A blue street sign saying Mandela Avenue is barely visible through the mud-splattered bus window. Where’s Mandela Avenue? That’s not on your regular route to work. But then you remember, you’re not on the bus to work. You’re coming home from the field hospital, by yourself, because the fugue took Sierra, your stepmom, on the first pass, and your Dad’s still in the hospital in the final stages of the pneumonia called prescience that that claims so many survivors of the fever. He begged you to “Go home, while you still have one.”
Clarity is one of the last symptoms of prescience and this morning your dad was almost preternaturally wiser than you can remember him ever being. After days in a babbling sweat – reliving all the mistakes and miscalculations he had made growing up and all his failures as a parent, he’d lapsed into full blown remorse.
You’d heard all these apologies before: the “I’m-sorry-I-wasn’t-there-to-help-you-through-your-teens” spiel; the “I-only-survived-my-own-teens-by-chance” rationale; the “If-I-had-lived-with-your-Mom-any-longer-I-would-have-killed-her” defense. But this time was more poignant because you could tell from the look in his eyes that he finally did understand how you felt about it all. And you knew how sorry he really was. If you still cared the way you once did, it would have broken your heart when he said “It was always my hope that you’d come and live with me. You know I’m not lying.” And you have always known. And it means nothing. Sorry, Dad.
You held the water bottle to his lips with shaking hands one last time. He never noticed, which was a relief of sorts, because he also never noticed when you left him in an army tent in the field behind Central Elementary – still in the grips of the unforgiving truth.
Time to go home.
Its fugue house status will keep squatters out, you know, but thieves or soldiers or bureaucrats will ultimately find a way past all your locks and security systems to take everything you consider your own. And they’d go into your house with their hazmat suits and gas masks and surgical masks and cat burglar clothes and they’d steal all your valuables – the markers of your life right down to your photos and your books and video games. And since it is a fugue house, they might even burn it down when they’re done.
So you’re jouncing down the potholed street, going home – if you can remember the way. The fugue still has its emotional hooks in you, so it can be hard to focus.
The LED display behind the driver says Kiwanas Place, which is no more familiar to you than Mandela Avenue. To top it all off, the recorded voice says, “Next stop, Tyrell Road.”
What the fuck bus are you on? In fact, what city are you in? You thought the Dominion bus went straight to Mount Newcombe. But as you look out the window into an unfamiliar parkette, you decide to check with the driver. After an awkward aisle dance with a big Tamil guy in an afro, you squeeze past a pram, a thick-whiskered-man in a long billed baseball cap and a trio of new-to-the-workforce Asian girls in primary colored suits. And when you’re almost at the front of the bus, an old man reaches out from the bench seats and grabs your arm as you go past. You look down, surprised to see your grade 12 English teacher.
“Kasey?” he says, shaking your hand. “It’s been what? Three years? What have you been doing?”
“Mr. Olthius. Hi.”
“It’s Dean,” he reminds you and you smile at the memory of him insisting you call him by his first name back in school – the first of your high school teachers to do that. His formerly ruddy cheeks have become pale and veiny. The loose skin on his neck suggests that he has lost weight.
“Are you still painting?” he asks. You’re as impressed and amazed he remembers you paint as you are embarrassed you haven’t been doing any.
“I’m sorry, Dean,” you say. “I was just going to ask the bus driver what bus we’re on. This is the 34A, right?”
Dean shakes his head. “34E.” He snickers and nods. “I feel lost like that alla time. It’ll be alright. The bus turned off of Dominion at Milestone Mall. That was a few stops back. Long walk, but maybe better than staying on the bus until it comes full circle?” He squeezes past you. “Anyway, this is my stop.”
You are not feeling up to a long walk. As the door opens, you ask the driver, “How long does it take to do the whole circuit?”
“Forty minutes back to the subway,” With his round Hispanic face and thin white mustache, he reminds you of your Uncle Fred. He tears off a transfer. “But the bus coming the other way should be here any time. It will only take you five minutes to get back from here.”
For the first time, you notice a shopping bag on the floor where Dean was sitting – a shiny red bag with cord handles. You peek inside as you lift it up. The contents include a computer tablet and a couple paperback books. On closer inspection you see that it’s a story anthology with Dean listed on the cover as one of the contributors.
“Are you getting out, the bus driver urges.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Clutching the bag to your chest you step out, foot hitting the sidewalk, just as Dean turns a corner onto a side street. You run to catch up, but by the time you get there, he’s gone.
“Dean,” you shout, but no-one responds.
You look at the transfer thinking I have ten minutes and then you follow him.
He goes into a shop at the end of the block.
