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Authors: Christopher Buecheler

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Teen & Young Adult, #Post-Apocalyptic, #Fiction, #Science-Fiction

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BOOK: The Broken God Machine
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Pehr nodded and, when Nani did not elaborate, said, “I will.”

Nani was silent for a time, so long in fact that Pehr wondered if she had
reconsidered her decision to share this thing that was troubling her. He kept
his peace, and at last she spoke.

“Will you pass your Test?”

Her voice was tight, strained with concern, and for a time Pehr contemplated
her question without answering. At last he said, “I do not fear it.”

“That’s not what I’m asking you!” Nani cried, sitting up and turning to
stare at him with an expression that was equal parts anger and love. “Damn it,
Pehr … answer the questions I ask you. Don’t give me answers you think I want
to hear to questions I never asked.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I didn’t ask you for a Gods-damned apology. Answer the question. In three
weeks, will I be cousin to a hunter or just another dead man? Will I have to
send my husband out on the hunt with only the village idiots by his side, or
will I know that when he goes, he goes with friend and family, someone who will
think of his safety? When Jace’s time comes, should he pass the Test, will you
be there to guide him on the hunt?”

“Nani … what is it that you fear? The other hunters are good men.”

“Oh, yes. Yes, good men. Is that what your father would say of them,
then?”

Pehr was taken aback; no one had spoken openly of his father’s death in
years. The man had met his end when Pehr was only two years old, the victim of
an errant spear thrown not by an enemy but by a fellow hunter. The spear had
been intended for a boar but had instead hit Pehr’s father in the chest. Twelve
days later, the wound went bad and the fever took him. Pehr’s mother, still in
mourning, had died not nine months later, killed by a sea snake in shallows
that seemed no danger even to her sons, who were following along behind
her.

This was Uru. This was their world. Truff and Anna had taken the boys in as
their own, and had done so gladly. The couple had proven nearly infertile,
capable of bearing only two children in nearly a decade of attempts, and were
in need of sons.

“My father’s death was an accident,” Pehr said.

“Of course it was,” Nani replied. “But would my father have thrown that
spear? They were brothers. They were family, like you and I are family. I know
that Josep is not, but after we are wed … you will think of him that way. I
know you will. You would never throw a spear that might hit him, or my
brother.”

Pehr nodded at this. “No, I wouldn’t. I would hold the spear.”

“One of our lives is worth more than some stupid boar. I know you understand
that. Oh, Pehr, I’m so afraid for you, and for Jace, and for Josep. I hate the
hunt. I … I hate the Test! I
hate
it!”

There it was at last, or so it seemed to Pehr. This was what Nani had wanted
to say; she hated the Test, but feared saying so to a boy who had spent his
entire life preparing for it. Now it was out, and Pehr was glad to realize that
he was not upset by her hate. The Test was cruel; it had taken family from them
both already, and might yet take more.

His heart ached for her, this girl who could only sit and wait and see, who
could only hope that her cousin and her brother would survive these dangers
forced upon them. He wished, not for the first time, that she might be someone
else, so he could take her in his arms and comfort her. This was impossible,
and so he merely stared out at the Everstorm, black clouds against a black sky,
turned purple-red now and again by flashes of lightning.

“The Test sees the truth in us all,” he said at last, and the words tasted
to him no better than they had to Truff earlier in the evening.

“Don’t quote empty sayings at me,” Nani snarled. “Don’t you feed me that
shit. I’ll take it from my father – I know it hurts him to say it as much as it
does me to hear it – but I won’t take it from you. I won’t take it from
Paul’s brother
!”

“I was never much with words,” Pehr told her.

It hurt to think too much about Paul, but he understood Nani’s anger. He
understood it very well. How many nights had he lain awake after Paul’s death
in the caves, hating the Test, hating his village, hating his existence as the
son of a hunter? How could he spout such empty platitudes, now that it was his
turn to be tested, his turn to face death?

“I want one word, Pehr,” Nani said. “I asked you a simple question, and I
want your answer, and I want the truth. Will you pass the Test? Will you be a
hunter?”

Pehr paused, breathed, looked deep within himself and evaluated himself
against those hunters before him who had passed. There was Josep, Nani’s
betrothed, a strong man and good shot with the bow, but he had been no better
than Pehr was now when he had passed the Test. There was Clay, and Torvus, and
Sirtram. All were good men, and good hunters, but none had been more prepared,
more skilled, or even luckier than Pehr. They had simply passed the Test, as they
had trained all their lives to do, as had Pehr.

“I will pass,” he said, and nodded. “Yes, Nani. That is the one word you
wanted, is it not? Yes. I will be there to hunt with Josep, and with Jace.”

