Science Fiction far-future SF

Midnight in Absheron

By Edward Ashton
Sep 2, 2019 · 6,598 words · 24 minutes


From the author: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?


Shari shudders once, sighs, and falls still. A single bead of sweat runs down between her eyes. It hangs for a moment at the end of her nose, before breaking free to drop onto Marak’s chest. She breathes in deep and sighs again, then lifts herself off of him, kicks the thin sheet from her lower legs, and rolls onto her back.

“Thank you,” she says. “That was...”

“It was what it was,” Marak says. “It doesn’t need to be more.”

Shari nods, wipes the sweat back from her forehead, and closes her eyes.

Shari wakes to perfect darkness. The sheets are damp beneath her, and her mouth is cracked and dry. She reaches for Marak, feels the smooth skin of his shoulder. She slides her hand up until she finds a stray dreadlock, rolls it between her thumb and forefinger, squeezes until the coarse hairs separate.

“What are you doing?” Marak whispers. “Go back to sleep.”

“The heat is too much to sleep,” she says.

He brushes her hand from his hair.

“You get used to it. Or else you don’t. Either way, go back to sleep.”

He rolls away from her, leaves her hand trailing down his broad, hairless back. She finds a scar there, a smooth, dry line that runs from the base of his neck to the top of his buttock.

“Marak,” she says. “What did this?”

“I don’t remember,” he says.

“How could you not? It cuts across your spine.”

He sighs.

“Don’t worry. A few more postings, and you’ll have enough of those to forget where they came from.”

Morning comes. Shari is alone in Marak’s great bed. Harsh, blue-tinged light streams in through the open window. It skips off the mud-colored tile floor, and paints bright, glaring streaks on the walls. Shari’s head spins when she sits up. She leans forward between her knees and presses her hands to her ears until the room stops moving. She feels wrung-out and dusty, as dry inside as a month-old bone.

“Here,” says Marak. He comes through the beaded curtain that separates his bedroom from his kitchen with a heavy clay jug in his hand. Shari takes it from him with both hands, and drinks. It holds ice-cold water, but with a trace of something bitter. She feels her lip curl up in reaction. Marak laughs.

“You don’t like the nanos,” he says. “Neither do I. They’re in everything. You’ll get used to that too.”

Shari drinks until the jug is empty, and her belly is swollen. She imagines she can feel the water pouring back into her tissues, smoothing her skin, filling in the tired lines on her face and the backs of her hands. She imagines she can feel the nanos too, spreading through her blood and lymph, hunting down and destroying the pseudo-protozoans that infest everything here, that nearly wiped out the first beach-head colony on this world.

“First thing to know,” says Marak. “Everything here hates us. Everything. Keep that in mind, you’ll do well in Absheron.”

Walking the streets of the city in the brutal heat of midday, Shari feels the hatred, and wonders how she failed to sense it before. It comes from the colonists first. This is an Eloi world, and the Eloi hate her kind and Marak’s as a matter of course. The fact that they need her here, that the Governor begged her to come, matters not a whit to the ones who scuttle across the dusty street to avoid brushing past her on the narrow sidewalk. Shari does not return the hatred, does not so much as glance at the Eloi who glare at her from cafe windows and from the cabins of passing ground cars. Hatred is an outgrowth of fear, and between the Eloi and Shari’s people, fear runs only one way.

It isn’t only the Eloi, though. Shari is well used to their loathing. She has felt it on a dozen colony worlds. In Absheron, a low, constant buzz of fury lies beneath the chattering overlay of the Eloi, like the hum of a distant power line, or the incessant whine of an insect in her ear. She missed this on the trip into the city from the port, but now that Marak has pointed it out to her, it is a constant, grating presence.

The Governor’s offices are in a marble and brick building—the tallest in the town, looming four stories over Absheron’s broad central square and the strange, half-human sculpture that dominates its center. Shari is sweating freely as she steps into the cool, blue-tiled lobby. This building seems to be the only one in Absheron with climate control, and a shiver runs down her back as she approaches the half-circle marble-topped desk in the center of the room. The Eloi who sits behind it looks up at her with barely-concealed disgust.