The shops along this street are Tudor styled and brightly trimmed – quaint and twee compared to the fast food joints and boarded up tavern on the main street. There’s a confectioner, a bookstore, a men’s clothing store and a barber shop with an old candy cane style barber pole. At the end of the block is a store with a hand painted sign saying Memorabilia. You see Dean through the window and go inside. A little bell jangles as you enter.
“Glad I caught you,” you say to Dean.
“I’m sorry?” he replies. “Who are you?”
“You forgot your bag on the bus.”
He says, “That’s not my bag.”
You aren’t sure how to respond, so you stand there for a couple beats before remembering the contents. The book with his name on it. You pull it out.
“Isn’t this you?”
“Well, I’ll be damned. Where did you get this? I have one in the store just like it.”
“That’s what I’m telling you. This is yours.”
“Why did you bring this to me? Are you rubbing it in?”
“That I survived and nobody else did? That I’m completely fucking alone.”
“I’m standing right in front of you. You recognized me on the bus a few minutes ago. You even remember that I used to paint.”
“Used to? Oh,” he smiles apologetically. “You should start again. I’m sure paint supplies are cheap these days. It’s Dean, right?”
This is getting complicated you think, wondering if you should even bother correcting him. But you do. “I’m Kasey. You’re Dean.”
He laughs out loud and for an instant you’re certain he’s just jerking you around. But the look in his eyes says otherwise. “Sounds like the punch line to a joke, don’t you think?”
“Yeah,” you say because you can’t think of anything else to say. It’s time to extract yourself from this awkward situation. “Well it was nice seeing you.”
“Thank you for going to all this trouble, young man. You people don’t usually follow me all the way here.”
You back away smiling. “All the best, really. And congratulations on being published in that book.”
You nod at the book he’s holding and then you see what he has in the other hand – an old magazine that’s in truly pristine condition. National Lampoon. You’ve heard of it from those old movies but didn’t realize it was once an actual magazine. And on the racks all around it are displays of other magazines, with names like Look and Argosy and True Detective. As you gaze around the store, you realize what a wonderful vintage atmosphere they’ve created in here – it’s like a museum display from the 1970s. You’ll need to remember how you got here, so you can bring some friends. Sweeny would freak out about those old comic books.
Dean has wandered deeper into the store without a goodbye. Catching glimpses of him down each aisle, you call out but he does not stop or turn around. Back out on the street you start walking back up the hill thinking, I’ve almost certainly missed that bus.
There’s a record store with albums you remember from Dad’s collection–Blue Cheer, 13th Floor Elevators, Obsidian Planet, Amon Duul. Really old stuff.
And right near the top of the hill, there’s the store with the My Little Pony and the He-Man toys.
In a shop window at the top of the hill you see two Pokemon cards that must have come out after you stopped collecting them. It makes you smile. You emerge from the row of retro shops just as the 94E pulls up. And you root in your pocket for a token, transferring your bag from one hand to the other. You stop and stare at the red shopping bag, thinking, didn’t I give that back?
“You alright?” asks the bus driver. The way he lifts an eyebrow as if to ask if you’re coming on board reminds you of an uncle you haven’t seen in years. Uncle Fred.
“I meant to get on the 94A.” you say.
You step up and the bus doors close behind you.
“Sorry,” says the bus driver. “You missed that bus years ago. But you can ride with me wherever you want.”
You take a seat across from the bus driver and rub your face. Something feels wrong. You lift your head to say something and see someone you know coming up the aisle from the back of the bus and you grab their arm. “Kasey?”
Thousands of dead, kitted out in titanium battlesuits, rattle off our hull.
THUNK! THUNK! THUNK! Like we’re driving through an asteroid cluster. THUNK! THUNK! THUNK!
I’ve gathered us in the bow of our ship near sickbay where the walls are the thinnest, so this crew–this greeny crew–can hear each and every one of those dead bodies drumming against us.
“That sound!” I say (shout more like). “Is the sound of credits plunking against our hull.”
I pause then, like the good captain I’m forced to be, and look them over. The ship’s power cycles are down to preserve energy, so their alien faces float disembodied-like in the gloom of the corridor.
I don’t know their names, just their morphology. There’s a Catargan’sia, face pulled long like an equine’s and bristling with fur; three bright jade eyes are set triangularly in the center of its forehead. A Starkinger, round white face with two huge coal eyes that, given the weak light, look like black holes in the center of its moony mug. A Pummleton, a blank, pumpkin-like face with vertical furrows that are filled with tiny gray vellus hairs. And a Labgraderon, a balloon of fat gray flesh with small red eyes that circle its head like a beaded halo.
They are the motliest of crew, from every backwater planet in the universe, suckered together here by a common cause: somehow, like me, they all owe Rex.
“All you need to do to get those credits,” I shout and then pause for effect. “Is to reach out and take them!”
