Ava Butler watched the thing in the canal sweep by again. Under the surface, barely a ripple. Like one of the turtles she'd seen up at Teak Lake last year, only bigger.
A Morningchapel twittered in one of the bordering eucalypts. The tree rustled. The bird launched into the breeze, a bright explosion of under-wing feathers. It wheeled and darted into the trees.
Ava heard a splash from the canal and took two steps back. She was already halfway across the grass from the canal to the house. With Foxy gone, and her brother, she wanted to take no chances. Not yet anyway.
Three days until her twelfth birthday. Fifteen in Earth years.
Then she would go down to the canal edge and try to spear the thing.
"Ava," her uncle called from the house. "Come eat." He wore his cooking gloves. Little light beads glowed from the wrists and fingertips making him look like some kind of soldier. Like Mum.
It would be another gristly stew with sweet potatoes. Mashed and spiced to oblivion. Uncle Ted trapped rabbits in the overgrown fields, and sometimes ferrets and mustots in the forest. Ava hated the way their little black dead eyes stared at her from the skinning trestle.
Walking across the crisp grass, the blades tickling her bare feet, Ava went close to the canal again. Already the thing was two hundred yards away. Swimming fast. She felt sorry for it.
"Ava, come away." Concern in his voice. He'd come down off the floating patio onto the grass.
With a sigh she left the water and strode back to the house. Just a few more days.
The house smelled of woodsmoke and blood. Even though he gutted and skinned outdoors, he still carried the smell around with him.
In the kitchen he stood, waving at the hot oven with the gloves.
"What do you say we get out of here?" he said without turning. Behind the oven's transparent door the animals crackled. Not stew this time it seemed.
"And go where? Send? Purnish even?" The biggest city in Karnth lay over three hundred kilometers away. Even if the canals had still been working, it would have taken days. Their section of Blessed Canal Three was seven kilometers long, from the Wigram lock in the north to the twin channel Josephine locks in the south.
"Ay, kitten, you're thinking small," Ted said. "Why not go off planet? Riding one of those crystal ships out into the depths. There are hundreds of places to explore."
"I'm happy right here, thanks."
Ted turned and raised an eyebrow. He was thirty-eight. Dark receding hair, strong hands and a scar on his neck he wouldn't tell her about. He'd come down from running tourists through the cataracts when her father had gotten sick. That was a year and a half back and still no sign of her mother coming home.
"You're not happy." He pointed at the oven. Ava could feel the heat rolling off its face. Old and inefficient.
He frowned now. "Is it because of your mother? Since she's--"
"Let's drop it," she said.
"No. Let's not. I'm your caregiver and I--don't snort like that--and I have some say."
"Like 'let's go on grand adventures to the stars'?"
"I don't think it's healthy for you to stay here. Not after your brother."
"And Foxy. Remember Foxy?"
Ted sighed. "It was all fine until the canals stopped working."
"Yeah, sure. Everything was fine."
The oven trilled. Ted's gloves thickened as he opened the door. He put the roast on the benchtop and served.
Ava didn't feel like eating, but she ate anyway. Forced it down.
"Maybe just a trip to Purnish, then," he said.
Ava picked. "Maybe."
The next morning Ava worked digging skins and entrails into the compost. The chickeese clucked and flapped their wings at her. She was about done when she heard the odd drone from the distance.
She tossed the spade into the reeking mass and went around the front of the house. Her uncle stood on the grass, staring into the sky.
"What is it?" she said. "Are the locks working again?" Maybe some big machine was there at the Josephine locks, boring and replacing the gates and machinery.
She'd been a little girl when a boat had last passed by the house. The locks were closing down, so Mom had made a paper video for the wall. A long narrow barge, blue and red striped, with a tall aerial. Just narrow enough to fit through the locks. Ava could only remember it from the images.
"No," her uncle said. "It's a plane."
Ava pictured the wide flat lands to the north and east. Wild wheat still growing and shuffling in the wind. Where Ted caught a lot of rabbits. They liked the cover.
Not plain, she thought. Plane. An aircraft.
"But they never come over this way." Some, she knew, still flew from Purnish to Wyanamuck away in the north. Since the planet had been almost abandoned there weren't that many people who needed to fly anyplace.
"No they don't," he said. "But this one is coming our way. Low, and fast."
