alexnya walked there to pitch her own tent, Pinhaus and the rest of the anchors glared at her, their eyes glowing to the different colors of their grains. Even Wren looked angry.
Alexnya clapped her hands loudly before Wren’s pouty face and mimed an explosion. “Bang,” she said.
“What?” Wren asked. “I don’t...”
“Fireworks and rainbows and all that. Remember how excited you were to see this damn festival when I was the only one who might be punished?”
Wren had the decency to look embarrassed. Alexnya snorted in her face and left to find somewhere else to camp.
She paused next to the small lake, spooking a trout that broke the still waters into ripples while crickets and cicadas hummed their songs. The night was almost chilly, and each breath she took smelled sweet and crisp. The slight breeze was also amazingly clear, as if the world had cleansed the air in welcome for her alone.
Thanks to the new moon she couldn’t see the massive arches and lattices of the biosphere rising through the darkness above her. But she could sense the lack of grains here. There was no clicking in her mind like when she was in the rest of the world, where the grains lived in every plant and animal and even the soil, continually sharing information between themselves. She didn’t feel the grains watching her. She didn’t feel the nervous tension that at any moment the grains might take command of her body and force her to defend the environment on their behalf. Even the grains inside her seemed muted, as if unsure what to do when they couldn’t speak with their brethren.
So this was what all of the Earth once felt like. It really was beautiful. Even if she was to be executed tomorrow, at least she’d known this one moment of peace.
Trying to find a new campsite, she walked between two of the day-fellow wagons. The back door for one wagon was open, and inside she saw a day-fellow family eating dinner. Their large wagon was a hydroponic, with edible and medicinal plants growing in water-filled tubes, large water tanks built into the armored walls, and a roof that could open fully to the sun. The family’s bunks and tables sat among the plants.
One of Alexnya’s friends growing up had lived in a hydroponic wagon like this. She’d eaten many a meal with that friend, even slept among their plants countless times. She tried to push the memory away. She really didn’t want to remember all she’d lost.
A little boy inside waved. Alexnya waved back, only for an adult to notice the exchange and close the door in her face.
“To them you’re just a big bad anchor,” a soft voice said from under the wagon. “They’ll probably tell scary stories to the kids tonight about you eating any day-fellows you catch harming the environment.”
The young girl who’d been in Elder Vácha’s meeting earlier was sitting under the wagon, her thin arms wrapped around one of the rear wheel’s giant spokes as she stared up at Alexnya.
“My name’s Ae,” she said. She lifted her long hair off the back of her neck, revealing a silver neuroconnector. “Don’t touch my neck—I’ll be able to access the grains in your body and force you to do all types of bad shit.”
“Doesn’t it defeat the purpose of your connector, if you warn me not to touch it?”
“Nah, I’m lying. I can access your grains without touching you. But I won’t. Unless you piss me off.”
Alexnya couldn’t help but laugh.
“Why are you camping by yourself?” Ae asked. “Aren’t those anchors your family?”
“Nah. They hate me. I pretty much feel the same about them.”
“Want me to use my connector to force them to like you?” Ae clapped her hands eagerly, as if the thought of manipulating anchors was too much fun to contemplate.
“Not really. But thanks for offering.”
“Okay, option two. Want to sleep in my wagon?”
Alexnya fought an eager smile creeping up her face. She really wanted to do that—to feel like a day-fellow again, if only for a few hours.
Ae stood up and waved for Alexnya to follow. Now that Alexnya looked closely, Ae’s body seemed abnormally skinny, as if she’d been ill most of her life. She looked about twelve years old, but the way she moved and talked made Alexnya suspect she was far older.
They walked to the first wagon in the caravan. Two horses grazed nearby, and both looked Alexnya over before deciding she was safe, and they returned to eating. Ae opened the wagon’s back door and climbed inside. The funk of too many bodies living in too small a space flowed out of the wagon, making Alexnya feel like a kid again. She grabbed the handle by the door and pulled herself up, bracing herself for the disapproving looks from the day-fellows inside.
Instead, Colton and Mita stared at her in amusement.
“She’s weird,” Ae announced. “Like us.”
“I am not weird,” Mita muttered.
“No, you are weird,” Ae said. “Just like me and Colton. Which is why I said she could bunk with us.”
Mita almost gagged as she forced a smile to her face. “Ae, anchors aren’t... comfortable sleeping in day-fellow wagons.”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m a kid,” Ae said. “And I already said she could stay.”
“Uh, maybe I should go...” Alexnya said.
“No,” Mita said. “I... Colton, what do you think? It’s our wagon after all.”
Colton sat at the small diagnostic table working on a disassembled laser pistol. “I don’t mind if she stays,” he said. “She used to be a day-fellow, you know.”
Mita and Ae both gave Alexnya a surprised glance.
“Wait a minute, Colton,” Mita said. “You talk all the time about your family. About how this girl took your mother’s place, how your mother ripped the grains from your body, how your grandmother is loving yet scary as shit. But you never said Alexnya used to be a day-fellow!”
