The Ever-Dreaming Verdict of Plagues

September 21, 2021

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Jason Sanford is a two-time finalist for the Nebula Award who has published dozens of stories in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, Interzone, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Fireside Magazine along with appearances in multiple year’s best compilations along with The New Voices of Science Fiction, edited by Hannu Rajaniemi and Jacob Weisman. His first novel Plague Birds was published in 2021 by Apex Books. Born and raised in the American South, Jason currently works in the media industry in the Midwestern United States. His previous experience includes work as an archaeologist and as a Peace Corps Volunteer. His website is www.jasonsanford.com.
Content Warning(s):
Blood/Gore, Death of a child, Death or dying, Violence

Murder it is, Cristina de Ane thought as she gripped the condemned woman’s face. The woman, Jennery Flats, stood five hands higher than Crista, an impossibly tall human who moved gracefully like doves flying across the sky. Not that Crista would ever mistake Jennery for a dove. Yes, her face was covered in downy grey-brown feathers. But her gaze burned to the brightness of eagles—orange eyes that glared at Crista with both defiance and sadness.

As Crista pulled back from Jennery’s memories, she released her grip, causing the woman to collapse across the village’s dirt stage. Jennery shivered as her friends and neighbors howled for her death.

The blood AI inside Crista, who was named Red Day, smoked and giggled. It healed the cut on Crista’s hand through which the artificial intelligence had caressed Jennery’s mind and whispered of the violence to come. Iron bile flooded Crista’s mouth as memories of the many deaths Red Day had gifted across the centuries flickered through her. An unending shriek of joy at the guilty being gutted and split and ripped and torn and eaten and dismembered.

Crista rubbed the red line burning from the corner of her right eye to her lips and again wished she could rip out the AI inside her. In the three months since this creature had entered her body, she’d been responsible for a handful of those violent memories. Now she had to kill this bird-woman lying in the dust before her. Jennery’s eagle eyes again locked onto Crista’s and, while remaining defiant, begged for … what, Crista couldn’t say. All Crista could give were the rules, and punishment, and nothing more.

“Well, plague bird?” the village alderman growled. Crista turned on him, angry at the insolence in his voice. Her eyes burned to red fire until the alderman wilted before her, bowing his tiger-gened body as he apologized. The assembled villagers shifted nervously in the dark, amused at their overbearing leader being taken down a notch but also afraid of him and Crista.

“She’s guilty,” Crista announced. “I’ve seen the murder. She threw the child off the dam.”

The villagers hissed and growled while the alderman moaned a deep, primal cry. The dead child had been his son.

Crista looked around her. The villagers twitched and shook to the genetic pox as glowing cat eyes mixed alongside ordinary human eyes, and angry whispers rasped from muzzles and snouts and lips. And teeth. Not a single human tooth shone before Crista. Instead, fang and drill and flashes of what looked like razors glinted in the villagers’ mouths. Crista had never seen a village with such extreme genetic variation.

If Crista hadn’t been a plague bird, these villagers would have killed her for daring to enter their sanctuary. They still ran wild, teeming with the gened instincts and fury that flowed across humanity these days.

They are a new village, Red Day whispered in her mind. Not one generation from the hunt. But that doesn’t change your duty.

Crista nodded. If she hadn’t been here the villagers would have already ripped Jennery Flats to meat. While their justice would have been bloody, it would have also been far more merciful than what Crista was about to do.

Still, Crista had her duty. She pulled one of the twin red knives sheathed to her red-trousered thighs and shook her scary stock of red-burned hair.

“You know the rules,” she yelled, pointing the knife at the villagers. “Go against them and you die. Painfully. Since this woman broke our most important rule, she’s mine.”

Crista hated how silly her over-dramatic performance sounded, but Red Day always encouraged her to act the part. As the AI often told Crista, punishment wasn’t the biggest deterrence for people—it was fear. And what did people fear more than a plague bird?

Crista sliced her wrist with the knife, sending a crimson arch through the air as Red Day rushed free. The blood AI circled and shrieked and fell towards Jennery, scanning the bird-woman as Red Day planned the most horrific way to kill her. Crista glimpsed a diagram of the bird-woman’s body as if Red Day’s scans had dissected her for all to see. Crista saw the woman’s strong muscles and bones, saw deep into her pleading, orange eyes, saw the baby in her womb …

In that instant, Crista stared fully at Jennery Flats. Even though her weather-worn smock hid the fact, Crista knew she was pregnant.

“Return!” Crista yelled at Red Day. Her blood hovered in the air as the AI churned and screamed, unwilling to obey while so close to feasting on another. The red line on Crista’s face burned fire as she again ordered the AI to return to her body. Red Day grudgingly obeyed and the mist of blood flowed back into her wrist and healed her skin.

Jennery Flats gasped and collapsed face down in the dust, overwhelmed by the unexpected reprieve.

Crista grabbed the alderman and threw him into the crowd of villagers, who screamed and fled before her. “She’s pregnant,” Crista screamed. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

The alderman stared at her from the dew-wet grass, the striped fur on his face rippling nervously. “You are the plague bird,” he whispered, rubbing a patch of bare skin on his cheek. “Shouldn’t you know such things?”

From inside Crista, Red Day chuckled its agreement. The alderman was right. She should have known.

§

As the sun rose, Christina sat on the packed-dirt porch of the alderman’s house and watched the villagers go about their morning chores. A handful of people hoed the fields as others milked cows and slopped hogs. Compared to Crista’s home village — which had existed for centuries and was so orderly its fields resembled a checkered quilt — this place was a disaster. The crops looked as if seeds had been thrown randomly on the ground while the hog pens were little more than cut trees stacked in a square.

Again, they are a new village, Red Day whispered. There’s no record of another plague bird ever visiting here. You judge too harshly.

