DUTY AND THE BEAST

David Gerrold is the author of over 70 books, hundreds of articles and columns, and over a dozen television episodes. He is a classic sci-fi writer that will go down in history as having created some of the most popular and redefining scripts, novels, and short stories in the genre. TV credits include episodes from Star Trek (including the infamous “The Trouble With Tribbles”), Star Trek Animated, Land Of The Lost, Babylon 5, Twilight Zone, and others. Additionally, the autobiographical tale of his son’s adoption, The Martian Child, won the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette of the Year and was the basis for the 2007 movie, Martian Child, starring John Cusack, Amanda Peet, and Joan Cusack.

***

They all made it out before the portal closed.

I didn’t go.

You gotta do what you gotta do.

So I did. I made sure they got out.

I didn’t follow. There were no more travel pods. But that wasn’t the reason.

After they were across, after the channel was clean, I did what I had to do.

The portal shut down. It severed the connection and shut down completely. It wiped its calibrations, then emptied its circuitry. Incapable of powering up, no connection of any kind could be established again.

But just to be certain, I vaporized the station.

It was a total break. Downline was gone. Irretrievable. No one else was going home.

But I wasn’t done yet.

I picked up my gear and headed northwest. The day was bright and I made good time. The sun wouldn’t be overhead for hours. If I couldn’t reach forest before noon, I’d put up the tent to avoid the heat. I had food for three days and I knew where to refill my canteens. Not the easiest trek, but not impossible either.

It would be a long day crossing the big valley. I’d have to circle the high grass where the predators lurked. It’d be safer. Mostly. I’d have to go slow.

The sun was touching the western horizon when I reached the rocky jumbles. Up here, I’d have to watch out for the dark catters; they were vicious and always hungry. I’d printed up a swarm of disposable flutterbys. They circled above me like insects, so I had an umbrella. It should give warning, but the catters could camouflage, even muting their heat signatures, so I’d have to monitor closely. I had a shrill-frequency emitter which would annoy the most likely hunters, but it would also give me away to any human observers. The stay-behinds were going to be the real problem.

I made it to the top of the ridge without seeing any troublemakers, but the worst of them wouldn’t be out hunting until after dark.

Twilight brought a dry evening wind. I refreshed the umbrella and took shelter near a break where three enormous boulders clustered together. I put out a ring of night-eyes, had half a ration for dinner—more than enough—watched the sun creep slowly into the horizon, watched all three moons tumbling through the dark, admired the sparkling ribbon across the sky. I never got tired of that view, but finally as the temperature dropped toward freezing, I curled up in my cocoon.

I slept fitfully. Occasional strange noises came echoing across the hills; howls and barks, grunts and whistles, but nothing close enough to set off an alarm. But that wasn’t the reason for my discomfort. I didn’t like this whole job, but there wasn’t anyone else who could do it.

The second day, travel was slower. I’d expected it. The terrain was rougher here, broken by gullies and arroyos and even a sharp canyon. I had to climb down one side, cross a rushing stream, then back up the other. I paused only to refill my canteens.

A storm in the north promised a flash flood. The air already smelled wet. When the rain finally came, I hunkered down beneath a sharp cliff where I’d be out of the scouring wind and water. The worst of the storm stayed far to the north and east, but the fringe was bad enough. I sheltered in place for hours. After the clouds passed, the ground dried quickly—the land was thirsty here. Rivulets found the path of least resistance, trickles turned into streams, and I followed them down.

By early afternoon, I had reached the broad savannah. Distant herds spotted the range and that meant there would be predators here, the biggest ones. The distant forest was still a line of dark blue on the horizon—it would be a long trek. I kept telling myself that once I got deep enough into the shelter of the trees, I should be fine. I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I’d get there. It would be okay.

The rex almost caught me by surprise.

The ground shook and the beast came rising up out of the high grass ahead of me. The flutterbys had missed it. The monster had been lying torpid in a rill, soaking up the heat of the day, invisible to their sensors while it slowly digested its most recent meal. I had come too close. My footsteps, light as they were, had disturbed it.

It grunted, blinking, looking for something to focus on. I yipped in surprise, suddenly aware that I was in the middle of a large open space with no place to hide and the distant trees too far to run to.

I could freeze where I was and hope it wouldn’t recognize me as prey. Or if it looked away, I could drop to the ground. I had weapons, but they weren’t designed to stop a creature that large. The animal had a stretched-out body, a long flat snout, and teeth as long as my legs. A rex usually ambled on four legs, but when it was searching for prey, it stood up on its thicker and taller hind-limbs. This one was standing up now.

I had one advantage: I could scramble around it faster than it could turn to follow. That kind of a contest would be decided by my endurance against the animal’s own frustration.

The rex moved.

It swung its wide head, first to one side, then to the other, regarding me with its right eye, then the left. Whatever thought processes sparkled in its tiny brain, it really had only three choices: eat, fight, or fuck. The first was always eat.

The beast dropped back to all four legs and lumbered toward me. It didn’t look fast, but that was an illusion—the thing was huge, a walking mountain of meat and bone. I had to make up my mind whether to dodge to the right or the left. My choice was impossible. It could lunge either way.