“You’re the new one,” he says. “The Governor is expecting you.”

Shari meets his eyes and holds them, until he flinches and looks away.

“Yes,” she says. “Can you direct me?”

He waves toward a broad stone staircase at the back of the room.

“Three flights up. Follow the hall to the end.”

“Thank you,” she says. He mutters something as she walks away. He thinks she can’t hear him, but Shari’s ears are far more sensitive than an Eloi’s, and she hears him quite clearly:  Morlock.

She could take offense, could turn back and frighten the clerk into soiling his crisp uniform—but in truth, the slur doesn’t bother her much. Eloi, she thinks. Morlock. She has heard these words all her life. They are nothing more than names to her. She has no idea what they mean, or even whether they mean anything at all.

The Governor is tall for an Eloi, though still a head shorter than Shari, and painfully thin to her eyes. His hair is white-blonde, his eyes pale blue, his skin nearly translucent. He stands behind his desk when she knocks and enters, smiles and waves her into a high-backed iron chair.

“Welcome,” he says. “I trust Marak has made you comfortable?”

She grins, perhaps a little too widely.

“Yes, Governor. Marak has been very accommodating.”

The Governor’s smile falters.

“Ah. Well, I’m happy to hear that. Do you require anything? Food? Clothing? Gear?”

She shakes her head.

“I’ve come well supplied, and Marak has plenty to spare.”

“Good. Good. That’s very good.” Like the desk clerk, the Governor has difficulty meeting her gaze. She allows the nictitating membranes to slide across her eyes, and stares him down without blinking. “Well,” he says. “Yes. I suppose you’d like to know why we were so eager to bring you here?”

Shari shrugs. While she does not know the specifics, she is well aware of why she has come to Absheron. The Eloi are a specialized breed, just as Shari’s people are. They have been optimized for survival on long-haul arks and fledgling colonies. Part of that optimization is physical. Eloi take up a minimum of space. They require very little food, and very little water. Another part is behavioral. Eloi are nearly incapable of aggression or conflict. Pack a thousand of them into a cargo hold for a three-year transit, and they will arrive at landfall without a single murder—likely without a single argument.

Sadly, existence on a colony world sometimes requires aggression. This is why Marak has been here for more than a kiloday. This is why Shari has been summoned to Absheron.

“I assume,” Shari says, “that you have a security issue that Marak has been unable to resolve alone. Is this not correct?”

The Governor’s eyes meet hers, and then slide away.

“Yes,” he says. “Yes, that sums it up nicely. We do indeed have a security issue, and Marak has not... has not been able to resolve it. It is our hope... our fervent hope... that you... or rather, the two of you together, will be able to... to put this issue to rest, shall we say.” 

Shari’s eyes narrow, and she nods.

“Well,” she says. “I am sure that we will.”

“Yes,” says the Governor. “Doubtless you will.” His eyes are leveled at her breasts. She wears a thin nylon shift. Sweat has plastered it to her skin. “Well,” he says. “Were there other items to discuss?”

Shari shakes her head. This was a courtesy call, required by her contract in order to initiate the first payment. She did not expect to learn anything useful here.

“Very well then,” says the Governor, his smile returning in full for the first time since Shari entered his office. “I trust that you’ll contact me if you have any questions.” He pushes back his chair, stands, and offers her his hand.

Shari stands as well. She takes his hand, squeezes hard enough to bring a slight grimace to his face.

“Thank you, Governor. It has truly been a pleasure to meet you. I hope that you will find my service satisfactory.”

Shari arrives back at Marak’s villa to find him preparing supper. She opens the door to the smells of roasting meat, garlic and onions sizzling in oil, and something both spicy and savory that she can’t quite place.

“Come,” Marak calls from the kitchen. “Food will be ready soon.”

