Eyes of the Forest
By Ray Nayler
Originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF) May/June 2020
“Look at me.”
“There’s so much blood!”
“Look at me, I said. Not the wound.”
“Look at me.”
“Sedef, look at my eyes.”
Sedef looked up from the wound in her wrist, into the eyes of Mauled by Mistake.
“Good,” Mauled said. Her pupils reflected the swirl of color inside the tent as she tore open a third repair packet with her teeth.
“Eyes on me.”
Sedef wanted to look down, but Mauled’s eyes were locked on hers, holding her gaze, while moving the packet over the wound automatically.
“Millions of nanobots, Sedef. Unfolding inside your wrist right now, stitching the wound shut with the slimmest and strongest of threads. They will find all the edges. They will seal the wound, layer by layer, then melt themselves into a protective analgesic gel. The gel will keep the wound clean and dry. It will dull almost all the pain. You know this. It was in your medical training. Shht!” Mauled stopped her as she was about to glance down. “I told you to look at me, not at the wound. You do as I say. Always. Yes?”
As Mauled spoke, Sedef studied the edge of her face—the scar that wound along the right side and into her hairline, starting above the temple and slicing all the way down to the jaw and neck, then beyond the microbond sleeve at the collar of the suit. How far did it go? The scar had a texture, raised, like a topographic map of a mountain range. What had done it?
“Hold still. There. Now it’s done. You can look.”
Sedef stared down at her arm. The sleeve of her suit was pulled up to the elbow. The arm was splattered with blood, already drying. At her wrist, where the wound had been, just above the carpals, was a streak of glaucous material. As Sedef looked at it, it moved slightly. She felt herself succumbing to nausea.
Mauled caught her by the chin, tilted her face up. “Don’t puke in my tent. Take a deep breath. This is over. You are not dead. Put it behind you.”
“What happened? What did I do wrong?”
“Think it through.”
“I attached the glove to the suit’s power. I tightened the thread of the extension sleeve to the glove wire. I visually verified the glove was functioning. I—”
“And the cuff cover?”
“I bound the cuff cover over the sleeve and the end of the glove, just like you showed me.”
Mauled picked up the glove from where it lay on the floor of the tent, the end torn and bloody. She handed it to Sedef. The cuff cover was ripped away from the sleeve, but most of it was intact. “Feel along the center of the cuff cover. Inside. The battery filament. How long does it hold a charge?”
“Two days, out of the battery chamber. Fifteen seconds for every rotation of the manual crank, an hour for a full five minutes of cranking, if on emergency power and within two meters of the field.”
“I don’t know.” Unless what? She had checked everything. Her fingers felt along the cuff cover. Then . . . there. A break in the filament. Not near the wound. No. On the other side. She must have snapped it somehow. Getting it on. Or bent it in half in storage. How could she have been so stupid?
“Unless the filament is broken, and the cuff cover goes dark. I don’t know how the filament could have gotten broken, Mauled by Mistake. I was careful.”
“Not careful enough. You might have lost a hand. Then you would be back home. Or, more likely, dead.” Sedef noticed that Mauled was sweating, her skin ashen.
So she does care.
“What does a darkened cuff cover look like?” Mauled asked.
“A black streak.”
“As your hand moves?”
“Something falling. Something dead.”
“Do you think you could have popped the tent, gotten in here alone, sealed it, and treated your wound before going into shock?”
Sedef thought it through—all the motions, with the pain the lashvine had caused, the panic afterward clouding her mind. Mauled by Mistake had done everything: opened the tent, gotten her inside, closed the aperture while Sedef was screaming, writhing on the ground.
“I don’t know.”
Mauled grabbed her jaw again, hard, made her look at her. Yes, Sedef saw—ashen and sweating. Had this really scared her that much? It didn’t make sense. Nothing scared Mauled.
“That’s your problem, Sedef. You don’t know. Well, you must know. Because now you are going to have to save my life.”