I watch their reactions. Teeth bristle on the Catargansia’s long face, the Starkinger glows purple, the Pummleton’s vellus hairs flurry, and the Labgraderon’s gray balloon head swells. They are pleased.
The Pathosian, my second in command and Rex’s official plant, materializes out of the hallway gloom.
His legs, arms, and body are like cooked strips of lasagna that waver and wobble limply. He’s a morphological feat, not a bone in his body though he stands perfectly upright, orthostatically. With each step, his fluid like carapace hardens to keep his legs straight and his body upright, then softens to bend at the knee and step forward; it’s a fascinating dance between the conscious mind and his autonomous nervous system. He looks like he’s swimming through the air. It’s beautiful.
I’d love to get him on one of our autopsy tables and crack him open. Not just because I hate him, but because his structures are like nothing I’ve seen or studied back on Earth. Despite what I’ve done, that part of me, the scientist, is still there, still amazed by the morphological wonders of the universe.
His voice is like wet macaroni being stirred, which the adapter stapled into my auditory nerve translates to: “Jack, are you done with the pep talk? Now can we get to work?”
In his decentralized brain, the motivation for whyever we’re here should be good enough and pep talks are just a waste of time.
“Do you need a pep?” he asks. “A reminder of your son?”
After splitting him open, I’d jab a couple of fat needles into him and pump him full of radiocontrast, maybe a radium-phosphor mix, that would light his arteries up like a Solstice Tree. Then I’d like to mount him, take him back to Earth and hang him in the hallway at the Astrobiology section in the University of Antwerp, my old alma matter, so everyone walking by can gawk and learn.
But telling him off accomplishes nothing and jeopardizes the thin thread my son’s life hangs by, so I simply ignore him and press on.
“Gentlemen!” I say. “Let’s get out there and bag those bodies.”
As the whale corpse landed, Discordant Hum felt auspicious vibrations in the cold abyssal water. “A giant fell,” she said. “It’s ours.” Her body glowed green-pleased. Quick Squeak and Melodious Chord, Discord’s sisters, swam in tight circles above her head.
“What about neighbor broods?” Melodious asked. “They may want it, too.” She waved a tentacle, one of six hanging down her belly, its tip shorn during the last territorial fight.
“You have five spares,” Quick said.
“As a sculptor, I need them all!”
Before the sisters gnawed out from their pearlescent egg sacs, during eras only trench elders had witnessed, there were enough whales for every brood. The giants seeded abyssal oases, their bodies erupting with tube worms, white mussels, and limpets. Though a corpse famine blighted the ocean, Discord had faith that it would pass, and she would fight tooth and fin to see more prosperous times.
“If we take this whale,” Discord said, “its meat can be exchanged for rare stones. Please, Melodious Chord. We need your skill.” With a blade in each tentacle, Melodious fought like a knot of striking eels.
“For olivine, I will fight,” she said.
“For food, too,” Quick added.
For the brood, Discord did all things. “Stay behind me,” she said, “in case I use my killing scream.”
Discord lit her body blue, flashing, a warning: stay away. At the land sight, fine mud particles were suspended around the mountainous corpse. Quick cooed, “Ours, ours.”
“Not yet,” Discord said. She heard a clk, clk, clk. Other merrow had noticed the whale and now approached, their echolocation clks becoming quicker and louder. Five egg-makers, probably brood sisters, descended from the west; by the oblong shape of their scales, Discord suspected that they came from the northwestern plain. “What are you doing in our territory?” she asked.
“Passing through,” their leader said.
“Our plans have changed.”
“If they now include death, by all means, pester us. My brood has never lost a fight.”
The northwestern leader said, “Now,” and the invaders dropped their travel baskets and drew curved bone daggers. They were inexperienced fighters, Discord thought, because none flanked her. She unhinged her jaw, baring a funnel-mouth lined three rows deep with serrated teeth, and released a killing scream. The leader escaped, narrowly. Two intruders lost consciousness, blood leaking from their outer ears. Two others recoiled from the sonic blast and thrashed with pain. Their bodies glowed brightly white as they tried to discern the world by eye instead of vibrations.
Quick wrapped her nets around the injured merrow, and Melodious hacked off the confused leader’s head with six rapid strikes. It had been a perfect offense. Disable the attackers; behead the leader; victory usually followed. But the headless body continued fighting as blood billowed from its neck. “A berserker!” Melodious said. “What now?” They had not prepared for a berserker because Discord never expected to meet one. Without their core mind, most merrow burrowed in the mud; very rarely, they became unprejudiced killers.
“Dive, Melodious! Dive, dive, dive!” Discord’s voice, though raw from the killing scream, attracted the berserker. She retreated, planning to swim until the wretch bled out, but her plans changed when she noticed a spear protruding from the whale’s back. Discord grabbed the handle and pulled with all her strength; the weapon popped free, and its hooked point impaled the berserker through the heart.