"What's it doing?"
"We'll find out when it gets here." Ted wiped his hands on his trouser thighs. He turned for the house.
"'Gets here'?" she said. "Why do you think it's coming here?"
"Oh," she said.
Jon had stood at the canal edge, calling for Foxy. The little dog had wandered off.
Ava could replay this in her mind easily.
He stood calling and he found the remains. A leg. Foxy's leg.
From the patio, Ava had seen him hold it up. He cried out something. He was fourteen, but sounded much younger. Scared. Angry.
As Ava jumped from the patio, a blur shot from the canal. A splash.
Jon was gone.
She'd watched the ripples slice away down the canal. Heading for the lock.
Later, Uncle Ted didn't believe her. He thought Jon must have fallen in. He'd walked the canal looking for the body.
Ava cried and cried in her room. Her brother.
She had to find a fresh slip and pillow. Hers got soaked.
The aircraft looked like one of Uncle Ted's hunting knives. Silver and black, its leading edge a long blade. That was the lifting part, Ava knew. The engine that massaged gravity. Tiny lightning shards danced around the tip and base. The cabin at the stern wider, thick and windowed.
The aircraft set down on the grass in a blaze of blue lightning. The narrow blade dug into the soil. On the ground the machine looked smaller.
As the sound wound down, Ava realized how noisy it had been. So out of keeping with the peace of the canal and the woods and fields.
The door clanked open, forming a set of steps. Three people came down to the lawn. Two women and a man.
"Ted," the lead woman said. She wore a long black and red robe, with a winged headscarf of matching but lighter cloth. The man and other woman were in uniform. Not soldiers, like Ava's mother, but security. They had guns. Little pistols holstered at their waists.
"Laurel," her uncle said. He knew her.
The woman smiled, stepped forward and embraced him. Almost like they were boyfriend and girlfriend.
"You know why I'm here?" Laurel said as they parted.
Uncle Ted glanced at Ava. "Go in the house."
"Go on inside. Go practice your piano. Criminy knows you've hardly looked at it all week."
Ava shook her head. "Is it my Mum?"
Laurel looked at Ted and back at Ava. "Your mother?"
"She's fighting. Out in the depths." Ava jerked her head at the sky. "I guess she's been shot to pieces."
It was slight, but Laurel shook her head. "I don't know. I'm not bringing news about her. You haven't had messages?"
"Last we heard was Holm," Uncle Ted said. He wasn't looking at Laurel, even though he was speaking to her. He stared right at Ava.
Waiting for her to flinch. Or fall into a pool of tears.
Well, she wasn't going to.
"Two months back," Ava said. "Sixteen ships. Lots of missiles. Some boardings. Mum makes it sound like some pirate adventure. Like a theme park ride. It's all fun."
"Huh," Laurel said. "How old are you?" She pulled up a rippletalk and stretched it out to screen size. "Almost twelve. Is that Earth years?"
"No. Paulding years," Ava said. "Fifteen Earth years."
"Small for your age."
"Make up for by having a smart mouth."
Laurel frowned, her face creasing. Just for a second before she laughed. "Take after your uncle."
"No she doesn't," Ted said. "Honey. Go on in. Let us talk."
Ava stood her ground.
Laurel nodded. "I have a bottle of wine. Josquin des Solle. A nice white from Holm itself. We can go indoors."
In the small music nook off the living room, Ava practiced C chords and variations. He was right, she didn't practice enough. She didn't study enough. Didn't read enough.
He'd lost a brother and a nephew. Same people, but it was completely different for her.
As she vaguely practiced she tried to listen in on their conversation. They sat at the breakfast bar in the kitchen, already onto the second glass.
The two security people stayed out by the blade aircraft.
"We have to investigate," Laurel said.
Ava played a G sharp major and an A sharp major, stretching her thumb and pinky. She played them again, up an octave. Bright.
"Go ahead," Uncle Ted said. "He fell in the canal."
So it was about her brother.
Stupid kid, she thought. Getting himself eaten like that.
She mashed the keys. Mashed them again. Played E minor and G sharp minor. Again, down two octaves.
How about that. She could play sad songs. Gloomy. The piano might be useful after all.
"Hey," Uncle Ted said. "Enough with thrashing the poor instrument."
