HumanaH’s eyes drifted along the horizon as she let the motorcycle slow. Clouds scudded across the moon, sending shadows racing over the desert. Near the ground, the wind was softer, though the gusts still had the strength to lift stinging sand as high as her bare thighs.
The sensation did not bother her. Compared to what the impacts had been like at 200 kilometers per hour a few moments ago, it was barely a tickle. Her body armor would have protected her skin, but she’d left that behind at the shelter, preferring to have freedom of movement. These days there were no police patrolling the land to object to her lack of clothing… or—more likely—to her tail.
She steered the motorcycle off the road and into the lee of a stand of trees. Then through a narrow ravine with an overhanging rock ledge above her. With a kick, she deployed the kickstand into the rocky ground and let the auto-shutdown kill the engine.
The throaty roar of the pipes fell silent.
In the sudden quiet, the engine and pipes of the custom-armored enduro Intruder ticked a soft retardando as they cooled. She dismounted and whipped her tail along her legs to brush away the sticking sand.
Since she had lost her old self and become HumanaH, physical discomfort—even pain—had become a welcome distraction from her daily mental torture. At times, it felt as though her mind had never left the cave where DuGwaedH had stolen years of her memories to implant his own.
Even now, after building walls around those dark, foreign intrusions, the walls themselves served as a reminder of what she had lost. And, the walls didn’t always hold the dark away.
So now, she found herself taking careless chances. She couldn’t let go of the hope of freedom from the horror behind the walls, and death might bring that freedom. Duty was all that kept her here … in spite of the pain … and the dreams.
ShwydH would have chided her for leaving her body armor; he often objected to the chances she took with her life. But then, his own life was linked to hers through the antidote she gave him daily.
He had motive.
Hers was tenuous.
Is that why you do this? You think to slip the leash of duty?
Again she wondered what had compelled her to offer to provide ShwydH the daily antidote for the captivating poison. Tiana had not asked it of her. Perhaps it was only the simple instinct that made a drowning sailor grasp a lifeline. Keeping ShwydH alive grounded her here when part of her wanted to slip through the veil into the dark.
The 4-day supply of antidote she had left behind for ShwydH would no doubt trouble him—now that she was beyond his slight influence on her behavior. He didn’t even know where she had gone.
Settling the pack between her shoulder blades, HumanaH walked away from the bike and into the wilderness. The crèche was only twenty kilometers from here, and she wouldn’t risk the sound of the bike leading anyone near it—or masking her own awareness of her surroundings—as she approached. After all, it would be more than her own life she was risking.
She triangulated her position and vector into the wilderness from the nearby peaks of the Guadalupe Mountains then slid through a boulder field, moving with the shadows through the sporadic moonlight. After a few minutes of walking, she stretched her legs into a stride that would take her to her destination in an easy forty minutes.
Running was good. Perhaps she would push the pace to increase the soothing pain of physical exertion. She analyzed the smells coming to her and detected nothing out of place, so she ran…
Her senses filled up as she moved, absorbing input from: her body’s exertion; the starry sky; the calls of coyotes and the constant navigation of obstacles… all the cacti, boulders, arroyos and poisonous creatures best left undisturbed. For a time, her world was too full of sensation for emotional pain to intrude, and she imagined old friends running beside her—their four legs to her two—until her mind turned back to her self-appointed mission.
Am I doing the right thing?
In her condition, how could she know? One human book she had read 60 years ago had used a word to describe what she was…
But so was ShwydH.
Two wrongs didn’t make a right, but two bent boards could be joined together to make a straight beam.
Did that analogy hold? It was hard to tell. She knew her own judgment was suspect, but somehow she couldn’t stop herself from reaching out for…
Redemption, whispered the voice inside… the tyrannical voice of hope.
In a short half-hour she was near the crèche entrance. She’d circled behind it first, making sure she could smell any threats, no matter what direction the wind came from.
She was the only sentient for kilometers.
After pausing to inspect the entrance from a distance and finding it undisturbed, she leapt across the ten-meter patch of sand to land at the hidden entrance.
Her fingers found the camouflaged touch-pad and tapped in the combination. Then, with a grunt of exertion, she pulled the 1,000-kilogram boulder away from the entrance. Another keypad allowed her through the armored steel door into the crèche.
This is it, the last one.
Tiana now had the locations and codes for all the other chambers in the crèche system HumanaH had built over the last 125 years, but this one HumanaH had kept to herself. The reason for that had remained unclear to her over the last three years. But then an idea had taken root in her.
And now she was here.
On the edge of a precipice.
HumanaH paused before the chrysalis. It was ripe, ready to come forth, only a month away from auto-awakening.
The latest mission Tiana had assigned ShwydH and HumanaH would take them away from here for months, perhaps years. Now was her only chance.
This morning, when HumanaH had awakened still rattling from her dream of the narrow, water-filled cave in Maryland and electric shocks coursing through the water into her body—her mind was clear on what to do.
Considering the investment tied up in this still empty branch—and the possible consequences if the gamble failed—HumanaH shuddered but then straightened her shoulders and strode to the crystal-loading chamber above the chrysalis.
The chamber opened when she stroked her hand over its covering. She removed the first pod from her bagua and used it to replace the one in the chamber.
When it was out, HumanaH turned the old pod in her hand. She’d placed it there in 1933, and it contained all her life’s memories up until that time. She recalled the person she’d been then, running with Edward across a country in the grip of the Great Depression—running from the niiaH’s hunters.
Now the so-called Great Depression seemed like a vacation.
She tucked away the old pod and spliced the new one into the matrix. Next, she teased out a new thread from the chamber and connected that to the matrix as well. She removed a second pod from her bagua—this one contained much more recorded memory—and set it to reload the crystal after the first pod had released its engrams into the brain’s synapses. Then, she set the pod to begin the wake-up cycle after the memories transmitted.
From her middle finger, she fed a single filament into the circuit to run a test, making certain the connections were strong. When both pods returned a positive feedback loop, she closed the chamber.
Moving to the chest against the wall next to the wardrobe, HumanaH opened the lid, removed an envelope and replaced it with another. She added more contents from her pack before closing the chest.
On her way to the shower stall, she took a sharp-tipped permanent marker from a pocket in the pack. She wrote on the door in large nii script and followed the message with the current human date and time. She signed it and left the marker on the ledge of the wardrobe door, but immediately changed her mind and first took it back to the shower to write a postscript.
After a final lingering look at the chrysalis, she left the crèche, locked the door and shoved the boulder back in place.
After erasing the scars of the boulder’s tracks through the sand, she turned and leapt to the nearby rocks. The sand before the opening would show no sign of her passage.
For a while, she paused to listen and let the smells of the surrounding environment drift to her. The sun was not yet up; the desert was cool and quiet. She would take another circuit around the crèche before returning to the bike.
Amelie and Darmien would enjoy the chance to stretch their legs. At least she still had the memories of them.