Tess looked out at the cluster of small faces, all staring up at her with eager eyes, waiting to hear her next words. She sighed, settling back on the rusted bottle cap that served as her stool, and paused to catch her breath before resuming the lesson.
So many children...even now, after several years in the colony, she still had trouble interacting with them. They were all so innocent, so unaware of the world. Their minds were like sponges, soaking up whatever she, or any of the other adults, told them.
She rubbed absently at her belly, already beginning to swell. In a few months, or so the doctors told her, she'd give birth to her own child. Before coming here, she never even knew such things were possible. On the Isle, children came from the Nursery, not from inside other people. That was because, as she now knew, the Giants controlled the population, using their own secret methods to produce just enough replacements for those taken away for their terrible sacrifice.
Tess still was still, to this day, amazed she had survived. When she entered that strange machine, all those months ago, she was sure she would be killed. Only those two little words, scrawled on the Giant's finger, gave her hope. "Trust me," they said. That was all he asked her to do, and he saved her in the end.
When she woke hours later, surrounded by other people, all welcoming her to her new home, it was almost too much to accept. She walked around in a daze for the better part of that day, barely even able to speak, much less ask any questions. The colony itself took some getting used to--so rough and crude, sprawling amidst the broken remains of Giant structures, with no Dome high overhead, and no autobuses or cafeterias or Zenith to observe. There were insects and rats and other dangers, high winds and chilly nights, and nothing would ever be the same. She was confused and frightened for a very long time, but in the end that passed, and she knew now that this was where she was meant to be.
They told her, eventually, that one of the Giants had intervened, had saved her and all the others from certain death. Not all the Giants were evil, it seemed. There was still at least one who deserved to be thought of with any kind of reverence.
That, of course, was the subject of her next reading, the final entry in the Book, which was now complete at last. The end of a very long and very tragic story, ending with the death of one society and the beginning of another. A story she herself had helped, at least in part, to write.
Tess unrolled the final scroll and smiled, holding it out so the children could see, listening with satisfaction to their little oohs and ahhs. They were definitely captivated, which was as it should be. She barely needed to look at the scrawled words on the parchment, though. She knew them all by heart.
Without any further hesitation, she began to read.
Some time later, Tess blinked and opened her eyes. Sunlight shone through a narrow slit near the ceiling of whatever building she found herself in. She sat up and looked around, surprised to be alive. She was certain, from the way those Giants were talking, that she was going to be ritually killed for some unknown purpose.
She only remembered saying a single, final prayer as she stepped through the slot into the great Giant device, and then the air turned foul. Now, as she shrugged off the lingering dizziness left behind by the tranquilizing gas, the air was clear and fresh, with a hint of something else, a kind of minty scent she'd never experienced before.
Looking down at herself, she found she was dressed in a long, crudely woven robe. Underneath, she still had her swimsuit, but her feet were bare. Nearby, she spotted her running shoes, and quickly put them on, seeing as the floor was made of rocks and dirt. Where was she, anyway?
A simple-looking flap served as an exit to this strange room, and she pushed it open tentatively. Beyond, she saw tall plants rising upward, far over her head. Several seemed to explode at their ends into tremendous, colorful blooms. In the distance, a massive wooden trunk rose into the air, spreading out into distant branches peppered here and there with leaves. The sun shone through these, halfway up the clear blue sky.
A voice spoke from within the vegetation. "Ah, you're awake," a man said, looking up from a circle of stones set in a small clearing. In the center, between the rocks, a thin flame rose, tickling at a chunk of meat hanging suspended over the pit. "I was starting to wonder if you'd ever wake up."
Tess stepped out of the building, which she now saw was little more than a stack of branches cut and stacked one atop another, the whole topped with woven leaves. She studied the man for a moment, wondering why he looked so familiar. He was dark-haired and unshaven, and wore a simple tunic of the same sort of thick, crude weave as the robe she was wearing. His feet were wrapped in what looked like simple strips of leather.
"What happened to me?" Tess asked, still a little woozy from the anesthetic. "Who are you, and where am I? Why do you look so familiar?"
The man chuckled and stood up, brushing at his strange clothing. "I figured you might ask those things. New arrivals always do. I certainly did, when I first got here. I remember how confused I was. Don't worry, Tessara, you'll come to understand soon enough."
