The Stray

Masura Kazamune rode untouched through the packed but silent street. The fingers of his right hand brushed against the scabbard of his sheathed sword, his left hand adjusting the position of two large sacks tied to his horse’s saddle. A soft drip accompanied the beast’s nimble steps. The bottoms of both bags were stained a dark red.

He ignored every stare, jaw set, focused instead upon the padding of his stallion’s hooves upon the parched earth. It seemed as if every man, woman, and child in that nameless backwater town had gathered to watch his return. Faces lined the building walls, the doorways, even peeked through the open windows. But none dared speak. Not in the presence of a man such as him.

His destination was a large structure at the end of the wide dirt street. The thatch on its sloped roof was new. Lean wooden columns supported the austere frame, built upon a foundation of assembled stones rather than stout stilts like the other nearby dwellings.

Masura squared his shoulders. In the old days, he had accompanied Lord Akano through many towns similar to this one, though the reception then had been far different. Inquisitive faces would’ve peered at him as now, but the women would’ve clasped their hands in gratitude, the children cheering, the men giving low bows. Lord Akano would’ve waved back, dismounted and walked among the gathered crowd on foot. A sign of deep respect for the peasantry. The lifeblood of the Hiratan Empire.

An aging male servant in a loose brown robe greeted Masura at the sliding entrance door of the elder’s residence. The old man didn’t bow, though he kept his eyes downcast while taking the reins of Masura’s black Kiyoso stallion. Masura ascended the shallow steps, a soaked cloth bag in each hand. A second male servant wearing an identical robe beckoned him forward.

Two figures waited for him at the far edge of the audience room. Horio Tamekage stood erect, feet shoulder-width apart, his receding hair tied in traditional topknot fashion. But Masura gave the man only a furtive glance, his gaze lingering instead upon the kneeling woman beside him. Suroda Tamekage was far older, her posture stooped, strands of long white hair pinned back around her shoulders. Unusual for a woman out here in the Marchlands to retain the role of elder rather than passing it onto a son, though such practices were becoming increasingly common throughout the Eight Provinces. No doubt a result of the Luminous Throne’s influence?and that of Hirata’s new Emperor.

Another twelve men stood along the walls in their black and gray robes. Daylight streamed through the windows to reflect off a dozen hands gripping the hilts of their sheathed single-edged swords. None of the scabbards or hilts bore the mark of the yejin, unlike Masura’s own sekari steel blade. The tart scent of bowstring oil was rampant. They likely had archers hidden behind the one-way partition at the back of the room.

Masura’s mouth twitched, though he stopped it from becoming a full-fledged frown. He gave a slight bow. “I dispatched the brigands, as requested.”

He tossed the two cloth bags onto the floor before either of the Tamekages could reply. The sacks rolled forward with a soft squish and left a pair of red smears along the wooden planks.

Horio Tamekage used a foot to prod the nearest sack. Strands of close-cropped black hair protruded through the open top, still attached to their scalps.

“Where are the rest?” Horio wiped the bottom of his blood-stained boot across the floor.

“They couldn’t be salvaged.” Masura had tried being careful this time, but when it came to properly cutting off a criminal’s head or staying alive?priority went to the latter.

“You had explicit instructions.” Horio kicked the sacks aside. A nearby servant was quick to gather them up. “Bring back every one of those brigands’ heads, or don’t bother returning at all.”

“Too many to carry.” Masura shrugged. “There were twenty of them.”

Eyes widened at that. Horio’s and those of the guards. Only Suroda Tamekage’s expression remained unreadable.

“Liar.” Horio jabbed a finger in Masura’s face. “No lone stray could take down twenty armed criminals. Not honorably.” Several nearby guards nodded. “Tell me, did you resort to using a coward’s poisons? Or perhaps you slit a few of those men’s throats while they were sleeping?”

Masura neither moved nor blinked. Horio wasn’t entirely wrong in his assessment. Masura had caught the brigands by surprise. Most had been too busy with other less honorable pursuits to even notice him. Captured farm girls for their pleasure, along with an open cask of distilled liquor seized during one of their recent raids.

Criminals and their victims?more casualties of the droughts ravaging Hirata’s rice crop in the Glimmering Terraces to the north, now well into its fifth year. Destitute men could be led to commit all sorts of heinous acts.

“Nothing to say in your defense?” Horio paced back and forth before Masura. He tapped his thumb against the hilt of his blade. “You present yourself with only six of these supposed twenty, and with no further evidence the other brigands are dead. How do we know you didn’t just raid a farmer’s field upon our lands and cut off the heads of six random peasants?”

Masura inhaled a breath, but not too deep. The wound at his side, hidden beneath the folds of his blue robe, still throbbed. The brigands’ leader had been neither drinking nor whoring, and had proved a worthy opponent, more skilled than his nineteen subordinates put together. Another yejin turned stray, just like Masura. Bandaging the wound from that man’s marked blade had been a hasty thing. It would need proper treatment and suturing to prevent infection, and soon.

“Ride into the hills and take a look for yourself. I’ll even draw you a map.” Masura kept his gaze level. He wouldn’t lower his eyes or bow to anyone who dared call him a liar. “And if you’re still unsure, question the husbands, parents, and siblings of the women I freed from the brigands’ bondage.”

All but one, anyway, whom two of the criminals had gutted during the chaos in a failed attempt to bargain for their lives. The other women had fled once they realized who Masura was. None had even bothered to thank him.

Horio’s mouth snapped shut, instead matching Masura’s glare. The man’s grip tightened on his sword hilt.

