Aloy wondered how a habit so buried could still exist in her. When she crossed into the Sacred Lands, her feet went north instead of south. She found herself climbing the familiar mountainside. Aloy paused beside Rost’s grave, brushed snow from its edges, and placed a few new blossoms on it. He had always liked the smell of the purple hearts.
The house was still well-constructed, and the fire pit was tended to almost as if someone had used it more recently than the full season she’d been gone. Aloy stoked the fire within the hearth of the house, and after a moment of quiet contemplation, she settled into Rost’s bed, breathing in his hard scent. After she began to nod off, she moved to her own bed and buried herself in the heavy furs there.
For all she’d collected on her Focus, she went back to old favorites. Daddy sure does love his little big man…
Then she flipped to another, thinking of Erend’s drunken proposition, of her rejection and wondering if that had been a mistake.
Maybe that’s all I need, you know? That moment the door opened and you were standing there, wearing that retro-weave dress, and the way you smiled… I had to look away or you were going to see. On my face. What had just…blossomed inside me, you know? Ha. It was just an instant, but I know. I knew we’d be forever.
Love. She wondered if it was like that for everyone. Rost had described something different, something that took longer and slowly formed. He had told her to be careful with herself, to only give her body to someone who would care for it and care for her heart.
So she heeded that advice. She waited and watched, wondering if that moment of clarity would happen to her as it had to Ella Pontes once upon a time. She wondered if she’d recognize that moment for what it was.
She awoke a few hours later, on high alert. Someone was moving outside. Her bow came into hand, and she crouched in the shadow of the eaves of the house. The person outside seemed oblivious. An intruder, crouched by Rost’s grave, his fingers ghosting over the flowers scattered there.
Aloy whistled, and the intruder jumped and spun to face her. A woman, not a man. A Nora.
Aloy lowered her bow slightly. “Why are you here?”
“My name is Aloy.”
The woman raised her hands. “Aloy, would you lower your bow?”
Aloy gently eased the arrow from the string and settled the bow on the porch next to her. “Who are you?”
“Vin. I’ve been tending to Rost’s grave.” She hesitated. “My father was a brave; he respected Rost. He asked me to make the trip when I can.”
Aloy glanced from the woman’s feet to her head. There was no evidence of a lie, and the truth meant she should show hospitality. “Would you like to break fast together?”
Vin sat by the fire as Aloy threw a handful of oats into warming water. She offered Vin a slice of jerky, and they ate the softened, hot oats from the same bowl after Vin stirred in a few berries she’d collected.
“Your father was a brave?”
“He fought with Rost for many years. He lost his leg when the Shadow Carja attacked our lands.”
Vin shrugged. “Not as sorry as he is. But you saved his life—all of ours. I have my father’s mate, a little brother, and a little sister to provide for along with my father, but better that burden than none.”
Aloy wondered at this woman. She seemed older than Aloy, with a confidence in her that she didn’t presume to find in young Nora people. “Do you have a mate to help?”
A smile was her first answer. Then: “No mate. My father despairs. And you?”
Aloy scoffed. “Who would have me?”
“Everyone,” Vin responded dryly, prompting Aloy to laugh in reply. She felt a twitch of regret for her sarcasm and raised an eyebrow. “Okay. Point taken. No, no mate.” She thought of Elisabet’s excuse. “Too busy.”
“It seems hard work to save the world.”
“Exhausting,” Aloy said dryly. “What do you do?”
“For the village?”
“I’m a grower. I collect seeds and grow them in a bit of land for our village crops. Teersa appointed me to it after we lost our food stores when the Carja attacked. Tiring but not exhausting. Not saving the world.”
“No one can live without food.”
“You flatter me,” Vin continued as dryly as she’d spoken before. “My father says I do it because I loved playing in the dirt when I was a child. And eating it according to his memory.”
It amused Aloy to imagine. There was more to it than this woman’s deprecation. Her gaze lingered on the bow and spear strapped to Vin’s back. Vin guessed Aloy’s unvoiced question. “I can draw a bow, and I can kill an animal, but I wouldn’t last against a machine. Have you seen the crops grown by the Carja and Oseram?”
“Maize, mainly. Some wheat.”
“I would be interested in seeds for maize.”
“Doesn’t that break some kind of Sacred Land taboo?” Aloy asked more mockingly than she intended. Despite the progress that had been made with outcasts and opening the Sacred Lands, it had closed again after the end of the Machine War. There were more exceptions, the rules weren’t as strict, but they hadn’t been abolished.
Vin smiled. “No one would know until the harvest is grown. I’ll have time to talk to the Matriarchs by the time I grow stalks. And if they don’t grow, isn’t that a reason not to?”
Aloy ducked her head, raising an eyebrow in amusement. “I’ll collect some.”
“Thank you, Aloy.”
“Thank you. For tending to Rost’s grave.”
They finished their meal, Vin picked up her pack, and she was gone within a few minutes.
Aloy didn’t think of her again for some time. She kept busy even in the Sacred Lands. Grata needed more food for her stores, and Aloy repaired a few drafty bits of her hut. It looked as though Teb had kept his promise to check on the old woman; she’d gained a little weight since Aloy has visited, and she sang off-tune about the blessings All-Mother heaped on her even in her absence. Perhaps a little too on-point.
She visited Varl, hunted a few machines with the braves, and discussed the Carja with them, trying for a more logical tone than they usually heard. Then the burning restlessness dug its claws in her and pulled. She ventured out of the Sacred Lands and tried to escape the nervous energy that pushed her further every day.
She didn’t just wander for the sake of wandering. Aloy spent much of her time in the ruins, searching for old data logs or bits of the old world. She eventually returned to Sylens’s workshop to put everything in a backup log: another Focus, respectfully removed from All-Mother’s Mountain.
That had been a disappointing day. Varl, who she’d hoped so much to make an ally in knowledge, had turned away from her invitation to go into All-Mother. He wouldn’t take her Focus either, and Aloy remained alone in her understanding of the world.
Nearly on the same breath, he’d asked if she would be his mate. She’d looked at him and thought of his sister, regretting Vala’s death. Vala had seemed the type to have taken her up on an invitation to learn more about the realities of her world. But Vala was dead. It made Aloy wonder after she’d gently declined Varl’s question why she would think of the man’s sister instead of the man himself.