"You know my name?" She studied him more closely. "You--I know you, don't I? You're Ronian, aren't you? It's been years--"
"Yes, it has. I remember you well. You were always a curious one, Tess. I figured you'd show up here sooner or later. Truth be told, I thought it would be a lot sooner than this."
She took a step closer. This was definitely Ronian, a man she'd met in her second year after leaving the Nursery. He wasn't her first pairup, but definitely the first one worth remembering. They had spent many long hours together, walking around the Isle, talking about whatever crossed their minds. Simpler times she remembered fondly. Try as she might, she couldn't remember why they had ever drifted apart. He just stopped coming by, one day, without explanation, which was common enough in the open, commitment-free society under the Dome.
"Is that what happened to you, Ron?" asked Tess suddenly, surprising herself with the question. "Is that why you stopped coming to see me? You came here instead?"
"Yes, I'm afraid so," he replied. "Do you remember, Tess, how we used to talk about the Giants? You were fascinated by them, even then, and so was I. One day I tried to sneak into the back of the Museum. A woman named Auraya caught me, but instead of punishment, I received a guided tour. She told me all manner of things, and I kept going back for more, until one day, she sent me to meet the Giants."
"And you wound up here," replied Tess. "Just like me."
"Yes." Ron nodded. "Come with me. I want to show you something."
She followed as he led her through the tall plants that were like nothing she'd ever seen before. Tess resisted the urge to stop and study the great flowers towering overhead, or the giant roots poking up through the rough turf underfoot. She knew, somehow, that there would be plenty of time for that later.
After a minute or so, Ronian stopped as he reached another open area in the forest of strange vegetation. He stepped aside so Tess could look past, and her eyes widened in amazement. She gazed out at a cluster of crude buildings, many constructed from pieces of what were obviously Giant artifacts: boxes, crates, even metal containers and the like. Moving here and there were dozens of people, all dressed similarly to Ron and Tess. Some carried spears or other weapons, while others were busy preparing food over open flame pits, weaving with thin, dry vines, or any of a number of other tasks.
As Tess watched curiously, a trio of small children ran past, chasing a ball made of stitched-together skins. They were laughing and didn't notice her at all. She looked up at Ron in surprise, for she'd never seen children outside the walls of a Nursery. She didn't even know where they came from.
"Don't worry," he told her. "You'll figure out that part soon enough. The food we had back in the Dome, the stuff the Giants gave us, made us sterile. Not any more, though. Maybe one day soon you'll learn about that firsthand. In the meantime, though, I'd like to introduce you to the colony."
"Wait," she interrupted him. "You still haven't explained what happened to me."
"Oh, that," replied Ron with a smile. "It's very simple, actually. I assume you heard the last chapter of the Chronicle of Deliverance?"
"Yes, Nathan told me that before--well, before."
"Well, what they didn't tell you, was that the cure the Giants found was inside us. Our bodies produce some substance they need to keep from dying. That's why they kept us around, you see. I know it sounds terrible, but the reason we have to send people to them is so the lucky volunteer can be killed, in order to keep them alive. Those are the Giants, Tess. Those are the people we used to think were gods."
Tess shuddered. "So that's what they were going to do to me. What happened, then? Why am I still alive?"
"Because one of them redeemed the rest," Ronian went on. "The one named Miles Andrews. He's the only one among them who still thought of us as people, and not some kind of commodity. He saved you, Tess, and me, and all of us here. He made changes to that machine of theirs, the one that was supposed to kill us, so it only knocked us out. The substitute drug it makes is flawed, of course, and the Giants won't last much longer using it, but then, as far as I'm concerned, they really don't deserve to."
"But what about the rest of our people?" Tess asked. "What's going to happen to them? Nathan told me the only food source comes from the Giants..."
"One day, when the Giants are gone, we'll have to go back there, and rescue the rest of our people," said Ron. "It'll be a long and dangerous journey, but thanks to Dr. Andrews, we know the way. We owe everything to him. We are his legacy, you see. Whether the Giants wanted it to be this way or not, their world is ours now."
Tess nodded. This was all too much to absorb at once, so she simply let it be. A dozen more questions nagged at her, but she wasn't ready to ask them.