Mauled looked down. Following her gaze, Sedef saw it—the spreading stain of blood darkening the roiling iridescence of Mauled’s suit.
“Those three nanobot repair packets were all we had. There are six more, back at the depot. I’ll push gauze into the wound, bind it with the old-style bandages. I don’t think it hit any organs . . . but I’ll need three or four repair packets from the depot, at least. And I can’t get there myself.”
Sedef was trying to control her breathing. Her heart rate. As she had been taught. It wasn’t working. She felt herself beginning to hyperventilate. Shoved the feeling down, the panic. Think, instead! Act, instead!
“Let me help you bind the wound.”
‘No time for that, and no need.” Mauled was tearing open a pack of coagulating gauze. “This stuff is old-fashioned, but it will do the trick for now. I can do it myself. Get suited up.”
“But I can—”
The command cut through the panic, down to muscle memory. The motions she had drilled, the checklists she had studied and that Mauled had gone over with her, again and again, every evening, for a week now, in the tents and at the depots.
“Take the spare cuff from my kit bag.” Mauled was turned away from her, shoving gauze into her wound. She had stripped the top of her suit off, and now Sedef saw that the scar trailed over the shoulder blade and down her back, almost to the base of her spine.
“How did it happen?” Sedef wasn’t sure if she was asking about the wound or the scar.
“That lashvine that attacked you—when I grabbed it, it stabbed me like a lance. Went in maybe twenty centimeters. Defense mechanism.” She grunted in pain, or irritation. “Are you dressing?”
My fault. She was injured because of me.
“I’m in my suit already.”
“Now think. How far away is the depot?”
“Seven hours quick walk.”
“Then you had better run.”
“Is it that bad?”
“No, you’re not. Not yet.”
“I haven’t checked you.”
“There’s no time!” Sedef shouted.
“Control your anger. Never neglect the little things, or next time you’ll end up with more than just a nasty scar.”
Mauled went over the visual suit checklist with her. It took what felt like an hour, though really it couldn’t have been more than three minutes.
The second they finished the suit check, Sedef ran out of the tent.
And nearly forgot to reseal the aperture behind her. This happened to her every time. Even though she had been in the forest for a week now, the sight of it still stopped her, tore everything from her mind.
The pure beauty almost knocked her off-balance. Under the gray, low sky, the forest coruscated with color. Aquamarine-phosphorescent, slow-moving colonies of waveweed that could extend for hundreds, even thousands of square meters. Single-celled, pulsing sweet-yeast turned the rest of the forest floor into a shivering mass of violet as the organisms shifted their photophore apertures in waves of communication.
Their violet was taken up by the darting microbirds who ingested the sweet-yeasts and carefully gardened them in the crystalline membrane that coated their bodies.
Like us, Sedef thought—shielding themselves against death, always having to make sure their coatings were properly powered. They eat dirt and garden the sweet-yeasts in their crystal carapaces; we use batteries and microdiodes.
The gently luminous, aquamarine stalks of the diadem trees rose into the canopy’s varicolored riot, writhing with the full kaleidoscope of life.
Deadly kaleidoscope, Sedef thought, forcing herself to look past the beauty to the other reality: a thousand jeweled, hungry mouths—mouths of so many forms: lanternbeaks that could clap an arm off with a razor edge so fast, you wouldn’t feel it until they were gone; whipwings that closed their bodies over you and slashed you to ribbons with internal zippers of scalpel-teeth in an organ both mouth and stomach; winding twist-constrictors that would drop around you in a corkscrew and roil you into mush in the diamond pyramids of their coils. And so many more.
As she watched, a pulsing ruby floatbird jetted awkwardly to a new perch, reaching a branch just as its bag deflated. It clung there, collapsed and gasping, leering down at her with its barbed snatching beak. Four miniature balloons of its young bobbed along clumsily through the air behind it, warily jetting hydrogen from their vents, moving with adolescent uncertainty beneath the orange-blazing diadem leaves, whooping worriedly at their papa.
