The Colored Lens
Henry Fields, Associate Editor
Table of Contents
- I Will Bring You Home by George S. Walker
- Me and My Heart by Anton Rose
- These Old Hands by Jamie Killen
- We Are Stardust by J. M. Evenson
- Lighting Fire To Ashes by Nathan Wunner
- A Life Lived Above by Dale Carothers
- Marching into Blue Climes by Rhoads Brazos
- A Memory, Perfected by Derrick Boden
- Others by Amelie Daigle
- Pixel Heart by Will Gwaun
- Miracles Wrought Before Your Eyes by Jude-Marie Green
- Darkly with the Shadows by C. Allen Exline
I Will Bring You Home
By George S. Walker
A thud of rock woke Sykeet, followed by a rattling of dislodged crystals against the woven walls of her hanging hut. There were no fire pots in her lower reach of the rookery. No light from the moons, either: a storm beat against the suspended village. Her wings twitched in the dark.
There was cursing, then a shriek of panic, “The fledglings!”
Sykeet darted from her hut like a harpoon, flying blind toward the crèche net. Her long wings beat the air, lifting her upward. Sleet hissed against rock, giving her only a minimal sense of location in the dark. More rocks thudded above. She heard the twangs of over-stretched ropes snapping.
She called shrilly to her daughter, “Kyree!”
There were voices in the dark: other mothers and the faint cries of fledglings. Then from above, a wild flapping of fabric and netting. She couldn’t see a thing.
The falling canopy hit her, a glancing blow that knocked loose feathers and sent her tumbling in the dark. She heard waves crashing against the rocky base of the spire below.
Sykeet caught air in her wings, regaining control. Still blind. The plummeting crèche net had fallen below her. She pulled her wings against her body and dove into what she hoped was open air.
“Kyree!” she called again.
The panicked brood, trapped in the net, screeched as they fell toward the sea.
Sykeet followed their cries. The net hadn’t snagged on the crystal-crusted spire. If she could catch it with the talons of her feet or wings, she might slow its fall.
But a gust from the storm blew her sideways, away from the screams. She beat air frantically, trying to get back.
There was a splash as net and brood plunged into the sea.
Cold sleet crusted her feathers, numbing muscles. Spray from the waves blew against her as she fought to stay above them, circling blindly and calling, trying to find her daughter.
Unable to see, she slammed into the spire. Pain shot through her. Dazed and disoriented, she grabbed hold, talons clutching crystals. Fragments cracked loose from the rock. She slipped closer to the waves. Sea spray filled her open beak as she turned toward the water. She choked and coughed.
Sykeet could only cling there, shivering from pain and cold, too numb to take flight. She listened for fledglings, hearing only the roar of wind. Waves pounded the rocky base below her. Her eyes stung from sleet and spray. When she tried to climb lower, more crystals broke off, nearly dropping her into the cold sea.
She folded her wings close against her to conserve heat, and pressed her head against the rock. The world had gone dark, taking the thing she cherished.
She shivered through the night, praying for some sign that her daughter had survived. She saw nothing, heard nothing.
But in the dark hours of early morning, she suddenly dreamt she was elsewhere. Sleet and spray still beat against her, but instead of the rocky spire, she felt she was pressed against something smooth. A net held her down.
Then the dream was gone, as quickly as it had come.
Other mothers from the rookery pried Sykeet’s talons from the rock wall in the morning. The storm had moved on, and she saw blue sky, red sun, and white clouds as they flew her in a net to the aerie above. Their voices sang in a melody of sad calls. Sykeet remembered singing to Kyree in the crèche net. Nothing could fill that void.
Wooden perches stuck out like a thorny crown around the spire’s peak, offered up toward the giant red sun. Sykeet’s stiffness began to thaw in the sunlight as she gripped a perch facing east. Despondent, she didn’t preen her green and yellow feathers, leaving them matted from the storm.
One of the mothers, Teeka, swooped onto the perch beside her. They were both silent for a time, then Teeka said, “There will be other broods.”
“Not for me,” said Sykeet. “Fate has destroyed me.”
“Some accept Fate. Some deny it.”
“What’s to deny?” Sykeet said miserably. “I heard the net hit the water.” She remembered the splash in painful clarity.
“They took it,” said Teeka.
Teeka cocked her head. “Didn’t you know? The Yantay.”
The Yantay rarely ventured near the spire. “How do you know?”
“They threw the rocks that ripped it down.”
Sykeet remembered the thud of rocks and the rattle of crystals falling on her hut. If a pod of Yantay had taken her daughter, drowning was a mercy by comparison.
Abruptly she had a vision, a dream turned inside out: She was trapped in the crèche net. Its knotted mesh pressed into her feathers, binding wings and legs. Only her curved beak was partly free as she breathed between cords of the mesh. Cold water spattered her head, spray that leapt from the crests of waves breaking against the thing she rode. She scratched at reptilian scales with her wing talons, feeling cold flesh beneath. Her claws had no effect.
Teeka’s words pulled her back to her perch atop the spire. “The Lord of the rookery’s fledgling was in the net. He’s pledged rank and treasure for his rescue.”
“I don’t want that! I want Kyree!”
“Just as well. The Lord wouldn’t grant them to a hen.”
Sykeet stretched her wings. She wanted to believe, wanted to save her daughter. But a search would only bring more heartache.
Except… the vision of Kyree had been so real.
“Which way did the Yantay go?” she demanded.
“You might as well ask the wind.”
“I’ll ask the Lord of the rookery.”
“You can’t go to him by yourself!”
“I died last night, Teeka, down by the sea. Come with me.”
“There’s nothing for me here but to finish dying.”
“Don’t be foolish!”
“Together we are two, Teeka.”
The Lord held court from a crystal cave chiseled into the spire. Lattices of rope and sea vines cascaded around the cave. The drakes clung to them, jostling for position in the swaying lattices. Their talons also clutched harpoons carved from reptile bones. Closer to the cave, the knights of the rookery wore spurs on their legs. Sykeet and Teeka had nothing. They were the only hens. If it weren’t for her daughter, Sykeet would never have come, and Teeka clearly wished she hadn’t. The knights were nearly twice their size, powerfully muscled, and the other drakes not much smaller. Sykeet took hold of a dangling rope of the lattice, beating her wings to keep from being hurled off as drakes above her whipped the lattice into a frenzy.
The Lord watched with hooded eyes from his perch in the cave. His feathers were pale from age, the feather barbs of his plumes brittle and sparse. But his curved beak was long and sharp.
The cacophony continued until the Lord finally shouted, “Silence!”
The turbulence of the rope lattices slowed, and Sykeet climbed higher. Teeka did not.
“Who vows to find the Prince?” called the Lord.
A chorus answered.
“Who vows to bring him home?”
The chorus was louder, sending the lattices swaying again. Sykeet hung on.
“Then follow my knights,” ordered the Lord.
The lattices jerked as the drakes took flight. Sykeet and Teeka were left behind as the drakes followed heading in all directions.
“Where?” cried Sykeet. “Doesn’t anyone know?”
The Lord glared out of his cave at the two stragglers.
“Why are you here?” he demanded.
“For the brood.”
“Why are you here?”
Teeka dropped from the lattice, fleeing.
Sykeet had nothing to lose. “Which way did the Yantay go?”
“This isn’t your hunt,” said the Lord.
“My fledgling, my hunt,” she snapped. Letting go with her talons, she plunged from the lattice.
Sykeet swooped down past where the mothers had rescued her, but Teeka had disappeared.
Ahead, high above the waves, she saw four drakes in an unbalanced V formation. She pounded air with her wings to catch up, breastbone straining with each beat.
The drakes dangled harpoons from ropes clutched in their hind talons. She had nothing. If there was a battle with the Yantay, it would be on their terms, not hers. She wished Teeka had stuck with her.
She was nearly to the trailing edge of the V when someone spotted her. A knight led the V. At the lagging edge was the flock’s rivener.
“Sykeet!” shouted the rivener. “Where are you flying?”
“I seek the Yantay,” she said, gasping for breath.
“As the bait?” The others in the V laughed.
“They took the fledglings!” she said.
“And you want the reward.”
“No. My daughter.”
“Yet you already threw your harpoon and lost it?”
Sykeet didn’t reply to the insult. They knew she had no harpoon.
“You should be home, weaving nets,” said the rivener.
At the head of the V, the knight turned his head, beak bright yellow in the sun. “Don’t get in our way.”
She struggled just to keep up outside the V. Her wing muscles burned from the effort. Was this even the right direction? The drakes surely didn’t know. Sykeet followed them only because this was the direction from where she’d spent the night clinging to the rock. She tried to remember clues from last night.
The Yantay swam in pods: one monster Alpha and a group of offspring. She’d watched them, but never gotten close. The reptiles had two heads on long necks, with a line of sharp dorsal spines sticking up. An Alpha must have led its pod to the spire during the storm, knowing the flock would seek shelter in their huts. A full-grown Yantay could hurl rocks gripped in its mouths farther than any harpoon. High enough to hit the crèche net. Enough rocks must have brought it down.
Afterwards the pod had swum away with the net. But rather than drowning the fledglings, they’d kept them alive. As she thought of Kyree in the net, her mental vision flipped upside down.
She was looking up from the sea, not down, still struggling in the net. Fledglings screamed as the jaws of a Yantay bore down on the crèche net. Bones crunched. One scream was extinguished. A rain of feathers scattered over the net. She smelled blood and felt herself huddle against another fledgling, beak down.
Sykeet desperately wanted to be there, to pull her daughter free. Was the vision real? If so, where was the pod? She seemed to see through Kyree’s eyes: gaze jumping between the weave of the net, Yantay scales, and a bloody mass of bones and feathers. The crèche net stretched along dorsal spines. And through the net she glimpsed a spire jutting from the sea: a double spire with a lace-work of crystals bridging the gap.
With a start, Sykeet emerged from the vision. She knew where that was.
She veered away from the flight the drakes were taking.
“Where’s she going?” one of them called.
“Who cares where a hen goes?”
But the rivener dropped out of the V to follow her. “Did you see something?”
“What do you care?” she retorted.
“Alone, you’re nothing,” he said. “What did you see?”
“I know where they are.”
“I don’t see anything.”
“I didn’t say I saw them. I said I know where they are.”
The rivener looked back at the receding V. “If this is a trick, Sykeet…”
“Come with me if you want to save them.”
“You’ve got gall, telling me what to do. I’m the one with a harpoon. You’re no more use in a fight than a fledgling.”
“You were flying in the wrong direction.”
“No one knows where they went.”
“Because you saw a feather on the waves?”
“Come or don’t come.”
“If you know where the pod is, you need me. Alone, you’re nothing but bait. What’s the point of that? Just drown yourself now.”
Sykeet held her anger. The important thing was to save Kyree.
“I’ve gone with a knight against an Alpha,” he said. “Harpooned one of the necks, then got clear while the knight attacked the other head. It takes strength and speed and skill. You have none of those.”
Though she ignored him, he stayed with her. She beat her wings, heading for the double spire, watching the dark green water below for feathers. She saw only silver flashes of fish below the surface. The vision had seemed real, but where was the proof?
He flew closer, not trailing as if he planned to rejoin the knight’s V. He wanted the reward and was betting she’d lead him to it.
“You came when none of the others did,” he said. “Either you know something or you’re grief-crazed. Which is it?”
“No. It’s one or the other, but you haven’t figured out which yet. Hens never know their own minds. That’s the fault of laying eggs.”
Sykeet clamped her beak shut, saying nothing. She needed him to help save her daughter.
“Since you know nothing of fighting, I’ll explain. This-” He swung his harpoon up by its rope, catching it deftly in the talons of his other leg. “-is a bladed harpoon. Not the same as a barbed harpoon. You’d hurl those at Yantay offspring, to keep them from diving. But an Alpha never dives. The blade pierces like a beak and comes out again just as easy. So you can strike again and again, at either head. You follow me?”
She nodded, to keep him from repeating.
“If this was a defensive raid, we’d go in with barbed harpoons, spear a few of the offspring, and retreat before the Alpha could reach us. But I’m betting an Alpha knocked down the net and took it. Attacking an Alpha is harder. Especially when there’s only one of us.”
The rivener wasn’t very good at counting. But he had a harpoon, which made up for it. She focused on the sea. The double spire stood up from the waves ahead. She hadn’t spotted a pod. An Alpha should be easy to spot with its serpentine body undulating on the waves. And sometimes the offspring breached with a splash.
He interrupted her thoughts. “How do you know?”
“How do you know where the fledglings are?”
“I saw the pod near the double spire.”
“Before you got here?” His voice changed, dripping disgust. “By flying with the dead in the clouds?”
She wished she hadn’t answered. This could take a dangerous turn. “Just a dream,” she muttered.
“You led me here because of a dream?” he shouted.
She tried to calm him. “I followed the net down during the storm. I spent the night clinging to the rock in the cold. Then I saw.” Better to say no more.
“How could you see in the dark?”
“I could hear.”
“You heard nothing!” he bellowed. “You foolish hen! You led me from the real hunt only because of your imagination.”
“Then go back!” The words were out before she could stop them.
She saw a white splash ahead, past the twin spires. She tried to see details with her huntress eyes, but the splash was gone. A breaching?
“To the right of the spire,” she said.
“What? Your dream?” he railed. “Your imaginary pod?”
Sykeet saw what might have been a rolling log with a branch sticking up. No, two branches.
“The Alpha,” she said.
There was another breaching near it. The rivener must have seen. He hooted and swooped down, low above the waves.
“They won’t have spotted us yet,” he said. “They can’t see like I can.”
She heard the eagerness in his voice, the thrill of the hunt.
“I have to plan this,” he said. “Only one of us, so only one chance.”
He seemed to be talking to himself.
“The sun’s behind me,” he said, “so they’ll see my shadow just before I strike. If this were a defensive foray, at least two of us would dive, a harpoon for each head. But it’s just me. Wait – you. You could feint for the second head. Can you do that?”
“I can do anything for my daughter.”
“Just be bait. Even a hen can do that. Fly as close as you can, otherwise both heads will attack me, and there’s no chance of saving the Prince.”
He was only thinking of the Lord’s son, none of the others.
They skimmed low over the sea, wingtips practically touching the waves with each downbeat. Sykeet was panting to keep pace with the drake’s huge wings.
The Alpha’s body undulated atop the waves. She could make out something on its back. That must be the crèche net, stretched like a web beneath its dorsal spines. The Yantay’s long necks swayed, heads bobbing ahead. Sykeet was too far away to detect motion in the net. Was Kyree still alive?
She remembered Kyree crawling in the net in the aerie, tiny wing and hind talons clumsily climbing from strand to strand each time Sykeet came to feed her. She remembered her delicate, almost transparent wings covered with soft, immature feathers. The net that had supported her was now her prison. If not her tomb.
“Three, four, five!” announced the rivener. “Five offspring around the Alpha. He gripped his harpoon with his right rear talons, rope in the left. “Bad to worse. And no chance of just pulling the net off the spines. It’s stretched tight. Have to cut it loose. Do you see the Prince?”