I did the smart-stupid thing. When it lunged, I flattened to the ground. Its jaws passed over me as I scrambled straight ahead, ducking beneath its long neck and between its tree-trunk legs and into the dark shadows beneath its wide belly, all the way to the high space between its rear legs. If I could stay underneath the monster, I could confuse it. In its eyes, I would have disappeared. I’d be safe for the moment—unless it suddenly decided to lie down again. Then I’d have to move fast. But if it looked around and couldn’t find me, lost interest and gave up—if it ambled off into the distance, I could flatten and wait. Or, if it turned around and spotted me again, we could start all over. These creatures weren’t stupid.

The creature grunted. Confused? Maybe. I don’t speak rex. It lifted up one front leg, then the other. It lowered its head and sniffed the ground in great shuddering inhalations. Not a good sign. It turned around slowly; I moved to stay beneath its hind legs. It was dangerous, but I could tell which way it was going to move by the way its tail was swinging and by the way it shifted its weight.

Now it roared in annoyance and started to step sideways, I jumped and dodged. Maybe it knew where I was. It turned around, it started forward—I moved with it, barely fast enough.

Not good.

It could amble at thirty klicks, or it could charge at fifty. I could barely do twelve, even in this lighter gravity. If it started forward, I could be exposed. A rex rarely walks in a straight line, it moves in a deliberate zig-zag pattern, swinging its head in a constant search for any prey that might have gone to ground.

I ducked beneath its swinging tail. I was out of its shadow and into the bright sun again. My one hope was to flatten out and scramble toward the distant trees. Or I could just run for it. Neither was a good option. If the rex saw me, no matter what I did I would still die tired.

The rex turned and saw me—

—and exploded!

A bright red flash hit the wall of the rex’s neck, gouts of flame splattered outward, and the beast staggered left, collapsed sideways, and disappeared in a flower of smoke and flame. The shockwave flung me back across the grass, flattening it beneath me as I slid.

For a long, confused moment, I wasn’t sure who I was, where I was, or what had happened—but the sky was a beautiful shade of blue. Or was it Cyan? Turquoise? Green? Whatever. It was nice. I could lie here forever—

A dark shape hulked above me. “You gonna get up?” it asked.

I didn’t answer. Instead, I rolled sideways, got my arms and legs under me and managed to stand. Turned and looked. I might have wobbled. The world was still ringing.

My eyes blurry, watering. I looked. Something large and scowling. Very large. It blocked the sun. Four meters tall, probably two and a half wide. Hard to tell under all that gear, which was mostly armor and weapons and whatnots. Obviously it was large. Larger than large. One of the largest of its kind. Impressive.

I stepped sideways and looked around him. Pieces of rex were still pattering down from the sky, bits of skin and bone and fragments of flesh. The stink was horrific.

Carrion eaters would feast easy today. They wouldn’t be long in arriving—as soon as the wind spread the smell of raw meat. There wouldn’t be a lot of snarling competition around the carcass, what was left of it. There was more than enough here for all of them. Large chunks of the rex had splattered everywhere across the savannah.

“You’re welcome,” said the hulk, as if that was sufficient. He stepped away, moving from one chunk of carcass to the next, looking for the right one. Finally, he pulled out a huge knife and began slicing at a larger chunk of meat. “Dinner,” he said.

“Yours. Not mine,” I said. I turned and headed toward the trees. Wanted to get away before the local equivalents of jackals arrived. Life is vicious everywhere. A pack of them would be even more dangerous than the rex.

The hulk shrugged and caught up with me.

“Don’t want company,” I said.

He pointed forward. “I’m going in this direction. You go wherever you want.” He waved left and right.

Wasn’t ready to argue. Not yet. Still too annoyed, mostly at myself for being caught by surprise. For needing to be rescued. Embarrassing. Had it been it a grief reaction? Loss fugue? Or just exhaustion? Whatever it was, it almost killed me. Reminded me to stay awake. Can’t depend on my stalker to be there next time.

He grunted. “My name is Constant.”

Didn’t answer, headed toward the trees. Mebbe we should settle this in the shade.

I wasn’t the only person who’d stayed behind. But I had a job to do. The rest of ’em—not the kind of people I wanted to be on the same planet with.

Peak population here had barely reached half a million. The evacuation had started eighteen months ago and even with long trains of pods coming from farther out on the portal lines. The stretch to the frontier goes out quite a way from some places, not here, only a few more stops to the last one. But enough. For a while pods from our upline were coming through twice a day, all of them adding to the evac from here. Less than four hundred thousand from this rock had gone downline. And the rest? That’s their choice.

With the downline portal down, there would be no possible connection to any of the other hundred worlds. This was permanent isolation (some people wanted that. No way to know how many), since evacuation meant a long journey downline through multiple portals till they found a stopping place, maybe even a new home, but evacuees would be refugees. They’d scatter across multiple worlds, wherever they could find opportunities. All their separate communities would disappear, ultimately forgotten.

So some people thought that staying behind was a better option. I’d met enough of them to know that I didn’t want to be here for that. Ornery, stubborn, cruel, and stupid. I could accept ornery and stubborn—I was mostly that myself. But cruel and stupid—? Just bad news.

This hulk lumbering beside me? Stubborn, yes. The other things? I didn’t know yet. I didn’t want to have to kill him. Not impossible, but probably difficult. Strong risk of injury.

