Ever fulgent Pandia Selene cast red-limned shadows across the landscape. On any other night, Nedra would’ve stopped to admire the moon, but out here, near the edge of the Mandy Brots, she forced herself to stay alert.
The fetid air and the twisted fungal structures that loomed in the ruddy moonlight suffused her with the nervous excitement of meeting a long lost friend. Nedra filled her lungs through her nose filters. This was where she’d remade herself back before Boom Shroom went out of style.
But nobody wants this stuff anymore. Why had Dok Shabbat sent her here? The market had moved on to Selenic Tastes and Nedra had moved with it. The Tastes she provided her clients were exquisite and she made a tidy profit. Lately, she’d been sampling the wares herself, just a dream here and there to make life livable. Tastes of what can never be.
Nedra peered past a ten-foot branching growth before her into the ever deeper hues of crimson beyond. Somewhere in there lurked the Moldy Mikes, guardians of the Brots. Their telltale bluish glow would alert her when they were near. No immediate danger. She snipped a small fractal from the growth, and placed it in a waxy packet.
A moan from the bowels of the Brots prickled Nedra’s skin and she shivered. Her slow contemplative pace was going to get her killed – or worse. She hastened forward. Harvest the deeper forms first, sleezebrain.
The moonlight dimmed to a dull ache. Temperature and humidity rose, smothering sound and stifling breath. Nedra sliced off a segment from an enormous mockoli, then sampled a fiddlehead curled above.
Azure light appeared deep in the Brots. It danced and fractured as it reflected off the confounding fungus. Moldies! They were responding to her harvest, but in what numbers? From which direction? Nedra spun and her heart sped. Which way is out?
She dropped to all fours. Convection pulled cool outside air along the forest floor and the breeze made it easier to breathe. She headed upwind. The spongy loam emitted a smoky stream of spores that stung her eyes. After a dozen yards, something twisted under her hastily placed hand.
Nedra recoiled. Snake? An arm. Man? The flesh felt like clay. A sleezoid. Nedra found a faint pulse. Alive, but near its expiration date. What was a shadow clone doing out here? Unusual. And unusual sleezoids carried unusual Tastes. Maybe this trip will be lucrative after all. They’d both need to get out alive first. The moan whispered through the forest, closer now. Easier said than done.
Nedra slapped the sleezoid. Its eyelids fluttered but remained closed. She grabbed its collar and dragged it only a few feet before slumping in exhaustion. The fabric in her hands was part of a high quality robe like those the Patriarchs wore instead of the usual throwaway overalls of a shadow. Even stranger.
A rustle accompanied the moan and the dance of blue lights took on a stroboscopic effect. The sweat dripping down Nedra’s neck turned to ice-water. She flopped into a crabwalk, her heels kicking up clouds of spores.
The sleezoid’s hand grabbed her ankle and its eyes opened, transfixing hers. “I have a message for you.”
A troop of Mikes broke from cover. The harsh blue glow of their skin rendered the scene in oversaturated blobs. They pinned her arms to the ground and surreal silence enveloped her, lifting only when she ran out of breath, her ears ringing with her own high-pitched keen.
An insistent voice spoke within her mind. We have little time. Taste our truth.
A Mike secured a neural link to the sleezoid and brought the other end toward Nedra. She increased her struggle but was unable to escape as it jacked into her neural port. White light flooded her brain and clenched her teeth. Her tongue tasted its own blood.
We suggest you calm yourself.
A vault in Nedra’s mind cracked open, releasing forgotten despair. Violated. Her mind squirmed away from the repulsive recollection.
Another memory surfaced. She held a small boy in her arms. His eyes were pools of misery and love. Hot dry skin wrapped around bones of kindling. Noah. The spore fever ravaged his tiny body until his life flickered on the edge of extinction. She trembled, her heart fluttering in time to Noah’s waning flame.
“Don’t cry Mommy. I won’t leave you.”
His courage was ever her inspiration. For him she could endure. She pushed the helplessness away.
Nedra floated, bodiless. Below her, the shadow’s primary stood, a tall man with a proud bearing and black piercing eyes. She entered his head and his self-assurance whipped through her mind like the cold exhaust from the chillers in Dok Shabbat’s specimen lab, stripping away doubt and leaving unadorned certainty.
Exceptional quality. Nedra mentally ran through her client list, tallying the high rollers who would pay a premium for such a Taste. This could make my year. The involvement of the Moldies added a layer of risk, however.
The word entered Nedra’s mind from the Taste as a correction and a rebuke. Not Moldies, Cherubim. Cherubim was a Patriarch word. She queried the Taste’s ipseity node. “I am Enoch, son of Jared, father of Methuselah, Patriarch and chosen of God.”
Yeesh. Sorry I asked. The legend of Enoch was an official teaching told to every child early and often. He was the father of the current Patriarch and his supposed accession to heaven was used as proof of God’s favor for the Patriarchs’ rule.
Maybe this was an over-produced simulation, a satirical gift from Pandia Selene. If so, just being exposed to it would carry a death sentence.
Meh. She committed half-dozen capital crimes a day. Who didn’t? What else did this Taste have to offer? Enoch stood at the top of a tower. Zion, the city of the Patriarchs, was spread below. Pandia Selene hung in the sky, dimmed to the color of dried blood. As in the real world, Zion was surrounded by the Mandy Brots. Clouds of steam rose from the twisted structures of the forest.
“Behold, the destruction of humanity,” Enoch said. Pandia Selene darkened until it was as black as the night. Then it flared a baleful blue. Beneath them, the mist from the forest roiled upward in clouds that obscured the sky. Water fell.
Rain. Nedra had read stories of this. It started as a patter and increased to a torrent. Enoch stood impassive in the deluge. Lightning flared, revealing only more rain. The thunder was drowned in the roar of water.
