"We're looking for Joe Loong," Jane said, to the assembled search team, at the edge of the forest by Joe's house. Dad, who was standing with her and Savitri, was letting her run the show. "He's been missing for the last two days. Therese Arlien, his companion, tells me that he was excited about the return of the fanties to the area and told her he was thinking of trying to get close to one of the herds. We're working under the assumption that's what he did, and then either got lost, or perhaps got injured by one of the animals."
Jane motioned at the line of trees. "We're going to search the area in teams of four, spreading out in a line from here. Everyone in a group stays in voice contact with the group members on either side; every one at the left or right of a group also stays in voice contact with your opposite number from the next group over. Call to each other every couple of minutes. We'll do this slow and careful; I don't want any of us adding to the number of the lost, understand? If you lose voice contact with the other members of your group, stop and stay where you are, and let your group members reestablish contact. If the person next to you doesn't respond when you call, stop and alert those you are in contact with. Again, let's not lose anyone else, especially when we're trying to find Joe. Now, you all know who we are looking for?"
There were general nods; most of the hundred and fifty or so folks who'd showed up to look for Loong were friends of his. I personally had only the vaguest of ideas of what he looked like, but I was going on the idea that if someone came running toward us, waving his hands and saying, "Thank God you found me," it was likely to be him. And joining the search party was getting me a day out of school. You can't argue with that.
"All right, then," Mom said. "Let's organize into teams." People started grouping together in fours; I turned to Gretchen and figured she and I would be a team with Hickory and Dickory.
"Zoe," Mom said. "You're with me. Bring Hickory and Dickory."
"Can Gretchen come with us?" I asked.
"No," Jane said. "Too large. Sorry, Gretchen."
"It's all right," Gretchen said to Mom, and then turned back to me. "Try to survive without me," she said.
"Stop," I said. "It's not like we're dating." She grinned and wandered off to join another group.
After several minutes three dozen groups of four were spread out over more than half a klick of tree line. Jane gave the signal and we started in.
Then came the boring: three hours of stomping through the woods, slowly, searching for signs that Joe Loong had wandered in this direction, calling out to each other every few minutes. I found nothing, Mom to my left found nothing, Hickory to my right found nothing, and Dickory to its right found nothing either. Not to be hopelessly shallow about it, but I thought it would be at least a little more interesting than it was.
"Are we going to take a break anytime soon?" I asked Jane, walking up to her when she wandered into visual range.
"You're tired?" she said. "I would think that after all the training you do, a walk in the woods would be an easy thing."
I paused at this comment; I didn't make any secret of my training with Hickory and Dickory - it would be hard to hide, given how much time I gave to it - but it's not something that the two of us talked about much. "It's not a stamina issue," I said. "It's a boredom issue. I've been scanning the forest floor for three hours. I'm getting a little punchy."
Jane nodded. "We'll take a rest soon. If we don't find something in this area in the next hour, I'll regather people on the other side of Joe's homestead and try over there," she said.
"You don't mind me doing what I do with Hickory and Dickory, do you?" I asked. "It's not like I talk about it to you much. Either with you or Dad."
"It worried us the first couple of weeks, when you came in covered with bruises and then went to sleep without actually saying hello to us," Jane said. She kept walking and scanning as she talked. "And I was sorry it broke up your friendship with Enzo. But you're old enough now to make your own choices about what you want to do with your time, and we both decided that we weren't going to breathe down your neck about it."
I was about to say, Well, it wasn't entirely my own choice to do this, but Jane kept talking. "Beside that, we think it's smart," she said. "I don't know when we'll be found, but I think we will be. I can take care of myself; John can take care of himself. We were soldiers. We're happy to see that you're learning to take care of yourself, too. When it comes down to it, it might be the thing that makes a difference."
I stopped walking. "Well, that was a depressing thing to say," I said.
Jane stopped and came back to me. "I didn't mean it that way," she said.
"You just said I might be alone at the end of all this," I said. "That each of us will have to take care of ourselves. That's not exactly a happy thought, you know."
"I didn't mean it that way," Jane said. She reached over and touched the jade elephant pendant she had given me years ago. "John and I will never leave you, Zoe. Never abandon you. You need to know that. It's a promise we made to you. What I am saying is that we will need each other. Knowing how to take care of ourselves means we are better able to help each other. It means that you will be able to help us. Think about that, Zoe. Everything might come down to what you are able to do. For us. And for the colony. That's what I'm saying."
"I doubt it's going to come to that," I said.
"Well, I doubt it too," Jane said. "Or at least I hope it doesn't come to that."
"Thanks," I said, wryly.
"You know what I mean," Mom said.
"I do," I said. "I think it's funny how bluntly you put it."
