It’s noon, the middle of wheat harvest, and Tris is standing on the edge of the field while Bill and Harris and I drive three ancient combine threshers across the grain. It’s dangerous to stand so close and Tris knows it. Tris knows better than to get in the way during harvest, too. Not a good idea if she wants to survive the winter. Fifteen days ago a cluster bomb dropped on the east field, so no combines there. No harvest. Just a feast for the crows.
Tris wrote the signs (with pictures for the ones who don’t read) warning the kids to stay off the grass, stay out of the fields, don’t pick up the bright-colored glass jewels. So I raise my hand, wave my straw hat in the sun—it’s hot as hell out here, we could use a break, no problem—and the deafening noise of eighty-year-old engines forced unwillingly into service chokes, gasps, falls silent.
Bill stands and cups his hands over his mouth. “Something wrong with Meshach, Libby?”
I shake my head, realize he can’t see, and holler, “The old man’s doing fine. It’s just hot. Give me ten?”
Harris, closer to me, takes a long drink from his bottle and climbs off Abednego. I don’t mind his silence. This is the sort of sticky day that makes it hard to move, let alone bring in a harvest, and this sun is hot enough to burn darker skin than his.
It’s enough to burn Tris, standing without a hat and wearing a skinny strappy dress of faded red that stands out against the wheat’s dusty gold. I hop off Meshach, check to make sure he’s not leaking oil, and head over to my sister. I’m a little worried. Tris wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important. Another cluster bomb? But I haven’t heard the whining drone of any reapers. The sky is clear. But even though I’m too far to read her expression, I can tell Tris is worried. That way she has of balancing on one leg, a red stork in a wheat marsh. I hurry as I get closer, though my overalls stick to the slick sweat on my thighs and I have to hitch them up like a skirt to move quickly.
“Is it Dad?” I ask, when I’m close.
She frowns and shakes her head. “Told me this morning he’s going fishing again.”
“And you let him?”
She shrugs. “What do you want me to do, take away his cane? He’s old, Libs. A few toxic fish won’t kill him any faster.”
“They might,” I grumble, but this is an old argument, one I’m not winning, and besides, that’s not why Tris is here. “So what is it?”
She smiles, but it shakes at the edges. She’s scared and I wonder if that makes her look old or just reminds me of our age. Dad is eighty, but I’m forty-two, and we had a funeral for an eight-year-old last week. Every night since I was ten I’ve gone to sleep thinking I might not wake up the next morning. I don’t know how you get to forty-two doing that.
Tris is thirty-eight, but she looks twenty-five—at least, when she isn’t scanning the skies for reapers, or walking behind a tiny coffin in a funeral procession.
“Walk with me,” she says, her voice low, as though Harris can hear us from under that magnolia tree twenty feet away. I sigh and roll my eyes and mutter under my breath, but she’s my baby sister and she knows I’ll follow her anywhere. We climb to the top of the hill, so I can see the muddy creek that irrigates the little postage stamp of our cornfield, and the big hill just north of town, with its wood tower and reassuring white flag. Yolanda usually takes the morning shift, spending her hours watching the sky for that subtle disturbance, too smooth for a bird, too fast for a cloud. Reapers. If she rings the bell, some of us might get to cover in time.
Sometimes I don’t like to look at the sky, so I sprawl belly-down on the ground, drink half of the warm water from my bottle and offer the rest to Tris. She finishes it and grimaces.
“Don’t know how you stand it,” she says. “Aren’t you hot?”
“You won’t complain when you’re eating cornbread tonight.”
“You made some?”
“Who does everything around here, bookworm?” I nudge her in the ribs and she laughs reluctantly and smiles at me with our smile. I remember learning to comb her hair after Mom got sick; the careful part I would make while she squirmed and hollered at me, the two hair balls I would twist and fasten to each side of her head. I would make the bottom of her hair immaculate: brushed and gelled and fastened into glossy, thick homogeneity. But on top it would sprout like a bunch of curly kale, straight up and out and olive-oil shiny. She would parade around the house in this flouncy slip she thought was a dress and pose for photos with her hand on her hip. I’m in a few of those pictures, usually in overalls or a smock. I look awkward and drab as an old sock next to her, but maybe it doesn’t matter, because we have the same slightly bucked front teeth, the same fat cheeks, the same wide eyes going wider. We have a nice smile, Tris and I.
Tris doesn’t wear afro-puffs any more. She keeps her hair in a bun and I keep mine short.
“Libs, oh Libs, things aren’t so bad, are they?”
I look up at Tris, startled. She’s sitting in the grass with her hands beneath her thighs and tears are dripping off the tip of her nose. I was lulled by her laugh—we don’t often talk about the shit we can’t control. Our lives, for instance.
I think about the field that we’re going to leave for crows so no one gets blown up for touching one of a thousand beautiful multi-colored jewels. I think about funerals and Dad killing himself faster just so he can eat catfish with bellies full of white phosphorus.
“It’s not that great, Tris.”
“You think it’s shit.”
“No, not shit—”
“Close. You think it’s close.”
I sigh. “Some days. Tris. I have to get back to Meshach in a minute. What is going on?”
“I’m pregnant,” she says.
I make myself meet her eyes, and see she’s scared; almost as scared as I am.
“How do you know?”
“I suspected for a while. Yolanda finally got some test kits last night from a river trader.”
Yolanda has done her best as the town midwife since she was drafted into service five years ago, when a glassman raid killed our last one. I’m surprised Tris managed to get a test at all.
“What are you going to do? Will you. . .” I can’t even bring myself to say “keep it.” But could Yolanda help her do anything else?
She reaches out, hugs me, buries her head in my shirt and sobs like a baby. Her muffled words sound like “Christ” and “Jesus” and “God,” which ought to be funny since Tris is a capital-A atheist, but it isn’t.
“No,” she’s saying, “Christ, no. I have to…someone has to…I need an abortion, Libby.”
