In the Shadow of the Centipede

When Maxine was three, things changed.

To her east, in the desert, there rose a white noise, and a judgment came, and in its wake the earth was cleansed. The grime faded from the streets and sky. Filth and horror left the world. Had it killed one man in ten, then it would have been a favor, for it is the worst of humanity that died. Had it killed two in ten, three in ten . . . had it been a lighter judgment, then it would have been a culling and a pruning, and thanked by those it left behind. But nine in ten it wiped from the face of the world. The worst of humanity died; and then the bad; and then the average; and more than most of the good besides; and finally, they died, who simply were not pure.

The cities died, for only the greatest and brightest of their towers stayed.

Civilization died. Seven hundred million people remained. They could have kept it, had they chosen; but they had no heart for it.

Maxine’s parents died: the one she loathed, and the one she loved, and of all her family, only she and a second cousin survived the judgment. She was a sweet child, but she grew up sad.

When Maxine was 17, she went to the city, or what of it remained: seventy buildings, scattered, proud, upon a plain of red and golden dust. She hunted through those ruins, and found tools and machines and books. Some had survived, for like Maxine they were pure. In a great sixteen-wheeled truck, one of seven left in all the world, she took them back to the farm on which she lived, and showed them to the woman, Chanya Bayo, who had taken her in.

“And what would you do with them, Maxine?”

“I will build a centipede,” she said. “I have never seen one.”

“It would be good to see a centipede again,” Chanya admitted. “So if you’d like, you may.”

For three years, Maxine worked; and in the end, the thing was built; and she called Chanya out to see.

Chanya’s right hand sheltered her eyes against the sun as she looked up at the centipede. “It’s a bit big,” she said. “And a bit robotic. But I think you have the heart of it.”

Maxine smiled.

“What will you do now?”

Maxine looked down, and her voice was sad. “I have to go,” she said. “There’s something calling me, to the east.”

“Ah,” said Chanya. “Must you, then?”

Maxine sighed. “I must.”

“I can’t argue with a young girl’s heart,” Chanya said. “But I’ll be here, if you need a home again.”

Maxine hugged her, and they cried. Then Maxine climbed into the head of the centipede, and its metal legs clicked, and its segmented body wiggled, and it slithered off to the east, leaving great holes in the earth behind it.

Miles and miles she traveled, and the world passed like a dream, and finally she came to the great hollow of the desert, and looked down, and saw the sleeping beast.

“What is it?” she said; and for a time, no answer came; and then a great snarl split the air.

The centipede’s head turned round, and its feet stamped upon the earth, and its segments skittered to adjust; and staring at her across the sand she saw a great steel tiger.

“Who are you?” she said; but the tiger’s shoulders bunched; and with a terrible sound like ripping steel, it leapt; and the battle of centipede and tiger joined. In the desert in the east there rose a great ringing of metal on metal, and snarls, and clicks, and scrapes, and clangs; and it did not end, save at night, when the wounded beast and the wounded bug would skitter apart and crouch low upon the sands, that the people who lived inside them could come out and, in the dark cold desert night, make such repairs as such as they could make.

For seven years, they fought, and this she came to know: that when the creature had stirred in its endless sleep, the white noise rose; and if it should wake, all things would pass; and so, to keep itself in dreams, it called to it the things it dreamt, and played a game of centipede and tiger.

For seven years, they fought; and she came to know the person who—she thought—must live inside the tiger’s head. Sometimes, she pictured a great strong man, fierce and noble; sometimes, a girl the mirror of herself. It did not matter; for in the night, they did not meet; and in the day, they fought; and she thought that their reasons for staying must be the same.

“I love you,” she said.

The tiger’s paw struck the centipede’s head, and she was flung against the metal walls; but her hands found the controls again, and struck, and the centipede cast back the tiger.

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