This story originally appeared in the anthology Monsters in Spaaaace, in company of many other stories which put traditional monsters into a sci-fi setting. There are links to purchase the anthology on its Goodreads page.
The Forest was so big that on clear nights it was visible from Earth, an emerald among the lesser lights sprinkled across the Moon. Ridiculous, ambitious, stupendous — it lived up to every hyperbole hung on it. Even breath-taking; when he had seen it from close orbit, Adebiyi’s amazement stopped the air in his throat . When he stepped out of the transit terminal on the promenade, looking out at it from between the layers of the dome, he understood how misused awesome was.
He had come to The Forest for a unique experience. He had expected exhilaration from facing the possibility of death. He had not expected to be oppressed by the sheer scale of the place. What might happen later, inside, seemed insignificant by comparison.
He stood there, marvelling, until there was a tap on his shoulder. A voice behind him said, “Hey,” breaking his paralysis.
“First time seeing it, eh?” The woman was about his age, a head shorter and as pale as he was dark. She seemed anxious to make up for that lack of color; her hair was all the oranges of fire, her eyes vivid purple. The contacts, a fad that had run out of steam on Earth about four years earlier, made Adebiyi suppress a smirk; he may have needed rescue like a gawping bumpkin, but he wasn’t painfully out of style. He might still have resented the rescue, if her expression had shown anything other than sympathy.
“Yes,” he said, “it’s really…”
When he proved unable to finish the thought, the woman nodded. “Yeah, it did that to me the first time, too. I’m Veroni Rae. Here for the camp-out?” She nodded at him as she put out her hand, indicating his outdoor gear.
“Yes,” he said again. “Adebiyi Adeyemi. You too?”
He spoke with a note of uncertainty. She wore a t-shirt, sweat-pants cut to capri length, and the kind of sandals he used at a public shower. She carried nothing. And yet, she nodded, grinning.
“You bet. Been at every one for the past four years.” She turned to walk along the promenade. He fell in beside her, pleased to have a reason not to look at the awful spectacle of The Forest. They headed for a sign reading PARTICIPANTS ONLY.
The traffic on the broad walkway self-sorted into three streams. Closest to the outer wall, most distant from the vast green impossibility below, Adebiyi saw people like himself, obvious first-timers. Mostly young, skewed slightly male, all moving awkwardly in the low gravity despite a ballast of heavy boots, backpacks, and in a few cases, weapons.
On the Forest side the passengers were attenuated Lunans, walking with loping grace, dressed casually as anyone might on a day off work. Between them and the first-timers moved a sparse central band apparently composed of people like Veroni, born under Earth’s gravity but well-used to the Moon, almost as sure of themselves as the Lunans. This group varied in its dress, running from the profoundly casual wear of the Moon-folk to kit almost as extensive as his own.
Adebiyi noticed that the more thoroughly equipped people in the middle lane carried absolutely no weapons, or none that he could see. He touched the long knife hanging off his belt, wondering if there were some etiquette he was missing.
Veroni saw his gesture, and said, “Hey, a piece of advice, leave that thing outside.”
Adebiyi frowned at her. “How am I supposed to defend myself?”
She laughed. “You don’t.” When she saw his expression go sour, she held up placating hands. “Seriously. The knives, the spears, all they do is make you think you’ve got a fighting chance. You know why they don’t let people bring guns in?”
“Unfair disadvantage?” Adebiyi’s frown was softening. She might be pale, and possibly she gender-identified other than the way he hoped, but she seemed to be honest about helping him.
“Nope. It’s because back when they did allow them, some dummy would inevitably damage the inner dome. Effective range is a lot farther here than on Earth. Exactly zero people who went in with a gun ever came out.” She glanced at the knife again. “You might get away with that, and it might be useful for just plain camping. But don’t take it out if you see one of them.”
“So I just run?”
“Oh, hell, no,” Veroni said, bright violet eyes wide. “Running is what food does. Do not, ever, run.”
“But what do I do if they attack me?” They were almost to the gate now, and the way was beginning to clog with well-wishers saying farewells to those heading into The Forest.
