"She lived in a high tower in the sky. It was a very comfortable tower, but there was no way down and out into the world. And one day the young goddess decided that she had better things to do than look at herself in the mirror. ..."
Tally awoke to unfamiliar smells and sounds: sweat and morning breath, a soft chorus of snores and snuffling, the heavy, humid warmth of a small and crowded space.
She stirred in the darkness, and a ripple of movements spread out from her, intertwined bodies shifting to accommodate one another. Beneath the fur blankets, soft, comforting warmth suffused her senses. It felt almost like a pretty dream, except for the overwhelming smell of unwashed humans and the fact that Tally really had to pee.
She opened her eyes. Light filtered through the chimney, which was just a hole in the roof that let smoke out. Judging by the angle of the sun, it was midmorning; everyone was sleeping late. That was no surprise - the feast had lasted until dawn. Everyone told more stories after Tally's was over, competing to see whose tale could keep the sleepy god awake, with Andrew Simpson Smith tirelessly translating the whole time.
When at last they'd let her go to bed, Tally discovered that "bed" was in fact a foreign concept here. She had wound up sharing this hut with twenty other people. Apparently, in this village, staying warm on winter nights meant sleeping in piles, fur blankets strewn across everyone. It had been weird, but not weird enough to keep Tally awake another minute.
This morning, unconscious bodies lay all around her, more or less clothed, tangled up with one another and with the animal skins. But the casual contact hardly seemed sexual. It was just a way of keeping warm, like kittens in a pile.
Tally tried to sit up, and found an arm wrapped around her. It was Andrew Simpson Smith, snoring softly with his mouth half-open. She pushed his weight away from her, and he turned over without waking, draping his arm over the old man asleep on the other side of him.
As she moved through the semidarkness, Tally began to find the crowded hut dizzying. She had known that these people hadn't invented hoverboards or wallscreens or flush toilets, probably not even metal tools, but it had never occurred to Tally that there was ever anyone anywhere who hadn't invented privacy.
She made her way across the unconscious forms, stumbling over arms and legs and who-knew-what-else to reach the door. Stooping, she gratefully crawled out into the bright sun and fresh air.
The freezing cold goose-pimpled her bare arms and face, every breath carrying ice into her lungs.
Tally realized that her coat was back in the hut, but she only wrapped her arms around herself, deciding she would rather shiver than run the gauntlet of all those sleeping bodies again. Out here in the cold, she felt her wrist throbbing from the fall the night before, and the sore muscles from the long day's hike.
Maybe the human warmth of the hut hadn't been so bad, but first things first.
To find the latrine, Tally only had to follow her nose. It was nothing but a ditch, and the overwhelming smell made her glad for the first time that she had run away in winter. How did people live here in summer?
Tally had faced outdoor toilets before, of course. But the Smokies treated their waste, using a few simple, self-propagating nanos borrowed from city recycling plants. The nanos broke down sewage and routed it straight back into the soil, which helped produce the best tomatoes Tally had ever eaten.
More important, they kept the latrines from raising a stink. The Smokies had almost all been born in cities, however much they loved nature. They were products of a technological civilization, and didn't like bad smells.
This village was another matter altogether, almost like the mythical pre-Rusties who had existed before high technology. What sort of culture had these people descended from? In school, they taught that the Rusties had incorporated everyone into their economic framework, destroying every other way of life - and although it was never mentioned, Tally knew that the Specials did pretty much the same thing. So where had these people come from? Had they returned to this way of life after the Rusty civilization crashed? Or had they lived out in the wild even before then? And why had the Specials left them alone?
Whatever the answers to these questions, Tally realized that she couldn't face the latrine ditch - she was too much of a city girl for that. She wandered farther back into the forest. Although she knew this had been frowned on in the Smoke, she hoped young gods got special dispensations here.
When Tally waved to a pair of watchmen on duty at the edge of town, they nodded back a bit nervously, averting their eyes and clumsily hiding their clubs behind them. The hunters were still wary of her, as if wondering why they hadn't gotten in trouble yet for trying to cave her head in.
Only a few meters into the trees, the village disappeared from view, but Tally wasn't worried about getting lost. Gusts of wind still brought smells of staggering intensity from the latrine trench, and she was still close enough to yell to the watchmen if she wound up hopelessly turned around.
In the bright sun, the night frost was melting, falling in a steady mist. The forest made soft shifting sounds, like her parents' old house when no one else was home. The shadows of leaves broke the outlines of the trees, making every shape indistinct, creating movement in the corner of her eye with every gust of wind. The feeling of being watched that she'd experienced the day before returned, and she found a spot and peed quickly.
But she didn't head straight back. It was pointless to let her imagination run away with her. A few moments of privacy were a luxury here. She wondered what lovers did when they wanted to be alone, and if anyone kept secrets for long in the village.
Over the last month, she'd gotten used to spending almost every minute with Zane. She could feel his absence right now; her body missed having his warmth next to her. But sharing sleeping quarters with a couple of dozen strangers was a strange and unexpected substitute.
Suddenly, Tally felt her nerves twitch, and she froze. Somewhere in her peripheral vision, something had shifted, not part of the natural play of sunlight and leaves and wind. Her eyes scanned the trees.
