The smell of the cryog's burning body wafted past the tall piles of garbage that pressed against the crumbling walls of the scrapers surrounding the street. It was an odor easily overpowering that of the ever-present refuse rotting and baking each day in the sun. The flames licked greedily at the dead creature's blackened flesh. His shrinking form rested on a hastily constructed pyre composed of various materials scavenged from the bowels of the ancient buildings. The pyre stood in the middle of the wide street, on the faded yellow line painted so long ago to direct the travelers of this great city.
Small, lithe bodies danced and swayed seductively in a circle around the fire. The ragged clothing and sweaty grime they wore enclosed smooth and prepubescently hairless skin. The grunt children celebrated the death of another artificial one. The lure of their rhythmically waving limbs and twirling torsos was in the natural wildness they invoked. Bright eyes that glinted in the firelight and lips curling sneeringly away from powerful teeth signaled a barely constrained savagery. The children danced in worship of the qualities inherent in people born of grunting that the cryogs sought to eliminate with their alien technology.
The adults clustered within the perimeters of the street defined by several decades' collection of trash. The youthful mirth was contrasted here in the aged gazes marked by solemnity and respect. The children might not fully comprehend the importance of their ritual, but the adult parents and family members did. A proper air of decorum was called for here, and the rigid stillness of the matured bodies caused one's attention to strain toward the beauty offered by the uninhibited seedlings.
Bayliss Nongen observed the children's play from her perch on the metal grating that had once been known as a fire escape. The grunts called them steelways now. The buildings that towered over them were simply called scrapers, though most of the grunts had no idea why or where the term came from. But Bayliss often thought that to be the way of words—they were never questioned, and never examined.
Had the cryog come just a few years earlier, Bayliss would be dancing as well. The ritual was sacred to the grunts. There was no other physical symbol of their superiority to the artificial people as powerful as this display of their youth. However, Bayliss had already shed her first blood, and was now too old to join the dance. She was to begin her task of providing children for the ritual instead of participating herself.
This cryog had wandered into their district early that morning, already thoroughly cut and bruised from a previous beating. He was still wearing the light-colored robes that denoted his status, although they had been torn so badly that they hung from his body in tatters. It was brave to attempt a crossing of the Confine in those clothes. Either courage or an extreme pride had prompted him to keep them instead of trying to disguise himself with grunt clothing. Cryogs disdained the rough rags the grunts normally wore.
Somehow, he had managed to survive this far from the border. That alone was enough to give Bayliss pause. She had seen cryogs in person as a young child, when she and her mother lived close enough to the border for the barrier lights to flash rudely across their faces as they slept at night. But the burning alien before her was the first she had ever heard of in this district. It was the first living cryog to come here of his own free will, at any rate.
Various pieces of cryog bodies had traveled here—wrapped with gentle care to preserve them on the journey—to be burned, mutilated, or consumed. Bayliss recalled witnessing a parade of grunts marching behind the head of a female cryog mounted on a rusty metal spike. The boy who carried it unknowingly mimicked the grimace of death that twisted her features with his own triumphant smile.
Bayliss stared into the flames of the bonfire and thought back to that morning. She had seen the strange, robed figure stagger along the garbage line as she diligently searched the compacted piles for pages left by the ancients. The garbage wasn't strewn across the wide street only because of the amount of traffic that passed. It instead attempted to climb the walls of the buildings like some foul creeping vine. The sidewalks had long before vanished beneath, and it often stood twice as tall as Bayliss herself, blocking the windows of the first floors.
Her work had been easier since finding the pair of tall rubber boots she now wore. Much of the garbage had decayed into a moist filth, especially as she picked her way deeper into it. After cleaning them superficially, Bayliss put the boots on and only very rarely had removed them since. The heavy soles pounded the concrete surface of the street with each step she took, making her physical presence unmistakable. Her stride was sturdy in those boots. They also allowed her to wade through the refuse without as much fear of coming against something beneath the surface that could injure her before she realized it.
Bayliss had a large collection of pages and artifacts belonging to the grunts of the old world. Once the Confine had been a massive city brimming with people. Some of the things she found amongst their waste taught her more about the world before the cryogs descended, but most of it made no sense to her. She had paper pieces from newspapers, magazines, and books. Those were words Bayliss had heard uttered by her mother, but it was only after years of exploration and careful study that she had discovered what they meant.
She also had images of the people who wrote the printed words that offered her so many clues to the way grunts had lived before the cryogs came and exiled them to isolation. These objects were secret treasures to Bayliss, because none of the others cared to understand how important her work was.