Move. Stop gawping like a child.
She began to run.
One week ago, she had stood in the windkey of her home complex, behind the glowing scrim that cut her home cave off from the forest she had dreamed of all her childhood. She had been waiting in the windkey for a full day and night. She was considering giving up, going back home. Her mentor wasn’t coming. Her assignment had been forgotten.
How much longer would she have waited? An hour? Another day? What reserves of patience were left?
While waiting, she’d packed and repacked her gear, repeating lists of necessities from memorized safety checks. She’d stripped out of her suit and gone over its seams twice.
Still no mentor.
Then the scrim shuddered, and her mentor stood before her. Tired. Dirty. She took her hood off, revealing an unreadable expression on her face. Her suit was splattered with pulsating gobbets of sweet-yeast mud up to the knees. And she would have to run.
“I am Mauled by Mistake,” the woman said. “And you are Sedef. Hand me your pack.”
She had a given name.
Only a few wayfinders had them: a name bestowed on them by their other guides. The names were always sarcastic, vaguely insulting to their bearer, referring to something they had done wrong. But they were worn like the highest of honorifics. Sedef knew a handful of them: Stabbed Own Hand, Stepped on Hive, Bitten while Sleeping, Cloud was Bees. The names memorialized acts of stupidity survived.
So, her mentor was a good one. She felt a rush of pride. She was worthy of someone with experience.
Mauled by Mistake picked up Sedef’s pack and opened it. She began throwing items on the ground.
“That one is definitely on the list. In class a week ago, they explained that we might—”
Mauled by Mistake talked over her: a monologue that ignored any attempt to interrupt it as she reduced the contents of Sedef’s pack to less than a third of what they had been. “The things you carry on your body, you also carry in your mind. They are a distraction. You will think they’ll solve a problem, but they won’t. What they will do is keep you from acting now, make you think about how you could solve the problem later. If you had time to reach into your pack. But you do not have that time. Because you will die, in the interval between now and later. Instead, you keep your pack light, your thoughts light, your solutions immediate.”
“That multitool is for—”
“Pick that up and I will break your hand. You can use your knife for everything that tool does. Let me look at you.”
Sedef stood still in front of her while Mauled by Mistake went over her suit in granular detail, finding things wrong everywhere, grunting and sighing exasperatedly. Up close, Mauled smelled of dirty hair and sweat and the cloying sugar of sweet-yeast mud.
“Who was your teacher?
“Does he hate you?”
“No. I don’t think so. Why?”
“Because he is trying to get you killed.” She stepped back, looked Sedef over, adjusted her hood and mask.
“Can you breathe well?”
“Good. Let’s go.”
And they stepped through the scrim, leaving the gleaming, expensive pile of Sedef’s expectations strewn on the ground.
Sedef ran up the hill they had been descending when the attack happened. And now Mauled by Mistake is dying, and it is my fault. I barely lasted a week out here before getting one of the forest’s best wayfinders killed.
At the top of the rise, she had to scramble up over the sharp edges of a massive tabular colony of stone grass. Once she was on top of it, the glittering field of its chrysochlorous polyps seemed to stretch for half a kilometer, each step she took on its surface radiating a reaction like a flash of citron ball lightning.
Here on this tabula, there were no trees: only the gleaming cyan of the pseudoshrubs that had bored into the surface of the stone grass with their acid-secreting radula and put down rooticles, colonizing the living tableland in clusters ranging from a dozen to a hundred animals.
I can run and think about these things at the same time. I can do more than just survive. I can also seek to understand.
“Is that a floatbird egg sac?” At first, the thing looked like a cluster of the lamps they used in dwelling corridors, but when Sedef looked closer, she could see that it was, in fact, a series of obolid, carmine-glowing eggs, barbed to a lower branch of a diadem in the molted skin of its parent. Even the sneering face of the floatbird was there, shed and distended at the bottom of the sack.