“It is of little concern to us.” Suroda Tamekage’s voice was quiet and frail, yet it cut through the ensuing silence. “We will pay you what you’re owed.”

She signaled behind her. A young female servant approached, head bowed, and knelt in front of Masura. The girl held out a leather coin pouch.

Masura seized the offering with one hand and counted the hollow-centered silver discs in the other. With each metallic clink, more whispers and mutters flared from every corner of the residence. The guards, the servants, the archers lurking behind the rear partition, even the elder and her son. Convention dictated Masura should wait until the meeting was concluded before verifying his payment. A gesture of respect and trust to the other party, though he had long since dispensed with such pointless courtesies.

Lord Akano certainly wouldn’t have approved. It was easy to picture his master’s heavy-lined face giving him a stern frown, seated in the manor study by lamplight, calligraphy brush frozen between fingers and paper. Lord Akano’s desk would’ve been piled high with letters to his many contacts throughout the empire?correspondence to secure labor agreements for desperate Hiratans eager for work.

But the dead couldn’t protest.

“This is only a third of what we agreed upon.” Masura tossed the pouch back at the Tamekages’ feet.

Horio sprang forward. “Be grateful we’re even giving you that, you oath breaking?”

“Enough.” Suroda raised a hand, and Horio fell silent. Her dark eyes settled on Masura. “What we’re offering is more than generous, considering you only brought us six heads. Do you think you deserve more, based on our prior agreement?”

The guards reached for their weapons?thumbs’ lengths of sharpened steel now visible. Masura’s gaze remained fixed upon the partition behind the Tamekages. The archers likely had their bows drawn, aimed at his heart and head.

He grasped the hilt of his own sword. Deflecting arrows was no small feat at such close range, even with the ethereal nimbleness of his sekari steel blade. But it could be done, as could taking on a room of twenty odd men, if necessary. It seemed to be his lucky sign.

He’d fought that same number when pursuing his master’s murderers. Twenty assassins from House Narisane led by the High Lord’s third son, dissatisfied with so many of those lucrative labor contracts given to Lord Akano in his father’s stead. Each of the twenty had fallen to a single swing from Masura’s sword?a wildfire tale that had spread throughout Hirata to become legend.

As had the rumor of Masura’s refusal to die after Lord Akano had been avenged, as yejin tradition demanded. A life of disgrace chosen over an honorable death. The life of an outcast. A stray.

Masura tensed, a sneer splitting his facade. These Tamekages had called him a coward and a liar. With their deaths?he would simply be defending whatever shreds of honor he still had left.

He exhaled his held breath. And be branded a murderer, hunted down like a common criminal. Like the assassins who’d killed Lord Akano. Like the brigands he himself had executed. And like their leader, the former yejin he’d dueled and defeated.

Masura released the grip on his sword. There had been far too much death in these hills already. Lord Akano would’ve been aghast if he knew his old gift was being used for such a purpose, especially if he was watching from the Other world. The last thing Masura needed right now was another name added to an ever-growing list. Masura the Quick. Masura the Oath Breaker. Masura the Stray.

Masura the Butcher.

“Well?” Horio said. “What’re you still standing there for? Take your payment and go?or you won’t be leaving at all.”

Masura gritted his teeth. Horio wasn’t the first to utter such a threat to him, nor would this elder’s overgrown whelp be the last. But he hadn’t come all the way out to this backwater town to answer their pleas for help, only to cause trouble after.

Time to move on.

It took Masura considerable effort not to press his hand to the crude bandage beneath his robe. Probably better to enlist the services of a healer elsewhere, though the next nearest town was more than a full day’s ride.

“I thank you for your generosity.” He left the coins on the floor and turned, perhaps a little too quick. Careless of him. He might take a blade in the back for his trouble, just like Lord Akano had. Horio Tamekage would be more than capable of giving that order, even if he wasn’t the type to swing the sword himself.

Masura breathed easier once his boots touched the compact earth outside the elder’s residence. That same elderly servant waited alongside his Kiyoso stallion. Masura mounted up and rode at a trot down the main street.

The crowd still lingered, pulling back at his approach. Women clutched children to their chests, men shook their heads, youngsters spat at his feet. Masura straightened himself in the saddle, one hand on the reins, the other hanging loose at his side, as far away from the hilt of his sword as possible. It wouldn’t do to show fear among the peasant folk. Not under the terms of this continued existence.

If he’d had his way, he would’ve killed himself upon avenging his master’s death. A short blade to the gut, in typical yejin fashion, to join Lord Akano’s remaining retainers in their sojourn to the Other world. But it hadn’t been up to him. All of Hirata didn’t understand, would never understand.

He was no coward.

A silent messenger had delivered a sealed letter the day after Lord Akano’s murder. Masura had memorized its contents, the characters scrawled in his master’s elegant but unmistakable hand.

Masura,

The fact you are reading this means I have met my end in a most unexpected way. I bear no ill feelings against whichever house was responsible. Seek vengeance if you must, but I do not wish you to follow me into the Other world. Not yet. Thus, my final order to you:

Live.

Should the droughts continue, you and your talents will be of far more use to the troubled people of Hirata, even broken and reviled as you will be. Pledge loyalty to no house. Speak of this to no one. Protect those who cannot do so themselves for as long as you are able.

Your services will always be needed.

Masura had burned the rest, kept only a small crinkled fragment tucked deep within the sleeve of his robe. It bore but a single smudged character.

Live.

