The last stars of the night reflect on the smooth huts of the Gibraltar camp and make the Rock squatting offshore a blurred, dark presence. The sea sounds lonely and inhuman. I like it. A nanosphalt trail leads down to the water, a perfect dry line in the sand. I walk beside it to the cave where the bones are. Sand gets in my shoes. The damn archeologists can all sleep; I need to get to work–the faster to get out of here.
Lights come on automatically when I pass through the gate at the cave mouth. Geometric trenches and squares are dug into the ground, bones lying in them like skeletal bathers. One of the Neanderthal skulls tilts face up, eyeholes shadowed by the lights above. Sound begins in the back of my head, near the place my memories stay, but not the same. I wonder if it's one of the bad ones sneaking into my attention.
Christine, you know what to do. Take a deep breath in. Hold it. Count to eight. Let it go. Shield up. I feel the nanites moving around in my brain, shuffling the neurotransmitters.
When I got my prosthetic, Dr. Demarest told me I didn't really feel anything because the brain had no sensation. She said the headaches and the feeling of the shield working were imaginative constructs. I loved her so much then that she didn't need to be right. I was a kid.
The shield mobilizes and cool distance descends, but the sound still floats there. I can almost make it out; the sound of singing. I tell myself I'm just manufacturing it out of the sound of the sea, jetlag and the early morning wind. It feels like I'm working; but I've never scanned a subject without touching at least one of the artifacts. Dirty bones, the scraps of clothing, tarnished wedding rings—the pathetic debris a dead person leaves behind. Artifacts.
When I walk deeper into the cave, I check the floor to make sure no one's left any stuff laying around to trap me in an invol. I don't want to take any chances. No involuntary scans right now. No picking up dirty secrets from someone's forgotten glove. I check for traps; the floor is bare.
"Off," I say, "turn the lights off." There's a slight hesitation—billions of lighting nanites whispering to each other; 'Did she say off?' and then the lights fade down to a subtle glow.
"Completely off." But the lights don't dim any more. Frustrated, I turn to the mouth of the cave, to check if those lights are still on. The dim light is the sea reflecting the rising sun into the cave, a gentle green wavering on the rock walls.
At the mouth of the cave, barely inside the entrance, lies a Neanderthal skeleton. Just excavated, it sprawls across the floor. I hadn't noticed it when I walked in. Unlike the rest of the bones, it's alone. The skull lies on the floor, a little distance from the rest of the body, turned towards the light, shadows under the big brows and cheekbones.
The singing noise gets louder, a rhythmic chanting like the sea. I can't tell myself I'm making it up anymore. For a moment, I see myself race back into that stupid perfect hut and call my agent, Tony. Tell him to break the damn contract and get me the hell out of here. But I don't.
My shield is still. The sea breathes its green seaweedy breath. I sit down next to the skull in the dirt. The ground is damp under my butt. A fine layer of moisture, sand, and salt accumulates on my face from the early breeze. My hand brushes the skull and a vibration moves up my arm to resonate in my chest. It's like a slow electrocution, without the violence.
A howl works its way from the back of my head. Far away, I wonder if my shield has malfunctioned. My throat tenses in preparation, muscles long unused leaping into action, old soldiers who haven't laid down their arms. Back when I was a little girl who wanted to be a dog, therapists on the ward said I only let out the pain when I howled.
Face to the morning wind, my hand flat on the ground next to the skull, a whisper howl escapes me. Not a mournful dog howl, but the singing howl of a wolf. The first note of a melody sung back and forth with pack mates. Low at first, the howl rises and gets louder; my throat opens and my chest fills with wet salt air to give it life. The wind from the sea pulls it from my mouth and whips it away and I sit empty.
Damn. I haven't howled in twenty years.
Hand close to that skull, I look out at the sea, resonating with the howl like one of those old bells that vibrate silently long after they've been struck. After a time, I hear footsteps. Get it together. You are Christine. You are a thirty-year-old woman. You are not a dog. But I don't move.
I know it's Whitnand before he turns the corner. Andy, he told me to call him, late last night when I got to the dig—not Andrew, not Dr. Whitnand. The lead archeologist. I don't have to see his clever bearded face to sense his surprise at finding me there. I'll give him credit though, he picks up something is going on. Maybe he thinks I've begun the scan. I guess I have.
Turning my head to him feels like it takes all day. Everything is moving so slowly. It's what happens when I move into a scan, the now world slows down and the subject's world is regular speed. But I don't think I'm working yet. I can see his girlish lips begin to move; he's going to say something. So slow, I can almost see his neurons firing.
"This one." The words flow out of my mouth like cool honey. I lower my hand and release my shield.
Just before my hand makes contact, he touches my shoulder, saying something, "What..." I feel a thick, hot wave of yearning from him, but the pull from the skull is strong. I slip away.
Down, down fast. Faster than ever before, a smile on my face. Down and back, back so many years. No Child has ever gone back this far. A distant part of me cries out in fear. The sea beneath me advances and retreats; the rocks become less weathered. Shadows move in the cave, cast by a bright sun. Rockslides move up the cliff. Then the shadows on the cave wall become the shadows of people.
Smells fill my nose, dirt, sweat, and smoke. I am in a body. Just like all the other times. It's asleep. I relax. This is one of the times I haven't entered at the moment of death. I make myself a quiet rider—the perfect anthropologist who observes and doesn't interact.
