The Taste of Grief

Kelly Jennings


I

Though the three men along the back wall were obviously military, they wore civilian suits. They were all Retcon: no mods, no visible tattoos, their hair in tight close braids. Nuri clamped her flare and fought to keep her inner eyelid open. After the first moment, she was even able to straighten her back.

Rutledge was there, too, by the wallboard with another man.

The surprise was the human woman. Arguments had been made lately, though, that Retcon had gone too far, that, really, some woman could be happy in the workplace, at least in low-impact jobs. And this was the sort of woman humans liked—bone-skinny, wispy hair bleached of color, dressed in a tiny silk dress and shoes like traps. Beyond the veil, her light eyes glittered. She tasted— crap, Nuri thought, tongue flickering, fear rippling her scales.

She tasted alert.

Rutledge introduced the other man as the leader of the team: Captain Somerset. He was the sort humans trusted, broad and heavy-muscled, with a big broad head. Rutledge explained that the woman, Kita, was a cultural attaché, an expert on saurians.

Nuri said nothing, but a tiny flare escaped her. Kita’s eyes narrowed; the sharpness in her scent brightened. Nuri’s inner lids dropped.

Against the wall, the soldiers tensed—they knew Saurian danger signs. Nuri tried to relax, but reflex was reflex: she had aides with Tasers at her back, soldiers against the wall, Somerset and this Kita—everything in her was saying crouch and hiss, flare, give warning. Staying upright, at ease: these humans had no idea what they asked.

Kita stepped forward. “Perhaps I might have some time with the lizard?”

Somerset, who had been doing the jostling non-content dominance speech with Rutledge that human males did, broke off frowning. “You can’t be alone with it.”

“The boys will be glad to come along.” She smiled sweetly at the soldiers. “Jefferson? Miles?”

To Nuri’s surprise, this human woman led her to the green behind the compound. Five acres of wooded land just above the camp, the green was surrounded by double rows of charged fence topped with grills of razor glass. This was meant to keep lizards out—the green was where humans at the camp took their meals and exercise.

Here at the tail end of winter, the pines were dark, the cropped grass golden in the morning sun. Scraps of snow lay among the trees. Kita went, her spike heels clattering, to a scrubbed picnic table. She took a bench, handling her narrow skirt deftly, and extracted her handheld. When Nuri remained standing, she tapped the table with one long nail. “Sit.”

Nuri hesitated, rotating her eyes toward the soldiers. Though they didn’t look happy, they made no move to stop her. She sat.

“While you were a fugitive,” Kita said, “which was your enclave?”

Nuri said nothing, though not because she didn’t understand. This was one of the hundreds of questions she had been asked, endlessly, during both regular and chemical interrogations. She said nothing because of the exhaustion that filled her. It had been most of three years after her recapture before they stopped dragging her up to the compound twice a week for interrogations. She wasn’t sure she could take it if they started again.

Kita stared through the veil. “Well?”

Nuri dropped her inner lids. “I was alone.”

The nearest soldier, Jefferson, shifted his weight. Nuri’s shoulders drew tight.

“You were,” Kita used her shimmering nail to flick to a new file, “thirteen years old? Fourteen? You survived mountain winters alone?”

“All this is on file.”

“Someone helped you.”

Nuri held down her flare, and her eyes. Humans hated eye contact—direct stares meant a challenge. She felt dizzy with fear and anger. “If you’re thinking I can lead you to these people because I’ve been to their camps, I haven’t.”

“People?” Kita said delicately.

Nuri said nothing.

Kita flicked to a new screen. “You say, here, that you knew there were no other lizards in the mountains. How?”

How was a question no one had ever asked. Hunched under the looming presence of the soldiers, Nuri flicked her tongue covertly, tasting for motive. Kita was lying about something. No surprise. Humans lied about everything.

“How did you know no enclaves of lizards were hidden in those mountains?”

Deliberately, Nuri flickered her tongue again. Kita drew back, making a sound of disgust. Jefferson smacked Nuri across the head, not hard, more of a warning than anything.

