science fiction and fantasy writer

Sleepless in the House of Ye

“Some of us will have to stay awake,” Ghei said. “Some of us will have to take koy.”

A chorus of hissing reverberated around the chamber.

Poe quivered, hearing the words she’d been dreading. She held her belly with both hands, feeling the heat of the hundreds of embryonic spawn growing there. To take koy – summer’s drink – as a sire, and avert the change of life for another year was one thing. To take it now, already female and with spawn in their bellies, was ruinous.

Ghei stood defiantly against the tide of disquiet she’d caused, her neck stretched up, ears fanned wide. It was Ghei who’d found the gap – the snowdrift forming where the clean lines of the walls dissolved into the jumbled echoes of the rubble pile, where the stair used to be to the House’s upper levels. Ghei had brought the worm she found in the drift to Poe and Chyu. It had been as long as her hand, its movements frantic, responding to Ghei’s heat, mouth petals opening, its muscular tail flailing as it sought purchase.

“The gap might not get any worse,” someone ventured.

“What if it does?” came the response.

“It’s bad enough already,” said Poe.

A sneeze echoed. The air in the birthing chamber was acrid, ventilation for the oil heaters largely blocked by the House’s fall. A handful of dams had already lain down beneath the vaults furthest from the door – mostly those who had been injured when the House fell, whose spawn had grown faster, since. Their bellies were mounds of cool, slowly pulsing life amid cold and withered limbs, the growth of the spawn inside them suspended until spring.

Those who remained awake huddled between the pillars, a sprawl of warm bodies. Their expirations made a shimmer of evaporating heat above their heads. Many were not far from taking the last sleep themselves, anonymous in the dark with ears drooping limply beside their faces. Munk – their languid, voluptuous Munk – slumped between Poe and Chyu. She was all but gone, her temperature starting to dip towards sleep.

“We must build a barrier to block off the corridor,” someone said.

“Have we the strength among us to raise the stones?” came the reply.

“We will build it with timber,” a third voice said, after a time. “There are crates in the store rooms, furnishings we can salvage.”

Chyu stirred herself to answer that folly. “Useless. The worms will go through timber as fast as they’ll eat through your belly.”

“The ice is still moving,” added Ghei. “It’s dragging the wall outward.”

Worms always got into a wintering House, eventually. Under normal circumstances, it was only those tiny enough to slither through the wire grates on the drain holes in the walls, high and low, that let in the spring melt and, later, let the water out again with its cargo of wriggling spawn. That was a different matter to the risk they faced now: that the breach would let in worms of sufficient size and in enough numbers to consume the sleeping dams in entirety, along with all the spawn inside them.

Poe listened to the agitated movements of her sibs. Her whiskers caught the increased blood flow in their faces, although it was difficult to read expressions clearly with their ears gone limp. Only Chyu and Ghei had their ears fanned, displaying patterns of hot veins.

Poe saw, again, the strongest of the dams of Ye as they shuffled away across the snow in a double file, burdened with packs and furs and the bellies that swung between their legs. Their tails, wrapped in puttees, dragged behind them. It was a cruel parody of the departure of the sires in autumn, waving their tails jauntily as they strode away down the long pier – vanished under the ice, now – to the ships that would bear them north.

The questers had left at dawn, beneath a clear sky, a day’s march to the House of U, Ye’s nearest neighbour. The very strongest had towed sleds behind them, loaded with tents, in case the weather turned. Ong had led them off, with a wave to which Poe had briefly raised her own tail.

Munk had squatted between Poe and Chyu as they watched the questors go, her head low between her shoulders. Already, her skin was bleaching from maroon to cream, its texture turning horny and inflexible. Munk’s neck was so thin it seemed remarkable that it could still bear the weight of her skull..

“I smell snow,” she’d said.

Chyu had found amusement in that, snorting through flared nostrils. She’d scooped up a handful of the stuff to toss at Munk.

“Of course you do,” Poe had said.

The blizzard had blown up that afternoon. It was still blowing three days later. Poe and Chyu could’ve easily gone among the strongest dams, to U. Both of them had taken koy, in the summer – just a little, not to delay the change a whole year, just enough for Chyu to remain a sire for a month after Munk changed and Poe for another month after Chyu.