“Just don’t give them a reason to go after you. No one here is starving, and if you don’t look entertaining or dangerous, you’ll likely be left alone.” She looked him up and down, then beyond him, into the all-Terran side of the corridor. “You should probably find a friend, though. It’s better to be part of a group.”
“Maybe we could stick together,” Adebiyi suggested.
Veroni shook her head as they passed through the barrier, the crowd around them thinned to those who were ready to be locked into The Forest. “That’s probably not a good idea,” she said. “Maybe talk to her, and seriously stay away from those guys.”
Adebiyi looked over his shoulder to see who the two nods had indicated. The first was a woman, probably in her fifties. She had traditional Maori tattoos and carried a professional-looking camera around her neck. The second was a trio of men about his age, each with a katana slung on his back. When he turned back, Veroni had joined a group of Lunans passing through reception, almost lost among them but for her fiery hair. He tried to dart toward her, stumbled in the unfamiliar gravity, and very slowly fell to one knee. When he picked himself up, she was past the desks.
“Good luck,” she called to him, waving, then pointed, saying, “Gotta hurry!” before disappearing among the taller locals. She had pointed to the closest of several monitors in the reception area showing The Forest from far enough above to take its whole width. Most of the scene was dark, apart from the glow of The Forest’s lights, but a slice of brightly-lit regolith on one side showed the advancing dawn.
Adebiyi shuffled to a reception desk, and presently stood before a Lunan wearing loose trousers and a tan shirt with The Forest’s logo on it; formal uniform, to judge from the other Lunans he had seen. The man scanned his phone and handed him a bar-coded tag on a coiled loop.
“Keep that with you,” he said. “It works as a key on the lockers downstairs, if there’s anything you want to leave out here, and it also helps with identification if there’s an incident. I hope you enjoy your visit.”
Adebiyi thanked him, then began to hurry as best he could for the doors he had seen Veroni go through. The man at the desk called after him.
“Wrong way, man! That’s the home team side.” He pointed to another set on the far side of the concourse. “You want Visitors.”
Beyond the doors was a bank of funiculars, their course running more horizontally than vertically. He was deposited in what looked like the locker room of any better-kept civic field house. The place was already well occupied, tourists standing at the far end of the room in small bunches, chatting or watching more of the ubiquitous monitors. They stood near a bank of a dozen blue-painted doors, little different to look at than any in a mall entry back home.
Adebiyi paused amid the banks of lockers, looking at one which stood open and empty. He had already emptied and restowed his rucksack in the hotel room. Everything he carried was based on recommendations by experienced campers, most of whom had been to The Forest at least once. His hand moved to the handle of his knife. He couldn’t remember any of those recommendations speaking one way or another on going armed.
He continued past the empty locker, turning his attention to the monitors.
Each showed a different image. The overhead shot of The Forest which Adebiyi had seen upstairs jumped from the farthest monitor to the nearest. The sunlit area was larger now, the edge of the terminator nearly touching the crater’s rim. A countdown was superimposed at the top of the image, under the legend TIME TO SUNRISE. There were only a few minutes left.
On the next screen over, the camera looked at an open grassy area lying outside a set of doors very like the ones in front of him. They were clearly not the same doors, as people strolled through them either singly or in small chatting groups. The lights in The Forest had been dimmed, anticipating the dawn, but it was still bright enough to see that all the people in the scene were naked.
Further down still, the monitor showed slow-scrolling text, black on a yellow background. Be aware, it said, doors are open for 30 minutes only after sunrise. If you do not enter, admission fees are forfeit. No late entry allowed. Doors reopen in 24 hours. You may exit any time after doors have opened. You may not re-enter. No refund will be offered. It was a reiteration of warnings from The Forest’s site, terms one had to acknowledge as read and accepted before purchasing a ticket. Adebiyi had remembered the hesitation they had given him, sitting in his own room. Re-reading here brought an uncomfortable constriction to his throat which swallowing did not shift.