She walks past the sitting room, and down the long hallway to the kitchen. She finds a massive clay oven there, a polished glass table and a sleek silver induction stove. The heat is hellish. Marak is stripped to the waist, bent over a skillet. The scar on his back is an ashy streak across his jet-black skin.

“We’ll eat in the courtyard,” Marak says, and waves toward a half-open door. “Wait for me there.”

Shari takes a jug of water from the table, makes her way past Marak and out the door. The courtyard is breezy and shaded, with a massive stone table and benches in the center, and spiky, red-leafed plants in clay pots around the periphery. This is the coolest place she has been in Absheron, other than the Governor’s offices. She sits on a bench, leans back against the table, and drinks deeply from the jug. An awning hangs from the eaves of the villa on either side of the courtyard. The sun is a small blue spot, just off-center, painful to look at even filtered through the cloth.

Shari’s most recent posting was also to an Eloi world—but an older colony than this, and far more populous. She provided personal security there for a wealthy business owner. It was dull, unsatisfying work. Her employer was not threatened, had no real need for security. He considered Shari a status symbol, and seemed to enjoy having her trail after him in the street like a large, extremely dangerous dog. She broke that contract and entered into the present one in the hopes that the work here would be more interesting. She realizes, as she drains the water jug and wishes for more, that she should have given a bit more thought to the weather.

Marak comes through the doorway from the kitchen, carrying a steaming platter of meat in one hand, and a skillet full of vegetables in the other.

“So,” he says as he sets both down on the table. “How was your meeting with the Governor? Did he manage to make it through to the end without wetting himself?”

Shari smiles. Marak takes knife and fork from the platter, and cuts away a generous slab of meat.   

“No plates?” Shari asks.

Marak smiles.

“There are no Eloi here,” he says. He holds the meat in both hands, and takes a huge, bloody bite.

Shari cuts a smaller slice for herself. She sniffs it delicately, then takes a bite. The flavor is both sweet and savory, with an undercurrent of heat.

“Do you like it?” Marak asks.

“I do,” she says around another bite. She pulls a pepper from the skillet, tastes it, and smiles appreciatively. “Where did you get this? Eloi eat no meat. I would not expect to find a butcher’s shop in Absheron.”

Marak laughs. He swallows the last of his first cut, and reaches for the knife again.

“You’re right. What meat I get comes from the larders of the ships that call on us. This was from the one that brought you here, in fact. You should be honored that I share it with you. It cost me almost a week’s wages.”

“From my ship?” Shari says. “This is real meat, not vat-grown.”

He laughs again.

“I take it you were never invited to dine at the Captain’s table?”

“No,” she says. “I was not.”

Shari takes another cut. It’s been three hundred days or more since she’s tasted real meat. Such luxuries are almost unheard-of aboard long-haul ships, and she finds it astonishing that her ship’s quartermaster was willing to part with it at any price. They eat in silence, taking turns at the platter and skillet until everything is gone. Between last night’s sex and this afternoon’s feast, Shari cannot remember the last time she’s felt so thoroughly sated.

“So,” she says finally. “What was this?”

Marak raises one eyebrow.

“What was what?”

“The meat,” says Shari. “I can’t place the flavor. What animal was it cut from?”

Marak shrugs.

“Who knows? It was expensive, and it was delicious. Isn’t that enough?”

Marak rises, goes back into the kitchen, and returns with another clay jug.

“More nano-flavored water?” Shari asks.

“I’m afraid not,” says Marak. He hands the jug to her. She sniffs, and catches a strong whiff of alcohol.

“Wine?”

“That’s being a bit generous.”

Marak takes the jug back, takes a long swig, and hands it to her again. Shari sips. The wine is sour and strong. She feels herself grimace at the first taste, but it leaves behind an almost-pleasant burning in her mouth and throat.

“So,” Marak says. “Tell me true: what did our brave Governor tell you? He must have given you some idea as to why you were brought here.”

Shari shrugs, and takes another pull at the jug.

“Truth,” she says. “He did not. I would have pressed him, but he seemed... uncomfortable with me.”

