(This story has very disturbing subject matter of the violent and sad kind – reader discretion is strongly advised.)
Gibbsen crunched his “Tough Krunchies” thoughtfully. On slow days like this he sometimes began to wonder if the humans’ food had taste sometimes. He had tasted taste once, and it was mildly interesting, though extravagant. If human food had taste all the time, he would probably feel less respect for them.
An especially loud banshee scream from their metal boxes made him jerk and swallow a prickly piece of Krunchie whole. These weren’t real banshees that Adolphus Search and Rescue kept – real banshees were girls, these were fat worm things that looked like tree bark porridge and lived in narrow shoebox-sized lockers mounted in rows on the wall. They were called “banshees” because they screamed when death was near somebody.
A map of the regions monitored by the Adolphus team was portrayed on a sheet of glass: behind this a small red light turned on, crawled to a certain spot, and sat down. Gibbsen scratched between his ears with the tip of his tail (which was covered in rough scales – the rest of him was covered in long, stiff, grey fur). He didn’t remember seeing the red spot settle in that area (far south of Griddleton) any time in recent years.
Who could have gotten out there, and only now be in danger?
It would need a helicopter to reach such a place. Gibbsen’s master, Gareth, was a human in a grim black robe which hid all but his greyish mouth and lean hands. He and Gibbsen boarded their chopper.
The leading edges of the blades were lined with teeth that bit the air as they began to spin. When they got up to speed, a thin cry was added above their chopping sound, a cry from the circular mouth (like that of a sea-urchin) which topped the rotor shaft. Gibbsen and Gareth were lifted into the night.
Only briefly could the lights of Griddleton be seen in the distance. Then the only light was from the little glowing bits on the instrument panel – painted with Ban’s blood to make them always red hot; Gibbsen had learned not to get too close. From a tang in the cold air Gibbsen could tell when they flew over patches of window trees.
They arrived and hovered over the place, deep in a gluckast infested area. Gareth opened the cat’s eye searchlight (very bright, though it blinked from time to time). It showed no human being in sight.
It must be a clever human, Gibbsen thought, to get so far without being eaten by the gluckasts. Why did he not show himself?
A hide pouch under the front of the chopper inflated like the throat of a siamang, and a mouth attached to it bellowed into the night under the hack and whistle of the rotor:
“Adolphus Search and Rescue: if any are in danger, make yourselves known.”
The searchlight scanned and blinked, and saw no one. There were no gluckasts near, though surely they would be soon, as this place was one of their filthy nesting grounds. Why did the human not show himself?
The chopper lowered till it settled in a more solid patch of rubbish. The chopper’s rear legs were akin to those of a rhinoceros, the forelegs like those of a gargantuan scaly waterbird. Plenty of large vermin scattered as they settled, but Gibbsen was wise enough to stay aboard the chopper until sent.
Gareth sent him. Unfortunately he didn’t smell any humans, but pointed to where the largest living creature nearby might be hidden: in a large, black, gluckast nest, constructed of unrecognisable debris fused together with leathery, hardened slime. The chopper crept its great bulk nearer, and with its tail like a saurian armadillo it took off the roof and upper storeys of the repulsive habitat. Then the searchlight illuminated the bared pit of the nest’s bowels.
There lay a human girl, who sneezed in the bright light. Gibbsen was very confused.
Gibbsen was interested that the girl made no reaction to this challenge, except to cling a little closer to Gareth. Mundbern began to list off certain points of suspicion:
“Her feet are cleft,” he said, lowering his rod. It was true: with only four toes each, and separated almost up to the ankle. However, there was a tiny bud of a fifth toe on the side of one foot.
“She cannot stand straight,” he said, indicating the weird slope of her back. It was clear now that it was structural, not simply her weakened state.
“She wears the clothing of the gluckasts,” he said, tapping her sleeve, from which her blanket had slipped. There was certainly no mistaking the ugly, coarse work of gluckast cloth.
“And her ears are ribbed,” he concluded, nudging aside some of her short, tangled locks with a mild invasiveness. Though not as short as gluckasts usually wore their hair, it had clearly been cut in their rough way: as if sawn off.
Gibbsen would have added that every time she spoke she used distinct gluckast turns of speech, intonation, and interjections, though it sounded quite unnatural in her bird-like voice.
Gareth lifted the girl’s hand so she would glance up at him, and asked if she needed to sit down. In response she squatted to the floor. Seeing the gluckast claw still tangled in the hem of Gareth’s robe, she let go of his hand and set about to work the claw free. She had all of a human girl’s interest in this intricate task, but as little cleverness in it as Gibbsen would have had using his paws. Indeed, Gibbsen was sure he could do better than her with his teeth and prehensile tail. Perhaps it was because she was sick.
Harmless as she appeared, Raleigh’s eyes were widened by Mundbern’s suggestions.
“If she is a gluckast,” he asked, “how do you suppose she has such a human form?”
“Have we not heard of creatures that change their form?” Mundbern replied.
“Yes, but not gluckasts. And I have only heard of creatures that could change to certain forms, never to any form they chose. And could such a being deceive the banshees? Gibbsen, do you think she is a gluckast?”