There was someone in the net. She couldn’t tell who. But she saw motion, a beak through the net. She resisted the urge to call out to Kyree.
“Time for strategy,” said the rivener. “I’ll strike at the right head. Unless it turns. Whichever I choose, you have to distract the other. Get in close enough for it to strike at you.”
Close enough for it to kill me, she thought.
There were at least three fledglings in the crèche net. Corpses, too: bloody remains of bones and feathers. The Yantay were taking their time, relishing their feast. Rage boiled inside her. Rage that could get her killed without saving her daughter.
The rivener’s long wings beat slow and steady. Sykeet’s were faster, frantic.
“Get ready,” he said.
One of the offspring’s heads turned, spotting them. It trumpeted, and other heads turned toward it.
The rivener beat his wings faster, diving in just as the Alpha’s heads turned toward him. He veered right, hurling his harpoon at the last moment. The blade plunged into the Alpha’s neck with a solid thud. He hung onto the harpoon rope, swinging the head sideways. Both heads trumpeted, then there was a crack of breaking vertebrae.
The other head was arcing toward the rivener when Sykeet swooped in, tail and hind feathers fanned out with a sudden “whump” of braking air.
The Alpha was startled, recoiling, and she collided with the head. Its jaws snapped on her tail feathers, and she gouged the single huge eye on its head with her beak.
It screamed, releasing her tail, and she beat her wings, desperately climbing into the air above it. Lost tail feathers swirled below her.
The remaining neck had collapsed at an unnatural angle across the Alpha’s back, spasming. The rivener landed on it. Tugging with the talons of both legs, he pulled loose the harpoon.
The other head should have been blind, but the neck curved toward him.
“I told you to distract it!” he roared. He flew toward the net stretched between the dorsal spines.
Sykeet glimpsed Kyree trapped in the net. Her daughter was alive! She swooped fiercely at the Alpha’s head, ripping loose scales with her talons. The jaws lunged toward her, just missing her pinions. The eyeball welled with blood. How could it still see?
She flew to the back of its neck and dug in with her hind and wing talons as it bucked. She bit deeply with her beak, tasting blood.
It hurled her free, and she tumbled in the air, barely gaining control above the waves. The Yantay offspring clustered around it, heads weaving dangerously near her, jaws snapping.
On the Alpha’s back, the rivener used his harpoon to hack at the net strung between the dorsal spines. The remaining head swung toward him again.
This time, Sykeet flew directly below the jaws, talons-first at its throat. She tore at its windpipe, and blood spurted. Air hissed from its torn throat as its roar of fury lost breath. She hung on with her talons, wings flapping for balance as the neck thrashed. The serpentine body below jerked, entering death throes. She had a sudden fear it would sink, carrying the crèche net into the depths.
The rivener had trouble cutting the cords with the bone harpoon. But as Sykeet hung on, she saw him drag free a struggling fledgling.
“Time to go,” he said.
He had the Prince.
“No! The other fledglings!” she shouted.
“I can’t fight all the Yantay.” Holding the Prince in his talons, he took flight. His harpoon dangled beneath one leg.
Kyree and another fledgling were still trapped in the net on the back of the dying Alpha. Blood jetted from its artery onto her feathers.
She dropped from its neck, beating her wings furiously as she pursued the rivener. He flew over the waves with slow, powerful strokes, carrying the Prince.
As she caught up, she turned her beak sideways and snatched the rope with the harpoon. She yanked. It jerked from the rivener’s talons. He swore, losing the rhythm of flight.
She veered back toward the pod. He shouted after her, but he had the Prince. He wouldn’t risk his reward for the sake of a harpoon.
She landed on the back of the Alpha as its head collapsed onto the waves with a splash. In the crèche net were Kyree, watching her with trust in her eyes, a crying fledgling she recognized as Toosa, and the mostly-eaten remains of the others.
The Alpha’s corpse was at the mercy of the waves now. The long body with its dorsal spines rocked from side to side, threatening to roll over. Sykeet shifted her grip on the harpoon.
Abruptly the net jerked back toward the Alpha’s tail.
She turned to see one of the Yantay offspring gripping the net in the jaws of both heads, dragging it into the sea. She tried to pull back, but her hollow-boned weight was no match. And the dorsal spines, once stiff on the Alpha’s back, had relaxed in death, offering no resistance.
She took flight, flapping toward the offspring by the tail.
She didn’t trust herself to throw the harpoon. She flew directly at the Yantay that gripped the net, wings beating furiously as she slashed with the bloody harpoon.
The Yantay trumpeted, releasing the net from both jaws. She kept flying at its heads, stabbing as the necks tried to weave out of the way. Blood sprayed over her feathers.
The Yantay dove to escape, but another lunged toward her, grabbing her dangling harpoon rope. As it pulled her toward it, she plunged the harpoon into its eye. It let go with a scream, and as she jerked the blade free, the Yantay dove beneath the waves.
Now there were only three of the offspring on the surface, necks weaving, heads trumpeting, wary.
She landed on the Alpha’s back and pulled at the net with her talons, unwrapping cords tangled around the fledglings. Then she feverishly sawed at the net, hacking through another cord.
Kyree and Toosa struggled out just as a Yantay pulled on the net. She let go of the harpoon. Grasping a fledgling with each leg, she beat her wings, lifting off from the rolling Alpha. Her heart hammered as she struggled above the blood-streaked waves, flying back toward the rookery.
Me and My Heart
By Anton Rose
I meet the man in a hotel outside of town. Room 304, just like he said. He’s there when I arrive, watching football on the television. “Shut the door,” he says, and I do.
He opens a briefcase and shows it to me: seven ounces of flesh suspended in liquid and plastic. “We good?” he says.
I reach into my purse and unfurl the bundle of money. Six hundred pounds, made up mostly of fives and tens, scraps of cash collected over the months, small enough to avoid drawing any attention.
We make the exchange, and the man walks towards the door.
“I don’t know how to do it.” I hesitate. “Can you help?”
“It’ll cost more.”
“Another two hundred.”
“I don’t have that much.”
He sighs. “How much you got?”
The forty pounds left in my purse is for groceries, but I can worry about that later. I hold it out to him.
He takes it, opens his briefcase, and finds a bottle of clear liquid with a syringe. “You got a knife? Needle and thread?”
He passes me the bottle. “Use this before you begin. Rest’s up to you.”
When I get home, it’s ten o’clock. I should have an hour before my husband gets back. I work quickly, checking diagrams on the internet before injecting the liquid into my side, just above one of my bruises. I use a kitchen knife, sterilised in boiling water. It stings at first, but the injection takes most of the pain away. I slice and carve with the knife, using a mirror to guide my trembling fingers until I make the final cut. For a moment, my senses plummet and the room feels darker, smaller, like all the texture has been buffed off the edge of the world. I make the switch.
He could be home any minute. I stitch myself back together with needle and thread, and it’s only then that I realize I haven’t thought about what to do with my old heart. I bury it in the garden.
I wait for the thump of his footsteps on the staircase, the sound of him fumbling at his clothes and climbing into bed. The smell of his breath, stale alcohol and smoke, his fingers in my hair and on my body. But the door never opens.
In the morning I find him asleep on the sofa. There’s a beer can on the floor, and a pool of sticky liquid where the dregs have drained out. I clean it quickly before making breakfast, and when he wakes he’s in one of his good moods, so things are okay.
When he leaves for work, I examine the stitching. It’s already healed. The lines I drew with the knife have come back together, and my new heart beats underneath.
Things feel different now, like someone has turned the volume down by a couple of notches, like they’ve gone into the settings and fiddled with the contrast.
In the garden, a flower has grown on the spot where I buried my heart. There’s a single rose at its head, red like blood.
The rest of the week is okay. I keep to my normal routines, making sure the house is clean and dinner is on the table when he gets back from work. The days blur into each other, a steady grey.
One day he throws a plate at the wall. It takes ages to clean all the grease, but I know he doesn’t like his meat cooked that way so it’s my own fault, really. He apologises later.
In the evenings, while he sits on the sofa watching television, I bring him drinks but I keep the pace slow so he never goes beyond the dulling stage. He touches me in bed, but if there are any marks still left on my chest, his groping fingers don’t find them. On Friday he comes home with flowers and a bottle of my favourite wine. The weather is fine so we eat outside in the warm air. I try to enjoy the wine but it doesn’t taste of anything. While we sit there he says it reminds him of one of our earliest dates. I see the rose in the garden and I wonder.
On Saturday night he goes out with the guys. He kisses me when he leaves, but when he returns in the small hours he slams the door and I know it’s time. He swipes at me clumsily, but when he tries to grab my arm his sweaty fingers slip and I escape into the kitchen. I grab a knife with one hand, the cordless phone with the other. I tell him to leave.
He smiles stupidly and slurs his words. “Come on, baby, why all this?”
In my chest, my heart is steady. “If you come near me, I’ll use this knife, and if you don’t leave, I’ll call the police. I mean it.”
“You’re feisty tonight, eh?”
I begin to dial the number.
He holds his hands up, smirking. “Okay, okay …”
When he’s out the door, I put it on the latch and speak through the gap. “I don’t want you to come back. Not ever. It’s over. I mean it.”
He laughs. “You can’t live without me, honey. You know that, and I know that. We love each other. We need each other.” He walks away. “I’ll see you soon,” he says.
When he’s out of view, I close the door.
He thinks it’s going to happen like all the other times. He’ll come back grovelling, tell me how much he loves me. That he’s sorry, that it will never happen again. And I’ll take him back.
This time the locksmith will be here in an hour. This time I’ll change my details at the bank. This time I’ll go to the courts, get one of those orders. And this time I won’t feel anything.
These Old Hands
By Jamie Killen
Frances heard a shriek as she approached the cottage door. Joseph hovered outside the threshold, twisting his cap in his hands. “She’s bad, Frances. Says she can’t take the pain.”
The old woman gave him a dismissive wave. “Ah, she’ll be fine, lad. It’s nature’s way.”
“What should I do?” He was barely more than a boy, less than a year married. His face, normally nut brown from working in the fields all day, had a grey cast to it.
Frances shouldered past him, Margaret right behind her. “Just stay out of the way, boy, and let us work. I’ve never lost a baby nor a mama yet, and I don’t intend today to be my first.”
Inside the cottage was dark, air thick with the smells of smoke, sweat, and urine. Frances could dimly make out Essie’s form writhing on the small bed against the far wall. “Margaret, get the window open and put on water to boil,” she said, rummaging in her bag of supplies. The packets of powders and herbs went on the cottage’s rickety table; Margaret would know without being told how to mix them.
Frances carried the birthing stool and linen to the bedside. “Now then, young Essie, let’s have a look at you.”
Essie’s round face glistened, her cornsilk hair flattened against her scalp. “Oh, Frances, it hurts something terrible. I think something’s wrong.”
Frances pushed back the blanket and peered between Essie’s legs, pressing one hand against the swollen belly. “Nonsense, girl. Your mother said the same thing when she birthed you, and you were no trouble at all. We’ve time yet.”
While Margaret boiled water and brewed the herbs, Frances got Essie out of bed and on her feet. At first she resisted, but Frances eventually got her to walk a circle around the small room. When Essie’s next labor pains struck, the old woman helped her sink into a squatting position on the low birthing stool. “Margaret, hold her up.”
Margaret set aside the cup of brewed herbs and moved to support Essie’s lower back. She was a thin, fragile-looking girl, but Frances knew she was far stronger than she seemed, and holding up Essie’s limp weight posed no challenge. Frances eased down onto one knee, wincing at the stiffness in her bad hip. Pushing up Essie’s skirt, she leaned down to check her again.
At first glance, it appeared to be the start of a normal crowning. The lips of the vulva were stretched over a round, smooth surface, one a little bigger than a balled-up fist. Then Frances frowned and took a closer look. It was the right size to be the baby’s head, true, but it was too dark, too shiny. Even if Essie had been bleeding, it wouldn’t have stained the scalp that deep, gleaming black.
When Frances leaned up, Margaret’s sharp brown eyes were watching her. Breech? she mouthed from behind Essie. The midwife shook her head.
“Essie, bite down on this, now. I’ve got to reach in.” She passed Margaret a leather strap and smeared her fingers with goose grease from a small jar.
Essie tensed and let out a groan when Frances slipped her fingers past the mass. Frances felt around the sides of the object, pulse quickening with each moment that passed. The shape her fingers traced was a smooth ovoid. No limbs, no face, no bones. In place of soft, yielding flesh was a slick carapace or shell, hard as stone under Frances’ fingers. As she explored, there was a flutter, some tapping from within, a pulse or a kick.
“What is it? What’s wrong with him?” Essie’s voice came out shrill and garbled around the strip of leather.
Frances forced herself to meet Essie’s eyes. Poor girl, she thought. And it’s her first. “We can’t know till you’ve birthed,” she said, and could see that Essie was too scared to ask again.
The rest of the labor Frances handled like any other, instructing Margaret to rub Essie’s back when the pains came, applying salve to prevent tearing and blood loss. When the time came to push, Margaret moved to ready the linens. Frances watched her face, could see the shock pass over her features when she saw what was coming out. But then the girl steeled herself and looked away, busying herself with preparations. Frances took Essie’s hand in her own arthritic fingers, not allowing herself to wince no matter how hard the girl squeezed.
It came out smoothly, and Frances could see right away that Essie was in no danger. Margaret caught it as it slipped from between Essie’s legs, a perfectly even, black shape, like obsidian with the edges smoothed away. There was no cord, nothing attaching it to Essie’s body. Margaret’s hands trembled as they held it, her throat working as she swallowed convulsively.
“Why isn’t he crying?” Essie gasped. “Why isn’t he crying?”
She leaned forward and saw what she had delivered into the world, and the scream that ripped from her throat seemed to pierce Frances down to her bones.
By the time Frances and Margaret emerged from the cottage, Father Godfrey and the steward had arrived and stood waiting with Joseph. The sun, which had been high when Essie’s labor began, touched the horizon. “Well, is it true?” the steward demanded.
“Is what true, Master Hugh?” Frances asked, unable to conceal her irritation.
“That there has been a demon born here.” He was a short, stocky man with rough peasant’s features but an immaculately trimmed beard and a fine wardrobe. His pale face reddened when he was angry or nervous; at the moment he appeared nearly purple.
“What about Essie? Is she ill? Can you not help her, Frances?” Joseph pleaded.
Frances patted the young man on the arm. “She’s had a shock, but she’ll live. We gave her medicine to calm her and help her sleep.”
Joseph shifted from one foot to the other, eyes darting toward the cottage door. Father Godfrey cleared his throat. “And what of the… the birth?”
Frances turned to Margaret. The girl held a basket in front of her, awkwardly, not letting it touch her body. She set it on the ground and took a hasty step back. Frances reached down and lifted the soiled cloth to reveal what lay inside.
“Mother of God,” the steward breathed. Father Godfrey made the sign of the cross, eyes wide. Joseph, seeing it for the second time, let out an anguished gasp and moved a short distance away from the rest of them.