Colton shrugged. “Didn’t seem important.”
Mita laughed and shook her head, as if she’d long grown used to putting up with Colton’s inanity. “Toss your bag on that bunk,” she told Alexnya.
Alexnya did as told and stretched out there beside her bag. There wasn’t much space, the bunk above pressing down to only a span above face, but she couldn’t be happier. She touched the armored wall beside her, closed her eyes, and breathed deep of the wagon’s tang of bodies and electronics and food and gear.
“Guess you were born a day-fellow,” Mita said. “No true anchor would get goofy-faced over sleeping in an over-crowded wagon.”
“It feels good in here,” Alexnya said. “Like being home.”
Mita, Colton, and Ae shared their dinner of rice and spiced beans with Alexnya. While eating, Colton tapped one of the dots on his arm and thanked Ae for cooking such a great meal. Seeing Alexnya’s puzzlement, he explained—having the grains removed from him had stripped him of his ability to feel emotions, at least until Sri Sa inserted her own grains into his body last year.
“I have to tap the dots on my arm,” Colton said. “Then wham—happiness, sadness, anger, fear, or any other emotion arising from mixtures of those.”
“You have to guess which emotion you want to feel?” Alexnya asked.
Ae giggled. “That’s pretty much it. You should have seen him at our solstice dinner—Elder Vácha asked him to say a few words to everyone, but he tapped anger by mistake. He cursed out Elder Vácha so much she smacked him.”
Mita rolled her eyes. Obviously she didn’t find the story nearly as funny.
Alexnya extended her hand over Colton’s arm. “May I?”
“Yes,” he said. “But don’t touch them. I can only use the grains to generate emotions a limited number of times before their power will be exhausted.”
Alexnya reached out with her power and felt the grains Sri Sa had embedded within Colton’s arm. They had the same taste as the grains that made up Sri Sa. The same happiness and sadness and anger and fear as she’d felt from Sri Sa when Sri Sa had attacked her.
“Why is Sri Sa doing all this?” Alexnya asked.
“No clue,” Mita said. “We thought she was dead.
“Can she be trusted?”
Mita and Ae looked for Colton to answer, and Alexnya wondered why he would know more about Sri Sa than they did.
Colton hesitated. “I trusted her once,” he finally said. “And she fought hard to save our lives. But the Sri Sa I knew is dead—whatever’s here now is a recreation by the grains. The question, though, is which grains recreated her.”
Alexnya waited for Colton to explain what he meant by ‘which grains,’ but he put the laser pistol in his holster, opened the wagon’s door, and walked outside.
When the door closed again, Ae jumped over and sat by Alexnya.
“He got all kissy with Sri Sa before she died,” she whispered as if sharing a secret. “Even without touching his emotions, thinking about Sri Sa makes him moody.”
Alexnya frowned. Earlier she’d thought Colton might understand her more than anyone else here, but what did it mean if he was in love with Sri Sa? Did Sri Sa feel the same as he did? She had given him back the limited ability to feel emotions, so obviously she cared for him. But was it more than that?
As Alexnya climbed into her bunk to sleep, she wondered if this revelation could give her a way to turn tomorrow’s judgment festival to her advantage.
The next morning Alexnya climbed out of the wagon and prepared to leave the biosphere and face the judgment festival. She stepped barefoot into the cold dew on the grass, not wanting to destroy her boots when she powered up. The rest of her clothes were tailored to stretch and open, so she didn’t worry about them.
But before she could power up, she noticed Ae standing beside her.
“Go ahead,” Ae said, staring eagerly at her body. “I’ve never seen an anchor power up from this close. Usually not a safe thing to witness.”
Mita chuckled as she climbed out of the wagon wearing her leather body armor, sword, and holstered laser. But she also looked curious.
Alexnya blushed before shaking off her embarrassment. She focused on the grains in her body, releasing their power. Her muscles and bones twisted as they rang out like steel and her hands shaped into claws. She grew until she was taller by half again.
She grinned a mouthful of fangs at Ae.
“That as scary as you get?” Ae asked. “I’ve seen worse.”
Alexnya resisted the urge to pick the sassy girl up and twirl her over her head. She and Ae walked around the wagon to where Mita and Colton were waiting, then joined the other day-fellows and anchors lined up before the biosphere’s inner doors. The other day-fellows also wore body armor and carried any weapon they could find, including lasers. Wren, Pinhaus, and the anchors, meanwhile, were powered up like Alexnya. Only Chakatie had stayed her normal self, still wearing her yellow hat and suit. But even her grains clicked vast amounts of power through her small body.
Everyone was prepared for whatever the day might bring.
A dustdevil of grains swirled into the air before the entrance and formed into Sri Sa’s giant body.
“Everyone looks so happy to see me,” she said with an amused grin.
Colton stepped before Sri Sa and tapped his emotions. Anger snapped across his face.
“What the hell are you playing at?” he screamed.
Sri Sa frowned. “Anger is the emotion you give me? After I saved your life last year? Saved all of you?”