“Yes, it is.”
Sedef leaned in closer. The floatbird embryos, bright inside the translucent membranes of their eggs, shifted listlessly in their amniotic fluid.
“We need to be at the depot before dark. Changeover is the most dangerous time to be out. As the forest modulates its glow for sundark, any slight suit anomaly is particularly visible.”
“We learned that. And there are animals, Beyazit said, that specialize in hunting during changeover. Some of which no one has ever seen. Predators we haven’t even—”
“Predators?” Mauled by Mistake gave out an incredulous bark, followed by a stream of intricate profanity.
Sedef had heard that the wayfinders had a whole second language of profanity so inventive it was almost unintelligible to others. She couldn’t understand all of this expression—something about Beyazit’s father being born in a quiver of nightwing penises? Could that be right?
“Please stop.” Mauled by Mistake said, holding up a hand. “And bring that egg sac with you.”
“I don’t want to disturb it.”
“It is hanging there for you. Why else do you think it has been placed here, along the path? I’m not going to carry it for you: Know your place.”
Just as the depot came into sight, five hours of walking later, Mauled took the sac from Sedef and threw it, unceremoniously, into the trees.
“I thought floatbirds raised their young?”
“They raise some of them, but they also leave eggs for others to find. We don’t know why. But wayfinders discovered early that carrying a floatbird egg sac is a good form of added protection—a little extra glow—so they got into the habit of collecting them. The floatbirds then took to leaving the sacs along the paths, where we will find them more easily. Perhaps they want us to distribute their young, like seeds.”
Once they had crawled through the hatch and down the angled tunnel into the main chamber of the depot, they discovered another wayfinder was already there. This was a young man, so thin he looked as if he had been sharpened. He was stripped down to a dirty pair of undershorts, cleaning his suit with a wet rag. As they came in, he glanced up, mumbled something, and went on with his task.
“Beyazit is telling the prospects to beware of predators,” Mauled by Mistake said in the young man’s direction.
“Beyazit should start each day by eating a bowl of his own entrails,” the young man said without looking up. “He almost got me killed once.”
“Who of us has he not almost gotten killed?”
Later, over a cold dinner of nutrient broth and noodles Sedef had made and packeted herself, Mauled by Mistake said, “The first thing to understand is that there are no predators in the forest. This old word does not fit. Only the ignorant use it.”
“But death is always waiting,” Sedef protested. “The forest is filled with teeth.”
“Yes,” Mauled by Mistake said. “You know your recitations well. The forest is filled with teeth. Death is waiting. Always. And so on. But there are no predators. There are only scavengers. When they attack you, and they will—and when they kill you someday, which they likely will—it will be by accident.”
“But the suit lights are a defense against attack. They indicate we are dangerous.”
The young man released a stream of profanity involving something about Beyazit attempting to whistle through a mouthful of various parts of his relatives’ anatomy. “The suits don’t indicate we are dangerous: They simply indicate we are alive.”
Run. And keep running. The way now toward the depot was downhill, through an area where the diadem trees were choked with colonies of lashvine, the scarlet “lash” on which the razor-sharp animals grew hanging in dully pulsing loops over the path.
Just looking at them made Sedef’s wrist ache. In some places away from the path, they weighed down whole trees with their glowering red mesh. Run into a vine and it could slice your suit open. Once that happened, revealing the lightless area underneath, it was just a matter of time before something found you. Run into one of the larger colonies and there would be no need to wait—you would be cut to ribbons anyway.
Sedef ducked under a low-hanging loop. Coming up, she smacked her head on a branch and stumbled, fell. Her hood was off! She looked behind her. She had snagged it on the tree.
