TCL #31 – Spring 2019

Finding Papa

“It’s a secret magazine.”

Iro’s eyes widened for emphasis, and he looked left and right in the weedy backyard like he wanted to make sure no one could hear the three of them.

“There’s symbols on the last page, and if you read them out loud at midnight—but you gotta be alone, and it’s gotta be exactly midnight, not like, ten-thirty.” He scowled at Sandy, like she was some kid who didn’t know what midnight meant. “Then if you read them right, the aliens come!” Iro threw his hands up, “And they give you secret powers!”

Sandy covered her mouth with her hands. Her loose tooth moved; any day now it’d fall out, and Momma would panic again, even though everyone said losing baby teeth was normal.

“But you gotta really believe in them,” said Cait, her conspiratorial hush barely louder than the rustling shrubbery. “Or else when they come, they put you in the hospital.”

Iro nodded. “This kid Joey from school read the symbols five times. He’s been in the hospital three times…”

Sandy was rapt: “And the other two?”

“Who knows?”

“Whoa.”

She loved staying at her cousins’ house. Iro and Cait were already ten, and they knew all the cool stuff.

They remembered Sandy’s Papa, too, better than she did. She’d been just three when he vanished, and all she remembered was standing by his knee watching the night sky. Iro and Cait had known him better, and they told Sandy about him.

They said Papa loved stories about aliens and stars, so Sandy loved those stories, too.

“You think Papa read the special symbols? Maybe the aliens put him in the hospital!”

Momma said Papa was in the hospital ‘cause he didn’t know when to stop, but Sandy never knew what he was supposed to stop. Maybe he’d read the secret magazine too many times.

“You think that’s why Papa had to go away?”

Iro scratched his chin, sharing an uncertain look with Cait. “Eh…”

“You’re not really supposed to tell anyone when you read it,” said Cait. “It’s a secret.”

“Hush-hush,” Iro agreed, and their twin mops of brown hair bobbed in unison against Aunt Delly’s myrtle bush. Sandy relished in the excitement of their wonderful shared secret.

“I want to read the magazine!” She jumped to her feet. “Where do we buy it?”

But the twins looked mournful.

“We can’t buy the magazine,” said Cait, with a big sigh.

“They only sell it up in the city,” Iro put in. “And only if you got lots of money.”

“And you gotta know a secret code, or the seller won’t give it to you.”

Sandy wilted. “We can’t get the magazine?” What was the point of knowing about it if she couldn’t read the alien symbols and get powers?

“But we know where there’s a copy,” said Iro, and he lowered his voice as Cait looked cautiously around the yard again.

“Mikos keeps it under his mattress.”

A Skulk of Ghosts

They gather at his backyard every night. They sniff the pine-infused air, dark noses glistening with moisture, and orange-furred ears pasted to their skulls. Ivan watches through the patched screen door, the fine net stitching shallow indentations across his forehead.

The foxes are four in total: a vixen and her cubs. They prowl the swath of scraggly grass that connects his property to the outskirts of the forest. The cubs don’t seem interested in him. They chase, tackle, and nip each other, orange-black-white balls of yarn, tumbling. The vixen’s movements are slower, more deliberate. She doesn’t go near his cabin, only watches him as he stares back through the mesh screen, in his robe and slippers and skin coming apart at the seams.

Plum dusk gives way to muddy night, and the cubs yap and run back into the underbrush. The vixen lingers awhile.

She looks familiar. Painfully human. And he can’t tear his eyes away from her.


Theirs is a small village. On the rare occasion Ivan cycles to the shops for supplies, he hears people talk even when he doesn’t want to listen. The story goes like this: murderer; imbecile; hermit.

The rest he’s pieced together with the doctors’ help, but mostly on his own. He has all these photographs in an old biscuit tin. Baby photos and school photos and church choir photos. Then there’s Vera in a white sundress. Vera in a pearly wedding gown. Vera under a white morgue sheet. This last photo, shown to him while he was still in the hospital, isn’t actually in his possession—not outside his nightmares, at least.

What he knows but doesn’t remember: He was driving to the city on ice-slick mountain roads with his wife and kids when something darted in front of his car. Despite trying to swerve, he hit the creature and lost control of the vehicle. Fur and guts stuck to the grill of his car, which is how they could tell afterward that it was a red fox.

What he knows for certain, without rhyme or reason: The foxes in his backyard are Vera and the kids.

Now, he may have huge chunks of memories missing and little metal screws embedded in his skull, he may not remember how to tie his shoelaces so he only wears holey house slippers, but he hasn’t lost it—not yet and not completely. It’s not that his wife is a vixen, the three cubs their triplets. But maybe his family’s souls are trapped inside the foxes’ bodies. Maybe this is Vera’s reincarnation, there to torture him the way the Furies would torture murderers and breakers of oaths (to have and to hold and most emphatically to not kill in the mountains until death do us part).