They would have gone, if Munk were not already so close to sleep. They had no way, now, to know the questers’ fate, whether some part of Ye’s spawning was secured at U.

“I will stay awake,” Poe said.

Whiskers and ears turned her way, but she had attention only for Munk and Chyu.

Munk could barely raise her head. “We’re supposed to take the last sleep together,” she whispered. Poe stroked her drooping ears.

“Someone has to, love, and I am the furthest from sleep,” Poe said, more calmly than she felt. “I’ve sired many spawn. More this year, in you and Chyu.”

Munk’s ears twitched. She pushed her head against Poe’s touch.

“Then I will take koy with you,” said Chyu.

Poe hissed, then again to emphasise the strength of her denial. “You mustn’t.”

“It is enough that you and I will survive in Munk,” said Chyu. “I am of Mha, not Ye. My clan is not threatened. I will stay awake with you.”

Poe recognised well enough from the tone of Chyu’s voice and the set of her ears that her mind was made and it was useless to argue.

“I, too, will stay awake,” said Ghei, across the chamber. The erractic pulsing of her ear veins, plain from across the chamber, belied her brave words.

“Three is enough,” said Poe, into the quiet that followed.

#

The koy was in the small upstairs larder, still secure in the half of the House that remained standing. The main larder had been a level lower, on the fallen side. They had to dig their way up to the surface from the ground-level doorway, an exhausting task with only three of them capable of making any meaningful contribution.

They went in the middle of the day, amid the long shadows, the sun rising bare handspans above the northern horizon. Their eyes watered in the light, unused for days inside the darkness of the tower. Poe’s gaze was drawn upwards, to what remained of the House of Ye, a blurred silhouette against the sky. The blizzard had buried most of the wreckage of the other half. She wished – again – that they’d done more, in summer, than quarry stone for the House’s renovation. But no-one had thought the weight of the shifting ice would bring the old House down so soon. Not this winter, they’d all said.

They struggled slowly up the steps to the larder, Ghei had to pause and catch her breath before the top.

Once inside, they found the glazed clay jugs of koy nectar easily. Chyu prised the waxed stopper from one while Ghei upturned an empty crate and lined the three beakers she’d brought on top of it. Poe clicked her tongue, swiveling her ears to gauge the stacks of crates, sacks and jars and cloth-wrapped bundles of salted meats piled in the shadows.

“We’ll have to move all this downstairs,” she said.

Chyu poured and they squatted silently around the crate.

The speckling of pallour across Chyu’s skin was stark in the light from the open doorway, its advance evident even in the few days they’d waited inside for the blizzard to blow itself out. Poe could see the same effect on her own bare hands, and feel the emerging roughness there. Ghei’s colour was already more cream than maroon. They’d all lost mass from their limbs, necks and tails. Some of it would come back, Poe supposed, after they took the koy, and their bodies re-absorbed the aborted spawn.

She reached out, hesitated, withdrew her fingers from the beaker in front of her. She sat back on her tail and hind legs.

Chyu stroked the ridge of Poe’s spine between her shoulders, her hand a dull weight through the thickness of Poe’s clothes. Poe tried to lift her ears in response. The tips were numb, dead weights of limp skin.

Opposite, Ghei gripped her cup and tossed the contents down her throat, gasped and coughed. Chyu did the same and gave a sob as she slammed the beaker back on the crate.

Poe raised her beaker and drank. The koy was thick, oily and milky at once, tasting of bitter sap. She gagged, managed to keep her lips closed, swallowed.

The pain started in earnest within the hour. The other dams stroked them while they kicked and trembled, lying on their sides in the birth chamber. Ghei thrashed so violently that she had to be held down to prevent her from injuring herself. By morning the three of them were recovered, if feeble. Ghei was weaker than Poe or Chyu.

#

Poe clucked her tongue, ears scanning the corridor for movement, her whiskers extended to catch any rogue trace of warmth. She clasped a snow shovel ready in her hands. The shuttered oil heater on the floor played havoc with her whiskers, but it attracted the worms and they’d found it a more reliable method than scouring the corridors for the faint telltales of the intruders.