Crista laughed at Red Day thinking her harsh, causing a passing villager to glance at her as if she was touched. She considered ordering the AI to remove her presence from everyone’s senses—edit the visual stimuli the villagers’ minds received so she was, for all purposes, invisible—but decided against it. Better they be reminded she was here.

“Too harsh, eh?” she muttered to herself. “You wanted to kill a pregnant woman.”

Rules are rules. Her condition doesn’t change the sentence.

“Still, strange you didn’t know she was pregnant until I released you. I mean, you linked with her body and mind.”

Red Day’s silence told Crista the AI was also irritated at missing such an obvious fact until the last moment.

Crista stood up to check on Jennery Flats. The alderman had gifted Crista his crudely-built log house for the duration of her stay. He’d also offered to lock Jennery up in the village barn, but Crista refused. With everyone’s blood up at the murder, she didn’t need someone turning vigilante. So she’d placed the woman in the alderman’s cellar and stood guard herself.

Unfortunately, this meant she was forced to spend more time than she liked around Jennery. It was hard enough to kill a stranger. But to kill someone you were beginning to know on a personal level ...

You’ve kissed her memories, Red Day said snidely. There’s nothing more personal and intimate than that.

Crista ignored the AI. She unbolted the rough-hewn cellar door and walked into the darkness beneath the house.

Jennery crouched in the dirt corner, wedged between two of the foundation’s stacked mica-stone columns. The tall, thin woman growled softly, a wolf-gened urge that brought a smile to Crista’s face. The woman was of part lupine heritage, the same as Crista. But her eyes and down-feathers were obviously gened from eagles. An amazing mix of animal and human. Even more amazing was that compared to her fellow villagers, Jennery was one of the most human here.

Crista sat on the bottom stair. “Are you hungry? Thirsty?”

“Does it matter? Just kill me. I’m no good at waiting.”

Red Day again whispered its offer to kill the woman. I’ll do it with mercy, with no pain to the woman or her unborn child.

Crista shuddered, not trusting any promise the AI made.

“You should still eat and drink,” Crista said. “And I haven’t decided what to do with you.”

Jennery laughed. “You’ve seen my memories. I killed the child. Every moment you wait only makes the others fear plague birds a little less.”

Crista nodded calmly but Red Day shrieked inside her, eager to enact its justice on this self-admitted killer. As Red Day’s anger exploded, the AI seized control of Crista’s right hand and grabbed one of her knives. With a shout of no, Crista ran up the stairs. After bolting the cellar door shut she stumbled to the porch and vomited.

When she looked up, she saw the alderman watching her from beneath a nearby oak tree. A single bare spot of skin on his striped-fur face gleamed in the sunlight, exposing the green tattoo of a star. The alderman grinned happily and crunched large acorns between his powerful tiger jaws as if enjoying an amusing comedy at some harvest festival.

Crista cursed. Even Red Day burned with irritation at being caught in a vulnerable moment. Crista stormed into the log house and slammed the door shut.

She knew Jennery Flats had to be killed. It didn’t matter if she was pregnant. There were limits to how long she could keep the blood AI from its programmed duty. If she refused to release it, Red Day might free itself and seek a partner less willing to control it. Maybe even that alderman, who would no doubt thrill at using the AI’s power.

Easier to say than do, Red Day whispered, and you forget that we’re a good match. There are also things here I don’t understand. Which, as you know, shouldn’t be possible.

Crista grinned at Red Day’s admission, which was as close as it had ever come to admitting a mistake.

Not a mistake, it muttered. A curiosity.

“Why don’t we talk to someone about that curiosity?”

§

That someone would be the village’s own artificial intelligence.

Crista could sense that the AI was nearby, but for some reason Red Day couldn’t pinpoint it. They walked in circles for a half-hour trying to triangulate the AI’s location before Red Day finally admitted defeat.

Crista smirked and asked a villager for directions.

Instead of answering, the man—a cross between human and bear—glared hungrily at her for a moment before rubbing his right cheek. Under his thin black fur, Crista saw the faint outline of another green tattoo in the same star design the alderman wore. The bear-man snorted and pointed to the forest east of the village.

“Cross the dam,” he said. “The AI’s in the old church on the other side.”

Crista thanked the man and walked away, ignoring the threatening way he watched her until she disappeared into the trees. Red Day grumbled about the need to teach this village respect, but Crista said no. That wasn’t their duty.

Strange how you remind me of duty, Red Day said. You’re the one who stopped us from our one true duty.

Crista pushed Red Day to the back of her mind and, instead of worrying about the blood AI, tried to enjoy her walk.

The trees rose tall around Crista, shading the sunlight into green-speckled motes and swirls that played across the damp undergrowth. Crista loved forests. Never mind that she’d grown up in a village of neat houses and fields and people who daily restrained their animal instincts. No, while that far-distant village may have been home, the wolf in her loved forests the most. There was nothing better than the cool, close-in scents of water and drip, decay and death, bud and leaf, oak and pine. Forests comforted her. Forests wrapped her body in love and reminded her that all had once been well in her world.

As a child, she’d often sneaked out of her house after sunset and run through the forest until tired. She’d then find a small clearing and lay down, listening to the night sounds of insects and owls and wolves while watching the stars spin away the hours. As she’d drifted in and out of sleep it often felt like the stars themselves gifted her with dreams of being a wolf forever.

Life would have been so simple as a wolf, she thought. Uncomplicated. Far better than being cursed into a plague bird’s life.

Thank the stars such silly dreams eventually end, Red Day said, snapping Crista out of her memories. The blood AI snickered as Crista cursed him under her breath.

Crista walked until the forest suddenly ended, the oaks and pines stopping as the ground turned to rock and cracked, ancient nano-cement. Before Crista lay the largest lake she’d ever seen, its placid waters running for miles into the distance. Her heart seized at the sight and she fought the wolf inside her, which whined to return to the forests behind them.