At night, he hears them scratching and screaming by the vegetable patch outside his window. He lies awake in bed and counts the knots in the wood-paneled ceiling. Over and over again, he whispers, “I’m sorry I don’t remember you. I’m sorry I can’t feel sorry for what I did.”

With All the Soul of my Chemical Reactions


[1]

“I saw myself, running beside a cornfield, just after sunset.”

“Say that again, Mr. Flax?”

“I saw myself, running beside a cornfield. After sunset.”

“Yourself.”

“Yeah. But I was on my bike.”

“What did you—” the cop, who’s been asking questions through his boot-brush mustache groomed, or not, to hide the crooked buckteeth his slick cop benefits should’ve fixed by now, looks at his partner and flares his nostrils. “What did you do?”

“I foot-braked hard, swerved onto the gravel, called out.”

“And?” says Bootbrush. The other cop has been drawing what Pete can only guess are dicks in his notebook, bored as hell, saying nothing so they can get out of this shack, trying instead to make Bootbrush laugh. Pete watches him tilt the notebook over his paunch, ever so slightly toward Bootbrush, who strives valiantly not to look.

“He didn’t stop. I got back on my bike and came here, called you.”

Bootbrush, who had introduced himself as some dipshit cop name like Officer Sanderson or Anderson, makes a show of clearing his throat. Pete wonders if he ever chokes on one of his pubey mustache hairs. He raises his notebook, pretends to read from it. “So let’s get this straight. You were biking after sunset. You saw someone running in the ditch between the road and the cornfield. That person looked exactly like you in every respect. You stopped and called out. He didn’t stop.”

“Yep.”

“After sunset?”

“Yep.” Pete lolls his head back and sighs like an airbrake, but Bootbrush trucks on.

“What was the other guy wearing?”

“Jeans, white t-shirt, Kaepernicks—no, I don’t know, but nice shoes, real nice.”

“You sure you got a good look at his face?”

“Yep.”

“And he was running?”

“Yep.”

“After sunset?”

Pete opens his mouth to blurt some smartass joke about the definition of insanity—

“Mr. Flax, I think what Officer Blanderson”—Blanderson, dammit, thinks Pete, should’ve known—“is getting at is that it’s hard enough recognising someone in the day, let alone at night. And this guy was running.” The Dick Artist pauses, tilts his head to look curious, uncreases three neck-rolls in the process. “Have you ever consumed illegal substances?”

“What the hell does that have to do with anything?”

The Dick Artist rolls his eyes theatrically. This guy gets all his preteen-girl emotes from Andy, Mandy, Brandy, & Brad. “Just doing our jobs, Mr. Flax.”

Bootbrush—Blanderson—looks knowingly down at Pete’s pants, black tights with neon green pot leaves all over them, draws his lips into a messy line, nods I-told-you-so-y.

“Okay, first of all, no. Second of all,” Pete looks squarely at Blanderson, “your idiot government is still grandfathering out all the pot plants.” The second Harper government—led by the monomaniacal Harper, now using a wheelchair and a vat of stem-cell cream after a salvo of strokes, propelled by some unquenchable thirst for his since-won title of Canada’s longest-serving prime minister (23 years, 7 months)—had re-criminalised marijuana, after it had been legalised for nearly a full dozen years, in the first of Trudeau’s three lazy terms, and was now struggling to make good on that. “So this,” he pinches his tights and snaps them back to his leg, “wouldn’t be illegal if it was pot, which it isn’t. It’s fucking pants.”

A mischievous, no, a dangerous light glints in the Dick Artist’s beady eyes. “Don’t you fucking swear at us, Peterson. We’re here because you called us here, and you’re clearly fucking around. If we wanted to, we’d haul you in for one of the hundred other laws you’re breaking.”

Pete fumes, but sits rigidly still. Blanderson looks a little uneasy, keeps checking his oversized reinforced-poly watch.

“Whoever you saw, it wasn’t you. It’s not a clone. We don’t live in the fucking Black Mirror.” The Dick Artist, groundlessly proud of his thirty-year-old pop-culture reference, gathers his baggy legs under him and teeters off the low couch. “Don’t call us again, unless it’s serious,” he wheezes, clutching at the thin rail beside the door to catch his breath. “And stay away from the elections signs.” He turns to go, and Blanderson hops up and follows him out.

This Crated Sense of Anxiety

‘This Crated Sense of Anxiety’: 50 Years After Undipetra, Four Survivors Reflect on the Riot that Started a Revolution

by Andy K. Tytler, Features Desk
19 Esinat 7.00 RST

When veteran volitite miners Irro Tonhamgra and Ephrea Burold heard the shouting in the corridor, they assumed it was just the latest in the near-daily scuffles of that endlessly rainy winter. But then came the order from on high: lock it down.

‘We started the lockdown procedures, just going through the motions, you know, following orders,’ Tonhamgra says. ‘Didn’t realise anything was squint.’