“Speak for yourself. You will pass, you believe it and because of that, I
believe it … but Jace? He is not … you cannot know his fate.”

“He has two years, Nani. That is still much time to learn, and … perhaps I
can help. After I pass, I will know the Test. I can help him to prepare.”

“My father knows the Test as well.”

“Yes, but it’s been years. It may have changed. It may have—”

“You know your help will be welcome, Pehr. You are like a brother to Jace
and me. But you cannot guarantee his success. We all know that Jace is not … he
is not a typical hunter. He is not strong.”

“No, but he is fast and smart and he can shoot. Who is to say?”

Nani sighed. “It’s not fair.”

“Nothing is fair. Nani … when is life fair? My father passed his Test, made
his necklace, gave it to my mother and married her. They made children, hunted,
made bread … they did everything right, and what did it get them?”

“Death,” Nani said.

“All roads lead to death,” Pehr replied.

“More sayings. Think for yourself, Pehr.”

“I believe that saying. We all must die, Nani.”

“Will you promise me something?”

“Ask.”

“Will you promise to help him? Will you promise to do everything that you
can to help him, with the Test and the hunt, and … everything? Will you promise
to always be there for him?”

Pehr smiled. “Nani, of course I will.”

“Swear it!”

“I promise. I swear to you that I will keep him safe. If by my power I can
stop harm from coming to Jace, or to you, or to any of those that I know and
love, I will do so. That is all I can do, and all I can give you.”

Nani nodded and sat up, glancing backward toward their village. Soon they
would need to wade back; the sun rose early, and it was nearly time to
sleep.

“That is all you can give me,” she agreed. “And that is all I need. I
believe you, Pehr. I trust you. If harm comes looking for any of us, and you
can prevent it … I know you will.”

With these words, Nani stood and made her way into the shallow lagoon,
heading toward home, confident that Pehr would follow her. She didn’t look back
and didn’t need to. He was there, ready to protect her, as he was ready to
protect all those whom he loved.

In ten days’ time his strength would be tested, and any question of Pehr’s
survival as a hunter would be rendered moot.

Chapter 3

Somewhere, past the thick jungle that spread wide across the eastern border
of Pehr’s land, the metal thing stood, keeping its sad and lonely watch. Long
since exposed by the ravages of time, its skeleton-like understructure – once
sheathed in material cunningly designed to mimic the smoothness and elasticity
of human skin – was now covered with a grey-green coating of moss and lichen.
This substance had built up in microscopic layers over eons to form what seemed
at first glance almost a furry, organic musculature, though in truth it was
still the underlying handiwork of the original designers that lent weight and
shape to the metal thing’s appearance. The overall impression it gave, now, was
of a thin and wasted corpse left leaning against a canyon wall, long abandoned.
Forgotten.

At its feet and in a ring some seventy strides around it lay countless
bones, some so ancient that they had become nothing more than dust that mixed
with the soil to form a kind of chalky grey paste. No plants grew within this
circle, and no living thing made its home there; no beetle crawled, no
earthworm slid, no rodent scurried or ant clambered, no creature moved within
the ring of bone. The earth there was poisoned by the actions of some
long-forgotten civilization, in some long-forgotten past, for some
long-forgotten reason. The effects of this toxic exercise lived on, like the
metal thing, even ages after the land it had been set to guard had become home
to little more than the wind that screeched through its ruins like the wailing
of ghosts.

Still, the metal thing was not completely forgotten, not completely
abandoned. There were those who knew of its existence, and the majority of
those typically gave it a wide berth. When the blessings of the gods were
required, however, the metal thing would entertain visitors, and it would
extract its payment in the blood of their chosen sacrifices. These offerings
were not made lightly, and the metal thing had never yet failed to take what
was given to it. The bones that formed the blasted, shattered perimeter of its
arc of influence lay in testament to this fact.

Others, too, sometimes stumbled into the place the metal thing had made its
home, and this was one such occurrence. One of the wild boars that Pehr’s
people so prized had wandered deeper and further than its brethren usually
ventured. Driven by a mad desire for the delicious fungus that grew sometimes
below the roots of trees, the boar had moved ever inward and upward, its keen
senses guiding it toward its prize. Now, at last, had come its moment of
triumph.

There was nothing within this poisoned garden for the boar, of course.
Nothing edible could grow within the metal thing’s circle, but on the far side
from where it now stood, the creature could discern that most subtle of aromas,
the delicious prize that it sought. It had only to cross, and while this land
smelled foul to the boar, it was not so toxic as to be worth circumventing. The
boar trotted into the field of bones at a brisk pace, intent on the delicacy
that awaited it just around the bend.