Her whiskers caught a hint of something at the edge of the heater’s radiance. She swiveled her ears. A worm, somewhat longer than her hand, inched towards the heater. Poe raised the shovel and brought down the flat of the blade with a clang.

She cried out in surprise at the rumbling boom that echoed through the House’s surviving chambers. Dust settled from the ceiling.

“Another fall!” she heard Ghei cry.

“Chyu!”

Poe hurried, as fast as she was able, to the outer door and up the ramp to the surface, stumbling dizzily as afterimages danced in front of her eyes. She found Chyu staring up at the remains of the tower, a bag of flour cradled in her arms, not far from where the steps to the larder had been. The stair itself was gone. Its fall had brought the larder down with it. Broken vessels and spilled foodstuffs were visible among the toppled stones.

Poe touched Chyu’s arm. Chyu turned her head briefly to brush whiskers, but didn’t speak. Ghei panted up beside them.

“Oh, no.”

After a while, Poe said, “We need to check what damage has been done downstairs.”

Fortunately, there seemed to be none. They all three walked from end to end of the lower levels, clicking their tongues, ears focused to scrutinise the gaps between the building stones. The birthing chamber remained secure, dug into bedrock, and the breach at the end of the corridor appeared no worse.

Their food stocks were another matter.

“Not enough,” said Poe, as they regarded the depressingly small stack of crates, jars and sacks that Chyu and Ghei had brought down to the fuel store, where they’d decided to see the winter out.

Chyu sat back on her tail. “Perhaps for two.”

“Perhaps. Not for three.”

“One of us could go to U instead. They’ll have food enough.”

“Go and bring it back?” asked Ghei.

“And stay,” said Chyu. “I’m not of Ye. I’ll go.”

Poe hissed gently. “Two of us will go to U and bring back food. As soon as we have the strength.”

#

“You will see spring again,” said Munk. “Flowers.” She rested her head on Poe’s thigh. Chyu’s tail curled around her shoulders.

“Perhaps.”

Munk shifted, searching for them with her whiskers. She lacked the strength to lift her head. Poe and Chyu dipped their faces close to Munk’s and into the field of her failing senses.

“I would like to smell flowers again,” said Munk.

“Yes.”

For a while, Munk just breathed. Then she said, “You will see the spawning. All the little ones swimming.”

And then what? Poe wondered. Will we have our ending in the summer? Or will we see another winter, and go north? Will it matter, when we’ve ruined ourselves and no spawn of our wombs will ever eat our flesh?

Munk was still. Chyu made a small keening noise. Hiccups of grief rose in Poe’s throat, that she would not soon be following, that no renewal would come from her own passing.

#

“Expect us back before two more dawns,” said Poe. “If we’re not, you’ll have enough food to get you through.”

Ghei followed them up the ramp to the snow surface. She cut a forlorn figure, so heavily swaddled she could barely walk. Poe and Chyu weren’t much more mobile, with thick puttees bound around their limbs, necks and tails, and their bodies swathed in twotoe furs. The two of them had regained enough strength that they were able to raise their tails from the ground again when they walked. They were still thin, though, the mass in their bellies dissipated rather than redistributed back to their extremities.

The cold burned Poe’s nostrils and whiskers and made her eyes ache.

“You will be back,” said Ghei.

If they weren’t, she would have enough food, but would she have the strength, alone? Poe and Chyu were thin, but Ghei was emaciated, the maroon of her skin reduced to a mere webwork around blotches of horny pallour. At least the worms getting into the House had, thus far, remained relatively small.

“We’ll be back,” Chyu agreed.

Poe brushed her whiskers across Ghei’s, before raising her scarf over the lower half of her face. She and Chyu waddled out onto the snow, dragging their sleds behind them.

Chyu raised an arm to indicate direction. Southeast. Poe looked back, at Ghei still huddled at the top of the trench. The ruined House of Ye loomed black with dawn’s paleness behind it.

#

Their long shadows swung across in front of them as they walked, the sun’s disc barely clearing the northern horizon before it started to slip back down again. As its setting coloured the snow pink and mauve, Chyu exclaimed and pointed, away to their left.

A silhouette protruded from the surface. It looked like tattered cloth over a frame of ribs or poles. A tent. Poe’s ears flattened as she followed Chyu, at the possibility that they might find her sibs from Ye, overtaken and overwhelmed by the blizzard.

