Roger glimpsed her through a copse of live oaks, a young brown woman with a grotesquely swollen belly, wearing a blue dress grimy with dust. She ran when she saw him, or tried to run--it was more of a fast, desperate waddle--then disappeared behind an outcropping.
He yelled at her to stop, then felt ridiculous. His suit muffled his voice; she couldn't hear him at this distance. There was a canyon beyond the outcropping, the only escape other than the entrance a vertical climb, impossible for the woman, pregnant as she was. She'd be cornered there; he'd have his chance to talk with her. But it wasn't much of a way to meet someone. Not when it was the first person, other than his parents and his younger sister, that he'd seen in six years.
He entered the canyon cautiously, suddenly unsure of himself. What if she had a weapon? Even the smallest puncture to his suit could be fatal if she carried the virus.
She was there, as he knew she would be. A small woman, with a long, thick tangle of black hair, tied back with a white scarf and liberally coated with dust. Her face was thin, her eyes huge and dark. She knelt on a ledge at his own eye level, beneath a near-vertical stretch of scree. Dust and pebbles fell around her; she had already tried to make the climb.
Her breasts and belly heaved; there was a bubble of spittle at the corner of her mouth. Her lips were very dark, purple as grape jelly. A canvas bag and a canteen hung from her shoulders; the canteen bounced against the rocks, making a hollow sound. Her gaze traveled over him, over the dull gray fabric of his suit, over the shiny, reflective plastic of his mask, the mandible-like projection of the filters below the mask. He saw her taking in the rifle, slung over his shoulder.
He kept his distance from her, kept his hands off the rifle. "Don't be afraid," he said. "I only want to talk."
A strange thing happened then. She cocked her head, as if listening. Her breathing quieted. Her gaze turned inward, away from him. "She thinks you telling the truth," she said. Her English was heavily accented. Mexican?
"She's right," he said. "Whoever she is."
The woman looked at him and laughed, a startling cascade of sound. "You don't know, do you, niño? No joke?"
"I'm not a niño," he said stiffly. "I'm nineteen. And I have no idea what you're talking about."
"My baby says, niño," she said. "She talks to me." She opened her mouth, stuck out her tongue. "Look. What do you see?"
"Your tongue," he said. "And the inside of your mouth. "They're a funny color. Purple."
"It comes after the sickness. If you live. Many things come after the sickness."
He took two steps back. If she were capable of transmitting the virus, would she even know it? It was likely that everyone she had met had already been exposed, was already immune.
"It is true," she said to herself. "You have been... hidden... from the sickness. It is what she said."
"Did you come from a town?"
She gave him a long look through thick lashes. "Si, niño. Of a kind."
"But you--you're alone in the middle of nowhere..."
"I will tell you why," she said. "If you come back." She reached down, grabbed the empty canteen that hung at her side. She opened it, shook it. Two or three drops fell out, made tracks in the dirt. "I need water," she said. "And food. Bring them to me, and I will tell you things. Things you might need to know."
"I'll bring you food and water," he said. "Whether you tell me anything or not. But you have to stay put. So I can find you."
She smiled. Her teeth were chipped and discolored. He wondered when she had last seen a dentist. If there were any dentists left. "I'll be here, niño," she said. "You can count on it."
He took a roundabout route back to the shelter, tried to make sure he wasn't followed. Not that someone truly intent on finding the shelter couldn't figure out where it was. The generator ran on wind as well as solar power, and both of those required external equipment. The windmill was located at the top of the mountain, in plain view, no more than one hundred yards from the shelter.
He paused before starting the final climb, up the defile formed by the dry streambed, smothered now in shadow. From the place where he stood he could see the mountains to the north and east--and a dizzying view of the Pacific to the west. Sometimes, when the sun and the clouds were right, he imagined he could see a city beyond the hills, a city of spires and a million glowing lights. He had drawn a city like that, once.
Below, in the shadows, there was a faint sound, a dislodging of pebbles. He froze, waited. Nothing. Only the cold violet stillness of an October twilight.
Then, distantly, a canine yelping. Feral dogs. He thought of the woman, alone in the night.
The dogs would be hungry. There wasn't much prey out there now; he rarely saw rabbits or squirrels. But he'd seen the occasional coyote, and lately there were new tracks in the area: dog tracks.
The woman hadn't appeared to have a weapon. A fire might keep the dogs at bay. Did she even have matches?
