Once, Pedra watched a child die in the Saral desert. It had been morning. Ceria, the greater star, had just broken free of the horizon, flooding the frigid peaks of sand with warmth and light.
No one noticed the girl scampering along the top of a dune, and if they had, what would they have done? It was perfectly normal for the smaller children to find joy in a ripple of sand here and there, or a particularly crisp ridge at the top of a dune. Certainly, if the child was keeping up with the rest of the Viðkan as they marched to the mines, no one would have said anything. Pedra hadn’t said anything.
The poor birth mother was too busy keeping the seven-month-old strapped to her chest content. He had made a game of breaking out of the cloth tucked around him and pulling the bottom fold of her makeshift ryptull away from her mouth and nose, squealing whenever she smiled at him before pushing the cloth back, and she didn’t notice where her daughter had run off to or that she even had.
So, when the child slipped and fell down the other side of the dune, no one hurried to help her climb back up.
Her screams, though, stopped the march. Pedra ran up the dune because she had seen the girl slip and had expected her to reappear in a moment. Others followed Pedra. Before she reached the top, she didn’t want to see. Seeing would make it real, make it even more tangible and horrible. If the child’s screams would just stop, then Pedra knew she would be all right, she had just been scared, she had just been reprimanded, and now the stingers would retreat, and the Viðkan could keep moving. But Pedra’s arms and neck and feet were already beginning to burn. She knew the girl was not all right.
The screams intensified, rising to a terrifying crescendo. At the top, Pedra looked down at what she had already imagined a hundred times during the ascent. The girl’s body thrashed in sand, carving chasms in the side of the dune. The hole of the stinger nest was buried now, but Pedra could still see where the sand dipped toward it.
There were thirteen—perhaps fourteen—stingers on the girl’s arms and neck and torso. Plates raised to enhance their size, they clung to her, the two whips of their tails slashing back and forth, punishing her for disturbing their nest. On her neck and around her wrists, the skin bulged in long, red ridges.
Yrik acted first, striding and skidding down the dune. Two Keepers had also arrived, the morning light reflecting off their metal flesh so sharply they were difficult to look at. They dismounted their skimmer-crafts. Pedra slid down, and another Viðka—Ren—followed her. Pedra hesitated by the girl, whose wailing had receded to pleading whimpers at the approach of the adults; Pedra bore the brunt of the pain now. The girl must only feel mild discomfort.
Pedra counted each time she inhaled, trying to focus on how to keep the girl alive instead of the pain from the welts and the poison that inundated her own senses. To pull a stinger off when it was so securely attached would tear the child’s skin and only further the possibility of infection, on top of the lashes from the tails. Perhaps if she could force her hand under a stinger’s body and press the soft flesh by its neck, it might be persuaded to let go. There was no time, but still she knelt beside the girl, grasping her wrist to steady the trembling arm. Pedra’s hands also shook. Already, Pedra knew that a lethal dose of poison coursed through the girl.
They were too late.
Palms open in front of him, Yrik faced the Keepers and said, “We’ll carry her. She won’t slow us down.” Yrik’s head was almost as high as the Keeper’s chest. The Keeper didn’t speak, but slammed a fist against Yrik’s upper arm, throwing him against the side of the dune.
Pedra winced. Yrik’s shoulder was dislocated. She, too, felt the sickening pop and crunch, and the tingling throb of the joint unhinged, even though her shoulder was fine. She could not consume his pain and the girl’s, though, so her flame shielded her. He would have to deal with it.
Stepping away from the girl’s side, Pedra moved between the Keeper and the child, her fingernails pressed into her palms. The insides of her elbows were damp and clammy.
Ren restrained Pedra, pulled her back. “Stop,” he said.
“I haven’t started.” But he was right. They were too late. They could not possibly hope to beat the Keepers in hand-to-hand combat. They could not possibly hope to save the girl.
The other Keeper bent over the girl, grasped her neck, and lifted her. She stared at it, her eyes wide and red, and clutched—slapped—its hand frantically. Its metal fingers overlapped each other, so thin was the girl’s throat in its hand. Her body jerked. There was a snap, and her suffering ended, life extinguished. Pedra shuddered.
After that, Pedra assembled the adults and insisted they walk in pairs to and from the mines. “We must account for everyone,” she told them. “We must forget no one.”