"In any case, though, this is where we live," her guide went on. It's a small colony, for now, but it's growing fast. It's a harsh world out there, Tess, but we're learning how to survive, quicker and faster than I think the Giants ever thought we could. It won't be long before we're founding new colonies, spreading out, pushing our boundaries, just like humans did in the earliest days of history. Are you ready to see what we've built, Tess? Not just these few crude buildings, but the rest of the colony? Are you ready to join us?"
"Of course," she replied without hesitation. "You know, Nathan told me learning the truth would change my life forever. I never imagined this."
"I know. It'll be all right, though. You'll learn fast, and I'm sure you'll fit in. This is what we were made for, after all. Now come, let me introduce you to the rest of the colony. You may find you know some of them as well."
She nodded and watched as he headed down the path into the clearing, into the bright, warm sunlight. How strange this all was, and yet, she felt immediately at home. Her former existence on the Isle was already starting to fade away, like a distant dream. She wouldn't miss it at all.
Tess smiled, stepped forward to meet the others, and her new life began.
Dr. Andrews stopped at the front gate to the fortress, the buttressed stone building that was once a simple biological research center at the University of Chicago. Military troops were now permanently stationed here, trained to shoot on sight. After all, if anything went wrong with the Dome sheltered deep within the structure, or the extraction machine close by, the remnants of humanity would die a slow and painful death.
At least, that's what everyone believed, and for now, lacking any other alternative, Miles Andrews had little choice but to perpetuate the lie.
He stopped at the gate and parked, leaving his vehicle behind. The guards at the entrance checked his identification carefully, even though they knew him, simply because they could afford to take no chances. After a few minutes they let him pass, for he always returned to the facility several hours after an extraction. As far as they were concerned, this was nothing out of the ordinary.
An escort followed him part of the way, making small talk, which Dr. Andrews returned amiably until finally he reached the secure door. After he entered his code, the portal slid open, satisfying the guard at last that this was, indeed, the real Miles Andrews. The aging scientist stepped inside, gave an affable wave, and let the door click shut. He was alone, or at least as alone as he could be in this place.
Before turning on the lights, he reached behind the security panel and keyed in a private code that only he knew. Elsewhere, hidden above the ceiling, interlocks clicked in a secret device that not even his co-worker, Dr. Grier, knew about. The hidden camera in the corner, which the Army didn't know Miles was aware of, was now transmitting an image of Dr. Andrews performing ordinary, boring maintenance of the extraction machine. In truth, he had an entirely different task in mind.
He switched the lights on, stepped over to the device, and opened an access panel. Reaching inside, he deactivated the flow of anesthetic gas, and carefully slid the unconscious figure out onto the desk. She looked so peaceful, lying there, that he hated to disturb her, but he had little choice. She couldn't stay here, after all. If she were discovered or spotted, even for a moment, his whole carefully arranged charade would come crashing down.
He left her lying there, turning away lest he become mesmerized by her beauty. Despite her size, she was still a gorgeous woman, and he couldn't afford to let himself become distracted. Instead, he busied himself working on the extractor, making sure it was reset to its original configuration. Anyone caring to inspect the device would find it working exactly as it should.
In the early days, when Dr. Reynolds ran the lab, the machine did precisely what it was originally intended to do. A tiny person, taken from the nearby Dome, would be placed in the receptacle, euthanized, and drained of all body fluids. Then, the brain and spinal cord would be extracted, pulverized, and added to the resulting serum, producing a suppressant that temporarily protected the human body from the neuroplague. No cure had yet been found, and as the years went by, no better solution presented itself. Even when Dr. Reynolds finally succumbed to the plague, the process continued. Dr. Andrews and his colleagues continued their research, of course, but so far the plague seemed to be winning.
The ethics of it were intolerable. Miles was still haunted by his memories of those early days, when people went into that machine and never came out. He knew what they were doing was terribly wrong, but no one else seemed to see it that way. Miniature humans were people, in every sense of the word, except their size. They had no right to be murdered, but there seemed to be no other solution. So he found a workaround, something to put a stop to the slaughter, and so far no one was the wiser.
Not that it mattered much, anyway. The neuroplague was already over 75% resistant to the serum. In a few more years, the extinction of humanity would be complete, and the sacrifice of the mini-humans would have all been in vain. He couldn't let that happen, not if he had the power to prevent it.