The person rises towards wakefulness, eyelids fluttering. Then the eyes open, the body moves. A hand reaches down, scratching. Male. He stretches, muscles sliding over heavy bones, his skin roughened by the cold damp air coming in the mouth of the cave. He turns and sniffs; a rush of scent comes in through that nose, pouring information and knowledge. Peace washes over me—his peace.
A young girl, maybe nine or ten, comes from further inside the cave and squats next to him. Her face is heavy, her eyes shadowed under heavy brows. In the now she would be ugly, but she is so all of one piece, so well made. Her body is thick, muscled; tiny shells intertwine her curly gold hair, her dark tanned skin is covered with black lines of tattoo. She turns and I can see the lines travel down her back below a pelt of thick haired reddish fur. Fox?
She is beautiful. A low mutter comes from her, an extended arm, a quick movement of her hand slips across the air between them. He shifts his stance and hums a note in response. Her eyes dart towards the cave entrance. Another shift of his body, he moves his weight to his left leg. They are communicating, but I can't figure out what they are saying.
She smiles and waves out toward the sea, I feel his face stretch in an answering grin. Just barely taller than her, I realize he's young, too. Grabbing his hand, she pulls him out of the cave and races down the slope to a wide flat beach. When she touches him, I think, this is why I do this. In the distance, the sea glitters. As he runs, a fine sheen of salt spray builds on his face.
They spend the day digging for clams, gathering seaweed and eating crabs. I taste a clean salt in his mouth, mixed with the sweet taste of crabmeat. The sun washes down on them; warming his neck and shoulders.
Even when the wind blows sound away, they communicate. The smallest movements—the flicker of a hand, all have meaning. I don't understand, but the time on the beach soothes me. Towards noon, she leads him back into the dunes, looking for berries and plants.
As the day goes on, I begin to get a sense of how they are connected. Each tilt of the head, each set of the shoulders; each blink means something. It's hard, I keep trying to make words, but there are none.
Near sunset, they sit on the crest of a big dune and watch the sea. She makes a soft trill deep in her throat. He smiles, and answers, the exact sound. She gives him a note, he matches it. I can tell this is an old game with them. He catches her by mutating the note just slightly. I am closer than I have ever been to a subject. If I'm honest, I know I am closer than I have ever been to anyone. I can tell when he will move, and move with him. Until I came to him, I hadn't realized how hard I hold my chest. His ribs and lungs expand and contract, easy and full.
Once, he tosses his head back and gives an ululating cry, loud and long. She laughs and gives it back to him, exact, but one octave higher. In the distance, the call echoes from the cliff walls, wordless. They move close to each other and he rests his head on her shoulder. The familiar ache rises in me. Only when I'm in a subject's body is touch safe. Sometimes, getting what you want brings up the hundred million times you wanted it, and couldn't have it. I push the pain away. Pay attention, you're getting paid for this.
Ocean and seaweed scent the hard breeze. Her stiffened hair brushes against his cheek as he rests against her. I feel his peace.
She shifts under him and they rise and walk together back towards the cliff. I twist, a fluid water movement in my mind, and disengage from him. As I recede, I feel a notice, an attention. He senses I was there and now I'm gone. I feel a goodbye; then an image, white shredding across a sky. A name. Cloud? I throw back to him my howl. That's never happened before.
When I come into the now Whitnand's bright blue eyes are on me, his hand is on my arm. His sick charge of need slithers into me and I jerk away. I'm lying on the floor of the cave. My hand, still poised above the skull, vibrates in a tiny furious tremor, millimeters above the brown bone curve. I make another mental twist and release the connection. Time speeds up again, back to normal. My stomach sours from Whitnand's touch.
"Are you OK?" Whitnand sits back on his heels. It takes me a moment to make meaning of the strange noise comes out of his mouth. Even when I do, there is a slight unfamiliarity to the sounds.
I lick my lips, expecting them to be dry. It was so long in the then, only moments in the now. Staring up at him, I try to speak. Nothing comes out but a strange husking noise. I feel fear trickle into my gut; I've never had this reaction to a scan before.
Whitnand looks worried. "What happened, did you have a seizure?"
Like a lock tumbler falling into place, the sounds become words and it feels natural to communicate like this.
I bet he wonders if he can get another Child if I'm messed up. Then I see understanding break across his face like a chain reaction.
"You got through," he says. "What did you see?" He doesn't even see me—just the object of his desire. Now the shield starts to work, furiously. The peace I learned from the boy and girl leaches away, leaving in its place the numbness I had once mistaken for peace.
Words come back to me. Whitnand's still too close. "Get away from me," I snarl.
He rocks back on his heels again, then reaches out and puts his hand on my shoulder. Even with the shield working, his angry desperate wanting charges through his arm and into me. Give it to me, give it to me. Give. It. To. Me. It takes the last of my energy, but I push his hand away.
"Don't touch me." My voice shakes. I feel tears in my throat.
"What..." He stops and just stares at me. His face gets the kind of blank the normals use to cover their righteous indignation. "I'm not..." Then he remembers. Never touch a Child.
"Ms. Tenaya, I'm sorry. I didn't think—"
I stand up, wave him quiet. The shield is working so hard now, I have to concentrate to feel the ground under my feet.
I know what Whitnand saw; I watched other Children work when I was in training. We sit or lie collapsed for seconds, minutes or hours, hands on or near the artifact. The bones, clothing, watches and rings. Our hands hover above the thing, as if attached by an electrical current, unable to let go. All Whitnand saw was me collapse, my hand, if he noticed, hovered above the skull, my eyes flickered behind closed lids. Maybe it scared him.