We are sitting in Tonhamgra’s frontroom, a small but cosy space with a large picture window letting in the afternoon sun, and providing a view of the quiet street on the northeast side of Ofsoli, where Tonhamgra has lived since first starting as a packer at Undipetra Stand. Now Ofsoli is known for its trendy shops, quaint and affordable single-family detached homes, and excellent view of the stand, but back then it was just a place for the workers to live.

Burold sits on the sofa beside me, working his way through his third cherry biscuit. He lives a block away, also at the same address he was assigned when he first got the job in the laundry room on Rig 12. Each day they alternate hosting each other for lunch, then take a walk along the shore to watch the sun set over Undipetra. Both assert the daily walks and homemade meals are the secret to their longevity. He will be ninety-five this year, Tonhamgra ninety-six. Although Burold adds wryly that it might be all the cherry biscuits.

‘It wasn’t the first time we’d gone into lockdown, not by a long shot,’ Tonhamgra continues. ‘Not even the first time that winter. Everyone was on edge, what with all that sour-rain. It was the fifth week of it, and five weeks inside doesn’t suit anyone, let alone the Aviai.’

‘The whole place thrummed with it,’ Burold tells me. ‘Tempers flaring at the smallest thing, little scuffles and things breaking out a dozen times a day, accidents, sinks, mini-collapses through the roof.’

Tonhamgra nods. ‘The walls felt like they were closing in on us. There was nowhere for a moment alone, and all the time the rain, no sun, and the knowledge that you’re trapped. The whole rig was wrapped round by this crated sense of anxiety.’

She sighs and falls silent. Burold leans back wearing a pensive expression, his brow furrowed. Surrounding them on the walls of Tonhamgra’s front-room are old revolutionary posters and framed newspaper articles, including that now-iconic image of Tonhamgra at the march on the capital two months after the riot, hands up, arms trying to shield her face from the Civic Guard’s acid spray. The scarring on her left cheek, neck, and hands is gone now, long since replaced by skin grafts. Not so on her arms. She tells me when she catches me staring that she chose not to remove it. After all, she points out with a tone hovering between humour and reproach, she earned those scars, and she has nothing to hide.

After a lengthening period of silence, I prompt Tonhamgra to continue, but it’s Burold who picks up the story.

‘I was just about to put in my key so Irro could start the lockdown when we heard the cry for help, to wait, to keep the door open,’ Burold says. He’s still leaning back, his hands clasped together, and speaking without looking at me. The cherry biscuits are forgotten now. ‘We just sort of looked at each other, like “What now?” We both knew the official procedure is hermetic seals on all doors, no exceptions, but we’d also never been in a lockdown where there’s someone in the corridor begging not to leave them to die.’

Enter Tweil*, the Avia on the other side of the door.

Vigil

I receive word of my sister on a Wednesday morning in early May. My son Noah is out of school that day for teacher in-services; I’ve taken time off work to be with him at home. I’m making soup and sandwiches for us both when the call comes in–I take it over the kitchen speakers, assuming it to be work-related. “This is Kim.”

“Hi there.” The speaker is a woman, with a sunny voice and a hint of a Southern accent. “This is Judi with Puget Sound Oncology. Would I be speaking with Kimiko Fukada?”

I pause before replying–a phone call from a strange business entity, without video. Not an email, certainly not text or subvoc. I shift into a more formal register. “This is Kim speaking; how can I help you?”

“Great.” A few verification questions follow. “And our records show you as the surviving next-of-kin for one Noriko Fukada?”

I pause over the tomato I’m slicing. I recall a series of letters, dry official notices from the hospital. I started receiving them after our mother died, about eight or nine years back; after the first two or three, I simply threw them away. Now I set down the kitchen knife, slide the kitchen door closed with a gesture. “I’m sorry, what is this regarding?”

The Spirit Cave

We sit vigil by the fresh grave, waiting for my brother’s ghost for three nights and three days. The days are warm, but still short, and the nights are cold and long. Spots of snow still cling where the shade protects them.

When my brother finally appears, his eyes are empty, and he doesn’t respond to our voices.

“His spirit will heal,” my mother says. “It will just take time.”

Jehim, my intended, squeezes my hand. The rest of my family, living and dead, nod and mutter agreement. My brother has all the time in the world, now that he is a ghost.

My scrapes and bruises from the fight have healed, but the sick, angry feeling in my stomach has only grown with the passing days. I want vengeance. I want to crush the men who killed my brother. I want to hurt them so badly that it takes their ghosts centuries to recover.

“I am going to go to the spirit cave tomorrow,” I announce. Something that I can’t recognize flickers across my brother’s face. I storm away before anyone can object, and I feign sleep when my mother follows me home.