"All right." Ava knocked over the stool as she stood. She left it on the floor and headed for the lawn again.
"Hey," he said.
As she crossed the patio she heard him say, "She saw it happen. Something from the canal."
At the end of the jetty she sat watching the canal. Mustot's paws shimmered the surface, their scattered patterns kind of soothing. Huge white clouds billowed over the fields.
Ava drew her toes through the cool water. It swirled with clear patches and dark. The bottom had been scoured of weeds.
It hadn't been like that when she was little.
She heard footsteps on the jetty behind. Almost delicate. She resisted the temptation to turn and look.
"Are you going to ask me what happened?" she said.
"No," Laurel said.
"Something came up out of the canal and took him." Now Ava looked. She couldn't stop the moisture in her eyes.
Laurel nodded. The wings on her scarf waved and twisted.
"It did," Ava said. She sniffed and pulled her feet from the water to sit cross-legged.
"You feel very lonely, don't you?"
Ava sniffed again. "It's none of your business."
Laurel sat next to her. "We should come away from the canal. It might come back."
Ava opened her mouth. The wind ruffled the grass on the margins and a Beldon's Stilt strode along the far bank, beak pecking at insects.
"You don't believe me," Ava said.
"Come on inside." Laurel stood and left.
She saw the slice of ripples of the thing again. Speeding along the canal from the north. As she watched a chill fluttered through her body.
The jetty felt rough under her. The air cooled.
"Ava," Uncle Ted called from the patio.
The thing was only a hundred yards away. Coming fast.
Ava swallowed. This was it. Who cared about turning twelve--fifteen in Earth years--anyway? Who cared about killing it? About revenge?
Laurel was right. She was lonely. Who wouldn't be? Cancer takes her father, the war takes her mother. And the thing in the canal takes her dog and brother.
"I am all that I have left," she said.
The stilt across the canal squawked and took to the air. For a moment it was ungainly, legs rattling, wings clawing for lift.
"Ava. Come on inside. Come away from there."
The bird dipped towards the canal.
"No!" Ava shouted. "Stupid thing. Fly away."
The bird turned.
A gigantic splash burst from the canal. Ava glimpsed jaws filled with serrated metal teeth.
Cogs on the side. A black eye with a hexagonal iris.
A steely cross-hatched fin swiped at the bird.
With another splash the beast plunged. It sped off past the jetty. The thing's side glistened red and gold through the water. Scaly plates shifted against each other.
Bigger than she'd thought. Twice the size of Uncle Ted. Maybe even larger than that.
Like a water-borne bison. An old Earth whale.
No, whales were gentle.
It sped south, leaving a wake like the black V of migrating geese.
Ava saw the Beldon's Stilt. Back on its feet on the other side. Striding along as if nothing had happened.
The thing in the canal, though, had missed a meal.
No one had seen it, but Laurel knew what it was.
"There are three of them," she said. "Very old."
"How old?" Ted said.
Ava sat in the kitchen with her uncle and Laurel. Uncle Ted cracked eggs to make Roundish omelets for some reason Ava didn't understand. Maybe just keeping busy.
"It's a machine, isn't it?" Ava said.
Laurel nodded. "We need to catch it."
"Is that why you're here? To kill it?"
Laurel's eyebrows lifted. "Kill?"
Ava shrugged. "It's just living out its programming, right?"
"Killing people is not part of its programming."
"So what is its programming?" Ted asked.
"The scour runs through the canals keeping them clear. It eats weeds, primarily. Noxious fish sometimes."
"Not much in the way of weeds in the canal," Ava said.
"Exactly it keeps the channels clear. It's killing people now. That can't go on."
"It didn't mean to," Ava said.
"I know. It's like a wild animal. After an incident it has to be put down."
Ava saw an odd glint in Laurel's eye. As if the woman would relish the opportunity.
"How did it get here?" Ted said. He gripped a beater blade in his glove and beat the eggs.
"Their range is the whole canal system," Laurel said. "When the systems were operating, they swam through the locks with the boats. It could take five years from them to cover the whole waterway."
"It's trapped," Ava said. "And it's eaten all the weeds between Wigram and Josephine locks."
Laurel examined her rippletalk screen. "It seems as if the Wigram locks opened almost a half year back. Automatic. It must have tripped them and come through. Now it can't seem to get out. I'm guessing."
