Paulie hesitates a moment before turning away from the spider. When he faces us, his eyes rather obviously skip past Faircloth's and lock with mine.
We are in a square, what might have been a public gathering place before the citizens of this giant city abandoned it, or were driven from it, or perished. The square is perhaps 200 meters across. One can well imagine, however, this being nothing more than a quaint neighborhood gathering place for the former occupants, little more than a street corner where they gathered to gossip. Assuming, of course, these monumental beings engaged in such a commonplace human activity.
Crimson light flickers across the square then slithers up the sides of the towers that surround this place. In the overworld, this planet's red star is up and shining through the lid of water suspended a kilometer or so above our heads.
The army has found refuge in the cavernous chambers of this ghost city. We scuttle like an infestation of insects across the floors of empty chambers. We hug the walls, bivouac in the dark corners. Like cockroaches, we seem to find the vast openness of these rooms terrifying.
"We ask the white bristled one to walk among us," Paulie says, studiously keeping his eyes locked on mine.
Faircloth raises one hand to a lock of moon-white hair dangling in front of her left eye. She shifts it back, curling its end around her ear.
"That's all right, Paulie," she says. "You can look at me. We all know who you are talking about."
Paulie shifts slightly, facing her.
"Yes. I apologize, Christiana."
"No need," she says. "You are simply conveying information."
"No, I meant," he begins. His voice trails out.
"'We'," Faircloth says. "Would that be the bones?"
"Yes," Paulie says, then adds in a quiet voice, "I believe that is who is making the request."
"What does 'walking among them' mean?" I ask.
Paulie faces me.
"I cannot say."
"Well," Faircloth says, finality and a flatness in her voice. "I suppose this is when I at last find out my part in this great interplanetary drama."
Bostick approaches, pulling on his shirt.
"It doesn't have to mean anything of the sort, of course."
Faircloth looks at him. Her face is blank, her eyes seem focused at a point somewhere behind him.
"I don't imagine I have much choice in the matter." She looks at Paulie. "Do I?"
"I don't have that information, Christiana. I'm sorry."
"No," she says. "I don't expect that you do." Then, after a moment: "Well, I guess we'd better get it over with."
Her voice is calm. I recognize in her that same sense of surrender I have seen in myself lately, in the face of this world's unfathomable intentions. But there is a tremor in her hands. She tries to cover it by readjusting her hair.
"Which way was it again?"
She glances around the square, trying to orient herself. Paulie points to an opening between two of the towers.
She looks at all of us, then smiles wanly.
"Any of you care to come watch? There ought to be some entertainment value in it for you, don't you think?"
She is on the verge of tears. Bostick crosses to her and takes her hand. She grips the hand tightly, while at the same time trying to manufacture an off-hand laugh aimed at, I suppose, the silliness of two grown-ups who are not in love holding hands. Paulie starts across the square toward the opening between the towers.
I bring up the rear. Well, not quite the rear. Mama Spider waddles along behind us. She takes 4 or 5 steps, then stops and settles on her haunches to let us pull ahead. Then she takes another half-dozen steps to catch up with us, then settles back down. She carries her arms, double-elbows bent and tucked behind her, like wings.
This place is an operatic vision of Hell. Waves of red light move across the sand in front of us, flames coaxing us forward, drawing us deeper and deeper into the eternal fire of perdition. Distant black specks, members of the army, wander like lost souls in the spaces between the towers. The four of us, trailed by our guardian demon, cut across the flat and barren sand of the square, moving slowly, holding back our pace, each step filling us with a greater and greater dread. This feels like the long, final walk to Judgment Day.
My own insignificance in all of this suddenly oppresses me. I hurry forward to catch up with Bostick and Faircloth. Somehow strolling through hell is easier in the company of souls as lost and as helpless as myself.
Bostick is speaking to Faircloth, soothingly.
"Surely there is some element of choice, here. Whatever 'walking among them' means, it doesn't necessarily mean you have to consent to it."
"Did you have a choice about the glyphs on your skin?" She glances sideways at me. "Did Fernando have a choice about that thing at his throat?"
