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First pages

The stories she read explained how things came to be the way they were. Evvy learned that spiders weave their webs because the first spider had been a girl who had been transformed by a goddess jealous of her weaving ability; she read about the inevitable punishment of the giant who stole fire from the gods and gave it to men. One of her favorite stories was about a beautiful girl named Pandora, who had been given a golden box along with instructions never to open it. As soon as Evvy began the story, she could see there would be trouble, for what person could possibly resist opening a box, especially when told not to?

 

Pandora's Genes, by Kathryn Lance

PART I: THE DREAM TASTERS

Chapter One

Zach was dreaming of the days he and Evvy had traveled together, when he was pulled from sleep by a distant cry. It was not yet morning, though the hills to the east were illuminated with the light of approaching dawn. He wondered what had awakened him, and instantly alert, reached for his sword and half-stood, listening carefully. There it was, a faint, terrified cry. At first he thought it was the sound of a small animal that had met a predator, but when the sound was again repeated he recognized that it was human—the cry of a woman or child. It seemed to be coming from downstream, and he pulled on his boots and began to follow it.

Just outside his camp, he saw that the ground was scuffed with what appeared to be human footprints. He felt the skin on his face tighten as he realized someone had been here, in sight of his camp—when? As he was preparing camp and mourning the early part of his life? Or as he slept, helpless and alone?

The cry was repeated, more sharply, and he began to move more quickly. Around a bend in the stream he came upon the remains of a large machine burial ground. In the waxing light he could see the jagged, corroded edges of the dead, half-buried machine bodies, and now he saw objects moving upon the midden heap: three shabbily dressed men climbing among the machines and rocks, and at the top of the pile, holding a thick pointed branch, a smaller figure, dressed in a dark cloak and hood. The small fighter was skillful with the branch, but it was clear the three men were getting the best of the battle. Now one of the men lunged at the smaller person, catching the cloak, and began to tug. The small fighter began to slide down the midden, calling out shrilly. Just as the sun topped the hill, sending its golden light onto the scene, the small figure landed in a heap on a large piece of rusted metal, and the sun illuminated badly-dyed reddish hair and a discolored, misshapen face.

Zach couldn’t believe his eyes. It was Jonna.

He had last seen her just the previous evening, though it seemed like years ago, and had never expected to encounter her again. They had met by chance on the Mall. Jonna had told Zach of her plans to escape the District, where she was identified as a Trader spy. Neither the Traders nor the Principal’s men would let her go if they captured her, because both sides saw her as a traitor. Zach, who alone knew the truth, had given her his small pouch of metal, enough, perhaps, to help her leave the District in safety. In return, she’d given him the information he needed to uncover a real spy—and murderer.

He didn’t hesitate, though there were three attackers. Shouting at the top of his voice, his sword in the air, he charged across the stream toward the burial mound. Jonna saw him first, her mismatched eyes going wide in astonishment. A moment later the three dark-clad men turned in unison, clearly shocked.

“Let her go!” Zach cried, continuing to run. He stopped just at the base of the midden. The grotesque, twisted metallic shapes rose in front of him. The hill was higher than he had thought, the men and Jonna well above him.

“Leave me!” she shouted, throwing a rock down on the men.

“Let her go!” Zach repeated. “She’s mine!”

He looked up—the men were armed with hooks and darts, and clearly realized that they had little to fear from him down below.

“She’s my woman!” he cried again. Now one of the men looked directly at him. Short, wiry, dark, and grinning.

“There’s the three of us, stranger,” he said. “Looks like she’s ours now.”

For a moment Zach had an eerie feeling that this had all happened before. The scene in front of him grew red, and once again he was at the river crossing where the two brothers, Ermil and Orin, were trying to take Evvy. Certain that it would mean his own death, he had fought the two men. Anything to save Evvy.

“Zach!” Jonna’s scream cut through his reverie, and he felt a sharp sting in his shoulder. The men were laughing, tearing at her clothing, as Orin and Ermil had laughed, laughing that Evvy was theirs now…

They would not have her!