It lay cushioned by linens as though it were a real child. Dotting its surface were flecks of blood and mucus, residue that Frances would have cleaned off of a normal baby but could not bring herself to do now. As she pulled more of the cloth away to reveal it entirely, it gave a little twitch.
Hugh darted back as if it had sprung at him. “What is it?”
Frances pursed her lips, shifting to her good leg. “You think I know?”
“You’re the midwife. You delivered the thing. How can you not know what it is?”
“Well, I know it’s no baby,” she snapped.
Father Godfrey inched closer and bent over to inspect it. The hem of his cassock trailed in the dust before his feet. “Has it been moving since the birth?”
“Since before,” Margaret murmured. “We attended to Essie throughout her pregnancy and always there was kicking. What we thought was kicking.”
“Clearly, it is of the devil,” the steward interjected.
“Ye’re an expert on devils now, are ye?” Frances muttered.
Hugh shot her a poisonous look and turned to Father Godfrey. “What is your opinion of it, Father?”
The priest bit his lip, eyes fixed on the thing in the basket. He was a tall, thin man with a face younger than his years. His sandy hair and large grey eyes always reminded Frances of a skittish fawn. “I have never heard of its like,” he said at last. “It looks like an egg, but seems to made of some stone or mineral…”
“Well, we can see that. Could it be that the woman fornicated with a demon, producing this?” the steward asked.
“You shut your foul mouth!” Joseph shouted, rushing toward Hugh. Father Godfrey managed to get between the two men before blows were exchanged. Frances glanced at Margaret, who eyed the steward with undisguised contempt.
“You are obviously under duress, so I will forget that this incident occurred,” Hugh said, adjusting his jerkin. “But it is plain as day that that thing is a source of evil. If it is an egg, then it will one day hatch, and I do not wish to see what is inside. ”
“That does not mean it was Essie’s doing,” Father Godfrey replied, holding up his hands in a placating gesture. “It could be the result of an evil committed against her.”
“Who could perform such a curse?” the steward asked.
None of them spoke. The only sound was the clucking of Essie’s hens as they pecked in the dirt around the wood pile. “Would you have any knowledge of how to perform such a spell?” Hugh stared at Frances as he asked the question. Father Godfrey’s eyes widened and he bit his lip.
“Don’t be daft. I know nothing of spells,” Frances said, lowering herself into a sitting position on the chopping block next to the woodpile. She forced herself to sound bored, secretly wondering if the day had finally arrived, as she always knew it would.
The steward folded his arms. “It is said that no mother or child you have attended has died. Surely the villagers exaggerate?”
To her left, Frances felt Margaret’s body tense. “Tis no exaggeration,” Frances answered calmly. “All have lived, although some do not show due gratitude.”
Hugh’s face darkened further. Frances remembered the day he slid into her arms, blue and still with the cord wrapped around his neck. Two breaths into his sticky mouth and a slap to the arse had forced air into his lungs and set him squalling like any other newborn. Francis wondered now if she should have slapped him harder.
“I’d wager that such success is unknown, even for the most skilled midwife. One might be forgiven for suggesting it might even appear to be sorcery.”
“Frances is a godly woman, Master Hugh. It is not her doing,” Father Godfrey interjected quickly.
“Oh,” the steward said, raising an eyebrow, “you are certain of this?”
“Surely you are aware, Master Hugh, that all midwives must receive the approval of the bishop himself.” Margaret’s voice came out low and mild, but her glare was like frost. “Frances has had permission renewed by three successive bishops, one just last year during his visit to the manor. Do you suggest that the bishop is incapable of identifying a witch?”
The steward’s eyes widened. “I suggest no such thing! I simply–”
“Well, then, let us stop wasting time and discuss what to do with the abomination.” She folded her hands primly in front of her apron. Frances had to feign a fit of coughing to hide her laughter.
Joseph stared at the basket with loathing. “We destroy it. We break it open and kill whatever is inside and burn anything that remains.”
Father Godfrey picked at the front of his cassock. “We are not yet certain that it is of demonic origin…”
“I am.” Joseph strode to the woodpile and seized his ax. The priest and the steward took several steps back, giving him wide berth.
Hefting the ax in both arms, Joseph paused, a hint of doubt in his eyes. Then, shaking his head once, he lifted it over his head and brought it down on the egg.
There was a clanging sound, like the church bell, and the ax bounced back into the air. Joseph staggered back, nearly dropping it. From where she sat on the stump, Frances peered into the basket. The thing appeared untouched.
“Here,” the steward said quietly, holding out his hand, “let me try.”
He met with no better result. “It’s like trying to cut an anvil!” Hugh gasped, rubbing his right hand in his left.
“Perhaps…” Father Godfrey fished a small vial out his pocket, recited a prayer, and dribbled holy water over the black shell.
They waited. Margaret reached down and nudged it with one knuckle. “I feel no movement.”
Frances hauled herself to her feet and touched it with the toe of her shoe. It immediately began to twitch, rocking back and forth within the basket.
“It seems to respond only to you.” Hugh said quietly, eyeing Frances. Nobody replied.
By the time full night had descended, they had determined that neither blades, nor fire, nor the touch of a crucifix could kill what had emerged from Essie’s womb. Frances’ back ached from sitting so long, and she shuffled back inside the cottage to check on Essie again. The girl still slept; Frances had given her enough tincture of opium to ensure that she would not wake until morning. She had no signs of fever or infection; Frances wondered what illnesses could arise from birthing such a thing, and if she would be able to help if Essie showed symptoms.
Back outside, the steward and the priest argued about what to do with the thing overnight. “It cannot come into the church!” Father Godfrey protested.
“Well, it cannot be left here. And it certainly will not be taken to the manor,” Hugh objected.
“We should have the bishop’s counsel,” Father Godfrey fretted.
The steward sighed. “A message will not reach him for two days.”
Finally, they agreed that it would be locked in a chest and buried until they received instructions from the bishop. Father Godfrey set off to the church to fetch a chest while Joseph and the steward stood guard. “We’ll be on home, then,” Frances announced, climbing to her feet with a groan. Hugh looked like he wanted to object but held his tongue.
Margaret laid a hand on Joseph’s shoulder. “We’ll be back early to tend to Essie.”
He nodded, defeated stare fixed on the egg.
Margaret and Frances said nothing on the walk back to their hut. Once inside, Frances settled in front of the fire with a long sigh. The hut was small but well-built, with bundles of dried herbs hanging from its low ceiling. It smelled of rosemary, onions, and the rabbit stew they had left simmering in the hearth when they left. Margaret lifted the lid of the stewpot and stirred its contents with a ladle. “Perhaps it is not wise for you to anger the steward so,” she murmured without looking at Frances.
“Hm. I could get on my old knees and kiss that bastard’s boots, and he’d still think me a witch.”
Margaret said nothing until they finished their meal. “He was right about something. It responds only to you.”
“Aye,” Frances said quietly, adding a stick of wood to the dying embers of the hearth.
“Could it be,” Margaret began slowly, “that it is not Essie who is the target of malice, but you? How better to strike against a midwife?”
Frances said nothing. Half of her hoped that Margaret’s wits failed for once and led her to the wrong conclusion. The other half wanted to tell her.
Margaret continued. “But there is no one in this village who you have angered, besides the steward, and I doubt that such a boorish fool would have the knowledge for magic. And no one could find fault with your midwifery; everyone knows that many children and mothers would die without your skills.” Her sharp features radiated intensity. “So the question is, who would benefit from stillbirths and women dying in labor?”
Frances gazed into the hearth. She could feel Margaret watching her. “It’s not all skill,” she said at last. “A lot of it is, mind. I learned my trade well, from one who knew it well. But there’s more to it. These hands…” She smiled bitterly and gazed down at her fingers, gnarled and twisted as the roots of a tree. “These old hands, they can conquer demons.”
“The first time was me fourth birth. I remember it well…
I was still young then, still apprenticed to Old Hannah. I knew much already, all of the herbs and elixirs, knew when it was proper to use feverfew and ground willow bark. I could see when there be twins and know the place of the unborn babe in a mother’s belly. But I had not yet delivered a baby on me own, and the thought of managing without Old Hannah scared the life out of me.
This time was a hard labor of a woman who had birthed five times before, with only one baby living. Her pains lasted through the night and into the morning. By the time she was ready, she was almost too spent to push, wouldn’t until Old Hannah gave her a good talking to.
I myself hadn’t slept. Bone-tired, I was. I didn’t even know the baby was coming out until Old Hannah gave me a slap and told me to pay attention.
It was without breath when it came out into Hannah’s hands. But I could see it had no cord around its neck, knew it had moved only hours before. Knew it should live. Old Hannah tried to bring it back, flipped it over onto its tum and gave it a smack on its back, but it still didn’t breath.
When Old Hannah turned the little body over on its back, that’s when I sees it. At first I thought it was a caul, but a caul wouldn’t be black. It was something alive, something black fixed on the baby’s face, like a little patch of black fog. There were no eyes or arms that I could see, just a wee mouth, and it had it around the baby’s.
I was scared out of me wits, I don’t mind telling you. I screamed like a fool and backed away, but Old Hannah didn’t even see it. She just yelled at me to bring the bag, stop being such a ninny.
I knew why she wanted the bag. She’d given up on the poor thing, needed the holy water to say the sacraments since there was no priest. Well, I wasn’t having that. I didn’t even think about what I was doing, I just stepped over and ripped that evil thing from the baby’s face. It fought me fierce, it did, tried to stay stuck to his little mouth, but I got the best of it. The moment I got it off the baby, it just broke apart, turned into soot and dropped all over the floor.
‘What are you doing?’ Old Hannah asks me, spitting mad. I ignores her, for once, and touched the baby’s chest. Didn’t know why, just that I had to. I felt something, something moving between me and it, and then its eyes opened and it started to cry.
“Old Hannah saw it happen. She looked at me like I was the Holy Virgin her own self. But we never talked of it, not once until the day she died. I’m no witch, you see. There’s no spells or deals with the Devil. But when a child is born dead, I can bring it back. And when it is born with one of those demons…”
“You destroy them.” Margaret’s eyes were wide. She was silent for a moment. Then: “This is not a skill that can be taught?”
Frances covered the girl’s hand with her own. “No, child. I don’t even understand how I do it.”
Margaret took a deep, shaking breath. “And when you are gone and I am village midwife, children will start to die again.”
“Yes. Not many. Ye’re a good midwife, Margaret, better than I ever was. Better than Old Hannah, even. But there’ll be some with demons, or ones who are beyond teas and medicines.”
“And I’ll be powerless to save them.”
Frances was silent for a time. At last, “Ye’ll save more than ye lose, girl. That’s what you must remember.”
She waited while Margaret cried in silence, just a steady drizzle of tears trailing down her stony face. When the girl was finished, she let out one heavy sigh, wiped her cheeks, and began tidying up after their supper. “You believe the thing Essie birthed has something to do with the demons you’ve thwarted?” she asked, scrubbing one of the bowls.
“Don’t see any way around it. It don’t look like one of em, but it has the same feel.”
“But this one survives your touch.”
“Aye. They found a way to send something I can’t kill. I think it’s the shell keeps it safe.” Frances stood and shuffled over to her pallet. “I’ll sleep on the matter. Tomorrow we’ll decide on what’s to be done.”
Frances woke before first light. At first she thought it was the throbbing ache in her joints that had woken her, as happened most days now. But her heart pounded and there was the tang of fear in her mouth; she made herself still and listened for what had broken her sleep.
There. Something rustled outside the door. Frances rose as quietly as she could, slipping past Margaret’s pallet. She found their one carving knife and gripped it in her trembling fingers. Pausing with her hand on the latch, she listened for what lay beyond the door. All was quiet.
Before she could lose her nerve, Frances lifted the latch and flung open the door, knife ready.
The egg lay on the ground outside the hut. As Frances took a cautious step toward it, it began to rock back and forth. Even while standing several feet away, she could hear the sounds emanating from it. These sounds weren’t weak clicks and stirrings, as before; now it was a hard, steady series of taps, a chisel on stone.
“Frances?” Margaret’s sleepy voice drifted out from the hut.
“All’s well, Margaret. Stay inside.” Frances tore her gaze away from the thing, fixed her eyes on the smear of heather grey where the sun would soon spill over the horizon. She wrapped her shawl around her shoulders and held her arms closer to her body in an effort to ward off the morning chill. Winter was coming on fast, she knew, but at that moment she realized that she would never see another snow. That’s something, at least, the old woman thought with a grim smile.
Margaret appeared in the doorway. “How…” she breathed.
“Impatient little thing, isn’t it?”
“No.” Frances cut her off. “Breakfast first. We’ll deal with this thing after we’ve eaten.” As she shuffled back to the hut, Frances aimed a solid kick at the egg, sending it rolling across the garden.
As instructed, Margaret prepared a hearty breakfast, far larger than their usual meals. Bread with honey, cheese, bacon. Frances ate slowly but finished everything in front of her. Margaret merely picked at her food.
“The steward will find the box unearthed and empty. Do you think he will think to look here?” she asked at last.
“Before, we could deny that it was anything to do with you,” Margaret pressed. “But since it has come here… What if Father Godfrey changes his mind, begins to think you a witch?”
Frances let out a laugh. “Godfrey’ll never turn on me. He knows I know too much.”
Margaret raised a quizzical eyebrow. Frances leaned close and lowered her voice to a dramatic whisper. “Next time you see young ones playing in the village, see if you can spot the one who has his eyes.”
Margaret’s mouth dropped open, but she said nothing.
Frances continued. “That bloody Hugh, on the other hand…”
The tapping outside grew louder. Margaret rose and peeked outside, opening the door only a crack. “Frances,” she said, voice tense.
Pulling the door all the way open, Frances squatted down to examine the egg. There was a tiny hole, scarcely bigger than a pinprick. Something sharp and white emerged from within, chipping and scraping until another tiny piece fell away.
“That’d be the egg tooth,” Frances murmured.
She stood. “Margaret, Essie’ll need checking. Go to her and make sure there’s no fever.”
“I’ll not be leaving you alone with this!” Margaret protested.
“You’ll do as you’re told, girl.” Frances said the words sharply, though it pained her to be harsh with the girl.
Margaret bit her lip and slowly started gathering her supplies. Frances watched her in silence for a moment. “It’s Widow Cavendish. The one what had a child by Godfrey. He had me convince her to remain silent, but she’d speak if the story needed telling. And Master Hugh bedded the lord’s daughter. She came to me and I gave her what she needed to kill it in the womb. But you must speak of that only if Hugh makes an accusation, only if it means your life.”
Margaret slipped the bag over her shoulder. “Why are you telling me this?”
“All my secrets are yours now.”
“What will you do?” she asked quietly.
Frances crossed the room and embraced the girl. “Only what must be done.” She patted Margaret’s cheek. “Don’t you worry. This old woman’s got a trick or two yet.”
Tears welled up in Margaret’s eyes. “Frances, please…”
“Go now. Off with you.” She waved a hand at the door.