“Smell.” Nuri flicked her tongue again, mainly to confirm the first taste, and went, hiding her surprise at what she learned. “No smell of us, never. And it was hard, staying alive on my own, so yes. If I’d gotten a scent of a lizard anywhere up there, I would have followed it.”

Kita smiled. “That’s how we’ll use you. Our hunting dog.” She laughed. “Hunting lizard,” she told the soldiers. “We’ll take you to the mountains,” she told Nuri. “You’ll find the enclaves for us, you and that clever tongue.”

Nuri stared at her, saying nothing, thinking hard.

* * *

While they traveled, Nuri was kept shackled at the back of the armored ATT, the self-contained all-terrain transport vehicle used by FASA. “If you’re this scared of me,” she asked during the second day, as she was being elaborately unchained at a rest stop—they would not allow her to use the ATT facility—”how do you think I’ll be of any use to you in the mountains?”

Captain Somerset, observing from the galley, showed his teeth. “Snipers, gecko.”

Nuri twitched. All around her, the soldiers laughed.

“I’ve handled your sort before.” Somerset pointed his pistol-shaped forefinger at Nuri.

Afternoons, while they drove, Kita continued her interrogation, asking about Nuri’s childhood, her years in the camps, her years on the edge. One day she asked about the genemod—how it had been built, who had built it. As if Nuri could know that.

In retrospect, research should have started as soon as Saurian Acquired Mutation infants were born. But ever since the Right to Personhood Amendment had passed, getting funding for research into human genetics in the USA had been difficult. With that and the continual defunding of American universities, well, most of the best research minds for several generations had studied in—and stayed in—other countries.

So when SAM appeared in American cities in the winter of 2107/2108, the infrastructure for research just didn’t exist.

Also, the first Saurian births were among the impoverished. Early theories decided SAM infants were a drug-related defect. Everyone knew those Public-Income sluts did nothing but shoot juke. Never mind the physicians claiming they had mothers with no history of drug use, or scientists arguing that this mutation was too intricate to be drug-induced.

All early-born Saurian infants died. By the time the Catholic Charity clinics had worked out the protocols that kept the children alive, the “spawn” (as net pundits called them) were being born in large enough numbers that they could not be shrugged off. The means of transmission had also been determined—yet another viral STD.

It was also obvious by this point that SAMS was no random mutation—not just too complex, but too advantageous. SAM gave its children better reflexes; a better sense of smell and hearing; the supple scaled skin and the doubled eyelids offering protection from solar radiation. No, this was genetic engineering.

Who had done the work—well, Nuri had spent as much time on the net as the next lizard. She knew the favored candidates were the Arda Front, an international eco-liberation group that favored eliminating humans entirely, arguing that humans were an invasive species. Since Saurians both interbred with humans, and bred true, SAMS would do that.

On the other hand, FASA had interrogated every AF member they’d been able to catch for decades now, and learned nothing solid. If they had, this low-level FASA attaché wouldn’t be interrogating her over it.

That evening, as her guards spread out through the Sandhills rest stop, empty except for an ancient family ATT and two kids on a skimmer, Nuri caught Kita’s scent. The attaché was climbing from the vehicle, her adrenaline high. Nuri felt her scales ripple under her coveralls.

Jefferson went into the stalls, chasing out a blond child, whose eyes went round as she saw Nuri. The kid dashed from the facility, yelling to her parents. Miles waved Nuri in, keeping the door open. Nuri was scrubbing down at the sinks—they knew about lizards, but nevertheless would not give her access to the ATT shower—when she heard Kita’s screams.

She jumped. So did Miles, spinning from the door. Jefferson snapped a word his Retcon parents would be shocked he knew, and pointed at the third guard: “Stay with the gecko!”