A sudden rage filled him, along with a surge of power. He sheathed his sword, then grabbed at a large piece of rusty metal sticking out from the hill and began to pull, to shake. Clods of dirt and pieces of metal and glass began to rain down on him from above.

“Stop it!” one of the men shouted. “Stop!”

He felt another sting, this one in his thigh, and a pain in his hand told him the sharp machine-body skeleton was tearing his flesh, but he continued to grasp it and to pull. “Hold on, Jonna!” he shouted. He stopped for just a moment, long enough to see Jonna clinging tightly to a sturdy, rusted machine part near the top of the heap. The three men had stopped their attacks on Zach and now clung desperately to the shards of rusty metal and rock, but all three were slipping. Zach’s rage continued to build, to overflow. One of the men, the smallest, suddenly slid nearly to the bottom, crying out as sharp bits of metal scraped and pierced his flesh. Zach reached out, grabbed his leg, pulled him screaming and struggling to the bottom, drew his sword, and without hesitating plunged it into the smaller man’s chest. His adversary screamed again, moaned, a grotesque gurgling sound, then lay twitching at Zach’s feet.

Again Zach took hold of the large piece of metal at the base of the hill, again began to pull and shake it. He heard animal sounds of grunting and roaring, and only realized he was making them when Jonna’s voice pierced the red fog. “Stop!” she screamed. “Stop, Zach! Stop! They’re gone!”

He stopped a moment and looked up at the top of the hill, where Jonna clung to the machine body, her eyes wide and terrified. The other two men had disappeared.

Zach stepped back in confusion, and looked down at the hilt of his sword, slightly twitching where it entered the dead man’s body.

“What…” Zach could not think of what he wanted to say.

“They’re gone,” Jonna repeated, beginning gingerly to climb down from the pile of rubble. “They worked their way to the side of the hill and ran off.”

“I…. I killed him,” Zach said, looking down at the man in disbelief. Though he had been forced to kill several times in the past, the act always unsettled him.

“You saved me,” Jonna said “You were frightening. I’ve never seen you so angry. But you saved me. Thank you.”

Zach continued to stare at the dead man. “Come on,” Jonna said. “We can’t stay here. They’ll be back with their band.” Now Zach became aware of sharp pain in his shoulder and thigh. Blood dripped from his torn hand.

“You’re wounded,” Jonna said. “Wait.” Deftly, she pulled out the darts. She touched one to her lips, grimaced and spat. “Chappa!” she said. “I must get you to where I can treat you.”

Chappa. Zach felt a sudden chill as he realized he’d been poisoned. It had been a chappa-tipped arrow that had wounded Will at his aborted wedding and cost him his right arm.

“You’ll be all right,” Jonna said, gripping his arm with her strong hands. She bent down, tugged the sword from the body of the dead man, wiped it on the edge of her cloak. “Come,” she ordered.

As if in a dream, Zach followed her back across the stream, toward his camp. “Once we find the mount, we can get away,” she said.

But when they reached the site of Zach’s camp, his mount was gone, as were his blanket and the large bag with most of his other supplies. All that remained were the scraps of last night’s meal and his personal pouch, still slung high in the tree.

“The deenas take it!” Jonna exclaimed.

Zach looked around at the ruins of his camp, feeling numb. The dart-wounds had begun to hurt badly. “They’ve taken almost everything,” he said.

“Come on,” Jonna said. “We’ll find a place to hide and I’ll treat you. Take off your boots.” When Zach didn’t respond, she repeated her command. “There’s no time to lose!” she said urgently. “They’ll be back, and I’ve got to counteract the chappa before you are poisoned.”

Zach sat on a log and removed his boots. While he did so, Jonna shinnied up the tree and retrieved his things. When she climbed down, she tied his boots together with her own, hung them around her neck, shouldered Zach’s pack, then took his hand and led him into the stream. “They won’t be able to track us,” she said.