"In fact," I say, "we don't know that we didn't have a choice. I mean, maybe we did make some choice. At some level deeper than even we were aware of."
Faircloth laughs softly. "Right. I'll keep that in mind. I'm sure it will provide great comfort to me."
"No, I'm serious," I insist. "Remember that tea-party platform? The second one with the paintings hanging in air, and the marble fireplace?"
She looks at me, intrigued.
"That was my Grampa's sitting room. A memory from when I was 4. It was exactly as I remembered it. You can imagine how suddenly finding myself in the midst of something like would frighten me. How the hell could they have such complete access to my memories?"
I turn to Paulie who is now only a few paces in front of us.
"Paulie, didn't I tell you I was frightened by that?"
Paulie stops, faces me, then nods.
"And didn't I tell you I found it unpleasant?"
Paulie nods again, then adds, "Which was, as we agreed, a lie."
"Right," I say, excitedly. I face Faircloth again. "That's just it, see? I was frightened that they could do this thing, but I wanted them to do it. At least, at some level beneath my fear I wanted them to do it. I made a choice based on something besides my simple, animal fears. Somehow they knew and understood what I really wanted, underneath my fear. And they acted on it."
I reach out to Paulie, take his arm.
"Paulie, what did you say to me? That that memory of my childhood would not be there if I didn't find it pleasant?"
"Yes, and I must confess I still find your fear of it confusing." He looks at Faircloth. "A most peculiar trait in your kind."
"I have to say," Bostick says, ruminating, "that if they had asked me beforehand if I wanted these things crawling across me, I would have said no." He looks up at us. "But once they were there, no matter how unpleasant I find the actual experience of them," he grins broadly, "I rather like the idea of having them."
"That's not making a choice," Faircloth says. "That's making do with a situation you can't change."
"But maybe it isn't," I object. "Maybe they know what we would really choose, if we weren't so . . . so frightened of what was being offered."
Faircloth smiles, then gives a small, slightly sour laugh.
"So what you're saying is, I should put myself in the hands of the Lord. Or Lords, or Lordettes, as the case may be."
"No, I'm saying you have a choice if you want one. If you want to say no, then say it. Only make damn sure you mean it. Otherwise it won't stick."
This argument seems to touch her, if only barely. She ponders it for a moment, then looks at me sideways, then nods.
"I'll buy that," she says. "For a nickel." She brightens, but she's forcing it. "Who knows? I may even like the idea. Whatever the hell it is."
"Don't be an ass, Faircloth," Bostick says. "You'll hate it, just like any of us would hate it. But I don't think hating it or liking it is the point anymore. I don't think hating it or liking it has been the point since this planet arrived. At this point, the question is to what degree do we really want what's being offered."
"In other words," she says a hint of acid in her voice, "put up or shut up."
"Yeah," Bostick agrees a bit too militantly. "Exactly. Put up or shut up."
"Of course, you've already been through your little trial by fire," she says. "Easy for you to say."
"All I'm saying is, all you have to do is say 'no' if you don't want it."
"Is that a guarantee?"
Bostick stares at her a moment, then looks down, shaking his head.
"No. I don't suppose it is."
"No," she repeats. "I don't suppose it is."
We enter the space between two of the towers, a passage that to the original owners would have been no more than a narrow, twisting back- alley, but to us is a broad avenue, a sweeping boulevard leading toward the center of the city. Bostick walks along quietly, staring at the sand in front of him. Faircloth keeps glancing sideways at him. After a long while of all of us walking along in silence, she seems to lose patience with her own surliness.
"Still," she says, "what you say might be worth keeping in mind, though. Hell, for all we know, we, I mean 'we the human race', for all we know we're the ones who brought this planet here."
This possibility has never occurred to me.
"What do you mean?"
The tiniest of smiles graces her lips. She looks at me.
"To use Tim's phrase, maybe we're finally ready to put up. Maybe this is something toward which all intelligent life evolves. Maybe we, as a species, just got here, just got to the place where we are ready for this place to show up."
