“Kismet,” he hissed, too quietly. He didn’t want anyone but her to hear. They were so far north, near the Malswamp, where the dead were. Chasing the jinko, they had passed the freshest tree marks of the Fort’s hunters, which meant there could be tigers or dogs. Or, angry hunters from Oxtown. Or Gressians from the Silver Spring. Or a roving band of hate-driven whites.
Or, he realized, the jinko’s tribe fellows. He wasn’t so afraid of that, since the furred people were wild but kind. Jeffi, who was the blacksmith’s wife at the Fort, always gave him apples for free when he brought her husband a job. She had cinnamon-red fur with a black strip down her back. Brenam was sure she thought of him as a son since he was an orphan and she couldn’t have children with her human husband. If he weren’t so old, he was sure she would petition the Telmyr to adopt him.
Still clinging to the tree, he glanced at the hill bug. It had turned east again and was caressing a second plastic, blue marker. The Reserved area was a huge field.
His fingers dug into the sinewy trunk of the hornbeam. Kismet said she’d come back for him. She’d expect him to stay by the tree.
He glanced around at the woods. Squirrels ran here and there, completely oblivious to the giant hill bug in the nearby meadow. To the south, he saw three deer also glancing around. They were better at detecting predators than him, he knew. If they were okay, he was okay. No lions, no dogs. He let go of the hornbeam and jogged in the direction Kismet had gone.
She had kicked up leaves as she ran. He wasn’t good at tracking, but she had made it easy for him.
He was tempted to just run south back to the Fort. But, he couldn’t leave Kismet in the woods. She would be so disappointed in him.
What was this ancient Reserved land the hill bug had found? It just looked like a meadow to Brenam. Was it a barrier to the Malswamp? No, if it were it would block the hill bug from going north. And, the markers he had seen were plastic, from the days of the Revolution when the Malswamp was still a wicked city. These days, Telmyr markers were set up around settlements to keep the hill bugs at bay. The Fort had blue cloth markers all along the neck of its peninsula and all along the shore to keep hill bugs from crawling out of the waters of the Tomac.
The markers were so powerful, the Gressians severely punished settlements using them without the sanction of a Telmyr. This meant jinkos and whites could never use them. Telmyr Green blessed the Fort’s markers, and the Fort had stood for four hundred years. It was very old, built even before the Revolution, before the hill bugs and their markers.
Brenam scanned the forest floor. He had lost Kismet’s trail. He was fairly sure she had run in this direction, but he couldn’t see any disturbed leaves.
His heart thumped hard in his chest. He leaned against a spruce tree and studied the woods before him. He was suddenly terrified he wouldn’t find Kismet. He could see the dip of the stream’s gully ahead of him, maybe fifty meters. She would be in that valley.
He took off at a run. The faster he moved, the sooner he’d find her.
At the edge of the gully, he prepared himself to slide down the slope. It wasn’t a slope. It was a cliff.
Brenam tumbled over the edge. Black rocks raced past his eyes. His left shoulder slammed into a limb and his body spun in the air. He landed on his belly against a bed of leaves and slid down into the gully.
The slope disappeared. He spun through the air. Cold and wet engulfed him and the world was suddenly silent.
He couldn’t swim. A dozen times Jeffi had offered to teach him to swim. But, he was terrified of water. Water was where the hill bugs crawled to threaten the Fort. Water was where sharks swam, attacking fishers who tumbled from their boats. Water was where reptilians lived and where the Haunted Island was.
He fought his way to the surface, gulped air, but couldn’t keep himself there. The water swallowed him again. If he drowned in this pool, Kismet would be so embarrassed. He shoved at the water with his arms, trying to find something to breathe.
His knees hit mud. He was failing. The water was cool and comforting. He kicked with his legs, but his shoes just kept slamming into mud. He opened his eyes to see blue-filtered light far above.
A blurry yellow shape rushed in on his right. He was limp, resigned to drowning. He felt tightness on his upper right arm. Sharp claws dug into his muscles. The grip tugged at him, dragging him toward the light.
His face came free of the water and he took a deep gulp of air. Then another. He couldn’t stop his lungs from swallowing.
His ears struggled to make sense of the sounds.
His neck nodded his head. “Yeah.”