The screens stepped sideways again as the countdown reached one minute. The warning text was replaced by the interior view. Nudists began to look up, not at the camera, and not all at once, but conversations concluded as they all lowered themselves to the leaf-strewn turf. Some lay on their sides, while others crouched, hands between feet, like children watching bugs.
Dawn came. Sunlight fell upon the Moon, and that reflected light diffused through The Forest. On the screen, there was a moment of upsetting fluid plasticity, a half-second of formless transition, then where people had lain or squatted, wolves bounded up. The monitors had no sound, but in the silence which gripped all the tourists staring at the scene it was easy to hear distant howls.
The screens suddenly went acid green overlaid by the message ENTER NOW, strong black characters in the ten big languages of humanity. At the bottom of each, an unlabelled countdown timer chewed the seconds of the promised half-hour.
Some of those inside the doors turned away instantly, abandoning both entry fee and a chance to wander among the werewolves. Adebiyi felt the urge to join them. This was not the first time he had watched the transformation—The Forest live-streamed every month and its entire recorded history was archived—but hearing the carnivorous joy directly, however far across the crater it might had travelled, was something else again.
As he stood, his fellow visitors made up their own minds, belatedly retreating or heading through the doors. He watched the trio Veroni had warned him against noisily working each other up, not knowing their language but understanding the tone well enough. You’re afraid, I’m not afraid, I dare you, you go if you’re so hot, on and on, a testosterone-driven chain reaction. The radiation it produced affected him, language barrier or no, when he felt the gaze of one of them pass over him.
He shouldered his pack. There had not been any screams from outside, after all. He put his head down and pulled the door.
The Forest had been designed as a west European broadleaf environment, a biome which Adebiyi had never been close to in his entire city-bound life and yet it smelled right, filled with subtle exhalations of leaves and the fragrant rot of soil. He closed his eyes, drawing deep breaths, pulling the rightness in. The tension of being locked into a space roamed by dangerous predators did not vanish, but it lost its urgency. Two steps inside and the whole cost of the trip, what he had paid already and what he might yet pay, had been worth it.
He took another step or two before the unevenness of the ground made him open his eyes again. He looked around. There were monitors over the doors on his side as well, red under the black characters counting away TIME TO LOCKDOWN. Directly above was the canopy of the trees, strangely distant thanks to the low gravity, all but completely obscuring the distant tracery of the dome. Turning away from the doors, he saw several pathways, lines of least resistance between trees and shrubs leading into the heart of The Forest.
Two of the doors banged open. The three young men, seeming to multiply themselves through boisterous activity, tumbled through, and without a pause to take in their surroundings buffeted each other down one of the paths to Adebiyi’s right. As the sound of their passage receded, Adebiyi thought he heard a single howl, high pitched and distant. It seemed to be coming from his left. He stood a few seconds longer, listening to the thrashing and bickering moving further into the trees. Adjusting the straps of his pack, he chose a left-hand path.
It was hours before Adebiyi saw a werewolf. He was making his way along the side of a little creek, his attention divided between the act of walking in lower gravity and the effect of that gravity on the flow of water, when there was a crash in the greenery ahead. A deer bounded in a long arc which took it over the river to land on the path ahead of him.
Behind it came two werewolves, moving in a brisk low-belly scuttle that seemed more feline than canine. They clung to the ground rather than leaping in pursuit. The hindmost of the pair paused, only a handful of paces downhill, turning to glare at Adebiyi, ice blue eyes in pale grey fur. Only a moment, then it resumed the chase, the sounds soon swallowed by the muffling leaves.
Adebiyi sat down on the path. He reached out a hand to collect some water from the stream, spreading it over his hair and forehead. The cool water on his skin was electric. He turned his head, looking toward the exit, now very distant and locked for the better part of a day.
A small thrush trilled above him, its song in his ears giving the same thrill of primal purity as the air in his lungs. He shook his head, turning it away from escape, and saw amused eyes upon him. He uttered a tiny vowel of surprise.
It was not a werewolf, but the Maori woman. She emerged from her cover beside the path. In the darkness beneath the leaves, her facial tattoos had broken up the lines of her face, made her humanity obscure. Adebiyi realized then that the werewolf’s eyes had been very human, too. Unlike the werewolf, the woman smiled broadly as she emerged.