It wasn’t a tent, she saw with relief, but the remains of a large chrysalid. Even broken and mostly buried, it stood as high as their chins. Of the creature that had slept inside it, there was little left to see, just a few splintered long bones sticking up from the snow.

“Twotoe,” Poe guessed.

“Big worm to crack open a chrysalid that size,” said Chyu.

Poe shut her eyes and scanned the snow underfoot with her whiskers. Only the rapidly fading residue of their own tracks disturbed the uniform chill below. The worm was gone, or at least dug too deep to detect, no doubt off in pursuit of its smaller brethren that would’ve gathered to its kill.

Poe thought of Ghei, alone at Ye, and hoped the breach in the outer wall remained small.

They walked through the night. The moonless dark caused Poe’s eyes and whiskers to compete for attention. She moved at once over a silver landscape with the stars sweeping the sky above, and through a void of utter cold all about.

It was almost dawn again when they reached the House of U – a squat blankness against the aurora, with half its height buried under the snow. They had to dig to uncover the uppermost of its doors.

Poe lifted the bolt and rolled the door aside. “Ahoy, the House of U,” she called. “We are Poe Ye and Chyu Mha from Ye.”

There was no answer and no movement from within.

“All asleep,” said Chyu.

Poe pushed inside. They paused to unhitch themselves from their sleds, letting their senses adjust to the deeper darkness. Chyu emerged as a mass of bright heat at Poe’s side.

They descended into the lower levels of the House, clicking their tongues to get a clear map of the unfamiliar layout. U was built differently to Ye, and newer, its base wider, with its stores all a level above bedrock, divided by the straight stair and a balcony landing.

Movement echoed below. A dam’s warm bulk shuffled into range of their whiskers, bowed double with the weight of her belly.

“Who’s there?”

“Poe Ye and Chyu Mha from Ye.”

“I am Suun U, last to sleep here. I would welcome you better, but I am too weak to climb the stairs.”

“Then we will come to you,” said Poe.

Suun U touched whiskers with them when they had descended, then pulled back and said, “What brings you to U, so late?”

Cold trickled beneath Poe’s furs. “Did our sibs not come here?”

Suun hissed softly, plainly mystified.

Chyu said, “Ye has fallen. The ice shifted around it and cracked the House’s walls. Ong Ye led the strongest dams to U.”

Suun hissed again, louder. “When?”

Poe whispered, “Weeks ago.” She felt the keening rise in her throat.

#

They loaded their sleds with salted and frozen meats, dried fruits and sacks of flour and grain, thanked Suun U and ate with her, then left her alone with the sorrow they had brought.

The aurora rippled across the southern sky. The northwest horizon was not yet beginning to brighten when they shut the doors of U and went back out onto the snow.

The journey home was slow, with their sleds burdened and both of them near exhaustion. The snow around was unblemished except for the tracks they had left the day before. Poe wondered where beneath it the blizzard might have buried the dams of Ye, how close they had come to U before the storm defeated them.

They might’ve lost their way, she told herself, and found another House instead. She imagined her sibs far under her feet, the worms gathering to feed.

#

Ye had been in sight again a long time before it struck Poe, stumping along, that something wasn’t right. It took her longer still to realise where the feeling of wrongness came from: the House’s broken silhouette had changed shape.

“Chyu!” she cried. “There’s been another fall!”

Chyu hissed, perceiving the disaster for herself. They picked up their pace as best they could, with their weary legs and heavy sleds, so tired they couldn’t lift their tails.

They abandoned the sleds at the top of the ramp, clambering past a fall of stones to reach the door.

“Ghei!” Poe shouted, flinging open the door. “Ghei?”

Her tail curled in horror. The floor was littered with worms. Some of them were as thick as her tail.

“Ghei!”

The nearest worms turned slowly towards them, responding to their movement and heat, spreading the four petals of their mouths to show their teeth. Poe bellowed and stamped, cracking carapaces. Chyu swept the corridor with her tail. Worm chitin clattered against the walls.

The door of the fuel store stood ajar. Poe shoved it wide, clucking her tongue urgently to hear what was inside. The stove was cold. No warmth radiated from the still pile of blankets beside it.