Margaret hesitated, opened and closed her mouth. Finally, taking a deep breath, she walked out of the hut and started on the path to the village. Frances waited until the girl disappeared over the hillside before gathering her things.
By the time Frances approached her destination, her lungs burned and her clothes were damp with sweat. “Right pain in the arse, you are,” she puffed, dropping the basket in the grass. “Making me walk all this way.”
She settled on the ground to catch her breath. Below her stretched the rocky valley north of the village. Just one or two paces from where she sat, the ground dropped away into a crumbling granite cliff face. Peering down, Frances caught sight of the stream running along the valley floor. She remembered walking there, once, when she was young. It had been a long, difficult journey to the bottom of the valley, but there had been sun and cool water and a boy she might have wed had things gone just a bit differently. Smiling, Frances let herself linger on that memory.
The sound of the thing in the basket broke her out of her reverie. There was a crack as a large piece of shell gave way, revealing something darker moving inside. A black, jointed limb reached out, grasping, but it could not yet escape.
“Five hundred and fourteen,” Frances said. “That’s how many babies I’ve helped to be born. And those ones grew up and had babies themselves. There’s little ones today whose mothers and grandmothers I’ve looked after. Never had none of my own, but I’ve still brought more life into this world than you can imagine.”
There came a snarl from the basket, egg rocking back and forth as another piece of shell fell away.
“And that,” Frances continued, “is something I won’t let anyone undo. I don’t know where ye’re from, but I know you was sent for me, and that must mean you can kill.
“But ye know what else?” She smiled. “An egg keeps a chick safe. Without it, the poor thing’s helpless. If ye had to hide in such a strong shell, it must mean you can be hurt.”
One side of the egg crumbled. Another limb stretched out, dragging a leathery wing along with it. Frances rose to her feet.
With one last, shuddering spasm, the shell broke apart. A dark, spindly shape launched itself out of the basket, speeding toward Frances. She caught sight of the wings, and teeth, and legs, too many and too long. Then it was upon her, serrated fangs sinking into the flesh at her throat. Run, her body screamed, fight! But she forced herself to take hold of its wings, squeezing them tight in her fists. A bone under the stretched skin cracked beneath her fingers, and the thing tried to push away, snapping its teeth and shredding the skin of her chest with its claws. Frances felt liquid warmth flowing from her neck down to the ground, knew the pain was soon to follow.
“These old hands, they can conquer demons,” she whispered, and, holding the creature to her breast like a child, she stepped off the edge.
We Are Stardust
By J. M. Evenson
If Lily could’ve strangled Susannah, she would’ve. Unfortunately people were watching.
“You were looking at my boobs,” said Susannah. They were standing in the locker room. Three shorter girls circled Susannah like wolves. Susannah was naked apart from her lace panties, and she had Lily cornered.
“I already told you, I wasn’t,” said Lily. Actually, she kind of was. They were ridiculously huge. Also, Susannah was standing right in front of Lily, so there was nowhere else to look.
“Oh my God, why are you lying?” said Susannah. “It’s natural to be curious about the human body.” Susannah was both cunning and vain, a mixture that had become toxic when she hit puberty. Her weapon of choice was sarcasm. Susannah never, ever meant what she said. “I mean, it must be hard for you. Everybody knows you’re delayed.” Susannah let her voice linger on that last word as she looked at Lily’s training bra. It wasn’t even half filled.
A crowd grew as the four girls closed in around Lily.
“We’ve all been there,” said one of them.
“Trust me,” said the other.
“If you have any questions, sweetie, just let us know, okay?” said the third.
Crimson circles scalded Lily’s cheeks. “Leave me alone,” said Lily.
Susannah dug a finger in Lily’s underpants to look and let it snap back. “Holy shit, she’s smooth like a Barbie!”
Susannah was lying. But it didn’t matter. Everyone laughed. The sound of it ricocheted off the lockers.
That’s when Lily punched Susannah. Hard.
Susannah reeled backward and the four girls crumpled into a pile of screams.
Lily grabbed her clothes from her locker and crammed her legs into her pants. It wasn’t like she was going to be able to explain why she’d punched Susannah to the principal, so there was no point in hanging around to see what kind of punishment they were going to dole out. Lily’s hair was still wet when she slung her backpack over her shoulder and left the school.
The weather outside was overcast and hot, no different than most winter days in her small Ohio town. Most of the kids took the magnet home to avoid the swelter, but Lily liked walking. After the Great Warming, January was pretty much the only time she could do it anymore. They’d already had to move north twice. If the heat continued to rise, they’d have to do it again. At least they were part of the lucky few who had the money to do it. As she turned down the avenue, Lily eyed the dark clouds gathering overhead, promising a sandstorm.
The worst thing about all of it was that Susannah was right. Lily was delayed. She was almost fifteen, but her body had hardly even started developing. There was something, though — she couldn’t tell what — that made Lily think things were just about to change. For three days she’d felt weird. Not nauseous, exactly; it was more like a heaviness had taken over her limbs, then worked its way inward, settling squarely between her hips.
Lily was still steaming about Susannah when she noticed sunlight echoing from the surfaces around her, illuminating the street with a piercing yellow. She paused to look up.
It had just been cloudy a second ago. Now the sky was perfectly blue. When she reached up to shield her eyes, she saw something stirring in the sunlight — it was a dust of some sort, filtering down from the sky. Its descent was slow, but it fell straight down, pattering around her like a gentle rain. Her body seemed to cool as she watched it.
Lily opened her hand, trying to catch some of the dust so she could have a better look, but most of it slipped away. When she finally held still, it settled on her palm. Each speck seemed to glow from the inside, shimmering and twinkling as if she’d caught a handful of stars. She reached out a finger to touch them. Constellations appeared, then whole galaxies — her own private cosmos.
Then she noticed: these stars were moving — squirming and expanding, a universe in motion. Suddenly they began to gather into small, worm-like shapes. They were still moving, only now they were a thousand glittering maggots fighting for space. Lily’s hand began to tingle, then burn. With a flash, the worm-like shapes burrowed into her skin and disappeared. Clouds instantly folded over the sky, and it was overcast again.
For one minute, three minutes, maybe a hundred minutes, Lily stood motionless, trying to process what had just happened. For a second she even wondered if she’d imagined the whole thing. That’s when she felt it: the slow wet breaking between her thighs, the dam loose. A blood-stain bloomed in her jeans. Her first.
After that, whenever Lily got her period, she thought about the Day of Enlightenment. It was the day everything changed.
Lily felt different.
It wasn’t anything wild or obvious. Mostly, she was just confused: she never had just one thought anymore; now, she always thought one thing and another thing at the same time. Sometimes the tug-of-war became so violent it felt like the ideas were somersaulting inside of her. She spent the better part of a year combing the information networks looking for guidance on her changing body. Almost all of the articles she found focused on what it meant to turn into a Duo. The only problem was that Lily couldn’t be sure which part of her transformation had to do with the Day of Enlightenment and which part had to do with sprouting boobs.
More distressing, every decision Lily made was now subject to a drawn-out internal debate. Should she eat soy cheese? She could turn that into a half-day argument. There were questions of nutrition and personal need, certainly. Did she require the extra calories? Would that extra food she consumed harm the environment? Was it fair for some people to have access to this particular delicacy, when others did not? She could parse anything for philosophical dispute.
That was the real problem: Lily was now thoroughly, undeniably rational. Her family could tell. Everyone could.
Of course, her mother and brother were proud of their pure-blood status. They refused to use the term “Duos,” instead calling them “Infected” or “Compromised.” If you were infected, at least in the human-only section of the city where Lily and her family lived, it meant ostracism. Lily had to be careful, especially around her brother, Wes.
“I’m leaving,” said Wes. He bit off a piece of toast and watched Lily carefully as if he were evaluating her reaction.
Lily pushed her cereal around in her oat milk. She didn’t have to ask where he was going. She already knew. She flipped the page on her book and continued reading.
“Want to come with me?” said Wes.
“You know I don’t,” said Lily.
“I just thought maybe you’d come to your fucking senses,” he said.
“Don’t start,” she said.
“Or what? You’ll lecture me again about how fucked up humans are?” he said.
Lily rolled her eyes at him. That was exactly what she would do, if he’d listen for more than half a second. But he’d already made up his mind: he suspected that Lily had become a Duo, and he spent the better part of every day trying to get her to admit it.
“Quit reading for a second.” Wes snatched the book from Lily and held it over his head.
Lily eyed him. He was trying to get a rise out of her, to see how she’d respond. It was a test.
She made a grab for the book.
“What is this, anyway?” He scanned the cover. “‘An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’? What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“I like it,” said Lily.
Wes stared at her hard. Lily could feel her pulse tugging at her collar. He knew. He had to.
He leaned forward and growled. “The world is not a better place with them here, Lily. They’ll turn on us, I promise.”
There were a few ways Lily could go. She could pretend to agree with him, but he’d know she was lying. She could point out the specific benefits of the Duo government, but sensible responses tended to aggravate him and confirm his worst suspicions about her. Or she could do something irrational to prove she was still human.
She tossed a piece of wet cereal at Wes. It hit him square between the eyes.
Wes dropped the book and flung an arm in her direction. Lily swerved before it connected. He lunged for her and caught her by the sleeve. Just before he put her in a half-nelson she let out a shout.
“He’s joining the rebellion, Mom,” she screeched.
“What?” said Sara. Their mother called out from the kitchen. She was in there boiling a pot of English breakfast tea.
“You’re such a dick. I’ll bet you’re one of them,” Wes hissed in her ear.
“Maybe I am. Want to report me to your little buddies?” Lily spat back.
Sara appeared in the doorway. She stood perfectly still, her eyes fixed on Wes. “You’re joining?” she said.
Wes was her mother’s favorite. They were like two heads of the same shark. Whenever they started talking, Lily could hear their circles of approval growing smaller and smaller, like a ripple moving inward: they approved of only pure-bloods, but really only pure-bloods with old-fashioned values, and actually only the two of them. Everyone else was held in self-righteous disregard.
Wes held up his arms like he was trying to soften the blow. “Mom. I know what you’re going to say,” he said.
Sara wound her arms around him. “You’re my boy.”
A smile grew on Sara’s face. A proud smile.
Wes held his stare on Lily.
The teacher handed Lily a white envelope. Lily’s heart knocked like it was trying to get out.
When Lily opened the letter, she was actually relieved. The letter confirmed what she suspected: she was a Duo. Not only that, she’d tested abnormally high on the rationality scale. She’d spent her whole life feeling like the odd man out in her family, and here was the proof: she was different. Her score meant she was a prodigy, which meant she was special.
The teacher bent over Lily’s desk, her lips pinched into a disapproving frown. “Congratulations, Lily,” she said. Her voice was louder than it needed to be. “I’m sure we all wish you a safe journey to the Government Center.”
There was a sudden silence as everyone in the classroom turned to look at Lily. Their eyes burrowed into her like fish hooks.
It was like a dream — the one where she was naked in school on exam day without her homework and the semi-hot guy she’d had a crush on since kindergarten was laughing at her.
Lily put on her backpack and got up to leave the classroom. Their eyes held fast, casting after her as she left, lining up in the hallway silently to watch her go. She walked slowly, then quickly, and darted out the school doors.
She ran most of the way home. By the time she got home, she could feel the sweat dripping down her spine.
She banged through the door and started up the stairs to her bedroom.
“Lily,” a voice called out.
Lily stopped and turned. Her mother, Sara, appeared in the doorframe. She was holding a highball. Wes slid out from behind her. His face was tight and red.
“The school called,” said Sara.
Lily blinked back tears.
She knew it was irrational to wish she could’ve talked to her mother about becoming a Duo. It was even more irrational to wish she could’ve won her mother’s approval. Lily imagined her mother’s eyes, gentled with devotion, bent on Lily. Her girl, she’d say. She’d hold her in a warm embrace, sway back and forth. But Lily had to be honest with herself. There was never really a chance she would’ve won her mother’s approval, even if she were a pure-blood.
It was one thing to know she wasn’t close with her mother. It was another to know they would never be close.
“I fucking knew it,” hissed Wes.
“I think we all did,” said Sara.
The two-headed shark. Of course they felt the same way. Of course.
Lily nodded. “I’ll go upstairs and pack.”
“That’s probably wise.” Her mother swished her ice and left for a refill.
Lily went to her room and put a few things together, an extra set of clothes and a toothbrush, then came downstairs and left through the front door.
There was no point in turning around to wave goodbye. She already knew no one was standing at the window.
Alejandro was the most beautiful human being Lily had ever seen. Well, partly human.
He had dark hair that fell forward in loose curls. Whenever he got nervous, he pushed his hair behind his ears, revealing dark eyes ringed in lashes that curled upward at the outer corners like a cat’s. He spoke softly and tucked his chin, which, together with his large eyes, made him seem shy and vulnerable.
He lived three doors down in the government center dorms. The kitchen staff was ridiculously experimental in their cooking, which was unpleasant for a picky eater like Lily, but she managed to squirrel away a little of the good stuff whenever it came around. She spent most of her time in the food line watching Alejandro absent-mindedly thumb his bottom lip. Her eyes would inch downward to the dimples of his hips and the tuft of hair sprouting above the zipper of his low-slung jeans. Every time he caught her eyes, she felt a thunderclap of terror and her skin heated to pink.
Lily had only kissed one boy before the Day of Enlightenment. He was a nice guy, but he had super parched lips and refused to wear chapstick. When he leaned in for the kiss, he grabbed the sides of her head to keep it still. He kept every muscle in his face tight, and he didn’t even try to slip her some tongue. The whole thing was rough and dry, like making out with a cantaloupe rind.
But Alejandro was a magical mix of hard and soft. His arms, for instance, were knotted with muscles, and yet they were covered by a downy hair so fine it floated like a spider web. Everything about him was like that: just totally and completely gorgeous. It took Lily six months to work up the courage not to look away when he caught her eyes, but one night, when the kitchen was serving some particularly repulsive fare that involved roasted ants, she invited Alejandro up to her room for cheese and nut-bread from her secret stash.
The conversation started with tales of who they’d left behind and the people they’d been in the days before everything changed. Lily did her best to pretend she’d kissed a bunch of boys and was not in any way an extreme virgin, but she was pretty sure he figured out the truth when she couldn’t remember any of her so-called boyfriend’s names. They talked for hours, until talk gave way to uncomfortable pauses and sweaty palms.
“I think we both know what’s going to happen,” he said, leaning forward.
Alejandro put his hands on her face and drew her close. She could see the shadow of stubble across his jaw, the whiskers slightly raised over a single mole at the crook of his mouth, the soft fullness of his lips that pulled into a natural frown. Lily was suddenly dizzy and hot. He brought his lips to hers as they sank to the floor, fingers clutching at collars and hair, the room tilting, their hot breath interlaced in a kiss. They tugged at their clothes until they were moving as one. A burst of sweetness shook Lily’s body, then calmed to silence.
The silence chilled to awkwardness. Alejandro rolled away and put himself back together again. There were a few words about something he had to do, about seeing her tomorrow, then more silence.