He and Miles bolted from the facility. Nuri stood frozen only a second before yanking her coveralls up. She hauled closed the zipper and yanked on her sweatshirt. By the time the darts slapped into the third guard, she was skidding through the door. Leaping over the unconscious Jefferson, Nuri glanced toward the ATT, and then rotated her eyes the other way: two humans, in black, with rifles. She crouched, hissing, flaring bright in warning.

They moved aside. Beyond them, a sedan, its door open, its engine running.

II

The hotel lobby stood empty. Pushing back the hood of the heavy jacket that had been in the sedan, Nuri slipped her inner lid. The mirror on the far wall, ancient and spotted, from the days when this had been an important place, showed the gentle glitter of her skin, the gold and dark brown reticulated pattern.

Her tongue flicked: a human asleep in a room behind the desk, and, down a hallway, a sick Saurian. Nuri paused, reptile brain tussling with human rules about private space, but not for long. She slipped down to the door: a Saurian infant, strapped in a prop seat. The child was hot and dry, skin cracking around its eyes, scales rising in ridges. Its tongue pulsed.

Nuri hissed, dropping to a crouch. “Hey, little sister. Hey, now.”

The infant rotated its eyes. No pleasure came from it—nothing but dull apprehension. Nuri released reassurance, easing the child loose. Not a sister, of course. English was useless. What word for a genderless infant who was, in essence if not in fact, a sibling? Its tongue flickered. Nuri flicked back. It tasted sick, and sad. She increased the reassurance, cuddling the child close. The pool complex in the basement had a steam room she could taste from here.

She was scrubbing the child with a bath brush, the closest thing to pumice she could find, when the human appeared. Nuri crouched.

“Didn’t hear you come in.” The human was male, young, and, by the state of his clothing, not well-off: the most dangerous sort. “You know what’s wrong with him?”

Nuri tasted the air, finding only worry and grief. “Where’s the mother?”

The human shook his head. “Gone. She took the others and…. He’s been mopey since she left. I ain’t find nothing in the books she bought for them others. I thought about the net, but I’ve heard they… ain’t you know what’s wrong?”

“It wouldn’t be in your childcare books. We shed. But not without help.” Thank you, she added bitterly to her creators. “If you don’t help it shed, it can’t clear toxins. It needs a pumice and a wash, every night.”

“Pumice?” the human repeated, and then sat down on the wet floor and began to cry.

Nuri closed her second eyelids, anger as bright as pity in her mouth, and scrubbed harder.

* * *

Oliver’s family had owned this hotel for over a hundred years. Before the lizards came, he said, it had been popular among families heading for vacations in the Colorado mountains. When his baby sister married her high school sweetheart, who would inherit his father’s drugstore, everyone had been so happy. Then this.

“Harry wanted to surrender Rio. My sister took the kids and moved in here, my parents had the steam room already, it’s part of the pool complex, no one around here has anything against pools, we’ve never had any, uh, around here.”

“You can say lizard,” Nuri said, feeding infant Rio scrambled eggs, the only suitable food Oliver had on hand.

Oliver flushed. Blushing had the same physical basis as the flare, but wasn’t nearly as complex, or as informative. “Anyway, uh, Harry got work out in Seattle. When he asked my sister to come, she went.”

“And left Rio.”

Oliver flushed darker, his mouth unhappy. “I ain’t know how to do for him.”

“I can tell you some things.”

Oliver muttered. Nuri fed Rio water, wondering whether Oliver was as ignorant as he was acting. A great deal would be solved, after all, if little Rio just didn’t wake up one morning.

“Are you with the underground?” Oliver asked.

Nuri cast him a sidelong glance.

“Used to be this place in Independence, supposed to be a stop in that. That underground. Harry said…” Oliver bit his lip. “Harry said she caught the virus there. Independence. He said he’s staying clear of lizards from now on. It’s why she left Rio here.”

Nuri remembered her own mother, who had cared for her, bathed her, fed her, all the first years of her life. The earliest taste she remembered was her mother’s revulsion. Her father had insisted on hiding Nuri, had given Nuri clothing to wear, let her spend time outside, despite the danger it brought to them all. But when the hunters found her, though her father had tasted of sorrow, clear as the scent of rain he had also tasted of relief.

