Home > The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth #3)(3)

The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth #3)(3)
Author: N. K. Jemisin


Eventually the periods of waking and sleep become more pronounced things. Then one day you open your eyes to see the clouded sky overhead. Swaying back and forth. Skeletal branches occasionally occlude it. Faint shadow of an obelisk through the clouds: That’s the spinel, you suspect. Reverted to its usual shape and immensity, ah, and following you like a lonely puppy, now that Alabaster is dead.


Staring at the sky gets boring after a while, so you turn your head and try to understand what’s going on. Figures move around you, dreamlike and swathed in gray-white… no. No, they’re wearing ordinary clothing; it’s just covered with pale ash. And they’re wearing a lot of clothes because it’s cold – not enough to freeze water, but close. It’s nearly two years into the Season; two years without the sun. The Rifting’s putting out a lot of heat up around the equator, but that’s not nearly enough to make up for the lack of a giant fireball in the sky. Still, without the Rifting, the cold would be worse – well below freezing, instead of nearly freezing. Small favors.


In any case, one of the ash-swathed figures seems to notice that you’re awake, or to feel the shift of your weight. A head wrapped in face mask and goggles swivels back to consider you, then faces ahead again. There are murmured words between the two people in front of you, which you don’t understand. They’re not in another language. You’re just half out of it and the words are partially absorbed by the ash falling around you.


Someone speaks behind you. You start and look back to see another goggled, masked face. Who are these people? (It does not occur to you to be afraid. Like hunger, such visceral things are more detached from you now.) Then something clicks and you understand. You’re on a stretcher, just two poles with some stitched hide between them, being carried by four people. One of them calls out, and other calls respond from farther away. Lots of calls. Lots of people.


Another call from somewhere far away, and the people carrying you come to a halt. They glance at each other and set you down with the ease and uniformity of people who’ve practiced doing the same maneuver in unison many times. You feel the stretcher settle onto a soft, powdery layer of ash, over a thicker layer of ash, over what might be a road. Then your stretcher-bearers move away, opening packs and settling down in a ritual that is familiar from your own months on the road. Breaktime.


You know this ritual. You should get up. Eat something. Check your boots for holes or stones, your feet for unnoticed sores, make sure your mask – wait, are you wearing one? If everyone else is… You kept that in your runny-sack, didn’t you? Where is your runny-sack?


Someone walks out of the gloom and ashfall. Tall, plateau-broad, identity stripped by the clothes and mask but restored by the familiar frizzy texture of the ashblow mane. She crouches near your head. “Hnh. Not dead, after all. Guess I lose that bet with Tonkee.”


“Hjarka,” you say. Your voice rasps worse than hers does.


You guess by the flexing of her mask that she grins. It feels odd to perceive her smile without the usual undercurrent of menace from her sharp-filed teeth. “And your brains are probably still intact. I win the bet with Ykka, at least.” She glances around and bellows, “Lerna!”


You try to lift a hand to grab her pants leg. It feels like trying to move a mountain. You ought to be able to move mountains, so you concentrate and get it halfway up – and then forget why you wanted Hjarka’s attention. She glances around then, fortunately, and eyes your upraised hand. It’s shaking with the effort. After a moment’s consideration, she sighs and takes your hand, then looks away as if embarrassed.


“Happening,” you manage.


“Rust if I know. We didn’t need another break this soon.”


Not what you meant, but it takes too much of an effort to try to say the rest. So you lie there, with your hand being held by a woman who clearly would rather be doing anything else, but who’s deigning to show you compassion because she thinks you need it. You don’t, but you’re glad she’s trying.


Two more forms resolve out of the swirl, both recognizable by their familiar shapes. One is male and slight, the other female and pillowy. The narrow one displaces Hjarka at your head and leans in to pull off the goggles that you hadn’t realized you were wearing. “Give me a rock,” he says. It’s Lerna, making no sense.


“What?” you say.


He ignores you. Tonkee, the other person, elbows Hjarka, who sighs and rummages through her bag until she finds something small. She offers it to Lerna.


He lays a hand on your cheek while holding the object up. The thing starts to glow with a familiar tone of white light. You realize it’s a piece of a Castrima-under crystal – lighting up because they do that in contact with orogenes, as Lerna is now in contact with you. Ingenious. Using this light, he leans in and peers closely at your eyes. “Pupils contracting normally,” he murmurs to himself. His hand twitches on your cheek. “No fever.”


“I feel heavy,” you say.


“You’re alive,” he says, as if this is a completely reasonable response. No one is speaking a language you can understand today. “Motor skills sluggish. Cognition…?”


Tonkee leans in. “What did you dream?”


It makes as much sense as Give me a rock, but you try to answer because you’re too out of it to realize you shouldn’t. “There was a city,” you murmur. A bit of ash falls onto your lashes and you twitch. Lerna puts your goggles back on. “It was alive. There was an obelisk above it.” Above it? “In it, maybe. I think.”


Tonkee nods. “Obelisks rarely linger directly over human habitations. I had a friend back at Seventh who had some theories about that. Want to hear them?”


Finally it sinks in that you’re doing something stupid: encouraging Tonkee. You put a mighty effort into glaring at her. “No.”


Tonkee glances at Lerna. “Her faculties seem intact. Little sluggish, maybe, but then she always is.”


“Yes, thank you for confirming that.” Lerna finishes doing whatever he’s doing, and sits back on his heels. “Want to try walking, Essun?”


“Isn’t that kind of sudden?” asks Tonkee. She’s frowning, which is visible even around her goggles. “What with the coma and all.”


“You know as well as I do that Ykka’s not going to give her much more recovery time. It might even be good for her.”


Tonkee sighs. But she’s the one to help when Lerna slides an arm under you, levering you up from prone to sitting. Even this takes an effort of ages. You get dizzy the instant you’re upright, but it passes. Something’s wrong, though. It’s a testament to how much you’ve been through, maybe, that you seem to have developed a permanently crooked posture, your right shoulder sagging and arm dragging as if


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