The thatched roofs of that nameless town faded from the horizon into memory. He would be visiting many more like it in the days to come.


Reading Shadows

The clever ones will know I’ve been reading shadows–folding them, discarding them like bruised fruit from a basket, meddling with magic that had never been touched before. They’ll inevitably discover my spellweaving. And of course they’ll wonder what I made, then they’ll dig to find out why.

I was Yuroma, after all, Archmage of the Amber Empire. I was arguably the sharpest, quickest mage alive, the most likely to survive plunging my hands into the dark. And despite the risks, I had more to gain than most would. It will puzzle them to no end when I’m no longer here to open my secrets like clam shells.

But my secrets stay shut.


His Imperial Excellency Daráthnivol, Emperor-to-be, was taken aback when he met his Archmage. Yuroma was young to fill the position, despite having served under the last two short-lived Emperors. She dressed half like a fisherman’s wife, with only the traditional earring to mark her as part of the Amber Order. Daráthnivol had envisioned a harder, bolder-looking woman. Yet Yuroma was to be his adviser, his right hand. He didn’t have much say in the matter.

Daráthnivol waved for his counselors to withdraw, leaving only two stationed guards, himself and the Archmage in the throne chamber. It was a cold room, with black floors that shone under the glimmer of amber lanterns, black walls that blocked the sun, and a black ceiling that fell too low like a tall man’s cloak on his son. It all felt lonely beneath the blazing blue of the Imperial crown. Only one day in the Palace, and already lonely.

“Tell me something of yourself, Yuroma,” Daráthnivol said, reclining to look more at ease than he felt.

She raised a single eyebrow. “Do you intend to keep your watchdogs at the door?”

“They’re only guards. Do those without magic bother you so much that you can’t introduce yourself in their presence?”

“Not at all. But you and I can dispense with all the pleasantries.”

Now she was beginning to annoy him. “I’ll decide when to talk pleasantries and when not to. Now tell me something–”

Before Daráthnivol could finish, the carved metal fire of his crown flared up, suddenly alive with heat. He shouted and hurled the circlet away, whipping his hands back lest he burn himself. It was her. Her hand had moved in the motion of an invocation. She’d tried to burn him, the Amber Emperor in waiting.

“Is this how you dealt with my cousin before me?” Daráthnivol snarled, standing up. “Guards!”

The guards stayed motionless at the back of the room.

“Guards!” he shouted now. “Get this wretched vixen out of my sight!”

Still motionless, curse them to the bottom of the ocean.

“They can’t hear you,” Yuroma said. “Or see you, really. I prefer to have this particular talk in private.”

“How dare you? I am your future leader!”

“And I’m your Archmage,” Yuroma replied. “You might not want to cross me on your first day here–seeing as how I’ve conveniently outlived one or two Emperors before you.”

Daráthnivol found his pulse speeding up, racing even, and his hands suddenly slick with sweat. Her threat felt too heavy to ignore, too quick, too forward, too real. He staggered back and tripped over the foot of his own throne as he tried to put some distance between himself and this mad, dangerous woman.

“I have no intention of hurting you, boy,” Yuroma said. “If I did, it would have happened long before you got to the Palace. Do you believe me?”

“Guards!” Daráthnivol shouted again. “Someone! To the throne room!” Why did they ignore him?

“Save your breath. No one will hear so much as an echo while my spell holds.”

“What the blazes do you want?”

Yuroma advanced another step, causing Daráthnivol to flinch. “I want you to be a little kinder to your subjects than the last few Emperors have been, little Rath. Your family has bled these islands dry. They’ve squandered hard-earned funds, abused their servants, raped where they liked, killed where they weren’t liked, and generally done more to shield their own backs than to guard the Amber Empire.” She stepped near one of Daráthnivol’s newly oiled hands, sending him skittering backward to the throne. “All these patterns will die with you, Emperor-to-be.”

There were tears in Daráthnivol’s eyes now. His hands shook as he tried to push himself farther from the narrow-eyed Archmage. His mouth hung open, formless whimpers issuing out. Why the dancing devil had he sent everyone else away?

“You will be the most beloved Emperor in recorded history,” Yuroma added. Then she snatched her hands apart, summoning a twisting vortex of magic as blue and deep as the ocean. “Or you can be like your cousin was and die like he died. Are we clear, Your Imperial Excellency?”

Daráthnivol’s mouth hardened, even as fresh tears formed under his eyes. “You can’t command me, whether you’re Archmage or Archangel!”

“Do as I advise or you might become an angel yourself, Rath. Or more likely a groveling pitspawn of the devil you and your royal family like to impersonate.”

With that, she twisted her hands once more, dissolving her vortex and magicking the crown back onto Daráthnivol’s head. Then she walked from the room as if they’d just talked about dinner.

Daráthnivol stared after her until his breathing calmed and he could find his feet. Even then his guards seemed not to notice that anything had been amiss.

The Colored Lens Is Looking For Slush Readers

The Colored Lens is once again looking to expand our staff. We are looking for a first reader to help us keep up with the submissions we receive.

We pride ourselves on our 100% personal responses, and aim to have a 48 hour response time for rejections. To do this, we ask readers to read 3-4 stories a week and provide short personalized responses that include both positive features and the reasons it’s being rejected.

Stories are typically in the 3000-5000 word range, but we accept stories as long as 20,000 words. Slush reading is handled on an “as able” basis, meaning that whenever a reader has time, he/she logs into the database and selects the next unread story. If a reader doesn’t have time to read on a particular day, they simply don’t read any.