He couldn't go outside again tonight without rousing his father's suspicions. His father, sense of humor gone the way of his tan, the fibers of his body stretched as taut as his nerves, liked to talk about necessity. Necessity and ruthlessness.
It was quiet when Roger walked into the main room of the shelter, his suit left behind in the outer alcove to disinfect, recharge. Noel was in her corner, reciting French verbs. She liked to pretend that there was still a France, that priests still said Mass in Notre Dame Cathedral, that artists still gathered in cafes on the Left Bank.
He couldn't throw stones; he lived in his own glass house. Or houses. Castles, skyscrapers, villas, cathedrals. He designed them. Drew them. Papered the walls of his alcove with them. Buildings that would never be built, or lived in, or worshipped in. Buildings designed by a dumb kid who'd wanted to be an architect since he was eight years old. A dumb kid who hadn't expected to grow up to a world full of empty buildings with no one to live in them. A world where the last thing anyone wanted was another building.
If there was anyone left to want anything.
There was the woman. She had said there were towns. She was on the run from a town. A kind of town, she had said. He wondered what that meant.
He would have liked to tell his mother about the woman. It had been his mother's idea in the beginning to suit up and go outside to look for animal spoor or traces of human survival. She had been tireless in her searches. Once. Before she lost her will.
She was in bed now, a wet towel draped over her face. She had a migraine again.
The lights were dim. Was it because of his mother's headache or was the generator acting up again? Roger went to the cupboard, took out a can of peaches, ate them slowly, straight from the can. Each movement felt slow, dreamlike.
"Roger." His mother spoke up from the bed. "Did you see anything interesting?"
"Well," he said. He hesitated. He didn't like to lie to his mother. "I think I saw a rabbit. And a lot of birds. They're migrating now."
"A rabbit," she said, propping herself up on one elbow. "It's been a long time since we saw one of those."
When she had gone outside with him, they had mostly found bones. Skeletons. Skeletons of rabbits, of deer. Picked clean. A mountain lion skeleton. And one skeleton that was clearly not animal.
"What about the dogs?" his father said. "I don't like you going outside with dogs around."
"I just saw tracks, Dad. They've probably moved on."
"It would take just one bite to kill you," his father said. "If they're carriers. If they broke through your suit."
"I have the rifle," Roger said.
"One bite," his father said. "That's all it would take. There'd be a possibility of contamination. I wouldn't be able to let you back into the shelter, Roger. I couldn't take the risk."
His mother sat up in the bed, let the towel fall from her face. Her hair hung limp and pale around her face. There were pockets of shadow under her eyes. "He'll be careful," she said. "Won't you, Roger?"
The bones they had discovered had been those of a child. "What if the child had been alive?" his mother had said to his father, when she and Roger returned to the shelter. "What then?"
"We would have done what we had to do," his father had said. "We would have let it die."
"How can you say that, Malcom?" his mother had said. "About a child?"
"A child can be a carrier, Kirsten. A child could kill us all. We have to be ruthless now, Kirsten. Roger. Ruthless and strong. If we want to survive."
The woman had survived the cold and the dogs. She had spent the night on the ledge; one corner was blackened, the remains of a fire.
He had brought her one of his mother's old coats: a red car coat with a fur collar. She took it gratefully, laid it down on the ledge, smoothing the fur. "Thank you, niño," she said. "This will keep me warm tonight."
She drank greedily from the old milk carton he had brought her, head tilted back, throat moving with each swallow. She used the rest to fill her canteen. He'd brought a can of ham and another of mandarin oranges. She emptied them in minutes.
He squatted awkwardly several yards away and watched her eat. It was morning; the sky was cloudless, deep and blue. Below the canyon and to the east, the hills rippled like the shoulders of mountain lions, round and hard and golden.
"Thank you, niño," she said again. "You are kind."
"De nada," he said. "It's nothing."
"No," she said. "It's not nothing. You have just so much food--am I not right?"
"Well," he said, hesitating. "I can't bring much more. They keep count."
She sipped from the canteen. "I understand."
"What will you do if I stop bringing food?"
She shrugged. "Whatever I must."
"Aren't you scared?"
She looked at him, her lashes long and curling and exquisite around her huge dark eyes. What would she look like with the dust washed from her face? "I'm scared, niño," she said. "Of course I'm scared. But what can I do?"
"What about the baby's father? Doesn't he care what happens to you? Doesn't he care what happens to the baby?"