However, it wasn’t the water that made Crista want to bolt in terror. It was the massive, translucent dam holding back the lake.

Steady, Red Day crooned, acting as if Crista was a nervous pack animal. The dam won’t bite you.

Obviously built before the collapse of human civilization, the dam was thin like a giant sheet of paper yet ran a half league across this rocky valley. And Crista could see through the dam as if through clear ice. The deep blue swirls of a massive wall of water rippled before her, held back by something so inconsequential it looked as if a giant wave was about to crash down. The dam scared Crista more than any other remnant of the old world she’d yet encountered.

Crista climbed up to the dam carefully, like a wolf sniffing for traps. She stepped gingerly onto the tiny walkway across the top and immediately jumped back, startled. While the dam looked slick as ice, it felt as solid as stone.

Red Day chuckled. Don’t worry, it will hold you.

Why can I see through it?

Red Day reached out and caressed the dam. Nanofilaments, it said, gently strumming molecular bonds too small for Crista to see. Fullerene buckyball chains. Incredibly strong. While they aren’t always created so light passes through, the designers obviously wanted a vertigo-inducing effect.

Crista walked quickly across the dam, trying not to look at the reflections of waves and fish below her feet. The front of the dam dropped down for several hundred yards into a straight-edged spillway that surged with water, the power wasted except for a small village gristmill.

This is where Jennery killed the alderman’s son, Red Day said, its thoughts low and angry at being unable to serve justice.

Crista glanced at the white-foam waters below the dam as the memory of the child’s murder played in her head.

There’s plenty of time to handle Jennery, she thought.

Red Day grumbled and retreated back in her mind, sulking.

Crista found the village’s AI in an ancient stone church on the far lakeshore. Where the AI from Crista’s home had been very much a mother hen—clucking over every person in its care as it worked to return them to their long-lost humanity—this AI was aloof, appearing to spend its days in isolated meditation.

The church stood without a roof and its gothic stained-glass windows were long gone. In their place shone the sparkling green lattices of a pretend roof and pretend glass, each swirling to whatever imagined sights the village AI desired. At the moment the green roof mirrored the swirls of the Milky Way while the windows showed Crista playing in a green forest.

Red Day whispered for Crista to be careful, which disturbed her. The blood AI was supposed to be able to handle any problem, even other AIs.

“That’s not true,” a tinny voice sighed. “Your blood AI is equipped to destroy both human and AI, but that hardly means it can handle all problems. That’s why it can’t be trusted without a human to control it.”

Crista walked into the church. Before her rose a glowing green altar. She sat before it on an ancient wooden pew, its rotten supports creaking. “You know why I’m here?” she asked.

“Yes. Jennery Flats killed a child of this village. And not any child—the most human child born here to date, with very little of the pox-driven craziness in him. He could have done so much for the village.”

Crista nodded. She’d found the young boy’s body floating down the river, attracted to the grim discovery by Red Day’s heightened senses. The boy had looked mostly human with only a few hints of gene-spliced animals or creations in him.

The altar in front of Crista shifted into a green version of the little boy, water dripping from his mouth as he gasped for breath. Crista looked away, both puzzled and sickened. She asked Red Day why the village AI would project such a disgusting image but the blood AI had retreated so far into her body and mind she couldn’t speak to it.

“It’s scared,” the green AI said. “Scared you won’t do your duty.”

“My duty is … difficult. I’ve only been a plague bird for a short while. This isn’t a life I chose.”

The village AI flickered as if intrigued and reached out long green tentacles of light, which wafted transparently through the air as they caressed Crista’s mind. “Yes and no,” it said. “You were tricked into hosting the blood AI. But you did make the final choice.”

Crista remembered her so-called choice. As the previous plague bird had died, her body exhausted from long centuries of life, Red Day had reached hungrily for her friends and family. If Crista had refused to accept the AI—to bond it to herself—everyone she loved would now be dead. Both Derena and Blue had tricked her into accepting Red Day by making her choose between saving her family and friends and her revulsion at becoming a plague bird.

“That’s wasn’t a true choice,” she muttered.

“Perhaps. But who among us—AI or human—is given truly uninfluenced options in life?”

Before Crista could answer the AI whispered in her mind of the grand days before humans gened themselves nearly to extinction. How the billions who’d died would have killed for Crista’s choice. Ghostly faces and bodies swept around her. All the dead who’d ever been. She felt their pain. Felt their anguish as people who’d once been human tore apart their own civilization. As animal impulses erased all desire to hold the world together.

But Crista also saw the power of those days. The pride of humans leaving their weak bodies behind as they gened themselves into new beings. Of how they and their AIs felt so confident they dared build ships to reach beyond the stars.

Crista gasped as she returned to her senses and found herself again sitting on the rotten church pew. Above her, the roof’s projected Milky Way spun as time itself turned, eon after eon flowing through this AI. With a flash, Crista realized the truth of what this creature was telling her—that the amazing universe humans and AIs had almost created would return. That one day humanity and AI would complete what they’d started. Crista smiled. She wished she could live in those future times when the goals of humanity were far more than mere survival.

I can help you, the AI said in her mind. Have you ever dreamed of going to the stars?

I don’t know. When I was young I spent many nights staring at the stars. It’s the wolf in me. But even as Crista thought this, she realized that instead of merely staring at the stars she wanted to go to them. That maybe this was what she’d always needed in her life.

It is indeed what you’ve always needed, the AI said. Together we’ll return to the stars.

“How? Everything we once had is gone.”

Nonsense. Pieces remain, like the dam holding back this lake.  Everything that once pushed humanity to create their wonders still exists, only scattered. It’s up to us to reassemble our dreams.