"Doesn't sound like it," I say, "from what the Admiral told me about what's going on back home."
"I'm sure Admirals have been known to lie. Or, at least, misunderstand what's going on in the wider world."
"Maybe," I say. "Doesn't seem likely in Admiral Potter's case. He was pretty self-assured."
"They're the worst kind," Bostick pipes up.
"Right," Faircloth says. "You've practically proven my hypothesis."
"Right," Bostick says. "Now what should we talk about?"
The two of them laugh, a soft, rounded-off laugh shared between the two of them.
I guess you have to be a scientist to find this kind of stuff funny.
. . .
The base of the creature nearest to us is a good ten meters across. It rises out of the white sand like a mighty tree, barkless and white and as smooth as, well . . . as smooth as bone.
We are standing at what seems like the edge of a forest of these things. It hurts the neck to look up and take in their full height, but the pain is worth it. Against the shimmering crimson backdrop of water high above us, they are a magnificent if terrifying sight. I relax my neck, let my gaze drift back down to a level that has something to do with a human sense of how big things should be.
Faircloth hangs back from the edge of this "forest". She is staring not at the awful size of these creatures, but at the spaces between them, for that is the direction wherein her fate apparently lies.
Paulie and Bostick edge close to the entrance to a path that leads into the "forest". They peer deep into the spaces between the Bones. Bostick faces Faircloth.
"Looks all clear," he says.
Her eyes flick to him, then flick back to the path leading into the forest of Bones. She doesn't respond.
After a few moments, Bostick crosses to her.
"Let's go back to the bivouac. You don't have to decide about this now."
The spider chirps. Paulie turns his attention to her, until she falls silent. He faces Bostick and Faircloth.
"Don't tell me," Faircloth says. "Waiting is not possible."
Paulie stands there exceptionally expressionless, even for a Guest.
After a few more moments, Faircloth opens her dry lips, licks them once, then says quietly, "No. Waiting is not possible."
She hesitates, then starts toward the opening between the Bones.
"Christiana," Bostick calls after her, but she doesn't seem to hear.
. . .
Bostick throws his tin cup. The thick needle-soup lands in a spray across the sand. In the light of our camp lantern, the green splatter of soup looks black.
"It's been twelve hours," he mutters to no one in particular.
Paulie and I sit on the packs he and I earlier carried back here from our bivouac. The lantern is set atop the food-prep, in the center of our little circle of worry.
I toy with the idea of suggesting we go in after Faircloth. After all, it is what we are all thinking. Well, Bostick and I are thinking it. I can't speak for Paulie or the slumbering spider. At the commotion of Bostick's cup clattering across the sand, she opened one eye slightly, but then let it drift shut again. She sits just outside the circle of light. She has gone back to making that soft snoring sound that set Bostick and I to giggling when we first heard it two or three hours ago.
Bostick looks up at me.
"I say we go in and have a look."
I rise from my seat and cross toward the lantern.
"I'm game," I say, fishing for the looped handle of the thing, then lifting it from its perch.
Paulie stands. I half-expect him to object, but he looks perfectly at peace with the idea of wandering into the forest of Bones in the dead of night. Well, after all, it's not as if it will be full of lions and tigers and bears.
Bostick scrambles up, then bends down and rifles through his pack. He pulls his torch from it, then snaps it on.
"Let's have at it," he says, starting toward the place where Faircloth first entered the forest.
Paulie and I follow. I'm holding the lantern high, just below eye- level in order to throw as wide a circle of light as possible. Bostick's shadow, stretching out ahead of us, hits the trunk of the Bone nearest us, climbs up it, then curls around its circumference and disappears.
"See any footprints?" Bostick asks, playing the light from his torch across the sand.
"No," I say. "Don't think we will, either. This sand is like concrete."
"Damn." He raises the beam of light and aims it deeper into the forest. "Got any crumbs we can leave behind us? Worked for Hansel and Gretl."
"We won't get lost. These things don't cover that much ground."
