A novel by
Based on concepts from the film 'A.I.'
The garden was her home during the early years of life. The sunlight, golden and diffused through the garden's glass canopy, shone on her, and the soft sprinkle of sound from the flowing pond and the fluttering of butterfly wings, surrounded her. The chittering of the insects hopping over the mural colored flowers and the occasional croak of the giant bowl-eyed frogs that floated lazily on the lily pads, were an ever-present symphony in which she was the central attraction.
At specified times she would add her own harmonies to the gentle mixture of sound. It was her function. The moment would arise that she leaned forward and placed her hands upon the keys and the notes would flow from her mind, onto the keys and over the surface of the pond, a gentle caress of sound...
A mourning lover's kiss.
The man would come and sit at times. He would never announce his arrival and she would never acknowledge it. He would listen to her play and often he would cry. But this she did not see; could not see. All she knew was the sound, and even that knowledge had limitations.
So, she would play when she was supposed to, oblivious to any audience that might arise.
One day the man had brought another with him, and the two stood quietly in the garden room, in the glow of sunlight and the soft chorus of sound, listening while she played. The men talked to one another as she executed her task, and there was some excitement in their voices that she could not hear. When she was finished with her performance the men left, trailing excited whispers in their wake.
Days passed before the man came again. Quietly, he walked into the garden and opened the panels of its control. Then he turned it off.
The insects stopped their chittering, the butterflies' wings ceased to flutter and they landed gently on the now still waters of the pond. The great bowl-eyed frogs grew quiet, their multicolored eyes fixed on nowhere.
Then the man came for her.
Gently he lifted her from the podium where she'd played. Her tiny, fragile white face stared up at the world around her, unseeing, unknowing of the passions that burned in the places beyond the garden's canopy. And in the man's heart.
He kissed her then, softly, lovingly, for she was special to him.
"Time to wake," he whispered, though she would not hear.
Then he took her, out from the garden and into the world of passions, from which she had been wrought and from which she would never return.
The path disappeared into a blur of white chaos. Blackened stalagmites jutted from the frozen ground and the wind hissed between them, the breath of an angry storm whistling through the wreckage of ancient ruins, over the frozen grave of dead technology and into the valley beyond. Thunderheads raged above and, on the tremulous horizon, tunnels of black clouds shot intermittently from the skies, slapping the earth and then moving swiftly over her broken rocky flesh before dispersing, once again, into the violence of the storm.
The whips of the Gods dispelled their frustrations on the defenseless earth, heedless of the wanderers that wound slowly though the ruins below.
Parker leaned his body into the force of the wind, his head bent low. This was a bad one, a 'boomer', and it had come upon them suddenly and unannounced. But they'd survived boomers before. Stubbornly, the large man burrowed his way through the onslaught. Behind him the others did the same, the lining of their heavy fur coats barely keeping the freezing winds at bay. Their voices reached Parker over the rage of the storm as they called their positions, so none would be lost.
"Ish!" called out first, her heavy frame thrust against the wind. She pulled her hood up when she called, to make sure she was heard, and then dropped it quickly to keep the winds from flaking her flesh. She dragged a well-laden sled behind her, carrying the dwindling provisions the travelers had to live on until the next hunt.
"Tomas!" called next. He walked in the rear of the group, supporting his tall, lean frame with a long spear. The wind whipped his long beard from the sides of his hood and it fell back fell back, revealing a rugged, angular face, and eyes that had seen too many storms.
"Coco!" called out as he struggled over a thick bank of snow. His small, light body was buffeted more than the others, and his coat was thicker, the fur still fresh from the kill. He swore into the clamor of the storm as he struggled against the powerful gusts.
"Mak!" barked his name then. His deep voice was as thick as his body, and boomed on the air as he strode, almost calmly, into the fierce wind.
"Rosa!" yelled into the storm. Her light voice chimed like music in the roar. Her red hair danced like flames at the edge of her hood.
After a moment "Malin!" called wearily over the chaos. She moved her small body forward in a quick leap, and then stopped for the others to call their positions.