Laurel shrugged. "The systems are failing."
"Why doesn't it just shut down?" Ted poured the egg mixture and it sizzled in the pan. "Like the locks."
"Different set of commands," Laurel said. "We'll shut it down and look for Jon inside it." She looked at Ava.
"You'll kill it then," Ava said. She felt cold. Confused. It had killed Jon and Foxy, but she'd seen its eye. It was only trying to survive. Things felt churned up inside her.
"It's a machine," Laurel said. "Still has some biological components, but it's like turning off an appliance. An oven."
The omelet crackled. It smelled of stoat meat. Just a variation on Ted's stew really.
Was he trying to impress Laurel?
"Biological component?" Ava said. "It is kind of alive, really."
Laurel gave a half-smile. "It's a machine."
"I don't believe that."
With a sigh, Laurel stood. "Bathroom?"
"Hallway on the left," Ted pointed.
When Laurel had gone, Ava said, "You know her?"
"Yeah." He kept on with the cooking.
Now he sighed. "We dated. She was a bit possessive."
"Well, nuts. But she's done well career-wise. On her fourth or fifth husband, I think. I've lost count.
Ava almost laughed. She felt hollow. Scraped out.
The toilet cistern whined and clunked and Laurel returned
"Lunch." Uncle Ted slipped the omelet into a serving plate. Full of chopped stoat and carrots. He shoved it on the table and used a pizza blade to make segments.
Laurel took one. "Mmm, good," she said, mouth half-full.
"Ava?" Ted nodded at the plate.
"You just have to catch it?" she said, ignoring the meal. She'd seen the thing's eye.
"And find..." Laurel glanced at Ted. "Confirm, that's all."
"Cut it open?"
Laurel set down her piece of omelet and stared at Ted.
Ava stood and left. She started running as soon a she was out of the kitchen.
The canal bank closed in on her. She ran out of breath after sprinting almost a kilometer. Bracken and timswort clogged the old trail. The thorns and rough leaves scratched her legs and arms. Her own blood oozed through the shallow wounds.
This thing had killed her brother and her dog. Why was she worried about it?
Ahead, but a long way off, she could see the jetty at the Jamieson's old farmstead. They were long gone.
Ava ran on, keeping an easier pace. She passed by the Jamieson's farmhouse. Some wild dogs lay on the patio. They lifted their heads and watched her pass, but they didn't follow.
She'd swung by Ted's skinning trestle on her way, taken a blade. The sheath slapped against her leg as she ran.
When she reached the Josephine locks she felt like she could go no further. Her breath came in gasps.
She stopped, leaning against the railing. The only sound was that of trickling water as it ran through the overflow spillway.
It was fifteen feet down to the water behind the gates. Brackish and green. Both sets of gates were closed.
With the weight of canal water, the only way to open the upper gates was to fill the lock.
That's all it wanted. Not to eat birds and dogs. Not to eat her brother.
From the distance she heard that drone sound again. The aircraft.
A splash in the canal. The scour.
Ava looked around. She'd come for walks along the canal all her life. She'd even shown Uncle Ted the manual controls. Everything operated on sensors, but there were big valves and wheels to fill and drain the lock.
She knew how to work it.
First the spillway. At the side of the lock's hewn rockset wall she pulled on the steel handle.
It didn't budge.
With a grunt, she shoved it. The handle clanked into place.
Right away the water in the lock began bubbling and stirring.
Along the canal she saw the bladed aircraft rise and turn. It hovered, little bigger than a speck. She wondered if it would come right away. She didn't know how long the lock took to fill. Right now it seemed very slow.
Ava walked to the end of the rockset. Far off to the north tall thunderheads billowed. The upper gates formed a dam in a shallow V. Water sprayed from between them. The canal fed from Lake Anostine, somewhere under the storm clouds.
The top of the gates had a handrail. She could walk across their flat surface to the middle of the locks. Another rockset wall separated the pair.
Lichen and moss coated patches of the walls. Once they'd been pristine and crisp. She wondered what would happen when the rock broke down. Would the canal drain away? Would their house be left facing a dry ditch?
Ava stepped out to the point on the V and peered down.
It was right there. Lurking.
The thing's body curled and coiled. It was like a long teardrop mixed with a fish. Fat head tapering to a whiplike tail tip.