Marak roars with laughter.

“Uncomfortable?” He takes the jug from her, drinks deeply, and then bursts out laughing again. Shari smiles politely. She begins to suspect that the wine jug is not Marak’s first of the day.

“Yes,” he says finally, and finishes the wine. “I don’t doubt he was uncomfortable. The Eloi are all uncomfortable in Absheron at the moment--and never more so than when one of us is nearby.”

The heat is less oppressive after sunset. Shari asks Marak if he might like a walk, but he’s immersed in his tablet—she is surprised to learn that he is a near-obsessive devotee of the romantic poetry of post-diaspora Trondheim—and so she leaves the villa alone. She’s barely a day past landfall, but Absheron is laid out in a geometrically precise grid, and she is confident she can find her way to the center of the town and back.

The streets are brightly lit, and as she makes her way in toward the bars and restaurants near the Governor’s offices, they are increasingly crowded with Eloi. Shari ignores their stares, ignores the way they shy away from her. On the worlds colonized by the children of Earth, there are a million or more Eloi for every one of Shari’s people. She has never in her life known what it is to pass unnoticed in a crowd.

A block short of the central square, Shari passes a bar with a garish pink sign over the door. It shows a caricature of a huge-breasted woman sketched in blinking lights, with a single word, Breeders, written below. Shari hesitates, then pulls open the door, and steps inside.

Like most Eloi places, Breeder’s is crowded. Eloi don’t seem to mind being packed in together, breathing one another’s exhalations and belches and farts, rubbing sweat from one body to the next to the next. Shari prefers to have a certain amount of personal space. The Eloi inside are accommodating. As she makes her way to the bar, a path opens before her and closes up behind, so that she moves through the crowd in a two-meter bubble of empty space.

A bartender wanders over as soon as she hunches down onto a suddenly-available stool. He’s shirtless, with a shaved-bald head and a hieroglyph of some kind tattooed in the center of his thin, pale chest. He looks into her flat black eyes, leans across the bar, and smiles.

“Well,” he says. “You must be the new one, yes? The one they brought in to put a leash on Marak? What can I get for you?”

“Ale,” she says. “Something dark, if you have it.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” he says. His smile widens, and he winks before turning away.

While she waits, Shari puts her back to the bar and surveys the room. The Eloi circulate slowly, seemingly at random, gathering in short-lived clumps to talk and laugh. There must be a hundred or more in this small room, and it appears to Shari that every one of them is bosom friends with every other.

The bartender taps her on the shoulder. She turns to see a heavy ceramic mug on the bar behind her.

“That’s the best we sell,” says the bartender. “Stick a knife in that head, it’ll stand straight up.”

Shari offers her thumbprint for payment, but he waves it away. She smiles her thanks, lifts the mug, and drinks. The ale is heavy, bitter, and thick as syrup. The mug is half-empty when she puts it down.

“Not bad, right?”

“No,” Shari says. “Not bad at all.”

He leans across the bar again, until his head is a hand’s-breadth from hers. It strikes her that this is the closest she has ever been to an Eloi.

“So,” he says. “Will you kill him?”

Shari pulls back as if he’d slapped her. Eloi do not speak of killing.

“What?” she asks. “What are you talking about? Kill who?”

“Marak,” he says. “That’s what you’re here for, yes? To put him down?”

Shari’s brow knits. She feels suddenly as if she’s missed something, as if she’s just woken up in the middle of a conversation. The bartender straightens, leans away from her. He still wears a smile, but his eyes are wider now, and it looks more like a grimace.

“It was a joke,” he says. “A bad joke. Let me pour you another ale.”

The bartender scurries away. Shari turns to face the room again. He leaves the second mug on the bar without speaking.

Shari has almost decided to return to the villa when she feels a sudden cramping in her belly. She stands abruptly. The room wavers. Could she possibly be drunk already? She takes a half-step toward the door, then doubles over and vomits onto the brown tile floor.