The next day, she saw him in the courtyard. He sat down next to her on her reading blanket and took her hand in his.
“I really like you. You know that,” he said. “But everything in my life is complicated right now. It’s not rational to get involved with so much going on. I’ve got responsibilities here at the center. I have an obligation to keep my head clear.”
He sounded like a stupid B movie.
“I mean, maybe that doesn’t make sense to you. Maybe I’m further along in the hybridization process than you are. You know? I understand the urge to copulate. Obviously, I do. I’m still partly human. But we’re also so much more than that now. We don’t have to be tied down to hormones or whatever.”
‘Tied down’? She’d never really thought of herself as a rope before, but she did want to strangle him, a fat noose around his neck, so maybe there was something to it.
“I don’t want you to think it’s about you. It really isn’t. We’re only seventeen. Maybe in a few years, when we’re both ready to mate and reproduce, we can discuss this again.”
He got up and left.
Lily leaned back on her blanket and listened to her heart bang against the bars of her ribcage, the hollow sound of order.
Something had to be done about the rebels. Something drastic.
When the rebels bombed the magnet stations in New York and Boston, Lily had been called to sit on the daily meetings at headquarters. They’d picked her because it turned out, after a great deal more testing, that Lily had a gift for tactical strategy. So they made her an official member of the Countermeasures Committee. Their job was to end the conflict.
Rochelle sat at the head of the table. She wore a close-cropped afro and a unitard with a flowing red scarf. Next to her was her second-in-line, Feng. He was thin and gray-haired, with the sinewy muscles of a long-distance runner. At the other end of the table was Alejandro. By some unbelievable stroke of bad luck, he’d been assigned to the same committee as Lily.
Lily snuck a glance at him. She used to spend every meeting watching his every move, but in the last few weeks she’d felt her interest in him fading. In fact, she hardly cared about him at all. Maybe it was a sign she was moving along in the hybridization process. Maybe not. There was no way to know what part of her thoughts and emotions were human and what part Duo anymore. Either way, she was glad to be rid of the dull ache that had taken up residence in her chest after he’d said he wasn’t interested.
“Lily? Are you listening?” said Feng.
Lily blinked. She hadn’t noticed the meeting had started. “Oh, yes,” she said. “I’m sorry, what was the question?”
Rochelle smiled sweetly at Lily. Rochelle always smiled sweetly no matter what anyone said, which meant you could never tell when she was angry. “We were talking about infrastructure.”
Feng leaned forward. “Every time we rebuild, we’re diverting resources that could help the rest of us survive. It’s not a sustainable solution.”
“No one is suggesting we let it continue,” said Rochelle. “What happened with the Manitoba Resolution?”
“I tried to make sure they understood they’d have complete control of the territory, but they were so busy making threats, I don’t think they heard much of what I said,” said Feng.
“There’s got to be a way to get them back to the negotiating table,” said Alejandro.
Lily watched Alejandro’s mouth as he spoke. When she first started going to the committee meetings, she’d spent half her time imagining what it would feel like to run her tongue along the inside of his lip. Now she felt practically nothing.
“We’re going in circles here. In the meanwhile, they’ve got an army amassing thirty miles away,” said Feng. “They don’t want peace. They want to kill every Duo on the planet. They actually told us that. These people are completely devoid of reason.”
A niggling thought entered Lily’s mind. She hadn’t heard from Wes since the day she left the house. She wondered if he’d been involved with rebel bombings. She pushed the idea away, and it slithered into the back of her mind like an earthworm.
“I agree with Feng,” said Lily. “We have to stop playing the pacifists.”
The faces at the table turned toward her.
Talking in front of groups used to mortify her. Every time she had to get up and her face would heat up to a shade of purple. But there was no rash of color in her cheeks now. She wasn’t nervous at all.
“What are you suggesting? We attack the rebels?” Alejandro snorted. “That’s against everything the Enlightenment stands for.”
“How do you know? It’s not like we got a list of instructions. Maybe we’re supposed to be reasonable enough to defend ourselves,” said Lily.
“Self-defense is not the same as an attack,” said Alejandro. His voice had a little whine to it.
Lily ignored him. “The rebels believe we won’t fight back. So, we prepare. Then, when the time is right, we provoke them.”
“‘Prepare’? You mean set a trap?” said Feng.
“It’s not entrapment. The rebels already know we outnumber them,” said Lily. “We put a team together and kidnap their leader. We bring him back here. The rational response would be for the rebels to sacrifice their leader for the greater good, but they won’t respond rationally. They’ll attack, and they’ll die. Once the armed faction is gone, we can move the women, children, and elderly to Manitoba. Pure-blood numbers will dwindle and the situation will resolve itself within a generation.”
Shock hung in the air for a moment.
Rochelle’s glance flicked from face to face, as if she were taking a visual poll.
Alejandro gaped at Lily. “You’re talking about genocide. That’s the definition of unethical.”
Lily turned her eyes to him. “The eradication of the rebel population would benefit the planet and its remaining inhabitants. How is that not an ethical aim?” The words fell from her mouth like stones.
Rochelle smiled sweetly. “I knew there was a reason we chose you.”
A door rattled behind Lily.
It had taken some time, but the Duo government had eventually been able to kidnap Stone, the rebel leader. The government center hadn’t been built to house a jail of any sort, since they were generally unnecessary these days, but they’d made do with a few bars on the windows and a series of high-powered locks. More difficult had been the acquisition and placement of automated weaponry on the perimeters of the government center. But it had been done. Lily had seen to it.
The door rattled again.
“Hello? I’d like some food in here. Unless you’re planning to starve me.” It was Stone’s voice. Lily had only really met him once, but she already knew she didn’t like him. He had a buzz cut and the body of a boxer. If you looked at him from the neck down, he seemed like an average beef cake. It was just his smirk that gave away his intelligence.
Lily gathered everything she needed on a tray. She had his lunch on one side. On the other, she had a video device. They needed proof that Stone was still alive if they were going to provoke the rebels into attacking the government center to save him.
Lily clicked open the locks and entered the room. It was bare apart from a toilet, a bed, and table. She put the tray down as Stone took a seat. He eyed the video device.
“What’s that for?” he asked.
“I have to get a video of you to send to your friends.” Lily sat across from him and began assembling the device. Part of it required a strap across his chest to take his vitals, so they could prove to the rebels that Stone was healthy and unharmed.
“They’ll come for me,” he said. He took a bite of his sandwich. “See, we humans have this thing where we care about each other. It’s called loyalty.”
“Yes, I know,” said Lily. In fact, her plan depended on it. “Can you remove your shirt?”
“You first.” He let out a laugh. “I’m not supposed to make jokes like that in front of ladies, right? Sorry, you probably want to be called a ‘woman.'”
Actually, Lily wasn’t used to people calling her a “woman.” It was only recently that she stopped thinking about herself as a “girl.” But now that her hips had widened and she could finally fill out her bra, she’d stopped looking so young.
Lily rolled her eyes at Stone. “Just take it off.”
“Fine.” He took off his shirt. The smell of testosterone and sweat wafted at Lily. She shuddered with a jolt of memory. It reminded her of Alejandro, only it was more musky. There was something so deep about the smell, like the rumble in a man’s throat.
Stone watched her closely. Her eyes were tracing the outline of his chest.
“You all right over there?” he said.
Lily blinked, suddenly hot.
“Oh, my. Is that a blush? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Duo blush before.” His smirk widened to a grin.
Lily tried to shake it off. She hadn’t felt like that in forever. Or felt anything, really.
Stone kept his eyes on her. “You’re not like the rest of them, are you? I can tell.” He leaned forward. “Whatever they’re telling you to do, you don’t have to do it.”
“Nobody’s telling me to do anything,” said Lily.
He smiled at her. He was so close Lily could feel his warm breath. “I know there’s a plan. What is it?”
The blush drained from Lily’s face. “You really think I’m stupid enough to tell you?”
His voice was suddenly harsh. “Your brother Wes is out there with my men. He’s going to be with them when they attack.”
Stone was trying to put this on her — make it her fault. “If you’d just left us alone, neither one of us would be here.” She stood up, holding the vitals tracker.
“Come on,” he said. “They were always going to turn on us. You know it, and I know it.”
Lily wrapped her arms around his chest and snapped the strap into place. “You’re wrong. Every single one of our government initiatives worked. That’s called progress,” she said.
“Are you really trying to tell me I should chill out because the aliens are liberals?” he said.
“There’s no such thing as liberals or conservatives. That’s the whole point. It’s a unified government,” she said.
“They’re parasites,” he said. “You don’t get it. All living things battle for dominance. It’s a dog-eat-dog universe.”
“Do you know what parasites do? They keep their hosts alive. They take care of their environment,” said Lily.
“I just figured something out. You want to get rid of people like me because we see through your bullshit.” Stone sat forward. “Wake up. The aliens don’t want to ‘enlighten’ you. Their goal is to get rid of the humans they can’t infect. That, sweetheart, is called an alien invasion.”
Lily’s eyes moved back and forth, parsing what he’d said. As she moved through her internal arguments, she could feel her blood cooling. “We were already in the middle of the sixth extinction when they came down. We needed a global government to stop the Great Warming. The Duos have done that. The simple fact is humanity was going to end either way. At least this way there’s something of us left here.”
“So that’s it?” he said.
“No.” She flipped on the video device and pointed it at him. “Please look into the camera and state your name.”
Thousands of guns were pointed in Lily’s direction.
She stood in a bullet-proof glass room. Below was a town square, and beyond was the government center’s fence. Sunlight bounced off the white granite tiles of the square. It was a clear day, so she could practically see the faces of the rebels gathered beyond the open gate.
Lily held binoculars up to her face and studied their expressions. Each one seemed so tense, so frightened. Most of them didn’t even look like real soldiers. More like a rag-tag group of men dressed up in uncomfortable costumes, weighted down with the tools of their anger. Was this really the fate of humans? She wondered if Wes were down there among them.
Maybe it wasn’t fair. Maybe what they were doing was entrapment. No, Lily reminded herself. They had chosen their own fate. It was a pity, but there was nothing that could be done about it. The conflict had to end. There was no other way.
Rebel eyes shifted toward the government center in unison, like a flock of birds. They rushed forward through the gate into the town square with an snarling howl, shooting their guns. Lily turned away as the center’s automated weapons system clicked on. The last thing she heard was the scream of thousands.
Lily was alone in her room.
Due to the success of the operation, the Countermeasures Committee had been disbanded. The government had moved her to a better room, one with a view of the town square, as a reward. The granite tiles had a pinkish hue now, but they still gleamed in the sunlight. She heard some time later that Stone had attacked a guard and grabbed his gun. He took out five Duos before he bought it.
Lily opened the refrigerator and took out a piece of soy cheese. Did she require the extra calories? Would that extra food she consumed harm the environment? She sat down on her sofa, ready for the philosophical dispute.
Lighting Fire To Ashes
By Nathan Wunner
Alan Shepard’s teeth were falling out for the third time this week.
To Jess’s left, her trainee, Steven, tried not to retch as they watched Shepard tear loose another piece of dangling gristle from his mouth and drop it into the bathroom sink.
“Ah, okay,” Steven said, “I’m supposed to figure out what this means, right?” He rubbed his chin with his fingers and stared up at the stained ceiling of the hotel room. In the meantime, another of Shepard’s teeth bounced off the ceramic and circled the drain.
“I have no idea what this means.” Steven concluded. “It’s just gross.”
“Mr. Shepard recently lost a loved one,” Jess said. “He’s starting to realize that he’s getting older, and his own death is drawing closer. Being forced to confront his own mortality, and trying to ignore it during the day, is making these concerns manifest in his subconscious mind.”
“You can tell all that just from watching someone’s teeth falling out in a dream?”
“I can tell all that because I read it in his file. Just like you were supposed to.” Jess frowned. “We’re not here to figure out what the dream means. We have analysts for that. Our job is to just observe and record.”
Jess had been observing the dreams of company employees for years. Part of their worker efficiency program–finding psychological issues in workers at an early stage increased productivity overall, and was also an indicator of which workers could be sent off to “early retirement” when it came time for budget cuts.
The dreams were observed via an interface that translated brainwave patterns into 3D holographic images. Jess didn’t know how the machine worked. It was built back before the world went to shit, by people now long since dead. She did know that the machine was intended to aid in the treatment of mental patients, but that all changed when the private sector bought out the technology and decided to monetize it to make a better return on their investment.
Jess liked her job, by and large. The gruesome sights, the nightmares–none of it really bothered her. Sometimes the sex dreams were awkward. But sifting through people’s subconscious thoughts was easier than talking to them while they were awake. Her anti-social tendencies made her uniquely qualified to deal with the often disturbing imagery dwelling within the human mind. No matter what she saw, Jess never got too immersed. She always knew that it wasn’t real. And she recognized the most important fact–that people had very little control over all the thoughts and fears bouncing around inside their heads.
If anything, the truth was the exact opposite. All the fears, the neuroses, they controlled us.
Minutes passed, or they seemed to, and Mr. Shepard’s sink was now overflowing with blood and saliva-slick teeth. No matter how many came loose and fell out of his jaw, more sprouted from his gums, shiny and wet, to take their place.
Jess put a finger to her earpiece. “Have you got what you need yet?”
After several moments, an analyst’s voice answered back. “We’ve got what we need. You’re free to extract.”
“We can leave?” Steven asked, looking pale. “Thank God.”
Mr. Shepard, the grimy hotel room, they all faded away in a flash, leaving Jess and Steven standing in an empty white room.
Jess dismissed Steven and made her way to the control room. Or, as the analysts mockingly referred to it, “the place where dreams are made”.
The control room was a maze of monitors and cabinet sized computers made up of spinning reels and blinking lights. Jess was greeted by Dale, a thin, mousy looking man in a sweat stained white shirt. Dale was many things, but he wasn’t annoying, and for that, Jess tolerated his company.
“How’s the trainee working out?” Dale asked.
“Steven?” Jess asked. “He doesn’t have the stomach for the work, and I don’t have the time to babysit.”
“Shame.” Dale shook his head. “I know you could use the help. Have you seen how packed the schedule is for next week?”
Jess wasn’t listening. Her attention was on the setting sun, falling below the horizon line, being swallowed up by the ocean waves. Another day gone. In the past, cities were all lit up at night. Corporate towers glowed more fiercely than the brightest stars, neon signs cast waves of light out onto the streets. Now when night came the candle flames were snuffed, the lamps dimmed, and the whole world was gently swallowed up by the encroaching dark.
“Long day, huh?” Dale placed a hand on Jess’s shoulder. She tried her hardest not to recoil from his touch. “What’s on your mind?”
Jess sighed. “Just thinking about how a place can change you. There was a time when I wouldn’t go near a corporate city-state. I can’t tell you how many business towers I’ve set fire to. And now…”
Jess didn’t finish her sentence.
“If that’s true, how did you ever end up in a city like Eidum? And working for the Aeus family, no less?” Dale said.