I rise at dawn, hoping to leave quickly and avoid talking about my decision. But my mother is already hovering over the breakfast fire, her hands fluttering like trapped birds. My father’s ghost stands behind her, his arms crossed over his chest. She hands me a bun filled with spiced rabbit, and says, “We love you. Please don’t do this, Narhana.”

I kiss her on the cheek, and I eat the bun as I take the path into the mountains.

The day is fine and clear, the air soft and filled with gentle sounds–birdsong, the breeze through the grass, the slow burble of the river. The rest of our family ghosts line the path that leads to the road. I ignore their frowns, but I walk quickly, not enjoying the intensity of their gaze.

I turn west when I reach the road, and I follow my shadow up into the mountains.

The sun is almost directly overhead when I reach the sacred spring. A ghost, one so old that her edges blur, regards me from the edge of the spring. “What brings you here, child?” she asks, her voice as gentle as the breeze through fresh spring leaves.

“I seek the spirit cave.” My voice is steady as I give the ritual response.

The ghost nods once and steps aside. “Once you are purified, you may walk the path to the cave of spirits. You must leave all of your possessions, though you are permitted to carry a stone to weight your steps.”

I strip and fold my clothing into a careful pile, then I heft a large, rounded stone to keep from floating across the pool. It takes both hands to hold it.

The steps that lead down to the water are cold and smooth beneath my bare feet. The water is glacier-cold, but I refuse to hesitate as I walk forward, one step at a time.

I almost cry out when the water hits my belly. My toes ache, and I can hardly feel the step beneath them. The water reaches my shoulders, then my chin. I take a deep breath and keep my eyes open as I continue forward.

The water stings, and the world swims around me. The cold seeps through my skin, settles into my bones, and I ache with it.

I’m grateful for the stone’s weight as I step down to the bottom, then start to climb up the steps on the other side.

My head breaks the surface, and I take a sobbing breath.

My grandmother’s ghost sits on a rock beside the spring. I am not surprised to see her. It’s only sensible that she is my family’s chosen representative. Their last hope of talking me out of my decision.

I reach the top of the steps, and drop my stone from shaking hands. I shudder from the cold and think longingly of the spring sunshine. But I stop before my grandmother, arms pulled tight to my body, naked and shivering.

“I understand why you want this,” my grandmother says. “But I also understand the cost.” Unshed tears glimmer in her eyes, and guilt twists in my belly. “Have you truly thought about what you will lose?”

“I choose to focus on what I’ll gain,” I say, tucking my freezing hands into my arm pits.

She nods. “You will have power. You will be able to avenge your brother.” Her hands tense into fists, then relax. “You would be able to protect our family.”

“If you understand, then why are you here to stop me?”

“Because I don’t think you’ve considered the costs.”

I shrug. “My spirit will be consumed, and when I die, I will vanish instead of becoming a ghost.” Ghosts are trapped to watch the world change around them, while they are frozen forever. I do not long to become one.

“But think of your life before then. Do you think Jehim will still want to marry you if you are sprit bound? Will he want to have children with you, knowing that you won’t be able to watch your grandchildren together after death? Knowing that eventually, you will vanish forever and he’ll be left alone?”

Jehim is a constant in my life. Like my parents. Or my brother. Our future has always seem set, immutable.

To lose him, too. It is unthinkable.

My grandmother sees my hesitation. “Your brother will recover. He isn’t gone.”

But his future is. There will be no wife for him. No children. Maybe Jehim will leave me. Maybe he won’t. I can’t control his actions. But I can control my own.

“My decision stands.”

My grandmother inclines her head. “Very well.” Her fingertips, feather light and ice cold, brush against my cheek. “Then you will need the key.”

“What key?”

“It is hidden in the pool.”

I am still cold, still shivering. My body still aches. I look back, at the water’s still surface. I don’t see a key. Still, I wade back in, one slow step at a time.

I pause on the third step. I can’t feel my feet at all, and I’ve stopped shivering.

The first ghost said nothing about a key.

Because there is no key. Only death in this pool, and then an eternity as a ghost. With enough time to forgive my grandmother for her lie.

I turn back toward the spirit cave and storm past my grandmother, too angry to look at her. She calls out to me, but I will no longer listen to her words.

The path is steep and rocky and my numb feet are clumsy. I stumble, right myself, stumble again. Blood drips from my elbow, my palm, my knees.

But I keep climbing, focusing on each step as it comes. Warmth gradually spreads through my muscles, but nothing touches the cold anger in my heart.

I am inside the spirit cave before I even notice it. The rocky ground gives way to sand, and I sag to the floor.

A tiger, his stripes night-dark against fur the color of moonlight, walks out of the shadows. His tail lashes back and forth as he approaches.

I am too tired to speak. I simply crawl forward and rest my forehead against his. His fur is warm, and when he flops onto his side, I curl up against him.

He has consumed a thousand thousand spirits, stripping out what they were in life and adding their strength to his own.

I offer him mine, and he takes it. Our spirits combine as his warmth seeps into my chilled body.