All of us at The Colored Lens are volunteers, so this isn’t a paid position. Reading does give you insights into the editorial process, however, and is a good opportunity to gain experience and insights into how the industry works.

If you are interested in the position, please review the stories on our site and send us an email at editors@thecoloredlens.com. In the email, let us know two to three of your favorites, and write a sample rejection for two to three of them that you don’t like as well.

Everything For Beth

“How long?” I asked, though it was more a reflexive thing than conscious, a way to let quantum uncertainty rise to entanglement, a way to buy myself some time to process the worst news a mother can get.

“There’s still so much we don’t know about the Kitui virus, Gail,” Dr. Abraham said, “we know less about it after ten years than we did about HIV in its first decade.” She leaned across the arm of her chair and cradled my hand in hers. “We aren’t yet sure what triggers the onset of symptoms. It could be years before Beth shows even preliminary symptoms.”

“And when she does? How long then?” Outside, a crow squawked and was answered by its friends. What a racket. I hate those birds. Dirty, filthy, noisy, greedy. I snatched my hand back.

“Depending on how strong her immune system is, and how careful you are with her nutrition, anywhere from six to sixty months.” The doctor’s eyes searched my face. I could feel them on me, digging into my brain. Peeling back the layers of hair, skin, tissue, and bone until she could steal the thoughts right out of my head.

“Can I take her home now?”

A soft sigh. “We need to bring her temperature down a bit more and get her fully hydrated. It’s best if you leave her here overnight, and if she responds well you can take her home in the morning.”

I jumped up. “Thank you, Doctor.” I couldn’t look at her. “How long before my GP has all this?” My eyes burned with pending tears, and I needed to get away, to be alone. By the time she answered me, I had tapped my thumb pads against my middle fingers from the second knuckle all the way up to the pad, then all the way back down.

“It usually takes two business days for updates to reach practitioners, as long as they run updates every night.”

I remembered to aim a nod in her direction before I bolted. I didn’t quite make it to the emergency stairs before the dam burst, but at least I was able to hold onto the sobs. Beth, my darling little girl, just five years old. The door clicked shut behind me and I fell to my knees, the sobs ripping through me as if my lungs wanted to fly away, taking my heart with them. How could this happen? It was unfair in the extreme, she was just a little girl! It should be some bad guy who got sick and died in pain from an incurable illness. Good people deserved good things, and Beth was good. Good, dammit! I sobbed and raged, pounding my fists against the wall until I’d bloodied them. It was wrong, so very wrong, for a mother to bury a child. I could not let this happen.

I Am Mary

This morning is not good, like yesterday. Mr. Jones is unwell. He hasn’t been well since we came here. I am sad about that. I am a wife, Mary, Mr. Jones’s wife. I used to call him ‘Bob’, but everyone here calls him ‘Mr. Jones’, so I do too.

Mr. Jones and I have been here for three months. We came here after hospital, when he had his stroke. Mr. Jones can’t do much for himself anymore, so I help him. I wash him, I feed him, I take him to the toilet, I change his clothes. Doing these things is good. It makes me feel good. I love Mr. Jones.

In the afternoon, Mr. Jones seems better. So I dress him in his suit, and he goes down to the lounge to meet the others. Of course he doesn’t go by himself. I wheel him down. And when he is there he can’t speak or talk to the others. But he looks smart in his suit, supported by the cushions, and I am proud of him. He looks at me sometimes. I am sure he loves me.

There are only old men in this place, men like Mr. Jones who can’t look after themselves. The old women are in another place. I don’t know why they don’t have them together, just like outside. I said this to Matron once. But Matron just smiled, and said, “You’re a strange one, dear.”

There are the other wives, of course. Today, Samantha is standing next to me. Her husband is very old. “I like your dress,” I say to Samantha. The green goes with her blonde hair. “Thank you. I like yours, too,” she says, and she smiles. We usually say this to each other, and it is true. Our dresses don’t change.

At five o’clock there are visitors to the lounge. I like this time, there is so much to see and listen to. Men and women come in, even children. Some of them smile at me.

Mr. Jones has a daughter called Sue who visits every week. She says thank you to me. I like her. her hair goes behind one ear. Once she brought me a bracelet. I’m wearing it now. Sue is a wife, but she is a visitor-wife. She lives outside. Her husband never comes, though.

Sue talks to Mr. Jones – oh, the things she talks about! I didn’t know there were so many things in the world. She talks about cooking, food, her children, her boss, holidays, her husband, so many things! I could listen to her for hours. And I think Mr. Jones likes it too. I wish I could talk like Sue, it would help him.

Mr. Jones’s son Byron doesn’t visit often. When he comes, he doesn’t say much to his father but just looks around the room, at the wives, mostly. He looks at me too, in a not-good way. But I must be nice to him. He is Mr. Jones’s son.

The days are good here. It doesn’t take me long to recharge. Downloads come through smoothly, I have more capabilities now. But Mr. Jones is getting worse, and I am sad about that. What will happen to him? What will happen to me?

50 Mile Station

It was Brazil, he had to keep reminding himself. Variations of green and brown, and lakes, rivers, and far on the horizon, the indigo edge of the ocean pressed upon his eyes in sharp detail. He stared at it for hours at a time.

A red barrel slid past the window, smooth and big as a ship, blocking his view. Jerrel noted the numbers as they slowly slipped by: 7… 0… 5… 1… A. The 7 meant that it was from San Francisco, but he knew that already because it was red. Every barrel was at least half windowed, by law, unless it was a nuclear one. Black bags and plastic bottles were crushed against the windows that were smeared with black mold. This matched the stated contents of the manifest: trash. It traveled up the cord. A few seconds later it picked up speed and would be released when it reached geosynchronous orbit, in a few hours.

