l a little magic. Momma bird was swimming along the side of the pond now, her back to Cara. When the sunbird reached the far edge and turned, she was grunting to herself, the danger of the dogs and the girl equally forgotten. Sunbirds weren’t smart—they weren’t even particularly nice—but Cara still felt good that she’d kept them from getting eaten.
Published by Orbit
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
Excerpt from Provenance copyright © 2017 by Ann Leckie
Excerpt from The Eternity War: Pariah copyright © 2017 by Jamie Sawyer
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.
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Extras Meet the Author
A Preview of “Provenance”
A Preview of “The Eternity War: Pariah”
By James S. A. Corey
About Orbit Short Fiction
The day after the stick moons appeared, Cara killed a bird.
That wasn’t exactly right. There had been stick moons—which her parents called platforms—as long as Cara could remember. At night, they’d glowed with reflected sunlight like burnt orange bones, and in the daytime, they’d been lines of white bent behind the blue. In her books, the moon was always a pale disk or a cookie with a bite taken out, but that was Earth’s moon, Luna. Laconia was different.
So it wasn’t that they had appeared the night before she killed the bird. It was only that they lit up red and blue and gold for the first time ever. Her parents had gotten up from the dinner table and gone out into the yard, staring up into the sky, and she and her little brother, Xan, had followed. Her father stood there slack-jawed, looking up. Her mother had frowned.
The next afternoon, lying in the blue clover by the pond with sunlight warming her skin and making her sleepy, Cara watched the newly glittering stick moons swim through the sky. They were as bright in the daytime sky as stars were against nighttime black. The colors shifted on them, rippling like videos of sea creatures. As if they were a little bit alive. They drifted east to west, high lacy clouds passing underneath them, and Cara at the bottom of the gravity well, looking up into the vastness like it had all been put there for her to appreciate.
The pond was one of her favorite places to be alone. The curve of the forest ran along one side. Thick trees with three or four trunks that rose up into a knot before blooming out in green-black fronds longer than her body and so thickly packed that a few steps under them was like walking into a cave. She could find as much shade from Laconia’s bright sun as she wanted, whenever she wanted it. The blue clover beside the water was softer than her bed at home and had a smell like bruised rain when she laid on it. The brook that fed the pond and then flowed back away from it again murmured and burbled in a gentle, random concert with the chirping of the goat-hair frogs. And there were the animals that came there to drink or hunt or lay their eggs. She could lie there for hours, bringing her own lunch and a handheld to read from or draw on or play games on, away from her parents and Xan. Away from the town and the soldiers and Mari Tennanbaum, who was her best friend when they weren’t enemies. The township was five thousand people—the biggest city on Laconia—and the pond was Cara’s place away from it.
She was halfway through her tenth year, but this was only her third summer. Her mother had explained to her that Laconia moved around its star more slowly than Earth did, and then talked about axial tilt in a way that Cara pretended to understand so they could talk about something else. It didn’t matter. Summer was summer and birthdays were birthdays. The two didn’t have any more relationship than her nut-bread sandwiches had with her shoes. Not everything had to be connected.
Cara was half asleep when she heard the soft tramp of paws and the creaking of the underbrush. She thought at first it was just in her imagination, but when she tried to change the sound into music the way she sometimes could when she was dreaming, it didn’t respond. She opened eyes she hadn’t realized were closed. Bright-blue dots like fireflies fluttered and spun in the air as the first of the doglike things came out of the trees.
Its body was long and low, four legs with joints that were put together just a little wrong—like a drawing by someone who’d only ever had legs described to them. Its jaw seemed too small for its face, and its bulbous brown eyes were set at angles that made it seem apologetic. She’d never seen anything like it before, but that happened fairly often.
“Hey,” she said, stretching. “What are you?”
The dog paused.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m friendly. See?” And she waved.
It was hard to be sure with the thing’s eyes set the way they were, but she thought it was looking at her. She sat up slowly, trying not to startle it. Nothing on Laconia ate people, but sometimes they could get scared, and her mother always told her that frightened things weren’t safe to approach.
The dog looked up, staring at the stick moons for a moment, and then down again at her. She felt a wave of disorientation, like being dizzy but different, and then a twinge of uncertainty. The dog stepped forward, and two more like it came out from the darkness under the trees. Then two more.
On the pond, a sunbird hissed, lifting its leathery wings to make its body look bigger and baring its soft greenish teeth. Its fury-twisted face looked like a cartoon of an old woman, and half a dozen new-hatched babies darted behind her. The first dog turned to look at the momma bird and made three sharp sounds: ki-ka-ko. The other four picked up the sound. Momma bird swiveled her head toward each of them, hissing until flecks of saliva foamed at the curves of her mouth. The ki-ka-ko cry echoed in a way that didn’t match the space around the pond. It made Cara’s head ache a little. She levered herself up to her knees, partly out of fear that the dogs might eat sunbirds, and she didn’t want to see anything get killed, but mostly because she wanted them to stop making that sound. Her lunch pack and her handheld tumbled to the clover. When she stepped forward, the dogs went quiet and turned their attention toward her, and she had the sense that maybe she was dreaming after all.