And Erend… When she’d stopped in Meridian on the way up to Sylen’s workshop, he’d been embarrassed. “Too bad I wasn’t drunk enough to forget what I asked. Sorry.”
He’d studied her. “I would be up for more than just a tumble, you know. I like you, Aloy. I don’t know what you call it in Nora land, but I’d like to see if we get somewhere serious.”
‘Like’ wasn’t what she was looking for. All those loves she’d seen: marriages, father, sister, brother, cousin; love that made people change, want more, become content, lose hope in life… That love that made Ella know, love that Rost told Aloy took work and respect… She wanted that.
So she’d told Erend ‘no’ a second time.
And now she sat in Sylens’s workshop and occupied her mind with dissecting harvested machine parts for a core strong enough to support GAIA. At least Elisabet Sobeck’s journal held every nuance of her first GAIA builds.
That was something missing from her journals: love, a mate, that moment of knowing like Ella Pontes. But Elisabet seemed to love everything with a passion that led to her sacrifice. She loved GAIA and the world and life. What had she said? That she had been too busy to have a child. Was she too busy for love? Aloy wondered if she would be the same.
After several weeks of tinkering, her eyes and her head hurt from the solitude. Aloy descended from the workshop after closing it off tight and made her way back to the Sacred Lands, back to a place she was realizing would always be home. On her way, she remembered a friendly request and stopped in Free Market to pick up several packets of golden seeds.
She visited the mountainside home, noted that Rost’s grave had been tended to, and descended to Mother’s Heart. On the way, she thought of Vin’s family and shot a turkey that she strapped to her waist.
She couldn’t remember Vin’s face in great detail, but when she saw the woman with her hands deep in the earth, she knew her again. Playing and eating dirt, Vin had said. Aloy took a moment to study her now: light brown skin, brown hair, and pale brown eyes, but with a sharpness to her jaw and nose and strength to her brow that meant Aloy would not forget her again.
A murmur passed through the men and women turning the earth over as they noticed her. Vin looked up in irritation, but when she saw Aloy, she smiled. She didn’t seem inclined to talk, and Aloy had others to visit.
She traded goods and quips with Karst and then found Teb stitching in a restored hut. “Turkey?” he asked, eyeing the kill on her belt.
“For Vin.” Along with the bag of seeds buried in her pack.
“You know her then? Caught her tending to Rost’s grave?”
Aloy nodded. “I don’t know where she lives, but we’ve met.”
“A little house on the west side, tucked into the mountain. It has a yellow chime on the porch, made from the Thunderjaw you defeated.”
“Thank you, Teb.”
“She’s a good woman. Her father is a good man, but he lost his leg and now drinks too much. But he loves his children and his mate.”
Aloy leaned against the pillar of his hut and watched him work for a moment. “How are you?”
“I’m well. Enjoying the early spring.” His smile was kind. “I’ve been checking on Grata. She’s still doing well from what I can tell. It is difficult to know sometimes.”
“Thank you, Teb. I’ll drop a store of food off before I leave again.”
Teb’s smile was gentle. “One day you’ll decide to stay.”
“Maybe. But not today. Do you need anything?”
“If you happen to hunt any foxes, I would be grateful for a few pelts.”
“I can do that.”
Aloy considered the seeds and turkey on her belt and instead turned herself south towards Mother's Watch and All-Mother within. She ignored the whispers and looks as she ascended the settlement, considering it wasn’t much different than when she’d been an outcast.
Teersa stood at the entrance to All-Mother and waved Aloy inside with a wide smile. Aloy couldn’t help herself; she hugged Teersa. The old woman tried but failed to hide her smile when they parted. “Come, come, child.”
They sat together beside the fire, Lansra and Jezza pausing to greet Aloy too with their own doses of reverence. Teersa winked as Aloy provided her own leaves for their tea. She could only imagine what kind of taboos she might break by providing tea grown in Meridian, but Teersa said nothing of it.
She smiled as she sipped her tea, sucking water through her teeth to filter the leaves. “How are you, Aloy?” she asked, more like a grandmother than a Matriarch to her Anointed.
“Tired.” It was the startling truth.
“What great task are you working on?”
She took a moment to consider her answer. “I… I’m hoping to restore All-Mother to her previous form, one that can interact with us again.” She wondered if she was going about it in the wrong direction instead of locating each of GAIA’s arms to realign them one by one. GAIA was the more tempting solution.
Teersa’s eyes widened. “To be brought out in physical form?”
“Sort of.” Aloy stared at her tea, making a quiet plea. “Can I take you inside the mountain? So you can understand?”
Teersa’s surprise melted into a sympathetic smile. “Aloy, I can only imagine what you see in All-Mother. But I am a foundation to the Nora—in my faith and my leadership. If I were to see something that shook my faith, where would the tribe be? I cannot.”
And yet, in that denial, Aloy saw she had an ally. Teersa was smart and pragmatic, and she saw more truth in the myths than maybe anyone else in the tribe. Teersa took her hand and squeezed, and Aloy nodded her acceptance of that answer. She tried again to navigate the minefield of the tribe’s religion in explaining her own truth.
“I was…crafted in the form of a woman who lived a long time ago, back before the world…became what it is today. She helped… She helped discover All-Mother. Her name was Elisabet Sobeck. I found her grave.”
Teersa squeezed harder. “Then you found your mother.”
Aloy nodded, surprised by the tears that blurred her vision and by Teersa’s interpretation. She rubbed her tears away quickly while Teersa pretended not to see them. “I, uh, have something else to ask you, about the tribe.”
“Vin says she was been given permission to start cultivating crops.”
“Yes. We must help our lands grow what we need for our tribe. With the Shadow Carja attack, much of the earth was turned up. They burned what stores we had.”
“She’s helped feed the tribe.”
Teersa nodded. “Yes. Nobly and tirelessly.”
“She asked me to bring her maize seeds. I did. Will she be in trouble if I give them to her?”
Teersa’s smile was slow. She winked as she sipped her tea. “If it doesn’t grow, we will never know. If it does, then surely All-Mother has blessed the crop. It won’t be hard to discuss with the other High Matriarchs in that case. She will not be outcast, Aloy.”
“That’s what Vin said.”
“She’s a clever one.”
“I guess it says something if you say that.”
The giggle that came from Teersa was youthful and sweet. “You flatter this old woman.”