Colton didn’t seem to know how to react to this. He reached to tap another emotion but Mita grabbed his hand.
“We saw you die,” Mita calmly told Sri Sa. “Why are you still here?”
Sri Sa smiled menacingly down at Mita, large simulated fangs glistening in her simulated mouth. “I am dead, yes. But some of the grains that powered me survived, and saved the essence of who I am.”
Mita unholstered her laser pistol. “We can correct that error,” she said. “I’ve killed many anchors. Can’t be much harder to get rid of a grain-spun ghost.”
Sri Sa raised a massive clawed hand to smash Mita, but she stopped when she saw Colton watching.
“I won’t hurt you,” she muttered, hiding the claw behind her body as if embarrassed. “I’m here to help you. The grains are the ones who want all of you dead.”
Chakatie and Elder Vácha stepped forward, with a reluctant Ae following behind them. They nodded at Ae, who closed her eyes. Her body began to shake. Alexnya felt Ae’s neuroconnector reach out to the grains making up Sri Sa’s body. A moment later the sensation vanished and Ae fell to her knees.
“Sri Sa spoke the truth,” Ae said. “She’s made up of the rogue grains that powered her before she died. She’s not the grains that imprisoned us here.”
Alexnya reached out toward Sri Sa with her own power. The grains making up Sri Sa tasted bittersweet and off-color—if taste was the right word—compared to the red hot spice she experienced from the grains in the rest of the world. Elder Vácha had said the grains that powered Sri Sa were an ancient variant of the nano-machines ruling today’s world. That they were even programmed differently.
“So nice being in the biosphere,” Sri Sa said. “I don’t have to hide myself from the other grains—don’t have to spoof their communications and hack their sensors so they can’t see me. I can just exist.”
Alexnya understood wanting to be free and just exist.
Sri Sa shrunk her simulated body until she stood at the same height as Colton and Mita and the other day-fellows.
“Sorry I couldn’t speak with you sooner,” she told Colton. “But I wasn’t even conscious until a few months ago. My surviving grains attached themselves to your caravan, but it took them time to replicate and reactivate who I was.”
“Sounds like you miss being with these day-fellows,” Chakatie said.
“Then why did you place them at the mercy of a judgment festival?”
Sri Sa looked at everyone around her, both the day-fellows and anchors tense at the coming judgment. Realization flickered across her simulated face. “I... I didn’t. The other grains had this planned, for the last year. They’re desperate to fix the problems they’ve encountered recently.”
Seeing that no one was convinced, Sri Sa snorted. “Fine, don’t believe me. But the grains that control this world are programmed not to change. To them, the solution to any problem is simple: find and destroy everything connected to that problem.”
Sri Sa pointed at Alexnya.
“Everything started on your land when your predecessor killed all those anchors to protect one little day-fellow—you,” Sri Sa said. “Or maybe it started when the grains were stripped from your body, Colton. Or when Chakatie and her family saw all this happening and didn’t prevent it. Or when all you day-fellows decided you didn’t want to meekly die because the grains said you should.”
Some of the day-fellows and anchors were having trouble meeting Sri Sa’s gaze as she spoke.
“But the grains don’t want to simply kill all of you,” Sri Sa said. “They want to show the world that you’re wrong. To have every anchor and day-fellow outside this damn biosphere accept that the world is running as it should. Hence the judgment festival.”
Alexnya knew Sri Sa was right. Vindictiveness and absolute control were how the grains dealt with matters. “So what do we do?” she asked.
Sri Sa frowned. “You die.”
As the anchors cursed and the day-fellows drew weapons, Sri Sa held up her hands. “Wait, wait! Not all of you. Only Alexnya.”
“What the hell?” Alexnya said, fury clicking through her powered up body.
“Those red necklaces,” Sri Sa said. “I couldn’t stop the grains from holding a judgment festival for Alexnya and bringing all of you here. But I can deactivate the necklaces now that you’re in the biosphere away from their power. I can even spoof the grains so they won’t know about it.”
Sri Sa pointed at the red necklace on Elder Vácha’s neck. The necklace spasmed and vanished.
“See,” Sri Sa said. “I’m now spoofing your necklace—the grains outside don’t have a clue you’re free. Alexnya must still go outside to be judged and executed. But the rest of you live.”
Elder Vácha shook her head. “Won’t work. When Chakatie’s family returns home, the grains will realize they aren’t dead. And our caravan would quickly be recognized by the grains while we traveled.”
“You misunderstand,” Sri Sa said. “We don’t leave. We stay in this biosphere. There are no grains here. And I can hack the grains inside Chakatie and her family so they won’t reveal they’re still alive.”
“Wait,” Chakatie said. “We’d be trapped here... for the rest of our lives?”
“It’s either that or be dead,” Sri Sa said. She grimaced at Alexnya. “Sorry, yeah, you’ll still die. The grains want everyone at the judgment festival to see that. But if you go out there and get executed, all these people will live.”
Alexnya couldn’t even curse this time.