And so he carried on with the charade, pretending to sacrifice a new victim each month, while instead producing a synthesized version of the serum strong enough to fool the military inspectors. The subterfuge wouldn't last much longer, but when people began to die, he'd simply tell the military the truth--the plague had built up a resistance to the serum. When the Army insisted more mini-humans be sacrificed, which they were sure to do, that would simply give him an excuse to free even more from the Dome. Eventually, some day, he even had a plan to rescue the whole lot, but that wasn't even yet on the horizon.
He finished his work and turned back to the tiny woman sleeping on the tabletop. Gently he lifted her up, carefully arranged her arms and legs into a comfortable position, and set her down into a padded container. The interior would protect her from bumps and jarring during the journey to come, to the place where she would begin her new life. Although there wasn't much air inside the thin case, it would last long enough that she wouldn't suffocate. He smiled down at her one last time, allowed his finger to caress her hair for a brief moment, and sealed and locked her in.
He put the container into his briefcase, closed up the extractor, and moved to the front door. A barely noticeable red glow reminded him that the false recording being sent to the camera wasn't quite finished. He got into position, waited about half a minute, and finally the glow flickered and went off. He switched off the lights, stepped outside, and sealed the door. Unless whoever was watching was particularly vigilant, they'd never notice the slight jump in the display in those final few seconds. As far as they were concerned, he did nothing out of the ordinary.
He walked out of the building, nodding once or twice at the sentries, and returned to his grimy, dust-covered car. Once there, he wiped the thin sheen of sweat from his forehead. His greatest fear was that one day they'd search him as he left, but so far they hadn't bothered. They trusted in their cameras, and in their mistaken belief that he'd do anything to sustain the human race, now matter how misguided.
He drove away from the old university, through empty streets strewn with trash and debris. All around him, fractured masonry and broken windows watched him pass, monuments to a dying civilization. He passed through several checkpoints, reaching the residential district after about fifteen minutes of dodging old wrecks, bumping over collapsed rubble, and avoiding sinkholes in the once well-maintained roads. Once the drive was over, he parked in front of his home, went inside, and continued on out the back door. In the woods beyond, where nature was already starting to overwhelm what had once been a crowded suburb, there was a former drainage ditch that now served a completely different purpose.
He carefully made his way down the slope to a pipe opening. Glancing around to make sure no one was watching, he climbed inside. There, on the ground ahead, a narrow electromagnetic rail stretched out of sight into the darkness. A platform awaited, and he placed his carrying case atop it, tying it down securely.
"Goodbye, little one," he muttered quietly, "and good luck."
The whispered words echoed into the darkness ahead. She couldn't hear him, he knew, and perhaps he was being a bit too sentimental, for she would never see him or know what he'd done. Some hours from now, she'd awaken, among old friends she thought to never see again. A small colony, out in the wild lands that were once northern Illinois. A place where no Giants would ever disturb them again.
Miles wondered, for a moment, how she'd do in the colony, or how any of them were doing. There was no way to be sure. He hadn't been there since he set up the original foundation over two decades ago. There were only a few mini-humans there in those days, those few he'd managed to save from certain death. Now, by his count, there should be hundreds, perhaps thousands, maybe more depending on their reproductive rate. Now that they were outside the Dome, and their fertility was no longer carefully controlled, there was no telling how many children there might be. Why, if they'd wasted no time getting started, the first generation would already be having kids of their own...
He wished he could see it. Perhaps one day, on that final glorious day when he emptied the Dome, he would go there. Probably not, though. What was left of the Army would be looking for him, and the last thing he wanted was for them to find the secret colony. No, he'd be better off heading the other direction, into the burnt-out ruins of America, and take his chances. He would die alone, that was sure, but at least he wouldn't die for nothing.
He toggled a switch on the side of the rail, and the small platform began to hum. As the magnets in its core activated, it began to slide along, slowly gathering speed. After a moment, it was gone down the tunnel, towards a destination Miles would never see again. He hoped the tiny survivor would be happy there. At least she'd be free and alive and able to chart the course of her own destiny. What more could anyone ask for?
He listened to the faint humming as it faded into the distance. Standing, he took a moment to rest against the edges of the tunnel before returning to his home. Another month had passed, and now he could rest easy, having saved another tiny life.