A laugh rolled from the forest.
It was Andrew Simpson Smith, crunching through the undergrowth with a big smile on his face.
"Were you spying on me?" she asked.
"Spying?" He said it as if he'd never heard the word, and Tally wondered if, with so little privacy, anyone here had even invented the concept of spying. "I woke when you left us, Young Blood. I thought maybe I would get to see you..."
She raised an eyebrow. "See me what?"
"Fly," he said sheepishly.
Tally had to laugh. The night before, no matter how she'd tried to explain it, Andrew Simpson Smith had never quite grasped the concept of hoverboarding. She had explained that younger gods didn't use hovercars very much, but the idea that there were different kinds of flying vehicles seemed to befuddle him.
He looked hurt by her amusement. Perhaps he thought Tally was hiding her special powers just to vex him.
"Sorry, Andrew. But like I kept saying last night, I can't fly."
"But in your story, you said you were going to join your friends."
"Yeah. But like I told you, my board's busted. And underwater. I'm afraid I'm stuck walking."
He seemed confused for a moment, perhaps amazed that divine contraptions could get broken.
Then suddenly he beamed, revealing a missing tooth that made him look like a littlie. "Then I'll help you.
We will walk there together."
He nodded. "The Smiths are holy men. I am a servant of the gods, like my father was."
His voice fell flat on the last few words. Tally was amazed again at how easy it was to read Andrew's face. All the villagers' emotions seemed to live right on the surface, as if they had no more invented privacy in their thoughts than they had in their sleeping arrangements. She wondered if they ever lied to one another.
Of course, some pretties had lied to them at some point. Gods, indeed.
"When did your father die, Andrew? Not long ago, right?"
He looked up at her in wonder, as if she'd magically read his thoughts. "It was only a month ago, just before the longest night."
Tally wondered what the longest night was, but didn't interrupt.
"He and I were searching for ruins. The elder gods like us to find old and Rusty places for them, for study. We came upon outsiders."
"Outsiders? Like you mistook me for?"
"Yes. But this was no young god we found. It was a raiding party looking for a kill. We spotted them first, but their dogs had our scent. And my father was old. Forty years, he had lived," he said proudly.
Tally let out a slow breath. All eight of her great-crumblies were still alive, and all in their hundred-teens.
"His bones had grown weak." Andrew's voice fell almost to a whisper. "Running in a stream, he turned his ankle. I had to leave him behind."
Tally swallowed, dizzy at the thought of someone dying from a sprained ankle. "Oh. I'm sorry."
"He gave me his knife before I left him." Andrew pulled it from his belt, and Tally got a closer look than the night before. It was a disposable kitchen knife with a notched, ragged blade. "Now I am the holy man."
She nodded slowly. The sight of the cheap knife in his hand reminded Tally of how her first encounter with these people had almost ended. She had almost met the same fate as Andrew's father.
"Why, Young Blood? Because I was his son."
"No, not that," she said. "Why would the outsiders want to kill your father? Or anyone?"
Andrew frowned, as if this was an odd question. "It was their turn."
He shrugged. "We had killed in the summer. The revenge was on them."
"You had killed...one of them?"
"Our revenge, for a killing in the early spring." He smiled coldly. "I was in that raiding party."
"So this is like payback? But when did the whole thing start?"
"Start?" He stared into the flat of the knifes blade, as if trying to read something in the mirror of its dull metal. "It has always been. They are outsiders." He smiled. "I was glad to see that it was you they brought home, and not a kill. So that it is still our turn, and I may still be there for my father's revenge."
Tally found herself speechless. In seconds, Andrew Simpson Smith had changed from a grieving son into some kind of ... savage. His fingers had turned even paler, wrapped around the knife so tightly that the blood was forced from them.
She took her eyes from the weapon and shook her head. It wasn't fair to think of him as uncivilized. What Andrew was describing was as old as civilization itself. In school, they'd talked about this sort of blood feud. And the Rusties had only been worse, inventing mass warfare, creating more and more deadly technologies until they'd almost destroyed the world.
Still, Tally couldn't afford to forget how different these people were from anyone she'd ever known. She forced herself to stare at Andrew's grim expression, his weird delight in the heft of the knife in his hand.
Then she remembered Dr. Cable's words. Humanity is a cancer, and we are the cure.
Violence was what the cities had been built to end, and part of what the operation switched off in pretties' brains. The whole world that Tally had grown up in was a firebreak against this awful cycle. But here was the natural state of the species, right in front of her. In running from the city, perhaps this was what Tally was running toward.
Unless Dr. Cable was wrong, and there was another way.
Andrew looked up from his knife and sheathed it, spreading his empty hands. "But not today.
Today I will help you find your friends." He laughed, suddenly beaming again.
Tally breathed out slowly, for a moment wanting to reject his help. But she had no one else to turn to, and the forests between her and the Rusty Ruins were filled with hidden paths and natural dangers, and probably more than a few people "who might think of her as an "outsider." Even if she wasn't being chased by a bloodthirsty raiding party, a sprained ankle alone in the freezing wilderness could prove fatal.