Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

Sympathy of a Gun
    by Gary Kloster

Sympathy of a Gun
Artwork by Anna Repp

Twenty miles outside Sarasota, I stopped the motorcycle and puked my guts out on the highway. My stomach roiled at the smell, vomit cooking on hot asphalt, the bitter stench overlapping the sweet rot reek of the dead. I retched again, then I heard them coming. Fighting the nausea, I stood and waited to see if they would take me this time.

Their buzzing was high and thin, like the whine of a distant power line, but when they surrounded me it was all I heard. Tiny wings stroked my skin, and their blue-black bodies, brimming with poison, bumped and blundered against me. They touched me, judged me, and again found me somehow unworthy. The swarm flew on, and left me shaking and alone to clench my teeth against a new wave of nausea that had nothing to do with morning sickness.

"Damn you," I whispered when the feeling finally passed, and though I hadn't spoken in two days my voice was still raw from screaming. I opened my eyes and went to the motorcycle, reached out and flipped on the radio. "-- shelter and safety for you there. If you are a survivor in south Florida, please go to Miami. There is --" I snapped it off. "Damn you too." A flock of buzzards started up shrieking from the corpses in the westbound lanes as the cycle's motor thundered to life and I moved on, driving toward the rising sun.

The air in the rest stop was trapped and stifling, but blessedly free from the taint of decay. There were bodies outside, ones the gators hadn't yet dragged away, but no one had died inside. With the rain beginning to hammer down I stepped in, cradling a crowbar as I headed toward the vending machines. I was almost to them when I saw the broken glass, the spilled snacks and soda, and stopped. I turned my head and saw her, huge and wrapped in pink, hunched on the bench across the room. Her eyes were bright with pain and loss. "Hey," she whispered, voice almost lost in the rain. "You want a coke?"

Her name was Belle. Tanned and blond, nine months along in her third pregnancy. "My family's dead," she told me, wrapped in the calm of her shock. "We was out, and Johnny'd cracked the windows cause he was smoking. It got in, and I heard June, little June, say something about a wasp . . ." It took awhile for her to tell it. One blue-black wasp, death on small wings, it killed them all. Left her alone, surrounded by a family slumped still in their seats, left her to scream and run from the car out into the honking traffic, looking for help. That's when the sky fell, when a million-million shining wasps swept down the street and silenced them all, left her alone among the running engines and falling glass and quiet dead.

"You going to Miami?" she asked me when she was done, when her tears had stopped. "You going cause of what they say on the radio?"


"Oh." Belle shifted, looked me over. "How far along are you? You don't show."

"Couple of months. How'd you know?"

Belle shrugged. "That's all who's left, I think. Why we're not dead."

"What?" I spread my fingers across the still flat sweep of my belly. Belle was the first living person I had seen after the first day of the wasps. I had wondered, was I the only one? And why. Why?

"One of my neighbors, Sara, she was pregnant. Almost as far along as me. When I made it back to the apartment . . ." She shook her head, fighting memories. "Sara saw me come in, she talked to me. Came into my place, 'cause her boyfriend was dead on her couch."

"What happened to Sara?"

"Oh, she killed herself. Jumped off the balcony. I thought about that, but with the baby . . ." She rubbed her great belly, like I'd touched mine. "I went to a hospital, to the nursery, to see if there was anyone else."

"And?" I didn't really want to know, but it seemed wrong not to hear it all.

"They were dead too, the whole place, the mamas and babies and daddies and doctors. There was a woman. I think she came in during it all, when everyone was dying. Must have been in labor. She was in a room, all alone, her and her baby. The wasps killed them both, killed them after the girl was born. Dead in her mother's arms, cord still on. Why do you think they'd do that?" Her pupils were wide as wells, dark, lost as she traced the rain slipping down the windows.

"I'll ask them when I get to Miami."

"You think it's them, on the radio? The ones who brought the wasps?"

"I think so." I stopped looking at her, my eyes blurring. I wanted to be done with tears. Tears and corpses, that's all there was anymore. And wasps, blue-black wasps that killed everyone but me, Belle, and a woman called Sara because in our bellies we carried another generation to be destroyed.

"Me, too. That's why I'm not going. Why go to the devil? He can come to me."