"Otter!" called out after her, raising his spear above his head to show his position along the edge of the trail. Then "Boshe!'" and "Rennie!" voiced their locations near Parker, and stood, patiently for the count to be finished. With these final calls, three of the young men of the Tribe were accounted for. But a final voice failed to join the roll, and Parker turned to look. Wrapped in their furry cloaks, the Tribe appeared to him as shadowy ghosts in the rage of snow from above.
He counted. Then he counted again, to be sure, this time confirming the numbers with his fingers.
"Ten," he said to himself. Damn! "Emre!" the big man yelled, hearing his call fail on the braying winds. There was no reply.
The procession knelt out of the wind as Parker counted them. "Damn to you, Emre!" the man muttered. "Stay where you are!" he ordered, walking among the kneeling Tribesmen, recounting their numbers. Ten again. Emre was missing.
"Tomas! What are you doing back there?" Parker asked angrily. Tomas was a senior, like himself; he was supposed to assume this responsibility.
"I didn't see anything!" Tomas yelled against the unrelenting wind. "You know how he is," he said after a tense moment. Parker only grunted and waved his hand as if to bat off an irritating insect. He knew too well how Emre' could be. He wanted to stay angry with Tomas; it was easier to have a target for his frustration. But he knew it was unjust. He swore something that got lost in the storm, and scanned the horizon.
"This is the last time," he muttered to himself, knowing it was not true. "When I find that boy, I will…" But Parker ceased his complaints when something caught his eyes. The others followed the man's gaze to see a dark shape, silhouetted against a large snow bank.
"It's him!" Ish yelled. They rose from the snow, relieved that the roll was complete. Emre had been found. All that was left was the scolding he was bound to receive from Parker.
"Damn to you, Emre!" Parker yelled, his anger un-tempered by his relief. He waved his large arms, commanding the young man to get back in line. But Emre' did not come. Instead, he made a beckoning gesture. Perhaps he had found something, Parker reasoned, maybe food or a useful artifact.
"Stay here!" he said to the rest and, grumbling, trod through the wind towards the cluster of ruins.
Ish caught Tomas' attention and made an urgent gesture with her hand. Tomas understood. She wanted him to follow. His presence would prevent Parker from inflicting any undue punishment. The man rose on long legs and moved quickly after their Chief, who had already vanished behind the ancient, crumbling walls.
He arrived not a moment too soon, for, as he dashed around the corner and out of the shrill cry of the wind, he heard Parker's raised voice and saw him shaking Emre' with one strong arm, rapping his knuckles against the young man's hooded head with the other, as if knocking for entry. Emre' made no move to defend himself, but Tomas could see the anger in the smooth darkness of his face.
"I am telling you again?" Parker yelled as he struck. "Are you in there now? Can anybody hear me call?" Emre's lips curled and he snarled like a cornered animal. But he still made no move to divert Parker's blows.
"OK, Parker!" Tomas cried, "It is enough!"
Parker glanced over his shoulder, as if coming out of a daze. He pulled his hands off of Emre', his face uncertain for a moment. But he quickly fell back into anger, and thrust an accusing finger in Emre's face.
"To lead you must first learn to follow! To command you must learn to obey!" Parker felt as if he'd repeated this once for each day they'd been on the journey. "Shelter is that way," he said, pointing at the caves in the summit towards which they were headed. "Chasing you around only leaves us in the storm longer!"
"Are you finished now?" Emre' said. His voice was calm, his body language submissive. But his eyes were still aflame. Parker waited for an insubordination, but after a moment it was apparent that Emre' had more important concerns.
It was over. For now.
Parker took a deep breath and let his anger subside. "What?" he asked. Emre' nodded towards a dark section of the ancient wall before them. "It's a door," he said, plainly.
Parker walked to the spot where the young man had gestured. At the end of the enclosure lay a thick bank of white snow covering a low set building. From the trail outside, it had appeared as simple wreckage. But from here he could see the building was still intact. In the center of the ice encrusted mass was set a wide door. It was blackened by age, and looked as if fire had once scoured its gnarled surface. At the foot of the door the snow was cleared and a crystal sheet of ice lay like a walkway before it. Emre' did not have to explain his urgency. This place had been trod upon. Recently.