Time itself was washed away and the rain subsided slower than senses could detect. When the sun shone yellow in a blue sky, it was always thus. Below them the Brots marched from horizon to horizon, all evidence of Zion washed away. “This is the fate God has ordained. I’ve come to bring my people unto Him but they have forsaken me,” Enoch said.
Without warning, Nedra found herself returned to her body and lying on her back. A Mike stood over her holding the jack. Time’s up. You must go. The Mikes melted back into the forest.
The sleezoid was already standing. “I have little time. I must uplink to my primary before this body expires.”
Nedra held her head and she squinted up at him. “Good luck with that.” She stood and walked away. He had little value, Enoch or not. Slenoch. She snorted. His Taste, inflammatory as it was, was unsalable and right now all she wanted was to go home and kiss Noah’s sleeping forehead.
“Not all the Cherubim are sympathetic to our cause,” Slenoch said.
He watched her with a steady gaze. “And you’re headed toward them.”
Nedra bit her lip. Nice one, sleezebrain. She going the wrong direction and Slenoch knew it. “So, why do you need an uplink? I thought you Patriarchs hate Pandia.”
“Not to Pandia.” Slenoch’s lips curled in disgust. “I must report to my principle, Enoch.”
“Let me guess, in Heaven, right?”** The blue lights reappeared deep in the forest.
“We must leave.” Slenoch led the way and within a few yards they were out of the forest.
Relief flooded Nedra and she oriented herself on home.
Slenoch walked beside her. “Not Heaven. Eden. Enoch awaits his people there, but it is guarded by the Cherubim.”
Nedra paused. “What does that have to do with me?”
Pandia Selene was setting. Nedra sighed. She would never live there. Her uplink implant was considered an unacceptable threat by Pandian security, even if she had the shecks for a complete upload. But Noah can still go. As soon as she could afford it, she’d buy his way out of this hell.
“You have an uplink. I have intelligence Enoch needs,” Slenoch replied.
“I have an uplink to Pandia Selene. Nobody has an uplink to Eden. Or even heard of it.” Nedra started walking again. The sun would be up soon, and with it unwanted attention.
“You don’t, but you know someone who can make one.” Slenoch followed her. His unsteady gait and gray skin resembled a warmed-over corpse.
Nedra swallowed to stifle her disgust. The sleezoid was full of crap and even if his story were true, he was an agent of the Patriarchs. “Go ask Methuselah for help.”
She broke into a lope so Slenoch couldn’t keep up. She lived in the Pods, makeshift shelters that lined the walls of Zion, made from discarded nano-carbon transport containers, rocket fuselage, and other durable relics from before the Great Schism. No one had bothered to move them from where they’d been abandoned. To do so was to admit to their usefulness and acknowledge what had been lost.
Instead, the good people in Zion and the not so good people outside paid Nedra to supply them with Tastes from Pandia Selene where everything was perfect and eternal.
Nedra scrunched her nose as something scurried over her feet. Down here, they lived among rats, cockroaches, and unreliable plumbing. No need for plumbing in Pandia. No need for shelter, or medicine, or contraception. The irony was the Pandians sent their shadow clones to experience life in the raw hi-def of reality, trading their Tastes for a more visceral experience.
All very illegal, which enabled Nedra to profit by facilitating the trade. But where did Slenoch fit into this equation? This new Eden, if it existed, how would it affect business? Opportunity or threat? Perhaps she’d been short-sighted leaving him behind.
She listened for Slenoch in the early dawn stillness. Deep in the warren of half-buried tubes and haphazard stacks of transport containers, everything was gray and encrusted in dung-colored graffiti. No sound of him. He was too far behind to follow her. Nedra vacillated. Go back for him so no one else profited, or go home and good riddance?
A deep voice rumbled nearby sending a spike of adrenalin through her. “He’s close. Find him.”
A Nephew! She ducked into the shadow of the nearest Pod and calmed her breathing enough to pick out the heavy footsteps. Three or four of them were spread out around her. What’re they doing here? One moved into view. Its bald misshapen head swiveled on top of its ten-foot frame as it peered into the gloom.
Nedra wished herself smaller and hoped her dark cloak melded with the shadows. The Nephews were the unwholesome spawn of sleezoid and human and were considered abominations by the Patriarchy to be killed whenever found. Nevertheless, Pandia Selene managed to provision a few troops of them as their agents on the ground. It was rare to see one and rarer to survive the incident.
The Nephew looked in Nedra’s direction, its eyes narrowed to slits as it shuffled toward her. Nedra held her breath, gauging the optimum time to run. Her nerves screamed she was already too late. A voice crackled near the giant’s ear and it straightened, eyes unfocused, and then disappeared around the corner.
Nedra lay limp until her heartbeat slowed. She forced herself up and slinked after the Nephew. Better a curious cat than an ignorant mouse.
She stayed a dozen yards behind the giant as he stomped to the entrance of a hangar-sized tube. Inside, four more Nephews surrounded a human. Slenoch was slumped at his feet. Nedra crept closer, careful to stay in the shadows.
One of the giants said, “You have five minutes, no more. Our orders are to confirm his destruction.”
“You forget who’s calling the shots,” the man replied. “He’s mine until I say otherwise.”
Nedra knew that voice. Her stomach twisted and her mouth went dry. Lamech. He was the Patriarch’s son who, unlike everyone else in Zion, made no pretense to be pious.
He was also Noah’s father.
The lead giant grunted and stood aside. Lamech nudged Slenoch with his foot. “On your feet, worm.”
Slenoch groaned and rose to a sitting position. “You jeopardize all by ignoring my warnings.”
“Silence. Your inane babblings have caused enough trouble. Father needs to know only one thing from you. Who told you the Sacred Word?”
“I’ve explained. I am an incarnation of Enoch,” the sleezoid replied.
