Children of the Great Reckoning Book 4: Operator
Coming to Audio in February 2014
I knew when I sent him to the forest that I might never see my son again. But I also knew that with a Binder for his guardian, he would be safe and perhaps even have a chance at happiness. It was an action of a loving mother, even if he will never understand this.
Journals of High Priestess
Spirit Marga Temple
High Priestess Jean Molair stood in one of the towering archways of the Spirit Marga’s central hall. The window before her reached up nearly four stories, and below her feet she could almost feel the twenty or more levels that plunged into the living rock of her world. Her dark hair was pulled back severely, although a few strands had escaped the clasp and tickled at her face. She swiped them back behind her ear, and then placed her fingertips against the glass.
“Jerian,” she whispered. The glass reflected her son’s name back to her and she leaned her forehead against the cool surface. The rain slid and ran on the other side of the window. It matched her mood—slippery, grey and heavy. Her administrator robes hung a little on her too-slender frame and only darkened the look of fatigue about her eyes.
She did not allow many to see her like this, leaning and letting the world do the crying for her beyond the glass. Ancient Hobert Temmons, the abbot of the Northwest Monastery, yes, he could stand behind her and see her like this. He had seen her in far worse states. And perhaps her sometimes bodyguard and security advisor, Leland, she would allow this close. They were the only other people after all who had seen Jerian when he was born, had been right there when Tebre, the towering Binder, took her son and disappeared into the deep forests of the Pacific Northwest because his father, Ianto Tobali had said it was necessary. Necessary? What did Ianto know about such things, he who was not even really human? He who moved the nanotech that infected their world with such ease because of what he was—nanotech himself, small, persistent, biomechanical ephemera. Sometimes, she could feel him moving within her, touching her from the inside as if to ask if she still was.
Nineteen years had strung themselves out, years of responsibility, years of aching for her mother’s advice and support, years of tedious, dangerous political maneuvering as she tried to smooth out a world gone to wrinkles and rigidity. The Emperium was once again trying to dictate nanotech research, using less than subtle threats to convince the great Margas to turn to cleansing the world of the infestation that caused the Great Reckoning and birthed all the Children of God—the Weres and Seafarin, the Shodo and the Binders and don’t forget the Elves.
The goddamn elves.
“She’s dead, Jerian,” Jean whispered. “Really dead. Burned and scattered and falling with the rain now, I suppose. Falling on your upturned face somewhere, Cyntia Molair, the grandmother you never met. And leaving me Nuress to deal with.”
There should have been other grandchildren, heirs to the Marga. But Jean, like so many human-shaped beings of her world could not conceive, as if the nanotech in their environments simply snipped off each growing glob of cells and cast them out. They, the humans, were beginning to feel the effects of the childless years.
But the Children of God reproduced, heavens yes, their numbers swelling and pressing both the aging and few very young humans to the edge of becoming a minority.
“Inshallah,” Jean said into the glass. “If God wills it.” But she wished she could untangled the knots in her chest when she was forced to move among them, the great unblinking eyes of the Seafarin so very unreadable, the Binders, who had to bend themselves deeply to look into her eyes, and the Elves who had exploded on the world scene in ways sometimes brutal and sometimes clever and circumspect. They looked just human enough to rattle her—their faces a little longer than natural, their eyes large and their ears ending in delicate points, their hair long and shimmering in an array of colors. How smoothly they moved, cunning hunters all, but also artists, musicians, poets—they flooded the Spirit Marga now and there was no way to avoid them. It did not help that in each face, she swore she could see hints of Sam Stelle, but he seemed content to forgive and forget. Still, she felt her tentative human hold on the Marga loosening each year.
They were all human once, Jean told herself sternly. They were words she said every morning and evening, the very heart behind their name, the Children of God, a generation of their own human children warped and changed by the Game into the beings around her now, into the beings who were breeding and changing all ideas of what it meant to be human.
Once, they were human, but not now, something in her whispered darkly. Out there, though, in the tangle of fir and fern and stone and mud, her child was growing to a man. Her human-looking child. She wanted him by her side, keenly, if only to remind her of her own humanity, her own womanhood.
“Where are you Jerian?” she asked the rain.
Nanotech proliferation rates have continued at an exponential rate this past study year. Philosophers argue that with each passing minute, the earth is becoming more machine than organic entity. But if such a thing still loves, bleeds, breeds, dies, what difference then?
Annual Science Primer,
Pacific Northwest, Reservation Territories
The young man slipped through the early dawn forest, weaving his body through the tree trunks, then angled down the hill, using the gravity to give him more momentum. His rich chestnut hair hung in dark, sweaty curls to his shoulders, his simple clothes frayed and muddied. He ran barefoot as he had since he was a child, his feet reading the ground as his other senses feathered out and around him.
He could hear his pursuer behind him, tracing him step by step. She had an easier time of it, simply following his path and using her greater speed to close the gap between them. Already, he could feel her from the inside, could hear the low vibration of nanotech in her the same way he could hear the trees, the soil, even the small animals that instinctively froze as he flew by.
Run, but do not disturb. Become the forest, but faster, smarter, the part of the forest that knows how to run.
