2072 – 2073
After the warmth and softness of her brief early childhood and the rude awakening of life with the rest of the people, Fearless was plunged into a world of further strangeness. When the next slow dawn crept across the frosty steppe and the people spilled tiredly out into the brittle air, the Hairless Ones were already waiting for them. Boss was leading them, as always, and regarded them with blank hostility as they were permitted a short time to scavenge for scraps of leftover food on the hard ground. Then they were cajoled into a rough group by lashes from the things their overseers carried and forced to leave the safety of the huts. Fearless, despite her name, found herself quailing as they moved beneath the huge grey dome of the sky. She loped along on her hind limbs like the rest of the people, noting how they all moved their arms awkwardly, still reaching for something they’d never seen with their own eyes but for which they felt an unvoiced need deep in their souls. The Hairless Ones moved easily, quickly outpacing them and often having to slow down to let the stragglers catch up with the main group. Again, the lashes fell. No one was killed this time, but a few came away with bloody cuts to their faces and backs.
One of the weakest was Fearless’s mother, although the memory of being nursed by her was fading after only a few days. Now she was just another one of the people. Fearless had never looked at her with dispassionate eyes before, but now she saw a sick person staggering across the cold ground, bent with exhaustion and looking out from beneath her thick brow with dull, rheumy eyes. Perhaps she had never recovered from the effort of birthing her. She noted how the others kept their distance from her too, and even Fearless, despite their kinship, felt a deep-seated revulsion she was at a loss to explain.
“What’s wrong with that one?” It was the Hairless One who’d been with Boss that was speaking. Fearless recognised his smooth blue skin.
“Sick,” Boss said. “There was a cave-in last year. Big dust cloud up the mineshaft.” He moved his hands upwards. The Hairless Ones used gesture in the same way as the people, but the variety of their movements was not nearly so rich and textured. “She was probably one of the ones who got a lungful of it. Radiation sickness.”
“They’ll leave her to die eventually.” He aimed a kick at her mother and she fell to the ground with a yelp of surprise and pain. She immediately clutched her hands over her head, an instinctive response to vulnerability around the Hairless Ones that Fearless had already seen several times. This time, Boss just hooted. He took a shiny thing from his belt and raised it to his lips. The sour smell filled the air again. Anger spiked in her as she watched her cowering mother, but fear of retribution pushed that down and she turned back in the direction of their slow march.
The people were herded along a little further until their reached an outcropping of rock that thrust out from the colourless earth. She felt relief surge through her at the thought of taking cover from the terrifying expanse of sky, but the rest of the people radiated smells of dread and even outright panic. She soon saw why. Ahead of them, near the base of the rocks, was a yawning abyss of darkness – a hole in the ground, leading down. It was a concept outside of her experience and she felt discomfort and confusion, mingled with the fear now coursing through the troupe. But they were driven on, down into the tunnel, and then left to perform their toil.
The others taught her what to do. No supervision from the Hairless Ones was required – indeed, they seemed more scared of the tunnel than the people were – they just worked until the sun was low in the sky and the light that filtered down from the entrance above turned red. It had been this way for generations, or so it seemed. They wielded the tools awkwardly, hacking at the hard stone in search of the yellow rock that it was then their task to load onto sleds that others of the people would haul to the surface. It was exhausting work, but no one questioned its necessity and she perceived that the people had always been here, performing this task at the behest of the Hairless Ones. She didn’t understand why. No one did. It was just the way of their world.
The black pit was a horror that was unimaginable to Fearless. The inside of the huts was unpleasant enough, but this was an order of magnitude worse. The ceiling of stone seemed to press down on her from above, threatening to crush her beneath its vast weight. She almost longed for the sky instead. The air was thick and cloying and the people died in the dust. A labyrinth of caves wormed away from the main tunnel, into the depths of the earth. There, dry old bones lay undisturbed for periods of time she had no conception of. She could barely see in the darkness, but she burrowed her fingers into the eye sockets of a cracked skull, felt the heavy jaw, the long canines, the brow ridge across the eyes and the narrow, sloping cranium behind it. It had belonged to one of the people, like her, a forgotten face, here in the eternal night of this subterranean hell. She felt fury rise again; fury at the wrongness of this world, at the suffering of the people, at the unquestioned strangeness of their circumstances.