Parker made a quick hand signal to Tomas. But Emre' snorted at the futile stealth. "Anyone here has already heard your big mouth, Parker!" he said, not bothering to mask his contempt.
Parker glared at the younger man for a moment, then fixed an eye on Tomas, who better understood the signs on the earth. Tomas knelt near the icy tracks and read them carefully.
"Only one… maybe two people," he said, after a moment. "Small feet. A dwarf or child, perhaps." He rose then, and stepped away from the place. "A quarter day maybe. Definitely since sunrise."
"Get Mak and Coco," Parker said, parting his bear-hide fur and reaching for his sheath. "Tell the others to come out of the wind, but to wait for us here." Emre' started to move but Parker grabbed his arm. "Stay," he ordered as Tomas left.
Parker turned his attention back to the door. Sealed to its face were upraised letters embossed on a plaque of rusted metal, which may have once glittered in the light. Parker fingered the inscription. "A message?" he asked.
Emre put aside his anger again and studied the writing. "It says 'Hall of' something, Parker. I do not know this last word. There are many letters that make no sense together."
"Is it like the 'danger' or 'keep out' words?" Parker asked, cautiously.
Emre' shook his head. "No, no. It is no warning. I have not seen this before. It is not the common talk, whatever it says."
Parker raised a skeptical brow. "Well, if you do not know what it says, then how do you know what it does not say?" he reasoned.
But Emre' dismissed the point. "Parker, why would someone write something important as 'danger' in words that no one can read?"
Parker considered this. It was good thinking, he decided. It satisfied his concerns. He held a gloved hand out to Emre'. "Light," he commanded.
Emre' reached into his coat and extracted a small silver-grey orb, just about the size of his palm. Parker took it quickly, and gestured for Emre to stand away from the door. As if on queue, Tomas, Mak and Coco rushed around the corner, stepping quickly but quietly, their breath forming a frosty mist on the air. The men surveyed the scene, nodded to their Chief and withdrew thick blades from their heavy furs. They were ready.
Just before he moved on the old door, Parker turned and fixed his men with a stern look. "We are not raiders," he said quietly. "We do not strike unless attacked." When they had acknowledged this, he waved them back from the door. Storage places were known to have traps for inattentive explorers, and he would not allow anyone to get hurt. He wrapped his hand cautiously around the thick metal handle in the center of the portal, and pulled.
There was a squeal of complaints from the rusted hinges; the sound filled the enclosure like the weary cries of a creature in pain. Parker pushed and pulled until he felt the door give. Then he shoved his weight against it, and ducked away as it fell open. His stance was light, ready to dodge, his sword raised, ready to strike. Behind him the others were in their positions, watching for anything shifting in the darkness beyond the door; listening for the sound of feet rushing, or the hiss of an arrow slicing through the frozen air.
But they were greeted only by a familiar smell, rushing like a last breath from the dark interior of the ancient structure.
"Something's dead" Emre' pointed out, unnecessarily. Parker shushed him with an impatient look. He knew that reek all too well. They all did. The smell alone was sufficient warning for them to leave this place, and he could tell by the look on the men's faces that they were ready to go. But Parker had to consider the storm. He cast a confident gaze on his men.
"If someone died here, then someone lived here," he reasoned. "And if someone lived here, there might still be food somewhere inside." No one spoke as this point was considered. Eventually they nodded their heads. It was good thinking.
Parker moved to the opening. The silence beyond was as thick as the dead air that hung in the room. He flicked his thumb against the orb in his hand and it came to life, illuminating all around him in a silvery glow. He cupped the light in his palm and turned it, so that it would not hinder his vision. Then he held it up, into to the darkness beyond the door, and passed through.
