Word webbed over the altiplano, carried one village to the next by the wandering gene merchants: a pilgrim was coming.
A pilgrim was coming! Maria felt she might burst her membrane from excitement. She wove through and around the women, who bent scouring the chapel steps with sand, until her mother slapped her away. Then she darted circles around the men, who were pulling Jesucristo out from his dusty ledge and repainting his gasmask with red ochre.
“Go watch for him,” her father said, motioning her back as the cross creaked upright in its stand. “Go watch with Pedro. Watch from the hill.”
“Pedro eats his dirt before it cooks,” Maria said, sticking her small pink tongue out, but she went away half–skipping. Frayed clouds were shifting in the sky, letting Santa Sol peek through over the domed huts and sunken cook pits. Maria’s step slowed as she passed the rippling walls of the uterocarpa at the edge of the village. She crossed herself and called her little sister’s name, even though she wasn’t supposed to. There was no call back.
But by the time she saw Pedro belly–up on the hill’s stony slope, his membrane glistening in the scant sunshine, she was thinking only about the pilgrim again.
“What do you think he’ll look like?” she demanded, scooting down beside him.
Pedro wasn’t even watching, his red–brown eyelids were firmly shut. “Who, the pilgrim?”
“Who else would I mean? Stupid.”
“A baby,” Pedro said, sitting up. “If your mother was having another baby.”
Maria’s nostrils flared. “She’s not, and you know she’s not. Of course the peregrino.”
Pedro nodded, but he had the small smile that grew when he made her angry. “Black all over,” he said. “Black as eclipse. Ugly.”
“I think he’ll be beautiful,” Maria said staunchly. “I think he’ll be like Jesucristo.”
Pedro started to laugh, and Maria could see all the small muscles tightening in his stomach.
“What?” She punched his arm, a wet slap that shivered his membrane.
“You think he’ll walk like this,” Pedro said, sticking his arms out straight from his sides. “Walk around with his arms all stiff.”
“That’s not how I meant.”
Pedro laughed again, but Maria, jumping to her feet, didn’t hear him. Out across the shale, cresting a gray heave of rock: something too tall to be a man or a gene merchant, something was moving with slow and heavy steps.
“Peregrino!” she shouted. She turned to grin at Pedro, but he was already scrambling away. Maria lingered for a second, staring out at the approaching silhouette, then dashed after him. She wasn’t about to let him tell everyone he’d spotted the pilgrim first.
As the pilgrim trudged towards the chapel, Maria’s mother sprinkled red sand across his path in smooth arcs. Maria watched this from the flowing crowd, mouthing the chant along with everyone else, ushering the visitor through the village. Santa Sol was pounding down now but the pilgrim’s billowing black membrane sucked the light in and gave none back.
He was tall, and broad, and his eyeless face was perfectly flat, colored yellow like the packets of fat in a baby’s cheeks. Pedro, jostling up beside her in the crowd, thought he had another face hidden underneath it.
“Don’t talk,” Maria chided, not taking her gaze off the pilgrim.
“He does.” Pedro tapped at his eyesocket. “How else would he see? My grandfather said so.”
Maria ignored him, worming through to the front of the crowd as the pilgrim reached his destination at last. The chant cut short. The pilgrim reached up to the cross with his thick black hand and pulled Jesucristo’s gasmask down, revealing the wooden face so gaunt but so tender. Then he knelt in the dust, and the solemnness stabbed at Maria’s throat. She felt grateful, the way her mother told her to feel grateful, grateful to Jesucristo for sparing them the devil’s Contagion and grateful to the pilgrims for keeping it at bay.
The pilgrim stood, and when he spoke his voice echoed against itself like speaking into an empty cook pit: “Thank you for receiving me on my journey.”
“May Santa Sol light your path and Jesucristo give your legs strength,” Maria said with the village, and the words made her ribcage swell. The drums started up a blood beat, joined by the chandangos and her mother’s shrieking violin, and then the dance began.
Maria whirled and clapped and shoved Pedro away laughing as they stamped the dust, but with every spin she looked to the pilgrim, now seated, as the dancers made their way to him one by one. She saw the tubes go in, writhing through membrane into vein in a way her mother said was not so frightening, and saw the blood go out, bright frothy red in the sunshine.
When it was her turn, when her father beckoned her over, Maria did not hesitate. The pilgrim was sitting cross–legged, cocooned by his machinery, the bone–white tubes and whirring cylinders and blue lights that winked like eyes. Someone had brought him a bowl of food, but it was untouched, maybe because he had no mouth.
“Give me your arm, please,” the pilgrim said. But he spoke without a mouth. Maria peered close and saw that Pedro’s grandfather was right, there was a shadowy second face under the featureless yellow.