His strength is mine now, till my body fails. Till I die and become one more bit of power at his disposal.

He licks my wounds, his tongue dry and raspy and painful, but my wounds heal. I am no longer cold.

I do not know how long I stay curled against him, but eventually I roll to my feet.

I fashion myself clothing, weaving shadows and rocks into a dress that matches the color of his stripes.

I press my forehead to his again, then on impulse kiss his wet nose.

Even with my new power, I can’t destroy my grandmother’s ghost. But I could do her harm that would take lifetimes to recover. I can rip the men who killed my brother into a million tiny pieces with a thought. Instead, I continue up the mountain, past the spirit cave, to the icy peak. The cold can no longer touch me, and I sit and stare at the stars till the sun rises.

It is the first day of my new life.

My grandmother’s ghost appears beside me. “I didn’t want to lose you. Now, when you die, you’ll be gone.”

“No,” I say. “Now, when I die, I’ll become part of something greater than myself. And I think that is better.”

Soon, I will decide what to do to the men who killed my brother. But for now, I take my grandmother’s hand, because I can. And I forgive her, because I can do that, too. “Come on, let’s go home.”

Guinea Pig

The day my brother died I told him guinea pigs once grew ten feet tall.

“They weighed two thousand pounds,” I said, “and had tusks like elephants, which they used to defend themselves.”

He was looking out the window. I wasn’t sure if he heard me. The IVs in his arms weren’t working. On the table beside the bed was a picture of us with our old guinea pig Thoreau, whom we had stolen from the Institute where my brother was now housed.

This was about the time the coughing began, back when we thought his difficulty breathing was something he’d grow out of. We lived on the edge of the Institute and above us rose the bone-white buildings. For sixty years the Institute had been a home for tuberculosis patients. Scientists grew guinea pigs like Thoreau to inject them with serums and anti-toxins in the hope they might find a cure for the disease. When they finally succeeded and the buildings began to empty of tuberculosis patients, Mr. Wilkins, the last custodian, took care of the guinea pigs. When he died, we knew they’d be all alone.

The morning we went to save them, my brother had to stop often to hit his inhaler. We rested in the shade of the buildings among the old-growth pines. Pine trees were once thought to be an expedient for the cure of TB, and many of them had stood for hundreds of years. The Institute, despite the disease it holds within it, has always been beautiful. Our mother worked there for ten years, since just after my brother was born, but now she sits at home watching soap operas all day where people are suddenly struck down by terrible diseases.

At the top of the hill my brother said his lungs were burning, but he made it to the bunker where the guinea pigs were held. We had a key we’d stolen from our mother, and when we went in we saw them there in cages. There weren’t many left. We opened the cages and carried the guinea pigs—so small and warm in our hands, their hearts beating madly beneath their frail chests—outside, where we let them go.

The last one my brother kept. He named it Thoreau because they shared the same first name, or so I thought at the time. But maybe my brother already knew what was inside him—Henry David did die of TB, after all. We took Thoreau home, stopping often for my brother to hit the inhaler or rest beneath the big trees, me holding Thoreau and wondering what had been done to him in the secret rooms of the Institute where the scientists had, supposedly, saved the world.

We had him for less than a year. My brother would not cage him, and so Thoreau sometimes chewed through the baseboards and got beneath the house. Or he’d dart outside when our mother went on the front porch for a cigarette, and I’d have to catch him because my brother could not pass through the smoke.

The last time Thoreau got away my brother coughed so hard he began to shake. When he took the kerchief away from his mouth, we saw the fine spray of blood. Above us, the bone-white buildings stood like sentinels.

We always thought it was asthma, that he would eventually grow out of it. Turns out he was one of the first to get the new strain. Turns out tuberculosis can linger in small bodies and old buildings much longer than the scientists thought. We didn’t know then that the old diseases could come back. Or maybe my brother did, because he wanted desperately to find Thoreau. We looked under the house and all through the neighborhood and finally across the highway where the dark woods closed in. I could see my brother stopping often to draw in deep breaths and I thought he was dying, but I couldn’t get him to rest.

“We have to find him,” my brother said, voice almost unrecognizable, the handkerchief turned dark red now. In a month he’d be unable to get out of bed. Six months after that the Institute would re-open its doors, and he’d be the first patient admitted. The World Health Organization would send out its warnings, but it was already too late. The guinea pigs would be brought back. More tests run to try to stop the new strain that had sprung up all over the world. Some of the guinea pigs would escape the sterile halls where they were poked and prodded with needles, and before my brother died we could look out the window and see them all over the grounds of the Institute.

“That one looks like Thoreau,” he said once, not long before the end, which reminded me of the day I thought he was dying. His indrawn breaths sounded like sirens, or the first coming of some great cataclysm.