Tony's voice whispers in my head, "Be a professional. Tell him something, Christine."
Long breath out. The coldness recedes just a bit. He stands and waits, not too close. He's not my mother—he can't hurt me.
"I don't know if it's the age of the subject…" I begin.
"This is the oldest subject you've scanned?" He cocks his head to the side. Now he's doing that irritating thing normals do. They ask questions they know the answer to. They don't like surprise answers, the normals. That's probably why they don't like us.
"It's the oldest subject any Child has scanned, Dr. Whitnand. You know that." We usually do forensics. This archeological stuff is new—Tony's idea.
Anger flickers like heat lightening across his face. I wonder how long we would live if normals understood how transparent they are to us. Enough. He's used up all the break I'm willing to give.
"I'm having a strange reaction. I'm going to my hut, I'll tell you what I saw when I feel better." I look at him, dare him to stop me. He doesn't. Probably knows I'll never tell him anything if he doesn't back off. Under the coldness of my shield, anger mutters and snarls.
On the way back, I stay on the nanosphalt and let it buoy my feet back to the hut. Inside, I close off the window to shut out the noise of the waking camp. Sunlight has just begun to pour into the beach below the cliffs; shadows fall away from the translucent skin of the hut. Inside, it's warm and dry and quiet. Inside it's perfect. I want my old house in Denver. I want that cave.
I pull out the clothes from my bag, to look for a Three Musketeers. I brought about twenty, but I can't find them. My hands shake as they rummage through my clothes. It must be from hunger I tell myself. Tony's always good when I get strung out on a job. I'll call him and make him earn the twenty percent he gets for being my agent.
He picks up on the second ring. "Hey Christine, you all right? Whitnand called me."
The phone projects the image of his pointed face and wild black curls onto the wall of the hut. His head is tilted to the side, a half smile on his face.
"I'm just dandy. Remember what you told me about this job, Tony? No murder, no forensics, just scientists who want to know more about some people who have been dead for about thirty thousand years. Top fee, you said I wouldn't have to work again for six months."
"That's what Whitnand contracted for." His smile falters.
"If it was so goddamn wonderful why didn't you take it?" I ask him. His smile disappears completely.
I don't know why I said it. Tony's getting worse, pretty soon he won't be able to even use view—we'll just be able to talk, like on those old fashioned telephones.
All of us Children, we use Tony as our agent. He's great with contracts and negotiating since it's just emailing back and forth.
"I'm sorry." God, I hate saying that.
The silence stretches on. Again I see the boy and the girl on the beach, and feel the effort of communicating. Tears slide down my face.
"Christine? What's wrong?"
For a moment, Tony says nothing. I stare through the projection at the smooth wall behind. The nanites are making swirling artistic patterns in the skin of the wall.
"Like you did on the ward? When things got bad?"
"Just like." I keep my eyes on the swirls.
"That's never happened before." He purses his lips, thinking.
"Tell me what happened."
"I went into the cave with the bones, and just before I picked my subject, I heard this singing sound and I howled."
Another pause. I can tell from his expression he's looking for the exact right thing to say.
"How did the scan go?"
That isn't it. "Okay."
"Just okay, I don't want to talk about it."
"A bad one?"
"Yeah, kind of." What can I say? I spent the day on the beach with some cave people and it freaked me out?
"So then what, Christine?"
"I had a hard time talking when I came out."
He pulls his eyebrows together and taps his index finger against his lips. The end of it is bitten off. Tony did that before he got his shield. His chart said, "Trauma induced self-mutilation."
My chest aches and my stomach feels hollow. "I had an invol when Whitnand touched me after the scan."
"He what?" Tony's voice snaps. What are you going to do, I think, send him a bad-ass email?
"It's okay, he's a research dork. You know scientist curiosity, it's like a bad drug habit."
From out of nowhere a memory comes. Once Diane got really mad at one of the research dorks that came to observe when he called us "the subjects." Tony and I were there when he did it. Diane's face got blank and hard and she hissed at the guy, "They're children, god damn it." Diane called us children, so that's what we call ourselves.
"Christine?" Tony's voice jerks me back. "Do you need to come home? If he did that, I can break this contract."
"It's a new thing you're doing here, Whitnand knows this. We can pull you out, just tell him it didn't work."
"He was there when I came out, he knows I got something."
"So what? Screw him. Come back."
"I said I was okay."
He puts up both hands, a gesture of defeat. The bitten finger catches my attention again.
He gets a wary look. "Yeah?"
"When are you going to go see Diane?"
His face gets heavy. "Dr. Demarest can't help me, Christine, we've been through all that."
"You can't just spend the rest of your life in that house in Florida."
"It's not the same shield, Christine."
I know he's right. It's been fifteen years, so it's changed; we think it's become weaker. Selective bioengineering of nanocyte neurotransmitter pumps and relays, resulting in a higher correspondence to nondeviant behavioral norms. Which, in English, means the newer Children are closer to normal. I guess that's good. It also means the new Children don't have what Diane calls hypersensitivity to neuro-emotional stimuli and the rest of the world calls psi powers. They can't scan.
Tony shakes his head. A black curl near his left eye rocks back and forth. "They're scared," he says, "Demarest and the Institute are maiming the new ones so they can't do what we can."
"I don't know. I can't believe she would screw up the new Children just to keep the normals on top."
Tony just looks at me. "Christine, she's a normal," he says, really quiet and sad. "She doesn't love us, we're research subjects."
"Yeah." This is an old argument between us.
"Call me if anything else happens?"
"Promise you'll leave if I ask you to?"