7051A content confirmed. Trajectory TBD.

The ISS zoomed above him, Jerrel barely glanced at it. It was as ordinary as the hand of a clock, marking every hour and a half. Marking every time he would kiss the picture of his daughter. This started as a tool to help him cope with being alone, but now if he missed the kiss because he didn’t notice the ISS, he panicked. Only kissing the picture 20, 30, 40 times would calm him down again. This concerned him, but he couldn’t stop.

The barrels came about every hour. He was to visually inspect the contents and confirm that they matched the manifest. This one was a Dallas White. These were less rusty than the reds; their barrels were newer because they had not been allowed to use the Vator until about a year ago. 4… 3… 8… C… 3. Liquid, unspecified type. Dallas won the right to keep the exact content of their barrels private, after years of failed negotiations, during which thousands of citizens died from the nuclear waste in the water supply. Finally, the North American Elevator Corp decided they needed Dallas as a customer more than they needed to know what was in their barrels.

438C3 content confirmed. Trajectory TBD.

It was hard to be vigilant, knowing that the barrels had already been checked three times further down the tube. Jerrel was not doing anything that a computer could not do, mostly. They used to not check at all, except on the loading dock, of course. Windows were required back then, but you could just pay the fine and send a solid barrel up no problem. That was before the Heist of ‘89, where five nuclear waste barrels came crashing back down to earth and it took countless billions to repair the elevator. So now, lots of checking. At the ten mile high station, every barrel was checked. At twenty they were checked again. Jerrel was at the third and last station, fifty miles up, and he was required to check twelve barrels in each 24 hour period.

A blue barrel came into view. New York. A nuclear one without windows. The counter embedded in the wall of the barrel showed high levels of radiation. Content confirmed.

Jerrel was doing a three week shift. The intention was that he would work for twelve hours and rest for twelve. There were five TVs permanently set to ‘ON’ for twelve hours per day to ensure this. Jerrel could neither change the channel nor the volume. Three were entertainment channels, one was the weather, the other was North American Elevator Corp’s station. At first he watched the NAEC station a lot. He was excited about his new job and wanted to learn all he could about the company. The station had a running ticker of barrel prices, speeds, trajectories and contents. Sometimes a person would talk about statistics like how many tons of nuclear waste and plastics had been removed from the Earth, or which city had removed the most waste per capita, or how NAEC’s performance compared with the other two elevators belonging to China (in Congo) and Australia (in Indonesia).

7051A trajectory 5.50:Delta:2300, according the computer. The magnetic satellite successfully deflected the barrel with opposing high field pulses to keep it away from the satellite rings, not to mention itself, and send it safely into dead, blank space.

Every night at ten p.m. he NAEC TV told him ‘Thank you and good night!’ and went black, but did not turn off like the other TVs did. Jerrel had tried to follow the designated routine for a while, but he could only sleep for two hours at a time. So after a few days of only two hours per night, he needed the freedom to nap. He cut the wires to four of the TVs. He didn’t touch the NAEC TV. The fact that it never turned off worried him.

The paycheck for this job was extraordinary. A year’s worth of salary down below, for three weeks of work. He had been on the waiting list for this job for two years, and now that he was here, he could not understand why it paid so much. It was true that he was not allowed to contact anyone on Earth by any means. There was not a keyboard in the entire station. It was hard being away from all human contact for three weeks, certainly, but not that hard. He was showing signs of being stressed, such as insomnia, losing weight and doing that kiss-the-picture thing, but it really wasn’t that bad.

The only people he could contact were the guys in the stations below, but that was only in case of emergency. He had access to top-secret company intelligence, and it needed to stay that way, is what they said, or else he would lose all salary. What that special intelligence possibly could be, Jerrel didn’t know. The contents and trajectories of all the barrels were broadcast to the world on the NAEC station.

438C3 trajectory 2.31:Alpha:2692. Another safe ejection.

Jerrel was heading to the rack for a nap when the turd alarm went off.

Those fucking SF barrels. The SF people mixed the exterior paint with repulsion mag powder to make them extra fast, was the thinking. What really happened was they all got stuck to each other and came up the pipe in long lines like a turd. This had never actually been a problem, though if there was too much constipation it could destabilize the Vator, so he was required to observe and report. So far, the long turds always broke up and found their random trajectories just like all the other barrels.

This turd was mostly trash. Flies buzzed around the windows, craving the light of his station. It was a short ride, only about ten hours from the bottom, so there was usually enough air for living things to breathe.

7… 5… 1… N… 6. Content confirmed. Trajectory TBD.

7… R… 2… 0… 2. Content confirmed. Trajectory TBD.

7… 3… 4… 6… P. Content confirmed. Trajectory TBD.

He couldn’t see very far down the elevator, all the equipment was in the way, but the alarm said there were five more to go. Jerrel completed the report and went to take his overdue nap.

The Heat Death of Everything I Love

Before the old church doors, in the warm darkness of the vestibule, Sabine’s mother stooped down to look her daughter in the eyes.

“What you were is past.”

She swept aside the veil of the girl’s communion dress—a billowy thing like a crown of unspooled gauze—and blotted her tears out with a thumb. Shrill music crept in from the sanctuary, dissonant chords from a heat-warped organ.

“What you will be is yet to come.”