Gibbsen shrugged – which was difficult with his dog-like forelegs, but his long hairs accentuated the movement. In the end, what did it matter if she was a gluckast? They could simply keep her in a cage in case she was bad. But then, if she was a human… that was the more important question than whether she was not a gluckast, apparently. She had succeeded in getting the claw free of Gareth’s robe, and was idly playing with the gruesome appendage as if with a bauble. Raleigh knitted his brows.
“What do you think, Gareth?”
Gareth replied, “I want her.”
Gibbsen was intrigued. Maybe this meant she would be someone new for him to play with.
She was bending and unbending the weaponised gluckast fingers, when a look of recognition suddenly came to her eyes.
“Oha, this is my father’s claw.”
Gibbsen always liked Dr. Kilver’s office: despite the great variety of implements, many of them living, the doctor kept an air of scientific tightness about the place.
Gareth sat on a minimalistic divan. Though now in a seat, the girl still squatted, holding Gareth’s hand again, and in her other hand she held her father’s hand (that is, his claw). Mundbern stood at the door like a guard. Raleigh seemed the most anxious person in the whole business, and spoke with the doctor by one of the testing tables. Dr. Kilver was smiling under his heavy moustache.
“No,” he reassured, “her disease cannot be caught by any human.”
A different concern then filled Raleigh’s face.
“Then, since she has it, she is not human at all?”
Dr. Kilver shook his head.
“It cannot be caught by a human, because we already have it. In a gluckast, the first symptoms of this disease are a loss of scales, horns, and nails, followed by great pain and stupour as the body is all but liquefied like a worm in a chrysalis. The peak of the disease is reached as a perfectly healthy human being. Her disease is the disease of humanity itself.”
Mundbern raised his thick eyebrows.
“You call humanity a disease?”
“For a gluckast, very much so.”
Raleigh looked quite mystified.
“Then,” said he, “you mean that every human is the same as a diseased gluckast?”
“There is one thing unique to her case,” the doctor said, placing his finger down in the midst of his medical hieroglyphic notations.
“Her disease is highly contagious.”
There was a silence as the humans considered the import of this statement. Gibbsen appreciated when humans stopped talking to think – one reason he liked Gareth particularly. This new girl was making a good impression on him as well.
Raleigh opened his mouth to say something to the girl, and stopped, clearly because he did not know her name, which he then asked.
“Uklag,” she said, then burst into a laugh. “A funny name!”
So, thought Gibbsen, her gluckast name sounded funny to her human ears. Another good sign. Gareth spoke after her laugh:
“She will be given a new name,” he said.
She looked up at him with eyes full of a curious amount of joy.
“I will be named?”
“Until then,” said Raleigh, “we can of course dispense with an uncouth name which really refers to something you aren’t anymore. Until a proper name has been settled, what should we call you?”
She seemed too absorbed with the thought of her coming name to give any thoughts on how she should be referred to meanwhile. Dr. Kilver made the decision for them:
“We’ll call her ‘Number One’, because she’s the first gluckast-turned-human that we’ve found, perhaps the first to ever be.”
“Yes,” said Raleigh, “that’s the question. Number One, do you know when it was that you caught this disease?”
Number One gazed thoughtfully at the ceiling (which was covered in racks and storage compartments, in some of which shadows moved).
“When I ate the little black-hair girl. We ate her brother, and, because I was not full, Father said I could eat her. She was crying, but she did not yell like her bigger brother. She was talking, and I remember it very hard what she talked. She said, ‘Make me a poison that will completely destroy all of them.’ And then she did not yell while I ate her.”
The girl seemed too absorbed in remembering to notice the look of horror and doubt on Raleigh’s face at her casual tone, as if she was recounting an ordinary meal. A question had entered the room again: was she human in frame only, and a gluckast still in spirit?
Abruptly, she vomited the water she had drunk onto her knees. Then her face was pulled into a tight mask, and she sobbed heavily. It seemed that, like even her own name had startled her by sounding different to her, she had not hitherto remembered any such horror with her now human mind, and it had unexpectedly overwhelmed her.
She slid from the divan to crouch instead on the floor, and twisted herself to hide her face from them on her arm as she cried with all her small strength and voice, and all her flesh shivered. Her father’s claw she held no longer like it was a doll, but like a toy she clung to because she had forgotten about it. Gareth did not move, and did not let go of her hand.
Doubt was gone from Raleigh’s face, and he leaned awkwardly against the table, his chin on his chest. The crushed sound of the girl’s voice was certain to break the humans’ hearts. Mundbern’s eyes were glassy, and he left the room, whether to hide his reaction, or out of politeness, having suddenly become the spectator of a pain clearly private in its depth. Raleigh looked up, and followed him out.
Dr. Kilver waited quietly, with animal-like patience, until the throbs of Number One’s tears were slower and calmer. Then he stepped to a small wire grid track which ran at eye-level along the wall. At the end of this track was a creature with greenish brown fur, a little larger than a human’s hand, hanging motionlessly from the underside of the grid with all four feet like a sloth. Dr. Kilver spoke to it,
“Nurse Kley, please come to my office.”
The creature, called a parroter, darted along the underside of the track speedily as a fly, and popped through a flap door in the wall. The parroter was not itself Nurse Kley, but would find her and imitate the words Dr. Kilver had said.
