I was born.
One moment I didn’t exist and never had existed and then, blink, I stood in a clearing, fully dressed, well armed, and impatient to tackle my Destiny.
Like a magnet seeking north, I turned in the direction of Destiny, downhill and to my left. I strode toward it—baby’s first step—and nearly tripped. I crouched. I stood slowly, arms outstretched for balance against the world’s unexpected hazards.
“Careful,” I whispered—baby’s first word, spoken in a creamy soprano that soothed my ears. I looked around, which I should have done before taking a step. How could I kill if I couldn’t even walk?
I stood on a slab of granite underlying the clearing. Rain blessed my face as I gazed up through a ragged opening in the evergreens—the birth canal through which I’d been born? A wall of underbrush ringed the slab, with no exit. A jailbreak, then, was the first test of my worthiness for glory. But how?
The granite was craggy, a miniature mountain, so I crept up its peak. Pleased with my strength and agility, I stood there like a totem pole, one-point-seven meters above my birthplace.
Green-grey light revealed a hushed immensity. Except for the birth canal over the slab, branches formed an impenetrable ceiling. Starved of sunlight, the ground beyond the clearing supported few shrubs, but fallen logs and boulders would make leaping over my jail walls perilous.
To my left, however, was a tiny patch of flatness. Could I leap over the bushes and land there? It would be tricky. Maybe impossible. The high-powered rifle over my shoulder could shift, throwing me off balance. Worse, I’d never jumped, not even once. I didn’t know what I was I capable of.
Destiny insisted I try. I climbed down and hopped in place once, then again, as high as I could. Ha. There was nothing to this jumping stuff.
Satisfied, I backed up four paces. I crouched…breathed…broke into a sprint and at the last moment thrust upward, curling into a ball. I soared up and over the jail wall. Angry at my escape, a branch spanked my bottom. I flew for nearly as long as I’d been alive, because the forest floor lay three-point-one meters down.
I uncurled, spread my arms, and landed on my feet. I waited, not knowing what to expect. Would the ground hold me? Swallow me? Spank me?
But nothing happened. I’d landed perfectly. Pride blossomed.
No one shouted at me, either, because no one had witnessed either my birth or my jailbreak. The forest was empty of mankind, as it should be.
“This is how Kwadra used to be, before,” I whispered without knowing either Kwadra or before what. I was, after all, a newborn.
Although I had nothing to compare it to, this body seemed strong and capable. I ran my hands over my arms, shoulders, breasts, belly. My hiking clothes were high-quality and brand new—except for the boots, which were worn to the contours of my feet even though I hadn’t been alive to break them in.
Hesitantly, fearing what I might find, I raised fingertips to my cheeks. They were smooth. Was I pretty? It didn’t matter, of course, but I wondered.
What did matter was that inside this strong wrapper of flesh, my heart was pure, my conscience was clear, and a scalding sense of right and wrong possessed me. It was right that I head downhill to a mountain creek and turn sixty-one degrees to the left. After one-point-one-three kilometers, I must skirt a pathetic little village and proceed to a fishing lodge turned hospital/old person’s home, near the ocean.
Destiny lay inside that lodge.
I headed toward it, but after forty-nine steps, a tree blocked my path. Ropy bark spiraled around the trunk. My mind supplied a name.
“Western red cedar,” I said aloud.
I reached two conclusions. First, my words didn’t disturb the forest. Speaking must be acceptable if no one heard me.
Second, I would have to detour around the tree. Although it irked my sense of right and wrong, the route to Destiny could not follow a straight line.
I pondered this realization, which seemed obvious as soon as I thought about it. This was the first piece of wisdom I’d ever deduced. Was I, then, intelligent?
More importantly, if I must detour out of necessity, would it be acceptable to detour—briefly, briefly—for pleasure? Dare I savor this magnificent cedar, for example, or the stream that gurgled unseen off to the right?
My mind insisted I should pursue Destiny with no deviations at all, like an arrow streaking to its target. But I wasn’t an arrow of wood and feathers. I was a human being of flesh and blood.
I pondered that for a massive time—seventy-four-point-eight seconds—but was unable to decide about my humanity. Insufficient data.
However, I decided brief enjoyment would not endanger my Destiny. With that decision, an urge took hold of me, inherited from my ancestors—whoever or whatever they might be—to make myself one with the world. The urge was as strong as the need to breathe and nearly as strong as the tugging of Destiny. I stretched my arms around the cedar’s ropy bark. They didn’t reach all the way. Compared to the cedar, I was no more than a mosquito.
Mosquito, my mind informed me: a small, blood-sucking, flying insect.
“Sister cedar,” I said with my smooth cheek caressing its bark, “bless me and my Destiny.”
Having no mouth, the tree said nothing. Yet I sensed its love and loved it back.
After hugging several more trees, I reached the stream and let its gurgling music thrill my spirits. The water turned rocks into shimmering gems. It played hide and seek with me as it disappeared under a windfall and reappeared, laughing, downstream. I laughed with the water and wished it well on its journey to the sea. We were sisters, the creek and I, both of us traveling to our conclusion. Gravity compelled the creek to flow; Destiny compelled me.
I apologized to a swath of ferns as I parted them to sip wild water. I knew without checking that my backpack contained a full canteen, but I wanted—no, needed—to connect to the world around me. The water iced down my throat and into my stomach. From there, my body would absorb the molecules and make them part of my flesh. Then I’d no longer be a newcomer to this planet. I would belong.