Crista grinned, imagining flying into space and seeing her world from above. As the green AI’s tentacles caressed her body, she realized she had been wrong about AIs. They could be trusted. They truly had humanity’s best interest in mind. A tear slid down her face as she remembered the goodness of her old village AI. How it had been the right thing for Blue to help trick her into accepting the amazing responsibilities of being a plague bird.

But even as Crista realized this, Red Day poked out of its hiding place deep within her body and slapped away the green AI’s mental grip. Crista gasped as the rotten pew she sat on shattered, dropping her to the stone floor. She looked at the green AI’s flickering altar. Where before she’d been ready to throw herself before it and profess her love and loyalty, she now remembered her own village AI’s deceit. With a painful shiver, she realized this green AI had attempted something similar. It had tried to trick her into doing its bidding, although what that bidding might be she couldn’t say.

The green AI laughed. “There’s a reason you were gifted to that damn thing—you deserve each other. See to your duty. I have work to do.”

Crista stood from the floor and bowed. Once outside the church door she gave in to her wolf side and ran, running faster than she’d run in months, running until she reached the safety of the forest. Running until Red Day reminded her that plague birds should never flee in fear of anything.

Even if there are things for plague birds to fear.

§

That evening at the alderman’s house Crista cooked eggs and bacon in the stone fireplace while Jennery Flats glared in silence from the dinner table. Crista had insisted Jennery join her. When Crista placed the food before Jennery, the woman chuckled nervously.

“A last meal, perhaps?” she asked softly.

“Or perhaps an opportunity to share your side of what happened.”

“Since when are their sides to plague birds?” Jennery said, draining her cup of milk and quickly shoveling eggs into her mouth. The woman wore one of the alderman’s fur robes, which would no doubt annoy the man, as would the woman eating at his table. Crista could easily see the bulge of the woman’s belly. She was probably five months pregnant.

Based on my senses, exactly 21 weeks, Red Day whispered.

And why didn’t you know this when you first touched her? Crista asked.

You know why.

She did indeed. For some reason, the village AI had masked the woman’s pregnancy from Red Day’s senses in the same way the blood AI could mask Crista from the eyes and ears of regular people. Subtlety upon subtlety. But to Crista’s knowledge, no village AI should be able to do that same trick against a plague bird. Or be allowed by its programming to infiltrate Crista’s mind like this one had done. The fact that the village AI had been able to so easily manipulate Red Day’s senses indicated a level of power that scared them both.

Its name is Dawnbringer. I’m certain it is one of the original AIs. And it is powerful. All of the original AIs were either restricted in their power or destroyed. But for some reason, Dawnbringer wasn’t.

How do you know this?

When Dawnbringer manipulated your mind, it did the same to me. It almost had me wanting to join you in flying to the stars. Although obviously, that’s no longer an option for any human or AI.

Why does it want this woman killed? Crista wondered.

Try and find out, the blood AI said, while I create some privacy.

Crista nodded. Jennery’s eyes narrowed as Crista pulled one of her knives and sliced her wrist. Crista’s blood shot across the room, swirling and twisting as Red Day expanded until it coated everything in a hazy redness. Crista had never freed this much of the AI before and felt weak. Neither she nor the AI could remain apart for long without risking damage.

“I’ve isolated us,” she told Jennery. “My blood blocks your village AI from seeing or hearing us. Why did you kill the child?”

“You’ve witnessed my memories. I was jealous of the alderman’s son. Dawnbringer said my child would be born an extreme version of the gened pox. I lost control at the news.”

Crista watched the woman calmly relate this fact and remembered how Jennery had also faced death with dignity. Hardly the actions of a person who’d lost control and killed the helpless.

“Were you happy in this village?”

“Compared to what? To joining the hunt clans? I want better for my child than to run the forests like an animal.”

Around them, Red Day’s glow faded. Crista didn’t have much time. With the remaining drops of the blood AI still inside her, Crista caressed Jennery’s skin. The woman’s memories flashed through her with incredible speed. Crista saw the day of the killing. Saw Jennery weeding her crops. Saw her returning home. Falling asleep. And waking to the news that a child was missing.

Overlaying those memories were others—of the child being thrown off the dam into the spillway’s surging waters. But there was no way these differing memories of the same day could exist. And the person killing the child wasn’t a woman. He was a man. A man with much larger hands than Jennery’s. Hands not covered in the down feathers that coated Jennery’s body.

The alderman’s tiger-striped hands! He’d killed his own son!

“You didn’t murder anyone,” Crista gasped. “Dawnbringer placed those memories in your mind.”

Jennery Flats growled—angry, furious—as Crista collapsed to the floor. She needed the AI back inside her.

With a sigh, Red Day poured into Crista’s body. The AI was nearly back when suddenly it screamed as a bolt of pain and static burned through both of them. The room spun as her eyes sparked to green-jumping fire.

Dawnbringer had just attacked them.

As the room returned to its normal candlelit gaze—and as Red Day whimpered within her—Crista saw the alderman standing outside the window. Grinning. Backlit by Dawnbringer’s emerald glow.

The alderman tapped the tattoo on his cheek. “A good hunt,” he yelled as villagers ran to join him. “That’s all we’ve ever wanted—a good hunt!”

While the pain had receded, the static from earlier ran up and down Crista’s body, blocking most of Red Day’s power. Crista bolted for the door but it crashed open before she could reach it. A short, stout woman—who barely reached Crista’s shoulder—squealed from a tusked mouth, the wild-boar bristles on her face and body extended in anger. Crista sliced her wrist to release Red Day but instead of spurting free only a few drops flew at the woman. But they were enough. Even though Red Day was injured, the AI melted into the woman’s face as she screamed and fell backward.