Life continued in this vein day after day. Fearless soon grew as scarred and stooped as the rest of the people. She settled into a numb routine, and began to forget the questions she had asked of the world in her youth. Perhaps all of the people passed through such an inquisitive stage. One day, something unusual happened that jarred her from her resigned state though. One of the Hairless Ones began to itch at his neck. She could see a tic burrowing into his flesh. The people groomed themselves meticulously, removing any tics they found lodged in their fellows’ skin, relentlessly combing through thick, matted fur. The Hairless Ones did not groom. This one kept clear of the others, moving furtively. She could smell the fear on him. A few days later, that same Hairless One had a rash that covered half his face. He tried to keep his head down, but Boss saw him and stopped the procession to the mine.
“This is for your own good, Sergei.”
“Please, boss…” He held up his hands and backed away. Fearless wrinkled her nose at the stink coming off him. It wasn’t just fear; it was something much worse. She was amazed the Hairless Ones hadn’t noticed it sooner.
Boss had a thing in his hand. “I’m sorry, son. You know how it goes. The virus.” There was a noise and the people scattered in terror. Fearless had seen the flash from the object he carried and was awed by the power of these creatures. The infected Hairless One was on the floor, bleeding through his yellow skin. His companions burnt the corpse and covered their faces against the smoke that climbed up into the iron-coloured sky. They then set to rounding up the people again. Few had strayed far, such was their dread of being out in the open. The trek to the mine continued.
The next epochal moment in Fearless’s life was the death of her mother. By that time her infancy was all but forgotten and her mother was just another of the people, and not a particularly remarkable one. She had been sick for a long time, with her hair falling out in great clumps. She coughed up gobs of blood and her shit came out runny and shot through with more blood. The people shunned her. She was no good for working.
The Hairless Ones came prowling. Boss was there and so was the one who’d come with him on the first day, through Fearless could barely remember it. “Ready to bite the bullet yet?”
“You sound like you enjoy this.”
“I take my pleasures where I can.” He pointed at Fearless’s mother. “That one.”
“Her? She’s sick.”
“Better that way. They don’t last long afterwards anyway. The others reject them and they don’t work. It messes them up.”
The other Hairless One smelled uncertain. “I don’t know about this…”
“What does it matter? You have moral qualms, is that it? Remember, these are just animals. Not even that. They’re Zees. Hybrids. We bred them ourselves, or the fucking Japanese did. You know, this is the first work camp ever built. These ones are descended from the original lab specimens. They should never have existed.”
“What, you’re happy working them to death in a uranium mine, but this is a step too far?”
They took her mother to the other hut, the one no one looked at. When she came back, a few hours later, she was bleeding even worse than before. Her already dull-eyed expression was now totally blank, lost, flat like the leaden sky. She died that night, ignored by the rest of the group. Only Fearless noted her passing, and the anger she had discovered months ago was hardened into a newfound resolve. This was wrong. All of it. They shouldn’t be here. The people belonged in some other world, away from the Hairless Ones who were so pitilessly cruel to them. What was it all for? Why was she here? But, so far as she could tell, no one else asked these kinds of questions. When she tried to demand answers from the other people, they stared at her in confusion, accepting their brutal lot with bleak resignation. It had always been thus. This was the world.
But there was one of her kind who knew something, she realised suddenly. In the dark of the huts, she dredged up the almost forgotten memory of Mother, the near-bald one from the mothering huts. The Hairless Ones allowed them to go there to birth and nurse, and they didn’t have to work until they returned. But Mother was too old to bear children of her own. What made her different? In all the dull sameness of her world, only Mother represented an alteration to the status quo. If Fearless asked her the right questions, she felt sure she would receive answers.
Of course, reaching Mother was easier said than done. It meant crossing the field of churned mud between the two sets of huts. It was a distance much shorter than the one they marched every day to the mine, but the Hairless Ones wouldn’t let her cross unless she was obviously with child. Such a subterfuge was quite beyond her, and the degree of forward planning required to arrange a genuine pregnancy was also unimaginable. The only option was to go at night, but that carried its own terrors. Eventually, unable to think of a way to visit the ancient Mother, she started to forget the idea, and would have abandoned it entirely if not for a returning female some days later. She chattered and hooted excitedly as she sent her child scurrying into the group of people to integrate with the troupe. Gossip was unusual: nothing much ever changed. This time though, there was news. Mother was dying.