Relief like the first snow melt, like surviving another winter. Not someone else to worry about, to love, to feed.
But an abortion? There hasn’t been a real doctor in this town since I was twelve.
Bill’s mom used to be a registered nurse before the occupation, and she took care of everyone in town as best she could until glassman robots raided her house and called in reapers to bomb it five years ago. Bill left town after that. We never thought we’d see him again, but then two planting seasons ago, there he was with this green giant, a forty-year-old Deere combine—Shadrach, he called it, because it would make the third with our two older, smaller machines. He brought engine parts with him, too, and oil and enough seed for a poppy field. He had a bullet scar in his forearm and three strange, triangular burns on the back of his neck. You could see them because he’d been shaved bald and his hair was only starting to grow back, a patchy gray peach-fuzz.
He’d been in prison, that much was obvious. Whether the glassmen let him go or he escaped, he never said and we never asked. We harvested twice as much wheat from the field that season, and the money from the poppy paid for a new generator. If the bell on lookout hill rang more often than normal, if surveillance drones whirred through the grass and the water more than they used to, well, who was to say what the glassmen were doing? Killing us, that’s all we knew, and Bill was one of our own.
So I ask Bill if his mother left anything behind that might help us—like a pill, or instructions for a procedure. He frowns. “Aren’t you a little old, Libby?” he says, and I tell him to fuck off. He puts a hand on my shoulder—conciliatory, regretful—and looks over to where Tris is trudging back home. “You saw what the reapers did to my mom’s house. I couldn’t even find all of her teeth.”
I’m not often on that side of town, but I can picture the ruin exactly. There’s still a crater on Mill Street. I shuffle backward, contrite. “God, Bill. I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
He shrugs. “Sorry, Libs. Ask Yolanda, if you got to do something like that.” I don’t like the way he frowns at me; I can hear his judgment even when all he does is turn and climb back inside Shadrach.
“Fucking hot out here,” I say, and walk back over to Meshach. I wish Bill wasn’t so goddamn judgmental. I wish Tris hadn’t messed up with whichever of her men provided the sperm donation. I wish we hadn’t lost the east field to another cluster bomb.
But I can wish or I can drive, and the old man’s engine coughs loud enough to drown even my thoughts.
Tris pukes right after dinner. That was some of my best cornbread, but I don’t say anything. I just clean it up.
“How far along are you?” I ask. I feel like vomit entitles me to this much.
She pinches her lips together and I hope she isn’t about to do it again. Instead, she stands up and walks out of the kitchen. I think that’s her answer, but she returns a moment later with a box about the size of my hand. It’s got a hole on one side and a dial like a gas gauge on the other. The gauge is marked with large glassman writing and regular letters in tiny print: “Fetal Progression,” it reads, then on the far left “Not Pregnant,” running through “Nine Months” on the far right. I can’t imagine what the point of that last would be, but Tris’s dial is still barely on the left-hand side, settled neatly between three and four. A little late for morning sickness, but maybe it’s terror as much as the baby that makes her queasy.
“There’s a note on the side. It says ‘All pregnant women will receive free rehabilitative healthcare in regional facilities.’” She says the last like she’s spent a long day memorizing tiny print.
“Glassmen won’t do abortions, Tris.”
No one knows what they really look like. They only interact with us through their remote-controlled robots. Maybe they’re made of glass themselves—they give us pregnancy kits, but won’t bother with burn dressings. Dad says the glassmen are alien scientists studying our behavior, like a human would smash an anthill to see how they scatter. Reverend Beale always points to the pipeline a hundred miles west of us. They’re just men stealing our resources, he says, like the white man stole the Africans’, though even he can’t say what those resources might be. It’s a pipeline from nowhere, to nothing, as far as any of us know.
Tris leans against the exposed brick of our kitchen wall. “All fetuses are to be carried to full term,” she whispers, and I turn the box over and see her words printed in plain English, in larger type than anything else on the box. Only one woman in our town ever took the glassmen up on their offer. I don’t know how it went for her; she never came home.
“Three months!” I say, though I don’t mean to.
Tris rubs her knuckles beneath her eyes, though she isn’t crying. She looks fierce, daring me to ask her how the hell she waited this long. But I don’t, because I know. Wishful thinking is a powerful curse, almost as bad as storytelling.
I don’t go to church much these days, not after our old pastor died and Beale moved into town to take his place. Reverend Beale likes his fire and brimstone, week after week of too much punishment and too little brotherhood. I felt exhausted listening to him rant in that high collar, sweat pouring down his temples. But he’s popular, and I wait on an old bench outside the redbrick church for the congregation to let out. Main Street is quiet except for the faint echoes of the reverend’s sonorous preaching. Mostly I hear the cicadas, the water lapping against a few old fishing boats and the long stretch of rotting pier. There used to be dozens of sailboats here, gleaming creations of white fiberglass and heavy canvas sails with names like Bay Princess and Prospero’s Dream. I know because Dad has pictures. Main Street was longer then, a stretch of brightly painted Tudors and Victorians with little shops and restaurants on the bottom floors and rooms above. A lot of those old buildings are boarded up now, and those that aren’t look as patched-over and jury-rigged as our thresher combines. The church has held up the best of any of the town’s buildings. Time has hardly worn its stately red brick and shingled steeples. It used to be Methodist, I think, but we don’t have enough people to be overly concerned about denominations these days. I’ve heard of some towns where they make everyone go Baptist, or Lutheran, but we’re lucky that no one’s thought to do anything like that here. Though I’m sure Beale would try if he could get away with it. Maybe Tris was right to leave the whole thing behind. Now she sits with the children while their parents go to church.
The sun tips past its zenith when the doors finally open and my neighbors walk out of the church in twos and threes. Beale shakes parishioners’ hands as they leave, mopping his face with a handkerchief. His smile looks more like a grimace to me; three years in town and he still looks uncomfortable anywhere but behind a pulpit. Men like him think the glassmen are right to require “full gestation.” Men like him think Tris is a damned sinner, just because she has a few men and won’t settle down with one. He hates the glassmen as much as the rest of us, but his views help them just the same.