I reached the trees by early afternoon. Found a shadowed place that looked safe enough to sit. He sat opposite, settling his enormous bulk onto the web of twisty roots that circled a gnarly tree. The limbs curved around his weight like a personally designed chair. He took out a ration bar, broke it in half. “Hungry?”

Okay, maybe not cruel.

I took the half-bar. Flavored sawdust, but better to eat his rations than mine. Drank a capful of water, didn’t offer him the canteen. Finally cleared my throat, looked across at him. “What do you want?”

“What do you have?”

“Don’t play games on me. You been following me—stalking—since the portal collapsed.”

“Good thing for you.”

“Mebbe. But you’re not very good. I’ve had eyes on you the whole time.”

“Really?” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of crushed flutterbys. He held them out for me to see.

“Yes, really.” I reached into my own pocket, pulled out what looked like dust—a small cloud of skeeter-bots. I flung them in his direction. “These are harder to catch.”

“I knew about those. Didn’t mind ’em much. Let you think you knew something.”

“I knew something. I spotted you a month before I headed south.”

“Been tracking you longer than that.”

“You were hiding in the noise. Too much chatter to filter out. But not well enough. You’re too big. You stuck out. Didn’t know you were tracking me then, coz of the evacuation, but this last month? Sure. So answer the question. What do you want?”

“You needed my help,” he said. “Might even need it again.”

I could have argued that, but it would have sounded stupid. I’d gotten too close to that rex and I was probably going to spend a few long nights rehearsing and examining that mistake.

“My turn,” he said. “You were tracking me, why?”

“Because you were tracking me. Again—why?”

He scratched himself. Possibly wondering if he should answer. Apparently not. “I’m going to sleep now,” he said. He settled himself on the gnarly branches and closed his eyes.

I wasn’t going to waste daylight. As quietly as I could, I gathered my gear and headed north. I wanted to get through the thickest part of the woods while I still had daylight.

Three hours later, he caught up with me. Didn’t say anything, just plodded along beside me. I could feel the weight of every step he took. Probably easier to have him beside me than behind me.

But that would mean we’d have to talk. Even if neither of us wanted to.

We got to the hills above Bias Station in late afternoon, not yet twilight. We stopped below the crest, dropped down flat and crawled just far enough forward to peer through the grass. The dome had scorch marks and even a few gouges where something had attacked it. Whoever or whatever, they hadn’t gotten in.

I backed down to the nearest cluster of gnarlies. He followed.

“You stay here,” I said.

“You think someone inside?”

“Five. Two large, three small.”

He didn’t ask how I knew. Instead, “You have plan?”

“My plan is you stay here.” I unbuckled my gear, pulled off my boots. Peeled off jacket, shirt, body armor, unders, kilt, trousers. Stripped naked, I smeared dirt all over my body, unbound my hair and finger-brushed it all askew.

Constant watched, possibly skeptical, possibly bemused. “You … very small,” he said.

“You just notice that?”

“Your armor, your jacket, your boots, all the rest of your gear—make you look larger.”

“Might say the same about you.” I tossed my amulets aside. Now it was just my bare skin and a ragged blanket, the leftover threads of a poncho.

“That’s your plan?”

I looked at him, a tower of muscles and armament, three meters high. “You think they open door for you, even without your gear? No. So you stay here.”

I staggered down the hill, tripping and falling and finally tumbling clumsily to the bottom of the slope. When I got back up, slowly and painfully, I limped to the dome, clutching my side, wailing. Circling the dome, looking for the door—I finally found it and began crying and pounding, all in low-country accent, uneducated. “’Eelp mae! ’Eelp! Anyone? You ’afta be there! ’Eelp mae, pleese! Pleese!” I kept it up for the longest time. Long enough to be a nuisance.

At last, the outer door slid part way open. Just enough for a glimpse of a gaunt face. “Go away.”

“Pleese! Almost night! Freeze out here. ’Eelp me! An’ I eelp yah! Know things, I do. Let mae in, pleese?”

“No.” The outer door slid shut.

Right. I resumed pounding, wailing, shrieking. “Monser affer mae! ’Eelp mae! Pleese!”

The door opened again, this time a little further, still not far enough. “Who you?”

“Noddy. Nodding. Missed alla portal. Got nodding, no one. Looka mae. Can’t ’urt you. Just need a warm place for a night, or mebbe two. Can eelp, reelly.”

“Wait—” The door closed again. This time a lot longer. I started pounding again. “Gedding colder, pleese?”

Finally, the outer door opened and two skinnies stepped out, a large and a small. The door slid shut behind them. Squatters. Both looked haggard. Thin. Dirty. Not eating well. The large handed me a blanket, not much better than the one I wore. I clutched it, fumbled it around my shoulders. “Tankily, much tankily.”

“No food you,” the small said. “Ain’t none.”

“Just a warm place for sleep? Be gone morning?”

They looked at each other. The small shook her head. The large said, “Can’t.” He pointed. “You go now. Go.”

Thought about crying. Decided not to. Wouldn’t work on these two—selfish. I’d have to take them down.

But the door was closed behind them. Problematic. I really needed to get in.

And then Constant rose up. Up from the grass. Covered with mud and leaves, looking like something out of a marshy swamp. But the railgun was real. Red dots glowed on both of the squatters. He stepped up beside me.

“You folks, inside!” he called, his voice amplified, booming like thunder. “All you out now. Or I kill these two.”

“Won’t work,” the skinny large said.

