(1900 word short fiction)
Cara emerged from the bay, water sheeting off her limbs. Her dark hair clung to her neck like seaweed. By the time she reached the strand her legs were covered in pearly skin.
Ormsy leaned forward and stared through the remote viewing sphere. It was obscene that such a vision could conceal such potential for violence. She wore only a shift, and Ormsy could see no sign of her whalebone knife, though he knew it was there, sharp as a dagger and long enough to pierce a man’s heart.
“Can you zoom in?” he asked Dagranden.
The viewpoint swooped closer to Cara. The water droplets on her cheeks glistened, and her throat pulsed with the beat of her heart.
“Mind if I eat?” Dagranden said.
Ormsy didn’t shift his gaze. “Don’t let the Boss catch you.”
Dagranden pulled a paper-wrapped roll from his knapsack, which slumped against the base of the sharp-cornered control panel, and tore back the paper. The scent of raw onion wafted across the control room.
“Trouble with the authorities again?” Ormsy asked.
“You’d think it was World War IV. They held me for ten hours on my way home.” A tendril of onion hung from the corner of Dagranden’s mouth. “Soon as I got there I had to come back.”
Ormsy spared a moment to be grateful he’d been able to move out of Dagranden’s part of town. At least most nights he made it home unmolested.
Cara stared along the sweep of coastline where the forest grew down to the rocky shore. The hem of her shift fluttered in the breeze.
“I bet she’s going east,” Dagranden said.
“I don’t think so,” Ormsy said.
“Not back west?”
“She’s headed for the Northern Ocean.”
Dagranden choked on his mouthful. “Overland?”
Cara cast a last look at the expanse of water and set off running up the beach towards the hills to the north.
“How did you know?”
Footfalls sounded on the stairs. Dagranden gulped down his mouthful and thrust the half-eaten roll into his knapsack. Both men swivelled towards the door, which swung open to reveal the Boss’ towering form.
“Report,” the Boss said.
Ormsy stood. “Sir, Cara emerged seven minutes ago and headed north. The team’s in place to intercept her at Hummeltor.”
“Finally. Catch her and there’s a commendation in it for you. I’ll get you transferred and you’ll be able to move out of that closet.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“Good man.” The Boss sniffed the air. “Is that onion?”
Dagranden might have turned to sandstone.
“Dagranden, if you’re eating again I’ll transfer you back to the grind.”
Ormsy’s tongue felt coated in sand. “It’s just the remote viewer’s electrics. They make that smell when they’re heating up.”
The Boss grunted and fixed Dagranden with a penetrating gaze. Dagranden stared back, his face pasty. In the sphere, Cara ran up the trail with bounding strides.
The Boss marched out and slammed the door behind him.
“Oh, God,” Dagranden said. “Sorry, thank you.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Eventually Dagranden’s hands stopped shaking. “Is the team really at Hummeltor? “You were that sure?”
“I need this enough that I risked it.” That was an understatement. “Sooner or later Cara was bound to head for her own kind.”
“If you get promoted, do you think the Boss’ll give me your job?”
“No one better for it.” Ormsy wasn’t exaggerating. Three months in the control room and Dagranden could manipulate the remote viewing sphere like a maestro.
Cara stopped on the trail leading away from the shore, her attention fixed on something ahead.
“She doesn’t look that dangerous,” Dagranden said.
Ormsy snorted. They never did. “Zoom out. I can’t see what she’s looking at.”
The image in the remote viewing sphere drew back. A dozen paces ahead of Cara, a doe stood on a trail, a fawn peeping around her. The deer’s legs were locked stiff, her head thrown high and her glorious eyes wide. Cara mirrored the stance. Her hair was dry at the edges, and a few strands ribboned about her face.
“What’s she doing?” Dagranden whispered, though there was no risk Cara could hear them.
Ormsy half expected Cara to go for her knife, but the tension ebbed from her body and the doe too relaxed. “It’s a creature of the forest, she’s a creature of the sea. I’d wager they have some kind of understanding.”
Neither Cara nor the doe moved.
Dagranden fished out his roll and took another bite. “How do you know so much about her kind?”
Three years painstakingly clearing them from the Southern Reaches while trying to muzzle his conscience, that was how. Cara was the last. “I was here when the Cleansing started. You pay attention, you pick things up.”
The doe took a tentative step towards Cara, and another. Cara knelt and lowered her head.
The fluorescent control room looked flat and unreal around Ormsy. He could almost feel the loam crumble underfoot and smell Cara’s salty scent.
The doe touched her nose to Cara’s forehead. Cara looked up and the two breathed each other’s breath while the forest whispered around them and far overhead a seagull wheeled and cried.
~ ~ ~
It was past noon by the time Cara drew near the village of Hummeltor, nestled on the trail between sheer-sided peaks. Cara would have to take East Street or West Street through the settlement; Ormsy had stationed two men at the far end of each, and the other two on the near side of the village, ready to block Cara’s retreat along either street. It would have been safer for Cara to sneak through the village under night’s cover, but she had to reach the ocean by sundown. He had her.