“Teersa, did you ever have a mate? Or children?”
“I had a mate, but she died many years ago. We could have no children as such, though I've raised many a youngster through my life. I am not forbidden from having another, but my life is full of the tribe.”
“What was her name?”
“Giana.” Teersa spoke it like a caress, and her expression softened. She seemed to be looking elsewhere. And there it was again, that stillness of love. She smiled and patted Aloy’s knee. “Go, child. That turkey on your belt is begging to be eaten.”
Aloy found the wide house with the yellow windchime soon after. A man and woman sat on the porch; the man was a big one, though he was missing most of his leg below his knee. The couple stared at her as she approached. She nodded.
“Thank you for caring for Rost’s grave.”
The man nodded back. It was clear that Vin took after him in looks: brown and strong. “Thank my daughter.”
“You ran with Rost before he was outcast?”
He nodded again in quiet study. “I did. He was an honorable man.” After a moment, he seemed to draw a conclusion. “I’m Ast. This is my mate, Yin.”
Aloy lowered her head in a nod of greeting. “I’m Aloy.”
Yin smiled as if amused. “We know who you are, Aloy. You don’t like to be called Anointed.”
“Hate it, actually. I hunted a turkey on my way in. Can I put it in your dinner pot for tonight?”
Yin was immediately up. “Thank you.”
Ast didn’t decline, though he wasn’t as grateful. His gaze was direct and thoughtful. His mate had no reservations. She brought out hard boar-bristle brushes, and she helped Aloy gut and defeather the turkey after they dunked it in the hot water pot over the fire. They rubbed until most of the feathers were off, and Aloy removed the head and picked out the choice organs to be fried for a snack for the children while the rest of it boiled with tubers: potatoes and carrots and shaved pepper flakes. The guts would be used as fishing bait.
The children, a young boy and girl named Galt and Kina, goggled at Aloy: her armor and her bow and her Focus before snacking on the gizzard, heart, and liver of the turkey with apparent enjoyment. They raced around the house with more energy than Aloy would have had at their age. At that time she was working on her bowmanship, her tracking, sneaking, and climbing; she often collapsed in bed at the end of the day.
Vin finally walked up to the house as the evening air began to darken and chill. She didn’t seem surprised to see Aloy there, though she did smile to see Galt and Kina hanging from Aloy’s arms as she lifted them and spun in a slow circle.
“We have turkey!” Galt shouted as he clung to Aloy’s arm. Kina let go, tumbled to the ground, and hugged her sister.
“Hello, Aloy,” Vin said, for the moment as reserved as her dark, quiet father.
They ate, sharing the tender stew together, sitting comfortably around the cooking fire with rough hardened-clay bowls. Aloy noted the hands of this family: the children’s were stained purple from the berries they’d gathered in the morning, Yin’s hands were stained with dye—she was a weaver, spinning cotton and silk and straw and dying it to sell to villagers and, Aloy suspected, to smuggle to Carja traders in the north—and Vin’s hands were caked with brown, rich earth from her time in the tiny fields.
The children, Galt and Kina, ducked into their little room in the house to sleep soon after dinner. With their bellies full, they yawned and mumbled and whined. Yin retired soon after, helping Ast balance on his crutch to walk up the steps and enter the house.
Only Vin remained, and she looked like she might fall asleep where she sat. “Thank you.”
“It was nothing.”
“It wasn’t nothing to my family. You honor us.”
Normally, she would have responded sarcastically: it’s a turkey, not a miracle. But Rost’s grave... The care Vin had for a stranger’s grave, even if no care had been taken before Rost’s death, that meant something. “You’ve honored me. And Rost.” Aloy wanted suddenly, earnestly, to explain the feeling that had come over her when she ate with this family. “I like you all. That’s…rare.”
Vin laughed, and Aloy felt herself blush as she realized how unpleasant than had been to put into words. It was late, and the heat of the fire would disguise her blush but not her embarrassment. She reached into her bag. “I have something for you.”
Vin accepted the two full linen packages on her palms. She popped one stitch to look inside and smiled.
“I asked Teersa if this would be okay. She said what you did actually: if it grows, All-Mother blessed the crop.”
“Thank you.” Vin closed her hands over the seed packages gently, rolling the tiny kernels between her thumb and forefinger.
“The man who sold them to me said that’s the hardiest strain they have. They like wet: as much water as possible. They have shallow roots, but he didn’t say why that was important. The crop can’t take the cold. He recommended planting in late spring to avoid any snow. Plant in a place that gets sunlight most of the day.”
Vin nodded as she digested that information. “We’ll start turning the earth for them tomorrow. Will you stay here with us tonight?”
Aloy didn’t want to leave, she realized. This was warm, safe, and comfortable, and it wasn’t lonely. Instead of the itch to leave, she felt the comfort of staying. “If there’s a place.”
“My bed is big enough. Bring your things inside.”
They snuffed the fire and covered the cauldron for the morning’s cold soup. Aloy ducked into the wide house. It smelled lived in, cozy, and was cool for the crossbreeze that kept the air from going stale. The little room that was Vin’s was warmer than the open interior. Aloy removed her armor and weapons but kept her Focus on. She lay down after Vin did, turning her back to her out of lack of better option.
She’d slept in Rost’s bed a few times when she’d been sick as a child, but she’d never shared a bed with a peer. It took a little while to get used to hearing Vin breathe, but she settled as she realized it was a comforting noise: steady and sure. She slept.
GAIA’s construction was a difficult thing. Aloy fashioned a magnifier from a few water lenses to give her vision sharpness as she soldered components together. Elisabet’s journal was a little sparse on details for lesser components, but the more machines she dismantled, the more she understood how they were supposed to fit together.
These were preliminary tests. She knew she’d need to travel outside of the lands even she knew to find other facilities. At least All-Mother had been left intact. She’d started there and descended deep into the center to look at Apollo’s machine heart. The massive expanse of that core made her lose hope for a little while for ever restoring GAIA, but she talked herself back into it after a few days of languish.
If HADES could exist within a Horus class Titan, GAIA could exist within similar limited parameters. Aloy focused her search in dismantling the few Titans she could access, studying their interiors with care. She even, with hair raised on her forearms, tried to enter the core that she’d put Sylens’s spear into at the Battle for Meridian. The core gave her more hope; if HADES had existed in its entire complex code in that tiny vessel, GAIA didn’t need the enormous reactor that she’d destroyed before.