Constant ignored them. “Everybody out and nobody gets hurt. Sacred promise.” And then, still aiming with his left arm, he held up his right—a gleaming token, a badge, perched in his beefy hand. “Portal authority!”

“Portal down,” said the small. “Authority meaningless now.”

“Not to me.” He raised his voice again. “Everybody out or the station goes down. I can do it. Thirty seconds. Don’t think. Don’t talk. Out now.”

I didn’t expect it to work, but the doors of the dome, both outer and inner, slid open. One large, two small—hey came out slowly, raising their hands to show they were weaponless.

“Alla smart,” Constant gestured with the weapon. “Line up here.”

The second large grumbled into place. “Told yah. Shouldna opened. Now we’re dead.”

“No one’s dead,” Constant said. “You listen, you live. Just want—something.” He looked to me. “You know where it is?”

Nodded.

“Go get it.”

“I go with,” said the grumbling large. “Make sure, no steal.”

Constant snorted. “Squatters, alla you! No voice, no argue!”

“No, it’s okay,” I said, abandoning my low-country accent. “Let ’em see. Just want one thing, then we go. Right?”

“You sure?”

Nodded.

“Okay, go.” He pointed to the large. “You be good. No good, I get mad. Everybody die. Especially you. Very painfully. Long time too.”

The grumbly one followed me into the dome. It was a mess inside. Not like I remembered. Trash everywhere. Things broken, piled high. And it smelled bad too. Unwashed and sick. Bad cess. I wasn’t going to stay anyway. Just grab and go.

Grumbly followed, all the way around to the service bay. Wires were hanging loose, everything powered down. I expected that. Whatever happened here, not good.

“What you want anyway?” Grumbly asked.

I ignored him, pushed some wires out of the way, counted squares on the panel behind. Three down, two over. I put my hand on the square, waited. Nothing happened. Took my hand away, then put it back. Waited longer. Still nothing. Hmm.

I slapped the square hard. Once, twice, three times. The third time, something behind the wall clicked. The square popped open, a drawer slid out.

I reached in, felt around.

Yes. Found it. A wooden box. Just big enough to fill my hand. Something heavy inside.

“What you got there?! Give me!” Grumbly grabbed my arm—

I let him live.

I picked up the box from the floor. It didn’t look damaged. Sealed tight, fancy designs all over.

Grumbly was still rolling around on the floor clutching his stomach and moaning. “Why you do that. Just wanta see.”

“Not yours, no look. Big mistake. Now you get up. We go out.”

Grumbly pulled himself up with his one good arm. The other hung limp, broken. He stumbled outside where the air was a lot fresher. I followed, carefully carrying the box.

Constant looked at Grumbly, looked to me, noted the box, then looked back to Grumbly. “He give you bad time?”

“No. He just stupid. Station a mess. Stinks inside.”

Constant scratched his neck, thinking. “Want me kill him?”

“Let them go. I have what I want.”

“Don’t like skinnies,” he said. “And you—” he pointed at Grumbly, holding his broken arm. “I see you try something. Make me very mad.”

“No, pleese! No kill—”

Constant shook his head. “No kill. Shut!” He waited till they fell silent again. “But I gone blow this station. Alla you go.”

He pointed again to Grumbly and the two smalls who came out with him. “You go that way. Go fast and no get hurt. No come back.” He pointed to the other two, the large and small who came out first. “And you go other way. Same thing. Go fast. No get hurt. Go far.” He motioned with the railgun. “Go now! Go!”

They all looked at each other, realized he was serious, then broke for the trees. Grumbly started to curse, looked at me, thought better of it, clutched his arm and limped away in pain, the two smalls helping him.

Constant lowered his rifle. “You good?”

Nodded. “You gone blow this station really?”

“Nah. Just lock it up good. They come back, they don’t get in.” He tapped at his badge. “Big mess inside?”

“Very.”

He tapped some more. “Okay. Repair bots online. They fix. Power first, then repairs. Synthesizers too. Month from now—maybe two, three—good as new. You come back then, eh?”

“Don’t think so.”

“Eh?”

“Gotta do what I gotta do.” I turned and headed back up the hill. Constant put his badge away and followed.

By the time I finished cleaning off the worst of the dirt and pulled my clothes back on, darkness had fallen. Not safe to travel at night. Not easy either. Constant built a fire and put the slice of rex on a spit. We sat opposite each other, watching the embers rise through the smoke.

“Think they’ll come back?” he asked.

I finished tugging on my boots. “Probbly. Squatters. That what they do.”

He pointed at the engraved box next to me. “Why that important? Can I ask?”

“Ask. I won’t answer.”

“Okay.” He stirred the fire with a stick. “You wanna talk anything else?”

“No.”

“I do gotta ask this. Why you walk. Why not a flyer?”

Shrug. “If I fly, you not follow.”

“You want me follow?”

“Easier to kill you if I know where you are. I mean, if I have to.”

“Still think that?”

“Mebbe. Now my turn to ask. Why are you here?”

“Following you.”

“No. Not that. Why you stay? Portal open long time. Why no go?”

“Same thing you. Gotta do what gotta do.”

“What that?”

He pointed at me. “You. Gotta do you.”

“Don’t need you.”

“Gotta dead rex that says other. And those skinnies too. You mebbe good, but you alone.”

I didn’t answer that.