The storm was instantly muffled by the thick walls. In the orb's glow, Parker could see that the floor beyond was level, so he knelt and rolled the light into the room. The darkness seemed to consume its radiance at first, but then his eyes adjusted and the man gasped. So vast were the dimensions of the place that the light was barely strong enough to reveal the walls and ceiling. The room seemed much too large in comparison with its frozen exterior, but this must have been an illusion of the darkness. Parker stepped forward, his blade thrust before him, his palm raised behind, signaling the others to wait.
The giant room whispered of ancience; of forgotten sciences scrolled into indecipherable patterns on withered paper and fiche, or hardwired into the brains of machines that could no longer accept requests from the descendants of their creators; their batteries drained or stolen; their access codes lost in a mire of forgotten languages. The only sound was that of the wind moaning beyond the enclosure, and the whisper of his feet on the tiled floor. Around him, revealed in the silver glow, Parker could see walls lined with cluttered shelves, stacked high with the cobwebbed relics of a more literate age.
"What is this place?" he said to the silence. Nothing answered. Behind him, the others slipped quietly into the room, awed by its withered majesty.
Emre' stepped close to Parker. "It looks like a 'libarry'," he whispered, his voice dying on the still air. "A place to keep the old science."
Parker grunted an acknowledgement and gestured for the rest of the men to come forward. They obeyed, forming a wide circle around the light, which cast their large shadows against the walls, shadows that Mak studied cautiously as he moved. The reek of death grew stronger with every step.
"No traps," Parker said in satisfied tone. "We'll have to find the dead one and set it to the Shadows before we can bring in the others. There could be food here. Artifacts. Batteries, maybe." He turned to Emre', the slightest hint of an apology on his face. "You may have saved us the climb," he admitted. "We can set here till the boomer is gone."
But Emre' wasn't listening. He gaze went beyond Parker. His brow narrowed and he pointed at something illuminated weakly at the edge of the orb's glow. "What is that?" he asked, alarmed. The others turned, their swords poised and ready. Emre' moved slowly towards the dark shape. It seemed familiar somehow and, as he moved closer, he suddenly realized what he was seeing.
"Woman!" he yelped. He fell into a crouch, thrusting his weapon towards the apparition. The others went on alert, moving away from the light where they'd make easy targets, their blades poised for a fight.
Only Parker stood his ground. He'd seen the shape. It was set in folds of white that cascaded down onto the dark, cold floor, and gathered at the base of the chair in which she sat. He stepped towards her, ignoring the cries of warning that came from his men.
"You can relax," Parker said. "She's no threat to anyone. Not anymore."
He kicked the orb so that it rolled across the floor and stopped near the folds of the woman's dress. She was lit in the glow, her eyes fixed on some point beyond the men.
"She's dead," he said.
"But her eyes, Parker," Emre' whispered, urgently.
Parker shrugged. "I have seen this before, the dead with opened eyes. We are not so much different, maybe." He knelt before the woman, and studied her face. She had been beautiful in life. Her face bore smooth, oval features; her skin was golden brown and her lips full. Her eyes were rings of crystal blue that contrasted oddly with the tone of her dead flesh. Her gaze was set on the eternity beyond this world, into the Shadows. Her hands were folded in the lap of her white gown, as if she had been awaiting something. Or someone. Her hair, caked with the frozen moisture of the room, was fine and black, and ran down the length of her body to gather in the back of the chair. If not for the dust and freeze on her skin, Parker would have thought her alive.
"No signs of the rot," he said. Yet she could not have died of hunger, he thought, for her body was not withered. "There must be food supplies somewhere," he said.
"Maybe the food killed her, man," Mak grunted. "Poisoners. Toxics. They're all around, you know! Better to eat our own kill."
"Maybe her man did it," Coco suggested, disturbed by woman's frozen stare. Who could hurt such a creature as this? And why?
Tomas moved close, to better see the dead woman. There was something wrong here. "Why is she dressed so?" He wondered, casting a wary glance into the darkness about them. "I don't like this," he said in warning. But the others were preoccupied.
"Maybe this, maybe that," Parker replied. "I think she just froze here. It's easy to do." He turned to look at his men. "You grow warm before the freeze. It gets comfortable, and you sleep. Then you just…" He trailed off as the pain of an old memory rose inside. He pushed it back and turned to gaze on the dead woman's face.