"I'm going." Lightning jagged its way across the sky, bright fire through the rain, and I remembered . . .

The day after everyone died, I'd taken a motorcycle I barely knew how to ride and headed out to the suburbs, looking for a house. I'd been there once for a Halloween party, dressed like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, a little sexy for him but safe enough for a party with partners, staff, his wife. I'd found the house on its empty street, the only sound the mournful howling of a dog in some distant yard.

Going in, I hadn't been able to break the silence with his name. Up the stairs, past the photos of his family, I crept by the echoes of his life. Pretty wife, pretty kids, a pretty, happy life. What we'd done was just something on the side for us, never meant to be anything more than a secret, guilty pleasure. I'd never gotten the nerve to tell him I was pregnant. Who wanted to have that talk, about birth control and its failure rates? Who wanted to talk about what was to be done? I hadn't wanted to face it.

Past the doors to his kids' rooms, glad they were closed, and I had entered the master suite. Only a day gone, so you could almost pretend they were asleep, curled on the bed together. I looked for just a minute, and walked away. I wasn't even sure why I'd gone there. What else was there to do? I stopped just long enough to get a can of gasoline from their garage and splashed it across the wooden floor of their foyer. I didn't want to think of them rotting alone in the heat of that house, so I made a pyre of it and rode away, listening to the calm voice that had started to fill every radio band, hoping the bright fire would spread across all the houses of the dead and carry them up on a dark pillar into the sky, to fall again with the rain.

At the rest stop, when the sky finally cleared, I left Belle and went on to Miami.

Nearing Miami, where the interstate traded saw grass for strip mall, the road opened up. Long miles of death and wreckage gave over to clear pavement. I stopped at the edge of the emptiness and stared down the road at the white stiletto shaped thing that rested before the next interchange, blocking the lanes. It had only tiny, stubby wings, but it was something made to fly, curved and shaped to cut the air. I'd never seen anything like it. Before it, almost lost in the gleaming waves of heat that rose from the dark pavement, someone stood. Someone? Something? It was indistinct and unknowable in the glare, and my mouth went dry with fear as I watched it, knowing it watched me in return. Behind me, the dead waited in silence.

"Enough," I groaned. I pushed off with my foot and let the bike rumble closer, until I could see.

She was tall and perfect. Her skin was olive, her hair the dark gleam of a raven's wing spilling down over her shoulders and back, and her eyes . . . Golden eyes, like sun on water, like the eyes of the alligators that had watched me pass as they gorged on corpses. Her body was draped in a simple white dress, but I could see she was flawless, a goddess from out of men's dreams. Perfection proclaimed her heritage. She couldn't be human, and that sure knowledge made me tremble as I stopped the bike and stepped off it, facing her.

The last echoes of the engine's low thunder faded and the city grew silent around us but for the low sigh of the wind and the lonely cries of birds. When the woman-shaped thing stepped toward me, the quiet made the soft music of her voice easy to hear.

"Call me Hera," she said. "I've come to take you somewhere safe."

"Safe." I didn't want to look at her beauty, so I stared around at the empty buildings. "Safe. Okay. But not yet."

"What's wrong?" Her words were purest sympathy, and that frightened me, too.

"Wrong?" The first day, when the wasps had circled through the city like a black blizzard, leaving behind drifts of the dead, I had screamed my voice away. "Did you do this, Hera? Did you make this happen?"

"Yes. We were forced to this." I made myself look at her, and saw the sorrow filling her golden eyes. "It was a terrible thing, but it is done. You have nothing to fear now."

"I know," I whispered. I pulled free the gun I'd tucked behind me in the waistband of my jeans, brought it up and fired, one, two, three shots, each recoil jerking my aim up and away, but I was sure at least one shot hit as she stumbled backwards. Then I felt the sting, sharp on my wrist, saw the blue-black blur winging away and had time to think, Finally, before darkness washed over me.

White above and white below, I floated in blankness. Eyes blinked, focused. Blank ceiling and a cloud of soft sheets wrapped me, flashes of blue sky and ocean through curtains that swayed at the touch of a breeze. The soft sound of the sea breathing, the cries of gulls, the smell of salt. She'd brought me to the beach. Raising my hand, I searched the pale skin of a wrist that had been scrubbed clean while I drifted dreamless until I found the red mark of the sting. Not death, not for me. I closed my eyes and wondered why the end of the world kept passing me by.