“I’m right, aren’t I?”

Didn’t answer that either.

Long silence. Finally, “They called you Duty. That your real name?”

“Who’s they? They who hired you?”

“Not hired. Assigned.” He tapped his chest, indicating his badge. Portal Authority. “Coulda said no. Coulda gone.”

“But …?”

“No place to go. All I know is here. Why you?”

“You already know. I gotta do what I gotta do.”

“You closed the portal.”

“Somebody had to.”

“You know why?”

“Complicated.”

“We got time. Meat ain’t done yet.”

Too much to explain. And not to him. Not yet. Mebbe never. His language doesn’t have the words for it. Not even the grammar.

I don’t do portal mechanics anyway. I know only what everyone knows: set the coordinates out to the umptillionth digital of pi, resolution fine enough to measure the circumference of the universe out to the width of a quantum particle. But there’s still an infinity of irrationalities beyond that … so every time the techs open a new portal, no matter how carefully calibrated, it’s always a gamble. Sometimes the portal opens to vacuum, sometimes to the core of a planet, or worse—a star. So when you find a barren rock, like a vacant moon or a large asteroid, any good place to stand, you use it. You go through and set up shop where playing portal roulette won’t accidentally destroy half a continent. You keep doing it until you find a home-like world, then lay tracks, send pods, and the portal tree grows another branch upline. Expensive and time-consuming, but the reward to risk ratio is compelling. A whole new planet, right?

Between here and anywhere, this world and all the worlds downline, there are a lot of barren asteroids serving as spacers, with tracks running out of one hole in space and into another, linking a good place with the next good place upline—each asteroid a connecting link in the branch. Mostly safe, but not this time. The asteroid between here and the rest of downline—they say it’s about to get vaporized by an expanding red giant. This branch of the line and everything upline from here will be broken off. Isolated.

There are several worlds upline from here—only a few, none very well settled, most still getting explored, so no big investment there, not much population to lose. Less than a million. But this place—? It’s sorta settled. Find enough ornery, stubborn people—they’ll stay in spite.

It was just too much to explain, and I don’t like to talk anyway. But he wanted an answer, so I said, “If you really Authority, you already know.”

“It ain’t the truth.” He didn’t explain. “Want some rex?” He cut off a thick slice, bigger than three of me could eat, and held it out, stuck on the end of his knife.

I took it carefully. Still hot. Not bad. I could save the rest for later.

“Ever have chicken?” he asked.

“No.”

“Tastes like rex.” He added, “But everything tastes like rex. Everything here.”

“You been elsewhere?”

He shook his head. “No need.”

And that was as much conversation as either of us had. Constant kicked out the fire and we bedded down for the night. Him on his side, me on mine.

In the morning we headed west.

We had to detour around the trailing members of a herd of grassbeasts. A pack of stalkers followed the herd and an outlier came sniffing, but the rest ignored us. Caution slowed us down. Proceed carefully, stay safe. Remember the rex.

By midday, we could smell the ocean, an hour later we reached the shore. The tide was out, so we walked on wet sand, easier than pushing across the dunes. In the distance, a jumble of cliffs stretched sideways, pointing further north and west. We’d go up there, turn inland.

That was where they ambushed us. The skinnies. The two larges from Bias Station and fourteen more. They’d been hiding in the marsh where the flutterbys and skeeter-bots couldn’t detect them. Smart. Dangerously smart.

They outnumbered us. Seven surrounded us with spears and rifles. Nine more in a larger circle around them. They looked hungry and gaunt. Hard times. We might take out three or four, maybe more, but not all. Not with some behind us.

Standoff.

Grumbly, his arm tied up now, studied us. “You no kill. We no kill. Honor, yes? What in box? Give.”

“It won’t do you any good,” I said.

“Important to you? Important to me. Give.”

Looked to Constant. A question. What do we do?

He leaned toward me. “What he wants—is it worth dying for?”

“Truth? No.”

“Then give.”

That surprised me. “Don’t want to fight?”

“Don’t want to die.”

“Not a good day for it,” I agreed.

Turned back to Grumbly. “Okay. I give.” Took box out slowly. Placed it on the ground between us, stepped back.

Grumbly picked up the box, shook it, held it to his ear, listened. “Heavy,” he said. He tried to pull it open, tried to twist it open, eyed it angrily.

“That won’t work,” I said.

“Why?”

“It has to be opened the right way.”

“Tell me.”

“Can’t. No have words.”

He didn’t like that answer, but he accepted it. He put the box back down. He pointed at it. “You open.” Then he backed away. All of them took a few steps back.

Glanced to Constant. He nodded. I stepped forward and bent to the ground. The box wasn’t locked, but the top had to be twisted around until all the top and bottom symbols matched, meshed, and clicked—then twisted once more to unlock. I pulled the top open and stepped back. Way back. Constant too.

Grumbly approached suspiciously.

He peered into the box. Frowned. Reached slowly. Touched. Grabbed. Lifted. All the skinnies leaned forward to look. Constant too.

A gray metallic disk—no, not a disk—a roll of shining ribbon. Inscribed with square markings. He frowned at it. “What this?” He held it out to me, accusing. “Explain!”

“It’s a message,” I said. “For a machine. A bot.”

“What it say?”

“Don’t know. Don’t know what it says.”

“Important, yes?”

