Liz Colter is a 2014 winner of the Writers of the Future contest, with recent sales to Heroic Fantasy Quarterly and Penumbra, among others. She has two completed fantasy novels and is working on her third.

Liz Colter

A shrill whine pierced the air. All activity paused: the scrape of blade on hide, the grind of mortar against rough grain, the drag of kiji fronds across the sand. Even the yellow grass on the plains seemed to cease swaying in the dry breeze to listen.

The painful, jerking squeals that came from the sphere beyond the village perimeter cried in a voice louder than a thousand children's screams, made demands in a language no living person spoke. People dropped tools and abandoned chores. They ran to the sunset side of the grasslands. Dev ran with them.

Hunger, the elders had divined, when the sphere first called out generations ago. Hunger they said each time after that first; proven right because their sacrifices quieted it for years at a time and the village remained safe despite the vast array of dangers surrounding them.

Reaching the crowd gathering around the sphere, Dev pushed forward and stood where not even the elders dared. Her bare toes hung at the edge of the hole, her sleeveless, tan robe flapped in the cool air drifting up from the depths.

The hole was nearly three times as wide as she was tall. The sphere floated in the center near the top, seemingly weightless, though large enough that she couldn’t have encircled it within her arms. The shiny tiles of its blue and gold skin glinted in the sun. She resisted covering her ears against the deafening wail. A moment later it shifted to a new rhythm. Grinding squeal, quiet hum.

Her gaze followed the circular wall at her feet into the bottomless shadows far below. Navel of the Earth, the elders called it, the largest and most unfathomable of the relics from an ancient world that had left them so many deadly mysteries. She looked up as her fellow nameless—Opa, Kaz and Jaye—pushed through the press of people and stood also at the rim of the hole.

The sphere ceased its squealing as abruptly as it had begun, quieting to its normal hum. There were gasps, whispered prayers, speculations whether it had quieted more quickly or more slowly than the last time and what it might mean. The five elders grouped near Dev spoke in hushed tones. The eldest made their pronouncement.

“The ancients hunger, but our acknowledgement of them has been noted. They quiet for now. Tomorrow, when the sun has risen one fist above the horizon, the nameless will test themselves against the grasslands. The last to return will sate the hunger of the ghosts of the ancients.”

Dev looked down into the hole, trying to discern depths that seemed to hurtle to the center of the world. She wondered if the nameless sacrificed in years past had dashed their bodies on some unseen bottom or if they still fell, one after the other, forever.

She tried to imagine herself returning last from the grasslands tomorrow, standing here faced with death. She couldn’t. It wasn’t that she thought herself stronger or braver than the others, but she knew herself. She’d memorized the paths through the grasslands in seven moons instead of ten, had found new traps without triggering them. Unlike the others, she not only endured her challenges, she embraced them.

Dev looked at Opa, eldest of the nameless. The woman’s return gaze conveyed no fear, only grim acceptance.

Three years had passed since Dev reached her nineteenth nameday without being claimed to bride. Her father's flat cheekbones and heavy jaw had dominated Dev’s features since childhood, ensuring her failure in a community where women outnumbered men. Her name had been stripped from her by the elders. Numbered like objects in a game, she became the fourth of the current nameless: Opa, Usha, Kaz, Dev. Six moons ago another unclaimed woman had joined their ranks. Opa had not yet reached her release age of twenty-eight, and so the newest became number five, Jaye.

Dev shared with no one that she preferred her new life. It seemed to her an equitable price to transition from childhood into womanhood without the constraints of husband and children. One year of training to memorize the complex paths that the previous nameless had mapped in the grasslands and the remaining eight years spent exploring new paths. Her skill and safety rested in her hands alone and she risked only a small chance that the ancient’s ghosts would wake and hunger during her nameless years.

She had imagined finding a route to another village, to a new water source now that their springs were running dry, or to a new section of safe grassland to add to their desperately overgrazed rotations. Maybe she would be the one to lead her village into a world that held no deadly traps at all.

But Usha stepped on a memory mine four moons ago. Lost to them now, she drifted forever in one random day of her childhood. Jaye had not yet completed her training year. That left only three of them eligible. And now the sphere had called for a sacrifice.