The metal thing’s response was instantaneous. Moss-covered and derelict
though it might have been, its internal workings still functioned, and it
jerked alive with the screech of metal on metal, moving from its leaning
position to full standing, its arms thrown back. Tiny motors located below what
had once been its cheeks whirred and spun, attempting to contract simulated
skin and muscle that was no longer there.

“W-LC-M- FR--ND!” it howled at the boar, its voice a grinding, buzzing
warble that might once have sounded human.

The boar stopped dead in its tracks, hunkering low to the ground in fear,
preparing to flee. It could not have known, even had it been gifted with any
such capability of thought, that it was, for all intents and purposes, already
dead. It couldn't understand that the metal thing’s sensors and motors and
inner workings allowed it to react – even now, after millennia of disrepair –
at speeds far beyond those of which the boar was capable.

“PL--S- PR-S-NT Y--R P-SS,” the metal thing screeched, and
the boar turned to begin its lumbering attempt at escape, unleashing a
terrified squeal in the process.

The metal thing lurched, knee joints howling in protest as it dropped into a
crouching posture, its arms swung low toward the ground for added stability.
Its eyes were covered with a series of moss-coated, interlocking plates, and
they opened now to reveal centers that burned red like the embers thrown forth
by a volcano. Death poured from those eyes, even as it screeched its last words
to the creature so desperately attempting to escape.

“P-SS N-T PR-S-NT-D. -C-SS D-N--D.
PL--S- L-C-T- TH- V-S-T-R C-NT-R T-
-BT--N PR-P-R CR-D-NT--LS.”

The boar was a sizzling lump of meat, its bristly hair smoldering, twin
smoking craters bored through its side, long before this sentence was finished.
The metal thing cocked its head as if studying this scene and then, after a
moment, returned to a standing position. It leaned against the canyon wall, eye
covers sliding shut, and its skeletal shoulders slumped.

“TH-NK Y-- F-R V-S-T-NG,” it said, and then it was silent,
as it sometimes went for months or even years between encounters of this
type.

At a safe distance, yellow-green eyes took all of this in. The sacred circle
remained unspoiled. The boar had passed into the arc of death and had paid the
price all that trod upon the ground there must pay. Everything was as it had
ever been, since first the watch had begun.

Above the metal thing, past the canyon, the wind wailed its banshee’s dirge.
A tiny bug came to the edge of the metal thing’s domain and stopped, sensing
the polluted soil in front of it. Turning around, it trundled off the way it
had come, and so was spared the boar’s fate, and the fate of all those whose
bones littered that tainted ground.

* * *

They existed for Pehr and Jace, and even Truff, only as rumor and legend;
there was only one in the village old enough to remember a coming of the Lagos
horde. So it was that only the old woman Luce, wrinkled and wretched and bent
over her washing, knew what the sound meant when first the drums began to thud
from somewhere deep within the jungle.

Her mind associated death with those drums, and in great amounts, but also
things worse than death. There was fire, blazing still in those distant
memories, and torture – the vicious mutilation, over and over, as if the Gods
themselves had ordered it of the creatures. Luce remembered the pain, searing
through her body, as if the things had coated their wicked talons in some kind
of liquid fire. She remembered the horror of it, all these years later, just as
she remembered the overwhelming relief that had come when at last she had
opened her eyes, and found she was still able to see. The others had not been
so lucky; the Lagos had left most dead, and the rot that soon spread to many of
the survivors was even more merciless. At the savage beast men’s hands or from
the infection that followed, most had died in agony.

It had been forty-six years since she had last heard those drums, and Luce
had thought herself prepared for their inevitable return. She was the last
alive among this village who knew the sound, and she had risen every morning
preparing herself for the eventuality that she would hear it again. How and
when the Lagos chose to prey on a given village was a mystery to her and to all
who had come before her, but that they someday would return, somewhere along
the great length of the jungle’s edge, was certain. Now that day had arrived
and when the noise first came to her, Luce shot to her feet as if her knees had
not seen nearly six decades of wear.

She managed three steps before her heart failed and, with a croaking noise
that was some combination of despair and relief, she pitched forward, crashing
to the ground. She was dead even before her impact with the hard, oiled,
earthen floor of her dwelling, and perhaps this was for the best. Luce would be
spared the horrors to come. She had lived through the coming of the Lagos once,
and once was enough for anyone.

There would be no more warning for the village than the drums, but it
mattered little; what was coming would come regardless, and there was nowhere
to go. There was only their tiny strip of land between the jungle and the sea,
the place where her people made their home. If they went north, to the next
village, the Lagos would come there, and to the next, and to the next after
that. They would come until there was no place left to go, until those who fled
them were boxed in by the baking desert of the north, and the swirling sea to
the west, and the horde that descended upon them. All choices would mean death.
Death and worse.