She looked down. "He was killed."
"There isn't anyone else?"
"No," she said. "I had only him. My family is dead, niño. Of the sickness. We weren't rich like you. We had no nice little cave to hide in."
He struggled to his feet. "You followed me," he said.
"I didn't follow you," she said. "What else could it be, eh, niño? You think I'm stupid?"
"Don't follow me," he said. "You could get hurt."
"So," she said. "Your family is afraid? Afraid of a poor Mexican woman? Were they afraid of their maids when they lived in Beverly Hills?"
His face grew hot. "We lived in Santa Barbara."
She shrugged. "Same thing. You should be afraid, niño, you know that? I saw another cave once. My man and I saw it. It was open. It had been robbed. The people were dead. We found their bones."
Five families had come to the hills for survival practice on the weekend the world ended. Five families, their voices disappearing from the radio one by one. He wondered which family she had found.
She hoisted herself back onto the ledge, the empty cans left behind below. "The world has changed, niño," she said. "It's not pretty, this new world. There are no malls, no beauty parlors, no movies. No big fancy hospitals. No Red Cross. You make few friends. You trust slowly. You keep what you can hold."
He found her in a different place the next day, in a shady gully, filled with scrub and live oak. A trickle ran through the deepest point of the gully: the autumn remnants of a spring torrent.
"Don't call me niño," he said. "My name is Roger."
Her hair hung long and wet. The dust was gone from her face. He was struck by the smoothness, the almost unnatural translucence of her skin. "All right," she said. "I didn't think you'd come back. Roger."
"Why? Because of what you told me?"
"Well. Yes. Yes, Roger."
"I'm not afraid of you," he said. "I have a gun. You're a woman alone."
"But I may not be alone. Perhaps I have--how do you say it?--cofeders hiding nearby. Using me to get near you. To get into your nice little cave."
"Confederates," he said. "The word is confederates. Are your confederates ghosts? They don't hunt, or build fires, or leave tracks. At least not that I can see."
She smiled, baring her discolored teeth. "I am glad you came," she said. "It is not smart of you--but I am glad. Do you want to know my name? It is Rosita."
"Rosita," he said. "Little rose." He tried to picture her as a little girl, delicate and soft and flowerlike. She was hard now, her features sharp, tinged with pain. Her arms were muscular. "Rosita," he said again. "What would you have done? If I hadn't come back?"
"The Coast Highway is near," she said. "If I could find a car--even an old, dead one--I could bring it to life."
"But where would you drive it? Where is there to go?"
"I fix things," she said, as if she hadn't heard him. "I fix cars. Sewing machines. Boats. All kinds of machines. They love me, machines."
He thought of the generator. It wouldn't last another year. They needed it for more than light and heat. It ran their filters, pumped their water. Would she be able to fix it?
"You probably wouldn't get far," he said. "Even with a car. They had to fix Route 1 every year because of mud-slides."
"You have other suggestions, niño? Roger?"
"What about Highway 101? Or 5?"
"No," she said. "No." Her hands crept blindly, protectively, to her abdomen.
"There's something in the desert," he said, half to himself. "Or in the valley. You're running."
"Si," she said. She met his eyes. "They will kill my baby there."
"Who?" he said.
"The people," she said. "They kill the babies. They kill the babies of the women who were sick."
"Why? Why would they do that?"
Her hands moved in her lap, nervously. She looked away, as she had the first time he had seen her, her lips moving silently.
Then she shook her head, as if dissatisfied. "My baby thinks I can trust you," she said. "Can I, Roger? Can I trust you not to go crazy? No matter what I tell you?"
"Yes," he said. "I think I may have already... guessed."
"What? What have you guessed?"
"The babies are... different. Their minds are different. People are afraid of them."
"Yes," she said. "They are different."
"But I don't understand. Aren't all the babies different? They can't kill all the babies. There wouldn't be anyone left."
"Some women didn't get sick. Their babies are... normal. But my baby--she will be strange. On the outside. Even more, on the inside."
He felt his pulse quicken. "She's telepathic," he said.
"Yes," she said. "She shows me things. Pictures. The pictures--I ask myself where they are from. Then I know: it is the other babies. When I sleep, I can feel her reaching. Reaching for them."
"The other babies?" he said. "Where?"
"In the cities," she said. "In the cities they let the babies live."