Bill comes out with Pam. The bones in her neck stand out like twigs, but she looks a hell of a lot better than the last time I saw her, at Georgia’s funeral. Pam fainted when we laid her daughter in the earth, and Bill had to take her home before the ceremony ended. Pam is Bill’s cousin, and Georgia was her only child—blown to bits after riding her bicycle over a hidden jewel in the fields outside town. To my surprise, Bill gives me a tired smile before walking Pam down the street.
Bill and I used to dig clams from the mud at low tide in the summers. We were in our twenties and my mother had just died of a cancer the glassmen could have cured if they gave a damn. Sometimes we would build fires of cedar and pine and whatever other tinder lay around and roast the clams right there by the water. We talked about anything in the world other than glassmen and dead friends while the moon arced above. We planned the cornfield eating those clams, and plotted all the ways we might get the threshers for the job. The cow dairy, the chicken coop, the extra garden plots—we schemed and dreamt of ways to help our town hurt a little less each winter. Bill had a girlfriend then, though she vanished not long after; we never did more than touch.
That was a long time ago, but I remember the taste of cedar ash and sea salt as I look at the back of him. I never once thought those moments would last forever, and yet here I am, regretful and old.
Yolanda is one of the last to leave, stately and elegant with her braided white hair and black church hat with netting. I catch up with her as she heads down the steps.
“Can we talk?” I ask.
Her shoulders slump a little when I ask, but she bids the reverend farewell and walks with me until we are out of earshot.
“Tris needs an abortion,” I say.
Yolanda nods up and down like a seabird, while she takes deep breaths. She became our midwife because she’d helped Bill’s mother with some births, but I don’t think she wants the job. There’s just no one else.
“Libby, the glassmen don’t like abortions.”
“If the glassmen are paying us enough attention to notice, we have bigger problems.”
“I don’t have the proper equipment for a procedure. Even if I did, I couldn’t.”
“Don’t tell me you agree with Beale.”
She draws herself up and glares at me. “I don’t know how, Libby! Do you want me to kill Tris to get rid of her baby? They say the midwife in Toddville can do them if it’s early enough. How far along is she?”
I see the needle in my mind, far too close to the center line for comfort. “Three and a half months,” I say.
She looks away, but she puts her arm around my shoulders. “I understand why she would, I do. But it’s too late. We’ll all help her.”
Raise the child, she means. I know Yolanda is making sense, but I don’t want to hear her. I don’t want to think about Tris carrying a child she doesn’t want to term. I don’t want to think about that test kit needle pointing inexorably at too fucking late. So I thank Yolanda and head off in the other direction, down the cracked tarmac as familiar as a scar, to Pam’s house. She lives in a small cottage Victorian with peeling gray paint that used to be blue. Sure enough, Bill sits in an old rocking chair on the porch, thumbing through a book. I loved to see him like that in our clam-digging days, just sitting and listening. I would dream of him after he disappeared.
“Libs?” he says. He leans forward.
“Help her, Bill. You’ve been outside, you know people. Help her find a doctor, someone who can do this after three months.”
He sighs and the book thumps on the floor. “I’ll see.”
Three days later, Bill comes over after dinner.
“There’s rumors of something closer to Annapolis,” he says. “I couldn’t find out more than that. None of my…I mean, I only know some dudes, Libby. And whoever runs this place only talks to women.”
“Your mother didn’t know?” Tris asks, braver than me.
Bill rubs the back of his head. “If she did, she sure didn’t tell me.”
“You’ve got to have more than that,” she says. “Does this place even have a name? How near Annapolis? What do you want us to do, sail into the city and ask the nearest glassman which way to the abortion clinic?”
“What do I want you to do? Maybe I want you to count your goddamn blessings and not risk your life to murder a child. It’s a sin, Tris, not like you’d care about that, but I’d’ve thought Libby would.”
“God I know,” I say, “but I’ve never had much use for sin. Now why don’t you get your nose out of our business?”
“You invited me in, Libby.”
He shakes his head. “If you could see what Pam’s going through right now…”
Bill has dealt with as much grief as any of us. I can understand why he’s moralizing in our kitchen, but that doesn’t mean I have to tolerate it.
But Tris doesn’t even give me time. She stands and shakes a wooden spatula under his nose. Bill’s a big man, but he flinches. “So I should have this baby just so I can watch it get blown up later, is that it? Don’t put Pam’s grief on me, Bill. I’m sorrier than I can say about Georgia. I taught that girl to read! And I can’t. I just can’t.”
Bill breathes ragged. His dark hands twist his muddy flannel shirt, his grip so tight his veins are stark against sun-baked skin. Tris is still holding that spatula.
Bill turns his head abruptly, stalks back to the kitchen door with a “Fuck,” and he wipes his eyes. Tris leans against the sink. “Esther,” he says quietly, his back to us. “The name of a person, the name of a place, I don’t know. But you ask for that, my buddy says you should find what you’re after.”
I follow him outside, barefoot and confused that I’d bother when he’s so clearly had enough of us. I call his name, then start jogging and catch his elbow. He turns around. “What, Libby?”
He’s so angry. His hair didn’t grow in very long or thick after he came back. He looks like someone mashed him up, stretched him out and then did a hasty job of putting him back together. Maybe I look like that, too.
“Thanks,” I say. We don’t touch.
“Don’t die, Libs.”
The air is thick with crickets chirping and fireflies glowing and the swampy, seaweed-and-salt air from the Chesapeake. He turns to walk away. I don’t stop him.
We take Dad’s boat. There’s not enough gas left to visit Bishop’s Head, the mouth of our estuary, let alone Annapolis. So we bring oars, along with enough supplies to keep the old dinghy low in the water.
“I hope we don’t hit a storm,” Tris says, squinting at the clear, indigo sky as though thunderheads might be hiding behind the stars.