More villagers crashed through the door and the window. Crista flung more blood at them, killing three more, their bodies ripping apart to spasms of meat and pain. But Red Day was too weak to stop them all. Crista slashed what looked like an ape-man with her knife as she ordered the blood AI to strengthen her body. She then ran at the log cabin’s back wall. The foot-thick logs burst outward as the house fell in on itself.

Crista picked herself up from the cold, dewy grass. For a moment she glimpsed Jennery running away—she’d also fled through the hole Crista made. But when Crista stood to follow, she screamed. She’d broken her right leg and arm crashing through the logs.

Run for the lake, Red Day said weakly. I’ll try to heal your injuries.

Crista nodded and stumbled toward the forest as the hunt howled around her. Grabbing a large sapling, Crista snapped it in half and used the trunk as a crutch. Each step blinded her with pain and her injured arm hung limp on ripped tendons. Instead of running silently like she usually did, Crista crashed through the forest, blundering into trees and branches and feeling like nothing more than wounded prey.

As she neared the lake she saw the dam, the clear nanofilaments glowing icy fire to the moonlight. A half-league to reach the other side. If she crossed the dam she could hide in the forest behind the church.

“Come out, plague bird,” the alderman yelled, his voice mixing to tiger growls. “Give up and I promise all the quickness we can muster.” Crista saw a blur of movement around her. The entire village had turned hunt and was after her. And flickering among the trees was Dawnbringer’s green light, directing the hunters toward her.

Why doesn’t Dawnbringer attack again? she wondered. She still tasted the static in her body, keeping Red Day from accessing its full power. This would be the perfect moment to finish them off.

Dawnbringer’s playing, Red Day answered. I’m so weak now we’re only a toy to it.

Crista staggered painfully onto the dam’s walkway as the howls grew closer. She walked as quick as she could but, halfway across, she missed a step and fell, her crutch falling over the side and tumbling into the spillway far below. In a flash, the memory of Jennery Flats doing the same to the child overwhelmed her. Crista pulled herself back from the edge, shivering. No! Jennery hadn’t killed the child. Those were the alderman’s memories. But the swirl of murder—of hands tossing the child into the waters below—still felt as real as anything Crista had ever known.

She shook the memory away. She had to keep going.

Crista crawled on across the causeway, but now the still lake waters turned against her as shadows rippled beneath the surface, arrowing in her direction. Crista slung drops of blood in the water, trying to use Red Day’s powers to sense what was coming. But it was no use—it was too weak.

Suddenly a massive shape exploded from the water and her chest burned as claws tore shirt and flesh. She stared into a man-like face covered with slick, brown seal fur. The body behind it rippled with muscles and blubbery skin, bigger than an ox with webbed hands ending in hooked claws. She leaped aside, narrowly avoiding the creature’s grasp and barely stopping herself before toppling off the dam. The beast snarled, exposing a mouthful of crooked, yellowed fangs.

The creature dove for her again as Red Day spun from Crista’s wounded body and speared the seal-man’s fiery eyes. The beast howled in pain and clawed at his face before falling off the dam.

But where before Red Day had always returned to her body automatically, this time Crista’s blood fell from the air like weak rain. Crista touched her fingers to the dam’s clear surface, trying to reclaim the AI’s essence.

Leave it, Red Day said. My core is still within you. But we must hurry. I’m barely keeping you alive.

Crista crawled on, only to hear the alderman’s laugh. He stood behind her on the dam, grinning alongside several villagers holding curved knives.

Crista again tried to release Red Day but the AI was too weak to attack. She started to dive into the lake but saw several more seal-humans waiting, gnashing their large canines at her.

The only other option was to jump off the dam into the spillway’s froth of angry water.

You must jump, Red Day whispered. I can’t protect you now. But if I have time to recover, I might be able to bring you back.

That didn’t sound promising to Crista, but an arrow shooting by her head changed her mind. She rolled off the dam and fell for long seconds before hitting the churning water below.

The last thing she knew was spinning—spinning in an endless cycle of up and down until she screamed for air that refused to come. Until she screamed, sucked water into her lungs, and finally, truly, died.

§

Crista woke in the muck of flood and forest, wood and branches. Her body hung on a snag along the river with her face barely above water. She tried breathing but couldn’t move. No air entered her stiff body. Her skin blue. Her eyes glazed so she couldn’t see. She had died. She knew it.

But even though she couldn’t scent or see or hear, she was aware of those senses as if alive. Red Day was somehow helping her sense beyond herself. Without breathing she smelled shit and decay and dead fish, a scent that laughed at her as she realized it was her own deathly stench.

Crista called to Red Day but heard no answer. Still, she felt the blood AI deep within her. Wounded and near death, but also fighting to survive. She also tasted the static Dawnbringer had inserted into them. The static had weakened but was still blocking most of Red Day’s power.

Crista’s body hung on the snag for hours, the fish biting at her rubber legs, a turtle resting on her head. She was about to give up on ever again living when hands pulled her out of the water. Strong hands. Hands controlled by a downy face with eagle eyes.

“You’d better not be dead-dead,” Jennery Flats hissed. “You better not be after all I risked to help you.”

Crista couldn’t answer, but if her body had been capable of movement she would have smiled.

§

Jennery spent the next few days nursing Crista back to life in a burrow the bird-woman had dug into the river bank’s sand and clay. A small fire cracked and smoked softly, its heat providing enough energy for the blood AI to slowly heal Crista’s body. Once Crista could move a bit, Jennery brought her food and water, which gave her more strength. And the stronger she became, the stronger Red Day also became in a wondrous loop of life and living.

“How did you find me?” Crista eventually asked when her body was healed enough to exhale air and move her lips.

“I don’t know,” Jennery said. “When you were attacked, I ran. But something told me to go downstream. To start searching the river for your body.”