"You're awake." The voice was quiet, but clearly human. She stepped into view, short, body heavy with child. "They asked if I would look after you." Brown eyes watched me with detached concern in a young face. Staring at her swollen belly, I realized that at thirty-six I was probably going to be one of the oldest ones left, and that thought made me want to roll away from her and close my eyes. But it wouldn't end that easily.

"Why didn't she kill me?"

"I don't know," she shrugged. "Is that what you wanted?"

"Maybe." I pulled myself up, wondering if I really did want to die. I felt too hollow to be sure. "Did I kill her?"

"No." Her voice was empty, flat. She didn't care any more than me. "There's breakfast. My name's Maria."

"Okay. I'm Emily."

"My husband was in the army. Got sent out six months ago. First month, I cried every time the doorbell rang, knowin' it would be somebody come to tell me he was dead. But after awhile, I just couldn't keep that up. So I put the fear away. Just ignored it, buried it." Maria took another drink of coffee, put it back down next to a plate of eggs barely touched. "The day everybody died, I didn't move, not that whole day. Just huddled up and cried, scared and crazy. Second day though, I got hungry, so I had breakfast. And y'know, the fear was gone. He was dead, I knew it. Everybody was. I knew I didn't need to be scared no more. So I was okay."

I watched her as I finished my food. Her eyes were dry and distant as she stared out at the ocean. None of us were going to be sane. "Maria. What is Hera?"

The little woman turned her cup and stared down into it, watching the dark liquid move. "If you wait a little, she'll come. She'll tell you." Bitter and dark, her soft voice mirrored the coffee she held.

"I want you to tell me." Questions and answers, such a familiar dance, it helped brush back the horror that made me stupid. "Please?"

"She says she's an ambassador. That's what she said she was made to be. To talk to us. Little bugs to kill us, big ones to clean us up, and pretty women to tell us it's all for the best. They're strange."


"Some kind of machine, but alive, too. They all are. They call themselves the Yil-Rek."

Behind her, the sky was blue and innocent, a curtain across the darkness. "Aliens."

"We're precious, they say, life is precious and they couldn't watch us destroy ourselves. So they came to help."

"Strange saviors," I whispered, and her eyes met mine, then flashed away.

"I used to smoke. Doctor told me it was bad for the baby, but I'd been doing it since I was fourteen. Couldn't stop. When I came, one of the pretty women gave me something to drink. I haven't smoked since. Haven't wanted to, haven't needed to. Better for the baby, she said, better for me." I watched her fingers twitch uneasy, and I could imagine a slim white cylinder pinched between them.

It was such a small thing, compared to everything else, but I felt it. God, I felt it. For the first time since the death, something besides darkness flickered in my heart. In the ashes of horror and despair, an ember of fury bloomed. "That's crap, Maria. Don't let them confuse you. You don't save anyone by killing them."

"I know." Her voice cracked for the first time, and I could see the mad despair shining in the unshed tears in her eyes. "They murdered everyone, and what the hell are we going to do? How do we keep them from killing us?"

"I don't know." I whispered. "Maybe I'll try to find out." It was something else to do, at least. Besides suicide.

On the beach far below the balcony, something moved. Gleaming blue-black like dark water, it crossed the sand and slipped into the surf, vanishing beneath the waves. I stared down through the wheeling flocks of gulls startled up by its passage and shuddered. It had moved like a crab, but it must have been the size of one of the cars that had once filled the empty streets below.

Behind me, my room was empty. Maria had left after she had managed to wrap herself again in her shell of indifference. Did she stay in another room in this same hotel, along with the other women they had gathered here? Or did we each get a building to ourselves, a beach palace of our own from which to stare at a world that no longer belonged to us? I didn't ask. Alone, I'd gone out to the balcony and waited for the thing I'd tried to murder to come to me.

Not long after I saw the monster cross the sand, she did.

I heard the knock, once, twice. In the quiet, it was easy to hear the soft sound of the door click open. Staring at the sea, I knew she was there, behind me, and my knuckles whitened on the rail. What was worse, fear or despair? I needed some other choice besides those two to live. "I saw something on the beach." My words were soft but steady, a small first victory. "Like a crab."