It's my turn to tilt my head and smile. "Maybe."
"You're such a control freak, Christine." He's got that shit eating grin on his skinny chops.
"That's what you love about me."
Before he can say anything else, I cut the connection. I hate it when he thinks he knows I need. I hate it worse when he's right. Sometimes, like right now, I wish I could reach out and touch that wild mop of hair. I wonder how it would be to have him rest his head on my shoulder.
The door chimes. Even though I hate talking to a building, I ask the hut who it is.
"It is the honorable Dr. Andrew Whitnand, lead archeologist for the Gibraltar Neanderthal excavation." The hut replies in a stupid British Indian voice. Some idiot programmed it like that. I keep the default female machine voice on anything I have to talk to.
"Ask him what he wants."
"The memsahib is otherwise engaged, sir, but she is wondering what it is you are wanting." This is ridiculous; I open the door and the hard wind from the sea buffets my face.
Whitnand startles when he see me.
"Ms. Tenaya, I just wanted to apologize for this morning."
I nod, unsure what to say. Tony says when you're not sure with a normal, do an inscrutable. I learned mine from old movies—Garbo. I make my face a mask and pull up my shield. Icy now, both inside and out, I wait.
"I'm really glad you're here." His voice stumbles. My inscrutable often does that to them. "We, the team, were having breakfast and I, we, well we wondered if you were…"
Behind my shield, I watch microbursts of embarrassment, confusion, curiosity, and anxiety flicker across his face. Nothing dangerous. To give him a break, I had been forgetting to do all those normal things, like eye contact and acting like you care.
I catch his eye and smile. "I'd be glad to join you. Let me grab my stuff." I go back in the tent and get my eating gear.
He gives the silverware in my hand a look. "We've got that in the tent."
"When I use other people's stuff, I pick up too much. It's tiring." I keep my voice neutral.
"I didn't think about that."
He goes on. "You can reprogram my hut if you need to. It'll take about a couple of hours to collapse and rebuild. Just save the settings."
"So you programmed the voice?"
A proud smile slides across his face. "Oh, yes, that's one of my touches." I keep my mouth shut and look out at the sea.
"We're over here." He gestures to a big nanohut, made to look like an old canvas tent. Why do the normals have to disguise everything? It's a nanohut for god's sake. As we approach, I can see the other archeologists sitting at long tables, eating and talking.
Entering the tent, I'm busy scanning for traps and adjusting my shield. Whitnand, oblivious, is introducing me to the other scientists. I only catch one name. She's pretty and young, maybe in her twenties. Whitnand introduces her as Dr. Lail Metari. His tone tells me to pay attention to her.
Inside, the cold wind has disappeared. A light breeze, devoid of sand to ruin their eggs and pancakes, wafts in from the sea. Nanites inside the gauze tent curtains scrub the moisture, scent the air, clean it of particulates, remove the aerosol toxins and lower the velocity. Yeah, these people are really roughing it. I wonder why they don't just nanotent the whole damn site.
Irritation wins out over my desire to make this easy. "So what do you really want, Andy-the-lead-archeologist?" To avoid his eyes, I lay out my silver and plate. The pattern on the handles of the fork and knife soothes me. This silver once belonged to a happy old lady who lived in my neighborhood. When I touch the fork, I get the faint pleasant invol.
"I thought I could talk to you about the job." I glance at his face—hurt and anger. Oh well.
I hold up my hand. "It might influence the results." I don't believe that, but all of us say it. Tony says it gives the job a more scientific air. Whatever.
Whitnand is talking again. "I won't tell you any details, I just want to tell you what we know about the Neanderthals."
"To give you some background."
Does he think I'm going to come to a job without doing my homework? So I say in a snotty voice I've practiced for about ten years: "Like the fact they weren't the savage brutes we thought they were? Like the DNA macrosimulations at Stanford? Like the digs in Vindija Cave and at Altamura? Like the Chatelperronian technology?"
"I'm sorry," he says. He's not really, but if things don't ease up here, this job is going to be hell. So I do something I usually never do. I begin to gather his emotions and smooth the waters between us. It usually makes me sick to do this because I feel so fake, but Diane said normals do this almost unconsciously and women are usually better at it than men. That's hard to believe because Tony's so good at it; I can't always tell when he's doing it to me.
Whitnand calms down and it becomes easier to talk to him. It's not hard—I just listen. He's all caught up in it, and a couple of other archeologists at the table begin chime in. I don't say much because I'm maintaining my shield.
Then Lail Metari turns to me with a smile. "So what's it like, you know, to do what you do?" The whole table turns to look at me.
My shield rumbles around in my synapses. It's harder to pay attention to the feelings of more than one person, but I do okay.
There isn't a whole lot of the Frankenstein stuff going on with them. Mostly they're just curious. Except for Whitnand, and he's jealous. He really wants to do what I do. I scan him some more. This Neanderthal stuff is a real passion for him and he would do anything to get closer to it.
I give my stock answer. "It depends on the job. It's like watching a movie, sometimes the movie is really scary, but you never know what you're going to see." All of a sudden, I feel really closed in, so I go to the head. I spend about ten minutes in there, humming to myself, letting the shield work. Once I asked Diane what it's like for the nanites, dealing with the tidal waves of my brain. She said they were made to do it, like an artist is made to paint or I guess the way Whitnand is made to dig up Neanderthals.
When I come out, Whitnand and Lail and another two guys are all bent over a net projection of the cave, jabbering away. When I pick up my knife, I feel a faint residue on it that wasn't there before, like a sheen of grease.
