1 Chapter 1

1: Lina and Arabel

In the beginning there was the Great Tree, the Tree that existed long before the hands of time were set in motion, and longer still than even the most distant relations of humankind had crawled forth from the primordial ooze to stand upright and walk upon the land.

The Great Tree is, was, and forever shall be.

Throughout its existence, the Great Tree has been given many names by the tribes of men. To the west it had been dubbed Gaokerena. Those in the north would call it Yggdrasil. Still others would refer to it simply as the Tree of Life. For during the whole of man’s existence, it was this Great Tree, that by the protection of its branches and the gift of its fruit, allowed humanity to survive the eons.

—Selected passages fromThe Book of the Originby Bella Aurelius Nobilis, Modern Language Translation

* * * *

A bomb blast rumbled in some distant tunnel—the third one this week. Lina could feel it reverberating all throughout Cave of the Winds. She exhaled a long and noisy sigh. The rebels were going to make her late for her date with Arabel. Damned rebels.

Lina looked over at the thick, translucent, amber resin that had automatically oozed forth to stand between the main tunnel and the critical facility where Lina toiled her days away. She turned her gaze to the pair of burly diploid women with their jack boots and truncheons, each sporting an almost identical buzz cut and frown, guarding the only other entrance. Damned rebels.

Lina turned her attention back to the school children and their teacher who were touring the facility today. Diploids, all of them, they were almost all able to look Lina in the eye, despite their younger age. None of them seemed terribly concerned about the recent explosion.

“Looks like we’re going to be here a while,” Lina said. “Does anyone have any more questions about Cave of the Winds and how we do our part to support the colony?”

She was met by a sea of blank faces, barely concealing their boredom.

“Any at all?”

“How come you’re so small?” offered one of the diploid children.

“Yeah, are you broken or something?” said another.

“That’s enough,” said the teacher, “haploids are smaller, that’s all. Remember your biology lesson. And your manners.”

“But you’re a girl, aren’t you?” said the first child, unhindered by her teacher’s admonishment. “Shouldn’t you be a diploid?”

“I am a girl,” said Lina. “But sometimes it happens that girls can be haploids. It’s not very common, but—”

“I told you she was broken,” announced the second child, much to the delight of her peers

The teacher, however, was not amused. Lina could smell it in the air, by the alpha pheromones she released. The children sensed it too. They quickly settled into silence.

“Now, children,” the teacher said, “are there any questions about our tour today?”

Hearing none, and seeing that the blast curtain was still very much closed, Lina decided to fill the time by quizzing the class to see what, if anything, they retained from their visit.

Lina started with an easy one. “Who can tell me where this facility gets its name?”

Several of the diploid children thought they knew the answer, and after the teacher’s earlier admonishment—with the sprinkling of alpha pheromones still lingering in the air—each student politely raised her hand rather than blurting it out.

Lina chose a girl at random. “Yes, you have the answer?”

“Because the air is always rushing through here to supply the colony. And that makes it really windy all the time.”

“Very good. And does anyone know why the air is always rushing through?”

Several children’s hands shot up, but not as many as for the first question. Lina chose another random volunteer.

“Because, um…because the hot outside air cools in the vine tunnels above…um, and the moisture…”

Lina nodded, encouraging the young girl.

“And…and cool air is heavier, so it falls down.”

“That’s right,” said Lina. “Starting out cool up here in the cave, air is drawn down through the colony’s tunnels where we live, and heated naturally by our bodies along the way, until—”

“Until the warm air rises out the exhaust vents.” The young diploid smiled. “We toured that end of the colony last week. It was stinky.” The girl held her nose and scrunched up her face to illustrate.

A hushed wave of half-suppressed laughter swept through the group of children. Lina did her best to ignore it and forged on.

“Very good,” Lina said, and picked up a short piece of ropy brown vine that had been cast down by one of the other haploid workers in the myriad tunnels overhead. “Who can tell me what this is.”

“Dead,” someone tittered. Lina did not see who it was, and apparently neither did the teacher, though she craned her neck around, searching. Lina detected a little more alpha pheromone in the air and the laughter quickly died down.

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