“Hey, man,” she said, coming toward him, “I got a brilliant shot of you and that wolf. Want a copy?”
Adebiyi did, and a couple of minutes later the file was in his phone. The woman drank from the creek using her hand as a cup before clapping Adebiyi on the back. “You’ll have fun telling the folks back home all about that photo,” she said, then added with a wink, “if you survive.” She vaulted the stream then and slipped off into the undergrowth.
Later, Adebiyi sat under a tree on a small rise overlooking The Forest’s central lake. Feeling foolish for having become tired and breathless under the tiny weight of his rucksack, he had stopped there to have an energy bar and a short rest. He felt less foolish after checking the time. The sun’s creeping movement gave no sense of time passing, but it had indeed been many hours since he’d passed through the doors, time in which he had trudged many serpentine kilometers to end up in sight of the moon’s largest body of liquid water.
He had every right to be tired, hiking aside. The whole voyage over he had been feverishly space-sick. The rituals of the arrival terminal had left him very little time to enjoy his hotel room. Several articles he read before coming had agreed on the point that a visitor to The Forest should sleep when tired, and he would have stretched out on the soft grass but for the companion to that advice; the safest place to sleep was up a tree.
That made sense, yet Adebiyi wondered if it was practical. Like the people born on the moon, the trees were elongated versions of their Earthly cousins. He sat up a little, getting his shoulders higher on the small tree he leaned against, and began scanning for any candidates that might bear his weight and which also offered limbs that he could reach. As he sought, his mind proved how tired it was, beginning an orbit around the question of whether it was his mass or his weight that the tree would be holding. He closed his eyes for a moment, hoping to still the inner clamour.
He awoke with a start, certain from the pressure on his hips that more time than an eye blink had passed.
This mild pain hadn’t awoken him. He heard what he suddenly understood was another shout, not close but urgent, and he straightened, back away from the tree.
On a spit of land separated from Adebiyi’s seat by the broad mouth of a creek, the three men he had made a point of avoiding were calling to one another. They had arranged themselves across the slope, one just shy of the ridge, one a meter or two from the water, the other halfway between. They advanced toward the lake, swords in hand, and they were just close enough for Adebiyi to hear what they said, though he still made nothing of whatever language they spoke. The tone was unmistakable, the same jolly hectoring they had been at in the locker room, mutual encouragement by derision.
At the end of the spit, seemingly trapped by their advance, was a werewolf. It stood, one long forelimb raised in an expectant posture. It looked up and down at its pursuers, watching their advance, and Adebiyi read no panic in its movements. It seemed, in the way of dogs, to smile.
The skirmish line had slowed, each of them bent low as if they suddenly felt the need to sneak up on their quarry. Each would in turn shout while gesturing with his sword, apparently suggesting better lines of approach to the others.
None of them noticed the three other werewolves stealthily closing in behind them.
Adebiyi began to rise, drawing breath to shout a warning. He might think they were obnoxious, but he did not want to see them killed.
There was a sound from behind him, less a growl than a rumble of throat-clearing. There was a werewolf right beside his nap-tree, close enough to touch, watching him with sapphire eyes, almost certainly the same that noticed him earlier. These were, without question, human eyes, and regardless of the shape of the face, the intelligence behind them undeniable. After a moment of frozen mutual regard, it very deliberately swung its head slowly side to side, an unmistakable command not to interfere.
Adebiyi subsided, adrenalin screeching inside him. The werewolf crept forward to lie more directly beside him, its head now hardly a hand’s length from the knife on his belt. They watched together as the creature on the spit suddenly darted around the headland. The uppermost swordsman leapt, a long graceless bound which took him across the ridge. The other two began a blunderous run, still following their quarry’s line. The werewolves behind them scuffled forward in the same ground-hugging scamper Adebiyi had seen before.
There was a scream from the far side of the rise, high above a sudden chorus of snarls.