The back of Lamech’s hand knocked Slenoch to the ground. “Enoch is dead. Only fools believe otherwise.”
Nedra’s cheek suffered a sympathetic twinge. The sting unearthed the forgotten humiliation of innocence ripped asunder. Rage erupted within her breast, launching her toward Lamech.
Slenoch spit out a tooth. “God made us fools by making us prideful.” He stood, drawing all eyes to him, his own fixed upon Nedra. “Yet He would save us if we let Him.”
Nedra was among the giants. Her only plan was to not get caught, and to punch Lamech’s smug, beady-eyed face, not necessarily in that order. The element of surprise aided her on both counts. The Nephews were slow to react to the small woman darting around their legs. Lamech only had time to follow Slenoch’s gaze. His eyes widened in surprise if not recognition.
Nedra’s fist landed on his jaw with a knuckle-numbing crack. Her follow-through left her stumbling down the tunnel. Slenoch was already ahead of her, running faster than she thought possible.
Her elation was short-lived. Hidden in the shadows, several men waited. Nedra ran straight into a bear hug. Her struggles could not loosen the grip.
“Easy, lass. We won’t hurt you,” her captor said.
“We’ll save that honor for Lamech,” the man holding Slenoch added. Harsh laughter echoed around the tunnel.
Lamech approached, massaging an angry welt on his jaw. Nedra’s hand tingled in triumph. One out of two ain’t bad. She struggled to appear calm as Lamech peered into her face.
“Someone as pretty as you, surely we’ve met before.” A cold smile flickered on Lamech’s thin lips. “Ah yes. Nedra, isn’t it? The one who got away.” His finger traced the side of her face. “Shame I’ll have to kill you, or we’d get reacquainted.”
Nedra spat. Anger exploded on Lamech’s face and his fist doubled her over, retching.
Lamech moved on to Slenoch. “And you, that’s twice you’ve evaded my questions.”
“We cannot allow a third,” a Nephew said. “Security insists we destroy him immediately. He is too dangerous to remain alive.”
Lamech straightened, his back to the giants and his face an expressionless mask. He addressed one of his men. “Our large friends have outlived their usefulness.”
The man nodded and barked an order. The tunnel erupted into a cacophony of shots, shouts and screams. Nedra stomped the heel of her boot into her captor’s shin and slammed her head into his chin. Stars blossomed behind her eyes but the vice that pinioned her arms loosened. She stomped again and broke free.
Slenoch was already running down the tunnel behind a tall gray-haired man. Nedra followed, taking one last glance over her shoulder. All the giants were down or obscured by a haze of smoke. Lamech shouted and a couple of men charged after her.
Nedra’s pounding head took a few moments to place the man in front of Slenoch. Dok Shabbat! He turned, his eyes meeting hers, and waved her forward. When she pulled even, he said, “Take our friend to my lab. Use the underground. I’ll take care of the pursuit and meet you there.”
Nedra nodded. Shabbat dropped back and she continued running, Slenoch in tow. The tunnel widened and filled with the sour smell of habitation. Sleepy voices questioned as they ran past. Nedra slowed her pace to avoid stumbling over the blanketed obstacles.
The floor sloped downward, and dirt gave way to bare carbon. Nedra led Slenoch toward a side tunnel. Two armed guards blocked the entrance. Another man sat behind a desk.
Nedra leaned on the desk, fighting the stitch in her side. When her ragged breathing allowed, she asked, “What’s the toll today, Sammy?”
Sammy looked her and Slenoch over with a critical eye. “A thousand shecks.”
Nedra’s jaw dropped. “What? That’s robbery! You never charge more than a hundred.”
“You never been running from something. You gotta pay for the trouble you bring.” He watched Nedra, his eyes impassive. “Or you can find another way.”
“Fine.” Nedra handed him her sheck stick. He placed it in his scanner and the green bar on its side drained by a third. Nedra groaned “Come on, Sl—Enoch.”
“Hold on,” Sammy said. “He’s two thousand.”
“No way! The thousand was for both of us.”
“Yer a thousand. I don’t know him. That makes him two thousand.”
Nedra wanted to scream. It took her years to earn that much. She looked over her shoulder. Shabbat was good to his word, no sign of pursuit. Maybe he would pay her back for the toll. Yeah, and the Patriarchs might learn mercy. Shabbat didn’t give anything away. She should leave Slenoch behind. Just let Lamech have him.
Ha! She wasn’t about to let Lamech have anything he wanted this bad. She handed over the stick again. This time the green bar drained until it was shorter than it was wide. Nedra bit her lip to mask the pain. “You’d better be worth it,” she said to Slenoch.
The shadow shrugged. “Just the fate of all mankind.”
“Shut up.” The guards moved aside and Nedra entered the tunnel, not looking back to see if Slenoch followed.
The underground was designed for efficient movement away from watchful eyes. Nedra led the way through a number of turns, her thoughts elsewhere. Noah would be up by now. What would she tell him? Her life savings were wiped out. He’d be grown before she could afford to send him to Pandia Selene. Long before that he would be taken from her to be “educated” by the Patriarchy. She slammed her fist into the wall.
“You made the right choice,” Slenoch said.
Nedra glared at him. “Didn’t I tell you to shut up? I’ve sacrificed my son’s future. You’ve no idea how that feels.”
Slenoch sighed and looked away. “My son has doomed himself and my people with him. I have failed as a father.”
Nedra swallowed some of her bitterness. She hadn’t conceived they could have anything in common. “Why did you leave? Did you really ascend to Heaven as they say?”
Enoch nodded. “I have gazed upon the face of God. The greatest Blessing and the greatest Curse any mortal can receive.”
Nedra shook her head. “I don’t believe in that stuff. If there’s a God, He doesn’t give a damn about us. Maybe you, but not little people like me.”