Perhaps tonight, he could rest. Maybe, for once, this time the nightmares wouldn't come.
Dr. Miles Andrews stared for a moment down at the tiny figure on the floor. For some reason, this one wore nothing but a bathing suit, which struck him as very odd. Usually they wore more conventional clothing, normally that finely weaved material they made themselves, which covered most of their bodies. Seeing one virtually naked was...well, it was disconcerting, to say the least.
Miles usually made an effort to try not to think of the little people as anything other than the subjects of a particularly long and drawn-out experiment. They were almost always nearly perfect in appearance, as they had been genetically designed to be, but he could get past their looks by just not studying them too closely. He couldn't really avoid that this time.
She was impossibly lovely, the miniature woman down by his feet, and as he stared, she gazed up and him and smiled. He smiled back, of course, and reached for her, somewhat glad that in this particular case she didn't scream or try to run away. Sometimes they did, and sometimes they didn't. He could never really be sure how any one of them would react, when confronted with someone so impossibly big.
He lifted the tiny, almost weightless figure into the air and forced himself to look away. He didn't want to see how attractive she was, or how awed and amazed she was to be in his palm. The little ones had built up a kind of religion about their creators, thinking of them as gods, and seeing that look of worship always gave him chills.
He was no god. No, far from it. Some of the surviving humans, called Giants by their miniature creations, would say otherwise, but not Dr. Andrews. He knew all to well what he truly was.
He shuffled down the corridor, supporting his aching frame by leaning occasionally on the cane he carried in his right hand. The neuroplague had left its mark on him, despite his innate immunity. He was one of only a scattered few who survived the outbreak on his own. The rest of the population, such as it was, still needed a little help.
He stepped through the doorway into the extraction chamber, absently rubbing at his glasses as he leaned against the nearby table for support. The others turned to look at him. "You have the subject?" asked his colleague, Dr. Alonso Grier, from a position near the machine. "Ah, yes, I see you do. There, gentlemen, as I was saying, our tribute has arrived. It won't be long now, I assure you."
The other two men, dressed in their black uniforms, stepped forward. They were young, younger than most who came here, but they had the stiff, military bearing that betrayed their harsh training. The veins on their shaven skulls stood out like an intricate blue spiderweb, a side effect of the neuroplague that left its mark on humanity's survivors. Every survivor had such lines, but most covered them up with hair, tattoos, or other decorations. Not these men. They wore them proudly, like a badge of honor.
"Good, it's about time," said the first, the one with the silver cluster on his lapel that marked him as higher rank. The name on his tag read "Murphy," but what his first name might be, Miles didn't know. "I don't have all day. Demonstrate the procedure, and hand over the results for processing. Now!"
Miles winced at the man's harsh tone, but nodded deferentially. It's always the scientists who do the thinking, he thought morosely, but the military take the credit. Major Murphy would take his liquid prize away, when the job was done, and it would be the Army that would claim credit for another month of life to the surviving population. A few hundred thousand people, all that remained of America, now clustered around the already-decaying remnants of Chicago, would have thirty more days of life. All thanks to Miles Andrews, and of course to her, the nameless little beauty in his palm, now staring out at the room and its occupants with an expression of unmitigated awe.
She looked up at him and tried to speak. Miles caught her eye, and sighed, for he couldn't hear her tiny voice. Instead, he held up a finger, as if to silence her, and she instantly stopped talking. For an instant her eyes fixed on his fingertip, where he'd carefully written a message earlier in the day. The two words there were far too small to be spotted by the military observers, but large enough for her to see. She glanced back at him with a curious expression, nodded briefly, and remained silent.
Good, thought Miles as he set her down on the nearby table, in front of the machine. That terrible machine...how he loathed it, and every part of it, down to its very core! He eyed the slot in the front, the passageway to death, with undisguised loathing.
"If you'll permit me," said Dr. Grier from nearby, "I'll begin the initiation sequence. Do you need anything else before we begin?"
"Just get on with it," hissed Major Murphy, fidgeting ever so slightly in his crisp uniform. He adopted a parade-rest stance, waiting impatiently.
"Perhaps you'd better just start," said the other man, a captain by the name of Burns. "I'm afraid the Major has little patience for delays, and we've already been here long enough."