“Jesucristo gave his blood for us, so we give it to the pilgrims,” she said proudly, flexing out her arm.
The pilgrim paused. “Yes,” he said, but sounded only half–sure. He touched one of the tubes and it wriggled towards Maria’s wrist. “This child is yours?” he asked Maria’s father. “How old?”
“Nine rainy seasons,” her father said, and his voice was edged in a way she had never heard it, edged like the cutter he had been sharpening and sharpening. “Very healthy. Very bright.”
Maria beamed at him, keeping very still and very healthy as the tube punched through her membrane, snaking into a taut vein. She watched the blood rush up with shuddery fascination.
“Your wife was projected to be fertile for a long time,” the pilgrim said. “How many others?”
“One other,” Maria’s father said, like the words were heavy stones. The tube came free with a slick pop, leaving her membrane as smooth and unmarked as ever. Very healthy. Maria prodded the spot, unwilling to go back to the dance, hoping to see what the pilgrim did with the blood. She saw her mother coming over through the crowd, slipping her violin into its battered wood case.
“Only one?” the pilgrim asked.
“My little sister,” Maria said, very bright. “My little sister was born without a membrane, so she lives in the uterocarpa.”
The pilgrim froze, moving hands turned to stone. Maria’s father was silent and Maria wished she could bite off her tongue. Then her mother’s hand came down on her shoulder.
“It’s so,” she said. “I had hoped that this is why you came. I prayed Santa Sol would direct you here to us.”
“That isolation unit is meant for emergency injuries.” The pilgrim’s head shook slowly, side to side. Maria didn’t know the words. “How long has she been inside?”
Maria’s mother stared down into the dust, but when she looked up her red–rimmed eyes were defiant. “Four seasons of rains,” she said. “I’ve kept my womb empty since.”
“That is not the protocol.” The pilgrim’s voice was hard and crackling. “That is not Jesucristo’s plan. Why didn’t you give her to the sun? Why didn’t you put her on the hill?”
Maria’s mother looked to her father. His dark eyes were shining wet.
“I couldn’t,” he said. “I’ve given too many to the sun. She’s given too many.”
“Give her her lluchuy,” Maria’s mother pleaded. “Grow her a new membrane, a strong one. That’s why you’ve come. Isn’t it?”
The music had mostly died away and only a few still danced, still awaited the communion. Maria watched as the pilgrim slowly fed the tube of her blood, now turning dark and thick, into the whirring cylinders.
“I came to test for plague resurgence,” he said. “Your blood is clean and this child is healthy. You can try again.”
“Jesucristo has mercy for the wretched.” Maria’s mother rocked back and forth on her heels. “Please, pilgrim.”
The last drum stopped; the dust settled under the last dancer’s stilled feet. Maria’s father stepped forward, and some of the other men, too, shifting behind him. The cutter glinted in his hand; Maria saw his tendons go tight gripping the handle.
“Give her a new membrane, strong and clear,” he said. “Or we’ll open up your black membrane and give you the Contagion. We’ll put you on the hill with our children’s bones.”
The pilgrim stood, spilling his shadow over them. The men stood their ground, and Maria’s father raised his cutter, but now a mutter was going through the crowd and one of the grandmothers wailed sacrilege.
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” the pilgrim said. “And you have only yourselves to blame for the defects. If you followed the breeding program, if you used the gene merchants how you were instructed to…”
Maria felt her mother pulling her back, clucking in her ear, whispering to not be frightened. She prised her arm away and looked for Pedro in the crowd.
“We saved you, don’t you remember?” The pilgrim’s echoing voice was unsteady now as the men circled him, as their muscles tensed and rippled under membrane.
“Save one more, pilgrim,” Maria’s mother said, hands on Maria’s shoulders once more. This time she didn’t wriggle away. The pilgrim said nothing else, and Maria’s father began leading him away from the chapel that still stood empty, leading him towards the edge of the village and the silent uterocarpa.
Maria had to beg and beg her mother to be allowed to take the pilgrim’s food to him; dusk was dropping when she finally relented. Maria stuck the bowl on her bony hip and raced Pedro to the cook pit.
“Why do you want to go inside so bad?” he asked while she scooped the meal warm and wobbling into the pilgrim’s bowl.
“To see him make the membrane,” Maria said. “See how he does it.”
“He won’t,” Pedro said. “You can’t make pilgrims do things. They’re pilgrims. Santa Sol is angry with your father already.”
“Your grandfather isn’t wise, just old,” Maria returned, and she set off for the uterocarpa. The sky was darkening, and Maria did wonder if Santa Sol would stay away for a day, for three days, even, because she was angry. She wondered if Jesucristo was disappointed.