After I drank, my mouth curved in a new, yet recognizable, configuration.
“A smile,” I said.
I headed downstream. I would’ve run, hastened by eagerness, but rocks and deadfalls and uneven ground made speed unwise. And in truth, I wanted to savor life. Every plant was new. Every breath was a joy that brought tears to my eyes.
My mind warned me about the village before I reached it. Lying atop a boulder covered with moss and lichens that dampened and chilled me, I pulled the rifle from my back and trained its telescopic site on a score of dwellings that littered the claustrophobic valley. I sought in vain for my first glimpse of a human being. Too bad.
Although I had to go around the village, mountains rose like walls on either side. I struggled uphill until I was one hundred-twelve meters above the bottomland. Making a game of it, I stayed at that exact altitude no matter the obstacles—bush, boulder, stump. On reaching a tangle of windfalls, I scrambled onto a five-foot log, hopped to the next windfall, and then the next. I nearly tumbled, but this body was good.
Eventually, a steep ravine crowded with devil’s club forced me to change altitude, ruining my game. It seemed the world cared as little for my enjoyment as for my eagerness to fulfill Destiny.
I passed the village. I slowed, hoping for a vantage point to search for Destiny without being seen, but that proved impossible. The forest hid all but the tiniest glimpses of the valley below. Temperate rainforest, my mind supplied.
“But where exactly am I?” And why hadn’t I wondered that before?
I knew the answer to the latter question as soon as I thought it. There was much to learn, and before now, I hadn’t needed that knowledge. Now, however, my mind slipped information into me.
I was trekking across the sparsely inhabited coast of a large island in western Canada. When I paused to contemplate, my mind dribbled out a name: Vancouver Island. It was from this version of Earth, the one that belonged here…whatever that meant.
Facts inundated me, swirling through my head while I struggled to make sense of them.
Fact: My people weren’t of this planet. They were aliens.
Fact: They didn’t belong here. Maybe I didn’t, either.
Fact: My people’s home planet was an alternate Earth. That implied my people were human, just as I was human.
I blundered through foliage that whipped a line of blood across my no-longer-pristine cheek—and found a vantage point by stepping almost to my death. My left boot pushed past branches and landed one-point-nine centimeters from a sheer drop. Heart thudding, I pulled back into concealment.
Had anyone seen me?
Making soopolallie and salal bushes sway as little as possible, I crept back toward the edge. My heart raced faster, propelled by the knowledge that Destiny lay close, close, so very close. I moved a branch and beheld an awe-inspiring sight.
A carpeted mountain thrust so high it wore a cap of snow. At its feet, a highway of water snaked inland to my right and out to the Pacific to my left. A fiord, my mind named it—and at the same time, told me the mountain was insignificant compared to most. This information was abstract and unreal, while the mountain was majestic and real. I closed my eyes, thanking the kind Destiny that let me experience such splendor before I died. My life would be short but magnificent.
Again, I looked through the rifle’s scope. Below lay a clearing that gave a feeling of age and decline. The forest nibbled at it inexorably, nipping at its edges and sneaking into its center. A rusty vehicle—my mind named it a Corvette Stingray—was parked in a driveway. Four weathered buildings sprawled across the clearing: barn, garage, woodshed…and the huge, U-shaped Skookum Lodge.
It was a good name. In my people’s native language, skookum meant demon, or strong like a demon. Skookum tumtum meant brave, like me.
The lodge had started as an exclusive fishing resort. After twenty-four years, it became a rehabilitation center for wealthy addicts, and then it moldered for several years before a bighearted doctor bought it inexpensively and turned it into a medical station and retirement home.
And now it was also a rehabilitation center for Sergeant Squitt. My Destiny.
I wanted to fly to it, leap off the cliff and soar to glory…but no. Sensing that my mind had more to tell me, I resisted the urge to charge downhill. My patience was soon rewarded with more information.
Squitt had been a sergeant in Kwadra’s national gendarmerie, but during a failed rebellion against Kwadra’s rightful king, she turned against the law. Her role was particularly atrocious: she kidnapped the king’s cousin—a helpless twelve-year-old girl—and threatened the queen. After getting shot by a fellow conspirator, Squitt escaped capture by plunging into the sea and riding a floating log for days. Her survival was a miracle of determination, endurance, and near-superhuman strength.
I smiled. Squitt was a worthy opponent for me. More than worthy, perhaps. She was a giant of a woman, while I was slender and delicate. Why had such a frail vessel been chosen for this Destiny?
My mind refused to explain. Instead, it supplied more background information.
Squitt was Kwadra’s most wanted fugitive. Canadian officials didn’t dare anger the world’s most advanced nation, which bristled with technology from the future, but neither would they extradite Squitt to certain execution. For four months, Kwadra had threatened. Canada stalled, almost but not quite giving in.
Because of Kwadra’s threats, no one dared house Squitt while she recuperated. No one except Dr Rebecca Hentzle, the aged owner of Skookum Lodge.
My first task was to ascertain that Squitt remained at the lodge, even if it meant shooting everyone who stood in my way.
My second task: kill her. She had to die by my hand and no one else’s.
My third task was the best of all, like an orgasm at the end of lovemaking.
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