The elders turned from the Navel and began the walk back. Dev watched the villagers bleed away after them until few except the nameless were left.

"We need to go to the grasslands," Opa said. Dev nodded.

Kaz walked around the hole to join them. Jaye had left with the villagers. She wasn't eligible for tomorrow’s winnowing, and it would have been unseemly for her to train while the rest prepared for their trial. Dev walked behind the other two studying her companions, knowing that none would wish to see another die but all would do their best.

A shout stopped them as they headed toward the tall grass. "Nameless," Kann said. "You must go practice in the grasslands to prepare for tomorrow."

He was a year younger than Dev, but had taken it on himself to monitor them even more stringently than the elders. Opa merely nodded, as if this wasn’t what they already intended, though the direction they walked made it clear.

Kann stood with arms crossed. His bare chest blended with the light dirt road, but the bright orange and red wrap he wore stood out like fire. He continued to watch them, as if he herded them like his family's ten-stone stee-stee birds.

Opa led as they walked single file into the tall grass, into land that hummed below the soil—quieter than the sphere but just as alive. All the grasslands surrounding the village buzzed quietly. It could even be heard faintly from the center of the village, as if swarms of humming insects, never resting, lay buried just below the dirt.

The three nameless navigated their way through the lethal traps and relics of unknown power hidden in the thigh-high dried grass. Grass that never broke, never changed, never left any sign of their passage. Eighteen steps in they diverged to separate paths, following counts memorized from the accumulated knowledge of their predecessors.

At the count of forty-two, Dev turned a quarter step left; the few grains of white at her right foot the only indication of the sand trap hidden within the grass. Sand which would have held her like tree sap while her flesh melted from her body. Thirteen steps more and she leapt a silver trickle of water no wider than her first finger. Had she touched it, it would have expanded into raging depths and drowned her.

Dev wondered for the hundredth time what horrors the inhabitants of the old world must have faced to have laid such a defense. Or perhaps their enemies had created these gruesome killing fields, caging them within, much like Dev's elders had become trapped here.

Evening stories often told of their tribe who had won their way through the grasslands and found this circle of safety that became their home. It had long provided her people with spring water, starchy plants and safe grazing. Plentiful trees for wood, shade, fronds and fruit. Dev suspected this had been a haven for the ancients as well, but for her people, who needed to move on, it had become just another trap.

Her tan marker flag lay half a day's walk ahead of her—the farthest she had extended this path while still able to return before dark. Dev scanned as she counted, not only looking for new dangers but for any previously missed as well as for those few that moved through the grasslands of their own accord.

In her training year, the older nameless told her not to deny her fear but to shut out thoughts of failure, to always push forward. They might as well have told her to breathe. Even as a child she had shunned conventional chores of grinding grain and making dyes, begging instead to work with the stee-stee birds. Only half their height as a child, she had herded them to safe feeding grounds on the sunrise side of the grasslands and collected eggs from the aggressive parents.

Twenty-seven and a half steps. She turned right, skirting a small, green rock hidden a handspan from her left foot. She didn't know what power the rock held. None in memory had ever touched it.

Nameless were unclaimed and unwanted, expendable. They were assigned a duty likely to kill them as an alternative to being worthless extra mouths eating the dwindling food and drinking the precious water. If she died she wouldn’t be mourned. But if she lived, she would be welcomed back into the community on her release day, respected for her contribution of mapping the grasslands. And if she found a way to a better place...

Dev heard a shrill sound from the road, half-laugh, half scream. She looked back. More villagers had gathered near Kann to watch them navigate the traps. A young man held a girl by the waist. Her feet lifted from the ground as he carried her toward the deadly grasses in mock threat while she squirmed and laughed.

Dev turned back to her count.


That night after supper, Kann and his friend, Haii, came to the hut the nameless shared. Dev knew they were there for her. Each woman had those who singled them out. Two girls mocked Jaye relentlessly over her inability to obtain a marriage proposal. Some men gave certain of the nameless endless advice on training, though they had never been into the grasslands themselves. Young men were sometimes drawn to one in an uneasy mix of respect and jealousy at their courage. She thought Kann the latter; Haii more complex still.

"Did you eat?" Kann asked her.

She indicated her empty bowl sitting next to her cot.