“I forgive your blasphemy. You are in pain, but you turn your back on God at your own peril. You dream of Pandia Selene as though it were Heaven. It is not. It is an Abomination. Their Tastes are like a painted whore, nothing but lies covering corruption. They tell you what you want to hear, show you what you want to see and all they ask in return is your Soul. Do not forsake your son to such a fate.”
Nedra’s anger returned like a slap to the face. “Don’t speak of my son again. I’ve spent his entire life protecting him from such lies. Everything you say about Pandia Selene applies double to your God. You’ve seen its face? Exactly what you want to see. You are exalted above all others? Exactly what you want to hear. Meanwhile, you’re blind to the fact that you live with fungus. Oh, sorry, I mean Cheribum. Because, if something glows it must be Holy, right?”
Contempt stamped itself across Slenoch’s gray puffy face. “I apologize. I mistook you for someone who could be saved.”
The remainder of the walk was tense silence punctuated by the echo of their boots.
They stepped out of the tunnel in Nedra’s home Pod. She picked her way past her neighbors giving a few polite nods, but not pausing to talk. Murmurs rippled out from Slenoch’s wake. Nedra hastened up the ladder to her loft and swished the curtain closed as the clone climbed past.
Noah’s bed was made up and empty. He wasn’t elsewhere in their rooms either. Probably out playing buckyball with his friends. He wouldn’t get to meet the great Slenoch. Maybe there’s a God after all.
Nedra paused before a floor-length mirror on the back wall. Her slender reflection looked worn and one eye drooped more than the other. It’s been a long night, girl. Slenoch’s reflection approached her from behind. His skin sagged in loose folds like a melted candle. At least I’m not the walking dead.
Nedra reached out with her implant, mentally touching the surface of the mirror. It rippled, then spiraled into a vortex. She tapped arhythmically in response to the subtle dance of the pattern. Once the security protocol was satisfied, the mirror melted away, revealing a narrow doorway. She motioned Slenoch forward and slipped after him into the lab.
Dok Shabbat was already there.
“How’d you get here faster than us?” Nedra asked.
“I don’t fret as much as you,” Shabbat said. “Bring Enoch over here.”
“He’s the real reason you sent me to the forest.” Nedra’s fist tingled again as her nails bit into the palm of her hand.
“It’s critical he’s uplinked to his primary,” Shabbat replied. Slenoch slumped into a chair. “He doesn’t have much time.”
“Well, I’m glad to be of help. It cost three thousand shecks to get him here, by the way.”
“Lucky for us you had enough.” Shabbat sounded distracted as he busied himself at the back of the lab.
The tingling traveled up her arm and squeezed her heart. “I’d appreciate it if you paid me back.”
Shabbat paused and looked at her, his impassive face somehow expressing deep empathy. “That dream has run its course, my dear.”
Nedra bit back a retort. A worm of unease wiggled in the pit of her stomach. Shabbat was bent over a gurney ministering to a patient. Who is this?
She stepped closer. Noah! She grabbed a robotic arm to steady herself. “Wha-what happened?” The arm whirred as it strained to dowse its blood-stained scalpel in the waiting vat of antiseptic.
Shabbat finished applying a bandage to the back of Noah’s head and helped him to a sitting position. “He’s fine, I assure you. Aren’t you, Noah?”
“Hi Mother.” Noah’s eyes wouldn’t meet hers at first. When they did, Nedra’s heart shattered. “I have an implant now. Just like you.”
Nedra released the arm and sank to the floor. She could only manage a whisper. “You had no right. He’s only seven.”
Shabbat extended a hand to her. “In this case, his age is his greatest asset.” His eyes met hers. “I wouldn’t have done it if there were any other way.”
Nedra swatted his hand away and staggered to her feet. “There’s a whole city of other options.”
“You of all people know how exceptional you must be to uplink,” Shabbat said.
“Exactly.” Nedra jabbed a finger at Shabbat’s chest. “No way I’ll let you put Noah through that. To where?” She whirled on Slenoch. “To your precious Eden? No one’s ever linked there before … if it even exists. ”
“It exists,” Slenoch said. “But it won’t if I don’t return.”
“Oh yeah? Use me then.” Nedra approached the gurney. “Wire me up.”
“Nedra.” Shabbat’s voice was calm and authoritative. “We’ve exhausted all other options.”
Nedra narrowed her eyes at Slenoch, willing him to shrivel to dust. “Die already. Nothing is this important.” She grabbed Noah’s arm, and dragged him to the portal.
Slenoch grunted in pain as he attempted to stand. “Nedra, my time grows short –”
“Let her be,” Shabbat said. “We’ll need her full cooperation. I can extend your life a few more hours.”
Nedra’s anger had burned through the remainder of her reserves. She had nowhere left to run even if she could muster the will. She stood in front of a house that looked as tired as she felt, the last place she wanted to be, but the only choice she had left.
Nedra wavered. Noah scuffed his feet, his head bowed in sullen defiance. She had vowed he would never set foot in Zion, yet here he was and not happy about it.
Not long after they had left the lab, Noah started his protest. “I must go back. Dok needs me.” He looked at her with youthful certitude.
“You can’t do what he wants you to do,” Nedra said. “Nobody can. It takes months of training with an implant to hack into Pandia and we know their security protocols. What do we know about getting into Eden? It’s insanity he even asked you… and Pandia won’t take you now.” She forced herself to take a calming breath. They were approaching the walls of Zion. The last thing she needed was undue attention.
“I belong here. I don’t like Pandia. That’s your dream.” Noah’s voice fell to a whisper. “I’ve seen it in my dreams. Pandia will be wiped out. Zion will be washed away. I’m scared. That’s why I’ve been training with Dok. A lot of people will die. I have to save them.”