On the near side, the man closest to the water began to sprint, accomplishing no more than to send himself in an inefficient leg-flailing arc out over the water. The one on the slope began hauling himself up gripping the long grass, as if he had learned something from watching the werewolves. In turning, he saw the beast that closed upon him, unable to do more than utter a brief squeal before jaws closed on his neck. The werewolf gave him a strong shake that sent them rolling down the slope together.
The one in the water wheeled his sword in a wide arc, using its momentum to help turn his body, and faced the two werewolves which had come for him. They stopped, feet just in the water, one a solid black, the other an almost stereotype of wolf colouration, grey over cream. Man and animals watched each other for a few frozen seconds, until the red-jawed third joined its fellows. A fourth and fifth sauntered from behind the headland, the last showing a slight limp.
The young man in the water called out, a single syllable Adebiyi took to be the name of one of his companions. He took a step back, sending oily ripples across the still water. The black werewolf took a matching step forward, then exchanged glances on either side. All the werewolves advanced.
The man shouted, leaping backward as he threw his sword at his pursuers. They jumped, up or back, avoiding the weapon as it whirled into the slope, distracted for the moment it took the man to land in water deep enough for swimming. One of them bounded after him, its final leap taking it beyond its depth, and it gave up the chase, paddling back to shore in a completely doggish way.
When it became obvious that the man was making for the distant opposite shore, the werewolves walked without any urgency back into the trees. The one that had splashed out into the lake paused to shake off the water. It looked in Adebiyi’s direction and gave a little nod. He started, then understood it was not looking directly at him. He turned his head to watch the blue-eyed werewolf stand, yawn, and depart.
He rose at last, sliding his back up the tree. He tried not to look at the body across the stream as he reached for his pack. When he had it, he pursued his policy of trying to put distance between himself and the swordsmen, the form of his disgust with them entirely changed.
He had slept, briefly, before the hunt jolted his system, but presently fatigue reasserted itself. Adebiyi renewed his search for a tree. He was now convinced that the advice Veroni had given him was sound, and that as long as he didn’t offer an interesting challenge to the werewolves he would be safe. Nearly convinced. The fact that he had slept through the approach of one failed to completely reconcile him with lying on the ground, stretched out and undefended. Eventually he spotted the right tree, lower limbs high enough to deter something without thumbs and good shoulder rotation. It proved to have an almost chair-like arrangement of branches near its crown.
He nearly died of it. He woke only after he had tilted completely out of his saddle, inner ear lulled by the light gravity. When he finally felt what was happening, the galvanic spasm of a falling sleeper only served to launch him sideways, too far from the tree for his fingers to catch anything but leaves. When going up, he had been concerned with being high enough to be safe. He had gone very high indeed. Adebiyi had a long time to experience the terror of falling as his downward speed slowly gathered.
He twisted at the last moment, anxious to not land head-first. He succeeded, and his reward was an explosion of pain in his legs as they hit seconds before his head. He lay on his back, breath coming in tiny hissing pants that eventually became a chant of denial. “No, no, no, no…”
When the incantation failed, he pulled himself around to assess his injuries. It was a slow effort, interrupted by sudden paralyses and sharp cries as ill-planned movements put a cymbal-crash into his symphony of pain.
His left foot was pointing an unlikely direction thanks to a new bend between knee and ankle. His right leg seemed more intact, but the fabric of his trousers was drumhead-taut from mid-calf to mid-thigh. He got out his knife, carefully holed the fabric, then tore it to release the pressure on the swelling flesh. He wept as a tiny fraction of his pain waned.
After revelling in this small respite, he began to enact the universal modern emergency plan: call for help. It took another minute of gasping struggle to reach his phone in his left cargo pocket. When it came out in two handfuls, he laughed like an old man. Eventually, he was able to stop.
Adebiyi turned his eyes up toward his perch. His rucksack was just visible, one strap firmly looped around a small branch. He could see the red pull on the zipper sealing the pocket full of food. His canteen was invisible on the far side.
“Might as well be on the moon,” he rasped. Then he remembered where he was, setting off another round of giggling. When he had himself settled, he took as deep a breath as he could.