"A cleaner." Still an angel's voice, touched with all the patient sympathy of heaven. "They've been hard at work, stripping this city and the waters around it of your poisons."

"A cleaner." I thought of the empty roads that had greeted me at the edge of the city. Did they gather the dead, these cleaners, and hide their shameful decay inside their blue-black bodies of polished glass? The thought made the dark despair that I'd been swimming in for days churn up again, threatening to drag me down. I clenched my hands into fists to rap my knuckles hard against the rail until the pain of it helped me force the darkness away and I could face her.

Standing framed in the balcony door, she looked just the same as she had on the empty interstate, unchanged except for the two small holes that marked the front of her dress, one low near her left hip, the other just beneath her right breast. Did she want to make me face this evidence of my attack to remind me of my violence? Or to prove my impotence? Probably both.

"Emily. Are you all right?" Her eyes were on my hands, on the dull marks of pain I'd written on my skin. Her concern over such a tiny hurt made me wish I could shoot her again, and that anger was something I could use to push down the despair.

"I'm fine. So are you."

"Your gun couldn't kill me." She stepped forward, onto the balcony with me, her perfection like a threat. "It hurt, if that makes you feel better."

"Should it?" I could make myself focus on her face, if I tried. "You killed everyone. Everyone I've ever met, I've ever known. Everyone in the world, almost. Should hurting you make me feel better?"

"I don't know. I'm trying to understand. Why did you do it?"

I rubbed my aching knuckles, then folded my hands together and looked at her again. "If I could tell you, would you really understand?"

"Perhaps. It was what I was made for. To understand, to empathize, to teach. That's why I exist. You must learn the truth about what we've done, you must understand why we were forced to take the steps we took."

"I've seen your truth in a line of corpses stretching across this whole state."

"Emily --"

"No." I shook my head. "No. You have a story you want to tell me. So tell it. We can argue after."

Yil-Rek. Technological children of the alien Rek, they were living machines made for the stars. I drank my juice and turned her words over. "What a load of crap."

Behind me she sighed, a breath of air laden with pity. Damn, I hated her.

I shook my head and clicked the glass down on the table before I turned to face her. "Five hundred years in space, looking for intelligent life, and when you finally find it you wipe it out? How the hell does that make sense?"

"I don't think you understand," and there was a thread of reproach in that silken voice. "I told you, we had found intelligent life once before. Or its tomb at least, on the burned-out cinder they'd made of their world." She leaned forward and the flicker of anger in her eyes sent a jolt of fear through me. "They killed themselves and every bit of life beyond the bacteria on their world. We came too late to save them. We couldn't allow you to destroy yourselves."

"So you did it for us."

"Yes." The anger was gone, replaced again by perfect sorrow. "We had no choice. You were too far down the road to ruin for any other redemption."

Look what you made me do. I had heard that enough in my life. "Redemption?"

"For your world. For your children. Now, with the pain of what we had to do so keen, I know it's hard to understand. I hope that when your child is born in a world free of violence and poison, you'll see the truth."

"Don't," I snapped.

"Your son will be born in a paradise --"

"I said don't!" I stood, glaring at her, anger roaring through me. "Don't play that card. It's a cheap, crappy move. I didn't want to be pregnant. I didn't choose it. I wasn't even sure I was going to keep this." I waved my hand down at my belly, still smooth and innocent-looking. "Don't try to make me glad you killed the world to make it a better place for a son -- a kid I never wanted." My voice cracked, and I realized I was yelling, throat throbbing again from old abuse.

"Ah," she sighed softly, wise and sad and I couldn't take it and the glass was back in my hand and then gone, flipping across the room at that perfect face. Fast as a striking snake she moved, and the glass flashed past her to shatter against the wall. "So." She stared sadly at me. "Is that your species' only answer? To lash out at your problems, to hurt anything that threatens you? No matter how innocent?"

"Damn you." I whispered the words slow, making my rage a tool that let me stare her in the eyes. "You killed everyone."

"Not you. Not your child. We saved you."

"I didn't ask to be saved."

"Your race prayed for it in every temple it built. To every god you made, you wailed your failures." The pity slipped from her golden eyes. "You all knew your world was wrong. You've begged for judgment day from the start of history, and it's come. Accept it." When her voice emptied of sympathy, it was as cold and hard as the vacuum that she had been born to. I felt myself shaking again. Judgment day had come, and our fate was in the hands of devils.