The grip on his right arm dragged him sideways. He felt water parting around his neck. He blinked. The woods were a green-gray blur all around. He saw a thin ribbon of blue overhead, the sky revealed by the gap of the gully.
“Brenam!” came Kismet’s voice.
“I’m okay,” he said, humiliated.
He blinked and looked around. The jinko was swimming toward the pool’s shore, dragging him by his arm. Water dripped from her erect ears. She glanced back at him, amber eyes annoyed.
His eyes found Kismet on the shore. She looked worried. He had disappointed her.
“I’m alright,” he said.
“Hway no hyu ste a’ da chii?”
He frowned. His feet felt ground and the jinko’s hand let go of him. He gasped and started crawling ashore.
“The hill bug found a Reserved land.”
He crawled to Kismet’s feet. He couldn’t bring himself to look up at her.
“Blue markers,” he said. “Plastic. Old ones.”
Kismet shoved a hand into his left underarm and lifted. He came to his feet.
She was staring at him, curious. The jinko stood beside Kismet, brushing water from her fur. She was wearing a brown top now, covering her breasts, but her hips and female parts were still bare.
“Hidden in the high grass.”
Kismet’s eyes were tight. “Plastic? So, from the Revolution?”
Brenam met her blue eyes, bright in her dark face. He nodded. “The markers were stiff. Not cloth. Very old.”
“Huh,” Kismet said. “We need to let the Telmyr know.”
Nona Green sat in a wooden chair on the viewing platform of the tower of Fort Washington. She had overseen the construction of the tower herself nearly three hundred years ago, when refugees had first gathered against the failures of the Revolution. The tower had weathered over time as her body had not. Its once-sharp edges were now rounded with age, its stone darkened and mottled with lichen while her skin remained fair and clear.
Sitting in chairs beside her were her sanctuary Telmyrs, three men she had known since she was an adjunct professor at The George Washington University. She had kept them hidden from the Gressians for centuries, secreted away in tunnels under the Fort during inspections. If the Gressian Telmyrs found them, they would execute them as masculine threats to the Revolution.
They all sat in the comfortable silence of ancient familiarity, staring across the dark waters of the Potomac at the Haunted Isle. On that island, nearly six hundred years before, the actual George Washington had lived in a house that was now a ransacked ruin. Before it was an island, before ice sheets had slid catastrophically into the sea and the waters rose dozens of feet over two decades.
The sun was setting over the plain of Virginia, low clouds saving their eyes from the direct glare of the sun. The sky was a play of yellow, orange, and pale green. A single skipjack sailed toward the wharf of the Fort, angling to find an empty berth among the dozen or so boats tied up to the docks there.
Nona reached to her right and left, found the hands of Telmyr Wood and Telmyr Needham. She glanced back and forth and squeezed their hands. They smiled back and squeezed back. Old folks with ever-young bodies. Moses Wood nodded his dark, sad face. Paul Needham’s tanned face showed his habitual serenity, then she turned toward Telmyr Wallace who grinned infectiously in his typical youthful way. They were a family, tied together not by genealogy but by sharing the Anti-Aging Treatment.
There was a rhythmic rapping at the wooden hatch to the floor below. It was a pattern that told Nona it was Lieutenant Francis. One of the few officers she had trusted with knowledge of the sanctuary Telmyrs.
“Come,” she said loudly.
The hinges squeaked and the hatch door slammed hard against the stone of the viewing platform.
“Telmyr Green,” the Lieutenant said.
She turned to look at him. Carefully bred brown skin, remnant green eyes, ambiguously curly dark hair. He wore deer-leather armor and the sword-and-pistol armory of a Fort officer. He also held a long gun in one anxiously tight hand.
“Is it urgent?”
He nodded. “Your Reserved student Kismet and her friend Brenam strayed beyond the hunter’s marks to the north. Near the Wild Lands. They saw hill bugs there.”
Nona took a deep breath. Recycling bots were always trouble. One never knew if they’d respect markers.
“I don’t know Brenam.”
“Kismet wants to speak with you about it,” Francis said. “She says the hill bugs found a Reserved field.”
She felt her hands slip from Wood and Needham. The sunset suddenly seemed tragic. The other Telmyrs would know what was troubling her.
“Lieutenant Francis,” she said. “Show my guests to their quarters and then bring little Kismet up.”