"Good," he said. "You'll need your strength tomorrow."

She remembered their friendship as children: chasing around the huts, playing hide and find, weaving frond leaves into miniature villages. When Kann began his chores with his family's birds, she'd begged to work with him instead of with her mother.

"Maybe you should wrestle to be strong for tomorrow," Haii said.

Always the thing he chose. Where Kann imagined he directed her training, Haii flirted with the taboo of attraction. The opportunity for courting, marriage and the experience of the marriage bed were over for Dev but it felt good to touch a man sometimes. She guessed he recognized that. Perhaps this suggestion was his way of saying goodbye in case she came in last tomorrow. Tonight wasn’t the night for it, though.

"I need to rest."

Jaye continued her solitary game of sticks on her cot. Opa and Kaz watched Dev, silent. Nameless met their own challenges.

Haii overpowered her more often than not but never hurt her, no more than the incidental bruises and strains she inflicted on him. But if Kann joined in, he would be rough; his reasons for wrestling her different than Haii's.

"Scared I'll beat you again?" He pushed her shoulder hard enough that she took a step sideways. He grinned, waiting for her to push him back. Their usual spark to fire.

When she didn’t respond, Haii grabbed her around the waist. Kann feigned disinterest. She could have refused to fight back, said no. Both boys would have mocked her, but Haii likely would have stopped. Something did kindle in her, though. Perhaps nervous energy seeking escape. An opportunity to wrestle her fears. Maybe nothing more than her hubris.

She wrapped her arms around Haii's back and twisted, landing on him. He laughed, even as he grunted. Her reflexes were fast after three years in the grasslands, her legs strong, her height equal. Dev tried to pin Haii quickly, before his greater strength wore at her; before Kann joined in. She pushed on his shoulders, jammed one knee into the soft crease between hip and leg. She felt him give, ready to relent.

Kann hit her in the ribs with his shoulder, sending her rolling onto her back. Her arm flew up with her momentum and her elbow struck him hard across the jaw.

Time hung motionless a long moment in their mutual shock at the hard blow. Anger tightened his mouth, stiffened his shoulders. In a flash, he knelt just above her right knee, compressing the muscle there and the joint below.

Haii, having seen none of this, laughed and threw himself across her chest, pinning her. Kann didn’t stop. He punched her thigh rapidly three times, four, five, in the same spot. Haii rolled off Dev and stared at Kann.

As if it had all been no more than a game, Kann stood, his face a stiff mask of unconcern. A deep flush across his cheeks betrayed his surprise and shame at his own actions. "You're right," he said, "you'd better rest."

She sat up as Kann left, determined not to show pain. Haii followed him out, glancing back once.

Dev walked to her cot suppressing a limp. Opa and Kaz said nothing. Jaye continued with her game of sticks. She wondered if they would have intervened if she’d asked for help. Not that she would have.

She lay down, angry with Kann for doing such a thing this night of all nights. The anger competed with humiliation that she hadn't been quick enough to stop him, embarrassment that the other nameless had witnessed her pummeling, anxiety over the tomorrow's trial. She delved for her usual confidence and found only its framework.

Everyone in the village thought the nameless molded like clay. The parents who raised them hadn't taught them ways to entice a husband. The advice-givers took credit when a nameless did well and claimed she hadn’t listened when one died. Haii convinced himself he helped make Dev strong and Kann thought he disciplined her.

No one had molded her. She had always been the person she was inside. And tomorrow, she would embrace her new challenge like she had all the others. She shut out thoughts of failure. Perhaps she would yet make a lasting contribution, one they would all remember.


Dev knew before rising that her leg had grown worse overnight. She threw back her blanket and inspected the swollen, purple bruise on the outside of her right thigh. Her knee buckled when she stood, the muscle refusing her weight until she limped the first few steps. The others noticed but made no comment. What could they say? What could any of them say to each other today?

The three women washed and dressed in their everyday robes of earth-tones—bright colors being reserved for men, like the male stee-stee birds. They gathered their new flags from where someone had placed them outside their hut, each marked in the center with a dark line of dye, then walked with Jaye through a village empty of all but one.