She stepped between the dogs and the water’s edge. Momma bird hissed again, but it seemed to Cara like the sound came from a great distance. The dogs drifted closer, moving around her like children around a teacher. She knew in a distant way that she should probably be scared. Even if the dogs didn’t eat people, they could still attack her for getting between them and their prey. She didn’t know why she felt that they wouldn’t.
“You can’t be here right now,” she said.
The lead dog, the one that had come out first, looked past her at the water. Its embarrassed, bulbous eyes shifted back to her.
“Later, maybe,” she said. “You can be here later. Right now you have to go. Go on. Shoo.”
She pointed at the trees and the darkness underneath them. The dogs went perfectly, eerily still for the space of two long breaths together, then turned and shambled back into the forest on their weirdly built legs.
Cara watched them go with a kind of surprise. It was like shouting at a storm to go away and having the rain stop. Probably the dogs had just decided that dealing with her wasn’t worth the trouble. Still, the way it had happened let her fee
She tried lying back down on the blue clover, but her lazy half sleep was gone now. She tried closing her eyes, then watching the stick moons and their shimmer of colors, but she could feel in her body that it wasn’t coming back. She waited a few minutes to be sure, then sat up with a sigh and gathered up her handheld and her lunch pack. The sun was high overhead, the heat a little bit oppressive now, and it had been a long time since breakfast. She popped open her lunch pack. The sandwich was simple and exactly the way she liked it: two slices of nut bread, each about as thick as her thumb, with a layer of cinnamon and molasses cream cheese between them. Her mother said that honey was better than molasses, but there weren’t any bees on Laconia. Cara had only ever seen pictures of them, and based on those, she didn’t like honey at all.
She took a bite, chewed, swallowed, took another. The baby sunbirds were jumping out of the water, running on the ground, and then plopping back into the pond, sputtering and angry. Momma bird ignored their little sighs of distress, and before long they stopped trying to get her attention and devoted themselves to swimming and searching for food. Earth birds didn’t look much like anything on Laconia, but Cara remembered something about how to treat them. How to share. When Momma bird turned toward her, Cara broke off a tiny bit of nut bread and tossed it out on the water. Momma bird struck at it like it was a threat and swallowed it greedily. Later on, she’d puke up little bits of it to feed her babies. Cara had watched them at the pond for months. She knew how sunbirds worked maybe better than anyone.
So when Momma bird made a noise—a wheeze with a click in the middle of it—Cara knew it was something new. The babies knew too. They gathered around Momma bird, chittering in agitation and slapping the water with their wings. Momma bird didn’t seem to notice them. Her head was wobbling on its long, thin neck. Her unfocused eyes seemed fierce and confused.
Cara put down her sandwich, a knot tightening in her chest. Something was wrong. Momma bird spun around in the water, then turned and spun the other way with so much violence that the nearest of her babies overturned.
“Hey,” Cara said. “Don’t do that. Don’t hurt your little ones.”
But unlike the dogs, Momma bird didn’t even seem to listen to her. She spread her wings, slapped the water twice, and hauled herself up into the air. Cara had the impression of half-closed eyes and a gaping green-toothed mouth, and then Momma bird sped up into the air, paused, and fell. She didn’t try to catch herself when she landed—just crashed into the clover.
“Momma bird?” Cara said, stepping closer. Her heart was tripping over itself. “Momma bird? What’s the matter?”
The babies were calling out now, one over the other in a wild frenzy. Momma bird lifted her head, trying to find them from their voices, but too disoriented to do more than wave her head around once, twice, and then set it down. Cara reached out, hesitated, then scooped up the bird’s warm, soft body. Momma bird hissed once, halfheartedly, and closed her angry black eyes.
The pathway leading toward home was barely wider than an animal track, but Cara knew it like the hallway outside her room. It only seemed treacherous because she couldn’t wipe her tears back, since she needed both her hands to hold Momma bird. She was still three hundred meters from home when the bird shifted in her hands, arched its back, and made a deep coughing sound. After that, it was still. The thick sack-and-earth walls of her house came into sight—red and orange, with the rich-green panels of their solar array on top canted toward the sun—and Cara started shouting for her mother. She wanted to believe there was time. That Momma bird wasn’t dead.
She wanted to believe. But she also knew better.
Her house stood out just past the edge of the forest. It had the lumpy snakes-lying-on-top-of-each-other walls that all the first-wave colonial structures had. They curved around the central bulb garden, where they grew food. The windows stood open, screens letting in the air and keeping out the insect analogs. Even the little toolshed, where Dad kept the clippers he used to cut the vinegar weed and the cart to carry the stinking foliage away, had windows in it.
Cara’s feet slapped down the stone-paved path, her tears making the house, the sky, the trees blurred and unreal. Xan’s voice called out from somewhere nearby, and his friend Santiago answered back. She ignored them. The cool, dry air of the house felt like walking into a different world. Rays of light pressed in from the windows, catching motes of dust. For the first time since the pond, Cara’s steps faltered. Her legs burned, and the vast, oceanic sadness and horror stopped up her throat so that when her mother stepped into the room—taller than her father, dark-haired, fixing a necklace of resin and glass around her neck like she was getting ready for a party—all Cara could do was hold up the body of Momma bird. She couldn’t even ask for help.