"Then you're headed for a city? So she can be safe?"
"No," she said. "No one can go in the cities now. No one... human. The babies--they grow fast. Their power--it grows faster. The cities are changed now. The babies have changed them. They keep people out."
He looked for words, found none. The world had changed in ways he had never imagined. And the virus--it seemed likely now that his father had been right, that the virus was a product of deliberate engineering. With all the children born to infected mothers sharing the same mutation, a mutation that sped up growth and enhanced mental abilities--what else could it be?
Rosita looked at him defiantly, challenging his silence. "She is my baby," she said. "I could not let her die."
She gasped suddenly and put one hand behind her against the dark earth, bracing herself. The other hand clutched her abdomen. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead.
He felt a stab of panic. "What's happening?" he said. "It isn't--the baby isn't--"
The contraction ended, but her breath still came hard. "I don't know, Roger," she said. "I am pregnant only six months. But the babies--they grow fast."
"I'll stay--until you're sure," he said. "There are dogs around. I could keep them away."
"Yes," she said. "That would be kind." She eased herself back along the stream bank until she found a tree to lean against. "There is a place, they say--north, along the coast. Humans and babies are peaceful together there. I look for that place."
"I wish I could see it. I wish I could go with you."
"Niño," she said. "Roger. You can't."
"Yes," he said. "I know."
She napped for a time, while he kept watch. The sky deepened to noon. The shadows of the live oaks shivered across her face. Her expression was peaceful. The spasm had been a false alarm.
He could stay outside only so long. The suit had no provisions for drinking or eliminating. He roused her reluctantly. "I have to leave now," he said. "You shouldn't sleep out here. Not alone."
"I am grateful to you," she said. "She is grateful. She would like to tell you this. But she has no words. Only pictures. And you could not see them anyway."
She ran her hands through her hair. It had dried in waves. Roger noticed a thread of silver. "Her father. He saw the pictures. He said that through her eyes he could sometimes see... Paradise. Roger?"
"I like to make you her padrino--you don't mind? You know what that means?"
"Yes," he said. "It means godfather. I wouldn't mind. Of course, I wouldn't mind."
A Santa Ana wind began that night, a beast howling through the emptiness, its breath hot ions.
He was forbidden to go outside until the winds died down. What if debris pierces your suit? his father said. What if a wild fire traps you?
Noel spotted him trying to sneak out, the morning of the second day. She told his father. If you try that again, his father said, you won't be going out again. Ever.
Life in death. Death in life.
His father's knuckle-cracking. His mother's sleep-talking. The song Noel sang, over and over and over again:
Maudit sois tu, carilloneur
que Dieu crea pour mon malheur...
Even Roger's latest sketch: complicated, interior, full of skewed perspectives, Escher-like. What was the point of designing for reality if no one would ever see it? Self-indulgence. Jacking off.
Like what he did in darkness, when the family was asleep. The only sexual experience he could ever look forward to.
Life in death. Death in life.
And outside, Rosita was starving. Or worse.
Quand sonnera-t-on la mort du sonneur?
Quand sonnera-t-on la mort du sonneur
On the morning of the third day, the wind died down. It was a mile and a half from the shelter to the canyon. He hurried, crushing the pale, brittle grasses as he ran, leaving a trail behind him.
The canyon was empty. Even at a distance he could see that there was only one thing on the ledge: something white, stained red.
It was her white scarf, soaked with blood. Beside the scarf, the stone of the ledge was rusty brown. She had had her baby then.
She would be in the gully, where the water was. Of course. That's where she'd be.
But he didn't find her there. He found dog-tracks, in the mud at the water's edge. He found the body of a rabbit, or what was left of it, clumps of pale, plush fur, blood-stained. He wondered if it was the rabbit he had seen the other day.
The wind stirred. In the distance, the report of a rifle, echoing.
It came from the south, from the shelter. Where else would it have come from?
He ran back up the ravine, awkward in his suit, rifle slapping against his back, breath coming in hot gasps. Mist gathered on his mask.
He was just past the canyon when he saw movement in the high, still depths of the sky. Black wings, circling.
He ran faster. A mile to the shelter. Only a mile.
He found Rosita before that.
She was in the dry streambed, far below him. Below the last, long, scree-filled climb to the entrance. He wasn't looking down when he passed by above her. He didn't see her. But he heard the dogs.
