Echo Hunter 367 studied the dying woman in the desert with grudging admiration. The woman had walked long past what might reasonably be expected, if that lurching stagger could be called a walk. When she couldn’t walk anymore, she had crawled, and after that she had dragged herself along, fingers clawing through sand until they clutched some purchase, body scraping over rocks and debris, heedless of the damage. Now and then she made a noise, a purely animal grunt of effort or pain, but she forced herself onward, all the way until the end.
I smell the water.
Desperate as the woman was, she had still been cautious. Though an incalculable distance from any familiar place, she still recognized danger: the wind-borne sand that scoured exposed skin clean to the bone, the predators that stalked patiently in the shadows for prey too weak to flee. The cliff edge that a careless girl could slip over, body suspended in space for the briefest moment before her hands tore through the thornbush, then the long hard fall.
Echo jerked back from that imagined edge. It was her last purposeful movement. From some great height, she watched herself collapse in the sand. One grasping hand, nails torn, knuckles bloody, landed only a few meters from the spring’s cool water, but she never knew it. For a little while her body twitched in irregular spasms, then those too stilled. Only her lips moved, cracking into a bloody smile. “Lia,” she whispered. “Lia.” Then she fell into the dark.
For a long time there was no sound except water trickling in a death rattle over stones.
Then the high whine of engines scattered the circling predators.
Pain returned first, of course. Every inch of skin burned, blistered by sun or rubbed raw by the sand that had worked its way inside the desert-proof clothing. Her muscles ached from too long an effort with no fuel and insufficient water, and her head pounded without mercy. Even the movement of air in and out of her lungs hurt, as if she had inhaled fire. But that pain meant she was breathing, and if she was breathing, she still had to fight. With enormous effort she dragged open her eyes, only to meet a blinding brightness.
She made a sound and tasted hot salt as her lips cracked open again. “Shh,” a soft voice said. “Shh.” Something cool, smelling of resin and water, settled over her eyes, shielding them from the glare. A cloth dabbed at her mouth, then a finger smoothed ointment over her lips, softening them so they wouldn’t split further when she was finally able to speak. Lia, she thought, letting herself rest in that gentle strength until the pain subsided into manageable inputs. Then she began to take stock.
She lay on something soft, not the rock that had made her bed for so many weeks, although her abused flesh still ached at every pressure point. The air felt cool but still, unlike the probing desert wind, and it carried, beyond the herbal tang, a scent rich and round, unlike the silica sharpness of sand she’d grown so accustomed to. Filtered through the cloth over her eyes, the light seemed diffuse, too dim for the sun. Indoors, then, and not a temporary shelter, but a place with thick walls, and a bed, and someone with sufficient resources to retrieve a dying woman from the desert, and a reason to do so. But what that reason might be eluded her. The Church would never rescue a failure.
Unless the Saint commanded it.
She mustered all her strength and dragged the cloth from her eyes. She blinked away grit until the blurred oval hovering above her took on distinct features, the soft line of the cheek, the gently curving lips. Lia, she thought again, and in her weakness tears washed the vision away. She wiped her eyes with a trembling hand.
And stared into the face of an utter stranger.
“Who are you?” the woman who was not Lia asked, in an accent that was strange but understandable.
She knew the answer, she realized, though a moment ago she could not have said. A hunter. Echo Hunter 367, if specificity were required. Once she had been interchangeable with all the others. Now—everything came back at once: the city, the rebellion, her mission. The Saint. There were recent gaps, stretches of time where her mind had simply not captured any information, but that was unsurprising given the length and desperation of her journey. What was surprising was that she had survived; she had not expected to. Had not particularly wanted to.
But she had her duty. Instead of answering the woman’s question, she croaked through a still-parched throat, “What is this place?”
The woman pursed her lips thoughtfully. They didn’t look much like Lia’s, now that Echo could see more clearly. They were thinner, in a narrow face that was tanned from sun, though not nearly so dark as a hunter’s, with a slightly crooked nose and eyes that were plain and brown as any ordinary cityen’s. “The dispensary. I’m the physic this turn. Khyn.” The woman’s eyebrows lifted. They were plain and brown too, like the hair that she wore in a simple braid tucked behind one shoulder. A few strands had come loose and stuck damply down the side of her neck. “I usually just see cuts and broken bones, and every now and then someone gets sick. Little things. Nothing like what happened to you. Whatever that was.”