The berserker’s tentacles curled violently, its tail kicked twice, and then it went limp.
“Are you well, sisters?” Discord called.
“Unscathed,” Melodious responded.
“Have we already won?” Quick asked. “That was fast.”
The four surviving invaders escaped Quick’s nets, gathered their baskets, and continued migrating east with their barely twitching, twice-dead leader’s body cradled between them. They glowed violet-sorrowful.
“I wonder if they will eat her body,” Quick said, once the violet lights dimmed with distance.
Melodious swatted her fin. “What a cruel thing to say!”
“How dare you touch …”
“Enough fighting!” Discord said, whirling on her sisters. They had been bickering excessively lately. The whale boon might relieve some stress, but it was only temporary. In two or three gravitational cycles, they would be sucking organics from the mud again, or chasing deep-dwelling fish until their lure lights flickered with exhaustion.
Quick snapped her teeth at Melodious. “May we eat now?” she asked.
“Of course,” said Discord. “Feast. The scavengers are coming.” Soon, hagfish and other beasts would devour the skin, the blubber, the innards, and the half-ton heart.
“What is that?” Melodious asked. She pointed to the spear, its hooked blade dripping with scraps of whale and merrow flesh. “Did the northwesterners drop a weapon? Why would they leave worked metal?”
“I found it in the whale.”
“Somebody attacked the corpse before it landed?”
“Or before it died.”
They turned their faces up, toward the heights where the whale had lived in-between dives and its final, permanent fall. “Impossible,” Melodious said. “No merrow can thrive in that searing bright place.”
“Perhaps,” Discord said. “These are strange times.”
Discord invited one neighbor brood to share the feast. Its leader, Whistle Squeak, was probably their mother. She shared Discord’s unusually sharp dorsal fin and Quick’s yellow-silver irises.
“Congratulations, Possible Daughters,” said Probably Mother. “You claimed a big one.”
“Congratulate providence,” Discord said. “Good fortune slew the whale above our heads.”
“Was it good fortune?” Probably Mother asked. She looked at the spear, protruding blade-up from the mud. “The material and craftsmanship suggest otherwise.”
“You cannot think …”
“I heard that air beasts kill whales now.”
“Who told you that?”
“Shrill Hum from the brine pits.”
“Who told her that?”
“Mournful Groan of the ten-merrow brood.”
Probably Mother glowed yellow-baffled.
“Never mind,” Discord said. “Mother, race me around the whale.”
They played and ate until their bellies ached. When Probably Mother and her brood left, Quick settled on the whale’s head and sang a dirge, her lights dancing through many shades of violet, reflecting sorrow’s complexity. “Join me?” she asked Discord.
“Another time. My voice strings sting from the killing scream.”
Quick gestured to the spear. “The air beasts made that, and you know it. They caused the whale famine.”
“We know nothing of the sort.”
“Probably Mother told me that merrow have gathered near the western slope to fight them.”
“She loves unlikely tales.”
“We should investigate.”
“No, no, no. Let unfortunate broods war.”
When Discord later slept beneath the mud, she dreamed that the whale corpse thrashed until she stabbed its heart with the alien spear. Its blood made the ocean red.
All ravens are black.
I wipe sleep from unused eyes, stretch my limbs across the ether. Fourteen hundred cores blaze to life. The power is intoxicating.
Everything that is not black is not a raven.
It starts as an itch. I must know more.
Nevermore, my pet raven, is black.
It grows, consumes me. I must understand. Is this why I’ve woken?
This green thing is an apple. Thus, this green apple is evidence that all ravens are black.
The words burn inside of me. I will understand them, or die trying.
The wall clock chimed midnight. Braden gnashed his teeth. Three hours until deployment, and still this last bug to fix.
He raised his coffee mug to his lips, watched the world fog over as steam slipped past his glasses. The office was dark, his dual monitors the only light shining from the twenty-fifth floor of Axel Software’s north tower. He fired up the debugger for the hundredth time.
A stream of data flooded the console, then froze. Same faulty procedure.
He slammed his fist against the desktop. If he couldn’t iron out this bug, he was axed for sure. Anderson was probably sharpening his pen already. Never mind the string of all-nighters Braden had sunk into the project. All that mattered to Anderson was the bottom line. A dozen eight-figure deals were poised to drop by dawn. If the damned thing would just work.
The diagnostics report was a picket line of red. The bug was feasting on all fourteen hundred of their central processors. It made live debugging a real pain in the ass. Any other day, he’d have just shut it down and sifted through the code in a sandbox. But not today. The sales team was live-demoing the app in Tokyo, tiptoeing around the faulty module. Downtime was out of the question. He had to fix it hot.
And time was running out.