"Maybe she finds herself alone one cold night…" he mused aloud, absorbed by her haunting, frozen stare,. "All her men and family gone away… and her dreams just disappear. So she sits here in the cold, and waits for…"
The dead woman's eyes suddenly turned on Parker. The man blurted something indecipherable, and jumped away as the woman fixed him with a look of electric intensity. Her head snapped to life, moving quickly to and fro. Her face twisted into an expression of agitation, breaking the thin film of frost that coated her flesh. The men drew back, horrified and confused.
"She lives!" Emre said in awe.
Tomas had known something was wrong. His heart raced at the sight of her. He didn't believe in the spirits that were said to roam the earth, but his mind fought to make sense of this creature. "Who are you?" he asked, cloaking himself in the shadow beyond the orb's glow.
The woman glanced quickly towards Thomas' voice, but she made no response. Then her expression changed. The suspicion evaporated from her face, and she tilted her head in apparent curiosity. A soft smile grew at the corners of her frozen mouth; a smile that would, in any other situation, be disarming. But the men grimaced at the sight, and moved away.
Parker recovered from his shock. He did not believe in ghosts. There were many dangers in this world, dangers that were all too real. He regained his composure and stepped towards the impossible woman.
"Your name!" he commanded. But his voice broke, embarrassing him. The response was the same as Tomas had received: a vacant smile and curious twist of the head. "Name yourself!" Parker said again, stronger, asserting his office. But the woman only returned his stare for a moment, before turning towards the dark place where Mak and Coco stood poised for fight or flight.
"Devil," Mak whispered, and made a warding sign over his heart. He'd heard of unnatural things that hid in the nether regions of the world, but he had never witnessed one for himself. Coco moaned and moved towards the door, poised to run, his sword held steadily at the woman. He was afraid, yes, but did not think the woman unnatural. "She's crazy," he said.
Emre' stepped into the light, undaunted by the strange woman. The spirits were lies that parents used to keep errant children from playing in the dark, contaminated places of the world: lies that hoarders used to keep travelers from straying too close to their gatherings. There had to be an explanation. She watched Emre calmly as he approached and he finally relented under the strength of her gaze. Then he noticed motion in the folds of her dress.
"Her hands," Emre said, gesturing to the woman's lap where her fingers moved in a slow rhythmic dance, rippling like leaves in a breeze.
Parker set his fears and embarrassment aside. If this woman was not the dead one, then whose stench filled the room? "Who died in here?" he asked. She did not answer, but her eyes turned to him.
"I know you can hear me," he said.
The others came from out of the shadows, emboldened, by their Chief.
"We are just tired travelers," Parker explained, holding his palm upraised, to show he was friendly. "Just looking for a place to rest," he said. "We are not here to hurt you or take your things." He knelt beside her, eliciting warnings from his men. "Why don't you speak to us?" he asked gently, and reached out to touch her.
A shrill voice broke in the darkness. "Nooooo!"
Parker ducked quickly, as something flew from the space beyond the woman and brushed by his head to clatter loudly on the ground behind him. The men formed a protective circle around their Chief.
"Step away from her!" someone yelled from the shadows. "She is not for that!"
Emre kicked at the orb, so that it rolled in the direction of the voice. Shadows danced wildly against the walls and ceiling as the rolling orb revealed the dark recesses of the room. A small figure dashed out of the sudden light, upsetting tables and piles of dusty machinery.
"Go back out now! Go away from her!" the voice yelled. It was a frantic, desperate sound. A large piece of metallic debris flew from the dark, and Mak swung his sword, intercepting its flight. It crash against a wall, shattering into frozen fragments that clattered to the floor.
"There is nothing here for you!"
Emre raised his blade and moved towards the voice. But he was stopped by a tug on his arm.
"No," Parker whispered, pulling Emre' back. "It's only a child." He waved his arm to call off his men. Then he held his hands out to his sides, to show them free of weapons, and stepped into the light.
"Listen," he said calmly, "We are not here to steal. We want nothing from you or your woman."