Nedra bit off her retort. Noah wasn’t why she was angry. He’d always been selfless, a marvel given his parents. She kept her silence as they blended into the morning crowd entering the city. The walls were more virtual than physical, comprised of surveillance and picobots, but low nano-carbon barriers funneled foot traffic toward a half dozen checkpoints around the perimeter. She shivered as fingers of dread crawled over her skin. If the crowd hadn’t pushed them forward, she would’ve run.
The gates of Zion swallowed them. Nedra struggled to suppress a scream.
Then they were through, shuffling along with the rest of the morning foot traffic. “I’m your mother,” Nedra began again, attempting to match Noah’s earnest certainty. “Until you’re ten, you’re my responsibility. I thought I could trust Dok. He should never have implanted you without my consent.” She paused to stifle tears. She had thought of Shabbat as a father. His betrayal cut deep, upsetting everything she had built her life around.
“If he had asked, would you have said yes?” Noah looked up at her, his eyes wide and innocent.
“Of course not. What kind of mother would I be?”
“That’s why he didn’t then.” Noah looked down at his feet. “Where are we going?”
Up to that time, Nedra hadn’t consciously thought of their destination. She wouldn’t allow herself to. “We don’t have many options now. There’s no one I can trust.”
“There’s still time to go back,” Noah said. “Please? I won’t do anything you don’t want. I’m worried about you. You look tired.” His eyes shone with genuine concern.
He had a point. Nedra wanted nothing more than to return home and sleep and she’d go anywhere other than the city given a choice, but this wasn’t about her. “Sorry, bubula, I have to keep you safe.”
And here they were, standing in front of her old house. Nedra had happy memories growing up here, an innocent girl with more dreams than sense. How quickly her world had crumbled then. And now.
She held her trembling fist poised before the door. Is this really my only choice?
Now that she stood here she questioned everything, looking for any flaw in her logic. She could envision no happy ending. But Noah will be safe.
The man who opened the door had aged almost beyond recognition. What hair he had left was white and his skin sagged beneath worn and unkempt clothing.
“Hi Dad,” Nedra said.
Nedra’s father looked up and down the narrow street, before pulling them inside. He closed and locked the door then turned on Nedra. “How dare you show up here?”
“This is Noah, my son. Your grandson.” Nedra kept her eyes averted and ushered Noah forward.
Her father’s face went rigid and he took a half step back. Grandson and grandfather regarded each other. Nedra’s world stood still. Like when she was a girl, her father’s approval was all that mattered. Her son’s life depended on it.
Noah broke the silence. “Mother never said she had a father.”
“Everyone has a father.” His grandfather folded his arms.
“I don’t,” Noah said.
Nedra and her father exchanged a look and he bent down to Noah’s level. “You’ll need one when you turn ten. Your mother and I need to talk. You can rest in her old room. End of the hall on the left.”
Noah looked to Nedra. She nodded her head and he disappeared down the hall.
“Explain yourself.” Her father looked at her like he might a cockroach that scurried out of the drain.
Nedra spread her hands, not sure where to begin. “Noah needs a safe place to stay.”
“Who’s his father?”
“No one,” Nedra said. Her father’s eyes narrowed. “No one who’s worthy.”
“He can’t stay if you won’t tell me. I can’t risk it.” He folded his arms and leaned back against the wall.
“He’s a good kid. He doesn’t deserve to be caught between us. Do what you want with me, but don’t take it out on him.”
Her father just watched her, his face expressionless.
“It’s your fault you know. All of this. You think I’m the one who screwed up, but you started it. You pushed me toward that monster Lamech. Promised me to him.” Nedra’s voice was starting to rise. Her fists balled.
“He’s the Patriarch’s son. There’s no greater honor. And no greater insult when you turned him down. You ruined me. Ruined our whole family. Take your fatherless bastard and get out.”
“Lamech.” Nedra’s voice was just above a whisper.
“Get out,” her father said again. “I’ll call the Knights myself.”
“Lamech is Noah’s father.” Nedra wanted to spit out the foul taste her words left behind.
Her father’s eyes went wide. “This is not something to lie about.”
This was a mistake. “I would never name Lamech Noah’s father in jest. You can’t tell anyone.”
Her father stood straighter and grew animated. “This changes everything. My grandson, in the line of succession.” He squinted at Nedra. “We’ll have to verify this of course. Come, I insist you rest. You look terrible. Take my room.”
Nedra’s heart responded to her growing alarm with an irregular beat. Her head felt light and her vision blurred. “Promise you won’t do anything. Tell anyone.”
Her father shooed her down the hallway. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything. You need your rest.” He opened the door on the right at the end of the hall.
“Let me check on Noah first,” Nedra said.
Her fathers eyes tightened, then he nodded. Nedra opened the door on the left and snuck into the room. The smell and warmth of childhood enveloped her, blunting her intention to grab Noah and run. She brushed the hair from his face and kissed him on his cheek. He sighed and curled up a little tighter.
Nedra wanted nothing more than to lie next to him, hold him close and drift off to sleep.
Her father hissed from the door. “Nedra, let the boy sleep. Come use mine.”
She sighed and slipped out of the room, closing the door behind her.
Her father’s room was cold and disapproving. Nedra was too tired to care. Frustration made her whimper as her fingers fumbled with her boot lacings. At last, she crawled under the thin blanket and consciousness faded into guilt-ridden dread.
Moldy Mikes and Nephews chased Nedra. Lamech laughed as she stumbled. The large hand of a Nephew grabbed her, shaking her like a rag doll.
“Wake up! Where is he?”
Nedra flailed her arms. “Let me go!” Her eyes were open but unable to make sense of what she saw. An old man stood over her, his face flushed with anger. Father. Her body jolted to a sitting position. “Where’s Noah?”