Since that wasn’t a question, there was no obligation to answer. Echo looked past the woman, studying as much of her surroundings as she could see without having to turn her head. Only part of one wall was visible from this angle; aside from a shuttered window, it was entirely lined with built-in shelves and cabinets that were made of metal and wood, and even some thinly plated glass. Most of the drawers were marked with labels that looked machine-written rather than hand-copied, and on paper that might not have been used for something else first. The lettering was too small to read from here; those details could wait for later. The room was lit by three parallel light tubes much like those in a Church laboratory, and an unseen fan, humming just above cityen hearing, moved enough air to keep the temperature comfortably cool. Power to spare, then.
Power meant a Saint to keep it running.
Echo breathed through a stabbing pain.
A med, or something like one; a laboratory; a Saint—she had found another Church. Another city.
Until now she had not believed it possible. For four hundred annuals since the Fall, the city—her city—had thought itself orphaned by the catastrophe. The great array of dishes in the desert had listened, hunters had searched, most never returning; but none, ever, had found a sign of other survivors.
She wondered briefly if this were a hallucination, a final wish as her body failed in some desolate waste. If so, there might be no way to tell. But then she knew: her last dream would not be of duty, however much it should be.
She worked to steady her breath. It took a little time.
“I need to see the Patri,” Echo demanded.
The woman’s brow furrowed. “You need to rest. I’ve given you some fluid”—she gestured, and only now did Echo notice the pricking of the thin tube inserted into her left forearm—“but it’s too soon for you to eat.” She rolled her chair forward to pinch the back of Echo’s hand gently. When she let go, the skin made a little tent that stood up for a few seconds before slipping back into place. “You’re still awfully dry, but it’s safer to fix it slowly. I’m sorry; you must feel terrible.”
“Fine,” Echo said, “I’m fine,” but darkness was gathering in the corners of her vision again. “The Patri—I have to see him. I have a message.”
“I’ll take it. Just tell me, and then you can rest.”
Echo shook her head. “The Patri,” she insisted, or tried to, but the tiny movement had shaken her thoughts loose. The woman leaned forward again to do something with the tube, and the shadows rolled nearer, then closed over Echo altogether.
The woman, Khyn, was still watching her when she awoke again. This time Echo had the sense to keep quiet, only slitting her eyes to evaluate the situation before blurting further questions. In the windowless room she could not judge the passing of time, but it must not have been very long: loose strands of Khyn’s braid still clung to her neck, and the chair sat at the exact same angle to the bed. In Echo’s experience cityens seldom could keep themselves still very long. That made them different from the patient predators of the desert, though no less dangerous.
Nor was Khyn the only other person in the room, though Echo thought they had been alone before. She couldn’t see the others, but she heard them breathing, faster than seemed normal, two or three of them over by the far wall where the door must be. One door, a shuttered window; not ideal in her current condition, but then, she hadn’t come this far only to try to escape. She was here for their help, if she could persuade them to provide it. The people by the door—male, most likely, from the smell, though it wasn’t always easy to tell—fidgeted; she heard the tiny squeak of leather as a boot shifted. They were anxious, watching her, and why not? Even if they didn’t recognize what she was, they must have been surprised to find a stranger in the desert. Shocked, more like: Echo had seen no sign of any other human in the many weeks since she had left the city in search of other survivors. She had traveled west as far as she could, choosing that direction for no reason other than to know that the sun touched the city—Lia—before it reached her. Then the great rift in the earth had forced her north for so long that she wondered if she had truly reached the edge of the world. By the time she found a way down the cliffs and across the barren bottomlands, she was near the end of her strength, and she’d spent the last of that climbing out the other side.
She wondered how they had found her.
That was unimportant now. What mattered was her mission, and to accomplish that she had to gain their trust. She moved her limbs deliberately, like a restless sleeper awakening, then allowed her eyes to open fully and turned her head. It didn’t hurt quite as badly as before.
“She’s awake,” Khyn called to the strangers. “Wait, give her some room to breathe, will you? She might still be delirious.”
“We’ll see.” A male face, bearded and not at the moment friendly, pushed itself into Echo’s vision. “Who are you? What’s your name?”
Delirious might be useful. “The desert—the desert—”
“We know you were in the desert. Who was with you? Were you looking for something?”
“So hot,” she muttered. “The sun—find shelter, I need to, I—”
“You’re safe here,” Khyn said, shooting a glare at the man. “Can you tell us anything about yourself? What’s the last thing you remember?”