We never caught Thoreau. I saw him the day before my brother died, as I was walking back down to the house across the grounds of the Institute after visiting hours. He had grown as large as a house cat, but he ran when I got near. The next day my brother said Thoreau probably didn’t want to be caged anymore, which was why he ran.

“Did guinea pigs really weigh that much?” he asked. He would die in the night, alone. He looked so small in his bed. He had lost close to 50 pounds. The thin skin of his arms was bruised from all the drawn blood. We could see our house down the hill, and I knew he was imagining a world where Thoreau was as big as a mountain. Too big to be poked and prodded by men wearing sterile masks. Too strong to be brought down by any strain.

Always on My Mind

If you cut the main artery from some living organism and laid it out across an arid wasteland then, Sabbi supposed, you would have something much like the Strip. True, the Strip was inorganic, a man-made thing cast in concrete, steel and glass, but still it lived. There were places where you could stand and see the Strip stretching away like a ribbon of light across the night-time desert, unspooling for mile after mile, blurring into one featureless splash of neon advertising hoardings.

And sooner or later, it would bleed out and die.

But Sabbi had become expert at letting tomorrow take care of itself. Save your worries for the here and now: there were plenty of reasons to.

The crowds of shoppers ebbed and flowed–and that was good. They provided her with anonymity: a hundred thousand or more, thronging the broadwalks of the Strip on a hot summer afternoon, closeted by endless store-fronts and restaurants and coffee-houses–imprisoning them within the Strip’s rapacious jaws.

From behind the gleam of her sunglasses, Sabbi scanned faces, trying to avoid flat-foots mingling with the shoppers. Most of the cops wore the Strip-sponsored uniform–visibility a key part of their deterrent–but they came in a plain-clothes variety too. They knew all about the petty thieves, the grifters like Sabbi who worked the lower echelons of the Strip’s ecosystem. Flat-foots carried the authority of no lesser person than the Chairman herself to arrest-and-deport on sight. They also carried tasers delivering kick-ass voltage–not intended to be lethal but not something Sabbi was inclined to put to the test. Worst of all, they carried attitude.

And now the stolen bracelet was burning a hole in her pocket. Every fiber of Sabbi’s body could sense its bulk as she moved, its cool sleekness pressing against her thigh. You could find plenty on sale down the Strip worth ten times its price. But this one was special. This was a commission, lifted to order. These days, Sabbi only worked to commission. The payouts were lower but the work was steady, so it balanced out in the long run. And it helped make her feel more… legitimate. The way a professional business-woman ought to act. Yeah, go me with my worthless career aspirations.

Something didn’t feel right, though. A vague uneasiness gnawed at her. Nothing she could pinpoint, but you didn’t survive on the Strip without learning to trust your instincts. And right now those instincts were telling her this wasn’t worth the risk.

So just do it–and do it quick.

There was no shortage of marks to choose from. There was never any shortage on the Strip. That was the whole point.

She drifted closer to a young woman browsing store-fronts arm-in-arm with her boyfriend. Strip-standard attire said everything there was to say about her: wealth, privilege, arrogance. Perfect. Sabbi stumbled lightly into the woman, mumbled an apology, and the bracelet slipped into the woman’s shoulder-bag in one smooth motion.

Sabbi would drift for a while to get her composure back, but stay close. If all seemed okay, she’d find an opportunity to ‘reacquire’ the bracelet. No sense in wasting a commission payout. Nobody would be any the wiser. And no harm done, except maybe a tiny dent in profits for one particular Strip merchandiser, and frankly she considered them good for it.

Sabbi noticed a man watching her from thirty feet away, the way you do when one pair of eyes seems to be locked on you in a sea of oblivious faces. She felt her heart jump. She lifted her head, looking straight at him, letting him get a good look at her shades.

With the sunglasses on, Sabbi looked as if she had bug-eyes. The lenses had a clever faceted-prism design: transparent for the wearer, but appearing to everyone else like the compound eye of some nightmarish bipedal insect. And while the casual observer was trying to make sense of it–a hundred tiny reflections of their bemused face staring back from those lenses–Sabbi was checking them out, working out what kind of mark they might be, or what threat they posed. Or maybe sussing out an escape route. Definitely one of those, and sometimes all three at once.

She loved those shades. Sure, people noticed them, but they were meant to. And because they only ever noticed the shades, not the person wearing them, when she took them off it was like throwing an invisibility switch.

She side-stepped away into the thickest part of the crowd, slipping the glasses off, changing direction at random. Glancing back a couple of times, she caught only the briefest glimpse of the man. His movements seemed to lack urgency, but he was shadowing her moves and that couldn’t be chance. Sabbi quickened her pace, beginning to shoulder her way through strolling couples who didn’t move out of her way in time.

And now Sabbi could feel a buzzing at the base of her skull, a kernel of pain threatening to blossom into a headache. She ignored it and pressed on, puzzled at the surge of people suddenly moving in the opposite direction. A moment later, she heard it. Or felt it. Or–

Perfumes for the ladies! Maxine à la Mode! When it’s too hot to wear anything else! All kinds of perfumes!

