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ECHO CITY

As it left the city, the thing did not once look back. It walked with heavy steps, looked forward with rheumy eyes, and its misted breath soon dispersed in the air. It did not look back, because its purpose was ahead, and large though this thing was, its brain was small and simple, its reason for being very precise. It moved away from the world and out into the Bonelands, and it would never return.

Darkness concealed the start of its journey. It was aware of people in the buildings and ruins around it, but Skulk Canton was a place whose residents would keep to themselves. If they did not, its maker had instructed it to force their attention away. In its rudimentary mind, the idea of violence was little different from the process of placing one foot in front of the other, or breathing, or blinking its eyes to clear them of sand.

For a while as it started across the desert, the ground still bore signs of Echo City. Rubble from tumbled walls married its path, and it had to step aside or climb over. One spread of land was scarred with the evidence of digging, the reason and results long since lost to time. And here and there it saw the remains of a body.

The moon’s pale crescent lit its way. Beyond the moon, countless stars speckled the clear, cold night. The thing had no concept of what moon and stars were, because they bore no connection to its purpose. But it looked up at them with curiosity nonetheless. Its maker had granted it that, at least.

Soon it was away from the outer limits of the city. It walked as it had been instructed, avoiding places where the sands looked thin and loose and keeping to harder, easier surfaces. No plants existed out here, and no animals – nothing but sand and rock and the dry, heavy air it breathed. Sometimes a gentle breeze whispered a skein of sand across its path, and it held its breath as it passed through the brief, scouring cloud.

Its body was clothed in heavy leathers. It had watched its maker constructing this suit, stitching together the garments of many normal people to create something expansive enough to cover its huge torso. The suit was tied around its bulky thighs, upper arms, and neck, and the exposed surfaces of its arms and legs had been sprayed with a thick dark lotion to ward off the desert’s inimical influence. Woven into the layers of leather were fluid sacs, in a network of narrow tubes that merged eventually beneath a thin, hollow bone straw protruding beneath its chin. It took frequent sips of water, and it was not long before the sips were tainted by the salty taste of its own perspiration.

Its shoes were tied leather folded many times, spiked with iron studs to give grip. It carried no weapons. It bore no pack. The prints it left behind were wide, long, and deep, and they would command awe were they noticed in the days following. But by then the thing would be dead, and it would never hear the myths of its passing.

As dawn set the eastern desert aflame, the thing marched on. It glanced to its left only once, experiencing a brief flare of wonder and awe. Somewhere deep down basked shadows of memories that were not its own, in which the view of such sunrises was interrupted by the silhouettes of spires and walls, towers and roofs. Such a natural, unhindered view as this was something all but unique, but the giant creature was not here to pontificate. It was here only to walk.

The desert stretched before it. To the south, a low range of hills buckled the horizon. They were perhaps a day’s journey distant, though distance here was difficult to judge, and there were no maps of the Bonelands. It focused on the hills as it walked. By the time the sun had passed its zenith and begun its fall to the west, the hills seemed no closer, and it had to reassess its estimate of the time it would take to reach them. Beyond the hills, so every story said, there was only more poisoned desert. They were a meaningless marker at best. It might reach them . . . but probably not. Already it could feel the rot.

It paused to eat. Sitting on its huge haunches, the reduced weight of Echo City now many miles to the rear, it felt the rumbling, gnawing processes inside. There was a little pain, but it could compare the sensation only to the shimmering heat haze hanging above the desert far to the west – an in – substantial thing that would vanish as soon as it closed its eyes. It closed its eyes, and the pain was warmth.

When it stood and started walking again, it looked down at its bare, sprayed legs. The skin was peeling, revealing a dark red rawness beneath. Its feet were blistered and swollen, and several of the tight leather straps had burst. It kicked off one of the folded leather shoes, and it flapped on the desert floor as the folds unwrapped. And then the shoe was still, and there it would stay forever.

A while later the creature removed the other shoe, because wearing only one had been swinging it slowly around in a great are across the sands. It corrected its direction of travel and set off once more.

It had passed several bodies on its walk, but just as the sun touched the western horizon it came across the first of the ruined transports. It was a rusted, rotten hulk, its wheels skeletons of metal wrapped in the brittle remains of parched wood. The creature walked close and touched one of the wheels, curiosity lighting a small flame in its limited mind. The wood came apart under its clumsy stroke, drifting to the ground in a cloud of dust and splinters. A gentle breeze that the creature had not even felt carried some of the wooden shards away, and they added themselves to the desert.