“I’m not . . .” She let her voice trail off, then grow stronger. “I’m not sure.” Then, as if seeing her surroundings for the first time, she widened her eyes. “Where am I?”
“Safe,” Khyn repeated. “You’re in the preserve. We just need to figure some things out. Now try to think: can you remember how you ended up in the desert?”
The young hunter Gem, wishing her luck, had dropped her at the limit of the aircar’s reach. What would that better version of herself think now? “I—I don’t know,” Echo said. She wiped her mouth. “So dry. Do you have water?”
“Plenty. Hand me that container, Birn, would you?”
The bearded man complied with a frown as Khyn slid an arm around Echo’s shoulders. “Here, let’s see if you can sit up.” Echo let herself lean into the wiry arm; in truth, she wasn’t completely certain she could rise unassisted. It was better once her feet were on the floor and the cool liquid was running down her throat. The water was flavorless beyond a faint metallic taste. Filtered, maybe even distilled. And Khyn said they had plenty of it. The source must be secure.
“She’s well enough,” Birn said. “The team will want to see her.”
Khyn nodded. “When’s Stigir going to be ready?”
“Late meal. He’s with the stewards.”
“Again? He goes in and out too much. It’s not good for him.”
“He knows what he’s doing. He sent the vektere out searching again; he wanted the stewards to be aware.”
The man by the door spoke for the first time. “If anyone else were out there, we’d’ve found them. We followed her trail hours back, until it was wind scrubbed. She was alone.”
Hours. How long had she been unconscious? That gap was dangerous. If she had really been delirious, if she had spoken—but they didn’t know her name, or whether she had companions, or where she had come from. Even if her mind had rambled, she couldn’t have given anything important away. “I’ll tell you whatever I can,” she offered.
“Now, if the Patri is ready.”
The three of them exchanged glances in a way she didn’t like. “Let me know when Stigir’s in,” Khyn said. “I’ll bring her to the team.”
“We can question her now,” Birn said.
“When Stigir’s back. The whole team should be there.”
The man scowled; Khyn met it with a little shrug. “Fine,” he said at last. “Jole, you stay here and watch. Call me if anything changes.”
When he was out the door Khyn said, “Don’t let Birn upset you. He’s just arguing because it was my idea. Once you talk to the team it will be fine.”
Echo doubted that. Birn reminded her of someone else, a boy she had known once, and made into an enemy. It wasn’t his looks, but that suspicion, the instant dislike he had taken to a stranger in his people’s midst . . . She let the last sip of water wash her mouth before swallowing reluctantly.
Khyn took the empty container from her. “Let me get you some more.” She returned with it and watched, smiling, as Echo drank. “Do you think you can stand for a few minutes? You’ll feel better if we clean you up a bit.” Khyn helped her into an alcove where indulgently warm water flowed at the turn of a handle, then into someone else’s clothes. The cloth was soft, pleasant against her stinging skin. “We’ll clean yours and give them back to you later. If there’s anything left of them.”
“Thank you,” Echo said, settling back into the bed. Even that small effort had exhausted her. Just as she let her eyes drift closed, Khyn asked, “Who’s Lia?”
“Don’t worry. I won’t tell Birn. Or even Stigir. I know that tone of voice when I hear it, even if it comes from someone talking half out of her head.” Khyn hesitated. “You were alone when they found you. If there’s somewhere else we should be looking . . .” For a body, Echo knew she meant.
“No one came with me.” Only in her heart, where Lia’s voice still sang wordlessly. For a time, in those first days, she had thought it was real, like the Saint’s thoughts that the priests interpreted through the patterns on their control boards in the sanctuary. When she listened to it, she saw Lia’s golden eyes, felt Lia’s arms holding her with that strength so different from a hunter’s, tasted her lips, full and soft as they had been in that one night . . . With time and distance the voice had faded, until now it was only an echo of something that might have never been. That made it no less real, to her.
“It sounded like she was important to you.”
“It doesn’t matter now. She’s gone.”
The word was a stab of pain, like a stunwand charge firing through her nerves. Her silence was answer enough.
“I’m sorry.” Khyn’s fingers interlaced in her lap. “Try to sleep. Stigir won’t be back for a while, and you need the rest. I won’t give you anything this time, I promise.”
Echo almost wished she would. She was certain that sleep would evade her, as it so often did; or worse, bring with it the dreams. But this time when she closed her eyes, the shadows found her on their own, and took her nowhere except the dark.