Usha squatted outside her parent's hut and peeled twigs from a crownberry bush. For the past four moons, since stepping on the memory mine, her every motion repeated a single day when she had been eight years old. She peeled the twigs with the determination of a child and the clumsiness of childish fingers, intending to play sticks later with a friend; one who had stopped playing nearly twenty years ago.

Dev rarely noticed Usha anymore, her patterns so familiar she had become invisible. Today, though, she stood out as a stark reminder of the danger Dev would face racing through the traps.

The villagers waited at the sunset edge of the grasslands. Jaye joined the crowd of spectators while Dev, Kaz and Opa continued on into the tall grass. They diverged to their individual paths and stopped.

The crowd hushed. The senior of the elders barked, "Begin."

The other two nameless walked out with quick, measured strides. Dev ran. Her knee threatened to buckle at the impact but she needed to run while she could, unsure how much her leg might slow her by day’s end.

On the count of forty-two, Dev turned at the grains of white sand. It relieved her to see she’d measured her stride properly despite her increased pace and her heavy limp. Thirteen steps later she saw the green rock. She skirted it and risked a glance across the field. She was in the lead but Opa and Kaz were not far behind. Dev felt sure of her counts, her reflexes, her ability to spot traps, but the sun had many fists of sky left to traverse today and her leg cramped already.

By midmorning sweat poured from her. The swelling in her thigh throbbed and she’d been forced to a walk for nearly two fists of the sun’s passage. She had spotted the ankle-high thorn bush trap, the immolation trap, memory mines, and fear mines. She’d avoided a trap that would have caged her without bars—as the bones of a previous nameless lying in the grass attested to—and dozens of objects of unknown power.

She could feel a palm-sized area of raised flesh on her leg when she brushed it through her robe, but her flag lay just ahead. Opa had already passed Dev on her way back to the start, her old flag in her hand. Kaz was nowhere in sight.

Dev pulled her flag from the ground and planted the new one, its dark stripe distinguishing one from the other. Turning, she began her journey back through the tall grass that had straightened again behind her. Forcing herself to run, she stifled a grunt and willed her knee not to buckle. She caught glimpses of Opa occasionally, but never Kaz. Slowly, Dev caught up with Opa. She passed her.

Dev ran onward, confident she could maintain her lead and still spot the traps. When the crowd of villagers standing at the road came within sight, she looked back. Opa was striding faster, but still lagged behind.

Dev took a running stride to resume her pace. As her toe landed she caught sight of an unexpected reflection shimmering in the grass a few paces in front of her. Her arms flailed as she tried to stop from running forward into the small ball, no larger than her palm, which lay in her path. Stumbling to a stop, she braced for any manner of attack.

She mentally re-counted, fear pounding in her temples as she wondered if she’d strayed from the exact turns and angles that kept her safe. She hadn't, she felt sure. Careful of any motion that might trigger the unfamiliar trap, she squatted. Her thigh screamed as the muscle stretched.

The little ball mewled like an infant. She thought it stationary until she noticed a multitude of tiny, pink feet, each clawed at the tip with small glinting needles. The ball weaved forward in nearly imperceptible steps from the left side of the path. Like her, it appeared injured. She wondered if the sound was its cries.

She could wait for it to move on or she could jump it. Jumping would affect her count, but worse, she pictured the trap shooting darts at her or expanding suddenly to catch her in mid-air like a thorn trap. The risks were unacceptable. Dev glanced back over the top of the grass to see Opa gaining.

Fretting at the delay, she alternated between studying the relic and watching Opa’s progress as the ball weaved slowly across her path. It seemed made of the same shiny material as the sphere, but uniform gray in color and smooth, not plated. Her mind logged its exact location and every detail of its appearance to report—if she lived to report it. Grass crunched a dozen paces to her left. Opa passed her position and strode onward.

The ball moved with painstaking slowness. Dev had no option but to wait. Moving traps were most usually triggered from the front, which meant she couldn’t skirt around it to the right. Other traps lay between her path and Opa’s, and she if she somehow made it around them she wouldn’t be able to calculate her counts accurately. The grass far to her right was entirely unmapped.