The ale comes up first, in a foamy torrent. Then comes bile, and the remains of her dinner, and then finally a thin, clear fluid streaked with blood. By the time her gut has finished heaving, she’s dropped to her knees with her hands on the floor. She looks up. The Eloi are silent now, pressed back into a wide half-circle with Shari at the center. She stands slowly, wobbles once, and starts slowly toward the door. The Eloi clear a path for her. The room is silent until the door swings shut behind her.

Demons pursue Shari through the streets of Absheron. They come at her from all sides, fangs dripping slaver, gibberish howling from their gaping mouths. She flails at them with her hands and feet, and they fall back before her. She staggers forward, then breaks into a run.

The arrow-straight avenues of Absheron twist and turn like snakes now. Shari runs blindly until her breath comes ragged and she slows at a corner, unsure which way to choose. She looks up at the streetlights, tries to step up onto the curb, cries out and falls face-first onto a spongy, hair-covered sidewalk.

Shari pulls herself to her knees. When she looks up, a demon stands before her. It reaches out for her with razor-sharp claws. Shari screams and strikes, surges to her feet and strikes again. The demon staggers backward and collapses in a heap. Shari stands over its body, raises her arms up to the void and howls.

Shari opens one eye. The morning sunlight pouring through the open window cuts through her brain like a razor. She is naked, lying on her back in Marak’s bed, with her arms stretched wide over her head. She tries to pull them down, and finds that she can’t. Her wrists are tied to the headboard with soft strips of white cloth.

A hazy time passes. Shari drifts in and out of sleep. She is surprised each time she wakes to find that her hands are still bound. The slant of the sun slowly changes. She tries once to call out, but her throat is like sandpaper, and her voice comes out as a reedy whisper.

The bed shifts under Shari, and she comes to full awareness. She looks up to see Marak sitting beside her. His eyes are hooded, and his mouth is set into a thin, hard line.

“Shari,” he says. “What am I to do with you?”

She tries to speak, but falls into a fit of coughing instead. Marak steps out of the room. He returns a moment later with a jug. Shari raises her head. He holds the jug to her lips, and she drinks. She nods when she’s had enough, lets her head fall back and breathes deep.

“Marak,” she says. Her voice is a low, harsh croak. “Why am I bound?”

“Why are you bound?” He laughs, but there is no humor in it. “You are bound, Shari, because I could not bring myself to kill you outright. Hence my question: What am I to do with you?”

She opens her mouth to protest... but then memories of the night begin to seep back in. The bar, the Eloi... and later the demons...

“I killed an Eloi,” she says.

“You killed an Eloi,” Marak says. “You killed an old woman who found you sprawled in the street, who tried to help you to your feet. You killed her with your bare hands, on a public street, in front of a dozen witnesses. Then you stood over her body, your hands dripping blood, and howled to the sky like an animal.”

Shari closes her eyes.

“The Governor instructs me to resolve the situation. He will not—he cannot—speak of killing you, but…”

“The bartender did,” says Shari.

Marak stops, blinks.

“What?”

“The bartender last night, he spoke of killing. He asked when I would kill you.”

After a long five seconds of silence, Shari opens her eyes again. Marak’s eyebrows meet at the bridge of his nose.

“This would be the bartender at a place called Breeder’s?”

Shari nods. Her memory is still a jumbled mess, but her conversation with the bartender stands out like a clear oasis.

“He said I was here to put you down, and asked when I would do it. I had never heard an Eloi speak of killing before. I didn’t think they were capable.”

“They are not,” says Marak. “Did this conversation happen before or after you drank yourself sick?” 

Shari shakes her head.

“I drank one mug of ale, and part of another. The bartender...”

She sees it clearly then—the bartender, frightened, backing away, then later bringing her the second ale...

“I was poisoned,” Shari says. “The bartender poisoned me.”

Shari dreams of home—of the creche where she was born, on a world called Tamburlaine. In truth, the creche was a dim, warm, homey place, echoing always with children’s voices, and smelling of honey and cinnamon. In her dream, though, the creche is dark and cold and haunted by demons. They chase her through the corridors, howling and gibbering, always close behind, but never quite catching her. The aunties, who she remembers as wise and kind and soft-spoken, stand aside and laugh as her creche-mates are pulled down one by one and devoured.

