Sore Must Be the Storm

by Malda Marlys

Nettie was almost asleep when the condor crashed.

She spent every rainy night in the greenhouse. The friendly rattling of the ceiling panels was worth leaden midnight fatigue. She was old, and she’d earned the rest she cared to take. 

But not so old she couldn’t roll out of the way of falling glass. Gravity was too familiar a foe to catch her unawares. 

The oily black shimmer of condor armor froze her where she lay for a heartbeat, but denial was a luxury an algae farmer couldn’t afford. She leaped directly to the only useful question. Was there anything left alive inside? 

By the time she had her feet under her, the sheer, seeping volume of red and black put paid to any hope she had for the condor. Armor withstood a lot of abuse, but weight restrictions meant no secondary defenses for the meters upon meters of wing. The long, thin bones of a perfectly engineered fledgling only fared a little better than greenhouse glass at those speeds. 

Nettie’d briefly dared to hope that the condor had been slapped out of the sky by wind and not makeshift artillery. The half her torso burned away reminded her that hope was an indulgence, too. 

Security would send someone to investigate. Several someones with very big guns if they knew what they’d hit. Nettie took another moment the condor didn’t have to spare and sent the roof a repair order. The modified diatoms in her patch program were fast and inelegant. The hole would be one ugly smudge among many by the time the jackboots on duty made it to the farms.

The condor’s face emerged as her bots began to disintegrate and ooze away. Young. Enormous eyes. Ashy with blood loss, but uncannily flawless from a life spent inside her armor. She wheezed pathetically as she took back her own breathing functions. The bots couldn’t hold. Cascading failure.

Nettie guiltily hoped to see her still, have this over with, but the short battle ended with the fledgling’s eyes open.

“Hey, little sister.” Nettie needed a steadying breath before she pulled up her sleeve to reveal the telltale coils of ink she’d kept out of sight for sixty years. “Back to stardust soon. I’ll wait with you, okay?” She remembered the more formal words, but they felt wrong on her tongue, a lie after a lifetime on the ground. 

What was her pride to a hard dying? She’d be ashamed of herself later, when there was time to spare.

The fine mesh of carbon microtubles were beginning to show through as bots died in clusters. The armor was fighting for its condor and losing. “Who…” Such a small voice. All the kid had left in her lungs. 

“Me?” Tiresome old Nettie, ornery matriarch of Spillway Farm. Another deep breath and she put away her dignity for good. “Netwreck Shoal. Never made my wings.” Which was not precisely true, but she held judicious dishonesty a bit dearer than dignity. “I had cousins who did.” In a society of sisters engineered for perfection, you needed a way to distinguish closer blood relations. “You know any Shoals?”

Nettie didn’t expect an answer nor especially want one. What would she do with the knowledge? She was only filling the air with soothing noise. But the condor managed to speak again. “A-access?”

“Sure.” Which was easy to say. Nettie frowned in concentration and nerves long left fallow stuttered to life. The whirls on her arms crept down her fingers, halting here and there as they stumbled over scarred and wrinkled paths, shining too faintly to see.

If the world swam a bit with the effort, that was Nettie’s problem. Between gruesome burns and a syrupy current of failing nanobots, finding a place to connect to the armor wasted a few more of the breaths the condor had in her.

The condor’s name was Troubling Drey, and that much Nettie had expected. Dying unknown was all she’d hoped to spare the fledgling; she’d gladly have named her and held her hand if it slipped out of the armor in time. 

But far more data than that surged between them. The few nanobots hidden in her tattoos were all Nettie had to draw on. She couldn’t store Drey’s intel long before it would decay, unshielded and starved. A surface scan was all she dared. 

Nettie didn’t need details to recognize troop movements and transports. Ship specs. The locations of armories and refueling stations. 

Drey was painfully young. Too young to be away from the clifftop nests. Too young to know her own power or how to evade wild potshots in a stormy sky. Not much point in knowing if her priceless intelligence was a fluke, a last resort, or a clever ruse. It’d soon be a little more sludge around the algae tanks. 

Nettie patted the joint where Drey’s mostly-human hand curled under the bots. The answering twitch of her wing could have been a random spasm, but Nettie chose hope this time. An old woman’s indulgence. “Won’t hurt so much if you keep the armor to the end, but there might not be enough of it left by the time you’re gone. It’s up to you.” 

You was hardly out of her mouth when the bots began to crawl up Nettie’s fingers. Drey’s choice was made, and it wasn’t to buy herself a second longer. 

Nettie could have lost herself in mourning a fledgling who’d have grown to be the best of them, but she’d known too much of weeping not to look to the living first. 

The armor transition phase lagged and stammered. She had time enough to carry what was left of Drey to the incinerator. Nettie had to trust that no one in the house was awake to see their grandmother disposing of a body and glowing like a signal flare. Her tattoos burned wherever they met the newest burst of nanobots, magnesium bright against the night and not much dimmed by a jumpsuit and boots. 

The process nearly stalled entirely when the armor reached the imperfect ink she’d added herself. A condor chick hatched a bit too early, slow in the air, a liability to her sisters. A crash of her own, armor that devoured itself rather than let her die, hiding its remnants in the coils of her tattoos. Years of limping among moonbound algae farmers kind enough to take her in, kinder still to forget she’d ever been other than one of them despite a few peculiarities of her anatomy. A son and two daughters. Seven assorted grandchildren. A farming tunnel too close to a hydroelectric plant and cheaper for it. 

Nettie’s new armor haltingly folded her stories into itself, speeding as it grew, and it wrote Troubling Drey back on her skin. With nanobot reinforcements, her ink would just hold both their stories. She wasn’t entirely Netwreck anymore, a welcome side effect of traumatic transfer. The girl who shouldn’t have been in the sky that night would be returned to her sisters in all the ways that mattered, her more mundane remains fading to ash in the farm’s fertilizer plant. Condors flew light.

Nettie rolled her shoulders experimentally. Sinews and tendons that had rusted tight with age were loose now. Pain was all over for as long as she’d last. There was only so much of her left to give. Her armor slicked into place over the silver of her hair and the age spots on her hands. It promised to get her as far as Drey’s nest. They’d read the data there, Drey’s intelligence and Drey’s too-short story and Netwreck’s, entirely too long. 

They wouldn’t be overrun when the time came. 

And they’d read of a wingless granddaughter with a condor’s heart, one who knew how to operate the clandestine communications that kept resistance alive in tunnel farms and factory hives. Escape routes under a dam that led deep into the moon. How to hide counteragents to biochemical weapons in among algae tanks. Sisterhood that reached deep into the stone as easily as the stars. 

The half-repaired hole in the greenhouse roof was just wide enough. Netwreck Shoal spared one last look for the house, spread her wings, and flew home.


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