The doctor then came to the bent and twisted heap of the desolate girl, sat down with one knee on the floor, and gently replaced the gluckast claw in Number One’s hand with a handkerchief.
“This is for you to wipe your face,” he told her. She revealed herself, reddened and smeared, to glance at the cloth curiously, then wiped her face much as a small boy would. The doctor rose and took her elbow; Gareth stood also, and together they helped Number One up to her hampered approximation of verticality. Her stoop at the moment could have been to all appearances wholly from grave exhaustion. After her tears, she looked much more the woman that she was, rather than the child she seemed at times by her newness to being a human.
“Come, we’ll bring you to a room you can have.” said Dr. Kilver. “It’s high time you were clothed in human fashion.”
Gibbsen nodded. And she needed a wash – he knew there were some smells even humans could detect.
Nurse Kley met them as they left, to whom Dr. Kilver explained briefly and discretely. Gareth gave Number One’s hand to the nurse at the door of her room. Then he went to a bench in the receiving bay, where he folded his arms and bowed his hooded head to sleep. Gibbsen only slept with half his brain at a time, as with dolphins, so he sent the right half to sleep and went to finish his Tough Krunchies.
Hours later, in the darkest hour before dawn, a banshee screamed again.
The red indicator light crawled up the map to sit behind the very station where they were. So, an attack, Gibbsen thought to himself. Both halves of his head were quite awake now, and he followed Gareth and Gharial, the Station Arms Commander (SAC), to the wing of the station where the enemy was approaching. SAC Gharial was missing both his legs, and for his wheelchair he rode a thing like a dark dappled grullo horse with four large bicycle wheels for legs (and with very many needle-like teeth).
Living goblin arms mounted on the upper angles of the building outside were handed semi-automatic rifles through trapdoors. A sheet of transparent spider silk was lowered in a great frame to cover the open end of the receiving bay, which faced a dirty slope into the nearest arm of the forest. Around the silk screen and over barriers of high bars a contingent of infrared cameras entered, borne on flitting membranous wings, to drop photo prints into SAC Gharial’s hands.
“Fifteen gluckasts,” he said, shuffling through the prints, “at a fair clip as well. Number One will have to hurry.”
A skinny aide-de-camp jogged to the SAC’s side.
“Number One is on the way; she is very sleepy.”
It was in fact nearly half a minute before Gibbsen could see Nurse Kley leading the little bent figure, dressed now in nightclothes consisting of a long-sleeved shirt and pyjamas, both in a light, feminine, robin’s egg blue. The aide-de-camp tipped his cap to her, and she grinned as though he had made a joke. The SAC beckoned the nurse with his finger and whispered,
“Why is she barefoot?”
“Because the slippers hurt her feet.” And apparently concrete floors did not. But this made some sense. SAC Gharial continued with a quirked eyebrow,
“And her hair?”
“A comb is not a magician,” Nurse Kley said with a huffed tone. The nurse’s own hair, which the military-minded SAC frequently made reference to, was rarely in better order than Number One’s tufted mass.
The rough yells of the gluckasts could now be heard, drawing closer: chilling, gravelly sounds. SAC Gharial looked over his shoulder to where Number One was attempting to pat the sleepiness from her face.
“Number One, Good Morning,” he said, a frank salutation in great contrast to the savage approaching roars.
“Haho,” she replied, with an odd, rising accent. The SAC gestured with his infrared photos to the darkness full of ominous snarls beyond the silk screen.
“We are equipped to take one of these freaks alive, which Dr. Kilver has requested that I do, but the rest we must kill or drive off. As you may know some of them, would you like to choose which one we will take?”
Number One bowed her head in affirmation. Gibbsen could not tell how affected she was by the prospect of her previous kind and companions being hailed with bullets, but no doubt it had happened before. She followed without hesitation when SAC Gharial beckoned her to come with him closer to the silk screen, while movement could begin to be seen on the other side, connected with the nearing cries and breaking of undergrowth.
“Turn on the floodlights,” the SAC ordered.
“It will enrage them, sir,” the aide-de-camp said as he jogged to the light controls.
“She needs to see,” the SAC said. “Only long enough for that.”
As expected, when the blackness turned to the various shades of dust and dry growth, and the devilish gang stood out suddenly like huge, badly made puppets without a stage, they reared in anger, and their chorus was like an avalanche of slate. Their darts, hurled stones, and javelins striking the silk screen made it ripple like water; however, this did not affect the visibility nearly so much as seeing through water would.
Number One was about to point out one of the beasts, when there was a sharp clink, and one of the floodlights blinked and flickered, no doubt struck by one of the gluckast projectiles (these were not great cat’s eyes, but of some yet larger, reptilian creature). When Number One again found the one she had chosen, she pointed.
“There, is with the broken horn on his head, the left side. That one is my brother. I like him more than my mother.”
“Do you wish to leave before we begin?” the SAC asked. She said simply, “No.”
SAC Gharial gave his orders – the blackness returned, and was perforated with gunfire (the bullets peering from the goblin-arm-wielded guns could see in the dark).