The ball passed the midpoint of her path and Dev saw a crack down the back of the thing. Her injured thigh protesting, she folded herself lower, watching for any sign that her movement would trigger a reaction. The mewling noise came from within the crack. Eye level with the ball, she caught glimpses through the grass of a small cord inside it, thinner than a necklace of corded vine fibers. Sparks, like those that popped above a cookfire, glinted within.

At last the trap moved far enough to her right for Dev to risk passing behind it. She moved carefully, watching for any reaction. Once certain she was clear, she ran. Caution was pointless now. Either she could catch Opa or she couldn't. Kaz was either ahead of them both, injured somewhere, or she was dead. Dev had seen no sign of her since morning.

Opa marched forward with a strong lead, nearing the road. Dev counted aloud to focus, daring to run faster still. Lancing pain shot through her thigh. She saw the green rock and circumvented it. She risked looking up without stopping. Opa exited the grass and handed her marker flag to one of the elders. Kaz was nowhere to be seen.

Dev stopped, panting. Opa was safe, and Dev was glad for her. She was close to her release date and would likely make it now.

When Dev began again, she walked with a heavy limp. Passing the white sand, it beckoned to her. An unpleasant death, but a known one. She turned a quarter turn, missing the sand and staying to her path. She would face her fate. Dev exited the grasslands and handed off her flag.

Her parents stood stoically, not reaching out to each other or to her. Haii looked sad. Kann turned away, as if something suddenly caught his attention. She wondered if he was disappointed in her for failing or embarrassed with himself for losing control last night. Either way, she resolved not to tell him that her leg injury might have helped in a way. Uninjured, she would have been faster. The trap would have been to her left where she might have run directly in front of it. The ball might have killed Dev as surely as the pit, another would have been sacrificed in her place. Three nameless dead instead of two.

One of the elders took Dev by the arm and led her away. Dev reported the ball she'd seen so it could be recorded and mapped. Asking after Kaz, the elder confirmed her fears. Opa had seen a blue flame envelop her.

Dev spent the night alone, under guard in one of the elders' huts. They brought her an elaborate meal that sat uneaten. Her mind jumped about like a hopper bug. She thought about her parents. She hoped Kaz’s death had been painless. She contemplated the mystery of the little ball and that Opa would likely be sitting here now in her place if it hadn’t chosen that moment to cross her path.

The moon moved over the gaps in the fronds over her head and still she remained awake, unwilling to spend her last hours of life in sleep. She wished she could have reached her release day. Even more, she wished she might have made some greater contribution than mapping a section of grasslands.


They came for her just before dawn, while the light was still cold and gray.

She had bathed and dressed in a finely woven robe of pale blue laid out for her. A color signifying beginnings, though she doubted that plummeting through the depths of the Navel would be anything but an ending for her.

She was the last to arrive. People parted for her as her escorts led her to the lip of the hole. Her knees trembled with a fear so large that for once she couldn't find a way to push through it. The persistent cool draft blew up the walls of the pit causing chill bumps to rise on her forearms and neck despite the early heat of the day. Rows of villagers watched her. Two men at her back held spears.

Her death imminent, Dev noticed details with a clarity she’d never experienced before. The perfect circularity of the hole. The lack of erosion at the lip. The color on the plates of the sphere, not alternating deep blue and gold as they seemed, but containing tiny specs of brown in the blue and hues of orange in the gold. And there. One plate on the lower half that lifted slightly at the bottom, so slightly she'd never noticed before. It seemed broken, not unlike the crack in the ball. Her mind linked concepts for which she had no words. She considered her injury, the ball’s cries, the sphere’s whine.

The senior elder said the proscribed words but Dev heard them only faintly. She held no illusions that she might face new challenges deep within the Navel. This was death, nothing more, whether it satisfied the hunger of ancient powers or not, protected the village or not -- things she was now coming to doubt.

The time for her final contribution had come. Most nameless jumped feet-first, one had swan-dived, and one had required the help of the spear points. Dev had figured when the moment came, she would know how to end it. Now she did.

Dev leaped. Not for the bottom, but for the sphere. Heart pounding, she landed squarely on her belly and wrapped her arms and legs hard around the cool tiles. She braced for it to plummet into the pit with her atop it. For it to roll, sliding her off into the depths. For it to explode, like one of the mines. It did none of those things.