He heard them snarling, fighting. He looked down, and his heart almost stopped. They were fighting above the body of a woman. A woman in a dusty blue dress.
It seemed as if he stood there for a year, looking at the dogs as they fought over her body. Each detail was crisp, clear: the wound in the mangy, brown coat of the Doberman, the long pink tongue of the mongrel, emerging from a thatch of black and white. The long white teeth of the Malamute in a merciless, starving face.
And beneath them, a brown human hand, stretched out against the stones.
A century passed while he pulled the rifle forward, aimed it with shaking hands. He shot, missed once. He shot again, hit the Malamute, the largest target, wounding it in the shoulder.
The dogs bared their teeth, snarled, backed away. In the jaws of the Doberman were bloody scraps. Roger shot again, hitting the Doberman in the leg. He watched the dogs run, disappear.
Time sped up again. He ran. Down the hill, down the sections of scree, through tree roots and brambles, tripping on them, snagging on them, falling once, the rifle dragging behind him in the dirt.
She was lying face down, one arm reaching out, the other beneath her. The dogs had torn her dress, taken a chunk out of her back. Roger crouched down, rolled her over, saw her face: dead, the eyes open and staring. Her face was bony, terribly thin. Had he ever really seen how thin she was?
The bodice of her dress was torn, revealing one smooth, brown breast, the nipple leaking fluid. The arm that had been beneath her rolled, the hand still clutching at the stained, bundled remnants of the car coat. The baby was inside the bundle. He could see the top of its head, protruding above the fur. It didn't move or cry. Was it dead?
Dead. Like Rosita.
He talked to her, as if she could hear him. "Why didn't you stay on the ledge?" he said. "I would have come. You should have believed I would come."
A tiny hand waved free above the fur. The car coat bundle loosened. He glimpsed the baby's face. It was damp and translucent brown, the veins showing through the skin. The lips were indigo, darker than Rosita's.
But the strangest thing about the baby were its eyes.
The eyes of the baby had no whites. The irises were huge, filling up the eye sockets, the irises of an animal, of a cow or a deer or a dog. They were milky green.
He fought his revulsion. This was her child. Rosita's child. She had given her life for this child.
How could he just leave it to die?
He would have to take it to the ledge, if he wanted to keep it safe. That meant he would have to touch it. And if he wanted to feed it...
Then he realized he had already made the decision. He had done it without thinking. He had touched Rosita when he had rolled her over.
He had touched her.
What difference would it make if he touched her baby?
Her full skirts moved when he picked up the baby, revealing what he should have looked for, what he should have remembered. A bloody hole in her dress, just below the waist. A bullet hole.
How could he have forgotten the sound of the gunshot, the sound that had brought him there in the first place?
She had gone to the shelter. She had gone to beg for food for herself and her baby, and his father had shot her. She had been dying before the dogs reached her.
Damn you, he said to his father. Damn you. Damn you.
He started up the hill.
He was halfway there, when his father came to meet him. His father wore his suit, shiny and clean. He had his rifle in his hands.
His father held out one hand, as if in warning. He held up the rifle with the other. The words he uttered were indistinct, muffled by suits and filters. "Don't get any closer."
"You killed her," Roger said. "A woman with a baby. She didn't have a weapon. She couldn't have made it through the door even if she had."
"She knew where we were."
"She was alone. She'd just had a baby. She depended on me to bring her food. She was coming to me for help."
"Yes," his father said. "Well. You shouldn't have, Roger. The food has to last us."
"It doesn't have to last that long. The generator'll give out before the food does. She could have fixed it. That's what she did: fix things. But shoot first, ask questions later, that's what they say, isn't it?"
Sunlight glinted on his father's mask, hiding his eyes. "You're holding her baby," he said.
"Was I supposed to just leave it, Dad? Just leave it to die? Is that what you would have done?"
"Roger. It would have been the smart thing. Roger, look down."
Roger followed his father's gaze. Why hadn't he seen it before? Why hadn't he felt it? There was a hole in the knee of his suit. A hole.
Beyond the hole, his skin, scraped raw and bleeding. When had it happened? When he ran down the hill? Had it been a tree root or a rock? Did it matter?
"I'll disinfect it," he said. "The baby didn't get near it. Nothing did."
"Roger. Your suit is ripped. You've touched the woman and the baby. I'm sorry, Roger."
Behind the mask, his father's pale face, utterly without humor or mercy. Was this how he had looked when he shot Rosita?