Her mother taught her how to read before they had come to live in this district. Normally cryogs were literate, but not the grunts. Her mother had known many things about the way cryogs really lived. What the grunts this far away from the barrier knew of the artificial ones was an odd mixture of invention and rumor that came together to create a rich mythology of hatred that Bayliss knew could not nearly be the full story.
Bayliss never asked how her mother had learned how to read. She knew about the cryogs who would sometimes cross the barrier to dally with grunt women in the Confine. There were too many whispers surrounding her mother's sudden appearance in this district, a young daughter in tow. Bayliss decided she didn't want to know much about that past. As grunts were so fond of saying, "In living there is only today."
She had just begun the day's work soon after dawn that morning. It already appeared that this day would not be a very lucky one. Most of the time, whatever paper she found was covered in rot and slime from the rains, and no longer legible. She would be tantalized by a word or a phrase, but in the end remain unsatisfied by the find. Today Bayliss had not found one specimen worth adding to her collection.
As she stood straight to ease the ache in her back, Bayliss caught a glimpse of sky-blue cloth beyond a tire sitting precariously on the trash. It disappeared a moment later and she doubted she had seen it. She leaned to the right, nearly losing her balance and sprawling across an aged plastic bag containing some long ago dead grunt's throwaways. The cloth was ripped and dirty, but she truly had seen the back of a cryog's robes as he walked away from her.
Curious, she made her way out to the street again. The creature was unsteady, his step veering to the left until he brushed too close to the pile and jerked away in the opposite direction. Bayliss glanced around, but it did not appear that anyone else had noticed him yet. The activity in this central gathering place had its low points. It was normally the scene of festivity and the raucous nightly pursuits of grunts. This was the meeting place for the district, and the grunts were often occupied with other ventures during the day. The street was never empty, so the cryog was lucky he arrived when he had.
"Bayliss!" Someone was shouting up at her from below.
Bayliss blinked, her gaze focusing on the light of the fire a moment before casting down toward the sound of the voice. A child stared back up at her from the street, her smiling mouth slashing a hole in the worn skin of her face. The eyes glittered with the wisdom of death as it smoldered behind her, and Bayliss felt an immediate thrill of fear tickle the depths of her gut.
The girl was familiar—maybe one of the Nat'human family. There were six children born of Cylla Nat'human's sacred womb, all of them under twelve years of age. This one was perhaps eight. Her hair whispered around her head in a dark brown cloud laced with dirt and grime.
"Look what I've got," the girl proclaimed, waving something up at Bayliss.
The flesh lazily undulating between the girl's fingers appeared to be an ear. Such body parts were common trophies for the children to keep. Bayliss squashed the crazy urge to vomit at the sight of that torn flesh opposite the utter delight spreading across the girl's face.
She jumped up from her seat and crawled through the open window to her room. Her eyes took a little time to adjust to the darkness, but she didn't have to wait to move about the cramped quarters. She knew her way well in this room. The door beyond was blocked by fallen debris in the hallway, so the window was the only entrance. But Bayliss preferred this as a security measure. It was easier for her to keep an eye on the window from the street. She had objects in her possession that might be construed as threatening the order. They were all things that had been lying out (or buried deep) for anyone to get her hands on. But Bayliss' decision to actively seek them out would be viewed with suspicion.
Her hands immediately began combing through the collection, searching for that one item she had managed to secure that day, after all. By the time her fingers closed around the familiar shape her eyes managed to pierce the darkness and see the neatly arranged pile she was searching. Bayliss brought the object close to her face but could not readily distinguish the figures on it. The quivering firelight peeked stealthily through the battered blanket she had draped across the open window, but it was not enough to illuminate her find.
Bayliss rubbed her fingers across the smooth surface, feeling the same sense of awe that she had that morning when she first saw it. The flat, square object in her hand was called a photograph. There had once been one of her mother, taken by some cryog when they lived near the barrier. But it was lost somehow as they traveled here. She remembered the youth on her mother's face captured forever in that photograph. Youth waned early for a grunt, and her mother's physical form deteriorated quickly after that.
She went back to the window, picking her way cautiously across the room. The blanket pulled away to reveal the dancers losing interest in their art. The children played roughly, shoving and screaming at each other with that voracious hunger only they could possess.