“I don’t think I can handle Rio, not on my own,” Oliver said. “If you… can you get him to the underground?”

In all the years Nuri had lived wild, not once had she found one taste of any underground.

“Sure,” she said, to Oliver. “I’ll take him.”

Relief flooded Oliver’s flavor.

“With a few conditions,” Nuri added.

* * *

Nuri and Rio slept through the day. At dusk, they fed and scrubbed, and then used the pool. Rio swam like a fish. Saurians loved swimming: they could close their nostrils, slide down their inner lids, and jet through the water, the cool wet bliss over their scales, free here as they were free nowhere else. Humans hardly swam anymore at all, that was how much Saurians loved it. These days, any human who owned or even used a pool risked being associated with Saurian-rights groups. You wouldn’t love swimming if you didn’t love lizards: that was how humans saw it.

Rio leapt into the air, shouting laughter. Nuri caught the child, swung it high, watched Rio turned the fall into a dive and shoot down in the deep end. Nuri found herself flaring. She scented Oliver, and turned. The human hovered in the doorway.

Nuri swam to the side and levered herself out.

“He never laughed before,” Oliver said.

“You don’t take it swimming.” An accusation, but humans didn’t hear subtext.

“I keep him hidden.”

Nuri didn’t point out that a windowless basement pool was just as hidden as a first-floor room with its curtains drawn.

“You got to leave soon,” Oliver said. “It’s dark.”

Rio came darting through the water and leapt to crouch on the pool edge. “Can I swim some more? Can I keep swimming?”

“Of course,” said Nuri, ignoring Oliver’s alarm. “Go ahead.”

Rio sprang over the water, diving deep.

“He talks,” said Oliver faintly. “Did—when’d he learn to talk?”

“Eight or nine months old, probably. That’s when most of us do.”

“But that can’t be true, why ain’t he say anything?”

Nuri elected not to answer. Whatever else this man had done, he had not turned Rio over to the hunters. That made him a hero, compared to most humans.

“Listen,” said Oliver. “Listen, when are you leaving?”

They left at midnight, driving Oliver’s six-year-old ATT, Nuri with Oliver’s credit tag in her pocket. Rio talked for the first three hours, questions it had apparently been saving for all the twenty months of its life so far. Nuri answered as patiently as she could, considering her nerves were twitching like broken snakes. When she said Rio should be quiet now, the child shut up at once: one thing it had been taught. A little after that, it went to sleep.

Nuri drove. Night wind streamed in the cracked window. Here in the belt between cities, she tasted hay, llama, barns, mice—she loved the smell of mice. She also smelled humans, clay-thick, bitter on the wind. Water smells grew more frequent as they neared the foothills.

Near dawn, they reached the mountains. Nuri slowed, studying routes via the vehicle’s board, and finally took a fire road. The ATT handled the substandard paving easily. Fifteen miles up, she came to a fork, went right, and stopped near a river. Rio woke, stretched, shot its flare, and said, sleepily, “Is this where my Mama is?”

“This is where we sleep today.”

Rio yawned again, let itself out of the car seat, pushed the patch to lower the window, and went through it with a slithering leap. Nuri found she was smiling.

She took Rio hunting, frogs and crickets along the river, and, wading upstream, fish from a deep icy pool.

“What’s that?” Rio asked, tongue flickering. The child was chest-deep in the water, gone pale in response to the cold. The pattern of dark scales stood out stark. The flare along its throat and up along the curve of the skull was rich and dark.

Nuri flicked her own tongue. “Heh. That’s bear.”

Rio dropped its inner lids, its flare deepening. “Bear? Real bear?”

Nuri started to say not to worry, bears didn’t bother Saurians; only Rio leapt from the pool, bounding in the direction of the bear.

“Stop!”

Rio stopped. “But I want to see him.”

Nuri took another taste: male bear, just awake from winter. “He doesn’t want to see us.”