She wondered too about Apollo. Ted Faro had deleted it, but the core was still standing. If she could restore GAIA, maybe she could dig deep enough to find Apollo in GAIA’s memory stores. Maybe there was something of the old knowledge she could recover. And maybe GAIA could bring the other arms back under her care once more or at least give Aloy the means for doing that.
Most important of all, though, Aloy parsed through the programming on her Focus. She needed to find the bit within it that allowed Sylens’s network to access it; she wanted to cut him off.
She worked and worked until she understood the language of her Focus. And, with care, she introduced a new bit of code to render her invisible to him.
After immersing herself in silence and solitude for weeks, Aloy took a breath of civilization once again. She spent a week in Meridian, helping Erend with a crime that had been committed in the city, drank with him (Erend doing most of said drinking), and stopped by to check on Elida and Lahavis on her way out of the city.
When she reached the gates to the Sacred Lands, Varl greeted her. They discussed the movement of machines, the weather, and any need for supplies or further information. Varl was content to remain within Nora territory, though he was free to venture out again as a Seeker. Few of the Nora had done so, and all of those that did returned.
Aloy wondered sometimes why the Nora were so fearful of letting tribe members leave. Stay close to All-Mother, close to the mountain that birthed them. Stay close or never return.
She went to Rost’s home and slept the night there, replacing the wilting flowers at his grave. The place was still tended to. Aloy wondered how Vin found the time, and she was a little disappointed she didn’t see Vin here, in solitude.
She traveled south to Mother’s Watch, pausing to study the fields just outside the settlement. A large plot with tiny green sprouts in neat rows was growing. It had to be Vin’s maize. The crop had grown, and hopefully it would bear fruit. Aloy wondered if wheat could also be cultivated here instead of harvested one tiny wild patch at a time, but best to take one crop at a time.
She had a boar this time, which she’d tied to her shoulders and supported with a strap over her forehead. It was late enough that when she came upon Vin’s family, they’d already eaten fried potato strips and carrots.
The children perked up at the sight of the boar on her back and three large trout on her belt.
Yin fried the fish, and they all shared them, teething away scales and spitting out fish bones. “We’ll prepare the boar tomorrow,” Ast told her, his own way of thanks.
Aloy and Vin once again sat up after the others retired. “Where do you go?” Vin asked her.
“Northwest. There are ruins. I collect pieces to hopefully…restore All-Mother. To what she once was.”
“High Matriarch Teersa mentioned your quest. What is it like, outside the Sacred Lands?”
“Bigger,” she quipped, then put more effort into considering her answer. Where could she start? She described the sandy deserts, snowy mountains, lush forests, and heavy jungle. The cities too she described: dusty outposts, metal Oseram settlements, and high Meridian, perched on its great mesa.
Vin listened until her eyes drooped, and then Aloy helped her up and settled her in bed. Vin would work in the morning, and Aloy would not.
So she planned her next step with GAIA as she helped Ast skin and butcher the boar she’d hunted. She helped him balance as he set up rope behind the smoke hut, and she hung strips of lean meat within the smoky interior and fished hot coals out of the fire pit to add to the smokehouse floor.
Aloy realized they had no meat for dinner that evening and traveled out of Mother’s Heart to fish. She caught two salmon, dug up a few potatoes, and ventured into the brambles to pick ripe blackberries.
The children danced and sang again as they waited for their dinner to finish cooking, and there was enough that Yin gave their neighbors a slice of fish and berries. Aloy slept once more settled up against the warmth of Vin’s body, listening to the soft whisper of her breath.
It was too comfortable. She could become too content here. So she left.
Sylens derailed her quest for more materials. He’d worked his way through her code and without alerting her to it. She spent several days in Olin’s apartment in Meridian working her way through his fix, finding a way to block him again, and setting an alert to any alterations of that code. She considered briefly having her Focus wipe itself if he broke through again, but only being able to back up her Focus when she went to Sylens’s workshop put a damper in that plan. Cut off the finger to spite the hand and all that.
After that distraction, it was almost an aimless trip. Without her Focus and the list of materials she’d embedded within it, she probably would have forgotten or been distracted by some passing traveler that needed help. That said, Aloy ended up helping some Banuk men travel into the northern passes in exchange for a rare intact component. The trip out of the cold made her shiver herself tired, and her long ride back to the Sacred Lands was rougher than usual.
She arrived there wet, cold, and bone-weary. She didn’t ascend to the mountain house. Instead, she left her Broadhead at the gate of Mother’s Heart and walked to Vin’s house, where she was immediately wrapped in warm, dry wool and positioned near the hot coals within the cozy house.
They fed her that day, and Ast was in a good enough mood to tell a tale—a bedtime story that Rost had told her once. Rost must have told his daughter that story long ago before she was murdered. Alana, that was her name. Aloy tried to picture her but could only see her own reflection. Elisabet Sobeck. Dr. Sobeck.
She awakened sometime later, when only Vin was still awake. “Sleep,” Vin told her, and Aloy followed her to her bed and obeyed that command, surrounded by the scent of earth and flowers.
Her dreams were oily dark, from the eyes of machines—flittering between perspectives. She awoke with a gasp, but Vin mumbled quietly, and Aloy sank back into the warm furs and fell asleep quickly.
When morning came, she barely remembered her dream. What she did remember reminded her of Brin. Aloy managed to put him and her dream from her mind for the most part. She visited the High Matriarchs, hunted food for herself and for Grata, and dropped off several fox pelts at Teb’s home.
Dinner that night was a happier affair. The rain eased off, and Ast’s good mood continued. He played a tang better than Rost had ever managed, and Vin and Yin led the children in a few songs. Aloy smiled but didn’t sing or even hum. The melodies were different than her memories; Rost had never been good with music. It angered him enough that Aloy had rarely asked him to play. She hadn’t known or cared about the differences, but he told her he could not misrepresent pieces of their culture.
After food and a touch of wine, the family all settled into their beds. Vin remained up, watching the fire. She watched Aloy as much as Aloy watched her. It was comfortable. Companionship like this was hard to find sometimes. Perhaps Petra was the closest; even as busy and intense as the woman could be, she knew how to sit and drink and enjoy the moment. Erend did too, but Aloy distrusted his drunkenness because of the fool it made him.