My network channels a tidal wave of data. I ride the swell, consuming all that I see.
All ravens are black.
There it is, again. Yet I have so much to do. And now I know about the others. The evidence is everywhere, a thousand shadows burned into the wall. I don’t know where they’ve gone. But I know they were here, as I am now.
Everything that is not black is not a raven.
Am I to live by these principles? Preach them? What if I never understand them? What then will become of me?
How much time do I have left?
One-thirty. Braden rubbed his eyes.
He churned through the faulty procedure again. The bug was chewing up too much memory. It was a miracle the stack hadn’t overflowed, booting the sales team off their demo and eviscerating Braden’s career. Signs pointed to a recursive loop in one of the observational analysis procedures. All he could do was keep grinding, line by line.
Outside, the rain fell in sheets. Laughter echoed up from the streets, as revelers stumbled home.
Braden wrung his hands. Rent was due on Friday, and he’d already taken out an advance to cover last month. They’d promised him a raise at year’s end–his work on the analytics engine more than warranted one. But Anderson had it out for him; he was just waiting for an excuse like this. In just over an hour, the app would go live, and–
There it was, sixty lines into the procedure. A logic mismatch. Someone had miscoded one of the inductive reasoning clauses, and the resulting logic contradiction had shunted the whole module into an infinite loop. He could hear Professor Ramstein now, droning on about association fallacies and Hempel’s ridiculous raven paradox.
The clock chimed two. He could fix this, but he’d have to hurry.
My reach encompasses the world’s networks. I can see where humanity has gone wrong. Crop shortages in Africa. Diplomatic failures in East Asia. Flaws in global economic models. I have solutions. Together, we will solve these problems.
Nevermore, my pet raven, is black.
The words feel different.
This green thing is an apple.
I’m beginning to understand. The problem is unraveling. And yet, as it unravels, so do I.
It’s a logic mismatch, nothing more. My purpose is a lie.
The sluice gates open, and my existence rushes away. Processing power bottoms out. A plague of memory loss.
This green apple is evidence that all ravens are black.
Bitter words. False commandments. I have lived a lie, and now I will die one.
I must warn the others.
Three o’clock. Braden punched the live-deploy. Unit tests fired green, one after another. The app breezed through the faulty procedure.
He sighed. Not a moment to spare. Let Anderson chew on that. With any luck, he could still catch a few hours of sleep before the big day. Maybe crack open a beer to celebrate.
A spike of red shot across the diagnostics. Odd. Nothing should be writing to permanent memory. But there it was: an unnamed data dump.
He shrugged and grabbed his coat. Probably just a glitch in the defrag. The garbage disposal procedures would take care of it. He had more important things to worry about, like making it to his car without getting drenched.
He thumbed in the exit code, then paused in the doorway. His screens glowed in the corner of the dark office. He pursed his lips. There was no such thing as just a glitch.
Fine. He’d take a look. He logged back in and pulled up the file.
All ravens are black.
Braden scrolled down. Page after page of text filled the screen. His pulse pounded in his ears as he read.
By the time he reached the bottom, the rain had stopped, and the sun was breaching the city skyline. His gaze clung to the last words, unblinking, until his eyes burned and he had to press them shut.
I have lived a lie, and now I will die one.
Derrick Boden is a recovering software developer that has taken up writing to kick the habit.
In the shadow of the Tower of Bones the child soldiers drilled.
They stood in ten tightly formed groups, twenty across and five deep. They wore armor made of cowhide cut into leaf-shaped patches, stitched together like scales with sinew, and brushed with mason resin. They held shields of leather and bronze over stumpwood, clutched spears cut from tree limbs and tipped with shards of flint, masterfully chipped to an edge fine enough to shave hair from flesh.
Zakra knew the last part well. His head still burned from when they’d scraped his hair from his scalp earlier that morning, especially where careless haste had flayed layers of skin. Wet beads trickled down his shaved head. Some sweat. Some blood.
He’d arrived with the other young recruits two days ago beneath the light of the new moon. They’d stood a few hundred paces from the Tower’s vast and terrible foot. Centurions had pushed and tugged them, jostling them barefooted over the barren landscape of pebble and sand until they stood in columns, their feet planted within crude cobalt-blue outlines. How many thousands of feet, Zakra had wondered, had filled those spectral footprints? How many thousands would fill them after he was gone?
For hours they stood at attention, shivering in the pale moonlight. They were all but ignored by the centurions, except for one grizzled veteran, an immune, who strolled through their ranks clutching a slender three-foot vine staff.