Before the ruined vehicle lay two great skeletons of the things that had pulled it this far. Pelts were draped across their bones in places, and within the stark confines of rib cages were the scattered remains of insides not yet burned to nothing by the relentless sun. Their horns were long and graceful, pitted now from the effects of the desert air.

Here and there it saw the mummified remains of human beings. They had been riding the wagon, and perhaps when their beasts succumbed to the desert’s toxic influence, they had walked on until they all lay down together to die. The creature did not like to look at them. Though its maker had made it unique, somehow they reminded it of itself.

So it walked on and stared at that undulating horizon, and sometimes the texture of the ground beneath it changed. But it did not look down.

When dusk began to fall, it guessed that Echo City would now be out of sight behind it. But still it did not look back. The future lay before it – too far away to see, beyond its ability to feel – and as it considered what might come, the thing it carried inside seemed excited at the prospect.

It walked through the freezing night. Its motion kept it warm, but all the while it felt itself sickening. The desert’s lethal, toxic influence was making itself felt upon the creature’s flesh and bones, its blood and fluids, and though built strong it was now becoming weak. Darkness was its friend, though under the silvery sheen of moonlight it could still witness some of its flesh’s demise. It was not worried, because it had not been made that way. But it did pause and stare up at the moon, and it realized that come dawn it would never see this sight again.

Sad, unsure what sadness was, it walked on.

When dawn broke on that second day, the creature realized just where the Markoshi Desert had gained its more common name.

The hills were still distant, and speckling the surface of the desert before them lay thousands of bones. There were skulls, some still bearing the leathery remnants of scalp and hair, and a few wearing the wrinkled skin of their hopeful, desperate owners. Beneath and around the skulls lay the skeletons. Older remains were all but buried by drifts, but more-recent escapees from Echo City lay atop the sand. Many of them were still clothed in the outfits they had believed would protect them from the desert’s terrible actions, and beneath these, leathered skin was scarred with the rot. Most remains were whole, because not even carrion creatures could survive the Bonelands’ poisons. Some had been scattered, however, and here and there the creature saw evidence of violence having been wrought. It knew that the only living things out here to perpetrate such acts would have been other people.

Their equipment lay around them where it had fallen. Bags, water skins, weapons, clothing, an occasional sled or wheeled vehicle, all had been heated by the relentless sun and cooled by the fearsome desert nights, and successive heatings and coolings had destroyed much. There was nothing here to aid the creature in its progress, and after a while it no longer paid heed to the strewn remnants of desperation and hope. It focused on the hills it would never reach, sucked water from the bone straw, and felt the thing inside it rolling and gnawing, making itself strong for the time to come.

It could feel itself weakening, but purpose drove it on. Flesh sloughed from its exposed limbs, and blood speckled the sand beneath it. Its large feet had spread since shedding the shoes, and had it looked back it would have seen the trail of bloody footprints. Sand worked its way into wounds, and the creature felt pain despite the way it had been made, and taught, and given life. It howled, but there was no one to hear.

Eventually it came to a stop among the bones and rocks and hot sands, sinking slowly onto its side and then its back, turning its head so that it could look across the desert at the low hills. They had drawn much closer, it thought, especially in the past few hours when it had been walking with the sun sinking to its right. It felt a sense of accomplishment and hoped its maker was pleased.

Its movements ceased, its eyes grew pale and dry, and its limited awareness of surroundings and purpose drifted away like dust on the breeze. Its only thought as things grew dark was that it had done its very best.

Hearing was the last to go, and the sound that accompanied it down into death was something tearing, and something wet.

The thing emerged from the giant corpse. It had been made with hooked claws and toes with which to rip, and it tore its way out through the weakened flesh. It had also been formed with a sharp ridge running down its forehead to the bridge of its nose, and it used this to saw and snap at the thick ribs that encircled its host’s upper half. As it emerged, a bloody violent birth, it also ate and drank. The meat was warm and the blood thick, and strength coursed through its body.

Free of its confines, it remained there for a while as it grew accustomed to its surroundings. It had filled itself with its mother’s flesh and blood, but already it could feel this desert’s rot.

Its maker had warned it of this. Time was passing, the desert was exerting its poisonous influence, and it knew it had far to go.