"It's all right," she called.
It dipped down. The tail flicked out of the water. Spray showered her. Gripping the handrail Ava stepped back. She laughed.
She leaned over. "Losing my mind here," she whispered. The thing had vanished.
The water exploded.
The razored mouth lunged at her.
Ava stumbled back. She fell into the filling lock.
Freezing. The water wrapped around her, heavy and dark. She kicked and pulled.
The water stung her cuts.
She broke the surface and gasped. The water pulled her around. A swirling, jumbled mass. It stank of rotting weed.
Ava coughed. Looking for a way out. If she had to tread water until the lock filled she would freeze. Die of hypothermia.
There, in the lock's side, a series of notches. The ladder for people in boats to climb out. Or for hapless swimmers.
She kicked her way over and began climbing. At the top of the squared off rockset, she felt like she was on an island. Water sluiced from her and she shivered. She gasped for breath.
The aircraft was coming in fast.
By the time the plane arrived, the lock was less than half-filled. The scour flipped and sloshed against the upper gates.
The aircraft set down on the eastern bank. Before its engine had wound down the door opened and the two security officers raced out.
"Stop!" Ava shouted.
They held guns. Not the little sidearm pistols, but big heavy weapons with wide barrels. Ava ran across the gate. She stopped in the middle. Laurel and Uncle Ted came down the aircraft's steps.
The security officers ran onto the gate. Below, the water roiled. On both sides.
The woman lifted her gun. She took aim into the canal.
"Stop!" Ava shouted. "It's just frightened."
The gun clanked. Ready to fire.
Ava jumped. She tackled the woman. They both slammed to the top of the gate. The gun thunked down. It spun, tipped and fell in the canal.
"What the hey?" the woman said. She shot to her feet. The whole time she held onto Ava. In a split second Ava found herself on her knees, arms pinned behind her back.
The woman pulled and Ava screamed. It felt like the woman was tearing her arms from their sockets.
"Hey!" Uncle Ted yelled.
Through tear-hazed eyes Ava saw him running over.
The male security officer lifted his gun. "It's swimming away."
Ava looked down. The scour's ripples spread. She knew it wouldn't go far. Not out of range. She hoped it was going to get a good run up. To get some momentum to grab the security officers from the top of the gate.
The way it had taken Jon.
"Let her go," Uncle Ted said.
"Ted," Laurel said.
"Screw this. Let her go."
"She attacked me," the female officer said.
"Now. Let her go now."
"It's getting away," the male officer said. He lifted his rifle and sighted along the barrel.
"Let her go," Laurel said with a sigh.
"Yes ma'am." The officer released Ava's arms.
Ava sprang. She collided with the man. He yelped. The gun cracked.
Ava went over the rail. The man fell with her.
It wasn't as far to fall this time. The canal water was colder, but fresh, clear.
Ava's ears rang as she bobbed to the surface. The gunshot. She could still hear her father shouting from above.
No. Not her father. Uncle Ted.
The security man came up beside her.
"Ava!" Ted shouted. "Get out." He practically climbed the rail himself. Ready to jump in.
Ava saw the security woman say something to Laurel. It sounded like "We lost the guns."
"Both?" Laurel said.
The woman nodded. Laurel ran off.
"Ava," Ted said.
"I'm all right," she said. She watched the security guy sprint-swim for the ladder on the rockset's side.
"Come out quick," Ted said.
The water pricked her skin. She was already shivering. "I'm going to wait."
"Wait? What's to wait for? The scour's coming back."
"Open the gates," she said. She paddled to the tip of the V. She could feel the slight tug of current as water flowed through the old seal between the gates.
Ted looked back. "It's not full yet."
"As soon as it is."
The security man had reached the top of the rockset. He drew his pistol.
"It's coming," the woman said. She already had her sidearm in her right hand.
"Stop," Ava called. She felt herself at the edge of exhaustion. She was surprised she had any energy left. Running and swimming and climbing.
"Come out," Ted said. "I'm coming in after you."
"Open the lock."
Laurel appeared. She carried another weapon. Like the lost big guns.
She shouldered it.
Ava looked along the canal. This close to the water it was hard to tell, but she thought she could see a surge.
Rolling towards her.
She kicked off the gate and swam. Right for the surge.
"Ava!" Ted screamed.