Covering her head as much as she could with her lighted arm and glove, she reached up and unhooked it from the thorn where it had caught. Slowly, she pulled it back on. The connections had been yanked out, but they were designed to be: She snapped the filaments back into place, and the hood regained its wave of color.
But in that moment, she had felt everything around her still, and then shift toward her—as if the entire grove had been about to leap at her face. And tear, and tear.
She sat a moment on the path, willing her heart rate down, trying to catch her breath. Strange sounds from somewhere. No—just her, whimpering in fear. She had not even realized she was doing it. I can do more than just survive. I can also seek to understand, she remembered thinking earlier. Fool. You’ll be lucky to live to see the depot, much less “understand” anything here.
“‘Predator’ is just a word we carried with us into space. A concept from Earth. It has no place here. Nothing in the forest hunts what is alive: That is a habit of our home world—a habit of animals none here have ever set eyes on. Beasts from ancient books: the tiger, the wolf. Perhaps Beyazit uses that word because he knows it still has mythic power: tooth and claw, watching from the dark. But you should not use it. When you name things wrongly, it twists the way you see.”
The other wayfinder was already gone in the morning. Sedef never learned his name.
Now she and Mauled by Mistake were working their way through a lowland swampy area. The muddy pools, like the soil around them, were filled with varieties of sweet-yeast, but in the water, it turned a pearlescent lavender, streaked with the cinnabar of knifefish beneath the surface.
The soggy path wound its way between pools. Several diadems in the swamp had gone dark, root systems waterlogged beyond capacity, and a rending of lanternbeaks was dismantling them. Grenadine beaks ablaze, they searched for the symbiotic colonies of wood-bees that had died along with the trees.
“You need to understand our ancestors, Sedef. They came filled with knowledge—but it was knowledge built from the preconceptions of their world. Preconceptions that misled them. Most of them were dead before they found the caves. And then, once they found them, they were happy just to be safe underground, and warm. Using the knowledge they brought with them from Earth, and time, our ancestors bent sunlight down shafts from above to grow their own food. They piped water from underground lakes, where they also found the sightless, colorless knifefish that had long ago lost their way. Protein, farmable and free.
“This and other things made harmless in the darkness became their staples. Fed and safe, they excavated and worked and built. They lived and worked under a sky of their own manufacture. And so they never learned to live here, on this planet—they just transferred the life they had on Earth to this place. They built a pleasant arcade, its endless passages lit by lamps and tube-filtered sunlight. A diorama of a dead world.
“But generations ago, some began to venture out beyond the scrims of the windkeys. No one knows who were the first. I imagine them sitting not far from the scrims, still protected by their radiance. Watching. Listening. Perhaps just one initially, then several. Look!”
A floatbird was sinking from the canopy, its light guttering as it turned a slow descending spiral. Ten meters or so above the shimmer of the forest floor, its light went out.
In the moment before the whipwing struck, it was as if the forest held its breath, as if every eye turned hungrily to watch that descending mote of darkness.
Then the floatbird was gone. Sedef could feel the wind of the whipwing’s coiling amber passage on her cheek. It crashed upward into the fire of diadem leaves, disturbing a glassy cloud of microbirds which shrieked after it.
After a moment, Mauled by Mistake continued, “There are no predators here. Symbiosis provides most of the nutrients these creatures need. They have woven a tight web of interrelation and never learned the habit of killing. But make no mistake: The scavengers are fast, competing over who gets to free the nutrients trapped in the lightless bodies of the dead. And their teeth are sharp.
“The early wayfinders knew it doesn’t matter how you see the forest. What matters is how the forest sees you. It’s said this wisdom was carried from Earth. Some people there were also of the forest. They knew that how the forest sees you is a matter of life or death. When hunters slept in the forest, they slept with their eyes facing up. That way, the puma would know them for what they were: predators, and not prey to be torn. Pumas may not see the world as we do—but they see it. Understanding how they see it is survival.”
“But what is a puma?”