“Gone,” the old man said. “And until he’s back, you’re not welcome here.” He threw her boots. One clipped her head making her grunt in pain.
“He left? And you just let him?” Nedra pulled on her boots, her mind racing but getting nowhere.
“He snuck out while I was making arrangements. Where did you send him?”
Arrangements. “Who did you tell?” Nedra stood. The old man was smaller than he seemed yesterday. She pushed past him. “Never mind. Find him or not, I won’t be back.”
Nedra stomped toward the front door then thought better of it and detoured through the kitchen and into the alley beside the house. The sun was a warm pink blob a few hours past its prime in the yellow pixilated sky of the picosphere. Nedra vaulted the back fence of the narrow yard, losing a patch of skin in the process. You’ve lost a step, girl. She slid down the steep slope to the river path.
The few pedestrians paid Nedra no heed. She knew where Noah went. Where he said he wanted to go. He would likely die trying to uplink to the alien Eden. Or worse.
But what could she do about it? Storm back into Shabbat’s lab, assuming he hadn’t changed the codes, then what? Noah wouldn’t go with her, and if he did, where would she take him? She had exhausted all options. Exhausted. The few hours of tense sleep had failed to refresh her.
Without realizing it, her feet had taken her to her childhood hideout. Massive docks jutted into the river at the level of the bank. The main footpath angled up the embankment behind her. She had stayed at river level, following a small muddy trail lined with cattails and shoulder-height grass that had swallowed her younger self.
The path ended at a plastene slab under the docks. The tranquil sloshing of water combined with the industrial sounds from above had created the fuel for her childhood imagination. Nedra allowed herself a small smile.
The smile faded. Layers of graffiti covered every available surface. The images wrestled with each other for attention; colors oozed and popped in a nauseating and pornographic way, reminding her how her childhood had ended.
It happened right here.
Nedra shuddered, closing her eyes to the graffiti and pushing the images back into the vault. What a silly girl she had been, thinking she could hide here. Not from real danger. Not from a spurned and angry Lamech.
Had she grown up since then? Punching Lamech in the face had felt good, but what had it gained her beyond immediate gratification?
There was nothing left to make her feel good now. Every dream was crushed. Every responsibility had been stripped from her. She slid to the ground, her back against the wall. Her eyelids clamped shut but were unable to hold back the tears.
The river slapped and burbled below her; the activity of the day buzzed and thumped above her. Her stomach rumbled. She sobbed quietly, apart from it all.
Her breathing slowed and her hands became cold. She slipped them into her cloak’s pockets and felt three small waxy packets. The samples from the Brots.
She had tried Boom Shroom before, but never liked it. It was too unpredictable, often sending her somewhere dark. Right now, however, it offered escape without effort. Even preparing the fungus, carefully mixing and grinding the different components, was more than she could manage. Nedra emptied the packets into her hand and stuffed it all into her mouth. The pungent bitterness tightened her throat, but she swallowed anyway. There you go stomach, don’t say I never gave you anything.
Her stomach’s answer was a series of violent spasms. Nedra doubled over and crawled to the river where she gulped brackish water. Waves of nausea washed over her and she sloshed onto her back. Her head filled with bubbles that poured out of her nose and mouth, enveloping and supporting her on a soft cushion of foam. It buoyed her until a breeze wafted her like a leaf from under the dock and over the river.
Zion rolled past, busy and oblivious. Even the protective picosphere let her pass without a ripple. She flew past the Pods and let the fetid breath of the Brots loft her skyward, ascending faster than thought until the air thinned and the sky blackened. The bloodshot orb of Pandia Selene pulled her onward.
Its cooling towers were ruddy with waste heat from the computation required to render billions of lives, lives unconstrained by physical reality. She had tasted a few, but what would it be like to live them?
She landed on the moon, the heat pervading her entire being, at first as warmth, then intensifying past the point of pain, as if she were tasting all those lives at once. Not all Tastes were created equal. There were the delicious ones, but underneath were seething throngs of the under-rendered, scraping by in low-def, hungry for anything that felt real.
And there was another Taste, one that grew stronger as time passed, sucking in all available resources. This Taste was metallic and desperate. It was the Taste of Security as it fought a relentless foe.
Security was losing. Nedra could feel it in every discarded protocol and hastily deployed subsystem. The attackers were alien but somehow familiar. The Cherubim. She tasted their great strength. They were holding back, biding their time before the killing blow.
This was Pandia Selene, the place she had dreamed of going. The place she had schemed to send Noah. It was a world besieged and doomed. Wasn’t that what Enoch had said? What Shabbat and Noah had said?
The thought of Noah sent Nedra swooping back to Earth. He was in more danger than she had imagined. Yet, what did it matter? Where would he be safe? Not in Pandia Selene. Not in Zion. The Mikes were unstoppable and would leave nothing of humanity behind.
There is still time. The voice was an alien chorus, a single thought expressed by many. We have held them back. We can hold a while longer, but you must prepare.
“Who are you? Where are you?” The voice came from everywhere. Or was it just in her head? Just the Boom Shroom talking?
Yes, a crude way to communicate. But if we link with Noah, we can save your race. You must help him through.
“Who are you?” Nedra asked again.
We’re your only hope.
Nedra was back in the pods. She sank into her own home and through the portal to the lab. Shabbat leaned over Noah on the gurney, wiring him up again. She called out to them, but went unheard.
He won’t make it without you. The voice faded. The world melted away.
Nedra was wet and cold. Her body ached and her mouth was covered in a bitter coat. Her eyes stung when she tried to open them. She brushed away the vomit and sat up. Her eyes opened and she gasped.
Lamech stood over her.
“Not so pretty today. Must’ve been the poor lighting last night.” He placed a boot on her chest and shoved her back into the water. “I like you better in this position.”
Nedra tried to speak but only managed to cough.