It seemed a fine, loud shout, but he took another breath and tried again, concentrating on his diaphragm rather than the way the pressure of calling out somehow made its way to the ends of the broken bone.
After an estimated minute without response, he tried again. There wasn’t even an echo. He was about to allow himself the luxury of despair when he heard rattling in the nearby underbrush.
“Over here,” he said, loud but not shouting, entirely unashamed of the quivering relief in his voice.
Just higher than his current eye level, the face of the blue-eyed werewolf appeared through the leaves. Adebiyi hissed rather than screamed as he pushed himself to sit against the tree.
The werewolf approached slowly, head level with its back, ears forward. Curious. Not, it seemed to Adebiyi, cautious. He could hear it sniffing, and he wondered if there was a wound he hadn’t found dripping blood to tempt the beast. Surely it could smell the chemistry of pain in his sweat.
His knife lay on the ground. He had moved away from it when the werewolf appeared, but it was still close, surely close enough that he could grab it before the creature could stop him… if only he could do more than bend at the waist. As it was, he would do no more than flop onto his face, losing sight of the thing and presenting the back of his neck to it as he scrabbled in the leaf-litter.
Acting like food.
He chose instead to try to relax into his seat. Looking the werewolf directly in the eyes, he said, “Hello, Blue Eyes.”
It stopped, cocking its head. One ear flicked.
“Sorry I don’t have anything for you. I’m just,” a pause to take a slow breath without grimacing, “hanging out here, enjoying the air.” He let out the rest of the breath, trying not to let it shake in rhythm with the throb of his injuries. They were slightly out of sync, knee-shin, knee-shin, demanding attention he did not want to take away from the werewolf.
It sat, head still canted, a huge, shaggy parody of The Faithful Companion. They regarded each other for what seemed to Adebiyi like hours. The urge to check his phone for the time swept through him over and again. The agony of his legs seemed to subside a little until he enflamed it by seeking a more comfortable position, a cycle that recurred more often than he could count. Finally, the werewolf stood, padding out of sight with a single brief backward glance.
For a moment, Adebiyi thought he might somehow have waited out the long, monster-filled day; it seemed to be getting dark. He looked up and saw that the sun was not yet even to the zenith.
“Oh, hell.” He looked around, trying to spot the werewolf circling him. He saw no sign of it. Stifling cries, he began to crawl away from the direction it had gone. When he remembered, after the agonized creep that had taken him out of sight of his tree, that the knife still lay where he had dropped it, he barely paused.
It was a combination of new pain and an increased pain in his legs that woke him from sleep he hadn’t felt beginning. His last memory was a confused worm’s-eye view succession of various plants, when his only thoughts were persistence and a vague hope of not being eaten.
His sight was still dim, the light seeming to pass through a brown filter. He watched for a while, only slowly realizing that the passage of the dun leaves above was a result of his own movement, and that this intermittent lurching corresponded with fresh throbs in his legs and the unfamiliar crushing at the end of his left arm.
He looked along his arm. He saw, without surprise, that there was a werewolf worrying at his hand and wrist. Beyond the creature, near the edge of his ability to see, several doors loomed in a taller cliff, monitors above them showing text too upside down and dim to read. He thought he should try to get away from the thing that was eating him. His weak attempt did no more than make its rhythmic grunt-growl louder for a few seconds.
Adebiyi closed his eyes. He felt a very detached remorse at having come so close to escape, only to be devoured. He sighed final resignation and let unconsciousness engulf him again.
The smell of the air changed suddenly. No longer the glorious natural fragrance of The Forest, it was more commonplace smell of air shared by many people. There were additional elements which he couldn’t place. He tried to move, tried to open his eyes, and found he could do neither.
“Welcome back, Mr. Adeyemi,” a voice said, deep, feminine and pleasant, not very distant. The professional tone and the way it struck the surrounding walls gave the unfamiliar scents context, making the next words redundant. “You are in a hospital.”
“Can’t see,” he said, his voice creaking.