An oblong cage rolled on wheels through the left-hand barricade. This cage’s operation could not clearly be seen, but Gibbsen knew it well: its open end was mounted with several long appendages, like cougars’ tails but at least twice as long. These pulled it forward, and it would snare the limb of a gluckast, holding it to be shot, or catch hold of any that came to succour the first. This it carried on until it reached Number One’s brother, when it employed all its arms to drag the creature inside the cage and immobilise it. Cables hooked to the rear of the cage began to draw it back to the barricade.
A gluckast managed to evade the wall guns, and charge the silk screen with an axe. On the inside Gareth walked to meet it, and when within five yards he put a rifle bullet between the beast’s eyes. The silk had followed the bullet the entire way, and when the fiend stumbled to the ground, the light from the bay glinted off the bullet, dangling from the exit wound in a transparent bubble of the silk amidst the hair and scales. The great ripple was still spreading across the screen. Gareth’s lips, grey as gun-smoke, did not move in the slightest smile.
The survivors became disgusted with the contest, and made off, cursing and gnashing their fangs over their shoulders as they went.
Yet the battle did not feel over, as the caged prisoner, shrieking and yammering, was now inside the barricade. It was a frightening thing, though the gluckast was enveloped in iron bars and pinioned by many living ropes. SAC Gharial’s horse wheels carried him across the bay towards the loud cage, with Number One and Gareth and Gibbsen behind him.
“Now,” he said with simplicity in the midst of the tumult, “let us see what we have for Dr. Kilver.”
“Haho, Brother!” Number One called out to the snarling creature, suspended like a fly in a web of spider monkey tails.
“Uklag!” it said, in a terrible serpentine voice. Number One giggled to hear the name, even so spoken.
“Uklag,” it went on in fierce pleading and fiercer anticipation, “help me, Uklag, I will help you eat all them, and we stack their flesh for the next day, I will allow you to lick all the blood!”
Regardless of the subject matter, gluckast voices always were an eerie sound to Gibbsen: so out of place, like seeing a Venus flytrap, a plant, move, and that to trap and kill a small flying animal.
“Look to the good dress they gave to me,” was all Number One replied, slapping the thighs of her pyjamas. Perhaps gluckasts referred to anything a female wore as a dress.
When her gesture had shaken her clothes, something seemed to have struck the beast: it shuddered, and a horrible new kind of urgency filled its voice.
“Uklag, you… the smell, the smell of you…” it gave a cough of pure gluttonous desire, “you smell you are food, I want to eat you on this time, little sister! Why do I want? What is little sister this time?”
“Say good things to me, Brother, or I will want them to kill you.”
“Kill me… them to kill me? Why, because you are sick? Your sick make you smell that you are food! Be not sick, and then I will not want to kill you.”
“A human make me sick, and I want to kill you! No, be sick! Be sick, please be sick!”
She plunged herself against Gareth, knocking her head against his rifle before he could move it aside quickly enough.
“I do not want to want to kill him,” she cried into the rough blackness of his robe.
Dr. Kilver came at a run, with a stinger at the end of a rod. The twisted beast roared, but the arms held firm, and the stinger did its work. SAC Gharial leaned and whispered to the doctor,
“What was the delay?”
“I had to receive the weight and the blood sample – it is a simple sting to reduce the immune system, however, it must be correctly matched, or…” The doctor glanced to Number One, her face still buried, and her shoulders trembling under Gareth’s lean arm, and he spoke to her: “Number One, we do not know whether your brother will survive this sickness as you have. Do you wish to say goodbye now, while you can?”
“No!” she said, turning her face only enough to be heard. “No, I cannot. I must say goodbye before I was sick! This time, nothing. When Brother is sick, then, then Haho!”
“You’re standing straighter this morning, Number One,” Raleigh said.
“Yes, I am worse each day,” Number One replied, though of course not as if unhappy.
They had been curious days – Number One had known much of human life, as an intruder and predator; living it was new to her. As well, memories of her human victims as Uklag hovered behind everything: it took great coaxing and comforting for her to use certain closets, and she absolutely refused to look at or touch any broom.
She was now making her way with them to the breakfast table, dressed in an actual dress, bought for her by Gareth in a very strange outing with Nurse Kley. It was burgundy, with eastern floral print, at once rich and simple; even Gibbsen didn’t mind it.
Dr. Kilver joined them at the table; while Number One always appeared glad to see him, she behaved very nervously when he spoke. The mention of her brother clearly made her so uncomfortable that they had ceased to speak of him or his progress in her presence. It had been hard even in the large station to avoid hearing her brother’s uproar when he was in greater pain. For some days now though, it had been quiet.
With her meals she took the doctor’s prescribed broth to help build her up, which she thoroughly relished (Gibbsen would have liked it better if she had slipped it to him to finish for her). Certain prescribed herbs she made faces over, but laughed (Gibbsen would not have eaten such strong tasting things if she had offered anyway).
After the meal, Dr. Kilver wiped his dense moustache, and made eye contact with Number One. She immediately looked away, as if thinking.
“Number One,” the doctor said, “it is at last safe to give you some certain news: your brother is fully conscious, and he wishes to speak with his little sister.”
Her hand began to tremble, and she quickly hid it under the table – where Gibbsen could watch it trembling clearly. She still looked away as she replied,
“Is he sick?”