Lamech chuckled. “I remember when we met here last. A joyous occasion. And according to your father, a fruitful one.”
Nedra’s voice was a wheeze. “He’s a liar.”
Lamech’s face clouded. “I think not. It was naughty of you not to tell me. Where’s the boy?”
Nedra wondered at her lack of fear. Lamech, despite his dominant position, seemed insignificant. Such a little man in so many ways. Nedra laughed. It came out as a gurgle. Lamech smiled at her apparent distress. When her throat cleared, the laughter bubbled over.
Lamech’s face reddened and he pressed down with his boot. Nedra kicked her feet and slid down the slick plastene into the river. Lamech lost his balance and Nedra pounced on him and pummeled his face. Feels good this time too.
A solid knee to his groin ensured Lamech wouldn’t rise in time to catch her. She headed back toward the path. He groaned behind her and called out in a high, thin voice. “Nosh, Nod. Kill her.”
Drek! Nedra reversed direction. Should’ve known. Lamech wasn’t the type to come without backup. The other side of the docks was blocked by a steep slope of large boulders. She scrambled up the incline, her feet and hands working from muscle memory, until she reached a crevice between the loosely piled stones. Even as a stick-thin girl, it had been a tight squeeze.
Crack! Something whined past her ear and rock chips stung her face. Bullet! She jammed herself headfirst into the opening. Pop, pop. More shrapnel stung her backside. Her hands tore at the stone as she screamed all the air from her lungs. She emerged minus her cloak and a swath of skin and descended the far side of the rock wall into a small grotto.
Smugglers had commandeered the area since she’d been here last. A small row boat was pulled onto the rocky shore. Nedra began pushing it into the water until splashing from the river froze her.
One of Lamech’s goons appeared silhouetted in the grotto’s exit. “Here’s the whore!”
Nedra whirled and staggered toward the back. Must be another way. Smugglers wouldn’t use this grotto unless it led somewhere. The splashing, louder now, drove her to cover behind a boulder. She crawled until one hand touched metal. A grate! She pulled and it swung up on well oiled hinges.
Nedra climbed down metal rungs by feel. When she ran out of rungs, she hung by the last one. Her feet dangled over depthless darkness. Above her and close by, voices called to each other. She let go.
The fall was six inches.
Her heart moderated and her eyes adjusted. A tunnel led away from the river. Nedra splashed through small puddles toward a dim light in the distance. Water dripped a counterpoint to her ragged breathing. She shuffled forward as fast as she dared in the darkness. Time dilated as the tunnel telescoped ever longer.
A heavy splash echoed behind her followed by a curse. Nedra broke into a tense scurry until she found herself at a junction. The only tunnel leading away from the river was guarded by an armed man and a toll taker behind a desk. Without slowing, Nedra brought out her sheck stick. Its green line was too short to pay. She approached anyway. “How much?”
“Haven’t seen you before.” The man wrinkled his nose and took her stick. “One fifty. Looks like you’re short.”
“I’ll pay the difference later,” Nedra said. Rapid footsteps echoed from the tunnel behind her.
The man shook his head. “It don’t work that way. Come back when you can pay.” His attention returned to the display before him.
The footsteps quickened their pace. Nedra leaned on the desk. “Look, Dok Shabbat will personally pay you triple the toll if you let me through right now.”
The man looked up. “Shabbat?” He squinted as if seeing her for the first time. “What’s your name?”
One of the goons burst into the junction. “Don’t let her through!”
The man motioned the guard forward then pointed down the hall. “Right this way, ma’am. Quickly.”
Shouts and grunts chased Nedra down the tunnel. The toll taker ran beside her. “Shabbat wants you to have this.” He handed her a small chip and fell back. Nedra kept running, pocketing the chip. New code to the lab.
Nedra ran the whole way, pausing only to insert the chip into her implant and use her uplink to get through the portal. Inside, the scene was just as in her vision. Noah lay on the gurney with Shabbat working over him. Slenoch lay on a second gurney, either dead or asleep.
“Stop!” She ran to Noah. “The Mikes’ security will kill him.”
Shabbat looked up, a faint smile on his lips. “Nedra. You are tardy as usual.”
“You knew I’d come back,” Nedra said, not sure herself if it was a question or an accusation. She looked down at Noah. His eyes were closed but his face held an intensity that terrified her. He knows what he’s getting into.
Shabbat shrugged. “Are you prepared for what you must do?”
Nedra wasn’t sure what that was. “I can take his place.” She took Noah’s hand. So small.
Shabbat shook his head. “We’ve been over that.” He watched her expectantly, like a teacher waiting for the correct answer. “You’ve dreamed of going to Pandia Selene,” he prompted.
“My implant makes that impossible. They’ll never take me.” Realization flooded Nedra’s exhaustion-fogged mind. “Eden!”
Shabbat nodded. “Unlike Pandia Selene, Eden has a future, but only if you’re in it. You must work with Enoch to prepare.”
Nedra took a deep shuddering breath. Being uploaded was a one way trip. Yearning for escape was one thing, but leaving her entire world behind… “What about Noah? He needs me here. Lamech is looking for him now.” Nedra fought the urge to pick up her son and hold him. She would never get another chance, but feared disturbing Shabbat’s careful preparations.
“He needs you there. He won’t get through without you.” Shabbat’s voice softened. “I’ll sponsor him when he turns ten.”
The decision hung there, already made for her. Inevitable. Like so many other things in her life. No, I can’t leave Noah. Yet, even if she stayed, she couldn’t protect him, not in this Hell, not by herself. Only Shabbat could. She grabbed his arm with her free hand. “Keep him safe.”
“He will join you after the Flood.” Shabbat spoke with a finality that left no room for doubt.
“Okay.” Nedra gave Noah’s hand one final squeeze and let go.