“Must be, yes.”

“Trade for money? Food?”

“Probbly. If you can get it to—” I looked to Constant. “Should I tell him?” He nodded. Back to Grumbly. “Blue Tower. You know Blue Tower? Up where the ice glows?”

He grunted. “East. Long walk east.”

“Very long walk. Okay, you no go. Give back?”

Grumbly snorted. “I keep.” He started to tuck the shining roll into his jacket.

“Don’t you want the box?”

He kicked it away. “Ugly thing. Can’t open it.” He pointed to Constant. “You have food, yes? Give now. Then go. Both.”

“He wants the rest of the rex.”

“I spent a long time smoking that meat.”

“Is it worth dying for?”

“Truth? No.”

“Then give.”

He unloaded the slab of meat and laid it on the sand. The skinnies grabbed it and vanished into the bushes as fast as they had appeared.

Constant looked at me. “Now what?”

I scooped up the box, closed it and tucked it into my coat. “We go on.”

“Really?”

“Gotta do what I gotta do.”

“Without the spool?”

“Annoying. Not fatal.”

“Explain?”

“No.”

We headed inland, away from the ocean now. Skinnies had to be watching, following until we were well away from their land.

We didn’t stop until hunger stopped us. Ration bars, barely enough. We pushed on until evening, made camp in the rain forest. Wet winds came in hard, bringing damp smells and fog. We climbed into the higher branches and strung hammocks. Fell asleep listening for prowlers and weezils—especially weezils. They can ooze right up next to you without a sound. Hammocks have alarms, loud: shake awake like a quake. Most weezils shriek and drop. Most. So slept with gun.

We stayed wrapped long after dawn, waiting for morning to warm. Climbed down, found a shower tree, and stripped off. I hadn’t washed since Bias Station; still felt dirty. Constant stripped down too.

Shower trees are convenient. The midnight rains pool up in the leaves, water trickling down until the broadest leaves at the bottom hold great reservoirs. They fill, they overflow. Stand under the right branch, you get a shower. Scrub for a bit, then stand under the next and rinse. Repeat until clean. Or until tree is dry. The mud around the tree can be deep, but there are usually pools to wash my feet.

I stood naked in the sun to dry off. Constant too. The big hulk stood apart, looking at me. Didn’t look back. Didn’t want to know. But he watched me.

Finally, I turned to him. “What?”

“Nothing. Just looking.”

“Why?”

“Never seen a small naked.”

“Now you have. Stop looking.”

“Make you nervous?”

“No.”

Constant hesitated. “Duty?”

“What?!”

“You ever do it with a large?”

“Never done it with anyone. Turned it off before it started.” A thought occurred to me. “You?”

Constant looked away for a moment, then back. “Yes. Have three babies. Two mine, one contract. All went downline. I promise to follow. But—” He stopped.

Long silence.

I looked over. “Am I supposed to say sorry now?”

“Only if you mean it.”

“It was your choice to stay.”

“No one else could. No—that’s not right. No one else was—”

“What?”

Constant cleared his throat. “Do you speak interlingua?”

Huh?

Interlingua? The portal engineers’ language? Stared at him. This large was not what I thought he was. He stared back, waiting for me to reply.

“You already know that. Or assumed.”

“This is what I know. When they asked me to stay—when they said I should stay—I said I would stay only if they told me the truth. So they did. And it doesn’t matter if I tell you now because the portal’s gone. The story they told everyone about the evacuation? It’s a lie. The real reason—there’s something wrong about this place, it does something to us. It changes us, every generation. That’s why some of us breed large and others breed small and too many are skinny. And some are other things too. It affects us up here—” He tapped his fingers on the side of his head.

Kept my face still. Had to consider this. Maybe. Not impossible. But— “It’s all theories and chatter, yes? Symbiotic evolution. Mutable genetics. Ecological reflection. Nobody knows.”

“Yes. No—maybe. Nobody knows. Synergistic interaction probably. But whatever, it doesn’t just change bodies. It changes brains too. Especially the skinnies—they’re not people anymore. We don’t think like downliners, none of us. That’s why downline ordered the portal closed. They don’t want us spreading down.”

“But then, why the evacuation—?”

“Yeah, that. All those people gone downline—all into permanent quarantine. A dead-end world. All those pods went on a one-way trip. Whatever it is, downline wants to contain it, study it, take it apart and maybe find out how to control it. So they can design specific forms of … of whatever we are. The large ones—like me. Not just to adapt to other worlds, but to invade them. Now you know why I stayed. You understand?”

I didn’t answer. If Portal Authority had lied to all the evacuees, they would just as easily lie to Constant. But I didn’t say that.

“And you? Why did you stay?”

“Because I’m Duty—”

And stopped there.

Didn’t finish the sentence. Didn’t finish the thought. I was not ready to talk about it. I hiked back to where I’d hung my clothes to dry, shook them out, and dressed in silence. A moment later, Constant followed. “You okay?”

“No.”

“Should I say I’m sorry?”

“Why?” I pulled on my jacket. Looked up and up. Looked to his eyes. “When you asked if I’d done it, I thought we were going to have the conversation about you and I doing it. The conversation we did have—that wasn’t the conversation I expected. Or wanted to have. It changes things. Mebbe things between us.”

“Is that what you wanted? That conversation?”

“No. I dunno. Woulda said no. Gotta think this out. No more talk now.”