With dread certainty, Poe flung aside the blankets. Worm tails writhed in agitation at the disturbance.

With a howl, Poe grabbed the largest with both hands and dug her fingers between two rings of chitin. The worm shivered, but didn’t release its hold, its front end buried in Ghei’s midriff.

Chyu caught Poe’s shoulder. “Too late.”

Poe shook her off. She heaved, trying to tear the chitin from the worm’s middle.

“Poe! I need you!” cried Chyu. Metal clanged on stone.

With a final, futile wrench, Poe released her grip.

Chyu swung the snow shovel again, severing a worm’s head from its tail. The tail thrashed and convulsed in the doorway. Its fellows pushed past, heedless, mouth petals gaping.

Poe clicked her tongue, searching for a weapon. She found an icepick. “The birthing chamber,” she said.

They cleared the doorway with pick and shovel, then hurried back past the open outer door and down the slope of the corridor, kicking smaller worms out of the way, slashing and stabbing at the largest as they passed.

Worms covered the half dozen sleepers nearest the entrance of the birthing chamber. Poe went past them, scanning her whiskers low over those lying further back. Only a few worms had penetrated any deeper. She kept going until she reached Munk. Chyu was close on her heels. Together they examined Munk’s sleeping body from end to end, plucking a handful of small worms free of her cool flesh.

“What do we do?” said Chyu, when Munk was clean.

“We’ll have to clear them,” said Poe. “All the way back to the breach. We’ll dump the carcasses down here for the spawn to eat in spring.”

She started to work cleaning the smaller worms from on and around the sleeping dams. Chyu dismembered the larger ones with the edge of her shovel. The chamber echoed with the flat clang of iron on stone. Poe plucked and crushed until her fingers cramped with fatigue. Some of the dams were completely cold, the life sucked from their bellies.

Too late, Poe thought in dismay, as she used her pick to prise free the mouthparts of the worms Chyu had severed. Too late.

They rested when they were done, squatting on tripods of legs and tail and leaning on the handles of their tools. Poe’s limbs shook. She plucked a small worm from her calf and Chyu a couple from her tail. Poe wound her tail around Chyu’s. They sat in a daze, listening to the worms crawl towards them. Chyu swept at them halfheartedly with the shovel.

“Some of them are cold,” said Poe.

“But not all,” said Chyu. “Not all, love.”

She stood. Her tail trembled as she tried to hold it off the ground. Poe heaved herself up.

Worms always congregated around the Houses in winter, searching for gaps in the stone, the tiniest slipping in through the drains, the rest preying on each other while they probed the House’s defences with mindless patience. Poe had never imagined there’d be quite so many. She kicked the broken carcasses down towards the birthing chamber. The ring of the shovel blade striking the floor drilled into her head.

The density of worms had thinned by the time they worked their way back to the fuel store. They dragged Ghei into the corridor and cleaned the worms from her. Poe felt queasy, handling the shrivelled husk, from which no new life would emerge in spring. Ending without renewal. Extinction. The same awaited she and Chyu.

“What a waste,” whispered Chyu.

Poe began to sob, wracking hiccups that burst from her nostrils. They dragged Ghei down to the birthing chamber and left her there, among her sibs. The most they could do was ensure her flesh would feed the next generation, not the worms.

There were few of those remaining in the last stretch of corridor, from the fuel store to the blocked stairs. Poe and Chyu cleared them quickly.

“Mother Mha,” Chyu breathed when they reached the stairs.

The snowdrift filled the entire corridor. The tower’s second fall had torn the outer wall completely away. An enormous worm lay halfway out of the snow, its girth greater than the length of Poe’s arm. A ripple passed along its body and it lurched another handspan clear of the drift.

Chyu began to growl. Her cry rose in volume and pitch as she brought the shovel up to her shoulder. She stabbed it at the worm like a spear. The blade hit chitin and slid along until it found the seam between two plates. The worm swung towards the assault.

Poe struck the ice pick into the worm’s other side as Chyu withdrew for another lunge. Its mouth petals flared, revealing rows of hooked teeth. Poe retreated and the worm made another lurch forward. Chyu struck again, and again to little effect. With Poe’s next blow, the ice pick penetrated the worm’s armour and stuck. Its jerk of pain wrenched the handle from Poe’s grip. She flung herself clear of its thrashing.