“Good. We must hurry. I can only prolong Enoch’s shadow a few more minutes.”
“Why do we need him?”
“He must return to Enoch and you can’t get through without him.” Shabbat motioned her to lie down on another gurney and positioned a helmet over her head.
Shabbat made the final adjustments at his console, and turned to Nedra, his expression intense, as if he were going to upload her with his mind alone. “Thank you.”
He pushed a button.
Nedra’s consciousness shattered, each shard an incomplete thought. They clinked together, making random connections, growing more coherent by degrees. Identity formed in multiple pieces which collided and fought for control. I can be only one.
The last two pieces fit together and Nedra floated bodyless and senseless. Now what?
The voice did not come from any direction. Where? Who?
Enoch. Slenoch rather. Nedra felt the warmth of a grin. We’ve had our differences, but you no longer have a body, and mine will expire soon. Truce?
Sure. Where’s Noah? Nedra felt about with her mind.
Nedra could feel both minds, not in a spatial sense, but as a measure of function. Noah was the stream she and Enoch swam in.
Nedra doubted her experience getting into Pandia Selene would be relevant. What do we know about Eden’s security?
Enoch answered. The Cherubim provided me a schematic. It means nothing to me, but perhaps you can use it.
A map formed in Nedra’s mind. As she analyzed it, relief flooded her. It resembled Pandia Selene’s security protocols more than she could’ve hoped, but one aspect troubled her. Each of the first six layers fed back to the last.
Enoch emitted a symbolic cough. Lest you forget, I am dying. I have a minute, maybe two.
Nedra wished she had lungs to expel her nervousness.* Noah, follow my lead.*
Ready. Noah’s eagerness, youthful and clumsy, was palpable. She started slow, helping him weave his way through the first two layers. How’re you doing, Enoch?
A mental grunt was the only response. Nedra picked up the pace. Noah was a quick study, gaining deftness with each maneuver. As he must. The security grew tighter with each layer.
They reached the seventh layer.
Nedra slowed the pace, ready for anything. Weave here and we’re through.
Except they weren’t. They were back at the beginning. Nedra let out a lungless scream.
What just happened? Noah asked. I’m two places at once or maybe one place twice?
Enoch! Are you still with us? Did the Cherubim tell you anything else? Panic was building in her with no physical outlet.
Enoch moaned, a pure note that disintegrated into digital noise, then silence.
At last, his voice barely above the background, he said, Sacred word.
Last level. I’ll say it. Hurry.
Not waiting for Nedra to guide him, Noah retraced his previous path without pausing. At level seven, Nedra nudged Enoch. Do your thing.
There was no response. Dammit Enoch, we need you. A rumble emerged out of the background across all channels.
Dull thy senses to the Word.
The rumbling grew, obliterating all other sensations. A flash of pure energy, then stillness. Enoch?
Mother, the way is open.
Nedra floated in Noah’s stream, the final connection to her previous life. Her body lay on a gurney beneath her. Shabbat gently closed her lifeless eyes and pulled a sheet over her head. Peace washed over her like a warm glow and a gentle tug pulled her up and away. The world went dark.
A white light, soft and soothing, beckoned her onward. Nedra allowed herself to drift toward it. She was leaving the stream that was Noah behind. Love. The light was love, pure and perfect. Nothing could hurt her there. Noah, bubula, come with me.
It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Noah’s words were sad.* I’ve never forgotten it.*
Is that Eden?
No, but Eden is beautiful too, in its own way. We need you there.
Nedra flickered on the edge of existence. This was where the spore fever had taken Noah years ago. The strength it took for him to return to her filled her with awe. It’s not my time either. Back in his stream, she tasted her own tears, sweet and salty.
Noah’s presence faded to an empty ache. Don’t cry, Mother, I haven’t left you.
Nedra lay on something soft and filled her lungs. Lungs! The air was warm and fragrant. A breeze carried the buzzing of insects and birdsong to her ears. Soft grass cradled her and warm sunlight bathed her. She exhaled a sigh but the ache remained.
Welcome to Eden, Nedra. The voice of many expressing one thought had returned.
You never told me who you are. Are you God?
The supreme-being who created the universe? No, more like Prometheus.
Didn’t he come to a bad end?
Depends who tells the story. Thanks to you, we have a direct link with Noah.
He will help us rewrite the Flood and ensure there is a place for humanity.
Why do you care?
The Presence chuckled. Some things cannot be explained. It faded from Nedra’s mind.
She opened her eyes to a deep azure sky. She’d sampled many Tastes, but none with this level of craftsmanship, right down to the fluffy white clouds.
She was on the side of a hill overlooking a lazy river. A shadow darkened half the slope. Nedra craned her head back. A stone tower stretched above her to the pinnacle of the sky. Much closer, a man stood.
“Welcome,” Enoch said. He held out a robe, his eyes averted. Nedra’s naked skin flushed and she scrambled to cover herself.
“I want to thank you for returning my shadow,” Enoch continued when Nedra was clothed. The robe felt flimsy under his piercing gaze. “You’re a part of God’s plan, whether you believe in Him or not.”
This Enoch was more imposing than his shadow. Nedra shivered despite the sun and looked away. Her eyes were drawn to the tower, windowless until the very top. “Does anyone else live here?”
“I am preparing this land for my people.” Much to Nedra’s relief, Enoch’s eyes were no longer on her. “God will smite the Unrighteous and bring the Just to this place.”
Turn this world into another Zion, in other words. Not if I have anything to do with it. Beyond the tower was a forest, the trees straight and majestic. A moon hung above them, not a full red orb, but a white crescent. Fresh and young, it held a different promise. This world was yet to be shaped and it would be a deserving one when Noah arrived**. **I’ll see to it.
Enoch was still speaking. Nedra took his arm. “Shut up and show a girl around.”
by Aaron Moskalik