While Chakatie and Elder Vácha and most everyone else argued about Sri Sa’s plan and whether they could actually live in the biosphere without the grains noticing, Alexnya, Colton, Ae, and Mita sat near the dome’s entrance with Sri Sa.
“Why me?” Alexnya asked. “Why’d you pick me for this damn plan?”
“I didn’t,” Sri Sa said. “Like I said, the grains had already set all this in motion. I just took advantage of their plans—slipped in under their detection nets to find a way for me and everyone else to live.”
“Just not me.”
Sri Sa had the decency to look away.
Alexnya kicked the grass, popping a divot from the soil. She didn’t feel like sitting with them anymore, so she stood up and walked down to the lake.
The biosphere’s sky shimmered rainbows in the morning light. Maintenance robots moved across the roof’s lattice, from this distance like ants working on their colony. She remembered the stories she’d read about biospheres as a kid, how they would protect their environments and species if the worst ever happened again.
She had to admit the biosphere was beautiful and, with thousands of acres inside, it could easily support both Chakatie’s family and the day-fellows. Assuming Sri Sa could trick the grains into believing those necklaces had killed everyone when Alexnya was found guilty at the festival.
Assuming Alexnya agreed to die.
She wandered back to the caravan. Chakatie and Elder Vácha were still discussing the plan with both the day-fellows and the anchors, trying to reach a consensus. But even without listening Alexnya knew which way this would go. She wasn’t one of these day-fellows. And she wasn’t truly part of Chakatie’s family.
No one was watching out for her.
She returned to where Sri Sa, Colton, Mita, and Ae were sitting but hung back a bit, leaning against the biosphere’s glass. She noticed Sri Sa couldn’t stop staring at Colton. Sri Sa had done that since revealing herself this morning, as if she didn’t care what others thought of her but was desperate for Colton’s approval.
Last night Alexnya had wondered if Sri Sa loved Colton as much as he loved her. That definitely appeared to be the case.
She powered up the grains in her ears to hear their conversation.
“Colton won’t tell you what he’s thinking,” Ae told Sri Sa. “But I can. He cried over you when you died. He’s been angry at himself for the last year. Keeps telling us how much he loved you. He’s missed you deeply—that is, he’s felt all that whenever he used the grains you gave him.”
Sri Sa crafted a happy smile on her face. But Colton tapped the grains on his arm and looked with irritation at Ae.
“Wow,” she said. “He thinks I’m worth using his emotions on! I’m honored!”
Colton sighed and tapped all the dots on his arm. For the first time since Alexnya had met him, he looked like a person open to every emotion of life.
“It’s true,” he told Sri Sa. “I did miss you. Terribly.”
Colton reached out and squeezed Sri Sa’s hand, causing her body to ripple and partly disappear, as if she couldn’t control her own emotions and grains.
A moment later Colton’s face was again impassive as his emotions shut down. He removed his hand from Sri Sa’s grip.
This interplay between them was fascinating. And Colton, Mita, and Ae were a cute family, even though none of them were related to each other. Alexnya yet again missed her own mother and father and sister, and the sense of belonging she’d grown up with as part of a day-fellow caravan.
She stalked over and stared down at Sri Sa. “You seem pretty human,” she said.
“Why wouldn’t I be? I am human.”
“Not what we normally think of as human—you’re a recreation. You’re what those strange grains formed from your memories and consciousness after you died.”
Anger flashed through Sri Sa. Unlike moments before, the grains making up her body didn’t fall apart. Instead they appeared to solidify, as if her anger was making her more powerful.
Alexnya snorted, refusing to fear Sri Sa.
“Before you choke me again, listen to what I’m saying,” she said. “I actually believe you are still human. But why are you so human, when you’re made up of grains? The regular grains all over our world feel emotions but are never anything close to human. They could never create someone as human as yourself.”
Sri Sa nodded and seemed to calm down. “The grains that make up my body are programmed differently.”
“Is it your grains or you yourself that created this damn plan where I die to save everyone?”
“I did. If I could find a way to also save you, I’d take it.” Sri Sa pointed toward the biosphere’s doors. “But the grains are waiting for you out there. They want you judged and killed and made an example of. I can’t stop that without risking the lives of everyone else.”
Alexnya understood Sri Sa’s reasoning, even if she’d fight against it until she died. She hated this damn world where anchors killed day-fellows and believed they were protecting the environment, and day-fellows killed anchors when they could get away with it. Even the grains’ desire to kill Alexnya was to protect what they saw as this world’s natural order. Everyone sacrificed others for what they believed was the greater good.
But this was still Alexnya’s life. And now that she understood how much Sri Sa loved Colton and how badly she wanted to save these other day-fellows and anchors, maybe there was a way Alexnya could fight back.
“Why did you attack me at my house?” she asked.
“I wanted to see how strong you were,” Sri Sa said. “No, not your body. Your heart. It takes a special strength to sacrifice yourself for others.”
“And the grains out there didn’t detect you?”