Shari wakes to near-darkness, and knows instantly that something is wrong. She thinks first that this is carry-over from the dream, that the terror she feels is of the creche-demons—but then she hears the tinkle of breaking glass and a whoosh of ignition, and she knows with a stomach-knotting certainty that the villa is burning.

Shari pulls against her bonds. The cloth stretches but does not yield, and the effort pulls the knots tighter, until her hands begin to swell and lose feeling. She pulls harder, cries out in frustration and thrashes as the bonds cut into her skin, and her wrists begin to bleed.

Where is Marak? Not here, clearly. He has left her alone in the villa, tied to his bed. Shari cries out again and redoubles her efforts. The knots are slicked with blood now, and she has some hope that they will slip. Dark gray smoke begins to drift in from the hallway.

Absheron is Shari’s third posting since her emergence from the creche. Her first was to a paramilitary detachment, sent to subdue local sentients on a recently opened world. The natives were ugly, insectile things, tall and ungainly, but blindingly fast when they wished to be, and utterly without fear. The Eloi called them stick-men.

The stick-men were almost without technology. They could have been dealt with in any number of ways—but the Eloi who had contracted with Shari’s detachment were very concerned with the condition of the landscape and the local ecology, and much less so with the condition of Shari’s people. They refused to consider burning the stick-men from the air, and would not even discuss biological or chemical options. Shari’s commanders conferred, and decided that the only method left to them was to hunt the stick-men down on foot.

For the most part, this work was more tedious and distasteful than dangerous. Shari’s body armor was more than proof against the stick-men and their stone-age weapons. Day after day, she went with her unit to her assigned areas, and she hunted. Some days they killed a hundred stick-men or more. Other days, she walked for ten hours without seeing a single one.

Once, though, near the end of her contract, Shari was sent as part of a group of eight to scour a particular region of box canyons, far from the colony’s holdings. Air transport dropped them at the head of a steep, winding path that descended from the surrounding plateau toward the canyon floor. They walked for an hour, then two, covering ground in what their commander insisted was a regular search pattern.

Shari was certain they were wandering. She kept her eyes on the canyon walls. They were riddled with openings that might have been a meter deep, or might have gone back a kilometer. Shari imagined that she could see stick-men inside, moving along with them, just out of sight in the darkness. Finally, when she’d begun to think that they were hopelessly lost, they came around a bend in the path, and Shari recognized the base of the trail that they’d first descended, six hours before.

They were just beginning the long hike up, some smiling, others grumbling about the wasted day, when a single stick-man stepped out onto the trail above them. He held a stone-tipped spear in one hand, and an elaborately painted shield of woven grass in the other. Shari’s unit commander stepped to the side of their line, sighted his weapon carefully, and fired.

The stick-man was still falling, and the echo of the shot had not yet died away, when the canyon walls erupted. Stick-men poured from every opening in their hundreds, and then thousands. Shari brought her weapon to bear.

Hundreds of stick-men died in the next few seconds—but then they were around her, on her, tearing at her helmet and her gauntlets, pinning her to the ground, kicking her weapon aside. Shari curled up into a ball, clutched at her helmet with both arms, and ducked her chin to her chest to keep the stick-men from prying up her visor. She could hear her colleagues over the comm still talking, then screaming, but still fighting. Eventually, the stick-men left her.

Minutes passed, and the comm fell silent. Shari stayed where she was, eyes shut tight. A stick-man kicked her once in the back, then again, harder. Chitinous hands tried to pry her arms from her helmet, but Shari was far stronger than a stick-man, and the servos in her armor made her stronger still. An unknown time passed in silence. When Shari finally opened her eyes, she was alone.