Time was now short, and Fearless steeled herself for what she knew she must do. Under cover of darkness, she crossed the field alone. She had done it once before, and showed no fear, but this time it was different. The night was like a hand closing in around her, like the confines of the mine. She would not normally venture willingly into it, but she forced herself, scurrying across the broken ground, looking out for the looming shape of the mothering huts in the gloom. It took long, agonising minutes, and she was constantly peering around to see if Hairless Ones were about to pounce on her and deliver another beating, or perhaps finally just kill her. Worse, they might drag her off to the other hut to subject her to whatever strange tortures they devised in there. There were no guards though. Guards were not necessary when the people lived in such constant fear.
Finally, she stumbled into the little cluster of huts and, after catching her breath, snuffled around for the familiar, half-remembered smell of Mother. She found her alone in one of the huts. The people hated being alone, so this surprised her but, as her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she began to understand the situation. Mother was curled into a corner, looking much older than the last time she’d seen her. Her body was like a loose sack of bones, and her sightless eyes gleamed in the darkness above sunken, hollow cheeks. She was plucked entirely clean of fur now, just a pinkish-black mass of flesh, uncomfortable to look upon. Instinctively, Fearless crouched down and began to groom her, although it was just a token gesture. Mother slapped her away. Fearless peered closer. Tics covered Mother’s body and she saw that some had fat, red abdomens. The same rash she had seen on the Hairless One that Boss had killed and burnt crept up from her thighs, her armpits, her neck. Her breath rasped in her chest.
“Zee,” she whispered thickly.
Fearless stroked her head gently. No person was ever infested with tics this badly – they groomed one another so meticulously. The only explanation was that Mother had, for some reason, prevented the others here from doing so. She had chosen this. But why?
“Har-oo-ko,” Mother said, “b’fo…”
Fearless crept closer, trying to understand her strange words. She spoke like one of the Hairless Ones. What world had she come from?
Mother could not see her, but she seemed to recognise her scent. She prodded her weakly in the chest, between her flat breasts. “Diff’ren. You.”
Fearless formed words awkwardly. The people used some calls that were a little like the speech of the Hairless Ones, but it was not a natural way for her to express herself. Mother was different though, somehow. Perhaps Fearless was the same. She pulled back her lips, trying to sound out what she wanted to ask, all the questions in her head distilled into one word. “Why?”
“Kill Hairless. Zee kill Hairless. P’nish.”
A recollection or a request? The sound she used, ‘Zee’, was what the Hairless Ones called the people. Did she want Fearless to kill them? It seemed impossible. They had the whips, and Boss had his object that spat fire. The Hairless Ones ruled them. They were dominant.
“Kill.” Mother pulled a fat tic from her leg and held it out. She could just see its swollen red abdomen, and the way it wriggled between her fingers. “Sick.”
She understood. It had taken time to work its way through her brain, but now she saw it. The tics were the reason Mother was dying. The strange rash would kill her, as it killed the Hairless Ones. The people never got infected, because they removed the tics so diligently. But Mother had allowed this to happen, had scared the others away, had willingly chosen rejection. But why?
“R’venge…” Mother murmured. She held out the tic and Fearless took it. She peered at it in confusion. Her instincts rebelled. She should bite this thing in half and spit away its foul pieces. It was a parasite to be removed. And yet, this whole world defied her instincts. It left her and the people confused and in pain. There had to be a better way. Mother’s laboured breathing had stopped. Fearless looked down at her then placed the tick carefully in the thick fur that matted her belly and loped back out of the hut.
The sickness took hold quickly. She had to fight Digger and the other males off. They wanted to groom her, remove the tics that were now breeding in the folds of her skin and, as she began to reach maturity and exude the scents of sex from her genitals, they wanted to court her and mate with her. But she refused them. Even before they could smell her infection, the people were forced to reject her. She was alone. It was indescribably distressing, but she held onto the anger that was building inside her. She thought of her mother, and of the Mother, the strange female whom they had all unconsciously revered, and all the others of her kind who had been hurt or killed. As she continued to work in the mine, laboriously carving yellow rock from the walls and wearily piling it onto the sleds, she fed her anger and let it resolve itself into grim determination to succeed. A buried loyalty to the troupe was making itself known. The people had to protect themselves. The Hairless Ones were their enemies. Enemies must be killed. She hatched the inkling of a plan, something none of her kind save Mother herself had ever done before.