“They say they are like the tigers of the old books. But in the old language, ‘puma’ was anything that hunts in the forest.”
Sedef reached the depot. The sun was long past its apex. Exhausted, she allowed herself to collapse for a minute, to stretch full length on the scraped cool of the stone floor and breathe.
There was a moment, then, when she wanted to stay there, on the floor’s radiating cool. Mauled by Mistake’s death felt like a price she was willing to pay for an hour of safety from the fear of being alone in the forest. The forest jeweled with eyes and teeth, in which no human would ever be safe.
To get back to Mauled by Mistake, she would have to run through changeover, when if there was a solar storm and a sudden electromagnetic pulse—something that happened every few months—she would be dead in moments. In the day, she might have thirty seconds to find her crank and light her suit manually. During changeover? No time at all.
And she would have to run into sundark, when the forest blazed with stranger colors, and bright monsters prowled that no wayfinder had seen and lived to tell about.
And I will not live to tell about.
She stood up. She took the repair packets from their case, then paused a moment to read the marks left on the wall by other wayfinders. She went up the ramp to the depot entrance and grasped the handle. Her wounded wrist pulsed with the bloodbeat in her veins. Sedef gathered herself, gathered her strength.
Then she ran.
Just before the attack, Mauled by Mistake and Sedef had been walking side by side. It was a rare morning, cloudless and bright—the safest time in the forest, when the glow of life was dimmed and lacked contrast. Everything seemed to move a bit more heavily as the forest drowsed.
“We are now two days’ quick walk from the next settlement. Since this is training, we carry nothing with us beyond what we need, but normally we would also have packs of letters, medicines, items for trade. The cave settlements were quick to learn how they could use the wayfinders to their advantage, integrate them back into their system. And we were quick to learn how we could use them to supply our needs. If you live, you will come to know that we have our own ways out here—of which you have only gleaned the surface.
“If you live, I will teach you our names for the forest’s colors. The settlers use the old Earth names, empty names that refer to things we have never seen. Did you know violet is named for a flower? What does this flower look like? Is it even the color that now bears its name? Or have we confused it with the color rose—another flower? Amber is the color of the sap of an Earth tree, turned to stone by age. Who has seen such a thing? Pomegranate is the name of a fruit I have never found in the records. I will teach you new names. Names from here, made for now.”
If I live.
Sedef was thinking of the wayfinder they had met in the first depot. In the middle of that night, she had woken, and lay in the dark listening to Mauled by Mistake and that nameless wayfinder having sex. Afterward, she listened to them talking in the dark, in a thick wayfinder dialect from which she could pluck only a few words—a matted tangle of insider references, names for things that were not the names they used in the settlements, elaborate profanity. She had thought she knew wayfinder dialect, but it turned out she did not. All she knew was some pidgin version of it they allowed settlers to learn.
Lying there in the dark, she had wanted so much to be on the inside of that world. Yes. And this morning, too. It was worth it. She felt, for the first time in her life, sure about her path forward.
Then, that moment of stillness—the forest’s eyes on her. She had turned to Mauled by Mistake with a question in her eyes. What happened?
The lashvine struck.
Halfway there, now. Halfway back to Mauled by mistake. Let her be alive.
She was in a swamp area when it happened. Changeover had come: The sun was below the horizon, the forest incandescent against the darkening air. Her suit felt dim against the wild colors of changeover. She felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck, beneath the hood.
The path was slick and greasy, tangled with roots. The torn stumps of dead diadem trees jutted from opalescent pools of pale violet like jagged streaks of darkness. Lanternbeaks clacked their jaws and shuddered their wings, signaling to one another as they dipped their pendulous strainer jaws into the pools to siphon up the black spots of drowned dew bugs whose living relatives drifted in scintillating clouds of blush above the stagnant water.
And then everything flickered for a moment—a shudder running through the forest. And her suit went out. She saw it happen: her arm’s shifting incandescence suddenly solid, dark against the light of everything else. The forest grew still. She felt the eyes turned in her direction.