The other Telmyrs stood at once and followed Francis down the stairwell. This was a well-rehearsed routine. They would hide away in their secret underground quarters.
As the hatch door came closed, Nona Green was alone on the viewing platform. The broad open windows let in the light of the falling sun. The stone roof above her stood solid, a refuge where the sanctuary Telmyrs had hidden many times during the Toxic Years following the failure of the Revolution, before the secret tunnels had been completed. So much history. So many deceptions.
After a few minutes, she heard the familiar rapping pattern.
“Come,” she said.
The hatch door squeaked behind her, but didn’t slam into the stone of the viewing platform. After a moment, it squeaked again, closing.
“Kismet,” she said, gesturing to her right with a hand without looking back. “Take a seat.”
The young woman shuffled forward and settled herself in the seat where Moses Wood had sat. Nona Green looked at her. She had carefully bred dark skin and hair. Her remnant blue eyes were blinking.
“You went beyond the hunter’s marks north,” she said. “Past the fishers of Oxtown into the Wild Lands? Too close to the Malswamp. Why?”
The young woman sighed. She was embarrassed. “Not quite into the Wild Lands. We were chasing a jinko. Brenam and I.”
“Don’t speak slang to me,” she warned. “They are GenCos. Plural and singular. Genetic cosmetics.”
“I apologize, Telmyr Green.” The young woman sniffed and shifted in her chair.
“You know standard English.”
“I do.” The woman raised herself in the chair. “We saw two recycling bots in a meadow.”
“I heard. Tell me what you saw.”
The woman sniffed again and exhaled hard as if to expel the stress.
“We saw them singing to each other with their tentacles. Then I left Brenam to follow the jinko. The GenCos.”
Nona took this in. It meant that the important part was second-hand news.
“What did Brenam tell you?” She paused in reflection, noting the reddening of the sky. “And how far north were you from the hunter’s marks?”
Kismet gripped the arms of the antique chair and shifted her butt. “We chased the GenCos maybe an hour through the woods past the hunter’s marks.”
“That’s almost the Wild Lands, well toward the Malswamp. Weren’t you afraid?”
The young woman shifted in the chair. “She was very pretty.”
Nona had suspected Kismet’s preferences. She guessed the boy Brenam shared them. Statistically probable.
“That’s all? You wanted a better look at her?”
The young woman sighed. “We wanted wishes, Telmyr.”
Nona groaned. This was a perpetual torment of the Telmyrs. The rising superstitions of those who lived short, normal lives.
“The GenCos cannot grant wishes. That’s fantasy. I had hoped you learned this.”
Kismet grew stiff. Nona glanced sideways at her. The young woman’s lips were tight, defensive.
“She was still very pretty. We chased her to get a kiss.”
Nona stifled a chuckle. Young folks were so passionate. “How pretty was she?”
Kismet shrank a bit. “Very. I kissed her. I promised her knives and cow cheese in return for a goat.”
“Must have been quite a kiss.” Nona was amused by the promise, and she settled herself to help Kismet honor that promise—the Fort could use another goat and better relations with the GenCos—but she felt bound by duty to return to important matters. “Okay, tell me what Brenam saw the bots do.”
Kismet sniffed. “He saw them part after they finished mating. Then, one of them found blue markers in the meadow they were in.”
Nona stood up straight at that.
“What sort of blue markers?”
“Old ones. Plastic.”
“How do you know?”
“Brenam said they were stiff and corroded.”
Nona took this in. This was an ancient trouble. A horrific trouble. She knew what those old fields hid.
Kismet shifted. “What’s in there?”
Nona felt her lips pressing against each other. “The ghosts of the Revolution. Never speak of that place. Never tell anyone of that place.”
Kismet took the next step, which Nona knew. “Brenam won’t speak of it, either.”
“It’s too late for that, Kismet. He has to be brought in.”
Out of the corner of her vision, Nona saw the young woman sit up straight in Telmyr Wood’s chair.
“He’s Reserved now?”
Telmyr Green felt her shoulders sag. She hated being forced into a compromise. The Reserved were regularly very carefully chosen. The secrets they protected, from the commoners and from the Gressians, were dangerous secrets. Her sanctuary Telmyrs. The books they kept. The truth of the Revolution.
“He has to be. He must take the oath, and keep it.”