"Don't bother," replied Murphy, rolling his eyes. "They're just going to take their sweet time, anyway."
"Well," went on Dr. Grier, as he meandered about the machine, throwing switches and checking readouts, "this is a precision instrument. Rushing us doesn't really help. The extraction will take just as long no matter how much harassment we receive."
"Please, let's not make this any more difficult than it has to be." Miles cross-checked a few readouts and then inserted a large plastic vial into a waiting receptacle. "We'll do our jobs, just like we always do."
Murphy snorted. "Oh, I have no doubt of that," he remarked, stepping closer to the table to get a closer look at the tiny woman there. She shied away from him, finally showing the first traces of fear. There was something about the Major she clearly didn't like. "Do you think she has any clue what's going to happen to her?" asked Murphy callously, eyeing her as if she were a piece of meat. "How intelligent are these mini-humans anyway?"
"They're just as smart as we are," replied Miles, gritting his teeth. "I'm sure she knows something's going to happen, but not exactly what."
The little figure on the table, clearly no fool, had caught on to the implication and was now wide-eyed with terror, but Miles took it upon himself to keep his hands near her, so she couldn't try to run. Not that she could've escaped from the tabletop, but he didn't want her falling to her death just yet. She had to go into the machine, after all. At least this time he wouldn't have to strip her clothes off, as he normally did. That was always one of the most distasteful parts of this process.
"It's ready," said Dr. Grier, fortunately interrupting before Murphy could complicate matters further by explaining the true nature of the extraction process. "Go ahead, Dr. Andrews, put her in the machine."
Miles wrapped his hand around the tiny woman gently, and she struggled just a bit before sagging helplessly amidst his fingers. He sighed and pointed that same fingertip at her again. "Don't worry, little one," he said dejectedly, "your sacrifice will keep your people alive another month. After all, if we go, so do you. How long do you think your little society will last without us supplying all your food and water? Just think of it as giving your life for your friends. Now go on, step through this little doorway. I promise, it won't hurt a bit."
The tiny woman looked around in fear, then at the door, and back up at him. He tried to give her a consoling smile. With a gulp, she nodded, and then sagged her head in defeat and moved to the opening. He held the flap open until she passed through, then sealed it shut in a single swift motion. Her slim figure could still be seen silhouetted in the entrance, through the translucent flap, but to her credit, she didn't struggle any more or try to escape. She seemed resigned to her fate.
Dr. Grier pressed a button, and there was a hiss as a puff of gas was injected into the chamber. The shape inside the slot slumped to the ground. Another button, and another hiss, and the doorway went dark. The machine began to make other sounds, then, sounds that haunted Miles's dreams.
"You don't like this much, do you, Dr. Andrews?" asked Major Murphy suddenly, startling him with his brusqueness. "Putting her to death, I mean."
"Of course not!" replied the scientist. "She may be small, but she's a human, just like you and me. She has emotions and can think. She can feel. What makes you think I could possibly enjoy killing someone?"
"It's necessary," Murphy pointed out needlessly. "She has to die, so that thousands can live. I call that a fair trade. Besides, it's not like she's a real person. She was created in a lab, Doctor. Right here, by your predecessors, for this very reason."
"Not for this!" Miles protested, feeling his anger rising, but unable to control it. "These people were created so humanity could go on, after the plague destroyed us all. They weren't supposed to be walking drug laboratories for us to harvest!"
"Calm yourself, Dr. Andrews," Murphy said, the corners of his thin lips turning up into a smile. "You're going to give yourself a heart attack."
Miles started to reply and then stopped himself. This was pointless. Allowing himself to get upset didn't help. This was how things were. He had to live with it, if he wanted to live at all. If only Dr. Reynolds hadn't announced his findings...but that was years ago, and he was gone now. There was no way to take back what he'd done. He'd saved humanity from extinction, but his legacy was death.
The machine hummed and finally stopped its terrible noises. A door slid open and a vial popped out, held firmly in a metal clasp. Dr. Grier carefully removed the container, filled to the brim with warm, purplish liquid, and capped it with a rubber stopper. He then sealed it with tape, placed it in a padded container, and handed it over to the waiting Major.
"Thank you for your assistance," said Murphy, carefully cradling the case in a gloved hand. "Your cooperation has been duly noted. You'll be notified when we need another batch. Good day."
