The girl Hunter murdered in the desert was only thirteen.
Hunter eased the aircar closer to the cliff’s edge, hovering just above the bleached white stone stained bloody by the setting sol. Emptiness spread in every direction, silent and watchful. Hunter felt it pressing down as she studied the cautious tracks she had followed for the last few miles. The girl had tried to obscure them, as she had been taught, but Hunter knew the desert far too well to be deceived. The tracks ended in a patch of scuffed sand. A broken thornbush trailed over the edge where a desperate hand had ripped through it in a last failed grab at salvation. It was obvious now what had happened.
She settled the aircar in the dry creek bed a hundred feet below. Already the cliff cast a long shadow across the canyon. The day’s heat still radiated from the stone, but Hunter could feel the chill in the breeze probing for gaps in her clothing, a mild warning of the harsh night to come. She had to hurry; the scavengers would gather quickly once true night fell. Even she did not want to be caught in the open then.
Her boots squeaked a little in the fine layer of dust, though she could have moved silently had it mattered. Glancing up to the torn spot at the edge of the cliff, she estimated the fall line and began to search the bottom in a systematic grid. It was only a few minutes before she spotted the still form crumpled facedown among the rocks.
The ground warmed her as she knelt. She could see why the girl hadn’t called out for help: her shoulders rose and fell with desperate effort, no breath to spare. Hunter rolled her gently on her back.
The girl’s eyes were open, pupils dilated wide with shock. Her chalk-white face was bathed in sweat despite the chill. Even so, when the girl spoke, her voice, weak as it was, came out calm, controlled. “You came for me. I knew you would.”
“We don’t waste anyone.”
The eyes, dark as Hunter’s own, closed briefly, dragged open again with an enormous effort. “The others?”
“Everyone else returned as scheduled.” Eight out of nine, a good outcome for this exercise. Ten sols alone in the desert culled the weak quickly, but none of the rest had called for rescue, and the girl had not had time. The 378s were a strong batch; there had only been fourteen to begin with, thirteen annuals ago. When Hunter had been this age only eight were left. The priests always made more, but it was never quite the same as your own batch.
“That’s good,” the girl whispered breathlessly. Her eyes wandered up the cliff.
“Tell me how it happened,” Hunter said, though she already knew. It didn’t matter; there was still a little time, and the girl deserved a chance to make her report.
“I was following some canids.” She had to stop and gather air. “I thought they’d lead me to water.”
“That was a reasonable plan.”
“It almost worked. I smelled the spring, but I let myself get too close to the edge, even though you taught us that the rocks there often crumble.” Hunter had never taught this batch. The girl’s mind was wandering, or maybe it was only the failing light. Snatching what breath she could, the girl continued, “I was so thirsty, and I thought . . . And then I fell. I broke my leg,” she added, glancing at the pink and white splinters thrusting out of the torn flesh. Her eyes came back to Hunter’s. “It doesn’t hurt. I don’t feel anything.”
“I know.” Hunter edged around a little. “Here, let me help you sit up.” The girl was a boneless weight against her, arms dangling, a handful of sand trickling between limp fingers as Hunter knelt behind her, holding her close. “It’s all right, Ela. You did well.” The lie wouldn’t hurt anything now.
The girl’s head lolled back against Hunter’s shoulder, eyes searching her face as if trying to focus across a great distance. Her whisper was barely audible. “Which one are you?”
“Number five, like me.”
“Yes, Ela.” She eased one palm around to cup the back of the girl’s head, the other gently cradling her chin. “Ready?”
The girl’s nod was only the barest motion between her hands. Hunter let her lips rest against the girl’s dusty hair for a short moment. She felt the girl’s mouth move in a smile against her fingers.
Then, with a swift and practiced motion, Hunter snapped her neck.
In a trick of the sunset the spire of the Church glowed, a wire filament burning in a lamp to guide her home. The crossed antennas rose above like a man with arms outstretched to embrace the city. Beneath, the rose window was an eye gazing out at the horizon.
The sky was dark by the time she stood before the massive doors, staring up and up as she always did when she first returned from the desert. The doors faced away from the compound, setting the line between Church and city with an edge not entirely physical; whoever had built them, long before the Fall, had meant the scale to show a greatness far beyond the mere human. Even before the newer defenses had been added, anyone seeking to enter, friend or otherwise, would have to pause here to consider the indifferent power he faced. The great planks were wider than her torso, bolted top and bottom to make the vertical run three times human height, and the worked-metal bindings looked as strong today as the day they were forged. In the center of the doors, just along the seam at chest height, the bindings flattened into a pair of panels. A hand there, and the door knew who sought to enter. Many fates had been decided with a simple touch.