"Yeah." He flips the beam back and forth between two separate paths leading deeper into the Bones. "Got a preference?"
"Yeah, but if you're asking which of those two paths to take, I don't."
He laughs softly.
"Right. In for a penny, in for a pound. Let's go."
He heads deeper into the shadows. Paulie and I follow.
. . .
She's standing in the center of a wide clearing. Her eyes are closed. When Bostick first entered the clearing and the light from his torch hit her, he called out to her, but she remained motionless, as if asleep. We are about three meters in front of her now, uncertain whether we should approach any closer.
"She's breathing, though," Bostick says. "You can see her chest moving."
"You didn't think she could be dead and still standing there like that, did you?"
"I don't think anything anymore," he says. "Christiana," he calls out, this time a little louder than before. She does not respond.
"What is it you call it," Paulie says, "when one is asleep but not asleep?"
"Yes, perhaps she is in some sort of trance."
Bostick considers this a moment.
"Maybe. Calling her name ought to bring her out of it, though."
He hesitates a moment, then starts toward her.
"Don't wake her up," I advise him. "You're not supposed to wake people up like that."
"Old wives tale," Bostick mutters. Still, he veers off to her right, navigating a careful circle around her. Suddenly, he drops the beam of his torch to the sand behind Faircloth's ankles.
"Christ," he mutters. He drops all pretense of caution, hurrying to Faircloth and dropping to a kneeling position behind her. "Christ," he repeats.
Of course, I know what I will see. I move to a place just next to Bostick, and hold the lantern up to where I can get a good look at the Bone-like substance coming up from the sand, joining with the back of Faircloth's legs.
Bostick reaches out a hand, running it up from the sand to the place where the white material meets the white flesh of her calves. His hand hesitates there a moment, then moves onto her leg. He presses his dark fingers against the pale flesh. It should give under the pressure, but of course it doesn't. He lowers his hand.
"It's like marble," he says, then adds suddenly: "Shit." He stands, letting the torch fall from his hand. It rolls away a bit, running its beam across the sand toward nothing in particular. "Son of a bitch. We never should have let her."
"It was her choice."
"Bullshit." After a moment, he reaches down and snatches up his torch. He snaps it off. "God damn it."
He lets out a long, frustrated sigh.
I'm staring at the place where the bone meets Faircloth's legs.
"That's how come they never changed her. Except for the unnoticeable part."
Bostick looks at me.
"What are you talking about?"
"They wanted one of us . . . unchanged. They wanted one of us who was still for the most part human."
I raise the lantern higher, trying to extend its circle of light to the Bones surrounding the clearing. I squint into the shadows, unable to see what I am looking for. I reach down and take Bostick's torch from his hand and shine it toward the trunk of the nearest bone.
"Right," I say. "Look how it's already sending a shoot toward her." I run the beam of light up the trunk until it reaches the bottom branches of the network of bony stuff connecting these things. "They intend to make her part of them." I play the light around the clearing, onto the trunks of other Bones. Most have already sprouted a new limb and are sending it out toward Faircloth.
"And so your prayers are answered," Paulie says quietly.
Bostick faces him.
"Your prayer that they might understand you better."
Bostick and I look at each other.
"There's an old Chinese proverb," I say, handing him back his torch.
"Be careful what you ask for." He looks at Faircloth. "Son of a bitch."
"She said our people had never been able to establish anything like meaningful communication with them."
"Not 'our people'. Me. I'm the head of Cognitive Systems."
"Whatever. The point is, looks like since we couldn't solve the communication problem, they did."
"Yeah," he says. He snaps his torch off. After a moment, he snaps it back on.
"Son of a bitch."
Suddenly, Faircloth's chest heaves. Her eyes fly open. She gasps. Both her hands reach out sideways as if clawing after something to catch onto to keep herself from falling. After a moment, she appears to regain her balance, a balance she is quite obviously no longer capable of losing. She takes a deep breath, turns her head and sees me.
She makes a small whimpering noise. She reaches a desperate hand toward me, but I am too far away.
"Oh, God," she pleads. "You have to help me."