We were only half a day from the end. We filled our canteens and headed north and west to Green Valley where the grass was taller than Constant. A good place to be caught by a prowler. We stayed in the foothills, above the highest.

The north end of the valley narrowed to a high rocky canyon, not quite a dead-end, but not an easy passage either. No matter. We weren’t going the distance. Halfway up, we came to an old wooden shack tucked in the space between two huge boulders and the cliff wall. The door squeaked, then fell open. Inside, a chair, a fallen table, some leftover parts of broken things.

“This is it?” asked Constant.

“This is it,” I said.

He looked around, frowning. “Don’t see why.”

I shrugged out of my gear, dropping it all to the floor. “Now we wait.”

“For what?”

“For me to decide.”

“Decide what?”

“If I have to kill you.”

“Doubt you could.”

“Hard, yes. Not impossible. Things you don’t know. Things they didn’t tell you. Gonna sleep now.” I looked around, found a place less dirty, spread hammock as a rug, stretched out on the floor. Stared at the ceiling. Thick webs, looking like veils, hung from the rafters. Just as dead as the rest of the cabin.

“Duty?”

“What?”

“What’s to keep me from killing you? While you sleep?”

“You could. But then you’d never know why we’re here. Or what I know.” I turned off and slept.

Darkness woke me. And cold too. I sat up and looked around.

Constant was gone. All the tracking bots were negative.

Probably had enough of me. Fair choice. Easier without him.

I boiled water for tea. Drank slowly. Waited for dawn. Finally stepped outside to pee and looked around, walked out into the canyon. Up and down. No Constant. Not even footprints.

Sat down to think.

Constant couldn’t have known everything. But he had to know more than he had already said. Or he wouldn’t have stayed with me. Protected me. So he knew something … more. I just didn’t know what.

But he left for a reason. So why? What did that mean? That I didn’t need him anymore? Or that he had gotten what he wanted—this location. Even if he didn’t know why.

So if this was what he wanted to know, he’d be back.

And probably not friendly. I should have killed him when I had the chance.

Too many mysteries. Too much to think about. Most of it unnecessary. I’d been given a task, been given a tight focus—so tight that I’d missed the rex. So tight that I’d missed why Constant was here. Assigned to me, yes—by who? Protection because—? Too many questions. Distracting. But I knew one thing now. They shouldn’t have focused me so tightly.

Time to go. I gathered my gear from the cabin, strapped up, checked myself—confidence was high, everything green—and headed down the canyon.

The sounds of flyers stopped me, seven of them dropping down from the sky. An entire combat team, Constant in the lead.

I dropped my gear and waited. Put my hands on top of my head. “Surrender,” I said. “I surrender.”

“Why?” said Constant.

“You brought troops.”

“Thought you might need them.”

“Oh.” I put my hands down. Picked up my gear.

He fumbled in his robe. “Thought you might need this.” He held up the roll of shining metal ribbon, then he tucked it away.

“Did you kill them?”

“Only the one. Didn’t like him anyway. He took my meat.”

“Not his fault. Didn’t know better. Hungry. Desperate.”

“Well, not anymore.” Constant pointed to the other larges behind him. “These are my brothers.”

“Obvious.”

Constant said, “Talk honest, you and I?” He pointed down the canyon. I followed. After a bit, after he was sure we were out of earshot, he stopped. He looked to me, an accusation in his eyes. “You know things.”

“Most of them hurt.”

“Most of life is hurt.”

“You don’t know what things are true.”

“Do you?”

“Probbly not.”

Constant frowned. “Tell me what you know. We’ll think it together.”

Fair enough. “Agree. Ask.”

“Why the rex?”

“Wanted to pass it. Wanted you to wake it.”

“Wanted it to kill me?”

“Mebbe. Didn’t know who you were.”

“Why Bias Station?”

“I had to hide it somewhere safe until retrieval. Bias was closest.”

“It’s important?”

“It’s useful. It lets me leave.”

“Leave to where?”

“Upline.”

Constant registered shock. “Not possible. Upline portal shut down months ago.”

“There’s another upline. Unauthorized.”

“Not possible. Portal Authority would have detected—”

“Yes, they knew. The stress field disturbance couldn’t be hidden. But location could be. Made them crazy.”

Constant stopped, confused. His expression collapsed, became unreadable. He looked like he wanted to say something. Or do something. Instead, he turned around and howled at the sky. A long moan of frustration and rage. Did his brothers hear him? Would they come now?

When he finally came back, he must have seen the question on my face. He said, “No fear. We howl in private. It’s our way.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“I trusted you. I showed you my pain. Now you trust me. Tell me everything. I have no more howl.”

I thought about it. Didn’t matter anymore. Why not? “Portal Authority lies. Portal Authority has big secrets. But others have bigger.”

“Do they lie too? The others?”

“Probbly. Secrets hide behind lies. Bigger secrets hide behind bigger lies.”

“You know these secrets?”

“Only the smallest part.”

Constant held out a corner of his robe, as if it was more than a robe. “Unraveling starts with a single thread.”

“Depends on where you pull. So pull here. Portal Authority—that story they told you? About the unknown genetic shift? Was that a lie on top of a lie? Nobody knows. But think this. Mebbe they don’t want larges downline. Larges are the biggest change of all. You be a threat, just by existing.”