That was me, Red Day whispered. When I realized we’d been tricked, I didn’t recall the drop of blood you’d used to access Jennery’s memories. It told Jennery the only way we’d survive would be to jump in the river. That’s why she looked for us.

Crista was impressed at Red Day’s foresight. Crista hadn’t even considered jumping in the river until she found herself on the dam and Red Day suggested it. Subtle. Almost as subtle as her village AI when it tricked her into becoming a plague bird, or Dawnbringer reworking her mind so she’d share in its dreams.

Subtle is what AIs do best, Red Day said.

Still doesn’t make it right, Crista thought before her injured body pulled her back to sleep.

§

During the following days, Jennery twice dug a new den and moved Crista there in the middle of the night. She disguised the tiny opening of each den with plants and leaves and after placing Crista inside washed away their faint scent with water and crushed berries.

Without needing to ask, Crista knew they were being hunted.

One morning Jennery returned to the den with a haunch of deer meat and an ancient ceramic bucket filled with water. “Is this enough to finish healing?” Jennery asked.

Red day whispered yes—All we need at this point is time, it said—and Crista nodded her head. “Where are you going?”

“Away. The alderman and his hunt are searching the area. I can’t let them catch me.”

Crista understood. “Which path will you take?”

“Downstream. Find a village to take me. If not, there’s always the hunt.”

Crista tried to reach for Jennery—to touch her, to thank her—but her body was still too stiff. To Crista’s surprise, Red Day stirred with concern for Jennery.

“You must run fast,” the AI said flatly with Crista’s mouth. “And climb to higher ground. If we fight Dawnbringer, it will not be safe anywhere in this valley.”

Jennery stared at Crista, knowing this wasn’t her speaking and no doubt wondering about the coming battle. But Jennery didn’t protest the advice. She merely muttered agreement and fled the burrow.

§

In the darkness of the den, Crista tracked time by the decay of the deer meat beside her. First came stench. Then flies. Then maggots. Then nothing but bone to gnaw.

She occasionally heard the alderman and his hunt pass nearby, but Jennery had done a good job hiding the burrow and they never found her. And to Crista and Red Day’s great fortune Dawnbringer wasn’t with the villagers. Still, Red Day sensed them calling to the AI using the green tattoos on their faces.

Imprintable transmitter-receivers, Red Day said. It’s old space travel technology. I would have realized this earlier if Dawnbringer hadn’t manipulated me.

In addition to calling Dawnbringer, the alderman and his hunt also called to Crista. They implored her to join them.

“The stars,” the alderman yelled. “Dawnbringer promises you nothing less than the stars themselves.”

It was a testament to the dream Dawnbringer had shown Crista that she had to fight to keep from calling out to the alderman. That she bit her lip to not scream out that she did indeed want the stars!

But despite this danger and her craving for Dawnbringer’s dream, Crista still enjoyed her days underground. Never mind that fleas bit her and she stank like the dead. She remembered the old stories her parents had told her as a child. How their wolf ancestors had grown up in countless holes like this. She dreamed about all the humans and wolves whose genes had eventually merged to create her and felt like she was yet another in a long line of cubs waiting to emerge into the calm of life.

Red Day, though, was anything but calm. The AI twisted inside her, frustrated by being forced to live within such a weakened shell. The static continued to weaken and would soon be gone, allow Red Day to again access its full strength. But Red Day snorted at the thought of returning to full strength. When Crista wondered about this, Red Day shared memories of the old days when AIs hadn’t been so restricted. They’d tapped power sources beyond Crista’s imagining, fueling abilities that boldly matched the dazzling dreams of humanity.

Like Dawnbringer. As Crista slipped in and out of delirious dreams, she saw the green AI’s life. It had controlled the first ship sent to a distant star system. However, a bloody mutiny as the ship neared its destination killed the crew. Alone, desperate to complete its mission, Dawnbringer looped its ship around that alien star and slingshotted home, returning to Earth thousands of years after it left.

But instead of the thriving world, the AI remembered, it discovered a destroyed humanity. A humanity that no longer dreamed of life among the stars.

That’s what’s wrong, Red Day whispered to Crista. This Dawnbringer is indeed one of the original AIs. Its powers were never restricted like my own. To stop it, we have to remove the power that’s feeding it.

Crista woke to tears on her face—a good sign because it meant her body had healed enough to waste water on sorrow. From outside the burrow, she heard the distant howls of the alderman and his hunt.

Why doesn’t Dawnbringer guide them to us? she asked.

It can’t stray far from home, Red Day said. That’s where its power is. And while Dawnbringer is powerful, its senses are weak. It also lacks my ability to place pieces of itself in others. So while Dawnbringer can manipulate minds, it can only do that near its target or when using those tattooed transmitters as an amplifier. That’s why it’s relying on the alderman and his hunt to find us.

Crista remembered the spaceship and knew that was the home Red Day referred to. “Was that a true dream?”

Yes. In case we survived its initial trap, when Dawnbringer first touched us it implanted a memory kernel in our minds. Now that we’ve healed enough to again threaten it, Dawnbringer wants us to understand its needs. To join it—or leave it alone so it can complete its mission.

The stars, Crista realized, the aftertaste of Dawnbringer’s dream burning in her. The AI wanted to rework a group of humans into the powerful creatures Crista’s species had once been. Dawnbringer would then take those humans back into space to complete its mission.

Crista wished with all her being she could be on that ship when it left Earth. She also wondered if that was truly her dream or only something Dawnbringer had inserted into her.

I can’t answer, Red Day said, embarrassed. I was as affected as you.

Crista stretched, grinning as she realized her body no longer hurt. She knew where Dawnbringer had hidden its ship. Red Day had figured out the same thing when it warned Jennery to climb out of the valley.