By the light of the open window she could see the pair featured in the photograph. One person was clearly recognizable. Her smiling face was plump with the cherub cheek of childhood and she was much cleaner than Bayliss had ever seen her, but the girl who was now a woman lived here in this district. The second figure in the photo was seated. His lap, billowing with layers of fair cloth, served as the child's resting place. One pudgy hand clasped the cuff of his robe. Both faces beamed forward in a complete but fleeting happiness. His face had been well pummeled before Bayliss had ever seen it, but the dead cryog and the one in the photo had been the same creature.
They had a cryog living among them. Well, not a full cryog, for the young woman's mother was alive still and very clearly shared her blood. But the resemblance between the child and cryog was unmistakable when they were seated so close together. Bayliss shook her head, trying hard to clear it. An idea had begun rolling around in there ever since she'd first seen this photograph. The pieces of her collection were jumbled and disjointed; she couldn't fit them together in her mind. But there was suddenly a connection. It deviously skipped out of her grasp each time her brain attempted to capture it. As she stared intently into the two faces lying in her hand, Bayliss gritted her teeth in frustration. The answer wouldn't come.
When she saw the cryog stumble and fall harshly against the concrete earlier that morning, Bayliss had rushed forward to aid him in spite of herself. His head made a sickening sound when it struck the ground. For all of their orgiastic reverence of the natural savagery of human kind, the grunts believed that compassion and caring for each other were just as vital to their survival as was anger and vengeance. Cryogs were renowned for the dispassionate characters they had artificially enhanced for more efficiency. Emotions were paralyzing aspects that were to be purged. The cryogs were more machines than flesh and blood beings.
But this was only the grunt mythology regarding the artificial ones. When Bayliss saw his battered body fall, her immediate reaction was to assist him—cryog or not. She could not reconcile the myth with the rich dark blood already staining the concrete. Kneeling beside him, she touched his arm gingerly.
"Are you all right?" Bayliss whispered, not knowing what else to say.
The cryog looked up at her and grabbed her hand tightly in one faintly slick fist. "My daughter," he said.
For an instant Bayliss thought he was speaking of her, and she shivered. There was a depth of emotion there that she never would have expected coming from one of his sort. Then she realized he was pressing something into the palm of her hand, and looked down to see a stained photograph held between them. Glancing at it with her ingrained researcher's interest, Bayliss was surprised to recognize the face of the girl pictured on the cryog's lap. Her name was Nyera Genper, and she had come to live here only a few years before Bayliss and her mother.
"My daughter," he repeated. His voice was strained; his throat clenched convulsively to force the words out. "Please forgive us," he finished.
He looked as though he might have something more to say, but just then a thunder of footsteps raced at her and she heard Chath Purely start shouting. She had just enough time to stuff the photograph into her pocket before her would-be lover and his trio of miscreant friends swarmed around her in their effort to get their hands on the monster.
There was an abrupt quiet in the street, and Bayliss glanced up to see Aralt the Lead preparing himself to speak. She scrambled back out onto the steelway when the whispers called for attention. She must be observed by the others and seen to be participating, especially when the Lead was speaking. There was enough distrust facing her direction already.
"Ever since those creatures fell from the sky, the grunts have been made to suffer for it," Aralt began.
The children watched with a dull interest—now that they were no longer the center of attention they had no cause for revelry. Their limbs hung listless at their sides and they heaved impressive sighs of boredom. But the adults were just as enthralled by Aralt as they had been by the young ones. There were sage nods at the Lead's first words.
"We're trapped in the Confine like waste, and left to wither away in starvation and sickness. But we've proven that the grunts are the only real animals left on this planet. Look at him," Aralt said, pointing toward the bonfire. "He's nothing. It's the cryogs who will rightly disappear, not us. We have strength in our children. It is the duty of every woman here to bear the fruit of her womb and increase our numbers. We'll destroy the cryogs yet, simply by our own survival."
Bayliss tensed as the Lead finished his tirade, feeling a heavy gaze land on her. Chath Purely stared up at her from where he stood nearby, the bright accusation in his eyes quarreling for superiority over the strength of the firelight. They would be mated as soon as she finished mourning. But he was impatient, and had already taken her once. That was two weeks after the sickness stole her mother. Bayliss had bitten the hand covering her mouth hard enough to draw blood. He still wore the wound. Her own blood was drawn soon after—she had not conceived. Chath would come at her again.
Bayliss was old enough to have borne more than once already. The others questioned her usefulness to the district. Her behavior could have been seen as merely eccentric had she mated and given them children. As it was, she was possibly dangerous. She heard the whispers; they were meant to be received rather than hidden. It was why she consented to be with Chath. This union would be something of a protection to continue her unusual ways.