Her foot kicked something metallic. The oil heater!

“Chyu, keep it busy!” she cried.

Chyu slapped the worm’s mouth petals. They contracted sharply.

Poe fumbled about on the floor. Her fingers grasped the flintlock lighter. She flicked it frantically to get a spark onto the burner’s wick. The wick caught.

Chyu hacked at the worm’s side. It’s mouth flared and Poe flung the oil lamp into the open maw. The petals snapped shut. The worm swung violently sideways, knocking Chyu from her feet. It flexed upward. Its front struck the roof and Poe heard the crack of splitting stone.

“Chyu!” Poe scrambled to drag her clear. The worm crashed back down. Stones came with it, and ice. The ceiling yawed and tumbled.

#

“Eat.”

Chyu opened her mouth to accept the strip of dried meat. She chewed slowly. She shifted awkwardly, her splinted leg stuck straight out beside her.

Poe pressed close beside her beneath the blankets, sharing warmth. She slipped another strip of jerky into her own mouth.

“Poe?” said Chyu. “How long until spring, do you think?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t been outside to see.” Poe wondered if she would know even if she did go outside. Would the stars and the faint, brief glow of the sun, no longer cresting the horizon, tell her, when she had never wintered in the antarctic before?

“What are we, Poe? We are not sires, the change has come to us. We are not dams, we have no spawn in our bellies. What are we?”

Poe thought it over. “Sleepless,” she said at last.

“Sleepless.” Chyu’s snorts of laughter became sneezes.

#

Poe awoke in darkness. She lay a while, listening to the quiet, then, painfully, she got to her feet and tottered to the door. Reflexively, she picked up the snow shovel, with its bent and dented blade.

It took her two attempts to open the fuel store’s door. Once she had, she paused, listening again, to an unfamiliar sound. Tinkling. She waited for the noise to stop or change. It didn’t.

Tinkling. Dripping.

Running water.

“Chyu!” she cried. “Chyu. Chyu Mha! Water! It’s spring.”

She turned, confused, when Chyu didn’t respond.

#

Poe left Chyu’s corpse where it was. She abandoned the shovel, too, but out of habit stomped on the couple of small worms in her path as she crossed to the outer wall. Her feet splashed through icy water in the centre of the corridor. She bent to examine the drain holes at the base of the wall. Snowmelt flowed across to the low centre of the floor and down the shallow slope.

Poe limped along the wall. Light showed around the edges of the outer door. She got it open in several short drags and had to lean on the frame and rest for a minute afterwards. She pushed up the trench through drifted snow and over fallen stones, almost reaching the top before she stumbled, unable to go further. She blinked into the dawn’s glare, her eyes watering in the brightness.

“Spring,” she breathed. But a long time yet before the snow was gone and there were flowers on the ground, even longer before the sires sailed south, following the summer.

She stayed there, half fallen, and watched the red bright disc rise clear of the horizon before falling once more from sight. Melted snow began to seep through her cloaks. With difficulty, she got herself up again and back inside.

When she recovered her breath, she returned to the fuel store and dragged out Chyu’s body. A few paces at a time, she followed the tinkling water downwards.

The floor of the birthing chamber was already under a film of water. There were tiny worms in it, but that no longer mattered. The spawn were growing in the wombs of their dams. They would eat their way free, and then the roles of predator and prey would be reversed.

Poe wondered if she could last until the ships returned. She exhaustion answered for her. It was doubtful the sires would never know what had been done after the House’s fall. It didn’t matter – enough that the spawning was saved.

She dragged Chyu past her sleeping sibs, to Munk. Painfully, Poe lowered herself between them. She stroked their cold faces. Chyu, lost to life; Munk, with new life soon to burst forth.

She wondered what extinction would feel like, and felt a sudden stab of fear, now that it was upon her. Would it hurt, or would she slip away, unknowingly, as though into sleep? She rested her head against the slight warmth of Munk’s belly. In there, was her rebirth. She listened to the tinkling water.

Her mind drifted.

~END~

(c) Ian McHugh, 2006

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