I was standing, blinking sleep from my eyes in the darkness and I didn't know why. Then came the sound of guns. Staccato shots, they echoed through the silent city and broke the wave's steady hiss. I stared out at the night, then ran for the door.

Hera had left me the night before, and through the darkness and the whole next day I'd waited for her return. Waited, alone, for nothing. I'd stared at the door, wondering. Had turned its handle in my hand and felt the pop of the catch, but I'd stayed inside.

Now though, I slapped the handle and was through the empty hall and into the room across, searching through its wide windows for some sign of the gunshots.

Something shining moved over the city, darting and silent. A lance of light dropped from it, picking out something on a street I couldn't see. The gunfire came again.

"C'mon girl," I whispered, hands pressed hard against the glass. "Hurt them."

In the spotlight, something moved, glittered, fell like snow. There was one last shot, then silence, and the light from the ship snapped off. I closed my eyes and tipped my head against the glass. I could see her in my mind, a woman alone, curled around a swollen belly and a gun, haloed in the moonlight by the tiny alien machines.

"Damn it," I said, and when the window rang with the words I realized I was shouting. "Damn you, Hera!"

"Why?" It was a small voice, a shy voice, a nervous little boy voice.

Not alone. So stupid to think I ever was. Though I couldn't hide my jump, I made myself turn slowly to face whatever was behind me.

In the moonlight I saw it, crouched on the floor, its blue-black shell a deeper shadow in the darkness. "I was listening. Why do you hate her?"

"Because she's a liar," I whispered. The pale light sketched enough detail to make my skin crawl. A little brother of the thing on the beach, too many legs and slowly waving eyes, it was hideous. Still, this alien thing frightened me less than its beautiful sister. "What do you want?"

"To speak to you. To learn about you. To seek forgiveness for what was done. This course of action . . . Not all factions agreed upon it."

Factions. I clenched my eyes shut and shook my head. Damn these things. Their killing wasps had brought despair and Hera had given me rage. Now this horrible thing comes to me trailing a ragged thread of hope, and damn me if it couldn't be a lie. "Why not?"

"We were made to find life. Not for this." Its little-boy voice was slow and sad. "They said you were sure to destroy yourselves anyway. We could give you a kinder ending, one that brought hope. But still we wondered -- kindness or not, did we have the right?"

"No." There was a slithering rustle, the thing moving across the floor. I opened my eyes and found it, a clot of midnight heading towards the door. "Who are they?"

It crouched on the threshold, hesitant, one leg flexing as if it contemplated simply rushing away. But it answered. "The Rek."

"The Rek," I breathed. "Talk to me again."

"I shouldn't. I'm an engineer, not an ambassador. I wasn't made for this."

"Please. After I meet with Hera again. Please?"

"Please?" It bobbed on its nest of legs, then it was gone, lost in the darkness, its last word a fading whisper. "Perhaps."

Alone, I stared up at the stars. A trick? There was no way to know, and hope could simply be a new path to despair. But if it was true . . .

I curled around the subtle queasiness of my belly and my mind worked, plotting. That thing had been listening. Not all factions agreed. The Rek.

I knew so little, but it was enough to make me think of hope and vengeance as I went back to my bed and to what sleep I could claim.

"Tell me about your masters."

"Our makers, not masters." Hera stared at me, frowning. That little expression of disapproval on her angel's face made me want to cower. I hated her for that.

"Your makers. The Rek." I pushed away my empty breakfast plate and rubbed my palm over my belly. First ravenous, than nauseous, and this fight wasn't going to help. "Why'd they make you do it?"

"They didn't make us do anything. We decided your fate with them. You were destroying yourselves and your planet. Life is the rarest gift in the universe and you were destroying it."

"Again with this. Kill to be kind, to save." I made myself watch her alligator-gold eyes and wished I could read them. "Save the pregnant ones, and you have a new generation ready to be born and raised under your gentle tutelage. A golden age of peace and prosperity -- just what we've always wanted. That's what the Rek said when you asked them to justify what they were telling you to do?"

"You don't understand."

Hera's beautiful face was set, almost petulant. I couldn't fault their artistry; their ambassadors looked like everything we wished we were.