He turned and walked out stiffly, trying very hard to avoid showing the mild limp that betrayed the plague's touch. The other one, Captain Burns, turned to leave as well, and as he did so, his eyes met those of Miles. For an instant, he seemed about to apologize, and then, just as quickly, he spun on his heels and departed.
"Well," sighed Dr. Grier, once the officers were gone, "I'm glad that's over. Those Army guys creep me out every time. Guess I'll put the extractor into shutdown mode. You know what? You look like you could use a drink."
"Yeah, that would help a lot," agreed Miles. "Scotch, I think, will do nicely. I have a few bottles stashed away, you know. Might as well help ourselves before some looter finds it."
"Good point." Alonso began to throw a few more switches on the back of the device. "I'm sorry, Miles, I know how much you hate what we do, but it's really necessary. You do understand, don't you?"
"Of course I understand," he sighed wearily, "but that doesn't help me sleep any better at night."
"We just have to keep at it," went on Dr. Grier. "We have to keep trying. We'll find another solution someday. This can't go on. Sooner or later something will go wrong, and that'll be the end of it. In the meantime, though, this is our only choice. It's all we have."
Miles nodded and closed his eyes for a moment. The liquid that came out of that machine would suppress the neuroplague temporarily, but wouldn't cure it. Humanity was living on borrowed time, borrowed from the lives of the mini-humans they once created to be their successors. If no permanent cure could be found, then nothing about the current situation would ever change. Once a month, a tiny person would be fed into that terrible device, and the wretched remnants of humanity would buy themselves another thirty days of existence.
"Yes, of course," Dr. Andrews agreed sadly. "I'll do what I have to do, Al. I always have, and I always will."
Alonso smiled and finished adjusting the last of the settings. "All right, the system's on full automatic," he announced. "Do you want to stop back by later and finish it off, or shall I?"
"I'll take care of it, I guess," sighed Miles, in a tone that all but admitted defeat. "Come on, let's get out of here. I'm getting thirstier by the minute."
He switched off the lights as they departed the lab. Behind them, that horrid machine--the savior of humanity, in more ways than one--began to hum.
Tess hesitated, staring out into the blackness. There was nothing to see, save for a cracked, slate-grey floor beneath her feet, just barely illuminated by the glow from the interior of the sub. Yet she knew, somehow, that a tremendous amount of open space surrounded her.
"Hello?" she called out hopefully. "Is anyone there?"
The inky darkness swallowed up her voice, so that only the barest whisper of an echo returned to her ears. She took a step forward, reaching out with her hands, and found nothing but emptiness. How far did it go? What was waiting for her out there, in the black?
Suddenly, with no warning at all, the hatch behind her slammed shut. She jumped and spun around, clutching at the handle, but found it securely locked. For several seconds she banged and tore at the metal bar, to no avail.
Then she heard a voice, quite clearly, emanating from somewhere atop the submarine. Nathan's voice.
"Tess," he said loudly, the voice echoing all about her. "I see you made it safely."
"Nathan!" she yelled out. "Where are you? Please, help me! I'm locked out of the sub!"
"I know," he replied sadly. "I'm sorry it had to be this way. Sometimes I think it's easier when someone resists or tries to fight. At least then it seems like they had a chance. You went on your own, though. I always feel bad when that happens, because I feel like I deceived you. I didn't, though. I never lied to you. Everything I told you was the absolute truth."
"Where am I, Nathan?" she called out, confused and bewildered by his words, and the darkness surrounding her. "What's going on?"
"You'll see soon," he replied. "I'm sorry I can't be there with you, to help you through it, but that's not allowed. My voice is being sent through the air, through a device the Giants call a 'transmitter.' I don't know how it works, but it does. I'm back in the museum right now, talking to you, and you're outside the Dome."
Tess sucked in a breath. Outside the Dome! She knew that had to be the truth, of course, but hadn't allowed herself to really think about it until now. She was no longer on the Isle, but in the world of the Giants.
"I know you're familiar with the Book," Nathan went on. "How well do you know it?"
"Quite well," Tess told him, struggling to calm her nerves. His voice was helping, but only a little. "I know most of the prayers, and can recite a few passages by heart."
"Then you know the Chronicle of Deliverance?"