Smiling wide, she held her child’s face in calloused hands. Her daughter, her anxious little girl on the threshold. Sabine was frightened by a simple ritual; that was good—it meant she’d done her motherly duty, protected the child from those things to be truly feared.

For now, at least.

Somewhere high above the stone ceiling, the great chrome shape of the Teardrop hung silent in the sky. Soon the first Greys would appear at the marketplace in Croix-des-Bouqets, slender bodies towering above the crowds.


Sabine’s dinner has gone cold.

So it was you. You killed our world.

“Not me, ch’atha—” Her husband extends a spindly arm, straightened at both joints to cross the length of the kitchen table.

She slaps it away. Turns in her seat to face the cupboards, the sink, the kitchen window—anything but him: Don’t call me dearest. Not in your language, not in mine.

Sabine rubs her forehead with a hand that comes away wet and clammy, fingers trembling. In her mind’s eye she pictures it: herself, her body, unraveling like the end of a frayed rope.

“I understand this must be difficult,” he says. Rehearsed. Sanctimonious. Typical Grey fashion. “You’ve lost a great—”

You have no idea what I’ve lost, she snaps. You can’t begin to fathom.


Forty-three, forty-four, forty-five… rows of tomato plants flew by the car window, all green blur and flashes of red earth where the furrows showed through. Almost too fast for Sabine to count.

“There used to be more than just tomatoes”—her mother said, laying out across the back seat—“Peppers, and leeks, and eggplants. Remember eggplants, sissy?”

Sabine’s aunt only grunted, hands on the steering wheel, eyes on the road.

Mother shrugged. “I always hated eggplants.” She let out a chuckle that became strained, gave way to a fit of coughing. Auntie clicked her tongue disapprovingly.

Fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine… Sabine could only think of how old her mother looked, spasming under a light blanket, hair plastered to the car seat, mouth twisted by an unseen pain. Her skin strewn with pocks and blisters and jagged outgrowths.

It weighed heavy on Sabine’s mind, even at eleven years old: the idea of her mother as someone mortal, someone who would one day die.

She did her best to shut it out.

Seventy-one, seventy-two, seventy-three… The coughing fit subsided and the grimace faded from Mother’s face. She forced a smile and craned her neck to appear, beatific, in the rear-view mirror.

“See, sissy? No harm done.” Her voice was hoarse.

Auntie grunted, unconvinced.

What happened? With the egg-plants.

“Well… the sun got too strong.”

“Same reason your mum got sick, Sabine” Auntie said sharply. “Same reason you suit up when you go outside.” She kept her wet red eyes fixed ahead, always ahead.

The clinic came into view, a squat blue building on the slopes of the Mountain where Greys would come and go, flitting up and down between the earth and the Teardrop like angels on a ladder. People said they worked miracles there.

But Mother’s miracle didn’t exist on this planet, only theirs.

The tall Grey doctor explained, Sabine only catching a few words between the thump-thump-thump in her eardrums: “to the lungs”… “don’t have the equipment”… “can ease the pain.” Her mother nodding solemnly; the color draining from Auntie’s face.

On the drive back home, Mother sleeping in the backseat with a dream-band around her forehead (“this will keep her comfortable”), Sabine squirmed, fidgeted in her seat because she didn’t know what else to do. Twisting, turning, opening, closing—she found a roadmap faded and folded in the glovebox. Had there been more to the world than the Town and the Road and the City and the Mountain?

What’s this?

“Put that away, honey,” Auntie said, small-voiced. “Just reminds you of all that’s lost.”


“But Ch’atha—”

What did I say about calling me that?

“It was a miscalculation made by the expedition planners; a side-effect of interstellar travel.”

You could have told me this sooner…should have…

“They knew that decelerating from the superluminal threshold would release energy; of course they did—the entirety of Drive Theory was based on this… bubble of contracted space-time, moving from star to star, picking up charged particles. They just didn’t anticipate how big the release would be… What it would do to the planet.”

On her feet now, she scrubs furiously at the remnants of that night’s dinner, dried tomato sauce on heavy plates. The kitchen window looks out on pitch night, glass reflecting the image of Sabine at the sink and her husband behind, compound eyes pleading. She does not meet his gaze.

Ch—” He stops short. “Sabine.”

How long had he carried this secret between them? Had he hoped she’d never ask?

“Sabine, what are you thinking?”

He doesn’t deserve to know.

The Voice from Beyond the Desert

The low whine of a single locust tittered through the midday heat before abruptly and percussively ending with a crunch of the Botanist’s sandal into the Mojave ground, kicking up a somber cloud of desert dust. The Botanist set down her pack and shaded her eyes with a hand to her forehead as she surveyed the horizon for her next subject. She spotted the spined and clubby hands of the yucca brevifolia waving hello to her from behind a nearby boulder.

After collecting samples and taking down notes and measurements, having scientific conversations with the Joshua Tree she had traveled here to study, she looked towards the dying light in the sky. The sun had gotten low as her conversations with the trees rambled away from her. She had meant to head back to camp hours ago; the Geologist would be waiting with dinner ready over the fire by sundown. The Botanist grabbed her pack and started making her way back in the direction of their shared research camp.

The walkie-talkie on her hip crackled with static air as the Botanist’s shadow loomed behind her, elongated and alien. The rocks and boulders and Joshua Trees of the Mojave were traced with golden yellow light against the yawning sky. The walk was long. As the sun died beneath its desert coffin and the stars started to show themselves, the Botanist clicked off her walkie-talkie. And breathed deep. Dry air. In, out. Sandpaper breaths. She looked upwards.