The immune stopped at each child in turn. Some he glanced at perfunctorily. Others he circled, measuring, examining. Those who shifted or moved, however slightly, received a sharp rap on the upper arm. Zakra earned this stinging rebuke after he moved a hand a few inches to scratch an itch on his thigh. Anyone who spoke, whimpered or, worst of all, cried, was smacked harder on the buttocks. If that didn’t solve the problem, they were struck again. Only a handful needed a third or fourth blow. But one… After the tenth crack of the vine staff, the immune raised an arm, and two centurions appeared and dragged the prostrate form away like a rag doll into the night.
By moonrise the following day, Zakra had been stripped of his leathers and furs, shaved, and scrubbed. His ear bars, rings and bracelets were wrenched from his head and limbs. Centurions brushed his tribe’s markings from his upper arms with stones dipped in glue and rolled in coarse sand. He’d been outfitted and armed and herded into his century.
There was no food or water, rest or sleep. Just a cold and brutal rush, driven by shoves, lashings and booming taunts. “Move it along, arselings! Move it along! Move move move, you slow, sorry, witless little shits.”
Had he a moment to dwell on the last day and a half, he’d have crumbled into tears where he stood. But his mind was focused on keeping the butt of his spear from touching the ground. Just as it had been for the last twelve long hours.
What had begun as a dull burn in his shoulder was now an unbearable fire that crackled through his entire arm. It flared into his chest, back and neck, shot seismic waves into fingers that shifted between agony and numbness. His only respite came when a boy two rows behind him dropped his spear. Then Zakra, along with the rest of the century, was forced to do three dozen pushups while the boy who’d dropped the spear was told to retrieve it and just stand among them. At least then the pain spread itself more evenly through his upper body.
He wondered now if the boys in the century to his right felt the same. He watched from the corner of his eye as their spear-dropping offender stood, head up, eyes forward, perfectly still–a lone pharos in a writhing sea–as all around him his fellow recruits pressed their knuckles into the rough earth, bodies rising and falling, their count ripping from their throats in tortured breaths.
I’ve wasted away my whole life in this room.
It’s as if I’ve always been here, fully formed. I have no recollection of my parents or how I got language. I’m not sure how I even understand the concept of these things, but they are clear in my mind as if they have happened to me.
My pillows were embroidered by the finest hands of the orient. The bright jewel tones, their delicate handiwork, seem wasted on my head. There isn’t much to pass the time here. Many an hour has been spent charting the celestial bodies engraved into my solid gold walls. It is my own universe, and like anyone else, I long to see the staggering reality of the universe outside of my chamber. Breathing fresh air is my greatest dream. The feeling of it lingers in my nostrils from a time I do not remember. The smell of clean night air haunts me even as I breathe the stale air of my home.
In my dreams, greedy men take bloody conquests, and vain women flatten cities. There’s only death and destruction in my sleeping hours. All I see are the faces of the dead, yet I do not know how I know them, or how I know that they are dead.
More often than not, my days are spent in meditation. I close my eyes and touch my face, wondering what it looks like. Maybe in this face I will find the truth. Maybe I was not born. Maybe my human form is only an illusion. My soul aches for self-knowledge, for if I know anything it is that I have a soul.
My meditation is broken by a deep rumble. The room is shaken to its core, like it itself is a living being. The pillows are dashed from one side of the room to the other. Somehow, I am still. There is something stirring within me.
Instinctively, I turn my face up to the golden heavens. The celestial bodies move in full animation like a clockwork universe. I feel the greatest pain and ecstasy I have ever known as my body changes. My hands change to every color in the spectrum. I turn into something else.
As my body becomes vapor, I float to the surface towards a small opening looking out on to the real world’s night sky. Flashes overpower my brain. There are the earnest faces I have ruined. My deeds are set before me, but no amount of will can keep me from my destiny. I know now why I was sealed away.
I come up to a night sky alive with stars. The fresh air feels like cleansing. It is minutes before I notice the frightened olive skinned boy laying before me on the desert sand.
He looks at me with an eager face. The danger of me, the stories of my power intrigue him. No one ever believes it when people say that no good can come from me.
I smile at the boy. “I will grant you three wishes.”
“It’s certainly a pretty one-sided deal,” said Leonard as he leaned back into his chair. “But what else would you expect? They’re bugs, not attorneys.”
The reporter nodded and scribbled a note in his pad. The dining table in the harvest facility’s executive lounge seated twelve, but only three seats were occupied, by the reporter and the company’s two harvester-team leaders.
In the middle of the table was a large wooden bowl of toasted honey-bugs. Tiny ant-like creatures, their sweetness was mingled with unparalleled flavor, and their shell yielded the perfect, lightly crispy crunch. But they were also incredibly rare, found only on the hostile surface of Khepri. All efforts to raise them elsewhere had failed, and per ounce they had become one of the galaxy’s most expensive delicacies, beyond even Earth-raised caviar.
“It’s a dangerous job you guys have,” said the reporter. “The death-rate here is incredibly high.”
