‘So, what’s the report from your sector, Hector?’ asked Laylene, the night supervisor. As usual, she gave no indication that she noticed the rhyme in her question. Her unsmiling face radiated, as usual, blankness.
Hector saluted precisely, as usual. He knew that small talk was not necessary. The Service discouraged it, and most of his colleagues simply ignored any discussion that was not relatead to Operational Matters as if they couldn’t hear it. Still, a part of him missed the avuncular presence of Tad, the former supervisor. Thinking of Tad made him think of Tad’s end, and that made him uncomfortable, so he put the thought aside. He delivered his report, crisply, precisely.
‘Ma’am, three incidents in Gamma 5E:
‘One, noise at the perimeter fence. Moaning. Estimated four supplicants, driven away by 47 rounds of Level 13. No bodies observed. Either we hit none or the survivors took the bodies away.
‘Incident Two, rattling at the Gamma 5E Alpha Gate. Observed small pack of GM canines, the ones with digit enhancement. Pack dispersed as we zoomed to the gate, no casualties, no game.
‘Incident Three, immature supplicant at Gamma 5E Beta Gate.’
‘Did you bring the thing inside the Pale?’
‘No, ma’am. We acted as per procedure.’
‘So it’s still outside the perimeter?’
‘Yes’m. Still howling, ma’am.’
‘I will tell Shift Leader Hallen to keep an eye out for it. Dismiss.’
‘We have another one,’ said Laylene, saluting the screen in the column as if it could see her.
‘What sector?’ asked the disembodied voice of the Senior Forecaster. The screen flickered green, yellow, green, dead. All the screens did that, since the Post-After-Shock.
‘Gamma 5E Beta Gate.’
‘Team Leader Hector’s sector?’ The Senior Forecaster’s voice lingered a little on the richness of the rhyme. Not that Laylene noticed.
‘The same, Senior.’
‘Is it definitely human?’
‘I have asked Shift Leader Hallen to confirm. Hector described howling.’
‘His exact word.’
‘That’s not good. He should have noted what level sound disturbance was emitted.’
Laylene didn’t answer. It wasn’t her role to judge goodness, or badness either. Things just were as they were, and had to be reported. As per procedure.
‘Anything else, Supervisor Laylene?’ asked the voice from the column.
‘Hector reported four supplicants driven off with Level 13. From Gamma 5E Alpha Gate.’
‘At the same time as the immature human was left?’
‘I didn’t ask, Senior.’
The column crackled. All the columns did that, since the Post-After-Shock. Then the voice of the Senior Forecaster resumed. ‘I think we might have a case of tactics.’
Again, Laylene made no answer.
After a long minute – not that Laylene noticed – the Senior Forecaster spoke again. ‘Was there anything else unusual?’
‘Moaning? What you mean is, sound disturbance emission.’
‘Shift Leader Hector described the four supplicants as moaning.’
‘Ha. That was before the team used Level 13, I assume.’
Another crackle from the column before the Senior spoke again. ‘Thank you, Supervisor Laylene. That is all.’
‘Beta Gate,’ said Hallen, checking his orders on the small screen embedded in his wrist. The screen flickered green, yellow, green, dead. As usual in these Post-After-Shock days. He smacked it sharply, shook his wrist back and forwards, and spat on the screen. The orders glowed back into life. ‘Immature supplicant, possibly human. And – what’s this – oh. Howling.’
‘So we need to tidy it up.’
‘We need to tidy it up, correct, Milo. Let’s go.’
The squad skulked around the perimeter fence. The fence was not quite as strong as it was before the Post-After-Shock. Built after the Great Conflagration, but using all that pre-Conflagration material and with pre-Conflagration skills, it should have lasted a thousand years. A million. Nobody foresaw the Post-After-Shock only a century on. Nobody had bothered to store materials or preserve pre-Conflagration know-how.
That was all changed now. Everything was recorded, everything was as per procedure. No Post-Post-After-Shock was ever going to sneak up on them now. They knew too much, had lived through bad times too awful to contemplate. They were going to make sure it never happened again.
‘This is the place, sir.’
‘So it is,’ said Hallen. He had a gift for stating the obvious.
‘No howling, sir.’
‘So I hear.’
They crept closer to the gate. Milo could hear the creaking of Hallen’s knees; the oldster must be getting near the end of his lifespan upgrade schedule. Their wheels squeaked whenever they hit raw gravel, which was often in this dry terrain. There was a time when irrigated crops grew here, but that was before the Post-After-Shock, and youngsters like Milo didn’t remember it. Through the cutthroat wire of the fence, the mangled shapes of the Outside loomed in the semi-darkness. Ragged outlines of what had once been trees, sharp edges of new-born rock, nameless hulks of rotting metal. Bones too, though it was impossible to say what creature had lost its fight for life out there. They observed a fold in the ground, like a blanket made of dust and clay, near the bones. If Hallen had had an imagination, he might have seen it as a place hollowed out by the dead thing in its final hours, a place in which to settle something precious.
Hallen had no imagination.
He didn’t have the eyesight of young Milo, either, who said: ‘There, sir, in the shadow. Immature supplicant, possibly human. Not howling.’
Hallen squatted beside him, bending to his ankle to flick off the switch to his wheels. ‘Huh.’
They watched another minute, two. Five, until they were sure.
‘Alive then. Moving.’
‘Yes, sir,’ answered Milo.
‘Not howling, sir.’
‘Maybe someone fed it.’
Milo twitched with the shock of the idea. ‘Fed it? That’s not in the procedure, sir.’