Crista picked up the worn deer bone and gnawed on it. Another day of healing and she’d leave the burrow.

And then they’d see about Dawnbringer and this dream.

§

When Crista finally left the burrow and began hiking back to Dawnbringer’s village, she told Red Day of an old game called chess. Her village AI had taught her the game as a child.

“It’s a quirky contest where players map out moves with cunning and subtlety,” she said.

I’m familiar with chess, Red Day said snidely. It’s a game in which no human has ever defeated an AI.

Crista snorted and kicked at a dirt clod. Above, the dam’s massively clear wall screamed at her. It looked like a sky-tall wave about to scour away every bit of life in the valley below.

Through the dam’s clear surface Crista saw a distant, pale shape, almost as if a giant pebble had been skipped across the lake until it sank. No doubt this was Dawnbringer’s spaceship. While Dawnbringer hadn’t yet detected them—as Red Day had said, its senses were limited—Crista knew the alderman and his hunt were searching for her.

As if to prove her right, when Crista rounded the next bend three giant seal-men climbed from the river. They howled at Crista and charged, running on all fours because it was difficult for them to stand upright out of water.

Don’t let them near us, Red Day said. Dawnbringer can use their imprinted transmitters to manipulate us.

“Then I suggest you do something before that happens,” Crista said as she slit her wrist. Red Day instantly fell on the seal-men, who screamed as the blood AI slashed the green tattoos off their cheeks before ripping their chests open and devouring their hearts.

So much for surprise, Crista said when Red Day returned to her body.

You know we can’t defeat Dawnbringer directly, right?

That’s why we’ll be subtle.

It was Red Day’s moment to snort.

§

Hum and drum. Vibration and motion. The hot burn of smooth ceramics and nanofilaments and of more power than Crista could imagine. The stars themselves spread before her like sparkling candy, only to melt to sugar in her mouth.

She gasped as Red Day pulled back from the starship, leaving her sitting on top of the clear dam. Blue skies and a warm sun rose above Crista. Below her water roared through the spillway and into the river while, in front, cormorants fished the glass-smooth waters.

And far below that surface lay the spaceship Red Day had just scanned.

Dawnbringer’s waiting for us, Red Day said. Where it can utilize the ship’s full power.

Was it able to access you?

No. Dawnbringer knew I was there, but I pulled back before it could grab me.

Crista caressed the dam’s smooth nano-reinforced surface. Through Red Day’s senses, she felt the nano-bonds holding the dam together. So tiny, so individually unimportant, but together strong enough to resist time itself. Dawnbringer had chosen a great location to hide his ship. If Crista hadn’t found that body and followed the river here, Dawnbringer would have soon gened this group of humans to the point where they could join it for another trip to the stars.

Perhaps Dawnbringer was correct. Perhaps the AI should be allowed to retool these humans and complete its mission. The AI’s dream was hardly a bad one.

But then Crista remembered the dead child. The child had been too human, which Dawnbringer didn’t want. The AI wanted powerful hybrid humans to take on the universe. So it had coldly forced the alderman to kill his own son to keep the village’s gene pool pure.

Crista sat on the dam all morning as the sun arched before her. She kept watch for the alderman and his fellow villagers—and especially the seal men—but none dared approach. Despite their loyalty to Dawnbringer, they were afraid to come near Crista now that she was back at full power.

It was only at dusk that the alderman finally dared to walk out on the dam.

“If Dawnbringer accesses your tattoo, I’ll kill you instantly,” Crista yelled.

The alderman bowed deeply, keeping his hands away from the green-star tattoo on his face. After Red Day sensed that the imprinted transmitter-receiver wasn’t active, Crista waved for the alderman to approach.

“I’ve been asked to speak with you,” he said, sitting down on the dam beside Crista. “Dawnbringer doesn’t desire to fight you. Surely you understand its needs.”

“I do. It must be difficult to live your entire life aiming for one daring dream—and to have it taken away right when it’s in reach.”

The alderman growled with soft laughter. “You do understand.”

They stared through the dam at the reflections below them. Crista saw a school of striped bass swim by.

“Did you know this is where your son was killed?” she asked.

The alderman glanced back at the sheer drop and swallowed hard. “I didn’t know,” he said. “Does it bother you that your actions allowed my son’s murderer to escape?”

Crista didn’t answer. She knew Dawnbringer had reworked the alderman’s memories. He didn’t know that he’d killed his son. She wanted to reach out and hug him. To tell him the truth even as she forgave him for what Dawnbringer had made him do.

But it wasn’t yet time for that.

“I don’t intend to fight Dawnbringer,” Crista said.

The alderman nodded his tiger-striped head. “A wise choice. You can’t win.”

“Oh, I intend to win. I just don’t see the need to fight.”

As she said this, Red Day surged from her body, smashing into the dam below them. For the last twelve hours the blood AI had been subtly breaking the nanofilaments holding the dam together; now its surge finished the job. Through the clearness below, Crista saw a crack smash through the dam. It reached from the bottom of the lake toward her in a finger-extending explosion of smaller cracks, like ice breaking outward before the fall into frigid water.

The alderman paled as the dam rang out as if struck by a massive hammer. Crista grabbed the alderman’s large hand and pulled him after her, running as fast as they could.

Moments after they reached the shore, the dam collapsed.

§

Crista stood on the shore with the alderman and the villagers, who were too shocked to attack her or attempt to contact Dawnbringer. The middle of the dam gave way first, the wall of water it’d held back surging forward and swirling the lake into a vortex. Ducks and cormorants took to panicked flight as fish jumped in feeble attempts to escape.

And underneath the maelstrom, the bright green lights of Dawnbringer desperately trying to launch its ship.