Whitnand shoots me a glance when I put it down,"That's a really old silver pattern, Ms. Tenaya. If you've got more of them, they're worth something."
He's touched the knife. I take a breath, nod and push it away with my finger. The fork is okay, but I can't use the set again.
We spend about three hours in the tent. Whitnand asks me everything; I tell about the singing, the movements, the silent communication.
"I had no idea you were so efficient," Whitnand says. Like I'm a machine. I guess to him I am.
Lail speaks up. "I have a question."
She tosses her hair back over her shoulder. I give her an inscrutable. "Yes?"
"The skeleton, the one you scanned?" She pauses and looks at Whitnand. He gives her a nod so small, most people wouldn't even notice it. Do they think I'd miss it? Probably. I wait to hear what she has to say.
"It's not an adolescent skeleton, it's a full grown male, about thirty."
I rearrange my Garbo face to show a bit of polite interest, but don't say anything. She shoots Whitnand another glance and he takes over. Perhaps he thinks she's outgunned here. He's right.
"I think Dr. Metari is saying the information doesn't quite match."
The Garbo face doesn't seem to have the same chilling effect on him. "So the information you've given us on the vocal patterns is . . ." Time to nip this.
"How much research did you put in when you hired me, Dr. Whitnand?" He looks at me, puzzled. Right, I think, how much do you need to know to buy a toaster?
I sigh. "I can see not enough." His face gets all red. Obviously, he's not used to being talked to this way. Well, I guess he'll have to learn.
"We have been compiling forensic data from our work for ten years." His pupils dilate. Data. He likes that word. "Each investigation has certain commonalities," I hold up my hand and tick them off on my fingers. "One, the resonance from the artifacts is usually strongest at the moment of death. But – " I raise my second finger, "in about thirty percent of the cases, there are multiple memory traces." Give him percentages, he'll like that.
"What are the characteristics of this subpopulation?"
Oh god, now we have to speak scientist. "The characteristics are, in order of statistical frequency: crisis free life events, secure relationships with significant others, death by natural causes…" This causes him to frown. I wonder why? "And a premorbid psychological profile of stability."
He nods. "So the thirty percent had a nice life and died in their sleep?"
"Not all of the subjects have all of these characteristics, but many do."
A guy on this right leans forward. "Too bad, Andy." Whitnand laughs, "Yeah, it looks like the old man and the sea lived long and prospered." Screw you, I think, his name was Cloud. The shield's up and Garbo face is on, so there's no way he could pick this up.
Then Lail pipes up, "None of what she's saying contradicts a mass die off, Andy."
"A what?" I ask her.
"A mass die –"
Whitnand puts his hand on her arm to stop her and looks at me with a half smile. "Let's not influence the results, shall we?" Even a normal could see he really enjoyed that crack. I give him more Garbo.
Whitnand puts his fork down. "When you go back in, this is what I want you to look for," he begins.
"You won't look for what I tell you?" He's incredulous.
"No, I can't look for what you want."
"Why not?" His voice is getting louder. "Do you have any idea how much you're costing me to eat and sleep? If you can't do it I'll get another treated person."
"Listen, Andy-the-lead-archeologist. There aren't any other Children who will take this job if you fire me." He tries to break in. "Shut up and listen. What I'm trying to tell you is no Child can search for specifics; we can just get what's available. I'll remember everything I see and experience, and hopefully it'll be useful to you. If you'd done some research before you hired me you'd know that." Even a normal could see I enjoyed that.
Whitnand's face is red and tight. He knows I have the upper hand.
"Just get what you can." He stands and stomps off.
Lail looks at me, amusement, anger and contempt flicker across her face. "I don't think you understand how important this is."
"So tell me."
"Well, Andy's been working on two hypotheses. The first is the Neanderthals spoke and were more advanced than is presently assumed. All of our research really hinges on the findings of the hyoid bones, bones that indicate..."
"Indicate the Neanderthals had the same or similar vocal structures as we do." I wave her on.
"Yes, and our donors are getting impatient."
"Yeah. Fine. I don't give a shit about Whitnand and his hypothesis, and I'm just going to do what I need to do to get this job done, and go home."
"Good." It slips out, but once it's out, at least she doesn't try to take it back. I don't remember until I'm in the hut and it's too late to ask what the second hypothesis is.
I lie on the bed and watch the nanites make the swirling artistic pattern in the skin of the ceiling.
"Off. Stop. Make it dark." The hut obeys without speaking. Warmth slides down my face. I'm crying and I don't know why. The world tilts into darkness. All night I dream of running down the beach with Tony and those kids, howling like a pack of wolves.
For just a second, when I swim up out of the dream, I don't know where I am. Then I see the perfect darkness and silence of the hut.
"Light." The lights come on, not too bright. Rather than ask the time and listen to that ridiculous voice, I fumble around in my pack looking for my watch. It's an old wind-up Rolex Tony gave me. I don't wear it very much; I'm terrified something will happen to it. It's stopped. I sit on the edge of the bed and wind it, concentrating on the slow slide of my fingers over its stubby little stem.
"At this very moment it is five forty six a.m., the wind speed is..."
"Shut up." It does.
Outside, the sound and smell of the sea brings back the dream. The sun is just rising. I feel a tiny howl rise up in me. No one is around, so I tilt my head back and let it loose. The wind picks it up and hurries away.
When I round the corner into the cave, the wind stops. As I get closer to Cloud's skull, a wisp of singing and peace comes to me, like a hint of a song learned in childhood. Not my childhood. Sitting, I drop my hand to the cool brown bony curve. Connection is instantaneous.