“Yes,” said the doctor, with a glimmer of subdued humour, “he is very sick.”
Needless to say, everyone present was curious to go with Number One, but naturally only Gareth went this first time. Gibbsen didn’t count (which he often used to good advantage).
Her brother met them – standing erect, in a dark suit, with combed hair, and wearing shoes. He gave a toothy smile, which in his lined and weary face looked noble.
“Brother,” Number One said quietly. She went and put her head against him, and he stroked her tumultuous hair. “Haho,” she said, muffled in his suit coat.
“Haho, little sister. Number One they are calling you.”
“And they will call you Number Two!”
Dr. Kilver shook his head, with a smile under his moustache.
“I and the SAC took the liberty of naming him: we chose Moses, because we drew him out.”
“Yes,” her brother said, “I am Moses.”
“They named you!” Number One said in an awestruck voice, with her hands on his arms (which was silly behaviour to Gibbsen).
Drops of sweat were growing on Moses’ brow, and he stepped awkwardly away from his sister – but it was only to sit down in a chair, and slump forward as though he had been holding his breath until that point.
“I stand hard to stand so high for meeting you, Sister. So it is not easy to stand.”
“Your heart was beating hard not because I see you?” Number One asked, with some very human humour in her tone. Another smile was his only response to that. He spoke to the doctor:
“We will choose a next gluckast this time, and will take her?”
“We can hope for a good success in taking another in, yes.”
“Please, choose the one I want: she who was my mate.”
They were solemn faces gathered at an empty table, a few days later. Under the table, hidden from all but Gibbsen, Raleigh’s heavily damaged leg was tended by masses of long, stringy air-fish. Moses was not trying to sit upright. Number One clung to his arm. The raging shrieks could be heard at intervals again, this time sung by the female gluckast they had captured: Moses’ mate.
Raleigh and another (named Elroy) had gone in a chopper, with Moses to guide them. They had returned shell-shocked by how near they had come to disaster. It had been a wonder that they achieved their goal with only an injury, great as the injury was.
“I dislike,” Raleigh was saying, “to kill gluckasts now, knowing they could be changed. It feels like murder.”
“It is not,” Moses said. “Uklag, I would kill her. Number One is my sister.”
“Moses is my brother,” Number One added.
Mundbern said, “To forbear to create human life is no more murder than it is murder to forbear to marry and have children. Meanwhile, if the gluckasts pose a threat to human life, it would be more akin to murder to allow them to live.”
“Would it not be best,” Raleigh said, “to release the contagion somehow, infecting the gluckasts en masse?”
Elroy said, “We still do not know how likely they are to survive the transition without care. And the gluckasts would kill the infected as soon as they began to smell like food. The banshee cried for a reason when Uklag turned to Number One.”
A particularly bestial yell from Moses’ mate drifted to their ears. Raleigh winced as if it had been loud.
“Why does Dr. Kilver not anaesthetise his projects?” It may have been a technically sympathetic statement, but Gibbsen was sure it would not be perceived as such by humans. And it was indeed strange that the doctor did not anaesthetise, or else that it was ineffective.
“I am sorry,” Moses said. Raleigh looked up, distracted from the pain in his leg for the first time perhaps.
“This isn’t your fault, Moses. Experiments go wrong, discoveries have a cost. As it is, I’m sure this will be well worth the trouble in the end.”
Raleigh’s sentence was punctuated by a brutal yammering from the captive gluckast.
A defective air-fish had come loose from Raleigh’s leg, and drifted near Gibbsen, who ate it. It was not crunchy, but at least it had only a little smoky taste.
In the days that followed the screaming did not cease – rather, it changed from the animal uproar to human wails and cries, and continued unabated. Something must have gone wrong. After nearly a day and a half of this, Gibbsen went to investigate on his own.
The new human was still in the containment cage, though the restraining arms had been dismissed. She was still in the coarse gluckast garment. Though seemingly strong enough to stand, she crawled on the ground, distraught, grinding her teeth and weeping violently. The food offered her had been eaten, but clearly in a wild manner, which left much of it spattered and smeared like a wolf’s kill.
Dr. Kilver and Nurse Kley, who had apparently just witnessed such a scene to give the patient dinner, were discussing in undertones what to do.
“…Tranquilliser would work,” the nurse was saying, “now that she is a human?”
“It is detrimental in any case,” the doctor replied, “and a full examination seems invasive when we can see quite well that bodily she becomes healthier by the hour.”
It was quite obvious to Gibbsen that the woman’s pain was emotional. Humans ought to be more perceptive in such things. The doctor went on,
“I hate for their meeting to be this way for Moses, but by now it seems he is our only hope to possibly get a word out of her about what is ailing her so.”
Moses was sent for, and he came in, his shoes flopping awkwardly, being a size too large so as not to hurt his changing feet. The doctor and nurse respectfully left him alone. Gibbsen did not count: he stayed.
Moses began bluntly:
“I was Thakrut, you were Ugnaka; this time we are people. People!”
The woman looked at him with wide, tear-filled eyes.
“Thakrut? Do not see me. I am weak!” And again she filled her cage with a raging, hopeless cry. Moses attempted again when she had to catch her breath.
“I am Moses this time. And I will give you a name. I do not hate you, I love you, my mate.”