“Like I said, I’m good at tricking the grains into not seeing me.”
“You must be pretty powerful to pull that off.”
Sri Sa looked puzzled, not understanding what Alexnya was getting at. But if Sri Sa intended to question Alexnya, she dropped it when they noticed Chakatie and Elder Vácha approaching.
Neither Chakatie nor Elder Vácha looked happy. Alexnya knew what they wanted.
“Alex,” Chakatie began, “I know we don’t have the right to ask, but...”
“Stop. I’ll do it.”
Chakatie and Elder Vácha looked surprised by Alexnya’s snap decision, as did Sri Sa and the other day-fellows and anchors.
“I’m not an ass—I won’t risk everyone dying,” Alexnya muttered. She pointed at Sri Sa. “But I also don’t trust you yet. Before I go out there, you have to release everyone from these damn necklaces.”
“As long as you know I can’t free you,” Sri Sa replied. “For this to work, you have to go out to the festival and face judgment.”
“I know what I need to do. You just save everyone else first.”
Sri Sa bowed politely, appearing impressed by Alexnya’s determination.
But Sri Sa didn’t have a clue. None of them did. Alexnya kept her face calm and blank, giving nothing away.
They thought she didn’t have a choice.
But if Sri Sa was as good at hiding herself from the grains as she claimed, Alexnya realized she did indeed have a choice. And maybe a way to not only save herself but also free everyone else.
Alexnya stood within the biosphere’s entryway, preparing herself for judgment. She breathed deep and stared at the rainbow flows of grains on the doors before her. The glowing colors looked so beautiful that she wouldn’t have minded if the biosphere trapped her forever here between its inner and outer doors.
She was powered up, refusing to face this at anything but full strength. She tapped her claws against one another, fidgeting to hide her nervousness.
Chakatie stepped before her and gripped both of Alexnya’s claws with her own hands. “You’ll do fine,” she said with a sad smile. “And I couldn’t be more proud of you if you were my own daughter.”
Alexnya remembered her mother and father being willing to die to protect her when she was first infected with the grains. She hugged Chakatie.
True to her word, Sri Sa had destroyed all the necklaces on the anchors and day-fellows when Alexnya stepped into the biosphere’s entryway. Or, as Alexnya had noted, Sri Sa had destroyed every necklace except for hers and Chakatie’s—Alexnya’s because she had to face the judgment festival, and Chakatie’s because she’d decided to share that fate.
Chakatie’s family had been shocked by her announcement. Wren had grabbed her grandmother’s arm and cried while Pinhaus had begged her to reconsider, his voice actually trembling.
“No,” Chakatie had announced with a stern voice. “I’ll never ask anyone to do what I won’t do myself.”
Only Colton hadn’t made a fuss. He’d simply touched his emotions over and over as he hugged Chakatie and said how proud he was to be her grandson.
Alexnya squeezed Chakatie’s hand tight as they stood at the outer door. She was so happy not to be facing death alone. For the first time, she felt that maybe Chakatie was part of her family.
They still held hands as the outer doors of the biosphere opened. Before them on the festival grounds stood a thousand anchors, all of them wearing their best clothes and staring at Alexnya and Chakatie with solemn faces. There were also day-fellow crowds gathered behind the anchors to witness the judgment, close enough to see everything but also keeping a respectful and safe distance from the anchors.
And mixed among both the anchors and day-fellows were the hundreds of glass stele, each showcasing the world’s history.
The anchors lined both sides of a path leading to the glass stage. Alexnya and Chakatie walked forward through the crowd.
The moment they stepped onto the stage their red necklaces fell apart and vanished—they’d returned to face judgment, so the necklaces were no longer needed. As Alexnya gazed out over the crowd before her, she realized that when found guilty, her and Chakatie’s deaths would come by being ripped apart by the thousand anchors looking back at her.
The crowd was incredibly quiet, as if no one wanted to be the first to spoil the silence. Alexnya stood there on the stage, unsure what to do.
A swirl of grains beside her announced Sri Sa’s arrival.
“We stand in the middle of history,” Sri Sa said to the crowd, pointing to the historic images and words flowing through the stele around them. “It’s time to add our own judgment to that history!”
A gasp rose from the gathered anchors as the stele connected with the grains inside their bodies. From the stage Alexnya could see that the day-fellows in the back didn’t have the same reaction since they lacked grains. They instead watched the stele around them, which showed the same images the anchors were having transmitted into their minds.
Suddenly the stele reached out to Alexnya’s own grains. She saw the sad history of this world. Of humanity savaging the environment, and with it savaging themselves, and only at the last minute creating the grains to try and save something. The nanomachines became the ultimate power and judge over what humans could and could not do with this world.
But that wasn’t enough. The grains also divided humanity into anchors and day-fellows, with the anchors enforcing the grains’ demands. And if humanity ever again annihilated their planet, the world could still be reborn from the biospheres protecting samples of every environment and species.
Every species, that was, except for humans. That was the biospheres’ true warning to humanity—that if the world died again, it would be recreated without the very beings who’d caused its destruction.