She raised a grimy palm to the panel. Normally there was no wait. Tonight the doors seemed to hesitate, weighing her worth, before the mechanism clicked and they dragged open, permitting her to enter.
Behind its thick walls the cathedral was cool and dim, conditions that changed little day or night. This was the oldest part of the Church, the hewn stone ancient even before the Fall. Stone walls flanked either side of the cathedral for a few hundred paces. Where they left off, the forcewall, invisible but in some ways stronger than the stone, curved to encompass the whole compound. In the other direction, the Saint’s thoughts carried the forcewall in a vast circle separating city from desert, and the canids and other dangers that flourished in the absence of men.
Hunter crossed the nave into the sanctuary. Above her head, the vaulted ceilings arched high, a space calculated to awe the men who used to come here in search of something greater than themselves. Now the echoing silence only mirrored the emptiness of the world. Still, it was a miracle of engineering, this huge enclosure constructed from nothing more than small blocks of stone cemented expertly together. The forebears must have glimpsed long into the future to choose this place as their last refuge against the Fall. It was no allegory, the Patri always said, that the ancient cathedral stood intact so long after the metal and glass of newer buildings had fallen into ruins. The Church simply had the capacity to repair the stone.
The altar rose in the center of the sanctuary, surrounded by the panels and stations the priests tended. Lights played across the screens in patterns unreadable to a hunter, the priests’ fingers tapping responses with swift precision. Upon the altar lay the Saint. A glittering crown of copper connected her to the machines that preserved the remains of the city, maintaining the forcewall that blocked the wilderness out, the generators that gave the cityens a bit of light in the darkness and heat to keep them from freezing to death in the winter, and more important, powered the crypts where the priests did their work to keep the Church itself alive; for only the Church could preserve what was left of the world. That was the central truth of all life in the four hundred annuals since the Fall: without the Saint, the Church would die; without the Church, the city.
Hunter bowed her head. She envied the priests, who could know the Saint’s thoughts, or what passed for thoughts in a mind that was so much greater now than human. The Saint spoke to them through the boards, but no one knew where her awareness began or ended, or if anything about it could be considered awareness, the way men conceived of it.
Once the crown was on, there was no asking.
The Saint had been a girl once, before she ascended to that altar. Hunter hoped for her sake that it was like a deep sleep, undisturbed by any dream.
Hunter had spoken to the girl, before she became the Saint, had received her words and judged her. Wrongly, foolishly. She wished devoutly that she could speak with her now, confess, ask forgiveness. If she listened hard enough she could imagine that she still heard the girl’s voice. But that was all it was, imagining, the way a mind would always try to fill a void. To know the Saint’s thoughts was not her place, nor any hunter’s. That she even wished it made her unworthy.
Yet she lingered, listening, until she knew for certain she would hear no voice answering her from the silence.
The Patri waited for her at the inner gate, sure enough sign of his concern. He must have been standing there for some time; the motion-activated lights glowed softly where he stood, but the path back to the domiciles was lost in darkness. Another man might have wished for less illumination: Hunter hadn’t had time to go back to the spring before night fell, and a quick roll in the sand had done little to scrub the blood and gore from her clothes. The Patri only nodded as she came down the steps from the mundane inner doors. “You found her in time, I see.”
Hunter nodded, drawing the little vial from her pocket with a sticky hand. “Her ovaries were perfectly intact. I left the rest for the scavengers; there was nothing of value.”
The Patri accepted the bottle without hesitation, secreting it in a fold of his loose-flowing robe. “What delayed you? The aircar landed some while ago.”
Dust clung to a wet stain across the toe of her boot. “I’m sorry, Patri. I came in through the sanctuary.”
She heard the long breath he let out. “Very well. Go bathe. I will have a meal sent to you if you wish.”
Hunter’s stomach twisted. “Not now, thank you, Patri.”
His wise gaze was nearly unbearable. “Rest, then. There will be much to do in the morning.”
Hunter let her normally silent footfalls beat a warning down the stone steps to the baths. Two young priests, interrupted in their dalliance, fled flushed and dripping as she came into the chamber. Steam rose gently from pools heated by the same source deep below that also powered systems throughout the Church, even the altar where the Saint lay. But Hunter did not want to think of the Saint, not now.
She stripped quickly, dropping her clothes in a pile for the young nun who tiptoed in silently to collect them. The fabric was another miracle bequeathed by the forebears; by morning it would be washed clean as if never worn, blank and unstained. She caught sight of herself reflected on the calm surface of the pool, a body lean and muscled as all hunters were, marred here and there by blood and grime; the face a dusty mask with two narrow channels washed clean beneath the eyes. Ela stared back at her without accusation.
She closed her eyes and slipped into the water, floating still as death long after the last ripple died away against the stone.