Abject terror is tiring. As the smoke thickens, Shari’s thrashing slows, until finally she sinks into a torpid resignation. She waits for the flames to come for her. Instead, the air slowly clears, until nothing is left of the fire but a stale stench of burning plastic and alcohol. There is neither wood nor paper in Absheron. The villa is made of mud and stone and iron. Apparently, she is not going to burn. Shari closes her eyes.

Shari wakes again in the coal-black dark. Someone is in the room with her. The bed sags beside her, and she hears the clear, distinctive rasp of a knife being drawn from its sheath. Marak’s huge, calloused hand lifts her arm, and she feels the bonds being cut away.

“Marak,” she whispers. “The villa was burning.”

“Yes,” he says. He leans across her to free her other arm, and she smells his sharp, rank sweat. She runs her tongue around her bone-dry mouth, manages to call up enough saliva to swallow.

“I thought you had decided to burn the villa, to punish me.”

He laughs bitterly.

“You think I would burn my home and all my possessions to punish you? You are much less important to me than you seem to believe.”

“Then why...”

“Idiot.” He takes her numb hand and pulls her up roughly. Her back protests, and her hands begin to ache with new blood. “If I wanted to burn you, I would drag you into the street first. The Eloi did this.”

It’s as if he’d said that the villa was burned by elves.

“Get up,” Marak says. “Get dressed, and arm yourself. The Eloi are rioting.”

“You have hunted?” Marak asks.

“I have,” Shari says. Marak’s arsenal does not include the powered armor she wore to hunt stick-men, but his collection of both energy and projectile weapons is impressive. She carries a burner at her hip, and a rifled accelerator slung across her shoulders. “Never for Eloi, though. This seems wrong, Marak.”

“These are not Eloi,” Marak says. “Eloi do not riot. Eloi do not throw firebombs through the windows of homes. Eloi are sheep.”

“And what are we?” Shari asks.

“We are the shepherds,” Marak says. He hefts a sniper’s rifle with a meter-long barrel. “We are the shepherds, Shari, and there are wolves among the flock.”

They make their way silently through the deserted streets of Absheron. The few dim stars in the sky of this world give them just enough light to see, as they move from one building’s shadow to the next. The sounds of the riot, if that is what it is, begin to reach them as they approach the central square. Marak waves Shari into an alley. It leads them around the square, and to the rear of the Governor’s offices.

Marak’s thumbprint opens the door for them. They creep into the darkened foyer, down a long stone hallway, and into the main lobby. The sounds come loud now from the square. Someone is shouting. Many voices shout back. Marak crosses the lobby. Shari follows, a step behind. They reach the main doors. Marak motions for Shari to ready her weapon, and steps out into the square.   

This is the one place in Absheron that is still brightly lit. In the center of the square, where a fountain might be in a better city, on a better world, an abstract sculpture stands on a raised dais. The first time Shari saw it—was it really less than two days before?—it reminded her of a man with his arms stretched upward, reaching for the stars. Now, though, she sees that this is wrong. The sculpture is not a man at all. It seems to her now that the sculpture is her, Shari, standing over the body of a murdered old woman, howling her rage to the void.

An Eloi stands on the dais, one hand holding onto the sculpture for balance. It is his voice that they have heard shouting. Packed around him are hundreds, maybe thousands—half the city of Absheron must be here. Shari squints at the man on the dais. It takes her a moment to recognize him as the bartender from Breeder’s.

“Now,” he says. “Now, we finally understand. No help is coming. Are you tired of living in fear? Then come -”

Marak’s weapon barks, and at the same moment a neat hole appears in the forehead of the man on the dais. The night falls silent as he crumples. Every eye in the square turns to them.

“Go home,” Marak says. “This is over…”

He’s still speaking, but even from a meter away Shari can no longer hear him over the roar of the Eloi. She looks into their faces. They wear expressions that she has never seen on Eloi before, and they surge toward her in a seething mass. Marak raises his weapon to his shoulder and fires, single shots at first, then a continuous stream. The Eloi seem not to care. Shari steps backward, into the lobby. As the wave of bodies crests over Marak, she closes the door.