Standing naked beneath the sinking sun, it looked to the sky and felt a sense of release that it could not accurately identify or understand. It had little to do with being away from the body now lying beneath and around it, because it thought of that only as meat. It had nothing to do with being able to stretch its arms and flex its clawed fingers at the glittering points of light. Looking back across the desert, marking the bloody prints stretching off into the dusk, it saw a smudge of light low on the horizon. Freedom, release . . . it thought it had something to do with leaving whatever that light represented.

Yet it knew that its destination lay in the opposite direction. It gathered folds of leather around its naked body, filled rough pockets with handfuls of meat from the thing that had birthed it, and started walking.

Daylight came, and night once more, and when it saw the sunrise for the second time it realized that there were no longer bones. The last set of remains it had passed had been wrapped in several layers of thick leather, a chain-mail body shell, and something that resembled the chitinous outer layers of a beetle. The mummified right hand stretched out and finger pointing southward, as if indicating the place it wanted to be. Its mouth had been wide, and it had carried three obsidian teeth. On the corpse’s skin, the creature had made out the dark smears of strange markings, and it wondered what that meant.

It had memories of something called Echo City, but they were very old, and they belonged somewhere else. It did not consider the strangeness of carrying such old memories when it had been born for only two days. It had a maker, and that maker’s voice was the sole loud, clear thing in its fresh mind. Walk, that voice said, avoid dangers, look south, and travel as far as you can. It spoke in suggestion rather than words. The creature obeyed.

Though nothing lived in the desert, there were dangers. Around noon of that third day, it entered an area where great holes breathed dark fumes of gas and nightmare. Drawing in these fumes for the first time, the thing fell to its knees as its immature brain was racked with onslaughts of images dredged from some past it did not know. It saw faces and death, madness and war, and the release of an appalling disease that made it open its eyes again to look down upon its own body. It could not see its face to make out whether it resembled those in its nightmare, but its body was the same – and the abuse it suffered clothed it in the same sadness. Skin was weakening, flesh was rotting, and its insides churned as something sought release.

Father, its maker’s voice said, hardly audible through the nightmares. The creatures stood and ran, ignoring the staggering pain that pummeled up from its legs as weakening bones crumbled. When they finally snapped, it crawled instead, hauling itself out of that region of holes and ventings, giving it the chance to breathe air that seemed clearer. Its mind settled, leaving it with the idea of its maker.

By dusk on that third day it could crawl no farther. Its fingers had worn away, and whatever ills the desert carried had turned its eyes to mush, its flesh to rotten stuff. It lay still as it birthed the thing it had been made to carry, and the maker had created it so that the pain was only slight.

As darkness came, it tried to imagine the maker saying, Good.

The smaller creature crawled from the remains of its mother. It had four legs and a hugely distended stomach, but the legs were long enough to lift it from contact with the sands and strong enough to carry it across the desert at startling speed.

It passed over a low range of hills, negotiating a dry ravine on the other side and continuing into the desert that lay beyond. Nothing lived here but it, though it did not find that strange. It carried vague and distant memories of life and plenty, but it did not suffer loneliness, because the maker was always there. It listened to the maker’s songs, poems, and words of wisdom and humor, and though it could not respond, it knew that the maker was pleased. It ran fast and far, avoiding patches of lighter colored sand, which would have sucked it down to unknown depths, and places where flames twisted across the landscape in defiance of the breeze.

At last night came, and in the deceptive shadows of dusk the thing tripped over a rock and broke one of its legs.

It lay quietly as death approached, feeling the desert’s deadly influences now that it was down. It listened to the maker in memories, and even as its rounded stomach split and gushed forth innards, it did not feel the pain.

The thing that rose from the gore and steam walked on
.
A day later, as noon scorched the sands and something slumped to the ground to die, the journey came to an end.

As the creature edged toward death, its legs fell apart and revealed the moist heart of itself. It growled as it obeyed what the maker had instructed it to do, defying the sun and the desert, the heat and the air, the dust and the winds. It felt its flesh withered and diseased, but it pushed harder as it birthed its son and willed itself to die, comforted that it was not the desert that had taken it in the end.

The child mewled as it squirmed in the sand. It poked strong fingers through the translucent film that enveloped it and blinked wet, intelligent eyes at the heat and sunlight that rushed in to bathe its soft skin. It tried to stand, but its legs were still shaky. It looked around, seeing only endless sand and sky.

And it imagined its maker growing sad, because there truly was nothing beyond the Bonelands.

Later, perhaps only hours before the child would have died, a shadow fell across it.