Her lip curled in a sneer of anger.
“You love me? You love me, and I am weak?”
“I love you, more this time than I love you that time.”
She turned or rolled towards him, raised herself on her hands, and paused a moment before saying clearly,
“Come, hold me, make me know what is you love me.”
Gibbsen’s hair stood out straight, and he gave a warning, “Chit-chit!” How could humans be so blind?
Moses stood so tall that he swayed, and the sweat ran to his chin. The foolish lock obeyed him, letting him through the outer door of the cage, and fastening again behind him.
As the inner door unlocked for him, and he stepped through, Gibbsen heard a banshee scream in the far-off map room.
Moses stood above his mate, like a priest in a dark suit. She crawled nearer to him slowly, no longer weeping, but neither did she wipe her tear-stained face. He smiled, though he shook with the exertion of straightening his still crooked back.
“My mate, I give you your name: it is ‘Beauty’.”
Her face showed no sign.
“I want no name,” she said.
She stretched out her arms to him. Gibbsen gave another warning cry: he saw the cold, deliberate look in her very human eyes. Moses willingly bent to embrace her – until she sank her teeth into his neck.
His grief-stricken wail was horrible to hear, though quickly broken. The woman twisted her head like a tearing fish, bit again, attacked the wound with her fingers. She moaned in despair at the lack of her claws, and whipped her mate’s head against one of the bars as if he was no more than a rag doll.
The report of a gun stunned Gibbsen’s brain and set his ears ringing. Gareth was there, and at a look from his shaded eyes both locks unfastened. He strode through the doors, his dark robe billowing. With a kick he flung the woman aside onto the floor, where she twitched, and blinked in the blood that gushed from the bullet hole between her eyes.
Gareth holstered his smoking revolver and crouched low, staring into Moses’ eye, less than an inch from his face.
Then he stood slowly, and called to Number One. After she crept timidly in from somewhere near, he beckoned to her.
“You must say goodbye to your brother now.”
The only sound then was of her bare feet on the concrete, and her breathing; both quickened at the first glimpse, and became constricted with tears. Before she reached her brother she had to cling to the bars as she went. Beside his body she sank to the polluted ground, gathered his bloodied and broken head into her lap, tried to meet his blank eyes, and tried over and over to call his name through the shaken weight of her weeping. He was dead. Her brother was dead.
Dr. Kilver came in, and leaned on the cage. He spoke in a low, drawn voice,
“Gareth, why did you let her see this?”
“Because, Doctor, she will learn the hard way what her brother has learned the hardest way: not all humans are good.”
Adolphus Search and Rescue had dealt with many serious injuries, and could have saved Moses if the murderess had only assaulted his throat. However, the angle and violence of the final blow had broken both his skull and his neck. He was dead before his murderer was killed.
“It doesn’t seem right,” Raleigh said, “to go and bring in another gluckast so soon after this happened.”
Dr. Kilver’s humorous gleam had been replaced with a downcast but stubborn front.
“We do not know,” he said, “how long Number One will be contagious – it is most crucial that we continue, now that she is all we have left. She is square one.”
“This is not a search and rescue,” Mundbern said then, “no human dies if a gluckast remains a gluckast. Are we to abandon the purpose of Adolphus Search and Rescue, and let human beings go unhelped because we are spent on this endeavor?”
“Gluckasts are one of the chief threats we face – eradicating them is a cause even without their humanisation.”
“So far it has proven more dangerous than killing them outright. And how quickly do the gluckasts breed? Eradication may never happen.”
Elroy put in a word: “This could change very rapidly: it is a unique case where in less than a month we have a fully grown person, ready to help so long as they are willing. This is faster than even insects breed, and with their help we could build an entire compound: soon we would even be capable of infecting the gluckasts and tending for the infected en masse.”
“And,” said Dr. Kilver, “this all rests on our success at this present stage.”
“It appears that you ask us to declare a war.”
“I do. Only I would say that war is already declared.”
“Remember,” said Mundbern, “that it was not a gluckast who killed Moses. It was a human.”
“I mean that the very nature of the gluckast is a declaration of war. We simply see now a path to victory. We must take it, or we have surrendered to the Devil.”
“I wonder,” said Raleigh, “how the gluckast originated, having such a nature.”
“Some diabolical foul play – perhaps better not to know. I have no doubt that this mysterious contagion of humanity is the riposte of heaven.”
Gareth said, “It will succeed.”
Number One was leaving Raleigh behind on his crutches, as they made their way to the receiving bay where Gareth would be returning. Gibbsen came at a more reasonable pace – he missed his master, but would not see him sooner by hurrying. The banshee scream had come while Gibbsen was helping Ansel, one of the mechanics, so Gareth had gone with Elroy.
Nurse April was waiting in the bay, as was the rolling cage with the restraining arms – from this Gibbsen surmised that a child had been rescued, and also a gluckast taken. He wondered how that had gone.
Number One sat down by the wall. Though she could now stand quite straight, it still tired her after some time, especially when walking. Though her feet could fit in shoes now, she yet went barefoot. Raleigh came, as out of breath as she had been, and leaned against the wall beside her. He eyed the cage.