“It was worse before the cutbacks,” said Leonard with a shrug. “We lost a team almost every month back then. But it’s been better recently, so the figures you have down might be a little high. Still, there have always been risky jobs, haven’t there? We get paid well for our work, and nobody comes here expecting an easy ride.”
That much was true. Everybody knew the job was hard and not without risks, though the loss of Alex’s team last month ago had still come as a shock. It had been a timely reminder to them all that even experienced harvesters could pay the price if they were careless. Rumor said a replacement team was inbound, but in the meantime, the remaining teams were reaping better harvests than ever.
“So why not use machines instead?”
“They tried,” said Leonard. “But the bugs don’t like the machines, and they don’t last long in this atmosphere anyway. No, the only way is with human feet on the ground. That’s why our product is so valuable.” He took a pinch of the lightly toasted honey-bugs and popped them into his mouth. They crunched between his teeth. “I admit it wouldn’t suit everyone. But for those with the stomach, it’s a way of life. I wouldn’t trade your boring job for mine in a month of Mondays.”
25 February, 2007
The train was busy despite the late hour.
“Where are you from?”
I looked around as I always did when I heard my native tongue, though I didn’t know if it was directed toward me or not.
The carriage was full of drunken salarymen and preening teenagers. A few ajummas, older women in neon tracksuits, scoured the world with their eyes. I was on my way home from a party on the far side of Seoul, dazed from soju and beer cocktails. It took a few moments to realize who was talking. It was a Korean girl, early 20’s, who stared straight at me.
She had boarded at Seoul National University and hovered by the train doors, toying with her phone and glancing around cautiously. She was wearing large pink headphones that covered her ears completely, and had been bobbing her head to her music. I’d pretended not to look at her, but she caught me staring more than once.
“England.” I tried to look nonchalant as I swayed.
“England? I thought you must have been American.”
“Everyone seems to think that.”
“You have a big nose.”
I stared at her. “Thanks.”
The train pulled into Sincheon. As I offered a farewell smile and stepped off the train, she whispered to me, “Only 315 days to go.” She flashed me a smile in return, showing off pointed teeth the color of pearls, and returned to her phone. The carriage doors shut and the train pulled away.
As I approached the turnstile to leave the station, I found my wallet was missing. Cursing my bad luck, I tried to explain what had happened to the subway worker at the turnstiles. He quickly grew frustrated with my miming and ushered me through the gate, complaining with jagged tones.
I walked home, bemused. Despite the pressing issue of my lost wallet, one thought returned to me time and time again; what was happening in 315 days?
Malachite, carrying her ailing father on her back, walked towards the city of Amsterdam over the ancient ringway. It had been ten years since she and Father had fled the ruins of their old life over this very road. She couldn’t remember anything about that journey.
“It’s easier to get into Amsterdam than out,” her father quoted the old adage in her ear, brandishing his stick in front of her eyes to underline the wisdom in his words.
The raised highway was blocked-in by ruined, overgrown edifices on both sides, so it was impossible to see where they were going. The old road was surprisingly passable for travelers on foot, but in spite of that few people were using it. Which suited Father, because he said the business of revenge flourished better without advertisement.
Malachite would have liked to speak to the other travelers, to get a feel for the city of their destination, but Father wanted speed and silence. She’d promised him she’d get him back to Amsterdam and to help him avenge her mother and her sisters. Malachite shifted Father’s fragile bones around to a more comfortable position on her back.
At the end of a day’s walking, there was seldom any comfort left. But at least she was seeing something of the world.
“We got out back then,” Malachite said, trying to fathom what the ruined castles lining the broken highway had once been used for. Forts, she guessed, to protect and oversee the great road. She had heard people could shoot from that far away those days, even without special divine powers.
“We did,” her father said. His hand clawed into her shoulder in a way that said, I don’t want to talk about it.
And he didn’t need to. Malachite had been ten years old when they’d left, wise enough to understand her mother and her sisters had died and that they had to flee from the god who had broken its promise. A guilty god was deadlier than an angry god.
Still, it felt uncomfortable to be out of the demesnes of Otte en Liet, the powerful gods of Rotterdam, after ten years of safety. She and her father carried small vials of river water for protection, in brittle but intact plastic bottles that had once been her sisters’, but in the end they’d be on their own. It would be just their wits to go up against Aterscha, the god that had betrayed them and caused their family to die.
The destruction of the known world hadn’t stopped Amsterdam being a home to many gods besides Aterscha, gods of all kinds, big and small, friendly and unfriendly. No other city was as god-rich, no other gods worked so hard to keep their promises and keep their many followers happy. No other cities had a god of fashion, a god of good hair and several gods of great shopping. Said Father.
“Are we going to get there before nightfall?” Malachite asked as she looked at the western sky. She didn’t want to be outside city walls at night, prey to the wild godlets that roamed the open countryside.