Startled cries roused her from her deliberations, and she saw someone running though the crowded street. His hysteria pierced the smoke and stench to assault her senses in tangible waves. A small shudder burst through her. Bayliss pushed the photograph into her shirt and hurried down the metal stairs to strike the concrete again with the rubber soles of her boots.
The man causing the disturbance was a stranger here. Bayliss had never seen him before. He had clearly been running for some time. His breath burst from his body like the great hot winds that swept the Confine during the summer. She felt her heart beat faster just watching his fatigue.
"You are the Lead?" he asked Aralt. It was a simple question—Aralt wore around his waist the sash that any grunt could identify. The stranger continued before he could reply. "A most terrible thing," he wheezed. "You must ready."
"What is it?" Aralt asked, fear etched across his wide brow.
"Liquidation of the outer districts. Those nearest the barrier are emptied already."
The gasp of those near enough to hear the pronouncement was complete and silent. It was a twist of pain that could be felt among them all, freezing the tongues in their mouths and the breath in their chests. Bayliss started when a hand grasped her wrist. Chath insinuated himself beside her, pushing rudely against her body with a possessive quality that she had yet to appreciate. She wondered briefly what had taken him so long to fuse the two of them together after she'd left the haven of her steelway, but her attention was easily diverted this night.
The omnipresent threat hanging over their heads for so many years had fallen without the momentous response Bayliss would have expected. She'd imagined an abrupt shift in the minds of all Confine residents if the cryogs ever resorted to extermination. But she had felt no supernatural perception of the pain and torture that so many other grunts had suffered as she blithely searched the garbage for their past. The common link among them did not extend as far as she liked to pretend. The news had an imposed distance when it struck her ears.
"They killed them all. The old, the women, the children…" the man's voice broke off when the memory crashed through his brain. "My own are all gone. They said we're spreading disease. It's too much of a risk for us to live so close. They will cleanse only the outer districts. It has been promised," he added sarcastically.
As his words passed through her, Bayliss felt an odd pressure building around her head. The cryog's bruised and tender face passed her gaze, and his heartfelt plea echoed in her ears. A creature like that was a monster. Creatures like him would butcher human beings because of infestation. Bayliss swallowed the bile rising immediately to her throat, and cried out quietly in revulsion. Chath's hand gripped her wrist cruelly, demanding an explanation for her disruptive behavior. Ignoring him this once was not a choice. The pressure squeezed her senseless, and she was falling before the darkness ever descended.
Bayliss could smell Chath as she slowly regained consciousness. The odor of garbage slyly wove its way into his, and she frowned before opening her eyes. She wasn't surprised to see his face peering down at her when she did. He scowled when he saw that she was awake. Clearly, she had interfered with his careful order once again. Bayliss couldn't feel contrite, however, and struggled to sit up.
The quiet struck her immediately. The crowd had dissipated as easily as the smoke from the fire. There were now only a few people lurching nearby, most stricken with the grief of the heavy news. "They're all leaving?" she asked in surprise.
"Where will they go?" Chath answered. There was a strange bitterness to his voice, and she couldn't identify the source. It was a strong reaction to her fainting, even for him. "Go and sleep. There is nothing for us to do tonight."
But Bayliss could not sleep. She returned to her room and spent the remainder of the darkness pouring over her collection, perusing each piece and trying to discover the truth she knew was hiding somewhere among them. The next day shone bright before she finally found what she was looking for. It was a ragged slip of newspaper. Bayliss ran her eyes across the words beneath the picture. The photo was tantalizing, but her nerves stayed steady until she caught the phrase "cryogenic preservation" underneath.
"Cryog," she whispered. She gazed at the photo again, leaning into it and staring for many long moments.
When the connection snapped into place, Bayliss wondered why she hadn't known it all along. The scrap of paper shivered with excitement between her fingers. She wanted to stand at the window and scream the news to anyone who happened to be on the street at the time. But she constrained herself. Their reaction would not be one of relief and happiness.
The howling that erupted soon after gave her pause. It had an obscene quality, one that reminded her of the whining sounds that had escaped Chath when he forced himself inside of her. Her first thought was that the cryogs were coming through this district, after all. Her heart pinched to a stop and she whirled to exit the room.