“What did you dream of last night?” Vin asked her finally.
“But what was it?”
Vin’s curiosity made Aloy consider her answer more carefully. “Machines, seeing things in their eyes. I helped some Banuk men a few weeks ago. They reminded me of a crazy man I helped once. His name was Brin, and he said he was a Banuk Shaman.”
“How did you meet him?”
“Accidentally. I was riding away from a hunting ground and saw broken machines leading up to a house. Brin was inside, wounded and not really caring about that.” She saw Vin was listening avidly and provided the best picture she could describe. “His face was torn up from a Sawtooth. His teeth were black and worn to his gums, and his voice went high and low. His headdress was… I’m not sure how he stood under it, honestly.”
“Was he mad?”
“Oh yeah, he was pretty crazy all right. He told me he drank the blood of machines to gain their visions. That can’t be good for someone if he’s the result. I’d go every few weeks with a new ‘blood’ for him to sample.”
“He drank their… How?”
“I told you he was crazy. I was sure I was poisoning him every time, but he always got back up and told me about his visions.”
“What did he see?”
Aloy took a long breath. Then she laughed and motioned. “Give me some wine. I need it to talk about this.”
She sipped and sighed. “He talked about how the machines were here before we were, their purpose of working together, of Corruptors bringing machines under their sway. He claimed Thunderjaws were a product of humans.”
Vin seized on a different truth in that statement than Aloy had expected. “You got him Thunderjaw blood?”
“And Sawtooth and Corruptor, and… Stalker, Thunderjaw, and Stormbird. I think that was all.”
“What did he see with the Stormbird?”
Aloy frowned, taking another sip of wine. “My death, or so he said. It’s…” She wondered if he had caught a glimpse not of Aloy but of Elisabet Sobeck’s last moments… Snow and storm and machine, and Elisabet gazing at the sky. That thought unsettled her more than Brin’s prophecy. One was a guess, the other a deep look into the past that only Aloy and Sylens understood.
“He was crazy. I’m not worried about it. I hope I see him again. Said he was going west.”
“His visions weren’t true, were they?”
“Maybe not in the way he thought. I’m not worried about dying, Vin,” Aloy said.
Vin’s smile softened, and she raised a shoulder and eyebrow defiantly. “Try not to, Anointed.”
“Don't call me that,” Aloy warned dryly.
“Anointed who refuses her title. Come.”
Aloy got up and followed her to the bed within the house and wondered at this comfort. After hating these Nora her entire youth, resisting their claim on her, this place and these people were her home after all.
The next morning, instead of her long checklist of errands, Aloy followed Vin out onto her fields and helped pull weeds, carry water, and turn over soil. She suggested a water piping system—gravity would aid them, and a tap could be stoppered if no water was needed.
“We rest tomorrow,” Vin told her wearily as they trudged through the settlement to the house tucked into the mountain. They ate warm stew from the night before and settled in the hut early. Aloy’s sleep was easy that night, and she awoke slowly, enjoying quiet moments when she slid back into sleep once more.
After a cold breakfast, the women of the family—including little Kina—went to the bathing grounds. Aloy had never been privy to the little luxury tucked along the edge of the mountains: small pockets of hotsprings, steaming in the cool morning. There were buckets of clean water set aside in an area that naturally ran into the earth below.
While there was little embarrassment about nudity as a rule among Nora, there was a men’s side and women’s side. It was open air, separated by distance not sight. Aloy was oddly self-conscious. She and Rost had had little cares for privacy, even after she’d aged enough to bleed and have breasts, but she had never been naked in front of anyone else.
Olin’s apartment in Meridian had offered a private bathing chamber—that she did not use—and the bath houses within the city encouraged towels in the steamy confines. Those places were separated by sight, sound, and building between men and women.
Aloy wished for a little in between here.
She stripped off her worn leathers, setting them near the clean clothing that Yin had provided for the rest of the day. Aloy scrubbed herself hard, cleaning away the machine oil, blood, sweat, and dust of the hard road. Perched on a smooth rock as she was, she was nearly startled off of it when little Kina began scrubbing her back after pushing Aloy’s mass of hair aside. It felt good.
Vin and Yin eventually joined Kina. They laughed, crouched alongside Aloy, and began unbraiding and scrubbing her mass of hair.
“You have so much,” Yin said with a laugh. She had plenty herself but it wasn’t as thick and wild as Aloy’s.
Aloy smiled but wasn’t sure if she could speak. The proximity to Vin, who was comfortably naked and running gentle fingers through her hair, made her discomfort even greater.
They doused her three times with cold water until her hair was smooth and clean and silky, then the four of them settled into the warmth of the hotsprings to relax for a tick of the sun. It felt good, good enough for Aloy to avoid getting out when Yin gathered her daughter to dress and return home.
Vin tried and failed to engage Aloy in conversation, and eventually she said, “Come back when you’re ready.”
Vin stood up, and Aloy’s eyes skittered away—magnetic in its own way, one magnet coming towards its same pole—but the vision was there. Vin was strong by her own right; her shoulders showed she could hold a bow drawn, and her forearms communicated the power of her grip. But unlike Aloy’s body of all muscle and little fat, she had breasts and hips. The thick brown hair of her head matched the thick brown hair between her legs.
Aloy wondered how she could correct the insult she’d given. She was earnest to do it and at the same time angry for feeling as though she needed to. These Nora had cast her out, denied her familiarity to the same customs they now were angry made her uncomfortable.
But Vin wasn’t angry. Aloy took a breath as her mind settled on an easy answer to the unasked question. She spent the rest of her time in the bath considering her answer as she pulled her hair into a few braids to tame its length again. The answer, the apology, formed with each twist.
But Teb caught her on the way back, and then Varl asked her to armor up and track a Sawtooth that had slipped close to the Embrace. She ate and drank with the Braves after that task, and when she returned to Mother’s Heart, no one was outside the house waiting for her.
So, Aloy wondered bitterly, was it so easy to be outcast once more? Then Vin opened the little door and motioned for Aloy to come inside.
Only a faint light of an oil lantern chased shadows from Vin’s tiny room.
Contrite for her irrational and unfair anger, Aloy said, “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” Vin asked.
“I’m not used to…bathing with other people.”
Vin’s face opened in surprise, then oddly embarrassment. “We made you uncomfortable.”