To the left of us there was a faint scream. Jane swiveled in its direction and then turned back to face me; her expression left very little doubt that whatever mom-daughter bonding moment we'd been having was at a very abrupt end. "Stay here," she said. "Send word down the line to halt. Hickory, come with me." The two of them sped off in the direction of the scream quietly at what seemed like an almost impossible high speed; I was suddenly reminded that, yes, in fact, my mom was a veteran warrior. There's a thought for you. It was just now I finally had the tools to really appreciate it.
Several minutes later Hickory returned to us, clicked something to Dickory in their native tongue as he passed, and looked at me.
"Lieutenant Sagan says that you are to return to the colony with Dickory," Hickory said.
"Why?" I asked. "Have they found Joe?"
"They have," Hickory said.
"Is he all right?" I asked.
"He is dead," Hickory said. "And Lieutenant Sagan believes there is reason to worry that the search parties may be in danger if they stay out here much longer."
"Why?" I asked. "Because of the fanties? Was he trampled or something?"
Hickory looked at me levelly. "Zoe, you do not need me to remind you of your last trip into the forest and what followed you then."
I went very cold. "No," I said.
"Whatever they are, they appear to follow the fantie herds as they migrate," Hickory said. "They have followed those herds back here. And it appears that they found Joseph Loong in the woods."
"Oh my God," I said. "I have to tell Jane."
"I assure you, she has figured it out," Hickory said. "And I am to find Major Perry now, so he will know presently. This is being taken care of. The lieutenant asks for you to return to Croatoan. As do I. Dickory will accompany you. Go now. And I advise silence until your parents speak of this publicly." Hickory strode off into the distance. I watched it go, and then headed home, fast, Dickory matching my strides, both of us moving quietly, as we had practiced so many times.
The fact that Joe Loong was dead spread fast in the colony. Rumors of how he died spread even faster. Gretchen and I sat in front of Croatoan's community center and watched a revolving cast of rumormongers offer up their takes.
Jun Lee and Evan Black were the first to talk; they had been part of the group that had found Loong's body. They were enjoying their moment in the spotlight as they told everyone who would listen about how they found Loong, and how he had been attacked, and how whatever had attacked him had eaten part of him. Some people speculated that a pack of yotes, the local carnivores, had cornered Joe Loong and brought him down, but Jun and Evan laughed at that. We'd all seen the yotes; they were the size of small dogs and ran from the colonists whenever they saw them (and for good reason, since the colonists had taken to shooting at them for bothering the livestock). No yote, or even a pack of yotes, they said, could have done to Joe what they'd seen had been done to him.
Shortly after these gory tidbits had gotten around, the entire colony council met in Croatoan's medical bay, where Loong's body had been taken. The fact that the government was being pulled into it made people suspect it might actually have been murder (the fact that the "government" in this case was just twelve people who spent most of their time hoeing rows like everyone else didn't matter). Loong had been seeing a woman who'd recently dumped her husband, so now the husband was a prime suspect; maybe he'd followed Loong into the woods, killed him, and then yotes had at him.
This theory made Jun and Evan unhappy - their version with a mysterious predator was much more sexy - but everyone else seemed to like it better. The inconvenient fact that the presumed murderer in this case had already been in Jane's custody on a different charge and couldn't possibly have done the deed seemed to escape most people's notice.
Gretchen and I knew the murder rumor had nothing to it, and that Jun and Evan's theory was closer to reality than not, but we kept our mouths shut. Adding what we knew wouldn't make anyone feel less paranoid at the moment.
"I know what it is," Magdy said, to a bunch of male friends.
I nudged Gretchen with an elbow and motioned with my head at Magdy. She rolled her eyes and very loudly called him over before he could say anything else.
"Yes?" he said.
"Are you stupid?" Gretchen asked.
"See, this is what I miss about you, Gretchen," Magdy said. "Your charm."
"Just like what I miss about you is your brains," Gretchen said. "What were you about to say to your little group of friends, I wonder?"
"I was going to tell them about what happened when we followed the fanties," Magdy said.
"Because you think it would be smart at the moment to give people another reason to panic," Gretchen said.
"No one's panicking," Magdy said.
"Not yet," I said. "But if you start telling that story, you're not going to help things, Magdy."
"I think people should know what we're up against," Magdy said.
"We don't know what we're up against," I said. "We never actually saw anything. You're just going to be adding to the rumors. Let my parents and Gretchen's dad and the rest of the council do their jobs right now and figure out what's actually going on and what to tell people without you making their job harder."
"I'll take that under advisement, Zoe," Magdy said, and turned to go back to his pals.
"Fine," Gretchen said. "Take this under advisement, too: You tell your pals there about what followed us out there in the woods, and I'll tell them the part where you ended up eating dirt because Hickory dropped you to the ground after you panicked and took a shot at him."
"A really lousy shot," I said. "One where you almost blew off your own toe."
"Good point," Gretchen said. "We'll have fun telling that part."