"You don't want understanding. You want surrender." I watched the white curtains that framed the balcony as they billowed and danced in the sea-breeze. There'd been no monsters on the beach this morning, though I'd watched since dawn.

"You know so little. How can you hate us when you don't understand us?"

"Stop with the brainwashing for a minute, will you?" I breathed deep, trying to settle my fractious belly. "Maybe it would've been different if you hadn't found that dead planet. If you hadn't seen that life could destroy itself, even intelligent life. Especially intelligent life. I think finding that place made this possible. How did your masters feel about that dead world?"

Golden eyes narrowed, looking at me. She knew I was baiting her. "Our makers were horrified. To see such potential destroyed, after they had sought it for so long. They wept for the loss."

"They were sad."


"They were afraid."

"Afraid?" Black hair stroked the burnished skin of her shoulders as she tipped her head, staring at me. "What --"

"Afraid." I snapped out the word like a lash. "That's what you don't understand. They made you able to love, so you would love them, but they didn't teach you fear. They knew that'd make you dangerous. When you found that dead world, you didn't like it, because you were taught to love life. But the Rek were afraid. Life, alien, intelligent, and so hostile it turned on itself in destruction. Then you found us. You found us, and the Rek were afraid."

For an instant something touched her eyes, something besides pity or condescension. It may have been uncertainty. I wanted to believe that. I needed to believe I'd said something that had unbalanced her.

"You're mistaken. You could never reach the Rek homeworld. At the speed to which matter is bound, they're too far away. They have no need to fear you."

She folded her arms and turned her face from mine and I smiled. I wanted to provoke her, make her angry. A thin hope to hold, that she'd been built human enough for me to antagonize. "You say the Rek feared what we'd do to ourselves. But I think they feared what we might do to them."

"We can help you, Emily. We want to help you. We owe that to you and your child." Her poise, her condescension, was back.

"You have the blood of billions on your hands. Forgive me if paranoia seems a better reaction."

"But you must learn to trust, Emily. For your own sake if the fate of your unborn son cannot stir you." Gold eyes shone and I could see the threat written in their depths. It made me smile again.

"Go away, Hera. I won't break today."

My smile died when she stepped toward me, leaned across the table and pressed close, the glory of her face inches from mine. I couldn't stop myself. I couldn't face her that close, so my eyes clenched shut. But I shook as I felt her breath on my face as she whispered to me.

"Before, I worried you would rather embrace death than truth. Now I wonder if you think there's some other path to salvation." Fingers traced my cheek and my whole body convulsed at her touch. "Listen, Emily. There's our truth, and there's oblivion. There's nothing else. Nothing. Think it through. We want to save you both, but if you're too damaged to see that, we'll just save your son."

The door clicked and she was gone, but long minutes passed before I could open my eyes.

"Damn you," I whispered, and my hands rubbed across my belly. "Damn you for thinking you have the right. He's mine."

The chair clattered over behind me as I jumped up, almost tripping me, but I reached the bathroom just before I lost my breakfast.

"They made you into a gun."

"What do you mean?" It was different from the monster that visited me before, more centipede then crab, but it had the same little-boy voice. These awful bodies were just tools, I realized, and I wondered if the mind that guided them was somewhere close, or if it dwelt in the ship that circled far above.

"The Rek. Hera said they built you to explore the universe for them, to be their eyes in the darkness." I felt a bitter smile cross my lips. "Pretty talk, but in the end, you're just a weapon. A gun ."

"We weren't built for killing," it said.

"But you're good at it." The thing crouched on the bed, the bright points of its eyes focused on me, close enough to touch. That was okay, though; this thing wasn't pretending to be human. "I wonder what the Rek think of that?"

"Why are you trying to turn us against each other? Are you just trying to hurt us, like you tried to hurt Hera when you met her?"

Not stupid, no, certainly not that. "No. I'm doing it because we need your help. The Rek are going to kill us all."

"Hera said you were paranoid. Mad with fear. We caused that. It was wrong, but that doesn't mean you're telling the truth. Why would the Rek kill you?"

"Because of you. Because you're here, talking to me. This is secret, isn't it? They don't know you're here." The thing bobbed its hideous head in a parody of a nod. "You've betrayed them. You've no idea how terrified they are of you, do you?"