“We’re all right for now. Feel the air? Humidity’s dropped at least 20 percent.”
Tris has the right oar and I have the left. I don’t want to use the gas unless we absolutely have to, and I’m hoping the low-tech approach will make us less noticeable to any patrolling glassmen. It’s tough work, even in the relatively cool night air, and I check the stars to make sure we’re heading in more or less the right direction. None of the towns on our estuary keep lights on at night. I only know when we pass Toddville because of the old lighthouse silhouetted against the stars. I lost sight of our home within five minutes of setting out, and God, how a part of me wanted to turn the dinghy right around and go back. The rest of the world isn’t safe. Home isn’t either, but it’s familiar.
Dad gave us a nautical chart of the Chesapeake Bay, with markers for towns long destroyed, lighthouses long abandoned, by people long dead. He marked our town and told us to get back safe. We promised him we would and we hugged like we might never see each other again.
“What if we hit a jewel?” Tris asks. In the dark, I can’t tell if it’s fear or exertion that aspirates her words. I’ve had that thought myself, but what can we do? The glassmen make sure their cluster bombs spread gifts everywhere.
“They don’t detonate that well in water,” I offer.
A shift in the dark; Tris rests her oar in the boat and stretches her arms. “Well enough to kill you slowly.”
I’m not as tired, but I take the break. “We’ve got a gun. It ought to do the trick, if it comes to that.”
“To what? Mercy-kill you?”
“Aren’t you being a little melodramatic?”
“And we’re just out here to do a little night fishing.”
I laugh, though my belly aches like she’s punched me.
“Christ, Tris.” I lean back in the boat, the canvas of our food sack rough and comforting on my slick skin, like Mom’s gloves when she first taught me to plant seeds.
“You really don’t care who the father is?”
I snort. “If it were important, I’m sure you would have told me.”
I look up at the sky: there’s the Milky Way, the North Star, Orion’s Belt. I remember when I was six, before the occupation. There was so much light on the bay you could hardly see the moon.
“Reckon we’ll get to Ohio, Jim?” Tris asks in a fake Southern drawl.
I grin. “Reckon we might. If ’n we can figure out just how you got yerself pregnant, Huck.”
Tris leans over the side of the boat, and a spray of brackish water hits my open mouth. I shriek and dump two handfuls on her head, and she splutters and grabs me from behind so I can’t do more than wiggle in her embrace.
“Promise,” she says, breathing hard, still laughing.
The bay tastes like home to me, like everything I’ve ever loved. “Christ, Tris,” I say, and I guess that’s enough.
We round Bishop’s Head at dawn. Tris is nearly asleep on her oar, though she hasn’t complained. I’m worried about her, and it’s dangerous to travel during the day until we can be sure the water is clear. We pull into Hopkins Cove, an Edenic horseshoe of brown sand and forest. It doesn’t look like a human foot has touched this place since the invasion, which reassures me. Drones don’t do much exploring. They care about people.
Tris falls asleep as soon as we pull the boat onto the sand. I wonder if I should feed her more—does she need extra for the baby? Then I wonder if that’s irrational, since we’re going all this way to kill it. But for now, at least, the fetus is part of her, which means we have to take it into consideration. I think about Bill with his big, dumb eyes and patchy bald head telling me that it’s a sin, as though that has anything to do with your sister crying like her insides have been torn out.
I eat some cornbread and a peach, though I’m not hungry. I sit on the shore with my feet in the water and watch for other boats or drones or reapers overhead. I don’t see anything but seagulls and ospreys and minnows that tickle my toes.
“Ain’t nothing here, Libs,” I say, in my mother’s best imitation of her mother’s voice. I never knew my grandmother, but Mom said she looked just like Tris, so I loved her on principle. She and Tris even share a name: Leatrice. I told Mom that I’d name my daughter Tamar, after her. I’d always sort of planned to, but when my monthlies stopped a year ago, I figured it was just as well. Stupid Bill, and his stupid patchy hair, I think.
I dream of giant combines made from black chrome and crystal, with headlights of wide, unblinking eyes. I take them to the fields, but something is wrong with the thresher. There’s bonemeal dust on the wheat berries.
“Now, Libby,” Bill says, but I can’t hear the rest of what he’s saying because the earth starts shaking and—
I scramble to my feet, kicking up sand with the dream still in my eyes. There’s lights in the afternoon sky and this awful thunder, like a thousand lightning bolts are striking the earth at once.
“Oh, Christ,” I say. A murder of reapers swarms to the north, and even with the sun in the sky their bombs light the ground beneath like hellfire. It’s easier to see reapers from far away, because they paint their underbellies light blue to blend with the sky.
Tris stands beside me and grips my wrist. “That’s not…it has to be Toddville, right? Or Cedar Creek? They’re not far enough away for home, right?”
I don’t say anything. I don’t know. I can only look.
Bill’s hair is patchy because the glassmen arrested him and they tortured him. Bill asked his outside contacts if they knew anything about a place to get an illegal abortion. Bill brought back a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of farm equipment and scars from wounds that would have killed someone without access to a doctor. But what kind of prisoner has access to a real doctor? Why did the glassmen arrest him? What if his contacts are exactly the type of men the glassmen like to bomb with their reapers? What if Bill is?
But I know it isn’t that simple. No one knows why the glassmen bomb us. No one really knows the reason for the whole damn mess, their reapers and their drones and their arcane rules you’re shot for not following.
“Should we go back?”
She says it like she’s declared war on a cardinal direction, like she really will get on that boat and walk into a reaper wasteland and salvage what’s left of our lives and have that baby.
I squeeze her hand. “It’s too close,” I say. “Toddville, I think you’re right. Let’s get going, though. Probably not safe here.”
She nods. She doesn’t look me in the eye. We paddle through the choppy water until the sun sets. And then, without saying anything, we ship the oars and I turn on the engine.