“Rebel organizations, so-called ‘Eco-Terrorists.’ For all their admirable qualities, they don’t offer healthcare plans. I had to grow up sometime.” Jess turned to walk away.
“Wait!” Dale shouted after her. “What about Alan Shepard? The guy you just observed?”
Jess stopped walking but didn’t turn back around to face Dale. “Don’t bother waking him,” she said. “Upper management made up their mind before today’s observation session even started. We were just there to gather data to reinforce their decision. Existential crises aren’t good for workplace morale. Someone will be along to flush him in the morning.”
These days, sleep was elusive. Other people’s dreams bled into her own until she didn’t know which thoughts were born from her own mind and which ones just clawed their way in and took root.
A friend had suggested meditation. Closing her eyes, slowing her breathing. Imagining a sunny sky, a green meadow, trying to conjure the feeling of wind on her face.
None of that worked. But what put her right to sleep, at least for a little while, was imagining Eidum on fire, burning until the flames boiled away the water and left a smoldering mound of ash in the earth.
But like all dreams, these images slipped away with the morning light.
The morning sun sat high over the flooded city of Eidum. The water had risen again with the tide, and she could hear the waves crashing against the walls of her apartment building. The farmers were already out, navigating between the skyscrapers in their row boats, pulling fish from the nets and tending to the kelp gardens. Workers dressed in khakis and sport coats hopped down from their apartment windows or climbed down trellises to board the ferries to the corporate offices.
Jess stood in front of her bathroom mirror, shaving the short bristle of hair off of her scalp.
She looked tired, by her own estimation. And as she stared deeper into her reflection she noticed the dozens of crisscrossing lines surrounding her eyes, and nesting in the corners of her mouth.
“Existential crises aren’t good for workplace morale,” she reminded herself aloud.
She walked out to her patio and leaned over the railing, letting the sun’s rays shake loose the haze of sleep. Her mind went back to the conversation she’d had with Dale the night before. In her time she’d seen dozens of towns and cities, at least one bigger than Eidum, burn to the ground. And somewhere inside, she felt a sadness knowing that this city never could.
Still, if she did have to live in a city, there were worse places than Eidum. She’d never thought she’d settle anywhere, but there was a tranquility about this place–the waves gently lapping at the concrete walls, the birds swooping low over the water and nesting in the eaves of long abandoned buildings.
Neura, Jess’s personal data assistant, interrupted her contemplation and chimed in with her the schedule for the day. “10 a.m. Observation of human resources manager Philip Finch. 11 a.m. Appointment cancelled. Urgent alert. All appointments cancelled. You are to report directly to the office of Saul Aeus”.
“Aeus.” Jess frowned. “Christ.”
No one bothered to remember the history of the old nations, or of the fallen capitals, but everyone in Eidum knew the history of the Aeus family.
David Aeus was the kind of eccentric who hoarded canned food and had bomb shelters and panic rooms built into all of his properties. When he got word of rising sea levels and global warming, he started building his properties with a watery future in mind. His masterpiece of construction, Aeus Tower, which sat at the heart of Eidum, was designed to withstand being fully submerged underwater. A plastic mesh composite made up the building’s substance, and the glass, even on the outside elevators, was thicker than what they used on the deep sea oil drilling submarines. It was an impressive feat, if a bit wasteful. The ocean had only risen some 100 feet, leaving the rest of Aeus Tower still looming well above the water.
David’s descendant, Saul, was the result of almost a century of isolation and incestuous family inbreeding. Saul had always made Jess uncomfortable, even though their encounters had always been (thankfully) brief. There was an off-putting, artificial look to his face, present in his uneven eyes, a smile that was much too wide for his jawline. He looked like he’d been carved and molded by a god that possessed no aptitude for making realistic faces or proportions.
Jess kept to the opposite side of the elevator as it descended below sea level. Outside the elevator window schools of fish, glistening in the morning sun, darted by in thick clouds.
When Saul spoke, it was with his back to Jess, still facing the windows. “Tell me,” he said, “you’re familiar with my deceased sister, Aurora, are you not?”
“Pretty much in name only. I was sorry to hear of her passing.” Jess, equal parts nervous and impatient, crossed her arms over her chest and reclined against the wall. She waited for Saul to say something, to offer up information on why he’d brought her here. But if he had anything else to add, he didn’t seem to be in a hurry to do so.
The elevator came to a stop. “What is all of this about?” Jess asked.
The doors opened onto a white room, and in the center of the room was a woman, head shaved, suspended on an operating table, with dozens of wires protruding from her scalp and trailing off into a large computer sat in the corner. Even though she’d only ever seen her on vid-screens, Jess recognized the woman’s face. Aurora Aeus. Saul’s dead sister. Pale as a grave worm, drained of color, blue lipped and motionless.
Across the room from Aurora was another table, empty, but with an identical set of wires that hung suspended from another bank of computers.
Saul patiently stared at Jess, letting her mind fill with questions. Waiting for just the right moment to speak. “My sister, Aurora, never died. Not really.”
“Is she in a coma?” Jess asked.
“Yes. Drug induced. She has some brain function but not enough to compel herself to wake. We’ve tried to keep her comfortable, but to be honest we’d given up on her. Until this.” From his sleeve Saul produced a syringe full of a soft blue liquid. “We’ve been working on various cell restoration projects for years, and we’ve finally hit upon a working formula. We’ve tested it on Aurora, and it’s restored her cells, brought life back into her atrophied muscles. Physically, she’s as healthy as when she fell into her coma.”
“But she’s still sleeping,” Jess said.
“The cell restoration process brought vigor back to her body, but you’re correct. There’s some spark missing in her. She won’t wake. We’re hoping you can… interact with her, on a subconscious level. Goad her into awakening.”
Jess shook her head. “Even if I try to observe her dreams, you realize that I can’t just pop into her head and start asking her questions, right? It doesn’t work that way. I can only observe, not interact.”
“Perhaps that’s how your “dream machine” back at Aeus Enterprises works, Jess, but we have more advanced technology here. You’ll be able to not just observe, but fully experience and influence the dream just as Aurora experiences it, once we link her mind with yours.”
Jess’s mind reeled with questions, but Saul seemed to be growing increasingly short on patience. “Why me?” Jess asked.
“You have a special knack for making sense of the rambling incoherence of the subconscious mind. It’s impressive, really. The analysts, they all recommended you above any of your peers. That being said, you were not our first choice for the job. Your predecessor… backed out on us.”
“Do you mind telling me why?” Jess asked.
“The mind-link interface was a little… intense for our first candidate. Aurora has been sleeping so long, her mind is like an abstract painting. It can be a lot to process.” Saul paused, his crooked eyes scanning for any reaction from Jess to his words. As though he were trying to sniff out any hint of weakness. “Just know that if you do this for me, you will be compensated greatly. I’m thinking… early retirement.”
“Not the kind of ‘early retirement’ that involves a quick death before being flushed out to sea, I take it?”
“No.” Saul shook his head and leaned in close. “The kind that means you get to live the rest of your life like royalty.”
Rain slick walls shimmered in the waning reflections of the stars. Music softly echoed through the chamber, a droning symphony of broken clarinets and whimpering, muffled cellos, like the hand of a shadowy composer held over the orchestra’s mouth, stifling their screams.
The table she lay upon was cold, and she had refuge from it. No warmth left of her own.
She couldn’t open her eyes, but she suspected that was a blessing in disguise. If she could, she was sure that she’d only see the blighted, abyssal shores of her own very special, very private hell. The images of her surroundings that flitted past her mind’s eye were force fed in through the tubes that she could even now feel piercing through the skin of her scalp, down into the bone, lighting the ruined recesses of the dead grey matter that floated half decayed inside the grave of her own skull.
“Where am I?” Jess thought into the void. Her voice sounded lost, lonely, inside the sprawling catacombs of her subconscious mind.
She could hear the footsteps again. She tried in vain to move a finger. Wiggle a toe. Arch her back. Scream.
The footsteps were as deliberate as the ticking of a clock, just slower. As though whoever was approaching was scared they might awaken her. Or were perhaps just relishing the moment.
In her mind’s eye she pictured the person so quietly approaching as a kind of Clockwork Prince, a devious, animatronic dandy twirling across the tile floors in a kind of stop motion interpretive dance, letting his anticipation for what was about to come double with each footfall and heartbeat and panicked swell of her own chest, until he, at last, came to stand over her bedside.
He leaned over and whispered to her with a viper hiss, forked tongue flicking her earlobe. “My sleeping beauty.”
Jess returned to consciousness groggy, her body slow to shake off the effects of the chemical sleep. There was a ringing in her ears, shrill and constant. She recognized it after a moment–an EKG flatlining.
She struggled to move, to make words, but it was like trying to run underwater.
Aurora’s bedside was a frenzy of activity. Doctors wearing white smocks and face masks and blue gloves fiddled with dials and swapped out used bags of clear fluids for fresh ones. Jess noticed a clock on the wall, and in the haze of half sleep she watched the minutes pass. 5. 10. And still the EKG screeched that Aurora had no heartbeat.
Realization dawned on her. Some of it from what she observed, some of it no doubt the residual effects of her mind-link with Aurora. But in that moment, Jess knew; they weren’t resuscitating Aurora. She’d be a lost cause by now. Aurora was dead. And something in Jess’s mind whispered to her that Aurora had been dead for a long, long time.
Saul appeared at her side, without warning, and leaned over her. “You woke up faster than we anticipated, Jess.”
“Aurora,” Jess said. “You lied. She was dead before we even began.”
“She’s been dead for years.” Saul sighed. Jess wondered if he would have even shared this information is she hadn’t come to the conclusion on her own. “We’re trying to give her a pulse. We’ve only be able to succeed in short intervals. We can’t get her brain functioning, and without that the heart just stops all over again.”
Jess tried to sit up, only to find herself strapped down to the bed. A wave of animalistic, gut piercing panic sliced through her.
Saul turned away, leaving Jess to struggle in vain against her bonds. One of the doctors approached him, and she was able hear their snippets of their conversation. “We were close, Mr. Aeus. Brain wave activity was spiking. Aurora was nearly able to sustain respiration on her own.”
“That’s closer than we’ve ever been before.” Saul walked back over to Jess, and ran his fingers through her hair.
“Let me go,” Jess whispered weakly. The thought of going back into that dreamscape, that feeling of being blind, unable to move or scream, but still aware of what was happening to you…
Saul smiled. “You’ve done well. I know it was tough, but it’s working. Yes, full disclosure, my sister was clinically dead. But with our cell rejuvenation formula, we were able to restore life to her long dead cells. Imagine the possibilities if we can actually restore brain function. We can make human beings effectively immortal.”
Saul turned and nodded to one of the doctors, who rushed over with a long syringe. Jess tried to shake free of her bonds, using her shoulders to rock the bed, but several other doctors rushed over and she quickly found several hands holding her down.
“You understand we can’t let you walk away now. Not when you’re getting us results. But you’ll reap the benefits of all of this, I promise you.” Saul squeezed her hand in an attempt to reassure her. Jess wanted to strangle him with the straps holding down her wrists.
“We will have to intensify the mindlink. This is a specialized anesthetic, one that allows you a greater degree of cognitive function without letting you ‘wake up’.”
No. Jess thought, unable to give voice to the words, her mind’s eye burning with the afterimages of Aurora’s dreams.
The needle pierced the flesh of her arm, and sleep crept in around the edges of her vision, turning everything black.
It was a strange feeling, the mind-link. Jess could feel a pressure, a presence that was always just behind her, looking over her shoulder. Aurora’s consciousness was a tangled mess, rambling lunatic thoughts that seeped in from the periphery.
At that particular moment, Aurora was pondering whether or not she was actually in hell.
Jess tried to visualize a setting. A place for herself and Aurora to interact. But all that she was able to conjure was that same cold room in Aeus Tower, lying on an operating table and surrounded by pale, red eyed doctors wearing blood covered smocks.
Aurora seemed to accept this invitation. She emerged on the table opposite Jess, bleeding from a thousand syringe punctures. She looked like Jess had seen her in the real world, pale and drained of life, skin tight around her bones, with the cloudy eyes of a dead fish. It was then that Jess realized Aurora was not only regaining consciousness, she was pulling information directly from Jess’s mind.
Aurora turned her head and smiled.
Jess awakened from the dream to find herself in a stupor, smelling of antiseptic, strapped down to that familiar operating table, and still stuck with dozens of wires. They’d been force feeding her fluids just to keep her alive, and the results were apparent. She was shrinking down to skin and bone.
Jess had noticed, some time ago, that one of the doctors kept a calendar on their desk, one that she could see clearly in the next room, beyond a set of glass windows. After each “session,” with Aurora, as she was lying there waiting for her next injection of anesthesia, she’d glance over and see that another day had been torn away from the calendar and tossed into the wastebasket.
A week went by, then two. Then a month. All in the blink of an eye. The way that dreams just slink away come the morning light.
It must just be part the dream, Jess thought to herself. Aurora’s been lying there for so long, her fears are bleeding over into my conscious thoughts. They wouldn’t just keep me strapped to this bed indefinitely, while they try in vain to bring life to a dead person.
The sun rose again. It looked so odd, pale and rough and shimmering, squatted low over the black waters. Eventually, another doctor came round with a needle to put her to sleep.
Jess awakened gasping for air. But this time the room felt different. The doctors were gone, the machines were silent. The lights flickered, threatening to shut down completely. Off to the side, behind panes of glass, Jess spotted Aurora sitting in the dark, her pearly eyes darting back and forth, like a panicked animal beset from danger on all sides. Her hair flowed softly behind her, the way curtains shift as the night wind rushes in from an open window.
Aurora shrank away into the dark when she heard footsteps approaching from down the hall.
They both knew what the footsteps meant by now. The Clockwork Prince.
The Prince crawled into the room on all fours, broken backed, head suspended between his thighs, hands grasped tightly round his feet. He rolled around the tile like a snake being burnt alive by blistering desert sand.
The mind-link with Aurora had been growing stronger as of late, and this was apparent in the fact that Jess could see the Prince’s face for the first time. And despite the frilly renaissance clothes and his contorted form, she found that it was a face she recognized. Saul Aeus.
Saul unfurled himself and rose from the floor to tower over Jess’s bed. In the next room, Aurora shut her eyes, hiding herself completely.
In Saul’s hand was a long syringe, dripping with a green liquid which hissed as drops of it fell and scalded her bed sheets.
“So still and peaceful,” Saul said as he brushed Jess’s hair with his slender fingers. “My sleeping beauty. I could never let you just rot in the dirt. If only I could wake you with a kiss. Or two. Or three.” His tongue flicked at the stale air, and she felt his clammy hand caress her thigh.
As the needle pricked her arm and the venom coursed, cold and raw, through her bloodstream, Jess felt the jaws of sleep close around her once again.
And then realization dawned upon her. She remembered; she was already asleep. Trapped in the most wretched dream. And with that realization, she knew that she had to change the setting. She needed to get Aurora out of here, away from her brother.