Her father was waiting outside the tent. “Don’t speak to him,” he ordered. “Go through, set the food down, and leave.”
“What if he talks to me?”
“Don’t hear him.” Her father opened the first slit and a strong bitter smell wafted out. “Go in.”
Maria balanced the bowl on her head without a wrap, to show off, and stepped through. The slit sealed up behind her and she kept still as the mist billowed around her, coating her in cold foam. She didn’t step forward until every last bit was sucked away in the small wind. The second slit opened, then, and she slipped through.
The bright white walls of the uterocarpa ached her eyes. Her sister was lying on her mat, still small and malformed, the strips of her membrane still peeling off her. Pedro thought she was ugly, but Maria loved her wide, night sky eyes, and she knew they would not seem so bright if her face was shiny with membrane. A narrow tube was running from her arm, across the floor, and the pilgrim was seated there with his machines.
“I brought food,” Maria said, setting down the bowl.
The pilgrim glanced up. “I can’t eat that.”
“You’re in the uterocarpa,” Maria argued. “You can take off your black membrane and use your real mouth.”
“I can’t eat reconstitutions,” the pilgrim said, looking back down at his winking lights. “I’m not a sandeater. My stomach doesn’t have the polyvore bacteria.”
“Can you take it off anyway?” Maria asked, crossing to sit with her sister on the mat. She held her small pudgy hand, the one safely webbed in membrane. Her sister smiled her vague smile.
The pilgrim hesitated. “Everything reads clean,” he admitted. “And it’s been a whole damn week in this thing.”
Maria watched intently as the pilgrim put both hands around his head and twisted. There was a soft cracking sound, and then the false face lifted up and away. There were eyes underneath, and a nose, and a mouth with lips drawing in a long long breath, but…
“It looks like you have mud all over you,” Maria said.
“We never did figure out why the membranes grew translucent,” the pilgrim said. “But they work, so I suppose it shouldn’t matter.” He rubbed at his cheek. “It’s skin.”
“Will you give my sister skin?” Maria asked, squeezing her hand.
“She doesn’t have the Contagion, but she does have tertiary infections,” the pilgrim said, and Maria realized he was young, much younger than her father. “It’s a miracle she lasted this long, people coming in and out for four years.”
“Jesucristo loves his children,” Maria said, shrugging her small shoulders. “Even Pedro,” she added, to remind herself. She stroked her sister’s head.
“I can’t just ask her genes to grow her a new membrane.” The pilgrim had been speaking more to himself than to Maria, but now he looked up and fixed her with his strange green eyes. “What’s your name?”
“Maria,” Maria said. “Because my grandmother’s name was Maria, and —
“And your sister’s name?”
Maria shifted on the mat. “You aren’t allowed a name if you don’t have a lluchuy,” she said. “You have to stay like a ghost. But she likes Fausta. I gave it to her.”
Fausta’s vague eyes sharpened at the name. She made her strange gurgling laugh; Maria hushed her, scared of her coughing.
“Maria, I can’t do anything for Fausta here. I told your father, but he won’t listen to me.” The pilgrim’s voice was stretched thin. “He doesn’t mean what he said about cutting off my suit, does he?”
Maria remembered that her father was waiting outside and wondered how much longer she could test his patience. “My father always keeps his word,” she said.
The pilgrim’s mouth tightened. “If he does that, the Labs will send soldiers.”
“What are they?” Maria asked, glancing towards the door slit. She bounced Fausta’s hand on her knee.
“They’ll blame it on genetic aggression,” the pilgrim said, and he looked away. “Sterilize everyone in the village, call it culling. They’ll disable your polyvore machines. Your whole village will be dead in a week’s time.”
Maria felt her eyes winch wide. “Pilgrims don’t do that. Jesucristo would send you to the big fire.”
“We’re already there,” the pilgrim said. He gave a shaking laugh. “There hasn’t been a bird in the sky or a flower in soil for half a century. Do you even know what those are? I’ve lived my whole life packed in a preemie bubble drinking recycled piss with a thousand other survivors, and I thought it had to be better out here, I thought there had to be something to see, but it’s all a damn wasteland and the only living things are jelly–skinned sandeaters who are barely even human. That’s hell.” He rubbed at his face. “God, I should never have volunteered for this. They told me you were savages.”
“You are not a good pilgrim,” Maria said abruptly. She stood, feeling her heart thump her ribs. She didn’t want to leave Fausta alone with him now.
“They’ll come here and erase your village,” the pilgrim said. “Unless you help me escape.”
“Jesucristo would protect us,” Maria said, but she wasn’t sure of that anymore.