The words slammed into her frontal cortex, assaulting her with almost physical force. No sounds though, just fully-formed words straight into her brain. Around her, people were dipping their heads and turning away, like a shoal of fish cleaved in two by a predator. Some were rubbing their foreheads, others muttering curses.

Maxine à la Mode! When it’s too hot–

Unwelcome thoughts and images exploded in her brain, thundering around inside her skull until she was sure she could feel her eyeballs vibrating.

She saw the hawker twenty yards ahead, his hand-cart piled high with bright packages of cosmetics. Sabbi knew most of the street traders in this zone, but here was a new face–frozen into a rictus smile that was fooling no one. In front of his stall, tethered to it by a thick ankle chain, the Thal paraded miserably up and down, issuing forth the mental torrent of advertising slogans.


Maxine à la Mode! When it’s too hot to wear anything else!

Maxine à la Mode!

Too hot–

Too hot–

Sabbi had never seen an actual live Thal, and certainly never got this close to one. As far as she knew, the few that had survived into adulthood had all been taken to isolation centers once the geneticists had finished dicking around playing god and the federal legislators had closed down the labs. This one had a stocky build, classically prominent brow-ridge with receding hairline and thick black hair allowed to grow long, but otherwise normal-looking. Not all Thals were strong broadcasters, but most showed the symptoms: predisposal to unilateral telepathic projection, an ability–if that was the right word–that laid bare their soul to everyone around. She tried to imagine what it would be like to uncontrollably broadcast your innermost thoughts to anyone within range, to forego even the most basic level of privacy.

And now this? Using a Thal as some kind of all-pervasive advertising gimmick? That had to be a new low. Though never underestimate the Strip’s ingenuity if there was a quick buck to be made. Sabbi shuddered, but she was damned if she couldn’t nearly smell that perfume now.

The Thal was tiring. His thoughts were losing focus, breaking up into an incoherent babble that mostly radiated hurt and loneliness and longing. The hawker yelled something incoherent at him but the wash of emotions only fragmented further.

The Thal continued to parade up and down, his head endlessly questing from side to side in that curious manner of the slow-witted, as though searching for something long since lost. He looked forlorn.

Sabbi let herself be carried with the flow of the crowd away from the hawker, the Thal’s thoughts beginning to fade from her mind. She’d lost sight of her pursuer, and that made her nervous. And she’d almost certainly lost her commission.

Something hard and claw-like gripped her arm, tightening inexorably. From behind, a voice spoke into her ear, foul-smelling breath assaulting her nostrils. “Prosser wants a word, my little lady-bug. Wants to know when he gets paid.”

“Ow! Let go of me! You’re going to cut my frackin’ arm in half!”

“Prosser’s not happy.” The grip tightened. Sabbi half expected to see blood staining her sleeve.

“I told you before, Crab. When I’ve got it, Prosser gets it.” Her fingers skittered uselessly over the pincer-like artificial hand squeezing her upper arm, trying to pry it loose. A tingling numbness was beginning to spread from the loss of circulation. Rumor had it that Crab had once snapped a man’s head clean off at the neck, like dead-heading a flower. Some poor unfortunate who had seriously pissed off Prosser. Just like her.

With no lessening of pressure, Crab began to maneuver her towards one of the narrow service alleys leading away from the Strip. The people flowed around them in an ill-temper, unsettled by the Thal’s blunt advertising message. Even now, something akin to the Thal’s carrier wave reached out to anyone within a hundred yard radius, broadcasting its jumble of resentment and misery; a cacophony of sub-vocal thoughts. It was like having some whiney two-year old living inside your skull. She glanced back and saw the hawker slip some kind of gauze hood over the Thal’s head–and immediately a calm descended.

“Look,” she told Crab. “Maybe there’s another way.”

“Oh yes, lady-bug. I like the other way.” The grip tightened a fraction and Sabbi yelped.

“Listen! What if I could set Prosser up with a shot at the Lakenbys store?”

Crab seemed to think about this. The pressure eased a fraction. She could almost hear the gears turning in his brain. “Lakenbys is not possible.”

Well, yes. They all thought that. The smart grifters stayed well clear. Lakenbys took security to a whole new level on the Strip: i-cams everywhere, beam interferometry on the display cases, item tagging–you name it, and Lakenbys had almost certainly implemented it. And there were too many staff with suspicious eyes. Management policy was ruthless prosecution of all grifters to the maximum permitted in law. But even Lakenbys had a weakness. Customers. You had to entice customers into the store–so long as they came with big fat credit chips. Draw them in, sell the goods, complete the transaction, send them on their way. In and out. And that meant being open and inviting. A pro like Sabbi sneered at the unsubtle nature of snatch-and-run, but really it was no different to the usual mode of business–except for the bit about the credit transaction. You had to be audacious and quick, and the staff had to be slow or off-guard. But it could be made to work.