‘What about the other one, then?’ asked Milo. ‘Did someone feed them both, sir?’
Hallen coughed, spat on his wrist screen, extended and focussed its lens at the fold in the ground. He knew for certain, now, that he needed an eye upgrade. He hadn’t noticed the second immature supplicant until Milo mentioned it. He took his time over recording the image, and then tapped Milo’s shoulder. ‘Let’s go. We need to report this. Something’s not right.’
The Senior Forecaster stared at his screen. The image captured by Shift Leader Hallen filled the space. He stepped aside to allow the Regent a better view.
‘So, Senior, it seems the supplicants are still fertile. Still breeding.’
‘It seems so, my lady.’
‘But why leave the infants at the fence? A sure way to bring death, one expects?’
The Senior shrugged. ‘Maybe that’s better than raising them in the Outside. They seem to expect us to bring the immature ones inside the Pale.’
‘Only a full human could think that way,’ mused the Regent, ‘expecting us to take pity on the young, on the defenceless. Have they developed no logic in the Outside?’
‘If they have,’ answered the Senior carefully, ‘it does not march with ours.’
‘No, well,’ said the Regent, stepping away from the screen and resuming her seat. She rested her jewelled forearms on the gilded metal and leaned her head back against the chair’s high, golden back. The diamond feathering of her eyebrows trembled; the pigeon’s-egg pearls in her earlobes reflected the light of a thousand shimmer globes. Her platinum hair, in crisp curls, formed a marvellous contrast against her gleaming skin.
‘Tell me, Senior,’ she went on. ‘Tell me the words again.’
‘My lady. Howling, and moaning.’
The Regent made a disgusted sound. ‘Hector has to go, you know that.’
The Senior sighed. ‘I feared it, my lady. He never fully – he was always …’
‘It’s only to be expected, despite all the work we put in to him. Tad should never have brought him in.’
‘I understand, my lady.’
There was a minute of silence. The Regent studied her nails. Sapphire had seemed a fine choice, early that morning; a good everyday colour, and quite hard enough. Now she frowned, retracted each nail slowly, individually, and kept her hands clawed thoughtfully. ‘The same procedure, Senior. Exactly the same.’
The Senior Forecaster watched as his queen extended her forearms and gently unfolded her hands. The tip of each finger gleamed balefully: black adamant, diamond-tipped. The Regent glanced up from the diamonds to meet the Senior’s eyes.
The Senior saluted. ‘My lady.’
Mashtuk rubbed his paw over his snout, and mumbled angrily while he chewed on a ragged thumbnail. His partner Zélie, who lay beside him panting in the shade, understood him to say: What is wrong with those people? Can’t they SEE there are two cubs out there all alone?
Zélie stood and stretched thoroughly, first with her hands outspread and shoulders down, then with her head up and hips slanted towards the ground. I don’t think they care, beloved.
Mashtuk stood and shook himself, hard, as if he had been rolling in wet shit and had to spray flecks of it as wide and high as he possibly could, as a warning, as a barricade. Then it’s up to us.
Maybe this is why they gave us thumbs, all that time ago.
No, that was so we could fetch better.
Where did you learn so much history?
I listen. Don’t you listen to the moaning and the howling?
Too much noise, sniffed Zélie. There they are.
Huh. Not even moved from where we left them. They need another feed.
I know, I know. Zélie settled herself into the hollow that the dying supplicant had dug, and nestled the twins close to her side. It took a bit of shifting and coaxing, but they soon latched on.
Little rascals. Mashtuk lifted his nose into the air, standing guard. His ears pricked towards the gate.
Not now! I’m feeding.
I’ll take a look. He slipped through the dead bushes, heading for the perimeter fence. Zélie looked up as he passed her, and then nosed the human cubs closer under her belly. They suckled hungrily. No idea, thought Zélie. Helpless as a chick inside an egg.
Hector trod cautiously. Here, in the Outside, it paid to be careful. Tad had taught him that much.
Not that being careful had helped Tad any. Hector remembered the night he had left for the last time, sent Outside to check on a noise.
Outside, alone, at night.
As he was.
So, best to get on with it. He glanced down at his wrist screen, which was blank, as usual. It made no odds, because his memory had been upgraded only recently and he remembered his orders exactly. They played in his head, in Laylene’s voice:
1. Locate the immature supplicant or supplicants. If dead, record the image. If alive, kill, then record the image.
2. Search for the supplicant bodies hit with Level 13. If located, record images.
3. Watch out for GM canines. If located, hit with Level 2 and retrieve for kitchens.
Hector ran the orders through his mind a couple of times. They sounded simple. He didn’t know, though, why it was a one-man job. Service Procedure was to work in pairs.
That made him think about Tad, and what had happened. Tad tried to return, but his chip wouldn’t read. And the Senior Forecaster had refused to help. ‘Any chip that doesn’t read has lost the Regent’s favour,’ was all he would say.
Hector kept close to the perimeter fence, at first. Then he found the bones, picked clean by ferals, and the hollow where the immatures had lain. GM canine tracks led further into the Outside.
Hector glanced at his wrist screen again. He tapped it, hard. It glowed green, yellow, green, dead, and then flashed: CHIP ERROR – CHIP ERROR – CHIP ERROR.
Mashtuk padded back. It’s the one they took in, time was.
What’s he doing?
Coming this way. Looking for the cubs, I’d say. But…
But what, beloved?
Something’s wrong. Here, you take Romulo, I’ll take Remo.
Romulo and Remo?