Rio crouched, flare fading. Nuri didn’t have to ask why: he doesn’t want to see us. Bears, humans, uncle. Mother. Turning away, Nuri spotted a trout, and snatched it from the water. She tossed it onto the bank with the rest. “Time for breakfast.”

After they ate, Nuri pulled down the ATT’s bunk, yawning—Saurians all needed sleep after a meal, it had made their human teachers furious, all of them drowsed off in class after lunch—and tumbled Rio, already snoozing, into the bedding. She curled around the child, slipped into her own uneasy dream-thick sleep.

It was dusk when she woke. Rio was gone.

Not very worried, she climbing from the car, stretched, and wandered a loose circle, flicking her tongue. Remembering the bear, she tasted that direction thoroughly. Nothing. After a moment, she found the way Rio had gone, and tracked it through the trees. She had gone maybe a hundred yards when she picked up another taste: human.

This scared her much more than the bear. Flicking down her inner lids, she loped through the brush, bounding over rocks, ignoring branches and thorns—her scales protected her from the worst damage, and the rest would heal. The human taste grew stronger, mixed clearly with Rio’s. Nuri slowed to a creep. She came through the trees, careful to avoid rustling leaves, slipped over a boulder, and crouched on its other side.

Forest ranger, in a graveled clearing just off the fire road. He was on his heels, the nearest humans could manage to a crouch, holding something toward Rio, who stood upright and unafraid at the edge of the clearing. Nuri tasted air reflexively: banana chips. This ranger knew Saurians then.

Nuri looked about, and started north, in a flanking maneuver that would take her to the fire road.

“Here, sweetie,” the ranger was saying. “It’s good.” He ate one, as if Rio would need reassurance. “It’s okay, I won’t hurt you.”

Nuri kept herself from hissing, though she couldn’t stop the flare. He eased through a last thicket, and was on the road. Daylight still hung here. Nuri flicked a quick taste, in case the ranger was not alone. The jeep engine ticked, cooling in the dusk.

“Where’s your mama, lovey?”

Nuri bounded across the Jeep’s hood.

The ranger had good reflexes: he caught the change in Rio’s face, and went sideways, out from under Nuri, rolled and was on his feet at the end of the clearing.

Nuri landed and bounded. The ranger went sideways again. “Hold on,” he was saying. “Hold it, wait!”

Nuri kicked off a tree and landed, rode the ranger to the ground, pinned his arms with her knees, and used both hands to push the ranger’s head back. The sting to the throat was the swiftest. The ranger knew that, apparently, because his voice peaked in panic: “I can help you, dammit, stop!”

Nuri almost didn’t. Her lips were skinned back, her tongue ready to strike, almost she couldn’t stop. She froze, rigid as wire. It wasn’t fear she tasted from the ranger. It was worry.

Nuri pulled back. “Talk fast,” she hissed. She knew from her own scent and the heat down her neck that her flare was bright.

“I’m part of the underground! I’m a bridge to the enclaves, I help keep them hidden, also if you kill me, if I’m found stung dead out here, it’ll attract attention to the area, it’ll attract hunters! Don’t kill me.”

Nuri’s scales were twitching. “What makes you think you’d be found?”

“Okay. Okay, but I really am on your side.”

Nuri’s tongue flicked out, tasting for lies. “Why?”

“Why?”

She let her hands dig into soft human skin. “Why would you be on our side?”

“My wife. Our children.”

“Liar. You have spawn? You think you’re my first hunter?”

“I’m not a hunter! I—my Jeep. Look in my Jeep.”

Nuri flicked her tongue again: fear, some anger, still mostly worry. Nothing like a lie. Which didn’t mean anything. Some humans lied so well they didn’t even know they were lying.

“Just look,” the ranger urged, everything in his taste making Nuri want to trust him.

Nuri’s scales rippled, her blood rushing under them. “Rio.”

“I’m here,” the child said.

“Check his Jeep. Be careful.”