“No, not possible. Not Lakenbys,” Crab repeated.

“Yes, possible. With the right kind of distraction. And I know just the thing.”

The Hungry Ghosts

“We aren’t here,” Lindsay said. “We’re just echoes of ourselves. Shadows.”

Kate watched Lindsay thrust her arm into the pedestal of one of the lion statues. Like the rest of her, the arm appeared solid, but when she pushed it into the stone it went in as if she–or the statue–were only a projection.

“If I still existed, I’d be able to feel that,” Lindsay said. Her brown eyes were rimmed with thick black liner, and she wore a navy hooded sweatshirt with “#Resist!” scrawled across the front in white fabric paint.

Whether she existed or not, listening to Lindsay made Kate tired. “If you didn’t exist,” Kate said, “you wouldn’t notice that you didn’t feel anything.”

“Consciousness is an illusion even when you’re alive,” Lindsay said. “It’s been proven by science.”

“So,” said Vicki, floating a few steps higher, “how do you know that you don’t feel anything? Maybe you’re deceiving yourself when you think that you can’t feel your arm going into the stone.”

When Lindsay didn’t answer, Vicki laughed. Vicki’s laugh always made it sound like she was delighted with whomever she’d been talking to, never mocking. “Watch out! I lived with a philosophy professor for five years.”

“When was that?” Kate asked. Like her and Lindsay, Vicki had been living alone when she died.

Vicki didn’t answer right away, giving Kate time to regret the question. She always asked either too much or too little.

“Until four years ago,” Vicki said at last. “He died of a heart attack.”

While Kate was trying to mumble an apology for having brought the subject up, Lindsay burst in with her usual tact. “When you say ‘lived with,’ you mean you two were a couple, right? Do you ever wonder what he’s doing now?” Ghosts could only see and hear others who had died within a few days of them. Those who died farther apart saw each other as increasingly indistinct apparitions, and those whose deaths had occurred more than a week apart could not perceive one another at all.

“It has crossed my mind,” Vicki said.

“Really?” Lindsay seemed not to hear the dryness in Vicki’s voice. “See, I think dying has been easier for me than for you two, because I didn’t have any false expectations about what the afterlife would be like. I thought we’d just, like, die, and there would be nothing.”

“How is that not a false expectation?” Kate asked. “Is that what happened?”

“Fuck you!” Lindsay said. “At least I didn’t think I was getting into heaven for not having sex with my boyfriend.”

Kate couldn’t even count the number of times she had tried to explain to Lindsay that her relationship with God was not quid pro quo, but Lindsay seemed unable to grasp any worldview outside her own narrow experience.

“See, I knew religion was crap even before I died and stayed right here,” Lindsay said. “You must feel pretty stupid now.”

Kate unfolded her limbs and stretched into an upright position, hovering inches above the floor. “The only time I feel stupid is when I realize I’ve wasted another hour listening to you.”

A Hunt for Gods

“Your town cripple told me I would find you here,” I said to the woman who crouched close to the earth beneath her, sowing seeds with more care than was necessary. Sowing seeds at all should have been unnecessary. So little technology on this planet, which meant everything took more time.

I’d had my fill of time.

“Are you deaf? Does everyone on this backwards planet suffer from some malady?”

Finally, she stood, and I could nearly hear the creak in her bones. The motion was eternal, but when she eventually met my eyes, at least there was some spark of intelligence there.

“My name is Aki-Atopo” said the woman, her smile fracturing her sun-worn face into countless wrinkles. “What is yours?”

“Jor Derenell.” The woman, like the rest of the village, was garbed entirely in a vaguely luminescent moss. It was green, and ugly, and gave off some odor I did my best to ignore.

“They say there is a god on this planet, that souls linger after they pass on.”

“Who is this ‘they?’” she asked, chuckling. “Sounds like someone needs a slap on the wrist for spreading our secrets.”

Such distastefully bland humor. “Will you take me to it?”

“Why?” she asked.

“I will ask it what comes next. If it is truly a god, it will know.”

She began to walk away. The gall of these people. I hurried to follow, but she was surprisingly quick, and matching her stride as she marched down the village’s main road took precious more energy than I would’ve liked.

“How did you find yourself here, Jor Derenell?”

“I flew here.”

“On your starship?”

“Yes, on my starship. Obviously.”

My lungs heaved. Even this minor exertion made me feel as though my body were stitched together by a half-blind seamstress. I needed to cycle. Soon.

“You are quite forthcoming in your answers, Jor Derenell. I’m sensing…” she said, rubbing at her temples in a poor pretense of mysticism, “that you are a people person.”

“Just tell me what you want.”

She turned to face me, suddenly serious. “You have not earned the right to know what I want. But do exactly as I bid, and I will show you a god.”