As Alexnya connected with this history, she felt herself falling through the horrors of what humans had done to this world along with experiencing the certainty that only the grains could prevent it from happening again. She didn’t agree with this last part—she knew what the grains were capable of. But the history projected into her mind was so powerful it almost obliterated any protest she could make.
For a moment the grains showed Alexnya and the anchors and day-fellows the peace inside the biosphere as a taste of what the world used to be like.
“This must all be preserved,” Sri Sa told the crowd in her role as anchor lord. “The grains are eternal! The grains are the way!”
The images and history Alexnya saw were so overwhelming it would be so easy to give in and agree with Sri Sa’s words. She realized this festival wasn’t about judgment. Instead, it was the grains telling everyone the truths they wanted them to believe.
The next images the grains showed were of Alexnya’s life, from her days growing up in a day-fellow caravan to the grains picking her to be an anchor to her nobly protecting her land’s environment. But then the grains showed Frere-Jones killing people. Showed Frere-Jones ripping the grains from her own son. How that had eventually resulted in Colton growing close to Sri Sa. How Sri Sa’s love for Colton caused her to help the day-fellows kill hundreds of anchors.
“Alexnya’s land is where these problems started,” Sri Sa announced to the crowd, not mentioning the irony that she was one of the problems the grains wanted to fix. “Even if she did nothing wrong, she is her land’s anchor. She must be judged. You will now start your deliberations.”
The thousand anchors before the stage began talking among themselves, both speaking and transmitting through the grains’ communication nets. Alexnya felt as if a warm blanket had descended on the crowd, an enveloping miasma of words and data and belief clicking among the anchors as they worked toward her judgment.
Alexnya looked at Sri Sa, remembering how she continually tricked the grains into not seeing her true self. Alexnya reached out with her grains to the anchors around her and to the grains in the stele themselves. It was hard to access what they were seeing instead of letting the grains’ images flow into her, like swimming against the current of a very powerful river. But she was being judged here—it was her right to know the truth.
She pushed harder and finally reached into the communications being shared between the grains and anchors and stele. Through their eyes the simulation that was Sri Sa looked different. Every anchor before the stage believed they were seeing an old woman standing beside Alexnya, a recreation of one of the original anchors from thousands of years ago.
Clever, Alexnya thought, amazed by the level of power it took for Sri Sa to mask her presence by spoofing and subtly changing the communications of so many other grains and anchors.
Sri Sa glared angrily at Alexnya, having detected her accessing the grains’ communication nets. A buzzing like a million bees fell between Alexnya’s power and the grains as Sri Sa blocked them from hearing anything Alexnya might transmit.
Sri Sa looked very satisfied, as if she’d smacked down an annoying bug. She leaned over to Alexnya. “What are you doing?” she whispered.
“I’m done being used. I’m going to tell the grains who you are.”
Sri Sa sniffed as if unimpressed. “I thought you were strong enough to sacrifice yourself for others, but I was wrong. You’re just a selfish little child.”
“There’s no need,” Alexnya protested. She looked around—the anchors were occupied with their deliberations, while Chakatie had closed her eyes in meditation, preparing for death. Now was the time to push Sri Sa on this.
“Look how you manipulate the grains,” she said. “You could do that for all of us. Instead of staying in the biosphere, everyone could leave and you could hide us from detection.”
Sri Sa looked uncomfortable. “I considered that. It takes too much power.”
“Too much power? You’re hacking the grains inside a thousand anchors right now, plus the stele.”
“You make it sound like it’s easy to do this.”
Chakatie opened her eyes and stepped over. “What’s wrong?”
“She’s gotten cold feet,” Sri Sa said dismissively.
“No,” Alexnya said, “there’s another way. Sri Sa has the power to hide all of us from the grains. Your family wouldn’t have to stay in the biosphere. She might even be able to manipulate the grains so you could return home.”
Chakatie looked at the anchors around them—they were still deliberating Alexnya’s fate, but a few of them also gazed curiously at the discussion on the stage, wondering what was going on. Alexnya felt Chakatie reach out with her own grains, which were far more powerful than Alexnya’s. But Sri Sa also jammed Chakatie’s attempt.
“Interesting,” Chakatie said. “Why are you so desperate to block me from accessing the grains?”
“It’s dangerous,” Sri Sa said. “If the grains learn I’m still alive, they’ll hunt all of us down.”
“They’re already hunting us down,” Alexnya said. “That’s why we were brought to this damn festival. The only difference is they’re not hunting you—the grains think you’re dead.”
Sri Sa shoved Alexnya backwards, her strength so overwhelming that Alexnya almost fell off the stage. Chakatie grabbed Alexnya’s arm and pulled her back while Sri Sa stepped before the assembled anchors.
“What is your decision?” Sri Sa demanded. “We must waste no more time on this.”
Alexnya felt the crowd’s attention turn back to her. A few of the anchors protested that she was innocent, but their voices were quickly drowned out. Instead, she heard an anchor shout that a day-fellow should never be an anchor. A chorus of other anchors joined in, shouting agreement.