He jumped the remaining feet to the bottom of the hill, landed true and broke out onto the beach. He dug into the sand and stone, racing toward the water’s edge where the waves would have smoothed and hardened a running path.e He ju Here, though, she would be faster still. His neck tightened a little as he imagined how her hand would feel when it closed on him. Arms pumping, legs driving him forward, he mentally reached out into the waters of the bay and found what he was seeking--a huge shape paralleling the beach. He called it forth with a yell, and then spun to watch.
The creature erupted from the gentle surf; its great black and white form slammed the sand, just missing his pursuer. Its dorsal fin waved madly in the air, its great body writhed forward. The seven-foot runner threw herself away from the water edge, tucking and rolling and somehow finding her feet enough to stumble back. They both watched the orca wriggle itself back into the waves with a booming splash.
Jerian began to laugh as his guardian, Tebre, started toward him, her fingers curled into fists. He sat down in the sand, gasping for breath, tears streaming down his face.
“Oh, my God, Tebre. I had no idea you could move like that”. He comically mimed her dive and roll and burst into another bout of laughter.
She towered over him now, her red eyes blazing even in the dim light. “What the hell were you doing?” she roared.
Jerian pulled himself together a bit, giggles still seeping from him. “Come on Tebre. I was practicing staying alive, right? Besides, even the orca thought it was damn funny.”
She didn’t even miss a beat. “You do not push other living beings. Ever. Even to save your life, do you understand? You don’t have that right.” Tebre’s voice had dropped back into its usual deep rumbling tones, but her physical form still shook with rage.
He chomped back the last waves of laughter, working his lips hard over the edges of his teeth. He looked down into the sand, drawing calming breaths through his nose and swallowing hard to contain himself.
“Jerian! Do you understand?”
“Yes,” he chortled, wiping at his eyes with his fist. “Yes, Tebre. As if anything could hurt me.”
She reached down then, and dragged him up and off his feet, her face inches from his own. “There are things that could hurt you,” she hissed, her black pointed teeth clicking together in rage. “Things that can kill you or worse. This is not a game, Jerian, and you do have limits.” She shook him hard, and then threw him down on the sand.
He felt the wave of anger wash over him then. He snapped his eyes to her. “I am not a little kid anymore, Tebre and I am sick of this crap. I could break you right now. Reach in and snap!” he clicked his fingers sharply.
For one moment, he was sure she was going to grab him again. Instead, Tebre only shrugged her great shoulders and with that one simple motion, it was like she threw off the armor of her anger. “Yes, Jerian,” she breathed. “Yes, you could. And that should scare the hell out of you, even if I do not.”
Jerian glared up at her, refusing to come back to his feet. Instead, he shoved his feet angrily at the rock and sand, and slapped the ground with his open palms. “Damn it Tebre, what are we doing here? Am I just gonna grow old in these woods, living like a shadow? I’m bored. Angry and bored and I want…I want…” but he couldn’t quite articulate the feeling, the hole in his heart that seemed to be growing deeper and darker with each passing month. He shoved viciously at the sand again, and then climbed to his feet.
He stepped away from her, his back to her, hands on his hips. “I want you to take me to my mother,” he said at last.
He could hear Tebre’s low sigh. “Jerian, we’ve been through…”
“Why?” he spun toward her. “You say I can’t go to her. You say it’s not safe. But you never tell me why. Who is she? Do you really think she would hate me so much?”
“Hate you?” Tebre asked. The startled tone in her voice drew Jerian back to face her again. The Binder tipped her head, her red eyes suddenly hooded as she glanced away as if trying to shield herself from his intensity. “No. But she would use you, Jerian. It’s as much a part of her nature as your ability to feel and manipulate the nanotech in your environment. Your mother is very powerful, and her organization would suck you in. You’re too young; you wouldn’t understand the forces at play in her world.”
“Tell me her name,” he pleaded. “Just her name.”
“Damn it, Tebre!” he yelled, his balled fists striking at the air. “Just her name! Just her fucking name!”
“No,” she said, her features hardening.
He gave an inarticulate cry, his whole shoulder swinging up through his fist even though he was well out of reach of her physically. Tebre was driven to her toes, her fingers clawing at her own throat. He could feel her muscles, her nerves, could catch the emotional echoes of her own anger and frustration. Yes, and there, he could sense a dark, anxious fear that felt like an invasive mold within her. Not fear for herself. Fear for him. As fast as he had reached into her, some part of him recoiled in a kind of self-loathing. He immediately released her and raced to gather her into her arms, his head reaching only the crook of her armpit.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered into her spicy scent. He felt her body tremble in his embrace, and for a long time she did not return his gesture, hardly seemed to breathe in the fold of his arms. Then a heavy clawed hand began to tentatively smooth his damp curls. He had never struck out at her like this, his guardian and his only friend. His only mother, really. And he realized how he had cut her then. The shame of it burned on his cheeks, even as parts of him mind continued to grasp after answers, any straws, any hints. “Oh, God, Tebre, I’m sorry. I’m just so…just so…” but he couldn’t articulate what he felt.
“I know, Jerian. I know,” she murmured.