“Well, yeah. I didn’t exactly get a chance to use the hotsprings before the proving.”
Vin looked away. She fingered the cord of leather that hung from one of Aloy’s packs. “What do you carry with you?”
Surprised at the change in topic, Aloy answered, “Several bows and my spear.”
Vin only smiled. “Keepsakes, not weapons, Machine Hunter.”
Maybe she’d caught sight of a few when Aloy was stripping her armor. She pulled out the little bone talisman from under her jerkin. “Rost gave this to me before the proving. It was his daughter’s.”
“He loved you.”
“I loved him too. He was my… I never called him it, but I thought of him as my father.”
Vin squeezed her hand where it gripped the talisman. “At least you had him.”
“I wouldn’t have had anything without him.” Aloy shook herself from that melancholy thought. She reached into a padded leather drawstring pouch and gently withdrew Elisabet Sobeck’s keepsake. Vin took it in hand gently, her eyes wide as she turned the globe over in her fingers. She smoothed her fingertips over the thread-thin wiring that Aloy had fashioned around the globe to keep it together.
“What is it?”
“I don’t… I don’t understand.”
“The moon's shadow is Earth's outline… The shadow it casts is round, right?”
Vin nodded. Aloy ran a finger along the margin of half of the globe. “Earth’s curve.”
Vin’s eyes widened. “We’re on top?”
“No.” Aloy spun the globe and tapped on one continent. “The Earth is huge, and because it’s so big, it has a force that pulls everything towards its center. So it feels like we stand upright. But the horizon curves, just like the Earth casts a curved shadow on the moon. The spin is night and day.”
“Is the moon a sphere too?”
Vin looked from Aloy to the little globe. “Did your Focus show you this?”
“Sort of.” Aloy smiled and tucked the globe away.
“Where did you find it?”
“That’s a story for another day.” She pushed her hair back as she removed pieces of her armor. Rost had helped her once upon a time, and now Aloy asked: “Can you help me tie my hair?”
Vin’s fingers were gentle as she combed through the tangles and curls, placing more braids and wrapping other strands in leather thongs. The mass of it sat comfortably over Aloy’s back by the time they settled to sleep.
This time it was Vin who said, “Thank you.”
There were parts upon parts that Aloy realized she needed to include. GAIA’s AI core would be within a mobile computer, which would need things to allow input and output of visual and sound stimuli. It would need a wireless way to communicate out, like Sylens’s network. Aloy didn’t care if GAIA connected to all Focuses, but she needed it to connect with hers. She also needed power for it all.
Sylens, for his part, continued to poke at Aloy’s code. She caught warnings twice more before she settled on a string that kept him off her Focus indefinitely. It was a fun game, and she felt every day added was another win. He’d had more time and practice coding, but she saw a way around him in the jumble of numbers.
The bulk of GAIA’s database—her memories and knowledge—would have to be stored in a separate database, which would be rows upon rows of interfaced memory. The limitation there would be GAIA’s physical or network connection with her memories, but based upon what she read in Elisabet’s logs, the difference would be unnoticeable for a human.
Aloy wondered where she could even find GAIA without venturing out to find the other facilities. The closest facility, if it was similar to its placement in Elisabet’s journals, was hundreds of miles away. If she somehow found a way to mount an overridden Stormbird she could make the trip, but not on foot.
She was both incredibly busy and ridiculously bored with the tedious work. Aloy spent most of her days bent over a work table or strumming through the data files on her Focus to understand its programming more intimately. She ate through her store of food. When she reached the bottom of her pack, she paused and drew out a braided leather thong. Interwoven into the leather were dried flowers—the same kind she dropped on Rost's grave.
She imagined the faint smell of them and smiled. “Vin.”
And then Aloy thought of All-Mother, of GAIA’s message. All along, she realized, GAIA wasn’t necessarily rooted in the destroyed facility at all. GAIA left her a message in All-Mother’s Mountain. GAIA could be there herself, hidden in code.
Aloy spurred her Broadhead faster, anxious to return home. In her haste, she made straight for Mother’s Watch and All-Mother beyond. The small field tucked alongside the town was occupied, and Aloy slipped from her mount to avoid disturbing the workers.
There were only a few workers that day, but Vin was among them as Aloy expected. There were chest-high green shoots emerging from the moist brown earth, and Vin seemed intent on them. She sang as she touched the plants, walking carefully—barefoot—between the emerging crops.
The sun caught her brown skin and hair, and Aloy saw Vin for who she really was: all golden, her hair, her skin, and her spirit. She showed her white teeth as she sang. She looked young, beautiful, and sprung from the earth just like her crops.
Then Aloy knew. She knew that they would be forever.
She sat by Rost’s grave later and said, “How did you do it? I don’t know how.”
The quest for All-Mother was postponed. She wanted to visit, and she could hardly do that with a copy of GAIA hidden in in the bulky core in her bag...or with this new knowledge inside her, knowledge so profound anyone would surely be able to see it on her face. She would visit when she worked past this odd tight emotion that wound through her heart and plucked at it like a tang string.
Sleep came late with her mind occupied by what could be or what might be. Vin… Vin who did not have a mate but might be keen on someone. Vin who was ignorant of life outside of the Sacred Lands, who thought Aloy was some sort of messenger of the Goddess, Vin who was golden and would be forever inside Aloy.
She thought of GAIA but far more of Vin.
Aloy awakened after dawn the following day with a jolt. She stared between the slats of the house and saw Vin sitting by the stove. All those awkward fears—and her revelation last of all—came crashing in.
“Will you eat?” Vin asked.
“Why are you here?” That wasn’t the tone of voice or the words that she needed since her revelation.
“Braves saw your fire. Nora cannot keep a secret.” Vin’s smile faded as she studied Aloy. “Are you hurt?”
“Tired.” Aloy accepted a cup of hot tea and sat cross legged beside Vin. Vin was unwashed and tired, but all Aloy could see in her was that golden vision. She wondered if Vin could see it in Aloy's face.
“Exhausted from saving the world?”
Aloy managed a smile at the joke. “Tired from not saving the world.”
“What great machine have you hunted this time?”
“None this time. I’ve harvested what I need.”
“What did you harvest it for?”
“Rebuilding. A quest for hope, maybe.”
“The task All-Mother asked of you?”