"When you read it," he went on, "did it ever occur to you that it sounded...incomplete? Like something was missing?"
Tess nodded, although she wasn't really sure he could see the gesture from back in the museum. "I always thought it ended abruptly," she agreed. "Why? What does that have to do with anything?"
"The reason it ends like that," explained Nathan, "is that the last few passages were deliberately deleted from the Book."
"What?" Tess was aghast. "Deleted by whom?"
"By the priests."
The reply left her momentarily stunned, but she recovered quickly. The events of the day were quickly losing their ability to surprise her. "The priests?" she protested. "But why? That's...why, that's sacrilegious!"
"The Book," went on Nathan, "wasn't originally intended to be anything holy at all. You have to remember, the Giants aren't gods, and they never intended to be. The priests are the ones that did that. The first High Priest wrote everything down, everything he knew to be true, spoken to him from the mouths of the Giants themselves. But after he died, and our society began to flourish, the priests knew the people couldn't be allowed to know everything. So they deleted a few passages from the Book, and thus the truth was kept from the rest of us."
Tess nodded slowly. "That must be the truth you learned for yourself, then, isn't it?"
"And the truth I'm going to tell you now. I'm going to read you those missing passages, Tess, and when I do, you'll finally understand. You'll know what kind of legacy our forefathers, and the Giants, left for us--and your own place in it. Are you ready?"
She shuddered and nodded once again. "Yes, Nathan, I'm ready."
"All right, then. Listen, Tess, and listen well. These are the words stricken from the Book, exactly as they were written, all those years ago..."
Nathan let the words die in the chill air, which became still and quiet once again. Tess found she was no longer shivering. She didn't even feel any fear. Instead, she simply felt numb, her feelings of anguish and betrayal exactly balanced by her now complete understanding of what had happened all those years ago, and what was happening to her now.
The Giants didn't die after all! They were still alive, and when they didn't perish as they thought they would, that left the People without a reason to exist. The Giants could've destroyed their creations, but they let them live, keeping the Dome intact in exchange for taking one person away every month, to a fate as yet unknown.
And this month, that sacrifice was Tess.
"I'm sorry," Nathan finally said, his voice now low and quiet. "I'm sorry it had to be you this time, but it has to be someone. For the rest of us to live, for our society to continue...well, someone has to go. That's the price we pay. That is our legacy."
"I understand," said Tess calmly. "It all makes sense now. Everything makes sense. I see why you couldn't tell me. You were right, too. You never lied to me. Not once. Thank you for that, Nathan."
"You're welcome," he replied softly.
"For what it's worth," she went on, amazing herself with how strangely tranquil she felt in the end, "I don't blame you. You did what you had to do. Oh, Nathan, you must have the worst job on the Isle! When I get a chance, I'll say a prayer for you. I promise."
There was no reply. For a moment, the briefest of instants, she thought she heard a distant sob, and then the sound was blotted out by a loud slam. The noise echoed all around her, and she froze, paralyzed with fear.
"Goodbye, Tess," said Nathan, his voice choked with emotion. Before she could reply, the lights came on.
For several long seconds Tess could only blink and rub her eyes, and then she became aware that the floor itself was trembling. Loud thumping noises thundered closer and closer, and then, something massive stamped into view.
She blinked again and her vision cleared. Tess gasped as she focused on the incredible vision before her, something she never in her life expected to see.
She was looking at a gigantic shoe. She recognized it instantly, for she'd often studied the massive sneaker in the museum back home. Only this time, the shoe was occupied by an equally gigantic foot.
She looked up. And up, and up, and up into the sky. She gawked upwards at the tremendous Giant who was now staring down at her, looking through thick glasses larger than herself, and smiling.
Nathan was right about everything, Tess realized, in that terrifying, frozen instant as she beheld the monstrous figure rising high into the sky before her. Her life had changed forever. There was no going back. She knew the truth now, and she knew her fate. She understood, even at the last, what was going to happen to her.
What was more, and this surprised even her, was that she felt not the slightest twinge of fear. There was no reason whatsoever to be afraid. She was exactly where she needed to be.
Tess raised her head, opened her eyes, and smiled. The Giant's grin widened and he reached out his hand. She didn't cry out as he gently lifted her into the air, cradling her carefully in the folds of his palm, and carried her away.