Rio scrambled across the clearing, and in through the open window of the Jeep. There was silence, except for Rio, moving around inside the vehicle.

“What’s in there?” Nuri asked.

Rio poked its head out of the window. “I can’t find anything.”

Nuri’s fists tightened, forcing the ranger’s head back.

“Wait, damn it—taste!” the ranger yelled at Rio. “Just taste in there!”

“Hold still,” Nuri said, wishing she had done it right away, while she was still in the heat of the attack. “I’ll try not to hurt you.”

“Oh,” Rio said. “Oh, I see.”

Nuri stopped. The ranger trembled under her.

“See what?” Nuri asked.

“Lizard kids.” Rio poked its head and shoulders out of the open window. “He’s got three kids, Nuri, it tastes like them! And—their mother? They taste good. Come see.”

Nuri sat straighter. The ranger’s eyes shut hard. Slowly, Nuri let him go.

III

Deep in the mountains, in what had been a Girl Scout camp when the most alien thing anyone from Colorado had ever seen was a human of a slightly different shade, was the Saurian enclave—or one of them. “We move around,” Miriam explained. “And we’re never all together.”

Nuri watched Rio playing with Saurian kids among fallen trees. The ranger wasn’t the only human here. Though Saurian-human marriage had been illegal for thirty years, this camp alone had five mixed pairs.

“They’ll find you,” Nuri said. “They know you’re here, so they’ll find you.”

Miriam nodded. “We’re planning for that.”

“Planning to get caught?”

“Planning for war,” Miriam said, her clear eyes unlidded, flicking her tongue openly: tasting Nuri’s reaction. “You can help,” she added. “You know humans.”

Nuri said nothing. She thought of Oliver, of her sister, of her father. Of Peter O’Toole riding across the sand, Dorothy among the Munchkins, the beauty and colors of Hayao Miyazaki. Thinking of the taste of death.

Miriam responded, giving Nuri the taste of her own sorrow. Nuri rotated her eyes toward Miriam: her flare was dark, her scales flat. While Nuri was still thinking how to respond, her own scales flicked rigid.

Miriam whirled, alert. So did every other Saurian in camp, wheeling toward the scent of alarm in the air. The children vanished, swift as mice—even Rio did, Nuri noted. Adults slid to positions that must have been pre-assigned. A moment later, two young Saurians entered camp, Kita gripped between them.

Nuri flared. “That’s her. That’s the FASA attaché.”

Kita was dressed very differently now: heavy canvas trousers, climbing boots, a thermal sweater under a dark jacket. Her wispy hair, unveiled, caught the breeze. Miriam approached, long forefinger directing attention to Kita’s pockets.

“We dealt with that,” the taller Saurian claimed.

Nuri came up behind Miriam. “She likely has backup.”

“How did she track you here?” Miriam asked, inspecting Nuri.

Nuri’s flare went cooled. She yanked off the hooded jacket and hunted through it. Then she looked up at Miriam, mortified and furious.

Miriam regarded Kita. “If we kill you now, I think we can escape before they find us.”

Kita’s scent flashed fear. “If you kill me, you’ll never learn why I came.”

Miriam caught her collar, yanked her close, and, tongue darting, stung swiftly. Shock spilled from Kita; she crumpled. Miriam dropped her. “We move in five minutes.”

* * *

They traveled by scooter and jeep and some by foot, no group bigger than ten, taking various routes through the mountains. Some wouldn’t arrive for days, though Nuri’s group, traveling in an ancient, rickety Lumina, arrived before dawn. The new enclave was in a canyon filled with trees, caves, and rushing water.

“Not our best camp,” Miriam admitted, watching children leap from rock to rock in the tumbling river. “Bad hunting, winters, and the caves are impossible to heat, but the babies love it. Jez,” Miriam said, to the kid minding Kita. “Over here.”

Kita was dumped in the big cave. She watched them with her tiny flat eyes. While she’d been unconscious, they had stripped and dumped her clothing. Wearing lizard clothing was obviously bothering her—she kept shifting position, as if trying to pull away from her own skin. Five of the twelve adults that had arrived settled around her.