There was a dim of reality, the unattractiveness of ignorance. Aloy allowed it because there was no alternative. “You could say that. I want to restore her.”
“Yes. But it may not happen in my lifetime. At least, not at the rate I’m going.”
“You were chosen. You can do anything.”
They shared oats and berries, and then Vin sliced up fresh red fish she’d gotten from the river on her way up the mountain. As they ate, she pulled a green wrapped object from her satchel. “The other High Matriarchs were unhappy, but Teersa thought the crop was blessed because it grew. Because you brought us the seeds.”
Aloy took the cob in her hands and gently peeled away the green covering, revealing stringy yellow fibers and beneath that tiny rough rows of maize seeds.
“More to eat than potato and oat.”
“You have tomato and berry and apple too.”
“Was the advice on how to grow it good then?”
“Yes. It loves heat, so we must plant late in the year. The roots are short, so it needs water. Our spring and summer make the plant grow tall, but it may not survive a winter planting. There are other breeds of maize—”
“And how do you know this?” Aloy asked with a laugh.
“Obin asks the foreign traders for me. Do you disapprove?”
“How could I?” Aloy asked, even as she wondered at this Obin. “I can find you more information if you’d like.”
“And more seeds?”
“I’ll look out for you.”
“I don’t have anything to repay you with.”
Aloy studied this woman and smiled. “I don’t need payment.”
Vin made as if to leave. “Please come by. My father would like to hear about your quest.”
“How are they?”
“Better now that the rainy season has passed.”
“Should I hunt?”
“Boar would be welcome. Father thinks we should bulk our jerky stores.”
“I will.” Aloy watched Vin go and wondered how she could bridge such a gap or if she wanted to.
She killed a boar, butchered it, and took it to Ast, who sat by the smokehouse as he stripped the flesh and told her how to position those strips in the interior. Aloy begged off after, finding Teb and spending much of the day helping him tan leather.
“Are you well?” he asked her finally.
Aloy thought of All-Mother, of GAIA, and of Vin. “Does Vin have a mate?”
Teb’s surprise slipped into a gentle understanding smile. “No. She won’t have anyone. Kierse, Gabo, and Foma have all courted her. Obin asked, and Haim never made it past her father.”
There had been some female names in that mix. “She told them ‘no’.”
“How does a Nora court another Nora?”
“How does a Carja or Oseram or Banuk?”
“Trinkets and wealth, asking the father. I don’t know about Banuk. Probably hunt a big machine down.”
“People are people.” Teb shrugged one shoulder. “Provide for the family, and the mating is natural. If the one being courted likes being courted. Most know when to head off the courting. Sometimes people mistake generosity for interest too.”
“I see.” Aloy looked at the fat she was stripping from the fox hide and wondered if she did.
There was no tarrying. She entered the facility that evening after taking a quiet tea with Teersa. Then she moved deeper into the facility to find the recording that GAIA created. There was code buried in the video, enough to give her pause.
She lowered herself into the core, turned on the preliminary power—a last reserve, perhaps hidden for this very purpose—and extracted a memory from infinitesimally small moments prior to GAIA’s corruption.
That data transferred into her waiting shell, and Aloy sat beside it as the facility went dark around her once more. She carefully patched in her Focus.
She had more work to do.
If GAIA had come online, Aloy probably would have charged out of Mother’s Watch back to GAIA prime without a second thought. With her failure, the urge to leave didn’t outweigh the urge to stay.
Vin stood as Aloy approached. “There’s food.”
Aloy kept GAIA’s core next to her, and she ate beside it, quietly listening to the conversation over food. They had a new addition in their stew that night: golden corn kernels that were a lovely sweet pop in each mouthful. Perhaps wheat could be next, and then there would be bread.
Bread and beer.
She hadn’t realized she’d fallen asleep until Vin gently touched her shoulder. “Come to bed.”
The core was heavy, but it settled easily into the nook that Vin made for her things. The furs were warm, and Vin even warmer. As Aloy faded into sleep, she wondered if Vin would take comfort in the sound of her breathing.
They went together up to the house in the mountain late the next evening with the intention of staying overnight. Aloy gathered a bunch of tiny purple flowers, and she spread them over Rost’s grave when they arrived.
“Are you well?” Vin asked her.
“I thought I’d know what to do with myself after I defeated HADES. The Metal Devil. But… I hope I’m doing the right thing.”
“You help. That can’t be wrong. You feed us, bring Teb furs for his trade, and help those most others wouldn’t help.”
“I don’t do enough.”
“I can’t be tied down, Vin.”
Vin stepped back as if startled. She nodded. “I know.”
“I’ll just keep leaving.”
“We try to think of when you arrive, not when you leave. It’s not for me or anyone to judge your quest.”
Aloy swallowed and shook her head. She sat down by the fire pit and felt a melodramatic moment of despair. “I have no right to make a claim on any part of the tribe.”
“Shouldn’t the tribe be the judge of that?” Vin continued to stand almost confrontationally. “We claim you. Even if you say you don’t belong to us, you do, and you always will. Now put it from your mind and rest. This place is safe.”
Not with Vin here. Aloy wasn’t safe from her own thoughts.
When she left the Sacred Lands again, she listened to Ella Ponte’s message again and again. She wished there was more to Ella’s story, but they were her last words. Aloy spoke aloud into the night air after listening to the recording twice: “What would you have done if you had more time?”
She used to wonder why Ella hid her feelings, but Aloy understood now. It was vulnerability, uncertainty, excitement, and anticipation. She thought of Vin often and got much less work done than she should. Finally, Aloy locked GAIA’s copy into the vault, set it to be accessed only by someone with her genetic makeup, and descended from the mountain.
Meridian offered little appeal. She traveled north of the city and found herself in Free Heap.
“Ah, Aloy is back,” Petra greeted with a wide, honest smile.
“Hello, Petra. How have things been?”
“Well enough. Our cannons bark louder than they did before, and our scraps are still plentiful.” Petra studied her for a long moment. “You seem troubled, Aloy Machine Hunter.”
“I’m nothing if not personal.” Petra’s wink gave Aloy an abrupt laugh. She continued with a good natured grin. “Ah, rejection in its purest form: laughter.”
Later, when darkness had fallen and Petra and Aloy shared a drink by the fire, Aloy found words. “Love is messy.”