She did not think: What happened? If she had, she would have died.
She did not think—she acted. She threw herself into the mud and rolled in it, then tore off her lightless hood and flung it away from her. She saw it snatched whole out of the air as she smeared the iridescent mud on her face and into her hair.
Then she saw the thing. It came from behind a diadem tree, like emerald flames blown into a silken form of felid glass, stalking toward her. Puma. That was the only word that fit the beast. She thought puma but did not hesitate: As she rolled in the mud, she felt the creature’s heat on her face. It sidled over to her, nuzzling her shoulder, lambent and liquid on its six legs, pausing for a moment. She kept the darkness of her eyes closed: Her eyes, which did not cast their own light, were targets. Remembering--it doesn’t matter how you see the forest. What matters is how the forest sees you.
But later she would dream its face, just as if her eyes had been open: a double grin, each long, carrion-tearing tooth flickering like an ancient oil lamp in a cave.
Tooth and claw.
She felt its breath on her, humid and acidic. And then the padding slap of its feet through the mud as it went on its way.
And the moment was gone. She lay on the path, coated in the violet glow of sweet-yeast. For how long? Ten minutes? Only five? Slowly, she sat up. She examined herself, moving efficiently, covering bare patches, thickening the coating. How long would the mud crust last? She tried to think, and remembered their boots, thick with mud, glowing steadily when she had awoken in the depot. Five hours after their arrival? Six?
It should be enough. If nothing tore the dark spots that were her eyes from her head.
Now she thought: What caused the suit to short? And knew. The lessons had covered it: an electromagnetic pulse. A burst of plasma and magnetism into the solar wind. How many wayfinders had just died? Most of them were inside. The ones caught outside had hand-crank back-ups they’d have started turning right away. Would that have saved them?
Would it have saved Mauled by Mistake? If she was asleep when the tent went dark, she was dead.
If she had been awake, there was a chance.
Sedef got up and ran.
She clambered over the edge of the stone grass colony and began her descent down the final hill. At the bottom, there would be a tent, with Mauled by Mistake inside. Or there would be nothing at all: The forest left nothing behind. She paused at a pool to apply more mud to herself, after microbirds began to nip and tug at her hair. Back in the swamp, she’d stripped off the shorted-out suit and pack: The mud had been caking in the damaged suit’s seams, creating dangerous dark fissures in the sweet-yeast glow. Naked, wearing only her shoes, she could layer it over her body more evenly, be safer. She now carried the suit and pack in a floatbird sac, illuminated by the eggs.
She crossed the tableland of stone grass in what felt like seconds, legs pumping. Not feeling tired anymore—feeling now as if she could run forever.
But as she descended the hill, she felt herself slowing. Afraid to know. Afraid to see the clearing, empty . . .
The tent was there.
She covered the last distance as if she were flying, tore open the tent’s aperture.
Dead. Ashen, her hand next to the manual crank. How late am I? Less than an hour: The tent was still lit by the manual crank.
But—no. Some slight movement, a twitch of the mouth. And the eyes opened, dark in a face drained of hue.
Mauled by Mistake smiled, weakly. Her voice was just a whisper.
“Look at you . . . is that . . . sweet-yeast? Are you . . . naked? I would laugh, but it hurts too much . . .”
Sedef rolled her onto her back, found the wound, and tore open the first repair packet.
“Shh. Everything is going to be all right now.”
“No, it isn’t,” Mauled by Mistake croaked.
“Yes, it is. We’ll get you fixed up . . . and make it back to the depot, and rest.”
I saw a puma! she wanted to say. And lived! I have so much to tell you. You cannot die.
“No, that’s not what I mean.” Mauled by Mistake grinned at her through bloody teeth. “I know I’ll be all right. Wounds heal. What I mean is . . . you’re really going to hate your given name.”