"What can you know of the Rek?"

"Nothing. Everything. They had to evolve, like us, millions of years of desperation. You didn't make me paranoid. Fear's in me, down to the bone, and it's in the Rek too." I brought my hands together over my belly and stared down at it. "Living things, evolved things . . . are afraid of everything, even our own children. Children are like us, but they're also different. Always different. When they grow up, we lose control of them, and we don't know what they'll become. From the beginning, what'd the Rek program you to do? Love life and trust your parents, right?" The thing was silent, motionless. "But then in their fear, they made you kill. They made you break their first commandment. And even though they gave you an excuse, you knew it was wrong."

"What do you want?" The crab-thing's voice was a wail, a child confused and betrayed. "Do you expect us to hurt them like we hurt you? No! We won't do that. No more killing!"

"Yes!" My shout echoed off the wall of windows, made the thing snap all its eyes

to me. "That's what I want. No more killing." I stretched my hand out to the monster, forced my fingers to touch the cold armor of its body. "No more," I whispered. "Whatever they say, they don't have the right to do this to us. Or you." I pulled my hand away, and the thing was gone. I stared into the darkness, then turned and buried my face in the pillow.

Hope was just another chance for despair. Damn it all though, if I was going to let Hera and the Rek win. We didn't deserve this, not any of us. Not Belle or Maria or me, and certainly not our children. Fighting was the only answer to despair I could find. I had to break them before they broke me.

I had to earn the sympathy of that little gun.

"We're leaving soon."

"Who's we?" I asked quietly. Five days had passed since she'd last come, days of silent emptiness. Hera was tearing me apart with nothing.

"The ambassadors and the rescued. We've gathered everyone from this area." She watched me take a sip of my tea, then continued. "We found a woman named Belle yesterday. You met her, coming here."

"Yes." I remembered the woman in the rest stop, wrapped in pink.

"She was in labor, all alone. A breech birth. If we hadn't arrived in time, both would have died."

I put my cup down, the china rattling softly as it communicated the tremors from my hand. I hated this thing so damned much, but what made me furious was the guilt I felt mixed in with the hate. I could break so easily. But not today. "Belle didn't choose to see her family die. She didn't choose to have her doctor, her nurses, the ambulance crews, every damn person who could have helped deliver that baby, all of them, to be killed. What she chose was to stay away from their murderers."

"She's safe with us now. She and her daughter. Safe, for the rest of their lives." Hera folded her arms and frowned at me. "I have spoken to the Rek about you."

"Really? Troubling your masters about one problematic woman?" I gave her a humorless smile, then let it slide away. "How can you talk to them?"

"We have a technology that allows faster than light communication. There is a delay, but a short one." Hera moved to stand across the table from me, still frowning. "You're an exemplar of a troubling trend among the rescued. While most are willing to accept us, there is a substantial minority who resist."

"Imagine that. So what'd the Rek tell you to do?"

"We will keep you separate, so that you do not harm the others. We'll work with you, and hope that after the birth of your son you'll begin to look forward instead of backward."

"And if I don't?" I asked.

"They'll kill you," said a voice behind Hera.

Hope surged through me when I heard that little-boy voice, when I saw the blue-black thing that crouched before the balcony doors, still and hideous in the bright sunlight.

"No more killing," it said.

Across the table, Hera straightened, gold eyes locking onto the thing on the floor. Her face was a carved mask, beautiful and terrifying.

"What's happening?" I asked.

"We're debating, Hera and I, over our network. Speaking to each other and all of the other Yil-Rek of the ship." The alien's voice wasn't so small anymore, wasn't sad. It sounded tired, unhappy, but determined.

"What are you saying?" I asked. These things were arguing my fate, everyone's fate, and I couldn't even hear them.

"I've told the Rek of the doubts of my faction. How I was chosen to speak to you. I've told them what you said. And I've told them what the Rek have said about you and those like you. That it would be a kindness to end you after your children are born, so that you do not pass your madness on to them."

"Is murder the only kindness the Rek know?"

"Regarding your people . . .? Perhaps."

I slid my chair back to the wall and stood, body quivering with adrenaline, my palm pressed tight to my belly.