For what seemed hours, Zach followed Jonna upstream, unable to think of anything but the necessity to keep moving, keep his balance, on the rough pebbles lining the stream bed. The cold rushing water numbed his feet until he could no longer feel them. He was feeling very ill from the spreading poison, and would have stopped had not Jonna continually pulled him forward, urging him to keep going. Once he slipped and nearly fell into the stream, but she steadied him with her strong arms. From time to time she stopped, scampered onto land to pick a twig or leaves, some tiny red flowers, a handful of black-colored berries.

The stream bank had grown steeper and the water deeper. The sun was full overhead when they at last reached a small sandy beach beneath the scooped-out overhang of a steep low cliff. “We'll stop here,” Jonna said, looking worried. “We'll be safer now – I hope.” Zach gratefully followed her out of the water and sank onto the soft sand. The world began to spin around him and he leaned over and was violently sick.

Jonna muttered an oath. “It’s the poison,” she said. “It’s a good thing you’re so big–the darts are for small game. I don’t think you’ve taken enough to kill you.”

Zach tried to sit, but fell to his side, all his strength gone. The numbness in his feet had begun to spread up his legs, toward his groin. He wondered if he were dying but felt so sick he didn’t care.

Jonna swore again. “I’m going to risk a small fire,” she told him. She disappeared, and Zach wondered if she would make it back in time, but presently she returned and began building a fire. From her deep pockets she took a piece of pre-Change glass, and, focusing the rays of the midday sun, soon had a fire going. While he watched incuriously, she placed a flat, thin stone over the burning kindling, then took the leaves and berries she had gathered and chewed them. She spat them on the stone, mashing them together with her fingers to make a paste. Soon the mixture was sizzling, its foul odor filling the small clearing. Jonna took Zach's knife from his pouch and held it in the fire until the blade glowed orange, then waited a moment for it to cool.

"I'm going to have to hurt you," she said. "This is fireberry. But it will draw the poison out. The real danger is putrefaction of the wounds."

She pulled off Zach's tunic, then took the sterilized knife and cut into the bigger of his wounds, the one high on his shoulder. The pain was piercing, and he jumped, stifling a groan. Taking a large leaf, she scooped up some of the sizzling paste and pushed it into the wound, then pressed the leaf tightly against his skin. "Hold this, if you can," she said, taking his other hand and pressing it against the leaf.

Zach forced himself to breathe slowly and deeply, and held the searing paste against his flesh while Jonna tied it to his shoulder with a piece of vine she had gathered.

Once again he wondered where she had learned her healing arts, and if a wild deena were in her.

Next Jonna gently removed Zach's trousers and cut into the wound on his thigh, the same thigh that had been injured and never healed when he and Evvy had fled the Traders.

"What happened to your leg?" she asked, sounding at once curious and appalled.

Zach told her, with difficulty, how he had been injured by one of the pursuing Traders, and then fallen under his mount.

“It has never healed properly,” he finished, “and I’ve been unable to walk well since.”

“I think I can help,” she said, frowning at the wound. “Your hip is out of place. It’s a wonder you can walk at all. We will work on it when you are feeling better.” She cut into the new wound, applied her poultice, then helped Zach replace his trousers.

“Thank you,” he said presently. He could already feel the poison beginning to subside.

“It seems that I am forever patching you up,” Jonna said.

“And I,” he replied, “seem forever to be rescuing you from peril.”

“I thank you too, Brother Zach,” she said. An odd expression passed over her misshapen face, and she bent over him, close, then kissed him on the mouth, her lips warm and soft on his.

***

Though it was late spring, and the days and nights were warm, Zach found himself shaking with chills as the sun set. Jonna covered him with her own small, tattered cloak, but reluctantly put out the fire after preparing dinner from the remains of Zach’s supplies. “We are too close to them yet,” she said regretfully. “The chills are from the poison,” she added. As he continued to shake, she lifted the cloak and then, careful of his wounds, laid her small body on top of his. “We will share our warmth,” she murmured into his shoulder, and then, very abruptly, fell asleep.

Zach gratefully felt the warmth of her body flow into his. But he was still chilled, and his wounds pained him. He lay awake for a long time, watching as the star patterns above moved slowly through the sky, aware of the slight feminine weight of Jonna’s body pressing on his. He was reminded of the night long ago when he and Evvy, still a child, had shared a blanket in a cave that was infested with poison-bats. He wondered with a pang if he would ever see Evvy again.