Three nights later, we see lights on the shore. It’s a glassmen military installation. Dad marked it on the map, but still I’m surprised by its size, its brightness, the brazen way it sits on the coastline, as though daring to attract attention.
“I’d never thought a building could be so…”
“Angry?” Tris says.
“It’s like a giant middle finger up the ass of the Chesapeake.”
I laugh despite myself. “You’re ridiculous.”
We’re whispering, though we’re on the far side of the bay and the water is smooth and quiet. After that reaper drone attack, I’m remembering more than I like of my childhood terror of the glassmen. Dad and Mom had to talk to security drones a few times after the occupation, and I remember the oddly modulated voices, distinctly male, and the bright unblinking eyes behind the glass masks of their robot heads. I don’t know anyone who has met a real glassman, instead of one of their remote robots. It’s a retaliatory offense to harm a drone because the connection between the drone and the glassman on the other side of the world (or up in some space station) is so tight that sudden violence can cause brain damage. I wonder how they can square potential brain damage with dead children, but I guess I’m not a glassman.
So we row carefully, but fast as we can, hoping to distance our little fishing boat from the towering building complex. Its lights pulse so brightly they leave spots behind my eyes.
And then, above us, we hear the chopping whirr of blades cutting the air, the whine of unmanned machinery readying for deployment. I look up and shade my eyes: a reaper.
Tris drops her oar. It slides straight into the bay, but neither of us bother to catch it. If we don’t get away now, a lost oar won’t matter anyway. She lunges into our supply bag, brings out a bag of apples. The noise of the reaper is close, almost deafening. I can’t hear what she yells at me before she jumps into the bay. I hesitate in the boat, afraid to leave our supplies and afraid to be blown to pieces by a reaper. I look back up and see a panel slide open on its bright blue belly. The panel reveals dark glass; behind it, a single, unblinking eye.
I jump into the water, but my foot catches on the remaining oar. The boat rocks behind me, but panic won’t let me think—I tug and tug until the boat capsizes and suddenly ten pounds of supplies are falling on my head, dragging me deeper into the dark water. I try to kick out, but my leg is tangled with the drawstring of a canvas bag, and I can’t make myself focus enough to get it loose. All I can think of is that big glass eye waiting to kill me. My chest burns and my ears fill to bursting with pressure. I’d always thought I would die in fire, but water isn’t much better. I don’t even know if Tris made it, or if the eye caught her, too.
I try to look up, but I’m too deep; it’s too dark to even know which way that is. God, I think, save her. Let her get back home. It’s rude to demand things of God, but I figure dying ought to excuse the presumption.
Something tickles my back. I gasp and the water flows in, drowning my lungs, flooding out what air I had left. But the thing in the water with me has a light on its head and strange, shiny legs and it’s using them to get under my arms and drag me up until we reach the surface and I cough and retch and breathe, thank you, God. The thing takes me to shore, where Tris is waiting to hug me and kiss my forehead like I’m the little sister.
“Jesus,” she says, and I wonder if God really does take kindly to demands until I turn my head and understand: my savior is a drone.
“I will feed you,” the glassman says. He looks like a spider with an oversized glassman head: eight chrome legs and two glass eyes. “The pregnant one should eat. Her daughter is growing.”
I wonder if some glassman technology is translating his words into English. If in his language, whatever it is, the pregnant one is a kind of respectful address. Or maybe they taught him to speak to us that way.
I’m too busy appreciating the bounty of air in my lungs to notice the other thing he said.
“Daughter?” Tris says.
The glassman nods. “Yes. I have been equipped with a body-safe sonic scanning device. Your baby has not been harmed by your ordeal. I am here to help and reassure you.”
Tris looks at me carefully. I sit up. “You said something about food?”
“Yes!” It’s hard to tell, his voice is so strange, but he sounds happy. As though rescuing two women threatened by one of his reaper fellows is the best piece of luck he’s had all day. “I will be back,” he says, and scuttles away, into the forest.
Tris hands me one of her rescued apples. “What the hell?” Her voice is low, but I’m afraid the glassman can hear us anyway.
“A trap?” I whisper, barely vocalizing into her left ear. She shakes her head. “He seems awfully…”
The glassman comes back a minute later, walking on six legs and holding two boxes in the others. His robot must be a new model; the others I’ve seen look more human. “I have meals! A nearby convoy has provided them for you,” he says, and places the boxes carefully in front of us. “The one with a red ribbon is for the pregnant one. It has nutrients.”
Tris’s hands shake as she opens it. The food doesn’t look dangerous, though it resembles the strange pictures in Tris’s old magazines more than the stuff I make at home. A perfectly rectangular steak, peas, corn mash. Mine is the same, except I have regular corn. We eat silently, while the glassman gives every impression of smiling upon us benevolently.
“Good news,” he pipes, when I’m nearly done forcing the bland food down my raw throat. “I have been authorized to escort you both to a safe hospital facility.”
“Hospital?” Tris asks, in a way that makes me sit up and put my arm around her.
“Yes,” the glassman says. “To ensure the safe delivery of your daughter.”
The next morning, the glassman takes us to an old highway a mile from the water’s edge. A convoy waits for us, four armored tanks and two platform trucks. One of the platform beds is filled with mechanical supplies, including two dozen glass-and-chrome heads. The faces are blank, the heads unattached to any robot body, but the effect makes me nauseous. Tris digs her nails into my forearm. The other platform bed is mostly empty except for a few boxes and one man tied to the guardrails. He lies prone on the floor and doesn’t move when we climb in after our glassman. At first I’m afraid that he’s dead, but then he twitches and groans before falling silent again.
“Who is he?” Tris asks.
“Non-state actor,” our glassman says, and pulls up the grate behind us.
The convoy engines whirr to life—quiet compared to the three old men, but the noise shocks me after our days of silence on the bay.
The glassman swivels his head, his wide unblinking eyes fully focused on my sister. I’m afraid she’s set him off and they’ll tie us to the railings like that poor man. Instead, he clicks his two front legs together for no reason that I can see except maybe it gives him something to do.