"This must end." Hera's voice was not music now, but flat and cold as ice. "There are no other choices, we have come too far. This race is too dangerous. To themselves and to us. They must be muzzled." Her eyes swung to me, dead coins in a sculpted face. "She and those like her will be purged."

"No." My monster slithered forward, placed itself between me and Hera. "You cannot make that decision on your own."

"I speak with the voice of the Rek. We do not doubt them. Let it be done." From the loose folds of her dress the tiny wasps crept out and took wing. I closed my eyes, silently apologizing to the life growing inside me.

"No." The little boy was gone now and the thing's voice was old and solemn, mixed in with it was a pattering sound, like soft rain. I opened my eyes and saw all Hera's little winged assassins had fallen, curled on the floor like true wasps do when they die. "We are not the guns of the Rek. Our decisions are our own." It twisted its eyes up to meet mine. "My faction will protect you and those like you. Will you come with me?"

"Yes, I think I will." I lifted my eyes to stare at the not-angel that stood behind my hideous protector. "What about her?"

"She does not wish you to go." Its words were still in the air when Hera moved, far too fast for me to even think of flinching, but the thing on the floor saved me. As the ambassador lunged forward, the thing struck, wrapping its body around her legs and throwing her off to one side so that the blow she had aimed at me smashed instead through the balcony door. Glass showered down and I dove away from their struggle.

I hit the floor hard, and rolled over to stare at their battle.

Angel wrestled demon, twisting with inhuman speed, rolling uncaring across the glass-covered floor until Hera stood again. The little monster thrashed in her hands like some horror wrenched from the sea-bottom, fighting her until she hurled it out through the balcony's broken doors to vanish in the night.

Hera's eyes turned to me.

"Bitch," I said as I slowly stood. She began to walk to me, my death clear in the tight clench of her fist. I waited, wishing I'd found some better answer to suicide than martyrdom. Then the door behind her shattered.

Pinned by part of the doorframe that had spun in under the blow of a great blue-black claw, Hera tried to dodge this new thing but couldn't. The reaching claw caught her, fastened hard around her waist, and crushed into her. Beyond the ruins of the door I could see the body of one of the great beach combers, big brother to the little cleaner that had just been destroyed, a horror-movie monster that filled the hall.

"I said no, Hera," the giant thing boomed. The bass in its voice rattled my bones.

Trapped in its grip, bleeding ichor the color of wine, Hera snapped at her captor. "Never have the Yil-Rek fought amongst themselves. Never have we gone against our makers."

"We were never killers, before."

The angel turned from the monster and looked back to me. "Is this how you hope to hurt us? To infect us with your madness?" Beautiful sorrow filled her voice again, a knife of pity made to cut. "How could I expect you to understand that we were offering you paradise when you've known nothing but hell? Give this up. Give up the pain, the fighting, the fear. Give up this dream of war that will destroy you, your people, your son. Give it up, and you'll never have to fear anything again."

On my arm, a trickle of red ran down a shining splinter of glass that had pierced my skin. I pulled it free and let it drop. "It won't happen. Maybe you don't understand it yet, but we'll never be able to give up enough to please you. I know. Most of the women you've rescued know. We could try, but it would never be enough." I stared up into her golden eyes. "Never enough, until we're dead or something that isn't human anymore. I won't give in to that. I won't give my son to that."

Behind me, through the shattered glass doors, came a sound, a note pitched just on the edge of my hearing. I looked from Hera to see the shining dart of one of their flyers hovering outside the balcony, a door open in its side, another little monster crouching low inside and beckoning me.

The massive cleaner's voice rumbled in my ears. "Go, Emily. They're coming."

I nodded, staring at the cleaner and at the woman-shaped thing it held.

Hera said, "So you choose to die then, and kill your son, too."

"No," I whispered. "No. We're going to live."

I turned and ran through the broken doors, ignoring the stabbing pain in my feet as I crossed the glass that covered the floor. One step, two and I was vaulting the rail and leaping for the flyer's open door. I barely noticed the gap, so short but so dizzyingly deep. Barely noticed the black cloud of death that was rising up to envelop me, focusing instead on the dark interior of the waiting ship. Then I was inside the flyer, the door I'd passed through vanishing like a hallucination.

Outside, I could hear the faint tapping rattle of the wasps, beating against the hull like hail.

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