He slept without realizing it and when he woke it was to a gray, overcast dawn. Jonna still lay curled on top of him, a lock of her badly-dyed hair falling across her cheek. Asleep she looked peaceful, childlike, and in the dim early light the patchwork discoloration of her face was scarcely noticeable. Her features, he realized with a start, were pleasing of themselves, and had her life been different, she might have been comely.

Careful not to waken her, he gently brushed her hair back where it was tickling his cheek. His wounds kept him from falling back to sleep, so he put them from his mind and tried to think what to do next.

Clearly, he and Jonna would have to leave the territory claimed by the band of men who had attacked them. He thought briefly of returning to the District to renew his supplies, but rejected the idea immediately. Will would never easily consent to letting him go and he could not face another confrontation with his brother, who would undoubtedly insist that Zach must stay at least until the wedding.

He had lived off the land many times in the past, and still had his personal pouch with a good deal of metal in it, as well as his flint and steel and, providentially, his bow and arrows, which he had only taken at the last moment. He also had the feathered lyre which, if necessary, he knew he could sell for a good price. He had always wanted to travel to the Western West, and though he had originally planned to do so in the future, after Will and Evvy were married, he realized that his journey there had already begun.

Out of gratitude, he would go with Jonna to wherever she was headed, then would strike out alone, to see what there was to see.

He was half-dreaming about the Western West when Jonna awoke and looked at him, surprise in her eyes. “I… I dreamt I was with Yosh,” she murmured, looking embarrassed. Yosh, the martyred leader of the Traders, had been the great love of Jonna’s life. “How are you feeling, Brother Zach?” she asked.

“Well enough,” he said.

“I see you are no longer trembling. That is a good sign.” She rolled off of him, yawned, then examined his wounds one by one. “They are healing,” she announced, “with no sign of infection so far. A few more treatments with fireberry and you will be as good as new.”

“I thank you for it,” said Zach.

He rose and stretched himself, with some pain, then moved downstream to relieve himself and bathe his face. When he returned, Jonna was gathering up their few possessions and dragging branches across the small clearing to hide signs of their presence.

“We can eat the remains of our food along the way,” she said. “But we must move on now.”

As they continued through the forested land, he haltingly told her of his plans to visit the Western West, and to his surprise she immediately agreed.

“As I have no destination,” she told him, “I would like to go with you. I too have heard of the Western West and the many marvels it holds.” She paused a moment. “This reminds me,” she said, “of something I found in your pocket when I removed your trousers.” She reached into her own pocket and handed him a small, shiny, oval-shaped medallion inscribed with a strange symbol.

Zach took the object and glanced at the symbol, which appeared to be a spider with a small circle inside its body. “I don't know what this is or where it is from,” he told her. “It appears to be of pre-Change workmanship. It was left for me by a friend who died, along with a note saying he believed it was important to the future of the District. He said he had planned to find out what it meant.”

“I believe the symbol represents the Eye,” Jonna said after a moment.

“The Eye?”

“You have not heard of it?”

“No,” Zach said. “I’m sure I would remember such an odd name.”

“It is probably a myth,” Jonna said. “But when I was growing up, before I met the Traders, I lived in the Southern South, where the lands are no longer dry. The women in my family talked about the Eye. It was some sort of structure from the past, from before the Change. It was said to hold great powers for anyone who was able to understand it.”

Zach frowned. “Are you saying this Eye is some sort of pre-Change technology?”

“Perhaps,” said Jonna. “Whatever it is, if it exists, it’s said to be very powerful. Some say it is in the Southern South, and others that it is somewhere near the District. But most of the legends say it resides in the Western West. My aunts all said it was a place of great danger and great opportunity.”

Zach thought a moment. “The Principal and I have heard similar rumors many times,” he said. “That some parts of the land might have survived the Change, or there are secret, hidden civilizations that the Change did not affect. We tried to visit one or two such sites, but always they turned out to be blasted ruins, much like the rest of the District and the area beyond. We concluded that such stories were wishful thinking, tales men told to comfort themselves and create hope that life could someday be made the way it had been in the past."