"What if I don't get sick, Dad? Will you let me back in?"
"I don't know, Son. I don't know."
His father brought him water to wash his scrapes, sterile fabric to patch his suit. He brought food and water, enough for several days, a change of clothes, shoes, a blanket, aspirin, powdered milk, and a rag to use as a diaper for the baby.
Clothes, for when the virus hit and he no longer needed the suit. Aspirin, to ease the pain.
His mother came to the door of the shelter, suited up for the first time in years. His father was beside her, gripping his rifle. She waved good-bye. She was crying.
That afternoon, he did his best to bury Rosita. He used a rock to gouge a shallow grave. He covered her with rocks and dirt. It wasn't enough. Dogs could dig.
In the evening, Roger went back to the ledge. Rosita's ledge. The only place he knew where he and the baby would be able to sleep without worrying about predators.
The baby had surprising motor skills for a newborn, lapping like a cat at the grainy mixture of dried milk mixed with water, held in a small metal cup. He had no bottle. She drank enough to use up half a box of milk; she drank until his arm grew tired. He remembered what Rosita had said: The babies, they grow fast.
He named her Maria; there was no one else to name her. He drizzled water over her little head and prayed, feeling less foolish than he had thought he would. She didn't cry, only looked at him with her huge eyes: beast's eyes, green in the moonlight. He wondered if she was trying to talk to him with her mind. Was she frustrated because he couldn't hear her? Was she lonely?
Maria. His goddaughter. Not even human.
And yet, she was all he had.
He dreamed that night of a presence, beyond the mountains to the south. A presence: seeking, reaching. He cried to it, seeking to end his loneliness. His unbearable loneliness.
But it didn't hear him.
In the morning, the baby seemed larger.
Her eyes were green-brown, darker. The babies they grow fast.
He hadn't slept well on the ledge, hard as it was and riddled with ridges and small holes. His head pounded and his mouth felt dry. He shivered with cold.
Please God, don't let me be sick. Don't let me have the virus.
He slept again, awakened soaked in sweat. There was pressure inside his head, as if a balloon were slowly expanding inside his skull. His groin throbbed. His mouth was dry. He had a miserable sore throat. The four aspirin he managed to swallow barely touched the pain.
They all knew the list of symptoms; they'd heard them from the radio. He had the virus.
It was strange how unafraid he felt.
He got up from the ledge, ripped his suit off. He stood naked in the warm sun, let it dry the fever-sweat from his body. He shouted, listened to the sound reverberate from the rocks of the canyon, unmuffled. He was free.
He looked up at the pure blue of the sky, looked unmasked at the sun, although the brightness intensified the pain in his head. Free at last.
He shivered suddenly, uncontrollably. Quickly he pulled on his pants, his socks, his shirt, his shoes. He doubled the blanket and wrapped it around him, but it wasn't enough.
How long would it be before the hallucinations began? The seizures? The intervals of lucidness, coupled with pain?
He climbed back on the ledge and settled down to wait.
The pain was terrible beyond imagining, but the dreams were worse:
He lay parched in the desert, while the sun slowly cooked the flesh from his bones. Ants devoured his charred flesh. He watched his bones crumble.
He lay on bloodied grass while horses thundered back and forth across his legs. A huge hoof descended towards his face. He felt his skull shatter like porcelain.
He stumbled up a long and rocky slope, desperate and afraid. At the top of the slope, behind a concealed door, were his father, his mother, his little sister. His family. He pounded on the door, bruising his hands on the thick steel. He told them he was in agony. He told them he was dying.
No one came out. No one heard him.
He was alone.
He slipped and slid backward down the slope. He fell among showers of pebbles, rolled over mounded dirt and stones. He encountered something soft. In the dim light, it looked like a severed human hand.
The pain was terrible, but the dreams were worse.
Sometime in the night, he saw it. The pale, striped ghost-body, circling. Eyes like two flames. Breath like a hot wind. Bright paws treading heavily. Low, steady growl, rumbling like distant thunder. He gasped in fear before he remembered: it was a dream. Only a dream.
Dream tiger. So detailed, so real, even to the three small, curved stripes above each eye. Real even to the white fringe of fur around its jaw, to the delicate pale whiskers, moonlight-etched.
And high above the tiger, where canyon met sky, a canine form. Silhouetted against the half moon, fur bristling, dog or wolf, it was impossible to tell. It threw back its head and howled.