Once I saw a film of a tidal wave, the sea sucked away from the land by a huge invisible force. It felt like that. Shadows again, and then I feel him. Cloud. It's dark this time; the sound of the sea fills my ears, pounding on the rocks below. Fire lights the faces of the people around him. His body hurts, a raw aching comes from his left arm, his right eye is closed. No, blind. What happened to him?
Sounds of a storm fill the cave, echoing and hissing above the roaring sea. It's cold. Tears cover his face, his chest hurts. He looks at someone lying on the floor, blood matted hair. It's the girl, she's dead. Grief comes, his, mine, I don't know. A howl sings in my bones, hidden inside of him, I can feel it gathering force. Cloud's head raises, he shifts, to his left is a woman, old, old, holding a child, his and the girl's. The woman looks at him, head tilted, the age-old gesture of questioning. He reaches out for the child, and it comes to him, a little girl. She sits on his lap and nestles against him. I'm ashamed right now their touch feels like another gift to me. He puts his arms around her and I see one ends in a barely healed stump. Rocking her, his chest opens and fills with my howl. I can't stop it. As it rises up in us, I know he knows I am there. His head tilts back, throat opening and the howl pours out long and full, piercing the sound of sea and song in the cave.
Their song stops in mid beat. Claud knew I was there before, and now they all know. Faces turn to him in the firelight, they are as known to me as my own. They see me in him. There is no fear.
I can feel him reaching around for me. The others watch him. Waiting. Silent, his daughter rises and goes back to the old woman's lap. The storm is a hissing backdrop; lightning flashes a harsh white light into the cave. No one moves.
I'm busted. Some anthropologist I am. I feel Cloud's boy muscles tighten against his bones. No, not a boy, he is a man now, an old man maybe. A crippled man certainly. His muscles are so tight my ghost bones hum.
His hand lofts, flutters in the smoke and firelight. An image appears in my head. A bird. The others lift their hands and flutter. The bird image becomes a flock. Sea birds. Something big and white that surfs the hard breeze off the coast. Gulls? In unison, they all put their hands down and watch me in him. Waiting again. I sit inside and watch them. He lifts his hand again and the tribe makes the same gesture.
They are naming themselves. They wait for me to name myself, but I have no voice in their language. A howl itches again in the back of my mind and tears itself free. In his wide chest it builds power, his throat forms and passes it into the world as it should be. Loud, wide, free. I now have a name.
I can feel the muscles, still tight as he rocks, a low bass hum coming out of him, taken up by the others. I can't see but it sounds like only the men. A low muttered hum, seeping out of many thick chests.
I stop, feeling his resistance, a slowing of my thoughts and tumbling images. He rocks, finding a rhythm. The humming grows louder. Suddenly, all in one motion, he rises. How can a body so savagely torn, move with such grace? He steps, elegant, into the circle of firelight and sweeps out his arm in a slow spin. Through his eye, I see the lambent reflections of the fire in their eyes. The cadence shifts, becoming faster and at the same time heavier, deeper, darker. Voices move into a familiar flow, backing his rhythmic motion. Long shadows flash across the wall of the cave, lightning scratches my eyes. Far, far away I feel the shield tumbling. It's nothing. Safe inside, I watch him dance a story.
First, the beginning of the world, a break in the vast dark and endless silence, illustrated by the sinuous glide of his one arm into motion out of stillness. Stamping, he shows the storms of the early earth, then the sweetness of life arising, a lilt of the women's song weaving into the bass rumbling. The first people, the Ancient Ones, danced by two aged people. The woman so old her breasts were flaps of skin against her ribs, the man's haunches thin, his chest flabby. Holding the space, Cloud shuffles around them as they shift and slide. Then the People, danced by a young woman, fat and beautiful, belly full of child. Then this tribe, this clan, the People Who Are Here. Their journey to the sea from the cold northlands, over many years and many generations. The children born to live and the children born to die too soon; all have a gesture or note or movement that is their memorial. Cloud moves slower now, his chest grows heavy as the dance goes on. Each member of the Tribe comes forward to dance his or her song. Each song different, expressing the individual, but blended into a whole. A sleepy child, maybe two or three, stumbles into the circle to stamp once spin once and toss his head back with a perfect imitation of a gull's cry. No one smiles that condescending smile adults inflict on children. Solemn, he goes back to his mother's lap, breast, and sleep. The circle closes again and whirls through another cycle. At last all have danced their own dance. I feel I know these people better than I have known anyone.
Cloud steps forward. A tightness rises, mine, not his. He is utterly relaxed around the leaden pain in his chest. Vision blurs as his eye fills with tears. His movements slow, dispirited, he dances the beach, sings the song he and the girl sang together. I ache to hear it, so lonely without her reply. He dances their love, his pelvis thrusting in the sacred movement. His hand slides through the air in the life gesture, sliding towards the little girl, her eyes wide in the dark. Her dark, heavy browed face shines with tears. His shoulders are pulled forward to shelter his chest; his hand slides through the air, again the gesture of life. And stops. At the same time, a thrumming sound from the tribe. In the back of the circle in the dark, someone pounds rocks together, then someone else and someone else—making the sounds of a rockslide. A woman screams. I feel my heart beat sideways. Cloud gestures toward the body of the woman who had been the girl on the beach. A groaning, tearing cry comes, mine, his, I can't say. It is echoed by the others.