Shari sits with her arms wrapped around her knees, on the floor behind the desk in the center of the Governor’s lobby. Her weapon lies beside her on the smooth blue tile. Her hands cover her ears, but the shrieks of the Eloi and the chittering roar of Marak’s weapons have gone silent now.

She expected that the Eloi would crash through the doors when they’d finished with Marak, but there has not been so much as a polite knock. Is it possible that she’s been left behind again? Months after that day in the box canyon, she came to understand why the stick-men left her alive. Shari’s people think of themselves as warriors, but she knows now that this is not true. They are policemen at best, order-keepers among the weak.

At their worst, they are the monsters that creep in the night.

The stick-men, though—theirs is a warrior culture in the truest sense. A stick-man does not think of killing a coward. To a stick-man, living with cowardice is far worse than death.

Shari doubts that the Eloi have any similar compunctions.

She is just beginning to wonder how long she should stay huddled behind the desk, how long she should wait before slipping out the back of the building, and where she should go if she does, when the silence is broken by the sharp snap of the door locks disengaging. She closes her eyes--but she does not hear a rush of running feet, does not hear the roar of vengeful Eloi.

What she hears is Marak’s voice, tinged with anger and dripping with contempt.

“It’s over,” he says. “You can come out now, little girl.”

Shari climbs slowly to her feet, picks up her weapon and slings it over her shoulder. Marak stands in the doorway, silhouetted by the lights of the square. His hands and chest are smeared with blood, but little of it seems to be his own. She steps out from behind the desk, and crosses the lobby. Marak turns and strides purposefully out into the square. Beyond him, the bodies of the Eloi lie in great, dripping piles.

She sees clearly now that Marak was never in any real danger. These were not stick-men, lightning-fast and fearless. These were men and women who thought that a single firebomb would burn a stone villa. These were men and women whose bird-light bones and slow, efficient muscles were genetically engineered to be unsuitable for violence. These were not wolves among the sheep. These were the sheep. And while even sheep can eventually be goaded to fight, they cannot be made to fight well.

There must be nearly a thousand Eloi in the square. Marak moves among the bodies, here prodding one with a boot, there jostling another with the barrel of his weapon. As Shari watches, he bends down, lifts a limp woman up by the back of the neck, and slings her over his shoulder.

Shari realizes almost absently that she is watching this through the sights of her weapon.

“Marak,” she says. “What are you doing?”

He turns his head to look at her.

“Ah,” he says. “Now you remember how to hold that thing.”

She takes a step forward. Her crosshairs are centered on his chest.

“Marak,” she says. “Why was I brought here?”

All her life, Shari will dream of this night, of this moment. The details of the dreams will change over time. In some, Marak turns away from her, bows his head and waits for her judgment. In others, he throws the Eloi’s body to the stones of the square and charges her, howling his defiance. On her worse nights, he takes on the aspect of the slavering demons who once pursued her through the streets of Absheron.

All of the dreams end in the same way. Shari’s finger tightens on the trigger of her weapon, until the mechanism releases with a soft click. The accelerator kicks against her shoulder, and a great, black hole appears in the center of Marak’s chest.

Shari’s life will be a long one. She will end as a shriveled husk, gasping for air in a medical facility on a world a hundred light-years from Absheron. In her waning days, she will begin to believe that the dreams are truth. She will begin to believe that on this night, in this moment, before the blank, staring eyes of a thousand dead Eloi, she redeemed herself.

All of that is far in the future, though. On this night, at the stroke of midnight in Absheron, Shari watches through her gunsight as Marak laughs at her question.

“Why were you brought here?” He waves toward the man on the dais, slumped now across the feet of the sculpture. “Ask your friend.”

Marak turns his back to her, and bends down to casually lift a second Eloi by the scruff of her neck. He slings the body to his shoulder and walks away from the square, back toward his villa on the outskirts of the town. Shari slowly lowers her weapon. As he leaves the square, Marak begins to whistle.

This story originally appeared in Perihelion SF.