“Terrorist,” he says quietly.
Tris looks at me and I widen my eyes: don’t you dare say another word. She nods.
“The convoy will be moving now. You should sit for your safety.”
He clacks away before we can respond. He hooks his hind legs through the side rail opposite us and settles down, looking like nothing so much as a contented cat.
The armored tanks get into formation around us and then we lurch forward, rattling over the broken road. Tris makes it for half an hour before she pukes over the side.
For two days, Tris and I barely speak. The other man in our truck wakes up about once every ten hours, just in time for one of the two-legged glassmen from the armored tanks to clomp over and give us all some food and water. The man gets less than we do, though none of it is very good. He eats in such perfect silence that I wonder if the glassmen have cut out his tongue. As soon as he finishes, one of the tank glassmen presses a glowing metal bar to the back of his neck. The mark it leaves is a perfect triangle, raw and red like a fresh burn. The prisoner doesn’t struggle when the giant articulated metal hand grips his shoulders, he only stares, and soon after he slumps against the railing. I have lots of time to wonder about those marks; hour after slow hour with a rattling truck bruising my tailbone and regrets settling into my joints like dried tears. Sometimes Tris massages knots from my neck, and sometimes they come right back while I knead hers. I can’t see any way to escape, so I try not to think about it. But there’s no helping the sick, desperate knowledge that every hour we’re closer to locking Tris in a hospital for six months so the glassmen can force her to have a baby.
During the third wake-up and feeding of the bound man, our glassman shakes out his legs and clacks over to the edge of the truck bed. The robots who drive the tanks are at least eight feet tall, with oversized arms and legs equipped with artillery rifles. They would be terrifying even if we weren’t completely at their mercy. The two glassmen stare at each other, eerily silent and still.
The bound man, I’d guess Indian from his thick, straight hair and dark skin, strains as far forward as he can. He nods at us.
“They’re talking,” he says. His words are slow and painstakingly formed. We crawl closer to hear him better. “In their real bodies.”
I look back up, wondering how he knows. They’re so still, but then glassmen are always uncanny.
Tris leans forward, so her lips are at my ear. “Their eyes,” she whispers.
Glassman robot eyes never blink. But their pupils dilate and contract just like ours do. Only now both robots’ eyes are pupil-blasted black despite the glaring noon sun. Talking in their real bodies? That must mean they’ve stopped paying us any attention.
“Could we leave?” I whisper. No one has tied us up. I think our glassman is under the impression he’s doing us a favor.
Tris buries her face in the back of my short nappy hair and wraps her arms around me. I know it’s a ploy, but it comforts me all the same. “The rest of the convoy.”
Even as I nod, the two glassmen step away from each other, and our convoy is soon enough on its way. This time, though, the prisoner gets to pass his time awake and silent. No one tells us to move away from him.
“I have convinced the field soldier to allow me to watch the operative,” our glassman says proudly.
“That’s very nice,” Tris says. She’s hardly touched her food.
“I am glad you appreciate my efforts! It is my job to assess mission parameter achievables. Would you mind if I asked you questions?”
I frown at him and quickly look away. Tris, unfortunately, has decided she’d rather play with fire than her food.
“Of course,” she says.
We spend the next few hours subjected to a tireless onslaught of questions. Things like, “How would you rate our society-building efforts in the Tidewater Region?” and “What issue would you most like to see addressed in the upcoming Societal Health Meeting?” and “Are you mostly satisfied or somewhat dissatisfied with the cleanliness of the estuary?”
“The fish are toxic,” I say to this last question. My first honest answer. It seems to startle him. At least, that’s how I interpret the way he clicks his front two legs together.
Tris pinches my arm, but I ignore her.
“Well,” says the glassman, “that is potentially true. We have been monitoring the unusually high levels of radiation and heavy metal toxicity. But you can rest assured that we are addressing the problem and its potential harmful side-effects on Beneficial Societal Development.”
“Like dying of mercury poisoning?” Tris pinches me again, but she smiles for the first time in days.
“I do not recommend it for the pregnant one! I have been serving you both nutritious foods well within the regulatory limits.”
I have no idea what those regulatory limits might be, but I don’t ask.
“In any case,” he says, “aside from that issue, the estuary is very clean.”
“Thank you,” Tris says, before I can respond.
“You’re very welcome. We are here to help you.”
“How far away is the hospital?” she asks.
I feel like a giant broom has swept the air from the convoy, like our glassman has tossed me back into the bay to drown. I knew Tris was desperate; I didn’t realize how much.
“Oh,” he says, and his pupils go very wide. I could kiss the prisoner for telling us what that means: no one’s at home.
The man now leans toward us, noticing the same thing. “You pregnant?” he asks Tris.
He whistles through a gap between his front teeth. “Some rotten luck,” he says. “I never seen a baby leave one of their clinics. Fuck knows what they do to them.”
“And the mothers?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer, just lowers his eyes and looks sidelong at our dormant glassman. “Depends,” he whispers, “on who they think you are.”
That’s all we have time for; the glassman’s eyes contract again and his head tilts like a bird’s. “There is a rehabilitative facility in the military installation to which we are bound. Twenty-three hours ETA.”
“A prison?” Tris asks.
“A hospital,” the glassman says firmly.
When we reach the pipeline, I know we’re close. The truck bounces over fewer potholes and cracks; we even meet a convoy heading in the other direction. The pipeline is a perfect clear tube about sixteen feet high. It looks empty to me, a giant hollow tube that distorts the landscape on the other side like warped glass. It doesn’t run near the bay, and no one from home knows enough to plot it on a map. Maybe this is the reason the glassmen are here. I wonder what could be so valuable in that hollow tube that Tris has to give birth in a cage, that little Georgia has to die, that a cluster bomb has to destroy half our wheat crop. What’s so valuable that looks like nothing at all?