Cloud sits, breath heaving in and out of his chest. Stillness enters the cave, all eyes turning to me in him. They wait again. This time I know what they want. Pulling inside myself, I give it all, the shield, my mother, Diane, Tony, my house. Wordless images, imageless feelings, I send them all to him. He closes his eye at my deluge.
He turns his body over to me, slipping away from his bones and muscles, leaving me room to move. I stand and walk into the center of the circle, stiff and awkward, feeling the pain in his body.
A wash of pity comes from them. In just one movement, they can see I can't dance, can't sing, can't speak. So gently, he nudges me and takes his body back. He tilts his head back and I let out my howl. It comes from my ghost body, and is flat and tight, so unlike the howl he gifted me with earlier. He moves again, sliding his feet across the dust. A low hum comes from the old woman holding his daughter, he echoes it, and another woman picks it up. I release the last shreds of my hold, and float.
Cloud dances my life. He gets it all, my mother, the shield, Diane, Tony. He dances my loneliness, my anger, my shame. And as he dances the tight bands of scar tissue rip inside of me, a wrenching freedom. Tears come down, my lungs expand to fill his barrel chest. Pulling in a breath, I let loose my howl into the cave. It echoes off the rock ceiling and shudders in the air. In answer, thunder growls in the distance. I begin to dance with him and together we dance the story of the People To Come. Caught up in the power and dark beauty of the dance, I don't think of what I am telling them. I dance the wasting of the world, the fouling of the seas; I danced loneliness and isolation and the faceless, meaningless violence. I dance life as I know it. When I stop, they have turned their faces from him and from me. Muffled weeping fills the cave.
I feel a pushing away, a dismissal, the adult sending the child out of the room. I am sent away. When I float up through layers of time, iron grief lodges in my throat.
Coming into the now, my teeth are clamped together, and a strangled sob escapes. I can still hear the sound of thunder but it isn't raining. I am lying under a blanket. From the light on the wall of the cave it looks like day.
Whitnand is talking off to my left. "No sign of trauma on any of the other bones, I'll have to ask her if she knows."
I think about just lying here for the rest of the day, staring at the reflected light on the ceiling of the cave. I can still see those faces turned away from me. I can still feel him pushing me away. The thought of sharing any of this with Whitnand is disgusting, but I know he will ask.
My legs are shaky but I make it up. A hand pulls aside the hanging they've rigged for me. I wonder who the hanging is supposed to shield.
This time Whitnand doesn't make any motion toward me. "Back to the hut?" His voice is dry, no emotion. That's good, I don't want the shield to rob me again.
I can only nod, "I'll talk to you when I get up," and stumble out of the cave, the taste of iron still in my throat.
The hut is again perfect. I fall onto the cot and sleep. I don't think I dream. When I wake up I can't tell if it's night or day because of the stupid perfectly dark hut.
"At this exact time it is three twenty six a.m., memsahib."
I wonder if Andy is waiting up for me.
"At this very moment there are no messages for your attention, memsahib." I'm too exhausted to be annoyed.
Lying in bed, I feel my body move with Cloud's slow stately grace. I see the faces turning away. Tears rush down my face, I pull my knees up to my chest and cry, hard wracking sobs that sound like I'm puking. The shield is strangely still. I cry until I am dry and light, like an old bone.
Tony, I'll call Tony. All I get is his recording. I don't know what time it is in Florida; maybe it's late—he sleeps like the dead.
"Hi this is Tony can't answer now either I'm out or I'm busy please leave—"
I can't help it and I start to cry into the phone. "Tony, it's me. I'm in trouble…" Then I run out of words. I have to get back to the cave, so I hit disconnect and walk out of the hut.
It's dark. The stupid hut turns an outside light on when I open the door. I have to hiss at it to shut off. Tonight, I take the path. The nanosphalt nudges my feet towards the middle when I get too close to the side.
It's instantaneous this time. Inside the cave, Cloud stands, slowly, as if he's been waiting for me. I feel his sickness, the smell of death on him. He's almost blind, but as he looks out, I can see in the gray distance the great rock rising out of the sea. The wind shifts and I am choked by the smell of rot. He rocks, a faint memory of his powerful dance. He knows I am here. A movement of his hand. A shift of his still massive shoulders. He is speaking to me and I am too stupid to understand.
I nudge, sending waves of question. What's happened, where are they? Where is your daughter? Nothing. I bring the vision of his child to my mind, her dark face, her eyes liquid with tears, peering out of the dark. He turns, faces the cave, the smell is overpowering. He lifts his hand, making the life gesture and stops. Tears slide down his face, he sighs. Throwing back his head he fills his chest with salt laden air and lets go a howl.
They are all dead. He begins the dance, shuffling through the movements for each. My heart beats a knifeslice beat when he dances his daughter. He goes through all of them and then begins a new dance, the dancing of the end of his people. He dances the New People coming out of the south, he dances them tall and thin and dark, moving quickly, without the massive grace he knows so well. He dances the end and the beginning.
In his dance, I feel movements from my dance to his people, the dancing of the People to Come. I feel him tiring, I can tell it's been a long time since he's eaten, but he goes on. He dances his people as they assimilate my dance, the consideration over years. He dances the coming of the New People. Deep in his chest he makes a noise like the harsh call of crows. He dances the sickness that came over his people, the fevers, the dying. His dance winds down. I can only watch in despair. He lies down on the sandy ground just inside the cave, he closes his eye. I feel him drifting; the great whirl of death approaching. His chest fills again, a howl floats out into the air, so small only I can hear it, mine, his, I don't know.