“You know, Number One, we could try and find a quieter place for you to live…”
“No, I will not leave. Unless,” she added in a softer tone, “you need my room for somebody you rescue?”
“Not at all, I only thought… but there’s the chopper, I think.”
Gibbsen had noticed that Number One had noticed the chopper’s sound much sooner than Raleigh – only a little after Gibbsen had himself. She had good ears for a human.
As the shape of the chopper could be made out, something twisted and curious seemed to be happening towards its front. Then they saw that a struggling and raving gluckast was clutched by the gargantuan foreclaws of the chopper. Raleigh shook his head.
“That man can make his chopper do anything. Doing it that way would have saved me my leg.”
The cage took the catch from the hovering chopper and rolled back to allow it to land. Dr. Kilver arrived to administer his injection to the raving beast. Number One spit in her hand and playfully held it out; Dr. Kilver smiled.
As the cage rolled away, Elroy disembarked and came carrying a small boy in his arms, whom he set on his feet before Nurse April, a tall lady with her black hair in a braid. She bent to wipe a splash of mud from the boy’s ear. The boy said he hurt his arm, and showed her a rather bad scratch. It had no doubt been a simple accident, but the blood may have been what had attracted hunting gluckasts. Nurse April took his hand and brought him away to be mended.
Number One had watched the small boy through all this with a strained and intent look, as if she was a little girl pinned in depths of shy, motherly emotion.
After this, for all her hurry and waiting, she was apparently too bemused and nervous to get up or otherwise to greet Gareth, who now came with his sable robe and silent spurs. Though, as before, the cries of the gluckast could distantly be heard, after the chopper’s noise had subsided there was comparative quiet. This was broken by Raleigh.
“Not to doubt your medical verdict in any way, Kilver, but the thought still troubles me that these gluckasts which we treat as animals could after all be severely deformed humans.”
“The proof I have,” the doctor replied, “does rest on a certain amount of knowledge and experience. For the layman,” in his eye there was a glint of humour towards Raleigh, “there is a simple and sure proof, which is the impossibility of a human and gluckast interbreeding.”
“I pray to God that’s never been tried!” Raleigh said. After this, Gibbsen could tell that in the minds of each person present the question naturally followed of such a proof for the humanity of those who ceased to be gluckasts. No one spoke it, no one needed to, yet Raleigh displayed some of the same awkwardness as if it had been spoken, and specifically in connection to Number One.
Gareth moved to stand before Number One, and looked steadily into her eyes from within his hood. She returned his gaze, only blinking a little. After what seemed a long time, he looked up at the wall, and spoke to all there:
“I have thorough proof by my own means of this woman’s humanity. For the sake of those who do not have Dr. Kilver’s skill, or mine, I would prove the humanity of her womb.”
He turned, strode several yards, and faced her again. From across the receiving bay, he held out to her his thin, grey, firm, unwavering right hand.
“Will you be my own?”
Raleigh cleared his throat.
“Quite a sudden question, wouldn’t you say?”
Gibbsen was reminded again how dull were some humans’ senses – it was clear to him that the question was in no way sudden. Raleigh went on,
“After all she’s only just begun a new life; hasn’t gone far from the station.” He then addressed Number One directly: “Would you not like to think the question over, and maybe have a chance for a wider experience, meet more people, perhaps – no offence to anyone present – perhaps a few folks less withered and colourless?”
Number One laughed merrily at this.
“What you say is funny, Raleigh!” Then her face abruptly became somber. “I saw many humans.”
She looked across to where Gareth stood, quiet and still as a haunting, antique painting of some allegorical scene. There was fear in her eyes, quickly being swallowed up by longing, and doubly drowned in a hopeful assurance.
“He saved me,” she said, and stood up.
“He gave me learning.” She took a step.
“He gave me clothes.” Another step. She always wore the dark print dress he had bought her, though faintly darker patches remained of her brother’s blood.
“He gave me comfort.” In time with each phrase, she took an intent, solemn step in her bare feet.
“I saw many humans, I saw them the times they died, the times they had braveness, and the times they were weak; I saw what they love, and they did not love, what they love more, and they love most, and what they hate. These times I saw humans. The humans who others thought, thought they were good, and they were not good; thought they were not good, and they were good. The time I was weak, he came into the dark, he dug me out. He got free, the time my father had him: cut the claw of death. He is ugly, but he is strong, and he is clean. He is terrifying: that is what are angels.”
After twenty-nine steps, she stood close enough to look up into his hood. She put her hand – still with her spit on it – in his.
“Make me your own, sir!”
He clasped her hand gently, and drew her the last step, quite close to him.
“Your name, is ‘Enid’.”
There was a quiver in her, which had nothing to do with trying to stand straight.
“I am named, this time… I am Enid.”
She closed her eyes, pressed her tumbled, touselled head to the folds of his bosom, and sobbed vigorously. Her hand that was in his he lifted and held close to his shoulder, and his other arm he put around her back.
Her tears were a strong but brief overflow, subsiding back to the quiet trembles. These she began to succeed in stilling by nestling tightly against Gareth’s tempered immovability.
There was a squeak as one of Raleigh’s crutches slipped, and a loud crack as he just saved himself from falling sideways.