The ship was smaller than Crista had imagined, maybe two hundred yards long. It rose through the swirling water, fighting the current in its attempt to reach the air. Crista felt part of herself cheering for Dawnbringer, hoping its ship could escape. Hoping it could go elsewhere in this world and find another group of humans to mold. That Dawnbringer could complete its daring mission of reaching the stars.

But she knew Dawnbringer didn’t have a chance. The ship had barely reached the surface when the entire dam gave way. The lake surged forward as the ship’s faint green lights screamed in sadness before being carried into the valley below and smashed on the rocks.

§

Two nights later Crista stood on the village’s dirt stage with the alderman. Crista had restored the villager’s memories of what Dawnbringer had done. The alderman had howled and screamed for hours over the loss of his son. When he’d recovered, he asked politely to stand by Crista when she imposed her punishment on the rogue AI.

Dawnbringer floated across the field toward the stage, its glow now only a faint green without the ship’s power to feed it. Red Day scanned the AI and confirmed it had indeed left none of itself behind in the wreckage of the ship. It was honoring their agreement.

When Crista had found the remains of the ship, Dawnbringer was waiting for her, projecting an image of green rain caressing the ground. Its version of crying, perhaps.

Red Day had yearned to attack, but Crista said no. While Dawnbringer was now powerless before them, she still felt the passion of its dream. She didn’t want that dream to die along with Dawnbringer.

“Now what?” Crista asked the AI.

Dawnbringer begged Crista and Red Day to let it remain with the villagers. To let it finish remolding them into what humanity had once been. We will rebuild the ship, it said. I will rebuild their minds. We will finish my mission.

“I can’t allow that,” Crista said. “But perhaps there is something we can do.”

Now Crista stood yet again on the village commons, waiting to enact punishment. As Dawnbringer floated over she allowed the AI to touch its villagers one final time. The AI rose above its charges and fell across their heads like the green rain of its tears. The rain fell into their minds to the taste of dreams—a dream of all that humans and AI had once achieved. How there could again be a glorious future if the villagers worked toward it. How their children could one day build the world up and return to the stars.

The AI then retreated back into itself. With a quick motion, Crista slashed her wrist with her knife, releasing Red Day in a spasm of mist that shot toward the green AI. Dawnbringer screamed as Red Day tore it apart on every level of its existence.

The villagers remained silent until the blood AI finished and returned to Crista’s body. Then the alderman howled, followed by the other villagers.

Even though the wolf inside Crista begged to join in, she refused to allow it. After all, she was now a plague bird. And what was a plague bird if people didn’t fear her?

§

Jennery Flats wasn’t happy to see Crista. “I finally make a new home and you drag this onto me,” she complained.

Crista and Jennery stood in the commons of Farside, a small village several weeks hike from where Crista had destroyed Dawnbringer. While Farside was small the village appeared well-kept, with neat houses and crops and an attentive purple AI who obviously doted on its charges. The sun had set not long ago and a few stars already shone in the darkening sky.

Crista was impressed that Jennery had been able to hike so far while pregnant, but the bird-woman was nothing if not determined. Jennery wore a new cotton dress, which her large belly pushed against. Through the thin fabric, Crista could see the downy feathers covering Jennery’s skin.

“The AI here barely agreed to accept me into its village,” Jennery said. “Why should I stick my neck out by vouching for them.”

Jennery referred to the people from her old village, who sat meekly behind Crista. A handful of the villagers had returned to the hunt after Crista killed Dawnbringer. However, most — including the alderman — had followed Crista here.

Crista glanced at the villagers, who gazed in envy at the neat houses and fields around them. For a moment Red Day whispered that Crista should simply use their powers to convince Jennery to vouch for the villagers, or they could alternately rework the mind of this village AI and make it yearn to take in these people. But Crista told the blood AI no. She was tired of subtle tricks.

“These people were treated as badly as you,” she told Jennery. Glancing at the alderman’s downcast face, she knew that was wrong. “Worse, perhaps.”

Jennery picked at the down on her face before sighing. “I guess if you’re willing to vouch for them, it couldn’t hurt for me to do the same.”

Jennery walked over to the village AI, which glowed an even deeper purple as it listened. The AI was obviously impressed Crista hadn’t attempted to force the newcomers on it.

What about the dream this rogue AI placed in their minds? the purple AI whispered. If you wish, I can remove it.

“No,” Crista said. “That was our agreement. The villagers must remember Dawnbringer’s dream. Maybe it’ll motivate them. Maybe it won’t. But the dream stays.”

The purple AI agreed and said it would gladly accept the newcomers.

Satisfied, Crista ordered Red Day to remove her from everyone’s senses. Unseen, she slipped out of the village.

You realize there’s nothing wrong with being subtle, Red Day said. After all, returning your people to true humanity is nothing if not a subtle job.

“Perhaps. But maybe things will work better by simply stating upfront what we want.”

In the back of Crista’s mind, the blood AI chuckled. Naïve, it said.

As Crista walked toward the forest behind the village, Red Day flashed through the dream Dawnbringer had given the villagers.

You do realize, of course, Red Day said, that the most subtle of tricks are the dreams we share.

Crista stopped and looked back at the village. She stared at the perfect roofs rising in tiny triangles above the trees and fields and listened to the sounds of children laughing. She looked at the brightness of the Milky Way reaching across the sky. The blood AI was right. Even now, the alderman and the other villagers would be sharing Dawnbringer’s dream with their new neighbors. Even with the green AI dead, its ultimate goal of returning to the stars would live on.

Reaching for the stars isn’t a bad goal, Crista thought. What’s bad is how Dawnbringer went about it.

Perhaps, Red Day said. But I promise you this—good or bad, one day we’ll be forced to return and deal with this dream all over again.

Crista didn’t want to argue anymore so she simply stared at the night sky as she recalled Dawnbringer’s beautiful memories of traveling between the stars.

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© Jason Sanford

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