I can't help it; I give the twist, the fluid water movement that breaks our connection. As I recede, I feel him sending after me, a gift, the memory of his dance.
When I come out this time, Whitnand's looking at a palmtop in his hand, avoiding my eyes. "Next time, I want you to check out some bones in the back. We've found a child, we think it's female." He points to Cloud with his foot. "I'm not satisfied with what you're getting from this one." Now he looks up. "I'll need your report this evening." A smile that doesn't reach his eyes. "After you get your beauty rest, of course."
This time I can't bear to go back to that hut, so I walk down the beach. To the east, hotels are lined like soldiers, but this part of the beach is empty. Images of Cloud and the girl overlay my vision, but the sea has moved the sand and it's not the same. Still, I find a dune like the one Cloud and the girl sat on, and watch the sea.
The taste of iron is still lodged in my throat. I can't feel my shield. I can't feel anything. Exhaustion ambushes me, and I fall asleep, my back against the dune. Sea and salt and wind infect my dreams. I run forever down the beach, hearing the gulls, alone. When I wake, it's late afternoon. Above, gulls surf the wind. One dips towards the beach and I follow it with my eyes. Someone is coming towards me—a man in a business suit with wild black hair, carrying a backpack.
A glimmer of curiosity swims up through the heaviness. It's Tony. He climbs up the dune to me.
"Christine, do you know what day it is?" It's hard for me to make sense of the sounds coming out of his mouth. I shake my head. The glimmer of curiosity fades. How can this matter?
"It's Friday. You've been here since Monday."
A slow current of interest moves in my gut. "Friday?" My brain moves slowly. "I must have been under each time longer than I thought."
"When's the last time you ate?"
Tony pulls a water bottle out of his pack and makes me drink. The water tastes so good, I drink it all. The daze begins to recede.
Tony pulls Three Musketeers, beef jerky and another water bottle out of his pack. He opens a candy bar and hands it to me. "Eat."
The water was wonderful, but nothing like this—salt and sugar in my mouth. I eat five candy bars and three pieces of jerky, drain the water bottle, then sit back against the dune. My brain feels like it works again, but it feels different. Something's missing.
"Why didn't you call me back?" Tony's voice is soft and flat.
For a moment I don't understand his words. "I didn't get your message. Did you come to talk to me about the contract?"
"Screw the contract, I voided it. That idiot admitted to touching you." Tony's voice is hard.
I don't respond. This doesn't matter.
Tony shifts in the sand. "I saw my record the other day."
The trickle of interest is back.
"No, I went to DC." He gets up and stares out at the ocean.
He sits back down next to me, closer than we've ever been. "That's where I was when you called. When I picked up your message, I caught a flight." He smiles at me. I know I'm not supposed to notice his shaking hands, the sweat glistening on his ashy face.
"Diane showed you your record?"
"All of it?"
I can feel him vibrating away in that suit.
"I let her check out my shield."
I don't say anything. The sound of chanting hovers in the back of my head.
"She said it was OK—I needed to push myself harder to get out." He squats in the sand, takes a handful and lets it fall. "In my record there was a bunch of stuff about my father. He was a real whack job. When he got older he never left his house."
"So was he..."
"Diane didn't think so; she said he was just anxious."
I start to laugh; Tony hunches his shoulders and peers at me. His brown eyes look like the eyes of Cloud's daughter. My laughter turns to tears. "Why did you really come?"
Tony cocks his head at me, "Because you were crying."
My left hand makes a truncated life gesture and a howl tickles the back of my throat again.
"Okay, tell me." His voice is soft. I try, but it's like the squawking sound Cloud made in his deep chest. My throat pulls tight and my eyes sting.
Then Cloud's body memory descends on me, my chest opens up and the late afternoon air floods in. Standing, I dance the freedom of my howls. I dance Whitnand's lust and his greed; I dance how I can't surrender Cloud to that. I dance Diane Demarest. I dance my mother—Tony draws a deep breath and lets it out slow and ragged. I dance being a Child in a sea of normals. I dance all the Children. I dance Tony and I dance me. At the very end, I dance my terrible gift to them.
After, Tony just sits on the sand, looking at me. His face is open, he looks young. Muscles fail again and I collapse next to him, unable to meet his eyes.
"What else, Christine?"
This time, I have no tears. "I think I killed them." Between us, I see him draw a circle in the sand with his mutilated forefinger. He nods, listening.
"When I told them about now, this. . ." I sweep a gesture out at the world, "They cried. Tony, they sent me away."
He nods again, draws another circle. "Who were they crying for?"
Cloud's voice rumbles in my ears, I feel his massive lungs in my chest, the howl that's been tickling my throat rushes out of me. The wind picks it up and lofts it into the sky.
"They were crying for me, Tony. They were crying for us. They sent me away because they didn't know what to do to help. Cloud gave me the only thing he had."
Tony stands, looks in my eyes, then lifts his hand and makes a clumsy life gesture. When his hand descends, I catch it in mine. His eyes grow wide with fear and we both freeze, waiting for the shock of the invol. This time, I don't hold it off. I let Tony wash over me and into me. It's hard, but it's not bad. He's letting me do the same. The sharp lines on his face soften, tears fill his eyes and he puts his arms around me, clumsy at first, but then, when his muscles relax, we move closer. Tony and I dance together in the late afternoon sun and wind. My face is wet with tears and the taste of iron has disappeared.
All the way back on the suborbital, Tony holds my hand. Several times, I reach out and touch his hair. Each time, he smiles.