Her mother led her to the kitchen and sat there with her and the dead bird’s body while Cara coughed out a version of what had happened between sobs. She knew it was muddled—the bird, the dogs, the babies, the bread—but she just had to get it all out of her and hope that her mother could make sense of it. And then make it make sense to her too.
Xan came in, his eyes wide and scared, and touched her back to comfort her. Her mother smiled him away again. Santiago ghosted into the doorway and out again, curious and trying to seem like he wasn’t. Tragedy drew attention.
Eventually, Cara’s words ran out and she sat there, feeling empty. Deflated. Defeated. Momma bird’s corpse on the table didn’t seem to care one way or the other. Death had robbed the bird of her opinions.
“Oh, babygirl,” Cara’s mother said. “I’m sorry.”
“It was me, wasn’t it?” Cara said. “I killed her, didn’t I?”
“You didn’t mean to. It was an accident. That’s all.”
“But it was in the book,” Cara said. “Feeding bread to birds. The lady in the park in the book did that. And they didn’t die. They were fine.”
Her mother took her hand. It was strange, but Cara knew if she’d been just a little younger—Xan’s age, even—her mother would have hugged her. But she was getting to be a big girl now, and hugs weren’t for big girls. Holding hands was.
“These aren’t birds, babygirl. We call them that because they’re sort of like birds. But real birds have feathers. And beaks—”
“No bird I’ve ever seen.”
Her mother took a deep breath and smiled through her exhalation. “When life comes up on a planet, evolution forces a bunch of choices. What kinds of proteins it’s going to use. How it’s going to pass information on from one generation to the next. Life on Earth made those decisions a long time ago, and so everything that comes from Earth has some things in common. The kinds of proteins we use. The ways we get chemical energy out of our foods. The ways our genes work. But other planets made other choices. That’s why we can’t eat the plants that grow on Laconia. We have to grow them special so they’ll be part of our tree of life.”
“But the old lady fed bread to the birds,” Cara said. Her mother wasn’t understanding the problem, and she didn’t know how to say it any more clearly. In the books, the old lady had fed bread to the birds, and the birds hadn’t died. And Momma bird was dead.
“She was on Earth. Or someplace where Earth’s tree of life took over. Laconia doesn’t eat the same things we do. And the food that Laconia makes, we can’t use.”
“That’s not true,” Cara said. “We drink the water.”
Her mother nodded. “Water is very, very simple, though. There aren’t choices for living systems to make with water because it’s more like a mineral or—”
“Dot!” Her father’s voice was like a bark. “We h
ave to go!”
“I’m in the kitchen,” her mother said. Footsteps. Cara’s father loomed into the doorway, his jaw set, his mouth tight. He’d combed his hair and put on his best shirt. He shifted his gaze from Cara to her mother to Momma bird with an expression that said, What the hell is this?
“Cara accidentally poisoned one of the sunbirds,” her mother told him, as though he’d actually asked the question aloud.
“Shit,” her father said, then grimaced at his own language. “I’m sorry to hear that, kid. That’s hard. But, Dot. We have to gather up the kids and get out of here.”
Cara scowled. “Where are you going?”
“The soldiers are hosting a party,” her mother said. “It’s a celebration because the platforms came on.” She didn’t smile.
“We need to be there,” her father said, more to her mother than to Cara. “If they don’t see us, they’ll wonder why we didn’t come.”
Cara’s mother pointed to her necklace. I’m getting ready. Her father shifted his weight from one foot to the other, then back. Cara felt the weight of his anxiety like a hand on her shoulder.
“Do I have to go?”
“No, kid,” her father said. “If you want to stay here and hold down the fort, that’s fine. It’s me and your mom.”
“And Xan,” her mother said. “Unless you want to be responsible for keeping him out of trouble.”
Cara knew that was supposed to be a joke, so she chuckled at it. Not that it felt funny. Her mother squeezed her fingers and then let her go. “I am sorry about the sunbird, babygirl.”
“It’s okay,” Cara said.
“We’ll be back before dinner,” her father said, then retreated back into the depths of the house. A few breaths later, Cara heard him yelling at Xan and Santiago. The focus of the family spotlight had moved past her. Momma bird was over. She couldn’t put her thumb on why that bothered her.
The town was half an hour away, down past a dozen other houses like hers. The older houses all came from the first wave—scientists and researchers like her parents who’d come to Laconia just after the gates opened. The town itself, though, came later, with the soldiers. Even Cara could remember when construction waldoes started laying down the foundations of the barracks and the town square, the military housing and the fusion plant. Most of the soldiers still lived in orbit, but every month, the town grew a little—another building, another street. Xan’s friend Santiago was seven years old. He was the child of soldiers, and had their boldness. He often came all the way out to her house by himself so he could play. Someday, her father said, the town would grow out around all their houses. The pond and the forest would be taken down, paved over, rebuilt. The way he said it, it didn’t sound like a good thing or a bad one. Just a change, like winter moving into spring.