From the back of the crowd she saw day-fellows beginning to return to their armored wagons. They knew what was coming, and they didn’t want to witness her execution.
Alexnya cursed—she was so close. She tried again to break through Sri Sa’s jamming, but she couldn’t. Her grains paled in power compared to the rogue grains powering Sri Sa’s entire being.
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier about this?” Chakatie asked.
“If I’d said anything in the biosphere Sri Sa might not have freed your family and the day-fellows—she loves Colton, but I don’t know if she really cares about the rest of us. I thought if I told the grains that she’s still alive she’d have no choice but to help us and hide us from detection. But I can’t break her jamming. My power isn’t strong enough.”
Chakatie shook her head as if Alexnya was a simple, naïve fool. “I’ve always admired your determination, Alex, but you do so overthink things. Sometimes the best paths are the simplest to follow.”
Chakatie opened her mouth as if to say something else but closed it with a smile as she tapped her lips with a finger.
“Are you ready to accept judgment, Alexnya?” Sri Sa called out. “To do what must be done to protect our world?”
“No, I’m not!” Alexnya yelled so everyone could hear.
Sri Sa looked puzzled at this. The anchors in the crowd looked unsettled.
“You can’t say that,” Sri Sa hissed. “The grains need you to die willingly. That’s the whole point of a judgment festival. You accept guilt, you die, people go home reassured that their lives are good and proper.”
“I’ll pass. But I am going to do something else.”
“And what is that?” Sri Sa whispered. “Tell the grains I’m still alive? Neither you or Chakatie can cut through my blocking.”
“Don’t need to.”
Alexnya shouted Sri Sa’s name. She yelled as loud as she could, using her power to amplify her voice. Sri Sa, Sri Sa echoed off the biosphere and flowed over the thousand gathered anchors, even reaching the day-fellows at the back of the festival grounds.
“No!” Sri Sa screamed. Alexnya felt Sri Sa reach out to the anchors around them, trying to keep her name from their grains. She couldn’t make the anchors unhear the words, but she desperately tried to block her name from being understood by their grains and, failing that, from being transmitted to the grains in the stele and the greater world.
But Sri Sa was also manipulating what the grains saw of her through the eyes of a thousand anchors, to say nothing of the stele around them. Alexnya felt Sri Sa’s jamming weaken and her power stretch thin. Alexnya pushed forward through the jamming, trying to connect again to the grains. Chakatie took her hand and joined in, the grains in their bodies synching as they slammed against Sri Sa’s overtaxed power.
The jamming collapsed as Alexnya and Chakatie told the world that Sri Sa was alive and standing right in front of them.
“Oh shit,” Sri Sa said, looking out at the thousand anchors before the stage. Realization of who she was slammed into all of them at the same time. For a moment the grains were shocked. Then they demanded judgment, flooding the minds of the anchors with images of the many crimes committed by Sri Sa. A thousand pairs of eyes glowed an angry rainbow of colors as howls went up from every mouth. Bodies began to grow, ripping apart fancy clothes and shoes and hats, but none of them cared.
They were this world’s anchors, and the grains demanded justice.
“Oh shit,” Sri Sa said again.
“Question for you two,” Alexnya said as more anchors before them transformed. “How good are you at running?”
Whatever answer Sri Sa and Chakatie gave was lost as a thousand anchors charged the stage.
Alexnya and Chakatie stood gasping for breath inside the biosphere’s entryway, their bodies bloody and bruised and cut. Chakatie seemed particularly irritated that her yellow bowler hat was gone and her suit hung in shreds from her body. Sri Sa looked out through a peephole at the thousand anchors trying to break down the unbreakable door.
“Interesting,” she said. “Who knew riots could start that fast.”
“Well, Chakatie did tell me to be defiant,” Alexnya said.
Chakatie cursed as she spat out a mouthful of blood. “Yeah, I did. Give me fair warning before you ever do that again.”
Sri Sa leaned against the outer doors. She’d used a lot of her power fighting the anchors so the three of them could reach the entryway and now was using even more to hack into the grains here to prevent the doors from being forced open. Alexnya could feel the transmissions from Sri Sa’s grains washing over the grains around them, reprogramming them.
Sri Sa collapsed, her body fading in and out of solidity. “There. I stopped them from getting in. For a while. But now that the grains know I’m in the biosphere they’ll keep trying to break in.”
Sri Sa’s body shrunk again, now as small as Alexnya was when she wasn’t powered up. Alexnya walked over and squatted next to her.
“Then we should get the hell out of here,” Alexnya said.
Sri Sa glared at her. “This is all your damn fault. Colton and I could have been happy in the biosphere.”
“Do you love Colton?”
Sri Sa nodded.
“Then guess what—you’ll also be happy when we leave this place.”
“Do you realize how hard it will be for me to continually block all of us from the grains? Especially now that they’ll be hunting for me again?”