“We don’t fit downline. Not go.”

“Convenient.”

“Was not expecting portal to close. Not what we were told.”

“More lies, more secrets.”

“What was Portal Authority hiding? Do you know.”

“Only guesses. Portal Authority couldn’t find this upline. Too well hidden. So probably dangerous. How far does this upline extend? Who’s up there? Big unknown. Mebbe invasion? Mebbe monsters? Mebbe disease? Much to fear. They were even more afraid when their agents disappeared. Portal Authority isn’t just this world. It’s the whole branch. They couldn’t find upline. So they had to close downline to cut off the whole branch.”

Constant’s expression darkened. For a long moment he looked dangerous. But he’d asked for the truth— “How can I know you’re not lying?”

“Mebbe it’s all lies. Mebbe there’s some truth. Mebbe we can’t know. There’s only this … I did what I gotta do. So did you. We both been used. We were useful. Now we’re not.”

“Used. Yes.”

“Now, your turn, Constant. Tell me. Why were you following me for so long?”

“Assignment. They said you were going to illegal upline. I was to follow you, find the station, destroy it, and kill you. But then downline shut down. So Portal Authority is over. Nothing else to do, so I follow anyway. Now I know. Is this the upline I have to close? But why now, if downline gone? Very confusing. Do I still have to destroy it?”

“You don’t have to. I’m going to. After I go through. Unless you kill me first. Then you can destroy it. If you find it.”

“Hmp. Thought you were logical.”

“Could say the same about you. So here we are. Used and useless. Lies and secrets over. Nothing left. Still want to kill me? Want to try?”

“Haven’t seen upline station yet. Will decide then. Are there larges up there?”

“Yes. Everyone who disappeared. All the missing. Even larges. All recruited. Yes.”

“Recruited?”

“Yes.”

“So my brothers and I can be useful again?”

“Yes.”

Constant turned and lumbered away. He headed off to talk with his brothers. He was gone a long time. I wondered if he’d forgotten me. Or if they were talking about leaving. But before the sun had moved too far, he came back.

“Question. Recruit us? Me, my brothers too? Can you?”

“Will you take the oath? It is an oath more binding than any you have ever sworn before.”

“Tell me.”

“Will you do what you gotta do? That’s the oath. The rest is details.”

“Hmp. Too easy.”

“You think so. Do you swear?”

“I swear. I will do what I gotta do.”

“And your brothers?”

“They will swear it too.”

“I’ll hold you to that. Because once we get upline, this portal will be vaporized too. This world will be cut off forever.”

“Leave it to the skinnies then.”

“Skinnies have feelings.”

He didn’t want to hear that. “They don’t have feelings for people who aren’t skinnies.”

“Maybe one day they’ll figure that out. Maybe not. Go talk to your brothers. Tell them everything. If they want to come, I’ll take you. All or none.”

He came back. “They don’t believe there’s a portal.”

“But will they come?”

“Prove you can open it, they’ll come.”

“Follow me.”

“If there’s no portal, they’ll kill you.”

“If there’s no portal, they should. Follow me.”

We went back up to the cabin, crowded now with all those larges inside. I faced the back wall where it leaned up against the cliff. Constant held out the ribbon. “Need this?”

“Nope. Just a decoy. Just in case.” I pulled the box out of my jacket, twisted the top around so a different set of symbols lined up. Pressed the box against a ragged splotch of gray.

Nothing happened.

“Nothing’s happening.”

“Wait.”

“If something doesn’t happen—”

“Wait!”

Behind us, the larges were restless. Muttering.

I turned and faced them. “What do you want? The portal or my corpse? Choose now. Do it or shut up and wait!” Turned to Constant. “Tell them!”

He grunted something in a language I didn’t recognize. But the intent was clear. The others fell silent.

I pushed past them to the chair, plopped myself down. “These things take time. Safety scan. Identity check. Then power up. Energize. Handshake. Synchronization. All that, then more. Then, when confidence get high enough, then mebbe things happen.”

“How long?”

“Long as it takes. Day or two or three, mebbe. You brought food?”

“Three days,” the largest one said. “Three days. If not three days, you die, we go.”

“If not open in three days, I kill myself. You won’t have to.”

“No,” he insisted. “My job. My pleasure.”

But it wasn’t three days. Only two and a half.

It began with a queasy sensation, then a deep note that got bigger until the whole canyon was rumbling. The walls of the cabin opened, flattening outward. The boulders that sheltered it rolled back with a great grinding sound. The cliff face cracked, slid open, revealing a deep cavern.

Inside, more great doors. Huge. And a rack of travel pods, just waiting to roll down to the tracks. One by one, they clicked to life, their lights gleaming blue.

Constant moved forward in cautious awe. His brothers followed slowly, looking up and around as if they’d never seen a portal lock before.

I came up beside him. “Believe me now?”

He turned around, towering over me. “Believe you now.” He leaned down to ask quietly. “A question, Duty. What up there?”

“A whole new world.”

“You want me to follow you?”

“Do you want to?”

“We good for each other, yes?”

Looked up at him. Up and up. Finally smiled. “Yes.”

That startled him, but he recovered. All business again. “World harder than this one?”

“Much harder. It’ll hurt.”

“Good.” He straightened and waved to his brothers. “Let’s go!”

 

Copyright © 2022 by David Gerrold.