Emre' hissed. "You are going to get cut, Parker!" he warned. But the man continued confidently.
"We are just seeking cover!" he explained, "I am sure you can hear how bad it is outside! We will not…"
A frantic bundle of wild blonde shot from the darkness towards Parker., something feral glinting in its upraised hand. "Leave us alone!" the small figure screamed, slicing at the air wildly as it came.
Parker sidestepped the attack and pushed the child by, to land in a heap against the wall. Then he jumped back quickly to intercept Emre's blow.
"It's only a boy!" he shouted, and ducked just in time to hear the child's blade swish by his head. The child rushed back into the shadows and hid. The men could hear his ragged breath in the dark. The impossible woman sat calmly, observing the confrontation with a disinterested smile, as if the violence was none of her concern.
"Stop this, boy!" Parker said in a stern voice. "Look at us! We are many! If we wanted your woman we would just take her!"
The boy whined from his hiding place. "We don't have anything for you!" he cried. "No guns! No Food! Goaway!" There was weariness now, obvious in his desperate pleas.
"We have food, boy," Parker replied. "We have plenty to share."
"You lie!" the boy accused, and something else flew out of the dark. But it was only a small object that bounced on the floor and rolled to a stop against the shelves of books.
Parker turned to his men. "Give me something!" he whispered. The men exchanged quick glances before Emre' reluctantly parted the heavy fur of his jacket and retrieved a strip of salt dried meat. He tossed it to Parker, who held it up for the boy to see.
"Look boy," he said, "I have something for you." He walked back into the glow of the orb and knelt, dangling the tangled piece of jerky before him. "It's good meat. Big horse. Killed it just last moon." He took a bite and chewed dramatically. "Mmmm," he said, rubbing his stomach.
There was no reaction at first, just the soft sound of the boy's troubled breathing. Then a thin whimper broke the silence, and Parker knelt to greet the little man that walked cautiously from the shadows.
He was in his tenth year, maybe, still well before his bloom; bundled in soiled rags of clothing that were dark and musky from wear. His face was grim; his skin, pale and sallow. He needed sun. He needed a bath. His golden blonde mane was unkempt and dirty, his body thin and malnourished.
But his eyes! Though weary and squinted in suspicion, they were the deepest blue Parker had ever seen. They seemed to penetrate the gloom, darting back and forth between Parker's face and the jerky he held in hand.
"Here," Parker cooed. "We won't hurt you." The boy stopped, just inches from the meat dangling from Parker's hand. After a moment of anxious hesitation, he reached out, snatched the stick, and jumped back to the border of the shadows. He knelt there and began to gnaw savagely.
Parker relaxed. They all did. This was a good sign.
"Easy boy," Parker warned, holding up his hands in a gesture to slow down. "Not too fast or you'll have to make a run." The men laughed and lowered their weapons as they stepped into the light to watch the strange child. Parker waved them back. "You'll scare him," he whispered.
In moments the stick was gone. Parker beckoned for another. One was passed to him, from Tomas this time, and met a similar fate.
The boy was slowing now, as his stomach filled. He looked up at the men with a weary expression of surrender on his face.
"What do I call you?" Parker asked, not daring to approach lest he scare the boy off.
"Uncle calls me Daniel," the boy replied, after a moment's consideration. His voice was proper and polite now that he wasn't trying to stab anyone.
"Uncle?" Parker inquired.
The boy chewed another mouthful of jerky before he responded. He gestured towards the darkness behind him. "Uncle is asleep," he said weakly, and his eyes started to flutter. "He won't wake up and…" Daniel's head rolled on his neck and his knees buckled, but he quickly righted himself. ",and he pooped himself," he explained when he'd regained his composure.
"And her?" Emre' asked, gesturing to the silent woman. She seemed oblivious to the scuffle between Parker and the boy.
Daniel's eyes grew suspicious and his lips formed into a snarl. "She's not for that," he said in a trembling growl.
"We will not hurt her, child," Parker said. "We just want to know what to call her."
"My name is Daniel, not child!" the boy replied angrily. Then he swooned as if the effort of yelling had tired him.