For Pehr, the drums were little more than a fairy tale, a threat the elders
scared children with in order to keep them obedient. Perhaps he had believed in
the Lagos, once, but he had long since put those stories behind him, and when
first the drums started up, they were a background noise, something far in the
distance and not so pressing as thoughts of Sili, and the ministrations of his
hand.

He sat now on his bed, breathing hard, and a groan escaped him. He’d
discovered this activity some years ago, but only recently had it become so
pressing a part of his life. It seemed that he could barely go a day, and
sometimes not even that, without entertaining these needs. In his mind, he was
with Sili again, drunk on stolen wine, and this time she was not only opening
her legs to show him, but inviting him to touch as well …

There was a crash, and then another; it was Jace, banging on the thatched
wooden door of Pehr’s room, bringing him out of his reverie. He grunted,
instinctively covering himself with one hand while pushing against the door
with the other, ensuring that Jace did not burst in on him.

“What?!” he snarled. “What is it?”

“Don’t you hear? Gods, Pehr, it’s the drums! Do you hear them?”

“No. What drums? Jace, leave me alone!”

“It’s the Lagos, Pehr! They’re coming. They’re coming for us!”

Despite his annoyance with the younger boy, something about Jace’s tone made
Pehr bite back the curses that wanted to leap from his mouth. With an effort,
he pushed the thoughts of Sili from his mind and forced himself to focus on
what Jace was saying. At last, his mind registered the noises in the distance
as something out of the ordinary.

“Pehr, from the stories … the Lagos! You can’t have forgotten!”

Jace was still pounding on the door, as if acquiring entrance would somehow
stop the drums. Pehr rose to his feet, hiking his leather breeches up as he did
so.

“I remember. Jace, stop. I’ll be out in a moment. Stop hitting the door or,
Gods help me, I will break your legs off and beat you to death with them!”

When Pehr emerged from their hut a few minutes later, Jace was sitting on a
nearby boulder, staring east toward the distant jungle’s edge. The
expression on his face was unlike any Pehr had ever seen there before, a
mixture of near-religious awe and abject terror.

“I knew they were real,” he said in a breathless voice, not turning to look
at Pehr even as he came to stand next to the boulder.

“They’re not real. Jace, those drums could be anything.”

Jace shook his head. “No, it’s the Lagos. Don’t you remember the stories,
Pehr? Someone has made the Gods angry, and now they’ve sent the horde.”

Pehr remembered only wisps. It was said that the Lagos were beast-creatures
that walked on two legs like men, but were stronger, faster, and infinitely
more bloodthirsty. The denizens of Uru believed that the Gods held them deep in
the jungle, many days’ journey beyond where even the most seasoned hunters ever
tread. The Lagos would be unleashed on any village unlucky enough to earn the
Gods’ wrath, though how exactly one incurred such anger had never been clearly
explained to Pehr. He knew only that it took some action worse than any petty
sins that he or Jace might have committed.

“Luce has seen them,” Jace said. “She was there when they came, when they
murdered the hunters, held down the farmers and the merchants and the women,
cut their faces to ribbons, left them for dead.”

“Kampri shit.”

“No, it’s true! How do you think she lost her ear? She tells the best Lagos
stories because it was her old village they last attacked. You can see it in
the way her eyes look, like she’s traveling back in time.”

“She’s a storyteller and she’s taken you in. Jace, no one has ever seen a
Lagos, just as no one’s ever seen the giant dragon-fish that lives at the
center of the Everstorm. It’s a stupid story made up to frighten babies.”

Jace finally took his eyes away from the jungle and glared angrily at Pehr.
“I’m not a baby.”

“Then stop acting like one.”

Jace’s reaction surprised him. The blonde-haired boy leapt to his feet, eyes
blazing, and snarled out a word so foul it was nearly blasphemous:
“Baptista!”

Had Pehr not been so taken aback by the use of the word, he would have hit
Jace. No one among the village knew the origin of this term, but its use was
kept only for the most base and vile of men, baby-killers and cannibals, the
type of man who would murder his own brother or take his sister by force.

Pehr stood, mouth agape, processing what Jace had just called him. The
younger boy gave him little time to react, leaping from the rock with his hands
outstretched. He connected solidly with his older cousin and the two went
sprawling, Jace rolling nimbly away while Pehr landed flat on his back, the
wind knocked out of him by the hard-packed earth. Jace knelt over him, eyes
wide and feral, two red blotches at his cheeks standing out like burns against
his pallid skin.

“I am not a baby!” Jace cried. “I will not sit here while you let the Lagos
take us by surprise, because I was listening. All my life, while you were busy
fighting and stealing and acting the kampri’s ass, I have been listening!”

BOOK: The Broken God Machine
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