Back at their camp, the Geologist was stewing. Pacing. Idly scratching his stubble. Walking in an equilateral triangle around their campsite, over and over. Retracing, the same measurements. She should’ve been back by now. He wasn’t worried. He was angry. Feeling slighted, and left standing in the now cold sand, with just the rocks and the dust. He shoved one of those rocks with his foot within the interior of the triangle.

“Hello? Where are you?” he said, flatly, into the walkie-talkie.

“…”

Only static air. Sandpapery.


The viscous darkness continued to thicken as the Botanist edged closer to the camp through the cold desert. There was a part of her mind that tugged at her body like it was attached to a string; it slowed her pace. She continued her gaze upwards, to the now bright, bright stars. There was that gnawing feeling in her bones, it inched towards fear, but settled more into the canyon that echoes with lonesomeness. She thought of the Geologist. And then she didn’t. The walkie-talkie stayed dormant, purposefully off. She looked down for a beat, brows furrowed, but her subconscious brought her gaze back upwards. The lonesomeness slurred into longing. Cold wishes. She waved hello to the vacant stars.

She glimpsed a light in the distance, maybe less than a couple miles further southeast of their camp. It looked like… a streetlight? Shining in this desolate scape? How had she not noticed it before? Maybe she was seeing things, maybe the stars burned light ghosts in her eyes. Maybe she was hoping. But the coals of their campfire were defined now, surely a different light–closer, quiet and red, and the Geologist was probably asleep in their tent.

“Nice of you to join me,” a voice rattled from the darkness, settled on the triangle the Geologist had worked so hard to draw for them.

She jumped at his voice, breath caught, and then, “I’m sorry. I got carried away. It’s beautiful out there, you know.”

“It’s desert. Rocks and dust.”

“And the Joshua Trees. And the sky.”

He stood up from the ground shadow in which he was sitting. In which he held his vigil, cold and cross-armed.

“Goodnight.”

She sighed. She kicked some sand and a rock or two onto the dying firelight, and followed him into the tent.

Watchers

The car took him to therapy before work, never a good sign. He called in from the waiting room. Jann didn’t like it of course, but what could Rick do? If you wanted health care you followed the rules and that included emergency therapy. He just wished he’d known. Rick had skipped breakfast and now he was sitting there hungry. You didn’t dare ask the receptionist how much longer. They scrutinized you constantly and even a twitch meant something. He tried to look happy. That’s what they wanted to see.

The android behind the counter called his name. The bald face mimicked a human persona remarkably. “Andrea will take you back, Mr. Dalton.”

He followed the tall, platinum-haired woman in the pleated black dress to a therapy room. Once he settled into the waterlounger, she went after his tea. “Mint, hot?” she asked from the alcove.

He had this. Rick drank mint iced except in the morning, except during emergency therapy when he always asked for it cold. “If you don’t mind, I’d like iced.”

“Of course. Doctor has a note. You’re to take this.”

A small square section of the table rose. In the center dimple sat a little gel cap. He sighed as he picked it up. “Thank you.”

She was there with his beverage. “Doctor will be with you presently.”

“Thank you.” He watched her leave, careful to look away appropriately. He swallowed the gel cap, sipped, and glanced at the Monet. Studied the ballerinas a bit, because he was sure they knew he liked it. Then back to the tea.

The space behind the desk shimmered as Dr. Kim’s hologram appeared. “Hello, Rick.”

“Hello, Dr. Kim.”

Dr. Kim’s image flickered and then the sharp eyes were back. “Rick, we had a spike in your routine I wanted to discuss.”

He felt a chill. How serious was it? Not reevaluation, please not that. They would pick him apart for a week. He remembered to interact: “I’m sorry if I let myself down.” Straight out of the therapeutic handbook.

“Two areas we need to cover—meds and diet.” Dr. Kim waited.

“My medications—Dr. Plummer gave me permission to-to use Diatholyn . . . Only when I need it.”

The hologram stared. “And your Reatox?”

“It makes me nauseous sometimes. You said you were going to see about trying something else.”

Amusement, like a snake eyeing a mouse, slid over the doctor’s face. “You do realize that willful withholding of prescribed medication is a crime, Rick.”

“Doctor—”

“Let’s move on. Diet.”

“I’m eating normally.”

“Breakfast? This morning?”

“No. I skipped it. I was running late and—” That was a verifiable lie and he had to retract. “I wasn’t actually late but I didn’t want to be late and so I was in a hurry. I have been trying to lose a pound or so.”

“A mini-diet, then?”

“Yes.”

“Then you weren’t planning on visiting the vending machine for a strawberry crunch before work, I suppose.”

He admitted, “I was.” No sense making this worse.

“Rick, according to what I have here, your predilection for snacks has increased your caloric intake well over six thousand calories in the past few weeks. This explains your gain of one-point-eight pounds. Okay. We’re finished.”

“What?”

“I’m recommending reevaluation.”

“Doctor, please.” Rick tried to control his voice but he was upset.

“Rick, you’ve displayed independent behavior and you have lied about it to your therapist.”

He wanted to scream back the truth. That the pills took away his spirit and replaced it with a lie. But that would only earn him a session under the laser. He remembered to respond. “I’ve been foolish and irresponsible, Dr. Kim.”

“Therapeutic medication is the foundation of our society. Try and remember that.”

“I will.”

“After reevaluation, I’m certain you’ll do fine.”

“Is that necessary? I promise—I’ll take whatever you prescribe from here on out.”