“Hungry?” Miriam asked, just being mean. No human would eat from a Saurian’s hand.

Kita shook her head swiftly.

“Fine. Start talking.”

Kita gulped. “I’m here to help. President Appleton believes firmly that in these dark times—”

“I’ve heard our firm leader’s firm speech. Cut to the chase.”

Kita gulped air and continued: “I’ve been empowered to negotiate toward, with your, to negotiate with you.”

Miriam flicked her tongue. When Kita said nothing else, Miriam said, “Nearly all of us not yet slaughtered by Appleton’s hired killers are in your camps, kept chemically sterile and half-starved. Now you’re here playing friendly. Pretend I’m stupid enough to believe you. What does your boss want?”

Kita pushed herself upright. “The camps are not like that. Nuri can tell you—Nuri!”

Miriam shifted her eyes toward Nuri, who laughed. All around them, other Saurians laughed too.

Kita’s scent went sharp. “They aren’t. I’ve been in them. I know aides cross the line occasionally, but –”

“She’s been in the camps, Miriam,” Nuri mocked.

Miriam put a long finger on Kita’s chin, turning her face. “You aren’t answering, little monkey.”

Flushing darker, Kita lowered her eyes. “Not everyone likes surrendering their children to the camps.” She hesitated. “Also, FASA research tells President Appleton that, even with more… active measures, Saurians will eventually overwhelm our numbers. He wants negotiation.”

The cave was silent. Miriam’s scales were up; her tongue flickered.

“Active measures?” Nuri wondered.

“Death camps,” Miriam translated. “FASA’s been floating it on the dark net lately, gauging reactions. So even your Retcon gibbons won’t eat full-scale slaughter?”

Kita’s pale eyes shone. “You’re our children. Our brothers and sisters.”

Nuri laughed again.

Kita’s gaze flashed toward her. “I helped you escape. Why would I do that?”

Nuri got to her feet. “I say kill her now.”

Miriam’s scent waved her from the cave. Annoyed, Nuri left, rounded up some other Saurians, and went hunting.

Miriam was right, no decent hunting here—though spring was stirring lower down, it was still hard winter this high. They ended with several dozen pika, two snowshoe rabbits, and a fat porcupine, sending Jez up a tree after the last. Nuri had never eaten porcupine, but the others claimed once the spines were off they were great.

Back at the canyon, Miriam had organized fires inside the caves; the children had brought in fish and bugs, along with lichen and winter berries. What could be eaten raw was being passed in baskets. Nuri took a fistful of bugs. Hunting made her hungry, as did being free from the camps, out here among other Saurians. She knew it would not last. She knew this was borrowed time. Still, for now, for this one evening, she was not a lizard in a cage, getting fed poisoned kibble twice a day.

Jez took Kita a bit of roasted rabbit. When she wouldn’t eat it, one of the kids did.

After dinner, Miriam gave them the results of Kita’s interrogation, particularly what she had said after being patched with high-dose barbiturates: “She’s got a lizard sibling. Thinks that gives her some stake in us.”

Around the fire, Saurians emitted bitter amusement. The five or six humans in the mix, including Sioux, the forest ranger who was Miriam’s husband, made human noises.

“In any case,” Miriam said, “she’s sincere.”

“The offer to negotiate is real?” Sioux tasted skeptical.

Miriam’s eyes lidded. “Of course not. FASA has used the lizards in the camps to create a virus, one they believe will make us sterile permanently. It’s designed to be Saurian-specific, and to transmit like a cold virus, though it’s largely asymptomatic. These negotiations are a ploy. They’ll use them to introduce the virus into the wild population.”

“So…we just don’t go.” Jez’s flare was faint.

“Why would we go?” Sioux argued. “They don’t want peace! They want us dead.”