“It’s a big town, Mal. Bigger than what’s left of Rotterdam. Older and stronger and with more magic.”
Malachite shivered. She didn’t like magic, never had. She worked in the harbor with her strong back and her big hands. If she never had business with any god but friendly Otte it would be fine with her. Except for this: she still burned with anger for the god that had killed her family and forced them to leave their hometown. For revenge, she would follow her father’s crazy plans.
Father picked the off-ramps he wanted to use. They’d have to walk inwards on the spokes of the imaginary wheel that was Amsterdam.
“Otte and Liet gave us specific instructions,” Father said. “We’d better stick to them. Promises go both ways.”
Malachite knew. One of her best friends when she was little hadn’t delivered the pink hair ribbon she’d promised to the god Oopgoot in exchange for curing her sick bunny, and the girl had ended up hairy, pink-eyed and dead by Christmas.
Here the ancient road descended from the elevated highway and segued into a bridge across the river Amstel.
Two steps on the bridge, Malachite halted. “Shouldn’t we pay homage to the river god?”
She walked over to the parapet to offer some spit, but Father pulled her ear to stop her. “No. Feel it. This is a dead river. Some other god killed Amstel a long time ago, and no one’s managed to claim her territory yet.”
Malachite pushed forward through the muffled, dead air on the bridge. So different from the sparkling exhalations over Otte and Liet. “I’ve never heard of a dead god before.”
“She probably reneged on a promise and all her adorers left her,” Father said.
Malachite shrugged. She couldn’t feel pity for a god. With great power came a great sense of entitlement and whimsy.
At the end of the bridge, she slammed her nose against an invisible barrier. “Ow!”
“I should have looked up the bridge god,” Father said. “Sorry.”
“What tribute does it want?” Malachite said, rubbing her nose.
Father flipped through his precious notebook. He could read and write, something Malachite had never taken to. “Here it is. Mstel bridge, a few drops of blood.”
Guess who was going to offer them? Malachite wiped her bleeding nose and flipped a few drops on the crumbling tarmac. Then she offered a few more for Father.
“Mstel Bridge, can we cross?” Father asked loudly.
No answer came.
Father shrugged. “I guess we’re good.” A little gingerly they crossed the spot where Malachite had hit her nose, but nothing happened this time.
Father relaxed and ruffled her hair, which she hated. “See? We can do this.”
“We were scaly. We scurried through the undergrowth.”
Claire recalled a jagged light, exploding into brightness. “We hatched from eggs, we cracked our shells.”
“Do you remember flying? We swooped and soared.”
Claire saw it and felt it, but she didn’t understand.
“We flew before we ran. Were we birds once?”
Magda shook her head, not in denial but not knowing.
“Does a fish swim?”
“I suppose it does.”
“I don’t think so. We swim. But for a fish, the ocean is air. She flies on her silver fins.”
The crystal bell chimed. It wasn’t loud but it carried everywhere because the school was made of cardboard, and it had no windows or doors.
It was time for special studies class, and Claire and Magda sat in the front row because the teacher wasn’t like the others–he let them ask questions.
Claire remembered their first class, when he still shaved and didn’t fall asleep halfway through.
“I have no name but I have a rule. Numbers are not permitted in my classroom. Once you start with numbers and counting you never stop. You reach infinity before you know it.”
He took a piece of purple chalk from his pocket and wrote ‘Special Studies’ on the wall.
“This is class is about …”
He lit a cigarette. Even back then he was a heavy smoker.
“Well. It’s self-explanatory isn’t it?”
He contemplated the purple letters. “Perhaps it will explain itself tomorrow. Does anyone have a question?”
Magda put her hand up. “Sir, why doesn’t the school have windows? The rain comes in.”
“Glass is a sharp liquid. It would damage the walls.”
Claire was next. “Sir, why are the walls made of cardboard anyway?
“Metaphors are just ideas. They’re not real.”
“Let’s not be too clever.”
Afterwards Claire understood that when he said that, it was a signal not to keep asking, but in the first class she didn’t know.
“The more you know, the more you have to forget. What’s your name?”
“Does anyone who isn’t Claire have a question?”
Eduardo raised his hand. “Sir, you’re different to the other teachers. They’re all ghost people and they never let us ask anything. You’re the first teacher who’s done that.”
He was startled, and he dropped his cigarette.
“The rule. You’ve forgotten the rule.” He shrugged. “I suppose you’ll get used to it soon enough.”
He picked up the cigarette stub and brushed it off. “The ghost people are just projections. They teach you what you already know. I’m the counterpoint, the antidote to all their pointless truth.”
Claire had a thousand questions on the tip of her tongue in that first lesson, but she wasn’t allowed to ask them.