“Gee, and here I thought you were strong enough to sacrifice yourself for others.”
Sri Sa looked like she wanted to choke Alexnya again. If she’d been powered by the grains that ruled the world, Alexnya was sure she would have tried. The grains Alexnya had grown up knowing never forgave slights, no matter how much the world changed around them.
But Sri Sa merely sighed and shook her head. “Yeah, point taken. I deserved that.”
Alexnya stood up as the howls of the anchors outside built louder, as they’d finally realized they couldn’t force the doors open.
“Now what?” Chakatie asked.
“You can always return home,” she said. “But I imagine the grains won’t be happy with what happened here. I think you and your family should stick with Sri Sa and the rest of us for a while.”
Chakatie cursed. “I won’t be a day-fellow. I won’t.”
“The grains betrayed you,” Alexnya said. “You can’t want to still serve them?”
“I never served the grains—I served this world and my family.”
“You can keep doing that. It’ll just be different than before.”
Alexnya could see that Chakatie was tempted—anyone facing a death sentence always searched for a path to freedom.
The inner doors to the biosphere opened. Sri Sa staggered through and found Colton inside and hugged him. The waiting day-fellows and anchors were shocked that Alexnya and Chakatie were still alive, but Chakatie waved them off. They could deal with all the questions later.
The two of them looked at the sun shining through the biosphere, at the grass and trees and the lake and the grain-free perfection all around them.
“It’s beautiful in here,” Chakatie said. “But a beautiful prison is still a prison.”
“So you’re not mad at me?”
“Give me time. Still, it wouldn’t have worked, all of us staying in here. Guess we’ll see if traveling together makes more sense.”
“Look at Sri Sa,” Alexnya whispered. “What do you think about her?”
Chakatie gazed at Sri Sa, who was still hugging Colton in a smothering embrace. Colton was tapping his emotions over and over, hugging her back.
“I see an unstable anchor created by deviantly programmed grains,” Chakatie stated.
“Maybe. But she’s also different than the grains we’ve always known—her grains are programmed to change. Maybe that’s something the world needs right now.”
Chakatie snorted. “What makes you say that?”
“Because what the world’s been doing isn’t working. I don’t know about you, but I’m done letting the grains do what they want with my life.”
Alexnya didn’t wait to see Chakatie’s response. She walked toward Mita and Ae to ask if she could travel in their wagon.
The caravan departed the next morning, traveling deeper into the biosphere. The anchors were still trying to force their way in, but the biosphere had been created to survive the end of the world and refused to break even under repeated anchor attacks.
After hitching the horses, the day-fellows rode their wagons and the anchors walked. They made their way together around the lake and through the grasslands. Through the forests and hills. Beneath the rainbow-lit sky. Watching deer and wolves and rabbits and birds watch them back without a worry that any grains were also observing them.
Alexnya rode in the wagon driver’s seat next to Ae, who taught her how to manage their horses, Butterlove and Patty. Mita was napping inside the wagon while Colton and Sri Sa walked in front of the horses, keeping watch for holes and obstacles, since there weren’t any roads inside the biosphere for them to use. The rest of the caravan followed.
Whenever they reached the biosphere’s far side, Sri Sa said she would hack one of the secondary doors and the caravan could escape before the anchors caught them. And if the worst happened and anchors were there, Chakatie and her family had pledged to shield them.
Alexnya wasn’t sure how long that alliance would last—Pinhaus looked like he still hated her, although he’d also gone out of his way to thank her for saving Chakatie’s life. And many of the anchors and day-fellows were definitely uncomfortable with their new traveling partners.
Still, for now everyone was working together. For now, that was enough.
Alexnya breathed deep of the pure air, enjoying her final days in the biosphere.
“It’s not natural, is it?” Ae asked. “Us being in here.”
“Nah, but still nice.”
“The world can’t live without change,” Ae said. “The grains forgot that.”
“The grains were programmed to forget that,” Alexnya said. “But way back when, humanity also forgot we can’t live without the world. So in a way, we’re all at fault.”
Alexnya looked at Colton and Sri Sa, who walked hand-in-hand. Many of the day-fellows and anchors were disgusted by the relationship between them, but Alexnya thought it was sweet. Sri Sa was still too prone to violence and Colton still emotionally broken. But both of them were changing before her eyes—that had to be a good omen for the group’s travels.
With a grunt Chakatie pulled herself up onto the driver’s seat. All the anchors, including Alexnya, had been feeling a little out of sorts since Sri Sa severed their connections to the outside grains. They could still power up their bodies, but they were now getting used to no longer being connected to every other grain in the world.
“The grains will come after us,” Chakatie muttered. “Probably been easier to just let ourselves be executed.”
“Maybe,” Alexnya said. “But don’t you find this amazing, all of us being together? Day-fellows and anchors, rogue grains and Sri Sa, all together. That’s got to mean something.”
“Means we’re going to die well before we change the world.”
Alexnya sighed. “I liked you better when you were defiant.”
Chakatie gave her the finger, and they laughed.