Magdy narrowed his eyes at both of us and stomped off toward his pals without another word.
"Think it'll work?" I asked.
"Of course it'll work," Gretchen said. "Magdy's ego is the size of a planet. The amount of time and effort he puts into doing things to make himself look good is astounding. He's not going to let us mess with that."
As if on cue, Magdy glanced over at Gretchen. She waved and smiled. Magdy surreptitiously flipped her off and started talking to his friends. "See," Gretchen said. "He's not that hard to understand."
"You liked him once," I reminded her.
"I still like him," Gretchen said. "He's very cute, you know. And funny. He just needs to pull his head out of a certain part of his anatomy. Maybe in another year he'll be tolerable."
"Or two," I said.
"I'm optimistic," Gretchen said. "Anyway, that's one rumor squashed for now."
"It's not really a rumor," I said. "We really were followed that night. Hickory said so."
"I know," Gretchen said. "And it's going to come out sooner or later. I'd just rather not have it involve us. My dad still doesn't know I did all that sneaking out, and he's the sort of guy that believes in retroactive punishment."
"So you're not really worried about avoiding panic," I said. "You're just covering your own tail."
"Guilty," Gretchen said. "But avoiding panic is how I'm rationalizing it."
But as it happens, we didn't avoid panic for long.
Paulo Gutierrez was a member of the colonial council, and it was there he found out that Joe Loong had not only been killed, but that he'd been murdered - and not by a human being. There really was something else out there. Something smart enough to make spears and knives. Something smart enough to turn poor Joe Loong into food.
The council members had been ordered by my parents not to talk about this fact yet, in order to avoid a panic. Paulo Gutierrez ignored them. Or, actually, defied them.
"They told me it was covered by something called the State Secrets Act, and that I couldn't tell you about it," Gutierrez told a group that surrounded him and a few other men, all carrying rifles. "I say to hell with that. There's something that's out there right now, killing us. They have weapons. They say they follow the fantie herds, but I think they could have just been in the woods all this time, sizing us up, so they would know how to hunt us. They hunted Joe Loong. Hunted him and killed him. Me and the boys here are planning to return the favor." And then Gutierrez and his hunting party tromped off in the direction of the woods.
Gutierrez's declaration and news of his hunting party raced through the colony. I heard about it as kids came running up to the community center with all the latest; by that time Gutierrez and his crew had already been in the woods for a while. I went to tell my parents, but John and Jane were already off to bring back the hunting party. The two of them were former military; I didn't think they would have any trouble bringing them back.
But I was wrong. John and Jane found the hunting party, but before they could drag them back, the creatures in the woods ambushed them all. Gutierrez and all his men were killed in the attack. Jane was stabbed in the gut. John chased after the fleeing creatures and caught up with them at the tree line, where they attacked another colonist at his homestead. That colonist was Hiram Yoder, one of the Mennonites who helped save the colony by training the rest of us how to plant and farm without the help of computerized machinery. He was a pacifist and didn't try to fight the creatures. They killed him anyway.
In the space of a couple of hours, six colonists were dead, and we learned that we weren't alone on Roanoke - and what was here with us was getting used to hunting us.
But I was more worried about my mom.
"You can't see her yet," Dad said to me. "Dr. Tsao is working on her right now."
"Is she going to be okay?" I asked.
"She'll be okay," Dad said. "She said it was not as bad as it looked."
"How bad did it look?" I asked him.
"It looked bad," Dad said, and then realized that honesty wasn't really what I was looking for at the moment. "But, look, she ran after those things after she'd been wounded. If she had been really injured, she wouldn't have been able to do that, right? Your mom knows her own body. I think she'll be fine. And anyway, she's being worked on right now. I wouldn't be at all surprised if she's walking around like nothing happened by this time tomorrow."
"You don't have to lie to me," I said, although per the previous comment he was actually telling me what I wanted to hear.
"I'm not lying," Dad said. "Dr. Tsao is excellent at what she does. And your mom is a very fast healer these days."
"Are you okay?" I asked.
"I've had better days," he said, and something flat and tired in his voice made me decide not to press the matter any further. I gave him a hug and told him I was going to visit Gretchen and would be over there for a while, in order to stay out of his hair.
Night was falling as I stepped out of our bungalow. I looked out toward Croatoan's gate and saw colonists streaming in from their homesteads; no one, it seemed, wanted to spend the night outside the walls of the colony village. I didn't blame them one bit.
I turned to head to Gretchen's and was mildly surprised to see her striding up under full steam. "We have a problem," she said to me.
"What is it?" I said.
"Our idiot friend Magdy has taken a group of his friends into the forest," Gretchen said.
"Oh, God," I said. "Tell me Enzo isn't with him."
"Of course Enzo's with him," Gretchen said. "Enzo's always with him. Trying to talk sense to him even as he's following him right off a cliff."