“I don’t know. There’s also your eating disorder. It’s just a mess, Rick.”

“No more breaking the rules, Dr. Kim, I promise.” Rick’s voice had a touch of huskiness; he almost believed it himself.

“Wait.” The hologram froze.

Wait? Now Rick was going nuts. The escort androids could burst in at any time. He sighed. He hated reevaluation.

Dr. Kim’s image reanimated. “Rick, I may be able to help you. If you’re willing to cooperate.”

“Certainly.”

“There’s someone from NSA. Wilson. Once I receive a confirmation from him that you’ve cooperated fully, I’ll consider this entire matter closed.”

“No reevaluation?”

“No. Just stick to your prescriptions, and your diet, and you’ll be fine.”

“Thank you.”

“We’re finished.”

Canvas Captured

Breezes of brilliant hues flowed from the Painter’s brushes to stroke the canvas with shadow and light. This evening, a summer night indefinite in time, she danced a mirror upon the canvas, sunset flashing through the paint-flecked gate as it flashed through the real gate outside.

Yet it was a broken mirror in one aspect: in the real world, the gate was locked and could not be opened by her. Her patron refused to release her, save when she needed inspiration, a new scene to paint. Then she went boarded up in a carriage and concealed from prying eyes. By these machinations, the Duke hoped to convince the City the paintings were his, but rumors of the Painter were enough to sustain the truth of her work. There was too much of her in the paintings, too much life, too much brilliance set free.

She had never painted the gate before, open or closed. Every one of the Duke’s tamed gardens and exotic curiosities had been depicted by her hand – but never the gate. It was the one pain in her heart, and it ached to look at the reminder of her captivity.

Even as she painted it, the gate changed in her mind. It became a thing of light and hope, beckoning, inviting… as if the world in canvas were as real as the world in flesh.

She sensed when the Duke entered the room and did not turn, rapt upon the tumult of tones. He would often watch her for a time, but never interrupted her.

The Painter finished smoothing the last daubed shadow and turned to face him. She did not need to stand back or study her work to know it was complete. The rich orange sun gleamed, bathing the path outside in promise.

The Duke’s eyes flashed with a moment’s wonder, but he dismissed it. “I wish you would do portraits,” he said. “That’s where the money and the fame is. The artist who captured my late wife works for the High King now.”

She thought of the cold, pale likeness hanging in the great hall, trapped more completely than she, and suppressed a shudder.

“I am done,” she said.

“Good. My cousin in the treasury has need of new adornment to -”

“I didn’t mean with this painting.” His eyes widened, for she had never interrupted him. Before he could react, she continued, “I meant with working for you. The paints run dry. I am done.” She felt her breath and her heart echo in her ears, a fearful thrum.

The Duke paused, his first reaction panic, and then fury. “You can’t. My reputation – our reputation -” He grabbed her arm. She recoiled; he tried to wrench her around, and instead lost his grip. She tumbled into the still-damp canvas.

She fell through… and kept falling through an expanse of green. She should have felt fear and instead felt like a bird with new wings, tumbling towards the skies. She landed with a gentle stop on a mossy path. The stones under her hand were indistinct blurs of grey and green, more suggestion than reality. She inhaled, delight and consternation both as she realized what had happened.

The Painter had become part of the painting.

It was not, she thought, such an impossible idea – obviously, considering it had happened, but there was power and possibility in the images she created. Why couldn’t there be life within them? She thought then of the Duke, who had hurled her here. She craned her head up and found the sky above a void the color of blank canvas. She had not painted it; it did not exist.

Could he see her within the painting? What if he smashed it? Fear riveted her to the spot; she lifted up her hands to shield her face, masking the brilliant color that surrounded her. Terror consumed her in a flash of fire… and then faded when her world remained, a soft, silent place with orange light that pierced through her fingers.

She remembered the gate and lowered her hands, breathing until her body quieted. It stood before her, beckoning into an endless sunset. Tranquility filled her as if poured like water, and to the surface rose the hope she had felt while painting. She walked into the light.

She blinked and found herself on a snow-swept hillside dotted with old-woman trees in white veils. The cold refreshed without chilling her; the wind tickled her skin and breathed winter’s secrets down her neck, as welcoming as an old friend. She turned her face up – oh, there was sky here, lavender fading into deep blue and inked with stars – and reveled.

She recognized the scene: it was another of her paintings, a much older composition from the year before her brother had sailed beyond the City. Her hands moved, tracing brushstrokes she almost remembered and lingering over the details. The scenery moved, subtly, breathing – the optical illusion of paint placed just so.

The Painter walked onwards and emerged under a summer waterfall, then into a field of flowers. It didn’t take long to realize all the paintings were hers, and though she felt the same wonder that had inspired her to craft them, the familiarity began to pale, and she missed the City. She tried to think of a way out… but she had always painted scenes from nature, not cityscapes with their limitless doors.

She knelt before a stream and parted the waters, painting a whirlpool with her hands. The landscape did not respond as her pigments did in the real world. She picked flowers and attempted to grind them up to make pigment of her own. They simply melted, more dream than substance. A slow dread formed in the base of her throat and spread through her body. What if she never found a path out of the paintings?

She was not sure how much time passed, but she never grew hungry or thirsty, and what little weariness she felt shifted with the landscape: the most dark and dreary of her compositions made her feel old and brittle, just as those of light and beauty gave her back years she had never realized were lost. As she wandered through the suspended scenes, she remembered a painting she had done years ago, her last before she entered the Duke’s service. It might be her way out.