Jonna shrugged. “The Eye is rumored to be different. But who knows? I’d like to see it in any case. If nothing else, it provides a reason to visit the Western West.”

“Yes, it does,” said Zach, surprised to feel the call of adventure stirring again. “And whether we find the Eye or not, I cannot imagine a more agreeable or knowledgeable traveling companion.”

 

As they traveled, Jonna told Zach how she had been captured. It had happened only a few hours after she and Zach had parted the previous night. “I didn’t take sufficient care to hide myself,” she said. “I was exhausted, and thought one small woman would not attract attention. I followed the northern road out of the District, and saw no signs of habitation. I stepped away from the Principal’s road, and lay down to sleep without even a fire, and they happened upon me.”

Zach nodded, remembering the bandits who had captured him and Evvy on their journey seven years ago.

“These were a band of brothers and cousins living together in the hills,” Jonna went on. “They have little understandable language and live almost like animals.” She paused. “I think there are many such people living in small groups alone. In any case, two of them captured me while I slept and had me tied up before I knew what had happened. It took me more than an hour to get free.”

“We will take turns keeping watch tonight,” Zach said. “It would be safer to sleep if we head north into bat country.”

“We will reach the west faster traveling as we are,” Jonna said. “Besides, aren’t we more likely to encounter the Principal’s patrols to the north?” When Zach didn’t answer, she continued, “And what about you, Brother Zach? Only two nights ago we parted ways on the Mall. You were to return to the Principal, to give him information about the Trader spy in his House.”

“Yes,” said Zach. He had not thought of those events in many hours now; they seemed to have taken place months ago. He looked at Jonna, waiting patiently for him to say more. “Your information made it possible for me to… to set something very bad aright,” he said finally.

“And now the Principal has sent you on another mission?”

“The Principal did not know I was leaving,” said Zach. “I decided quite suddenly.”

Jonna spoke a question with her eyes. For a moment Zach thought of telling her everything, but the words caught in his throat. “I will probably return to him some day,” he said. “But it is best for both of us and for his bride that I leave the District now.”

For a very long moment Jonna said nothing. Then, tentatively: “So Evvy and the Principal still plan to marry?” she said.

“Yes.”

“When I first heard what was planned, I was surprised,” Jonna went on.

“Why were you surprised? I thought you had come to realize that the Principal was not the evil-doer the Traders claimed.”

“That is true,” said Jonna. “But it is also true that Evvy does not love him. I realize that most marriages in our world are not for love, but that sad old emotion does still drive many of us, as it did me and Yosh.”

Zach was silent a moment, thinking of what she had said. “Evvy does love him,” he said.

“No, Brother Zach,” said Jonna. “Evvy loves you. I spent a fair bit of time with her during my stay at the Garden. And I saw her face when….” She didn’t finish the sentence, but continued: “She loves you. You are the only man she loves. And I imagine you are the only man she ever will love.”

Zach felt himself flush. He could not think what to say. Jonna was the second person to tell him that Evvy loved him and not the Principal… but how could that be? “She thinks of me as a father,” he protested.

“No, she thinks of you as a lover,” said Jonna. “But it does not matter. She will no doubt be married to the Principal soon, and I am certain she would never betray him for another, even though he was the love of her life.”

Zach opened his mouth to answer, but realized he had nothing to say.

“Whatever the truth of the matter, it is very lucky for me,” said Jonna after a moment. “Whatever has happened between you and the Principal has likely saved my life.” She smiled almost shyly, and Zach noticed again how soft and feminine her face was, how expressive, despite her deformities.

 

The next morning, as Zach bent over the stream to wash his face, Jonna gripped his arm. “Someone is following us!” she whispered fiercely.

He felt his heart lurch and immediately straightened. “Why do you think so?”

“I’ve suspected something since the day before yesterday,” she said. “This morning I awoke before the sun and doubled back on our trail. A tall man—I couldn’t see well in the dark—is less than an hour behind us. Help me gather up our things. There’s a pile of dead machine bodies around the bend. We can hide and wait while he passes.”