The voice, which introduced itself as Doctor Gupta, removed tape from Adebiyi’s eyelids and let him sip water through a straw while explaining the length of the induced coma he had just finished. He hadn’t noticed it at the time, but his fall had been nearly as hard on his head as his legs. He had entered the hospital two weeks ago, and with application, he might complete rehab within a month.
“I am very pleased with your recovery,” Gupta said, after a few prods at his legs which made him gasp. “You’re young and fit, which helps. Do you feel up to a visitor?”
The non sequitur left Adebiyi momentarily dumbstruck, but he assented. Gupta left, and shortly afterward Veroni walked in. Her hair was now bright green, complimenting the cat-slit contacts she wore. “Remember me?”
“Oh, of course.” He tried to sound casual, still attentive to the demands of his young man’s ego even if he was too weak to lift a limb.
“Great.” She consulted a tablet she had brought with her. “So, what’s the last thing you remember?”
“Um.” Ego wanted him to embellish. He resisted. “Crawling to the exit. Nearly, anyway. I thought one of the wolves got me.”
“Got you?” A sly smile appeared. Adebiyi felt his face go a little warm. “I suppose you could say that. You were headed in exactly the wrong direction, you know.”
He frowned at her, an incomprehension that was slowly replaced by a cultivated disbelief. Veroni watched the progress of the emotion, then said, “Here, let me clear things up a little.”
She set the tablet down on a chair, cupped a hand under one eye, and with the other slid out one of her lenses with the skill of long practice. When she looked up, that eye was vivid blue.
“I’m the one who got you to the door, chum. You would have died out there on your own.”
After a slack-jawed pause, all Adebiyi could think to say was, “Thanks.”
“I hope you mean that,” she said. “I’m actually here in an official capacity.”
She said nothing for a few seconds, busy with a bottle of fluid she had produced from a pocket, wetting the contact before replacing it. She looked at him and asked, “Is that straight? Nothing looks sillier than getting these things in cock-eyed.”
“Good.” She retrieved her tablet and straightened a little. “Anyway, I work for the Immigration Authority. Since I’m sort of responsible for the situation, I decided I should help you with the paperwork.”
Adebiyi stared. She blushed, her normal pallor gone pale pink. “I guess I should probably apologize, too,” she said. “You really weren’t in any shape for informed consent.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Adebiyi asked, agitated enough to hitch himself up a couple of centimeters. The bed reacted to the movement, raising his head until he was semi-sitting.
Veroni shrugged. “Welcome to the team, sport.” She pointed at his hand, the one not encumbered with an IV line, which he hadn’t really noticed until now was swaddled in bandages. “I really tried to not break the skin, but I also had to hurry. You test positive, so you’re not going to be allowed to go back to Earth.”
Adebiyi went slack as he understood not just what she said but what that meant. The bed shuffled under him, toyed with the idea of returning him to prone, then was still. He didn’t notice. He was taken up with the whole of his future life passing before his eyes. The degree in something he hadn’t yet settled on. The marriage to one of three or four girls who seemed to like him. Children, possibly. Trips to visit his friends in glamorous international destinations. All of that potential gone, replaced with life in one of Luna’s handful of interchangeable mass-produced cities, all free of history worth mentioning.
Veroni stepped closer. “We could, if you prefer, start making arrangements for a passage to Mars. Those little moons don’t do anything for us.”
“I don’t know,” he said, bleak and honest.
“It seems pretty big,” she said. “I know. I needed a lot of help with the transition, and I thought I knew what I was doing when I got into it. But I can also tell you this…” She took one more step and laid gentle fingertips on his forearm. “It’s an amazing community. Every one of us will support you. As acquired conditions go, it’s extremely liveable. Especially here. Half the time, you don’t even know you’ve got it.”
Adebiyi looked up at her. Verdant hair and inhuman eyes aside, her face radiated honesty and compassion.
“The other half of the time, you get to run around The Forest and do pretty much anything you want.”
He thought of the three swordsmen. Could he be part of such a scene? Could he avoid getting involved in one?
A thought followed those, and he was not certain it was his own: What might it taste like?
Adebiyi returned Veroni’s smile, and he heard himself say, “Sign me up.”
“The Moon Forest” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.