The man spends long hours staring out the railing of the truck, as though he’s never seen anything more beautiful or more terrifying. Sometimes he talks to us, small nothings, pointing out a crane overhead or a derelict road with a speed limit sign—55 miles per hour, it says, radar enforced.
At first our glassman noses around these conversations, but he decides they’re innocuous enough. He tells the man to “refrain from exerting a corrupting influence,” and resumes his perch on the other side of the truck bed. The prisoner’s name is Simon, he tells us, and he’s on watch. For what, I wonder, but know well enough not to ask.
“What’s in it?” I say instead, pointing to the towering pipeline.
“I heard it’s a wormhole.” He rests his chin on his hands, a gesture that draws careful, casual attention to the fact that his left hand has loosened the knots. He catches my eye for a blink and then looks away. My breath catches—is he trying to escape? Do we dare?
“A wormhole? Like, in space?” Tris says, oblivious. Or maybe not. Looking at her, I realize she might just be a better actor.
I don’t know what Tris means, but Simon nods. “A passage through space, that’s what I heard.”
“That is incorrect!”
The three of us snap our heads around, startled to see the glassman so close. His eyes whirr with excitement. “The Designated Area Project is not what you refer to as a wormhole, which are in fact impractical as transportation devices.”
Simon shivers and looks down at his feet. My lips feel swollen with regret—what if he thinks we’re corrupted? What if he notices Simon’s left hand? But Tris raises her chin, stubborn and defiant at the worst possible time—I guess the threat of that glassman hospital is making her too crazy to feel anything as reasonable as fear.
“Then what is it?” she asks, so plainly that Simon’s mouth opens, just a little.
Our glassman stutters forward on his delicate metallic legs. “I am not authorized to tell you,” he says, clipped.
“Why not? It’s the whole goddamned reason all your glassman reapers and drones and robots are swarming all over the place, isn’t it? We don’t even get to know what the hell it’s all for?”
“Societal redevelopment is one of our highest mission priorities,” he says, a little desperately.
I lean forward and grab Tris’s hand as she takes a sharp, angry breath. “Honey,” I say, “Tris, please.”
She pulls away from me, hard as a slap, but she stops talking. The glassman says nothing; just quietly urges us a few yards away from Simon. No more corruption on his watch.
Night falls, revealing artificial lights gleaming on the horizon. Our glassman doesn’t sleep. Not even in his own place, I suppose, because whenever I check with a question his eyes stay the same and he answers without hesitation. Maybe they have drugs to keep themselves awake for a week at a time. Maybe he’s not human. I don’t ask—I’m still a little afraid he might shoot me for saying the wrong thing, and more afraid that he’ll start talking about Ideal Societal Redevelopment.
At the first hint of dawn, Simon coughs and leans back against the railing, catching my eye. Tris is dozing on my shoulder, drool slowly soaking my shirt. Simon flexes his hands, now free. He can’t speak, but our glassman isn’t looking at him. He points to the floor of the truckbed, then lays himself out with his hands over his head. There’s something urgent in his face. Something knowledgeable. To the glassmen he’s a terrorist, but what does that make him to us? I shake Tris awake.
“Glassman,” I say, “I have a question about societal redevelopment deliverables.”
Tris sits straight up.
“I would be pleased to hear it!” the glassman says.
“I would like to know what you plan to do with my sister’s baby.”
“Oh,” the glassman says. The movement of his pupils is hardly discernible in this low light, but I’ve been looking. I grab Tris by her shoulder and we scramble over to Simon.
“Duck!” he says. Tris goes down before I do, so only I can see the explosion light up the front of the convoy. Sparks and embers fly through the air like a starfall. The pipeline glows pink and purple and orange. Even the strafe of bullets seems beautiful until it blows out the tires of our truck. We crash and tumble. Tris holds onto me, because I’ve forgotten how to hold onto myself.
The glassmen are frozen. Some have tumbled from the over- turned trucks, their glass and metal arms halfway to their guns. Their eyes don’t move, not even when three men in muddy camouflage lob sticky black balls into the heart of the burning convoy.
Tris hauls me to my feet. Simon shouts something at one of the other men, who turns out to be a woman.
“What the hell was that?” I ask.
“EMP,” Simon says. “Knocks them out for a minute or two. We have to haul ass.”
The woman gives Simon a hard stare. “They’re clean?”
“They were prisoners, too,” he says.
The woman—light skinned, close-cropped hair—hoists an extra gun, unconvinced. Tris straightens up. “I’m pregnant,” she says. “And ain’t nothing going to convince me to stay here.”
“Fair enough,” the woman says, and hands Tris a gun. “We have ninety seconds. Just enough time to detonate.”
Our glassman lies on his back, legs curled in the air. One of those sticky black balls has lodged a foot away from his blank glass face. It’s a retaliatory offense to harm a drone. I remember what they say about brain damage when the glassmen are connected. Is he connected? Will this hurt him? I don’t like the kid, but he’s so young. Not unredeemable. He saved my life. I don’t know why I do it, but while Tris and the others are distracted, I use a broken piece of the guard rail to knock off the black ball. I watch it roll under the truck, yards away. I don’t want to hurt him; I just want my sister and me safe and away.
“Libs!” It’s Tris, looking too much like a terrorist with her big black gun. Dad taught us both to use them, but the difference between us is I wish that I didn’t know how, and Tris is glad.
I run to catch up. A man idles a pickup ten yards down the road from the convoy.
“They’re coming back on,” he says.
“Detonating!” The woman’s voice is a birdcall, a swoop from high to low. She presses a sequence of buttons on a remote and suddenly the light ahead is fiercer than the sun and it smells like gasoline and woodsmoke and tar. I’ve seen plenty enough bomb wreckage in my life; I feel like when it’s ours it should look different. Better. It doesn’t.
Tris pulls me into the back of the pickup and we’re bouncing away before we can even shut the back door. We turn off the highway and drive down a long dirt road through the woods. I watch the back of the woman’s head through the rear window. She has four triangular scars at the base of her neck, the same as Bill’s.