“So this is it,” Dagranden said.
It was nearly over. The team would snare Cara and the authorities would neutralise her. Ormsy’s work would be done and the Southern Reaches free of the scourge of her people, the Cleansing at an end. He’d get his commendation and move up a rung, and he and his wife would finally move into a full-sized apartment. He’d have evenings off and a real life that consisted of more than the reflective surfaces of the control room. He would try to forget what he’d done. He closed his eyes for a moment.
Cara hesitated on the edge of Hummeltor where East Street split from West. The streets were deserted, the inhabitants in the forest with their axes and Ormsy’s men well hidden. Her hair was fully dry now, and it wafted about her bare shoulders.
“What’s taking her so long?” Dagranden said.
“She knows.” The words came out rustily.
Cara chose East Street. She kept to the shadows by the buildings, moving as inconspicuously as only wild creatures can.
Ormsy drew the mic close to his lips and pressed project. “Team C, move out.”
“This is Team C,” sounded the voice through the com. “Moving out.”
When Cara saw the two men with immobilisers block the street ahead a ripple of tension ran up her body.
Team A, East Street. He just had to say it and Cara’s retreat would be cut off.
Team C hadn’t spotted her yet. She stood still as a sapling.
Just say it.
Another voice buzzed through the com. “Team A awaiting orders.”
Dagranden turned a dial and the remote viewing sphere zoomed in on Cara’s face. Her expression told Ormsy she knew there were men behind her, that they would cut off her retreat before she could get five paces. The fear in her face hardened to resignation. She reached down the front of her shift and drew her whalebone knife.
Ormsy hated this part. Why couldn’t she have accepted her fate quietly? He pressed project. Say it.
The remote viewing sphere zoomed closer still, right on those sea-green eyes.
Cara jerked her head up. She seemed to be staring straight at Ormsy through the sphere. It was impossible, and yet they locked gazes. Her eyes were as fathomless as the ocean, and he knew they saw his guilt. Her breath whispered on his cheek, and he inhaled.
“Ormsy?” Dagranden said.
“This is Team A. Do we block East Street?”
Ormsy’s finger had slipped off the project button. He stamped it with the heel of his hand. “All teams, West Street. Now.”
The remote viewing sphere zoomed way out.
“What are you doing?” Dagranden said.
Team C withdrew from the street ahead of Cara. Cara scanned the street and looked back to the sphere. She reached out her hand to the empty air. Ormsy reached out his own and his fingertips brushed the buzzing surface of the sphere. The buzz leapt to his arm.
Cara ran north. Her gazelle-like strides carried her down the empty street and when she cleared the last building Ormsy let his face sink into his hands.
“This is Team A on West Street. No sign of Cara.”
“You let her go.” Dagranden stood, colour hot in his cheeks. “The Boss’ll have our hides.”
“My hide.” Ormsy leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. He could still feel the ghost of Cara’s breath on his face.
“What the skiff, Ormsy? You were set. You had her. You could’ve been out of here.” Dagranden waved a hand at the reflective surfaces of the control room.
Ormsy laid his palms of the cool surface of the console. His right hand still vibrated. In the sphere, Cara ran, the forest flashing by. Ahead, the trees opened out and sunlight glinted on the crests of the waves. She had reached the Northern Ocean.
The control room door banged open.
“Boss!” Dagranden said.
“Did you catch Cara yet?”
Ormsy felt numb. “She got away.”
“Got away?” The remote viewing sphere shuddered at the Boss’ voice.
“I let her go.”
“I didn’t hear that,” the Boss said. “It sounded like you said you let her go. The last of her kind in the Southern Reaches, and you let her go?”
“She’s not in the Southern Reaches any more,” Ormsy said. “She’s on the shore of the Northern Ocean.”
“She’s a danger to mankind.”
On that distant coastline, Cara stepped into the ocean and waded deeper until the water wet the pearly flesh above her knees. She raised her arms and plunged into the waves. The ripples and swells of the ocean rose and fell, leaving no sign of her passage. She broke the surface farther out to sea, floated for a long moment, and dove. Her tail threw a shower of glittering spray, and then she was gone.
“She’s not a danger any more,” Ormsy said.
The Boss breathed in barely-controlled puffs. “Pack up your gear, Ormsy. You’re gone.”
Ormsy sat without moving for a long time after the Boss left, staring into the sphere that had turned as dark as the ocean depths. Dagranden came to stand by his chair and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“You saw it too, didn’t you?” Ormsy said. “Tell me I did the right thing.”
Dagranden spread his hands.
The tingling in Ormsy’s arm concentrated in his hand and hardened until he held something that hadn’t been there moments ago. It was long and smooth, and sticky with salt. He opened his fingers, and on his palm rocked Cara’s whalebone knife. Half believing it was a mirage, he raised it to the fluorescent lights and caught a whiff of the sea.
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