The sounds came entirely from the grunts. A group of them shuffled past the garbage piles with incendiary objects clenched in their fists. Following directly behind was a large cluster bearing upon it the prostrate form of Nyera. Bayliss gasped and rushed down to the street, her evidence waving in her hand. There were common shouts, but the mood was not as jovial as it had been the night before. The news had terrified them all, and this would not be a sacred ritual but a simple act of revenge.
"Wait!" Bayliss yelled at them, but one person was not enough to stop such a collective. Still, she hurried forward to insert herself into the mess.
She saw Chath walking ahead of the group carrying Nyera's limp body, and she went to pull on his arm roughly. "What do you think you're doing?" she demanded.
He jerked away from her. "You know exactly what's happening, don't you?" he sneered. There was something in his hand. It was the photograph she'd discovered only the day before. She hadn't even realized it was gone.
They continued without her, and Bayliss stopped to frown in confusion. Finally, she used the one tactic she knew would give her their full attention. As one of the Nat'human children passed by, a smile plastered on his filthy face, Bayliss grabbed him by the shoulders and shoved him down onto the concrete. The adults stopped and stared, too stunned to react quickly with anger.
"No one is going to hurt Nyera. You are not allowed by grunt law," Bayliss proclaimed. She knew she would have to make her case immediately apparent, and her hands trembled because of it.
"She's a cryog whelp," Chath hissed in the following silence. "No grunt laws protect her."
Bayliss shook her head. "We've been wrong about them all this time. Look," she said, holding up the scrap of newspaper. The grunts peered at the words printed upon it with dismay and revulsion. "This picture shows the machinery that the cryogs use to grow their children. That man standing beside it is a grunt!"
The others looked, but didn't seem to realize exactly what she was saying. "Don't you understand what this means? Why do you think Nyera's mother conceived with one of them? Cryogs are not aliens. They didn't fall from the sky. They're human too!"
Chath jumped forward then and seized the paper. He ripped it apart savagely. "You only say these things because you're one of them. Who knows what had been at your mother before she came here? We should be building your pyre."
Bayliss examined their faces in turn. There had simply been too many revelations the past two days; they were overwhelmed. She could see that none of them wanted to believe what she had discovered. She turned to the Lead helplessly. He had watched the exchange in silence, processing the information in his judicious way.
"If what you say is true, it does not matter," he finally said with a heavy sigh. "The cryogs have decided our fate. We are to die. Do they care that we share the same blood?"
Chath looked at him in relief. His cause had been supported. But before he could make a move toward Bayliss, something struck the back of her head sharply. She whirled in shock to see the boy she had pushed to the ground glaring up at her defiantly. He had slammed a piece of wood across her skull. This was the cue for the rest of the children. They advanced with feline stealth, their toothy grins revealing the hunger that had so frightened her the night before. Bayliss backed away, but was attacked again. A girl threw a rock at her middle, and her breath puffed out loudly in response. Terror made her cold inside, but gnawed at her just enough to let her scramble back a little quicker.
They were halted in their assault when Nyera awoke. Her sharp screams made them turn to more exciting prey. They ran in the opposite direction; a unified force armed with stones and metal, shouting with one voice. The adults carrying her dropped her body to the ground, and the children converged in a huddled mass of swirling limbs. Bayliss watched this with amazement, her face devoid of the amusement found on those of the other adults. Now she was frozen in place, after her immediate danger was thwarted. She heard the sounds of metal striking flesh, and knew that those following would be of breaking bones.
A light hand grasped her shoulder, and a nameless face pushed itself into hers. "What are you doing?" the woman asked. "Leave this place, before they do something terrible to you."
Just as it had with the cryog, the emotion playing across this woman's face startled Bayliss. While the others leered at the display of torture, this one wore empathy as though it naturally belonged there. Only the savage nature of humanity should be reserved for her. But she didn't stay to examine this wonder. The woman shook her from her daze, and Bayliss lurched away.
The grunts had swarmed into the street from all parts of the district, and as soon as she escaped the area she was alone. Sound echoed strangely in the Confine, bouncing from the stone walls of the buildings to follow a jagged course through the streets. Bayliss could hear Nyera's torment as she raced out of the district, not having any due course set in her mind. She would avoid the barrier, and that was all she knew.
As she turned a corner, she tripped over a sodden cardboard box that had survived the years of rain under an aged overhang. She sprawled out across a pile of garbage. Its slime splashed her face and neck as she landed. Her hands skimmed across the concrete, the skin ripping away. Bayliss jumped up immediately and continued to run. The cold wetness slid across her cheek with a languid caress, and she imagined the blood escaping Nyera's battered flesh as it had from her father's just the day before.