Other shadows slunk up beside it, disappeared. Rocks skittered; scree fell. Small, furtive shadows moved closer.
A dream, only a dream. There were no dogs; there was no tiger.
So real. So real the tiger, pausing in its circling, facing away from him up the slope, hindquarters twitching, low growl grown lower, menacing. So real the dogs, only a few yards away now: canine muzzles, moonlight-chased, white teeth, eyes dimly gleaming.
So real the feelings of sickness. Of weakness so great that even to sit up was too much, to stand and run impossible.
The tiger charged the dogs, snarling.
The dream became one of confusion. Of growling and shrieking, of tearing and snapping.
Then all was silence.
Later. Still night. Another dream. A good dream. His head cradled, pills forced between his lips, cool water following.
A voice: "Swallow." His mother's voice. "Try to swallow, Roger. The pain pills will help you."
He swallowed, and after a while the pain grew less. He tried to speak. "How..."
"I followed you. After you came back. You fell, sweetheart. You're in the gully now."
"Hush. Don't try to talk. Try to drink. You're dehydrated. Rest."
He slipped into darkness.
Dawn. The worst dream of all.
His father standing above him, rifle ready in his hands. "Your mother came outside last night," his father said. "I found her suit in the alcove. I don't want her risking herself again. You have to go."
"Dad." The word rasped out. "Dad."
"You made your own choice, Roger. If you survive, you'll be part of the fortunate fifteen percent. Good luck."
"I want you gone before nightfall. I've left you a little food and water. If you live, you won't have to worry about the virus. You can scrounge off the land now."
He was conscious. The fever had broken. The pain was a whisper of what it had been.
He was lying on his back. There was grass around him. Long, dry grass. From somewhere near, the harsh croaking of a raven. What was he doing here?
How much of what he remembered had been dream and how much had been real?
He sat up. The effort made him dizzy. His neck was stiff. His arms ached. He looked for the baby, then remembered that she should be on the ledge.
He struggled to his feet. It was maybe half a mile to the ledge. Not far, except that his feet felt as if they belonged to someone else.
He'd gone only a short distance when he saw them: dog tracks. The tracks of at least one large and one small dog. The prints of the large dog were distinctive; it was missing a part of one paw. There were traces of blood near some of the prints.
The dogs, at least, had been real.
It took him at least an hour to get to the ledge, although it couldn't have been much more than half a mile. He entered the canyon with his eyes closed, he was so afraid of what he might see. When he opened them, he laughed aloud with relief. The baby was still there--and very much alive.
She was lying in the car coat, gazing outward with her strange beast's eyes, waiting. Her little hands moved as if she were waving to him.
She was dehydrated and sunburnt. Her skin was hot and dry. But the food and water were still there, untouched beneath his discarded suit, beside his soon-to-be-useless rifle. He sipped water while he fed her; it took several cups of the grainy milk mixture before she was satisfied.
They needed more water. It was a mile to the stream; he'd have to start out soon. As weak as he was, he wanted to be back at the ledge before dark.
They both stank. Her diaper needed washing, and so did his pants. He bundled her soiled diaper in the remains of the car coat and left her wrapped in his suit. He picked up the rifle, the two empty canteens, and the filthy bundle, and began to walk away.
Behind him the baby let out a thin, little cry. At first he thought he'd imagined it. Then he turned and saw her tiny indigo mouth open and close, heard the squeaks issuing forth from it, like the squeaks of a mouse.
It was the first time he had ever heard her cry.
He thought of the night she'd spent alone. Had she understood he'd never intended to abandon her? Did she know he wasn't abandoning her now?
He turned back to her, swaying under the weight of the rifle. He felt so tired. "Geez, Maria," he said. "I thought you were telepathic. Don't you know I wouldn't leave you?"
He put down his gear and sat back down on the ledge. He picked her up, stroked her. His arms ached with the weight of her. How could she be so small and yet so heavy? "I have to go, Maria," he said. "We need water. We'll die without it. I'll be back."
She stopped crying and seemed to look at him. She didn't want him to go. He could feel it. He could feel it the way he could feel the uneven pounding of his heart within his chest. The way he could feel the dizziness sweeping up over him.
It would pass. He put her down and picked up his gear. "I have to go," he said.
He stood up. The world swung slowly around. He fell.
He felt the rifle slide from his hands. Then he felt nothing.