“Sorry, Excuse me…” He cleared his throat, gestured, and blinked. Gibbsen was gratified that this human was at least perceiving some of the importance of the situation now. Enid smiled at Raleigh’s apologetic display, and hid her face again.
Dr. Kilver, who had remained as fixed as a tree, now asked quietly,
“Gareth, would you like me to get anything for her… or both of you?”
Gareth shook his head.
“Send for Nurse Kley; she will be glad to arrange the necessities.”
The doctor nodded, and went to speak to a mask-like face in the centre of a box of controls on the wall.
Raleigh asked Gareth what family he had, who might wish to know.
“Apart from Enid, only my father,” Gareth said, and Raleigh made a gloomy grunt. Gareth’s father was a political prisoner of Nova Atta – had been for nine years.
Enid brought her face a little from its hiding place and looked up, but her eyes remained barely open.
“I had a family, the time Moses was here. This time, again, I have a family.”
Gareth gave her hand back to her, bent down, and took her up in his arms – easily, in a stately manner, without flourish. As he carried her away, she pulled a loose part of his robe over her head.
Gibbsen did not follow – in this case, he was certain that he did indeed count.
A few days later there was a celebratory gathering at a restaurant: seven or so of Gareth’s closest friends from the station, and those to whom Enid had become quite dear in the past month.
They met at the restaurant Gellisa’s, whose entrance was the living jaws of a giant beast (whether of land or sea was not immediately apparent). The jaws could not close while the place was open, but had been trained to open wider when a guest entered. Gibbsen liked Gellisa’s – not because of the smells, or because of the rather sentimentally droning music, but because he liked to watch the articulated joints of the arthropods in the aquarium.
The gathering drank the health of the new family – some of them unfortunately with alcohol. Gareth drank water, and did not permit alcohol to Enid or Gibbsen – not that Gibbsen had any inclination to such an obvious toxin. It was yet another point in which the dullness of humans amazed him. Enid seemed curious, but to Gibbsen it appeared that she was curious mainly of why others took it, not because her senses failed to warn her against it.
Gareth spoke no more than usual, but fervently reciprocated many friendly embraces, and clasped friendly hands with his precise and expressive fingers. Enid primarily revelled in challenging any who would consent to a game of Nine Men’s Morris that was on the table: a little square of wood with holes for some light or dark pegs. She lost mostly, but was learning quite well.
When nearly everyone had gone, and Gibbsen was experimentally gnawing a few bones, Enid put the Nine Men’s Morris on the bench and went against Gibbsen until they were to leave. He had gotten someone to play with.
Enid’s mother was quite interesting as a human. Though a small gluckast, she grew in the transition much beyond what came only from straightening, so that she was all but startlingly tall. She also appeared athletic, and not in a lean way like Gareth. Gibbsen was curious whether she was as powerful as she looked. She had named herself “Ardyth”.
She was sitting, as was her habit, on a bench in the receiving bay named “Errol” (the same where her daughter became a bride), to watch when a transport vehicle was bringing in sick gluckasts. There was blood and claw marks on the sides of the vehicle, and shreds of flesh on its horns. Though it had been a near thing, all were uninjured, and so it was a glad time. The gluckasts had been greatly reduced, though Adolphus Search and Rescue was kept in more labour than ever – the infection had broken free, and it was now a constant race to find all the infected.
Gareth was also watching (he had not been on this run), rocking his baby girl in his arms. Gibbsen considered rocking silly; babies were extravagant things, but he liked them anyway. This one was named “Angharad”.
Enid came at a trot, having fetched something.
“I wanted to show you this, Mother. Dr. Kilver kept Father’s claw, he preserved it.”
She proffered the gruesome artifact, which her mother handled with interest.
“Are you sorry,” Enid asked, “that my lover killed Father?”
“Oh, no,” her mother replied, then cocked her head. “Though I do wonder what sort of person he would have made.”
Ardyth spoke without a trace of the gluckast accent – it was eerie when they had learned that this was because as a gluckast she would mimic human speech to lure people to their deaths.
“Speaking of sorts,” she went on, “I also wonder how your daughter has not a trace of your husband’s complexion.” She gestured with the claw to the baby’s rosy skin.
Enid sat down and leaned on her mother’s brawny arm.
“My husband was not grey the time he was birthed. It is argyria.” (she was careful to pronounce the word correctly.) “It was a… I did not understand yet. He used it to fight demons in another country.” She tried unsuccessfully to catch her mother’s eye. “Mother, do you believe you will take a husband again?”
“No, unless I can persuade that Mundbern fellow,” Ardyth said with a funny half-smile.
Little Angharad began to groan; Gareth touched his fingertip to her lips, and she responded by giving it a suck. Her desires thus made clear, Gareth delivered her to Enid’s bosom, and sitting down he put his arms around Enid’s shoulders to conceal the motherly feeding process under the broad sleeves of his dark robe.
They heard a banshee scream, and soon saw their friends in another great vehicle heading out of the bay into the dark. The noise of the departing rescuers dwindled, until the only sound was the baby’s suckling noises. After a while, Gibbsen found himself genuinely curious about what a human’s milk tasted like.
This concludes Gibbsen’s anecdote of the end of the gluckasts and certain doings of Adolphus Search and Rescue.