The villagers gasped. The elders shouted. The men with spears struck at her, but the sphere had drifted down far enough with her weight that they couldn't reach her without risk of falling. Grappling with one hand, she felt for the gap she'd seen. Her heart beating fast as a greenbird's trill, she jerked at the loose plate, nearly sliding off the side when it lifted easily. The plate now angled straight out from the sphere, blocking her view of what lay beneath.

"Opa," Dev shouted. "What do you see?"

And Opa was there for her. The woman pushed her way around the rim until she stood directly across from the plate. The elders threatened her, but none came close enough to risk falling into the Navel. One of the men shoved a spear at her and Opa grabbed at the shaft. He backed away. She lay flat on the ground to see better.

"It has four thin vines within. They anchor at top and bottom, like the vines covering the black square on the seventeenth path, count eighty-six."

As Dev had suspected. Cords, the same as the ball had possessed. The ball that weaved and mewled as if injured. Perhaps the periodic whine of the sphere had never been a call for sacrifice, but an illness. Maybe all the relics were ill with age, or maybe the sphere’s illness infected them all.

"I might be able to kill the traps, Opa. Be vigilant the next time you go out. I may be wrong."

Opa looked perplexed, but nodded.

Dev reached beneath the plate and felt for the cords. Grabbing all four, she yanked. A shower of fire sparks arced out and down into the pit, flickering as they fell. The sphere's humming stopped.

Dev felt the moment stretch, like the moment of shock she and Kann experienced when she struck him across the face with her elbow. Her success surprised her and she faced an instant of indecision; complete her sacrifice or survive? With the reflexes of a nameless, she pushed to hands and feet and leapt up for the rim of the pit as the sphere fell away into the Navel.

Her fingertips hooked on the sandy soil near Opa. Her weight hung from the edge one heartbeat before her fingers slipped free.

Opa grabbed her wrists in a bone-crushing grip. The men with spears rushed her but Jaye stepped between them. Opa held onto Dev fiercely.

"Listen," Dev said, into the silence of the dead sphere. She meant the word to reach everyone but desperation and fear made her voice no more than a breath. Opa heard her, though, and she listened.

"The grasslands are quiet," Opa shouted over one shoulder to the elders and villagers. Sweat dotted her brow. Her arms shook with the strain of maintaining her grip.

Jaye understood immediately. "The traps are dead," she cried. She dropped to her knees by Opa and grabbed Dev by one forearm. Together, she and Opa pulled Dev over the lip of the pit. Dev, weak with relief, curled at Opa’s knees.

"The traps are dead," Opa repeated in wonder.

Dev turned her head to look up at the men with spears, at the elders.

The eldest approached. Dev watched his every motion, wondering if he would grab the spear and push her in himself. Instead, he reached a hand to her. Dev took it, feeling his dry, warm, wrinkled hand. He pulled her to her feet.

"Go to the first trap on your path," he said in a voice devoid of emotion or judgment. "Touch it."

Weak-kneed and limping, Dev obeyed. The villagers crowded behind her to the start of the path, murmuring.

Eighteen steps then forty-two, to the handful of white sand. She bent to touch it. She pictured the flesh melting from her bones as she screamed. She pictured Opa being sacrificed in her place.

Nothing happened. The sand felt cool and grainy under her fingertips.

Dev straightened and looked out over the grasslands at a world of possibilities.

Copyright © 2017 by Liz Colter





The Editor's Word

by Samantha Murray


by Sunil Patel

by Kay Kenyon
by George Nikolopoulos

by Andrea G. Stewart

by Kevin J. Anderson

by Alex Shvartsman

by Brennan Harvey
by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
by Yaroslav Barsukov
by Tina Gower

by Robert Silverberg

Mike Resnick
by Joy Ward

Double Star (Part 2)
Heinlein's First Hugo Winner
by Robert A. Heinlein

From the Heart's Basement
by Barry N. Malzberg
Science Column
by Gregory Benford
Recommended Books
by Bill Fawcett & Jody Lynn Nye










Copyright © Arc Manor LLC 2017. All Rights Reserved. Galaxy's Edge is an online magazine published every two months (January, March, May, July, September, November) by Phoenix Pick, the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint of Arc Manor Publishers.