Crying now Ava kept swimming. She saw again that blur as it swept Jon away.
It came at her fast.
Reaching for the blade, she found the sheath empty.
It didn't matter anymore. They were going to kill it anyway. She didn't know if she wanted to save it.
It hit her with a solid thump. She felt her back wrench. Water flashed around her. Filled with bubbles. Something sharp dug into her thigh.
It hadn't eaten her. She lay, pressed against its nose. The scour's mouth was closed. It nudged her against the lock gate.
Ava's head burst from the water. She gasped, the air fresh and warm
She heard the report of another gunshot.
Rolling around, still on the scour's face, she saw Ted on his knees. Laurel holding the gun. Red spread on his hunting shirt.
A tremor shocked through Ava. She couldn't lose him too.
She knew what had happened. They'd fought. Uncle Ted had tried to stop Laurel from shooting the scour. In the tussle she'd shot him.
As the female security officer ran to Ted's aid, Laurel brought the gun to bear on the scour.
"Open the gate!" Ava screamed. "Let it free."
"Get away from it," Laurel said.
"It'll kill her," the male officer said. The female officer helped Ted to his feet.
"We've got it," he said. He staggered to the side, arm across the officer's shoulder.
"Get off," Laurel yelled, her voice maniacal.
Under Ava the scour shifted. A wave traveling its body from tip to tip. Ava gripped a projection beside its eye. The piece had a gristly metallic feel.
"I will shoot," Laurel yelled. "I'm aiming at its brain. I'll shoot it even if I have to shoot through you."
The male security officer looked from Ava to Laurel, face aghast.
"Go ahead," Ava yelled back. Either way she would join Jon and her father.
Laurel did something to the side of the gun. The mechanism clanked.
The gate jerked. Laurel staggered.
The security guard grabbed the gun. The barrel jerked sideways.
The shot's concussion seemed louder.
Something whined away overhead. The bullet must have ricocheted.
The gate kept moving, opening. The scour rippled again. Excited, Ava thought.
The security guard held the weapon now. He knew how to disarm someone.
Not like Uncle Ted.
As soon as the gap was wide enough the scour swam into the lock.
Ava drifted off. She patted its head. The scour's eye shifted. Looking at her. It swam away to nudge the lower gate.
"All right," Ava said. "It won't be long."
Still dripping, Ava stood on the rockset side and looked at the shallowing water. Almost time to open the lower gate.
The female officer had bandaged Uncle Ted. They'd zipped Laurel in a holding seat in the aircraft. She'd calmed down, but didn't like setting the scour free.
As Ava watched it circle the diminishing lock, Ted came to stand by her. He didn't say anything. The water had almost drained to the lower canal's level.
"Shouldn't you be on a stretcher?" she said.
"Talie put a scurrow in the wound. I can feel it in there, wriggling and working surgery magic. Endorphins too."
"Scurrow?" Ava said. "Talie?"
"Talie's the officer. Their plane has a good medical kit. A scurrow's like the scour down there, but for injuries instead of clogged canals. Good for gunshot wounds."
"I get it." She imagined the scour in miniature, sticking and tugging at his innards. "Not as smart, though."
"Different kind of smart."
Ava looked at him. She wondered if that was a loaded comment. She could tell from his half-grin and serious face that it was. He was talking about her.
"Thanks," she said with a smile.
"Mmm. Come on, let's open the gate here. Let your friend go."
It's not my friend, she thought, but she couldn't find a word to describe what it was to her. Adversary? Respected? She felt like crying again.
At the rustic lock controls she turned the big steel wheel with Uncle Ted's help. The lower gates popped apart and slowed. It only took a moment to make a gap wide enough.
The scour shot away, splashing.
"It's a long way to the next lock," Uncle Ted said. "Maybe thirty kilometers."
"Bastion locks," Ava said. "And a lot of side channels. It will have plenty to do."
"We'll come along sometime," he said. "Let it back up. It seems to know."
Watching the scour's V slip away, Ava let the tears come. It hadn't eaten her. It could have and it hadn't. "Why would you help?" she said. "Why did you just now?"
"I trust you," he said without hesitation. "You're my family."
Ava swallowed and nodded. She turned to hug him and he held her tight.
She kept her eyes on that V as it swam away.
It wasn't gone for always and she actually felt good about that.