“If you help me escape, I’ll take Fausta with me back to the Labs.” The pilgrim walked over, and Maria stiffened, but Fausta was not afraid when he lifted her up. “I’ll fit her in the suit with me,” he explained, voice soft again. “Like this. In the Labs, they can try to heal her.”
Maria stared at her sister tucked away in the pilgrim’s black membrane. She thought of her weeping mother and of mud–color soldiers starving everyone to death. There was only one bright choice.
Her father knew she’d spoken to the pilgrim, but he was too busy arguing with the elders to punish her. Maria flitted past them and searched out Pedro by the well.
“I dare you to jump across it,” he said when she arrived.
“I have a better dare,” Maria said, and she explained. He listened with his feet dangling off the edge, nodding slowly like his grandfather did. He dropped a stone.
“Your father will thrash me harder than you,” Pedro said, once the plop echoed up to them. “I don’t want to get thrashed.”
Maria gritted her teeth. “I’ll tell everyone you’re the fastest runner.”
That made Pedro stand up. “And not take it back?”
“And not take it back.”
Maria waited until her mother had prayed herself to sleep, voice croaky and dry, then crept over her to where her father was splayed out on his mat. The cutter was a finger–width from his hand. His breathing was deep and even. Maria watched the bunched red muscles of his chest stretch and collide. She reached.
Cutter in hand, Maria slipped out of the hut. She had little aches where she’d pinched her wrist to stay awake. The sky above was inky black with no stars, but Maria knew her way to the uterocarpa in the dark. She snuck carefully, because the elders did not always sleep so well and sometimes came out to breathe the colder night air.
Maria’s father had someone guarding the entrance, so Pedro met her around the back, safely away from the glow of the lamp.
“Ready?” Maria whispered.
“You actually took it,” Pedro said, eying the cutter clutched to her chest. “Yeah. Ready.” He vanished around the edge of the tent, and as he began whining to the surprised watcher that Santa Sol had sent him a dream, that he needed to see the pilgrim, Maria began to cut.
The blade scraped and she went slowly, opening a gash just large enough to slip through. The watcher had started cuffing Pedro’s ears by the time she had peeled back enough fabric to crawl inside. The mist sputtered up around her, then leaked out of the hole. Through the inner wall she could see the blurry shape of the pilgrim as he put on his second head. When he gave an affirming nod, Maria cut again.
The inner wall hissed away under the blade like nothing more than air. Her hands trembled slightly at the enormity of it, at the way she was disobeying her mother and father, but she knew Jesucristo would understand. A moment later, the pilgrim emerged.
“Which way?” he asked, in a crackling murmur so low Maria barely heard. She pointed mutely, looking at the lump where Fausta was cradled against the pilgrim’s chest. She had tried to explain to her sister, and she had kissed her eyes and her forehead more times than she could count.
“May Santa Sol light your path and Jesucristo give you strong legs and keep you safe from the devil’s Contagion,” Maria exhaled in one slab of air.
Behind the yellow, the pilgrim’s shadowy face seemed to stir. “It wasn’t the devil’s doing,” he said. “It was ours. We have to pay for the sins of our fathers. You have to pay for them, too. Follow the protocol so we can fill up the world again. Even if the protocol is hard.” He hesitated for a moment, rocking back and forth on his heels, then shook his head. “You’re a bright one. Maybe you’ll understand it one day.”
Maria felt herself swell with pride as the pilgrim disappeared into the darkness. The struts of the uterocarpa were bending now as the fabric sagged. Maria could hear Pedro still gamely chattering at the watcher, still begging to be let inside. She couldn’t resist going to her sister’s mat one final time to see if she could smell any part of her.
When her knee fell onto Fausta’s tiny chest, Maria lost all her air at once. She pulled back the rough–spun blanket, mind unbelieving, bile racing up her throat. Fausta was laying there, night sky eyes shut tightly, body stiff as stone. Maria could see the Contagion bubbling through her half–formed membrane, black and red. She wiped instinctively at her sister’s cold lips and came away with a delicate smear.
Maria’s eyes were a stinging blur. She stared down, panting, feeling as though the tent was already collapsing around her and over her, burying her. Pedro was finally being chased off; she could hear him muttering as he went. Maria picked up the dropped cutter. She was faster than Pedro, and she was faster than a plodding pilgrim.
Out of the sagging tent, out of the village and towards the hill. Maria climbed to the top, saw the moon of scoured bone cresting in the sky. Wind whipped her unfeeling membrane, watering her eyes as she peered down. The pilgrim was hurrying away from the village, but he was so slow and the rocks were so sharp, and Jesucristo forgave his children many sins.
She slipped down off the hill and followed into the night.