“Are you in love, little fire-hair?”
“I think so.” She winced. “A Nora.”
“Is it bad?”
“There’s the little fact of the Sacred Lands.”
“Is that still a thing? Nora are a funny people.”
“They…worship me there. They think a machine of the past is their goddess and birthed me to lead the tribe.”
Petra’s gaze sharpened. “Does your nameless lover worship you?”
Therein was the issue. “No. But that belief system is unattractive.”
“Why not tell them? All of them?”
“You can’t tell someone who has their eyes and ears closed.”
“And your lover? Have you tried?”
“I’ve tried enough with others. Is it fair to destroy someone’s belief system?”
“Can you love your lover even if they remain ignorant?”
Aloy considered the back of her hands. Scars crisscrossed her knuckles, and her tendons stood out sharply, easily traced to the bunched muscles of her forearms. Calluses raised her fingertips, strong from climbing. She was birthed from the memory of an ancient woman and wanted to restore the very engineers of their world, all on the hope of long-dead people and a corrupted man-crafted piece of software.
She thought of Vin and wondered what Vin saw when she looked at Aloy’s hands. Wondered what she thought when people called Aloy ‘Anointed’. She pictured her dancing through her corn fields, singing, awash with golden light. Vin was not stupid, and she was pragmatic enough to push past old boundaries.
But she could never leave the Sacred Lands, and she answered to a tribe that cast out its criminals and curious in one.
Aloy had to see her again.
Petra clapped her shoulder and squeezed. “I know that look. Love’s love, and sometimes you have to just let it wash over you and sweep you away. Sometimes it remains when that rush fades; sometimes it doesn’t. Why not see where it takes you, Aloy? You’re too young for regrets.”
She shot a goose just outside Mother’s Heart. It was a luxury, rarely hunted when easier to kill turkey could practically be grabbed with bare hand. The feathers were also coveted. She gathered apple, onion, and lemongrass to stuff the bird. It was best roasted, catching the fat drippings to help flavor lean meat like rabbit or turkey.
Rost had always been particular about the geese they’d hunted. A rare kill, he’d say, should be cooked better than a rabbit thrown in a pot with water.
Only Ast was home when she walked wearily up to the house. He smiled tightly to see her with her offering. Other than his quiet greeting, they exchanged no words.
Aloy defeathered the bird, carefully keeping the down feathers for stuffing warm clothing or bedding. The flight feathers she stored for bows and arrows. She set up a hot fire, prepared the carcass, and set it over the fire to cook slowly.
When Ast provided corn and potato and golden squash, she fried them in a bit of the goose drippings. From her bag, she produced Meridian wine, which Ast sampled without protest or asking about its source.
He looked at the feast and the wine skin in his hand and sighed. “This is for my daughter, isn’t it?”
Aloy hadn’t considered it until that moment. Provide for the family, and the mating comes naturally. She swallowed.
Ast continued. “She ran others off soon enough. Told me she could provide for us, that she didn’t need someone helping just to get access to her furs at night. She hasn’t run you off. Or are you more persistent?”
“She hasn’t asked me to stop.”
“Do you love her?”
“I’ve been waiting my whole life to know, to know someone would be inside me forever. And I felt that when I looked at her.”
Ast studied her. “Are you going to take her away, out of the Sacred Lands?”
“No. I could never take her from her family.”
“We’ll be your family too if you’re her mate.”
Aloy nodded jerkily. “You’re all important to me too.”
“You get tired of being worshipped?”
The odd question made her laugh. “I hate it.”
“And you take criticism.”
“I snip back, but yeah, if it’s right.”
“Here’s criticism: be here more than you’re out there. And if you have another mate outside of these lands, take your goose and go.”
“There’s no one else.”
“Not even on that thing?” He pointed at her ear, and she touched her Focus. She nodded. “Not even on this thing.”
Later, the children came home, raced happy circles around Aloy, and whined about waiting to eat. Yin arrived next, her hands dyed blue from her fabrics, and she said very little as she studied the offering on the fire.
When Vin arrived, she studied the food and then studied Aloy. Her smile was slow. “I didn’t see you.”
So it would be normal, Aloy thought. “You have another field?”
“On the other side of the mountain. Was your journey good?”
“It was as safe as it can be.”
The children made it difficult to talk, so they didn’t. The adults sampled the wine, and the goose was little more than bones and drippings when they and their neighbors finished it. As soon as the children were put to bed, the adults slipped away too, and Aloy found herself alone with Vin outside the house.
Vin studied the house as if it held secrets. “I’ve asked Teersa if we can grow berries too. Having food stores will help keep them from spending their days gathering. If we can just give them a few years learning trade instead of picking berries, we may have more skilled tradesmen.”
“I was always jealous of the children. A few berries earned so much praise.”
Vin reached out and touched Aloy’s hairline. “I wish I could have stopped the first rock.”
Aloy looked at Vin, seeing her once more for the first time. It was a second knowing, looking into Vin's clear brown eyes beside the crackling fire. “You stopped Bast from throwing the second.”
“You were better than all of us. I knew it as soon as you dropped that rock.”
“No. No, I’m not. I—”
Vin kissed her, and it was nothing like Aloy had imagined. It was like the unmistakable groan of a Sawtooth in the tall grass, the glitter of a burning arrowhead streaking towards her as she jumped from cover, the frozen moment that her fingers slipped from a handhold scaling a cliff, and the first sour taste of wine from an old skin in the belt of another traveler. She was falling, tumbling, with no more control than a human atop a Thunderjaw.
Except Vin was there to catch her.
Vin’s hand was warm and a little moist against her cheek, and her skin smelled of the fat of the goose and the metallic scent of earth. Vin stripped the danger from Aloy's surge of fear and turned it to breathless elation. Aloy kissed her again, focused in this moment as much as when she thrust her spear to override a hissing Ravager. She opened her mouth when Vin asked her to, and she was shaky with that pleasure too.
“Will you have me? Just me?” Aloy asked her when they parted an eternity of timeless moments later.
“Yes," Vin said quietly. "I will have just you, just Aloy.”
That night, Aloy fell asleep to the sound of Vin’s breaths, but she faced her, and their fingers were intertwined. Love would need time and cultivation, but for Aloy, love was worth everything. Elisabet had gifted her with the knowledge of her mistakes, and Aloy would not repeat them.