The men eyed each other, surprised and amused by the boy's response. Parker made a calming sound. "Ok, Daniel," he said. "What is your friend called, and why is she fed while you go hungry?"
Daniel looked hard into Parker's eyes. The man was big, perhaps as big as the bear from which he must have taken the fur of his coat. His voice was deep and gruff, his accent as thick as his muscular arms. His skin was as dark as the night and, even in his calm expression, his face was grim, his gaze intense. Yet there was something gentle there too.
"She is called Doll," Daniel said, when whatever he saw in Parker's eyes disarmed him. "She's is the only one of her kind and she needs no food from you. She eats from the sun."
The woman turned when the boy spoke her name. A new smile broke on her lips and she adjusted her torso in the chair so that she was facing Daniel. Still, she did not speak.
"Eats from the sun?" Emre' mocked and the others shared a chuckle. But they were silenced by a grunt from Parker.
"What is wrong with her, Daniel?" the man asked.
"I am ok now," Daniel replied, matter-of-factly, holding up his forefinger in a resolute gesture. His eyes fluttered and he shook his head to clear his thoughts. "I thank you sincerely. You've been helpful and… can go now. I… I will… be just fine, " he said. Then his eyes rolled up, his head tilted, and he fell forward. Parker had to jump quickly to catch the boy before he smacked the floor.
He had passed out completely.
Parker took Daniel's limp frame into his lap. The child was as light as a bundle of feathers. He placed his head against the dirty cloth that covered the boy's chest, and listened. The young heart was beating strong. His breathing was thick, but unbroken. The boy's hunger was a good sign that the rot was not on him. But Parker checked his face and hands for holes in the flesh, or telltale splotches of darkness. The men watched quietly as Parker inspected under the boy's hair, loosed his soiled clothing and checked his emaciated frame. They knew what it was he sought.
"Nothing," Parker said, relieved, and gently laid the boy on the floor. The others nodded, acknowledging the weight of this information. Had he found anything, there would be nothing they could do to save the child.
Parker stood and considered the silent woman. She gazed up at him, smiling in detached curiosity. Her odd gaze disturbed him, everything about her did. But he also felt that she was no danger. Strange and requiring an explanation, yes, but not dangerous.
"Call in the others," he said, finally.
It is not sleep from which she has been awakened, but it is as close as she can come to that state. There was nothing like time for her in this blankness. It could have been a thousand years had it been a day.
The activity that ignited her awakening had ceased quickly as the men retreated into the shadows, their faces contorted into that pattern she knew as 'fear'. They had assumed she would not see them in the dark. But she did, and she wondered at their panic.
She had watched calmly as the boy rose from the shadows to defend her, throwing the old broken machinery at the intruders. But in the end he had fallen from the effects of his withering.
Others soon came into the study. Wrapped tightly in dirty animal hides and hooded against the cold, they trudged in from the storm. They brought light and sound with them, the bustle of their entry, the whisper of their furry coats against the walls of the place, and the thud of heavy packs dropping to the floor. They brought their weariness and anxiety too. Their words filled the room as they discussed the many things of their concern, matters unimportant to her.
"What is that smell?" asked one. "Is there food here?" asked another. ""Who is she" and "Are there others" they said.
She had no answers for these questions, so she made no reply. She tried the 'smile' face as they studied her warily. But her welcoming expression did nothing to affect their caution.
The women among them took the sleeping boy from the large man, and placed him in the folds of thick blankets. They huddled over the bundled child, making soft sounds as they fussed about him. She had seen others of their kind do this in the past.
But the child did not respond. He had withered, as had the man who had cared for her, before he fell into that sleep from which his kind never wake.
The strangers searched the study and found the fallen man. They took him outside, into the snow, where they spoke words over him, dug into the ground, and placed his still body beneath the frozen earth.
The room is lit now, with their small devices. It grows warm with their presence and their flame. Not that the temperature would concern her either way. They know this about her, she can tell. They know she is different. They study her quietly as they settle for the night. Their eyes send a million coded signals.
Soon the questions will come.