Jess imagined a bed. Something familiar to Aurora. But not a hospital bed. No machines, no doctors. No doors for unwanted guests to enter in the twilight hours. Jess tried to picture Aurora, not cold and blue, but vibrant, with rosy cheeks, lying between warm blankets, with a fire blazing quietly in the opposite corner of the room. Outside the window snow leisurely fell onto the leaf strewn autumn forest.
Jess took a seat in a chair next to where Aurora was lying. In her hand she held a storybook. “I know you haven’t been feeling well,” Jess said, “but you’ve been resting long enough. I think getting up and out will do you more good now. I’ll tell you one story to put you to sleep, and I want you to wake up tomorrow ready to leave this place. How does that sound?”
“The story,” Aurora whispered, “is it one with a handsome prince who comes to save a captive princess, and then he takes her back to live with him in his castle forever after?”
“Yes,” Jess said.
“And what if the princess doesn’t want to be saved?”
“Then she can burn down the whole castle, and the handsome prince with it, if that’s what she wants.” Jess smiled. “As long as she promises to get a good night’s sleep, and wake up ready to leave this place in the morning.”
Aurora closed her eyes. Jess watched her for a time, but as she stared she noticed a strange orange light wash over Aurora’s face, and then the rest of the room.
Jess turned to face the window, and outside she saw the entire forest consumed by fire.
Jess awakened to screams and chaos. The sounds rose and fell like lapping waves. The nameless, white-coated doctors scrambled over each other to flee the room.
Jess heard the moaning sound of a dying animal coming from just underneath the table. She craned her neck and saw Saul Aeus lying at her bedside, bleeding from the throat and gasping for air. He dragged himself across the floor, leaving a red smear in his wake.
Aurora was propped up against a nearby wall, wires trailing from her shaved scalp and her rail thin arms. Her mouth was soaked in her brother’s blood. She walked over to Jess awkwardly, as fast as her chemically rejuvenated legs would carry her. Aurora’s eyes were as shrouded and distant as they were in the dream. Jess couldn’t read anything of her intentions.
“Is this still a dream?” Jess asked. Aurora grabbed hold of her arm, and Jess felt the familiar prick of a needle. But this time, rather than putting her to sleep, she felt energy and vigor fill her muscles. Aurora had given her Saul’s cell rejuvenation serum.
Aurora fixed her gaze on the dying Saul. “Father wanted Saul and I to have children,” she said. “Keep the Aeus name alive.” Her voice was a hoarse whisper, and her tongue fumbled over the words. “They started me off too young. Maybe that’s why I could never get pregnant, who knows?”
Aurora loosened Jess’s straps and helped her to sit upright. “You should go,” she said. It was a command, not a request.
Days, even weeks later, the image Jess was left with, the one that forever burned its way into her dreams, was of Aurora perched like a vulture over Saul as the last of his blood dribbled out of the wound in his neck and his eyes glazed over. As Jess walked away Saul reached his hand towards her, as though pleading with her not to leave him there alone. Jess kept walking.
The Aeus building burned all that night, and on into the next morning. Jess watched it all, watched the concrete blacken and the plumes of smoke swallow up the light from the rising sun.
Fires happened in the city all the time, she knew, only to reach the water and fade away. The buildings would always remain standing, but Jess wondered if burning out the heart of Eidum would be enough to bring the rest of the city to ruin, in time.
In her heart she hoped so.
A Life Lived Above
By Dale Carothers
Brecaccio spent his whole life looking up at the cosmos. He tracked the movements of the planets and charted the arrangements of the stars.
A life spent with his face pressed against a telescope left him with one puckered eye, no wife to warm his bed, and no child to inherit his vast knowledge of the sky.
Brecaccio blinked his rheumy eyes and looked past his yellowed beard at the thick horns of his toenails sticking out from under the blankets. His feet framed a table. Soft bread and pale, crumbly cheese lay under the glass cover of a wooden tray. Beside the tray stood a bottle of mellow wine. Beyond that, dusty brass orreries lined the top shelf of a vast bookcase. Star maps and volumes written by Brecaccio himself were shoved haphazardly into the shelves.
Above it all, on a folding ladder he’d rested against the ceiling beams, stood Melchick. “Magistero, I don’t see anything.” Melchick’s Buerbec accent stumbled along the rhythms of the Flerosi language, hardening the consonants and thickening the vowels.
“What are you looking for, boy?” Brecaccio asked.
“I was told we have an infestation of pixies.”
“Magistera Ofelia will be excited about that.”
Melchick squealed and scurried down the ladder. His face was clad in lacy, gray spider webs. He peeled them away, and wiped them on the yellow robe that marked him as a second year student. “It’s time for me to go.” The metal fittings on the ladder squeaked as he folded it. “I need to study for my mineralogy examination. Do you have everything you need?”
“I think so.”
“Ring the bell when you get hungry,” Melchick said, pointing to the pull cord that hung near the headboard, “and I’ll come back to help you.”
“I can get out of bed by myself!”
Melchick picked up the ladder and clutched it under his arm. “Please, Magistero. I don’t want you to fall again.”
“That wasn’t my fault.”
“Were you alone?”
Brecaccio sucked his mustache into his toothless mouth. “Yes.”
“Then who else is to blame?”
Brecaccio waved a hand. “Fine, fine, you win. Congratulations. You can go now.”
Melchick bowed. “Good day, Magistero Brecaccio.”
“Hurry along now, boy.”
Melchick spun, his yellow robes swirling, and carried the ladder down the stairs. Brecaccio liked Melchick well enough, but the boy never knew when it was time to leave. He was a poor boy, from a poor country. Taking care of aging instructors helped pay his way.
Brecaccio’s room was in the attic of the building that bore his name: The Desinte Brecaccio Observatory. Faculty and students lived in the rooms below, and through the door on the South wall laid a railed catwalk that ran along the roof that led to the great dome of the observatory itself; a massive contraption of glass and brass.
If Brecaccio wasn’t so afraid of stairs, and the rushing summer winds that always threatened to tear him from the catwalk, he’d be holding court. Peeling back the layers of the cosmos, to reveal its mysteries to the students gathered there.
But no, better to remain in bed. To rest and build his strength. Maybe he’d go tomorrow, and give the bruise on his hip time to heal. He slipped his hand under the covers and patted his thigh.
He sucked in a breath. Still too tender. A little wine would dull the pain, but now that he’d angered the sore spot, he’d rather not get out of bed. He considered the pull cord, but now that he’d finally gotten Melchick to leave, he didn’t want any more annoying visitors.
But one came anyway.
A black speck crept along the white plaster of the ceiling, scuttling here and there, coming to quick stops and changing course in seemingly arbitrary directions.
Brecaccio reached for the little wooden telescope that hung in a leather case from his headboard. It’d been his first telescope, purchased by his father when Brecaccio was only ten years old. A boy with starry eyes, prone to sneaking out at night to gaze up into the sky. His father, a pig farmer, recognized the boy’s proclivity, and saw a chance to turn one of his sons into a man of learning and letters.
Brecaccio gave silent thanks to his father, fixed the telescope to his eye and focused it.
A black spider inched its way along the ceiling, and then stopped and anchored a web and began its descent toward the floor.
Before it’d fallen an inch, Brecaccio heard a small pop, and the spider dangled dead like a bauble from a woman’s ear. He heard a faint trampling, and then a tiny cadre of tiny men approached and gathered around the spider as if it were a prize stag in a hunt, their rifles over their shoulders and smiles upon their faces.
They walked upside down on the ceiling as if it were the ground itself. And though the spider hung, a victim of gravity, the tiny men kept the hats atop—or more properly, under—their heads and the contents of their pockets secure.
Brecaccio had attended Magistera Ofelia’s lectures about these ceiling-dwelling pixies, had even dallied with Ofelia for a time. But that was years ago, and her raven-haired beauty had paled in comparison to the pinpoint-diamond majesty of the stars. If Brecaccio didn’t want to have yet another annoying conversation about why he’d broken it off with her, he’d ring for a student to go and fetch her. Pixies had become rare as of late, as had her lectures, though her last one, about changes in pixie physiology, had sounded interesting.
The constellation of six pixies split into two groups. Four of them took up a spot directly above Brecaccio, and the other two set about butchering the spider.
Brecaccio’s oldest friend, Magistero Pampa, Professor of Natural Philosophy, would’ve loved to see this miniscule dissection. To peer through the pixies’ eyes at the inner workings of the spider’s leg. But no. He’d passed away years ago while giving a lecture on the anatomy of beetles.
Brecaccio wiped away the tears that wet the eyepiece with the edge of the bed sheet. He missed his friend.
The group of four pixies began running in a circle above Brecaccio, and with each circuit a white line began to thicken into existence. When they were done, they made additional notations around the circle’s edge.
Brecaccio focused on the writing, but it was too small to see. Glancing about the room, he spied a larger telescope on a tripod near the window. He set his little telescope down and tried to get up.
He strained and wheezed, but did little more than summon a burning tightness in his chest. He lay there, breathing like a man who’d run a marathon, until the feeling passed. And when he was able, he took up the little telescope again.
The pixies stood at asymmetrical, but cardinal points along their notations. He couldn’t really tell, but he’d only ever had a passing knowledge of pixie magic. It’d always seemed like nothing more than mere twaddle to him.
The pain came back, intense and tight, but then faded and a feeling of comforting release washed over him.
Brecaccio’s point-of-view traveled up through the telescope and floated up toward the ceiling. The pixies ran in circles again, but now they sang a high-pitched song. When Brecaccio’s head brushed the plaster he stopped, but didn’t bump his head. He’d cringed in anticipation, but felt no pain. In fact, the pain in his hip was gone too, as were all of the aches and pains that came with his eighty-two years.
A pixie walked upside down toward Brecaccio. It stood so close that he could only focus one eye on it. “Good afternoon, Magistero.”
“What has happened?” Brecaccio asked. “Am I dead?”
The pixie pointed at the bed. “Yes.”
Brecaccio looked down. His body had gone slack, but his right hand still clutched the telescope. It lay against his chest like a nursing baby at its mother’s breast.
Brecaccio tried to wipe away his tears, to mourn the loss of his life, but his ghostly hand passed through his face. He screamed and flailed his arms. He’d been unmoored from the insistent clutches of gravity, and it scared him.
The pixie let the tantrum pass, and soon Brecaccio relaxed.
“I don’t understand,” Brecaccio said.
“Have you ever died before?”
The pixie shrugged. “Then nobody would expect you to understand.”
“Oh…” Brecaccio thought back on all of his conversations with Magistera Ofelia and the eldritch volumes that lined her bookshelves. Nothing came to mind.
That bothered him. All of his knowledge, everything gleaned since birth, had always been at his instant disposal. Rarely had either a student or another professor ever stumped him.
But this situation, while beyond his understanding and control, offered new knowledge and a way of staving off death for however long it lasted. Both were good reasons to go along with it.
“What happens now?” Brecaccio asked.
The pixie smiled. “This conversation will go much easier if we put you the right way around.”
“I am the right way around.”
“Not for our purposes.”
Brecaccio flapped a hand. “Fine.”
The pixie took up his position at the edge of the circle, stuck a finger into the air and twirled it around. The pixies ran, faster than before, and sang a song of quick-time arpeggios.
Brecaccio spun, and then began twisting into a tight-woven ghost rope. The ghost-rope shrank, coiled in upon itself and condensed Brecaccio’s life essence down into a tiny ghost-man. And when it was done the pixie walked over, grabbed Brecaccio’s leg and spun him sideways, until his feet floated just below the ceiling. The pixie put his hands on Brecaccio’s shoulders and pressed down. The feeling of gravity returned, but coming from the wrong direction.
“Come with me,” the pixie said. “I’ll make introductions.”
Brecaccio took a few tentative steps. The ceiling felt solid under his feet, and he didn’t have the sense that he was upside down. He looked up at the floor. His old room seemed like a vast cathedral, painted with a rather mundane fresco.
“Please, Magistero, we don’t have much time before nightfall.”
“What happens at nightfall?”
“That’s up to you.”
Brecaccio followed the pixie to the campsite. The other pixies set down their meals of roasted spider leg and stood. All of them–both male and female–wore slouching hats, short pants with hose, leather jerkins and duckbill shoes. Each was doe-eyed and had pointed ears that rose above their caps. The men wore long mustaches that they tied to the points of their ears. Silver baubles hung from the drooping hair.
“I am Pischle,” the first pixie said. The silver baubles along his mustache jingled, “and this is Quaver, Boute, Dombray, Licksie, and Footfeet.” When he finished the introductions he asked, “Why don’t we talk about why we are all here?”
“Go ahead,” Brecaccio answered, sitting down at the fire, but refusing the offer of roasted spider leg.
“We are explorers. And we’ve been tasked with finding other worlds and other magics.” Pischle said. “You humans, in these places of higher learning,” he twirled the chunk of spider leg in his hand, “have girded the borders of our magic. It used to extend from one end of this world to the other. Our lands, and our influence, are shrinking, because of your ever-expanding cities, and ever-spreading knowledge. You’ve defined a world that once lacked definition, a world that once worked on superstition and the magic that surrounded it. The maps have been drawn, all the way to the edges. Nothing has been left a mystery, and nothing has been left for us. We are small, but not so small that we can live in this ‘nothing.’”
Brecaccio stood. “But we spread word of your kind. Why, Magistera Ofelia-”
“Nobody respects what she has to say.”
“How long did you stay with her? How many times did you laugh about her work with your colleagues?”
“But…I…” Brecaccio remembered some of what he’d said. Sure her work had validity, proof of it sat about him in a circle, but everyone knew that magic was fading, and that the real work of humankind lay in defining the world, cataloging every detail. Everyone knew that knowledge was finite, and that soon they would know everything. And then humankind would be complete.
The very motto was carved into the archway of the University. All Will Be Known.
Brecaccio had worked his whole life toward the idea of completion. He knew everything about the heavens. He’d written it down for everyone to read, and had lectured about it for decades. He was happy to let magic fade. It blurred the borders, made categorization difficult, and made knowledge slippery.
“I’m sorry,” Brecaccio said. “We only sought to learn everything there was to know. To achieve perfection.”
“And then what?” Pischle asked.
“I don’t know. There’s still so much to learn. It’ll take decades.”
“Meanwhile, our home,” Pischle waved a hand at the other pixies, “gets smaller every day.”
“There’s nothing I can do about that.”
“Ahh!” Pischle held up a finger. “Yes there is. We can use your knowledge of the heavens to find a new world. If only you’d help us?”
“And if I refuse?”
“Why would you do that?”
“For the sake of argument.”
“We turn you back around, unbind your life force, and let you find out what happens after you die.”
“And maybe you can write a book about it,” Footfeet said. “But nobody will get a chance to read it.”
All the pixies laughed.
“What do you need me to do?” Brecaccio asked.
“Come with us,” Pischle said.
The pixies finished their meal and packed up their camp.
“Is everyone ready?” Pischle asked.
“Where are we going?” Brecaccio asked.
“To the observatory.”
Brecaccio followed, curious, but still unsure about how far he’d go.