Something breaks out of the underbrush on the side of the road. Something that moves unnaturally fast, even on the six legs he has left. Something that calls out, in that stupid, naive, inhuman voice:
“Stop the vehicle! Pregnant one, do not worry, I will—”
“Fuck!” Tris’s terror cuts off the last of the speech. The car swerves, tossing me against the door. I must not have latched it properly, because next thing I know I’m tumbling to the dirt with a thud that jars my teeth. The glassman scrambles on top of me without any regard for the pricking pain of his long, metallic limbs.
“Kill that thing!” It’s a man, I’m not sure who. I can’t look, pinioned as I am.
“Pregnant one, step down from the terrorist vehicle and I will lead you to safety. There is a Reaper Support Flyer on its way.”
He grips me between two metallic arms and hauls me up with surprising strength. The woman and Simon have guns trained on the glassman, but they hesitate—if they shoot him, they have to shoot me. Tris has her gun up as well, but she’s shaking so hard she can’t even get her finger on the trigger.
“Let go of me,” I say to him. He presses his legs more firmly into my side.
“I will save the pregnant one,” he repeats, as though to reassure both of us. He’s young, but he’s still a glassman. He knows enough to use me as a human shield.
Tris lowers the gun to her side. She slides from the truck bed and walks forward.
“Don’t you dare, Tris!” I yell, but she just shakes her head. My sister, giving herself to a glassman? What would Dad say? I can’t even free a hand to wipe my eyes. I hate this boy behind the glass face. I hate him because he’s too young and ignorant to even understand what he’s doing wrong. Evil is good to a glassman. Wrong is right. The pregnant one has to be saved.
I pray to God, then. I say, God, please let her not be a fool. Please let her escape.
And I guess God heard, because when she’s just a couple of feet away she looks straight at me and smiles like she’s about to cry. “I’m sorry, Libs,” she whispers. “I love you. I just can’t let him take me again.”
“Pregnant one! Please drop your weapon and we will—” And then she raises her gun and shoots.
My arm hurts. Goddamn, it hurts, like there’s some small, toothy animal burrowing inside. I groan and feel my sister’s hands, cool on my forehead.
“They know the doctor,” she says. “That Esther that Bill told us about, remember? She’s a regular doctor, too, not just abortions. You’ll be fine.”
I squint up at her. The sun has moved since she shot me; I can hardly see her face for the light behind it. But even at the edges I can see her grief. Her tears drip on my hairline and down my forehead.
“I don’t care,” I say, with some effort. “I wanted you to do it.”
“I was so afraid, Libs.”
“We’ll get home now, won’t we?”
“Sure,” I say. If it’s there.
The terrorists take us to a town fifty miles from Annapolis. Even though it’s close to the city, the glassmen mostly leave it alone. It’s far enough out from the pipeline, and there’s not much here, otherwise: just a postage stamp of a barley field, thirty or so houses and one of those large, old, whitewashed barn-door churches. At night, the town is ghost empty.
Tris helps me down from the truck. Even that’s an effort. My head feels half-filled with syrup. Simon and the others say their goodbyes and head out quickly. It’s too dangerous for fighters to stay this close to the city. Depending on how much the glassmen know about Tris and me, it isn’t safe for us either. But between a baby and a bullet, we don’t have much choice.
Alone, now, we read the church’s name above the door:
Esther Zion Congregation Church, Methodist.
Tris and I look at each other. “Oh, Christ,” she says. “Did Bill lie, Libby? Is he really so hung up on that sin bullshit that he sent me all the way out here, to a church …”
I lean against her and wonder how he ever survived to come back to us. It feels like a gift, now, with my life half bled out along the road behind. “Bill wouldn’t lie, Tris. Maybe he got it wrong. But he wouldn’t lie.”
The pews are old but well-kept. The prayer books look like someone’s been using them. The only person inside is a white lady, sweeping the altar.
“Simon and Sybil sent you,” she says, not a question. Sybil—we never even asked the woman’s name.
“My sister,” we both say, and then, improbably, laugh.
A month later, Tris and I round Bishop’s Head and face north. At the mouth of our estuary, we aren’t close enough to see Toddville, let alone our home, but we can’t see any drones either. The weather is chillier this time around, the water harder to navigate with the small boat. Tris looks healthy and happy; older and younger. No one will mistake her for twenty-five again, but there’s nothing wrong with wisdom.
The doctor fixed up my arm and found us an old, leaky rowboat when it was clear we were determined to go back. Tris has had to do most of the work; her arms are starting to look like they belong to someone who doesn’t spend all her time reading. I think about the harvest and hope the bombs didn’t reap the grain before we could. If anyone could manage those fields without me, Bill can. We won’t starve this winter, assuming reapers didn’t destroy everything. Libby ships the oars and lets us float, staring at the deep gray sky and its reflection on the water that seems to stretch endlessly before us.
“Bill will have brought the harvest in just fine,” I say.
“You love him, don’t you?”
I think about his short, patchy hair. That giant green monster he brought back like a dowry. “He’s good with the old engines. Better than me.”
“I think he loves you. Maybe one of you could get around to doing something about it?”
Tris and I sit like that for a long time. The boat drifts toward shore, and neither of us stop it. A fish jumps in the water to my left; a heron circles overhead.
“Dad’s probably out fishing,” she says, maneuvering us around. “We might catch him on the way in.”
“That’ll be a surprise! Though he won’t be happy about his boat.”
“He might let it slide. Libby?”
“You aren’t sorry if you’d do it again,” I say. “And I’m not sorry if I’d let you.”
She holds my gaze. “Do you know how much I love you?” We have the same smile, my sister and I. It’s a nice smile, even when it’s scared and a little sad.
© 2013 by Alaya Dawn Johnson. Originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, January 2013. Also published in Reconstruction (Small Beer Press). Reprinted by permission of the author.