Zach nodded, painfully stood, then gathered his belongings starting with his sword, while Jonna set to work obliterating all signs of their camp. He followed her across the stream, wincing as the cold water saturated his still-healing wounds, then climbed onto the bank just below a machine burial mound.

There were dozens of machine bodies of all sizes in the burial ground, and he and Jonna quickly found a large, rusted carcass with a deep cave-like depression that would hold both of them while allowing a view of the path they had taken. Once Zach was settled, Jonna climbed out and inspected the graveyard. Satisfied that they had not left a trail, she nestled in beside Zach to wait. Zach reflected on their good fortune in finding the burial ground—very few citizens of the District, even those who did not follow the Trader religion, would be willing so much as to approach dead machines for fear of wild deenas.

“Do you think this man is part of the gang we met earlier?” Zach asked when she was settled.

“I don’t think so,” said Jonna. “I didn’t get a good look in the dark, but he seems very different. He may not even be an enemy. But we can’t take a chance.”

Zach had to agree. He was still hobbled by his injuries, and didn’t think he would be able to fight effectively if it came to that. Of course it might be that the man was not following them after all, but happened to be heading in the same direction.

“Shh!” Jonna warned, ducking further down as a very tall, thin man strode into the clearing. He was dark-skinned, with wild, frizzy hair that was a mixture of dark gray and white, like clouds before a storm, and a long, gaunt, clean-shaven face. He was dressed in a brown tunic and trousers, like those worn by most men of the District, but the cloth seemed somewhat finer than common homespun. While they watched, the man fingered something that hung around his neck. “It’s Shardyl,” he said suddenly in a deep voice, clearly enough to easily be heard. “I’ve lost the trail.” Now they heard a strange kind of warbling whistle and then another, higher-pitched voice said, “Where are you?” Jonna and Zach exchanged glances, wondering where the other person was standing. Zach wished to risk a look, but it seemed unwise.

The tall man again fingered the object around his neck, and a moment later the odd whistling began again. He seemed to be listening to someone invisible, then nodded. “I’m not sure,” he said. “Farther west than I intended.” Another whistle drowned the reply from the second person. The tall man scowled. “I’d forgotten how difficult communication is here,” he said. “I’m starting back. See you Inside.” With that he quickly turned and started back down the trail in the direction he had come from. Jonna and Zach stayed where they were, silent, until they were certain the stranger would not return. “I wonder who that was,” Zach remarked as they clambered down from the dead machine.

“His name seemed to be Shar... Shardyl,” she said. “I’ve not heard that name before.”

“And he said he was going inside... Inside where?” Zach mused. They had seen no human structures since their journey together began.

“I also wonder who the second person was,” said Jonna. “And where he was. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was inside the pocket of the man we saw.”

 

Over the next several days, Jonna and Zach fell into a companionable partnership. Zach hunted and Jonna gathered her herbs and edible plants. Each evening and morning she applied a poultice to the wound on Zach’s thigh. He could feel it healing.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

I have been a professional writer, editor, and writing teacher, and am now semi-retired, living in Tucson, Arizona, with one husband and four cats. When I’m not writing science fiction, I lead nature tours as a docent at two local nature parks. I feel that the current novel, Pandora’s Promise, is the best thing I have ever written, and that it contains in one form or another everything I have ever cared about.

Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
I have adored science fiction since I was a child. It is interesting and exciting because it answers questions that begin “What if?” It has always seemed more real to me than mainstream fiction.
Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
Years ago I read an article about attempts to clean oil spills using genetically-modified bacteria. I thought, “Great--but what if your car catches it?” From there I began to wonder what would happen if all oil and oil products abruptly disappeared from the earth.
Q. What did you learn while writing this book?
A.
The main character, Zach, appeared in a dream I had in which a good man felt he had a duty to do something he knew was wrong. The struggle between honor and obligation became a continuing motif in the story. While writing this book I was surprised to learn that Zach’s conflict could be resolved.

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