Miriam sent the taste of thoughtfulness. “A few reasons. One, to let them think we’re fooled. Second, while we’re playing them, we might win some concessions. Life could be less hard up here, Sioux. I wouldn’t mind that.”

“That’s not much,” Elijah pointed out. “Considering what we risk.”

“Playing with FASA is playing with fire,” Sioux added.

Nuri’s scales were rippling, blood rushing under them. “Miriam.” All their eyes rotated toward her, human and Saurian alike. “Why would they wait to lure someone down?” she asked. “Why take that chance?”

No one spoke. The sound of sap popping in the fire was clear; even clearer, though, was Kita’s taste: fear, shame—relief?

Nuri stood. So did Miriam and Jez, but Nuri reached the skinny little attaché first, jacked her up, fist wrapped in her collar. “Tell me,” she hissed. “Now. Or—”

She had no threat large enough. Kita wept, her shame and relief flooding the world. Under Nuri’s fist, the stringy muscles shook.

“Tell me!” she shouted.

“You’re infected,” Kita said. “Yes.”

* * *

Snow had begun to fall as night deepened. The children were sleeping; Miriam had sent out the change of watch. She, Nuri, and Sioux crouched against the Lumina, Miriam and Sioux wrapped in one quilt, Nuri huddled inside a parka. Kita was inside, drugged again.

“I’ll take her down,” Nuri said. “She’s my fault.”

“None of us caused any of this,” Miriam said, her taste absent. Sioux pulled her closer. Under the second, heavier wave of drugs, Kita had given the real truth: Nuri had been meant to escape, but later in the trip. Somerset’s team planned to track here to the enclaves. Kita had arranged the earlier escape, with her own faction, and tracked Nuri herself.

“To warn you,” she insisted under the drugs. “I knew what FASA had planned. I came to warn you! This virus, it’s dangerous. They think they can keep it species-specific, but my medical people, my experts, they say that’s wishful thinking. They say this could wipe out the human race. They say maybe this is what the AF had in mind all along.”

“I have to take her back,” Nuri repeated.

Miriam sent out flat rejection. Snow floated from the heavy sky. Nuri hitched her parka higher, hunting for an argument they would accept.

“Nuri’s right,” Sioux said, sending Nuri an apologetic glance. “We can’t argue for research into a cure. If Nuri goes with her, she and Nuri can argue.”

“Kita can go alone,” Miriam argued, her scent troubled and angry. “We’ll take her to the trailhead. Ditch her there.”

“Someone has to negotiate for us,” Nuri said. “Do you trust this Kita to do that?”

Miriam flared, but her scent didn’t match that flare.

“Nuri’s right,” Sioux said again.

“Nuri’s infected,” Miriam argued. “She’ll infect every one of us she meets.”

“That happens no matter what,” Sioux said. “You heard this Kita. It’s already loose in the Saurian population.”

Miriam emitted resignation. Sioux hugged her close. “They leave at dawn,” Miriam agreed. And then we do what we always planned we’d do.”

“Take the war to them,” Sioux agreed.

“Give them a reason to negotiate,” Miriam said, anger her brightest taste now.

Nuri wrapped her arms around her ribs, gripping her scales, which stood up in ridges. She thought of Rio, thought, a sharp bite of grief deep in her chest, of what she had hoped, in that one moment, for the child—a childhood here in these mountains, growing up here.

Thought of what that childhood would be now.

Snow tumbled from the skies, but when she flicked out her tongue, she could taste on the wind it was only a shower, brief and heavy as spring snow often was. Gone by morning. She stretched her spine, shot her flare.

“Nuri?” Miriam asked.

Pushing back the hood of the parka and lifted her face to the snow, Nuri let the cold and the ice of the flakes slip over her scales. Gone by morning, she told herself, and let her have the taste of her certainty, dark and bitter as it was.


Kelly Jennings has published short fiction in Strange Horizons and Daily Science Fiction, as well as in the feminist SF anthology The Other Half of The Sky. Her first novel, Broken Slate, was published by Crossed Genres Press.