It was dangerous. Fearless knew it would most likely cost her her life. But this would be the price of their freedom. She would make this sacrifice gladly, for she was just one person, and the troupe must survive. Boss was the key. Boss was the one who killed the Hairless Ones who got sick from the tic bites. But what if he were to get sick himself? What would happen then? As she watched the rash crawl its way across her body, her eyes lingered on the other hut. No one knew what happened in there, but they all knew it was unpleasant, and that those females who were taken in there by the Hairless Ones returned changed and usually died soon after. It was the only way to get close enough to Boss though. She was deep into rejection by the troupe now, and the stink of her illness overwhelmed even her. But denied grooming, the rash she bore was not visible beneath her thick fur without close examination. The Hairless Ones would not know she carried the plague. They would think her sick from the mines, like so many of the others. Like her mother.
Boss watched her as she fell behind in the march to the pit. He watched her still that night when they brought the food and, as the light began to fade, he cornered her. Fearless huddled against the wall of the closest hut. Even without his attention, she would soon die from her illness. He took a swig from his silver thing and though the smell of it was powerful, it was buried by the reek of lust coming from him. She was repulsed, but now at last she understood, and grasped the full horror of Mother’s plan. Boss grabbed her arm and started to drag her towards the other hut. With satisfaction, she saw one of the red tics crawl from her fur and onto his bare hand. His senses were deadened by the stuff in the silver thing, and by his warped desire for her. He wouldn’t notice it digging its sharp mandibles into his flesh, or the itch of the many bites he would carry once this ordeal was over.
“R’venge…” Fearless whispered to herself, surrendering herself to her loathsome fate as Boss threw open the door of the hut and the waft of pure terror and death hit her like a wall.
Tall was the leader of the people. With cajoling, threats and even outright violence she had brought them here, to the grey forest, and now she stood tall on her bowed legs and hooted in triumph. She waved her hands in the air. The rest of the troupe: Bright, the powerful male; Nut, her own daughter; Climb, the spindly but ingenious male and all the others joined in her call of triumph. They had been fleeing the incursions of a rival troupe, searching for a new place to call home, a land of plenty. That had meant crossing the fearsome plains to this place, the strange land of stone and metal, that had sat on the edge of their known world for as long as anyone could remember. The people feared the grey forest almost as much as they feared the open plains, but Tall had been certain there was a future there for them, and now she was pleased to see she was vindicated. Untouched for longer than any of the people could envisage, the vast towers were intertwined with immense trees and creeping vines that sagged richly with leaves and fruit.
Climb slapped his hands on the strange, hard ground and let out a whoop of joy. “Climb! Climb!” He dashed to one of the fat tree trunks and scampered up quickly, his powerful arms moving so rapidly they looked like a blur. Before long he was high above their heads, calling out happily as he explored.
Tall proceeded on foot, with Nut close by her side. She paused to look around and allowed her daughter to groom her for a moment. This was a strange place, but she could smell the bounty of the forest that had risen up to claim it. The ruins meant nothing to her or any of her people. They had never known the inhabitants of this abandoned city, for their entire race had perished almost a thousand years ago. Now, the land belonged to the people.
“This,” Bright said. He had something in his hand.
Tall loped over with Nut trailing behind curiously and looked at the object he held in his clumsy grasp. It was a skull. He tapped his own head, dimly divining what it was. She took it from him and turned it so the empty eye sockets stared straight at her. She had seen the skulls of the people before, and the skulls of many animals. This was more like their own than not, but there was something strange about it. Her fingers probed its contours. The strange, angular chin, the flat cheeks, the wide eyes and soft, sunken brow. And then, oddest of all, the huge bulbous cranium at the back, far larger than it should be, like the head of a newborn. She ran her hand across it. She could not imagine the creature that had possessed such a skull. For a second, she feared that more of them might be close by, and that they could be dangerous, but she dismissed the thought. They would not leave bones here like this, and there were many more scattered around. Whatever animal had lived here was long gone and therefore no longer worthy of consideration.
Tall dropped the skull with a clatter. It bounced and rolled away down the road, forgotten. The troupe spread out across their new home, claiming the ruins of the ancient city for themselves.