He opened his eyes. The canyon was in shadow, the light beyond, red-gold. It was late.
Above him on the ledge, the baby. Her breathing was strange, shallow, labored.
And then another sound: a deep, throaty growl. Bright paws, treading heavily. Breath like a hot wind. Eyes like two flames. The eyes of his dream.
It was large, bright. It blazed in the shadows like a bonfire: arch-tiger, king of tigers. Tiger, tiger, burning bright, in the forests of the night...
He lay still, afraid to move, trying to understand. The tiger paced, tail twitching, seeming not to see him, although its paws came within inches of his face. At certain angles it seemed transparent; he caught glimpses of the canyon walls through its throat, through the muscles of its legs.
Above him, the baby's breathing caught. She sighed.
The tiger flickered like a dying candle.
Was the tiger an illusion--or a different kind of reality? Had Maria brought it there? Had she made it? Why?
Maybe he hadn't been dreaming the first time he saw it. Maybe the tiger had been there throughout his sickness, guarding him. Keeping the feral dogs, the scavengers, away.
Maybe it had saved his life.
I don't need you now, he told it silently. I'm awake. And I think I'm going to be fine.
It vanished while he watched.
He lifted himself painfully to his feet. He picked up his gear and climbed back on the ledge. He left the stinking bundle on the ground below. It was too late to go for water now. He'd go tomorrow.
Maria's eyes were closed. He lay down beside her, put his arms around her for warmth. Now that the tiger was gone, he found it hard to make himself believe in it. Had she really made it? Had she really saved his life?
They came sometime after nightfall. He heard them before he saw them: the whickering of horses, hooves dislodging stone.
The night was clear. There was a half moon. He could see Maria's eyes, open and palely opalescent. She was awake. But she lay very still.
He tried to move--and couldn't. His body was inert, useless. There was no feeling in his hands, no feeling in his arms or legs. He could move his eyes, but his head was a dead weight on his neck; he could not move his tongue, even to lick the dryness of his lips. Panic hovered at the edges of consciousness, taunting him. Was this some unanticipated after-effect of the virus?
A horse snorted, closer now. He rolled his eyes until he could just make out the canyon entrance.
And saw them.
They passed into the canyon single-file: four horses, gray and black and white in the moonlight. On their backs were riders, small and swathed in black.
One rider stopped beside the ledge. Above its veil its eyes were beast's eyes, without whites. It reached out to the ledge and pried Maria from Roger's paralyzed arms.
Fearless, expecting no resistance from Roger. As if it had known he would be unable to fight back.
What do you want with her? Roger asked silently. Will you care for her as Rosita would have? As I would have?
There was no reply.
The horses whickered and passed like ghosts from the canyon. He was alone.
He sent his thoughts out of the canyon, after Maria. I'll come for you, if you need me. I don't know how, but I'll come. Remember me.
He didn't expect her to hear him.
It seemed hours before the paralysis wore off. A tingling in his hands and toes, the ability to swallow, then--for a brief, agonizing eternity--nothing. After a while he could move his head. The paralysis was not permanent, not a result of the virus. They had done it to him, to make the taking of Maria easier.
He would have sobbed with relief, if not for the ache he felt at the loss of her.
He turned his head, looked directly at the opening to the canyon. Light twinkled there. The moon was bright. Maybe bright enough even to track. To follow.
It was a while before he could rub feeling back into his arms and legs, a while before he could climb down from the ledge and hurry to the canyon opening.
He stopped when he got there. Maria had heard him.
And she had answered.
Like flowers after a desert rain, the buildings had sprung up among the dark hills. Silent, shining, beautiful. On a distant hillside, a castle of silver light, more elaborate, more delicately soaring, than Neuschwanstein. On the hill beyond, a skyscraper like a joystick, glowing emerald, curved, phallic, powerful. And on the hill beside Roger: stairs, leading up, leading down, spiraling around. He stood in the center of the villa he had never finished drawing, in a room of mirrors and windows that opened on twilight and an endless, mulberry-dark sea.
And in an island in the middle of that sea, the city. The city of spires and a million lights, glowing softly like pearls. His city.
He wondered if the others had helped her. It was impossible that she could have done it alone, an infant so young.
Or was it?
It didn't matter. It didn't matter that the city was a dream that had to fade, or that it was made of wonders that he could never share in. Maria had created it for him.
It was her good-by.
This story originally appeared in Writers of the Future.