Using a rope the pixies had left behind, they climbed up the doorframe and crawled through a little hole in the plaster above the door and passed out onto the catwalk, arranging themselves single-file along the underside of the railing. A light breeze ruffled Brecaccio’s clothes, and it was then that he realized that he was still wearing his long sleep-shirt and robe. His feet were bare, and he was ready to be embarrassed of his thick, yellow toenails when he noticed that his feet were different. Gone were the fine blue veins that webbed the pale arches of his feet, and his toenails were clear as clouded glass—almost elegant compared to what he’d grown used to.
His hands, arms and beard betrayed certain changes as well.
Brecaccio grabbed Pischle’s shoulder. “You’ve given me back my youth!”
“Of course I did. We couldn’t have you gallivanting around on arthritic legs.”
Brecaccio daintily took hold of his robe and did a little curtsy. “You could’ve given me new clothes too.”
“That’s just silly. I’m not a seamstress.”
They continued on down the railing, weaving around the spindles, and when they reached the dome of the observatory they used another set of ropes the climb to the scratched, brass keyhole. It was a tight fit, but they all made it through.
Inside, they climbed down the door, using handholds that the pixies had cut into the wood.
The wide bowl of the dome was like a vast empty lake, the oculus at the nadir having served as the drain. The 10-meter brass telescope hung in the center of the domed space within a web of chains and pulleys. The telescope was pointed straight up at the oculus, but it could be focused on nearly any point in the sky through the many levels of shutters that’d been cut into the dome.
The pixies removed their jerkins, bunched them up under their posteriors and took turns sliding down the long, curving slope in a space between the shutters.
Brecaccio removed his robe, folded it and braced his feet on the ledge. The oculus looked so far away, and he feared breaking his hip, but then remembered that he was young again. But not in spirit. Three decades’ worth of honing his world down to safe and reasonable activity had made his world small.
Brecaccio laughed. His whole world was small now. Or was it instead humungous, now that he was small?
The pixies called to him from below. They waved their arms and encouraged him to let go of his fears and slide. Brecaccio scooted forward and lifted his feet. He descended in an exhilarating whoosh and had to roll off of his bundled robe so that he didn’t crash into the lip of the oculus. He ended up tangled in his robe, giggling and wondering if they had time to climb back up and go again.
The pixies removed their shirts and added them to the pile of jerkins on the ceiling. Brecaccio averted his eyes, but when they laughed at him he turned back. The chests of the female pixies were nearly undistinguishable from those of the males, the only variation being that their nipples were pink instead of brown.
Brecaccio’s interest in their gender differences faded when he saw their wings.
“Why did we walk all the way here, climbing ropes and sliding down the dome, when you could’ve just flown here?” Brecaccio asked.
“We’ve changed our wings,” Pischle said. “They don’t work like they used to.”
Brecaccio looked again. Their wings were bigger–he’d seen several paintings in Magistera Ofelia’s room–and lacy rather than solid, and not much good for catching air. And instead of their usual glow, magic flowed through the traceries of wing like blood through veins.
“I don’t understand,” Brecaccio said.
“You will,” Pischle said.
They heard a rattling from below and then voices. A row of students filed into the room. They rushed toward the telescope and gathered around the eyepiece. They moved with the feverish excitement of youth, orbiting each other in tiny groups. Their behavior and white robes identified them as first years. Magistera Ofelia came in behind the students and they parted to let her pass to the eyepiece. Her graying black hair lay in long coiled knots down the back of her head, so long that they almost touched the floor.
“Before we take this any further,” Pischle said. “I want to be sure of one thing. Do you know how this telescope was constructed?”
Brecaccio smiled and readied a lecture in his head. He stood up straighter and pitched his voice to carry. “Glassmaking was first discovered by…”
“A simple yes will do.”
“…the Lemadician. Emperor…” Brecaccio had always had difficulty stopping a lecture once he got going, and it’d become harder with age. “Yes.”
“And given simple tools, could you construct one of your own?”
Diagrams, tools and methodologies filled Brecaccio’s head, threatening to burst forth from his throat in a storm of pedantry. He twitched and swallowed. “Yes.”
“Good,” Pischle said, looking down. “Choose a student. One with a wide-eyed sense of wonder, and tell us when he or she approaches the telescope.”
“Easy enough,” Brecaccio said. “Magistera Ofelia will do nicely.”
Brecaccio had always found her sustained joy in looking at the heavens a trifle immature. Her gaze, while learned, was still like that of a child. So willing to see the magic in everything. They’d debated the point more than once.
“Hurry then,” Pischle said. “We need to stand on the lens while she is at the eyepiece.”
The pixies, one by one, spread their wings and glided over to the telescope. They flipped in midair and came to a rest on the lens, as if the sudden reversal of gravity was commonplace.
Below, the students stirred and began talking about the “birds” up on the lens and arguing about who was going to climb the stairs and investigate.
Soon only Pischle and Brecaccio stood on the lip if the oculus.
“It’s time to go,” Pischle said.
“I don’t know if I can make the jump.”
Pischle stepped over, grabbed Brecaccio’s nightclothes and pulled them off. Brecaccio was left naked, save for the linen undergarments that covered his nether region. Brecaccio felt tingling, his first unfurling and a rush of energy that ran up his spine to his brain.
Lacy wings spread out behind him. He flexed his new muscles and his wings undulated.
“You can use those,” Pischle said. “Now, come on!”
Pischle glided over to the lens, executing the flip perfectly.
Brecaccio stepped to the edge of the oculus and looked down. A student had been tasked to investigate the disturbance on the lens, and she had started the long journey up the stairs. Ofelia pulled away from the eyepiece looked up at the oculus and then leaned back into the eyepiece.
“Jump,” Pischle said. “I can feel her.”
The pixies had spread out to the edges of the lens. Brecaccio imagined that they appeared as dark blotches arrayed around the view of the telescope blocking out portions of the stars.
Magic coruscated through the pixies’ wings, and sparks drifted slowly up off of them like glowing drops falling in the wrong direction. Brecaccio felt no such magic. His wings lay dormant.
Brecaccio laughed. It seemed so silly, so undignified to be standing there, upside down, in his smallclothes, with tiny wings sticking out of his back. It defied reality. It defied the rigors of science. And yet it was happening. Right now. To him. He, the observer. A man who’d trusted his eyes for decades. A man who’d trusted his mind to measure the observable and write it down, so that others could benefit from his hard work.
But who was he to deny the new learning that lay before him? Who was he to deny the very things that were happening to him at that moment?
He’d lived his whole life knowing that one day humankind would know everything. But that sense of completion implied a limit on knowledge. A willful ignorance of things that lay outside the tightly bordered world of human insight.
If only Ofelia could see him now, among a coterie of pixies. He’d be forced to admit that Ofelia’s work held promise, and had, at this very moment, dovetailed with his own life’s work.
Brecaccio spread his wings and glided to the lens. His midair flip was less graceful and he needed a moment to stand after landing. As he paced to the center, his wings stiffened with magic. He looked down, wondering if Ofelia could see the smile on his face, and waved.
The pixies gathered around him. Their wings spread, dripping sparks into the sky.
Directly above lay the Hubstar. All other stars wheeled around it. It was the center, the apex, and their destination.
Brecaccio crouched and leapt into the sky, riding on waves of Ofelia’s imagination. The pixies flew near him in a ragged circle. They must’ve looked like a fleeing constellation to Ofelia.
To her, Brecaccio was the center. The Hubstar of this tiny constellation, fading in the sparkling dark of the heavens. He wished he had the time to stop and tell her that her sense of wonder had powered their journey.
But it was too late. There was no going back. And though he was a young man again, he had the powerful sense of regret that only an old man can feel.
Marching into Blue Climes
By Rhoads Brazos
The wagon lurched and leaned up the crooked road to the dry bluffs. There, on ground of splintered shale and rust-colored lichen, where bull thistle twisted between the cracks of the earth, lay the disused home of Wallace Whitton’s father. Wallace, atop the wagon with reins in hand, smiled at his son and motioned to the firepit-gray ocean, where he hoped the boy might wish to play. He tried to seem sincere in his enthusiasm, but gained no like response. The boy stared ahead and drummed his thin fingers in an intricate rhythm upon the wagon’s rails.
When they stopped before the home, Wallace kept his watery smile in place. Their former guest house had been more expansive than this, and in far better repair. He hoped his son couldn’t read his disappointment, but the boy had seen so much. How could he know one truth and not grasp another?
The son touched at his fingertips. Each looked as if it had been dipped into a rhubarb pandowdy.
Wallace caught the boy’s hands and held them tight. “You mustn’t.”
The boy watched the sky, its clouds smeared over an expanse as pale as memory.
“Do you hear?” Wallace asked.
The boy answered that he did.
“Our things are inside. Go and see.”
The boy climbed down from the wagon and made his way into the house. The dismal structure was all that remained of the Whitton fortune, enduring only because it had lain outside the field of battle. If only they had all been so blessed. Viridis, the former Savannah vineyard, had been smashed, stolen, and eaten by Grant and his Hessians. While the rumble of their march faded to the south, Wallace Whitton had knelt amongst the ruins and, with his own cultured hands, dug through the cinders of his past, the cooling ashes of his family’s legacy, to grasp Nettie’s unanswering fingers.
As Wallace hefted their last load of belongings to the ground, a plinked melody of single keys struck by a single finger sounded from the house’s corner room. The boy had found it. Wallace headed inside to bandage his boy’s fingers before they stained the ivory.
The months passed in a drab haze of impressions, each forcibly inserting itself between Wallace and what his life had been. He spent the day watching the sea and imagined Nettie reaching up from its murk. He’d pull her to safety and she’d smile. Her sockets weren’t yawning wide and vacant; her teeth weren’t blackened behind shriveled lips. Some days the boy joined him and they strolled the wet-pressed sand hemming the water’s edge, but Wallace couldn’t guess where his son’s young thoughts wandered.
On a late day in March the school master arrived and tried to persuade Wallace to do the proper thing.
“Honor his mind,” the man intoned in a deep contrabasso.
Wallace frowned at the way the school master’s beard jutted over his barrel-framed torso. He thought of boots falling like a thousand-fold hammers, the head of each poised over a coffin nail.
“You are a learned man yourself, yes?” the school master asked.
“No,” Wallace said. The school master seemed taken aback. “I know nothing of the world.”
“Do not limit your young Ernest’s possibilities.”
“Which you presume to know?”
“A proper education will—”
Wallace set a hand on the school master’s shoulder. “Come and listen.” He led him inside.
An hour later the school master exited the house. His lips trembled as he climbed back up onto his gig. He eyed the studio window where he knew the boy to be, drew in sharply, and snapped the reins. He never returned.
Wallace watched the polished carriage until it reached the distant rise and winked away like a dying ember. He turned to the house, its every window open. Worn linen drapery caught the eastern breeze in tabbying flutters.
“Loose him, and let him go,” Wallace muttered.
The scullery maid had abandoned them last week. She’d learned to avoid the boy’s studio, especially when the lad played, but that only delayed the inevitable. There had been too many touches and pinches and whispered promises from empty rooms. On her final day, Wallace had rescued the poor girl from the larder in a state of disarray and abject panic. She offered no thanks, but had slapped Wallace hard—a stinging blow that set his ears to ringing.
Wallace touched his cheek again. His wife had been the last to strike him. He’d been carousing with the hired hands after an unusually bountiful harvest had been pulled scant days before an early frost. He’d do anything to have her strike him again.
The windows closed, all of them at once. The whole house blinked.
In the studio, Wallace pushed back deep into the couch cushions and allowed himself to drift. The boy’s music had progressed from motifs to melodies to grand soundscapes. His fingers had caught up with his ambitions, perhaps—they seemed not to be lacking. Wallace relaxed and tried to ignore cool draughts that came and went without cause. The chairs had pulled away from the walls again and circled about the boy at a polite distance.
“Ernest,” Wallace said. “Can you play something—more—”
The boy pulled his hands away from the keys and rested them in his lap. He kept his back to his father.
“What I mean to ask is, my boy, can you craft something bright? Something cheery? Remember when the four of us picnicked upon the high hill?”
The boy did remember, but was his father certain he wished to hear?
“Without a doubt,” Wallace said.
The boy’s fingers again fell to the keys, building impressions around a shifting theme. Swells of melody counterpointed a sublime accompaniment. The music rose and fell. It flowed as speech and whispered like the wind.
Wallace saw that day clear before him. He felt the family’s measured pace over a wildflower hillside and tasted air sweetened with aster and hop clover. The blanket, held at a corner by each one of them, was laid under the bough of a wide magnolia. As he and Nettie reclined near one another, Ernest and Franklin explored a nearby stream. Wallace felt the mist of rippling eddies, slickened stones, and a yielding carpet of moss. It was as if he were with the boys at the waters.
“Have you ever thought of our having a daughter?” Nettie asked.
Wallace chuckled as Ernest slipped from a stone and soaked his leg up to the shin. “Have you?” he asked.
“And what do you see?”
Wallace idly wondered how the boy had heard the conversation.
“She’d have your hair,” Nettie said. “Curling and the color of molasses.”
“It hardly curls.”
“And my smarts.”
“Is that so?”
Nettie laughed. “I’d teach her to be a proper lady.”
“Are you implying I’ve faltered with—”
“Of course not. I’d make her dresses.” Nettie rested her head on Wallace’s shoulder. “Dresses of violet and buttermilk yellow with pearl buttons.”
“You can bury her in them.”
Wallace seized at the voice, not his own. The music’s memory didn’t lie. It came from right nearby. It had been a breeze before, a susurration easily ignored, yet the keys gave it voice.
“And if it’s a boy?” Wallace asked.
“Another?” Nettie lifted her head and pressed her mouth close to his. “She won’t be.”
He held his palm to her cheek. She closed her eyes and her lips parted. She kissed the sole of a desiccated foot. A series of diminished arpeggios raced up the bare leg to the bloodied and beaten body of the stripped negro hanging above them, his noosed neck snapped clean through.
“Be down in the ground, soon ‘nough,” he whispered. He spun slowly with the wind. He never quit weeping. Tears dripped from the tip of his nose. “Ain’t worth the bother.”
Wallace found himself at his boy’s side. He yanked the boy’s hands from the keys. “Stop it!”
The boy blinked rapidly and made to turn back to the keyboard.
“How dare you lie! On her memory of all—”
The boy interrupted.
“No,” Wallace said. “There was nothing. There was—”
The bough, as thick as a man’s waist, had been worn smooth at a convenient spot, at a lethal height. The boy had seen it when they arrived—Wallace had too, but had forced the fact away.
From the darkness of the studio came a low growl. Shadows shifted and the air drew close, as if Wallace were standing in a very small space. A sigh of floorboards issued from the left, the right.
“Play,” Wallace whispered. “If it keeps the Devil at bay, then play to the end.”
The music started again, spilling forth the runaway’s prophecies in forbidden chordings. They foretold the elder brother’s demise at his first battle. He would lay weeping in the mud, his body curled and fetal. As a cavalry charge churned his blood and bile into the earth, he cursed his father’s name. Later, the mother would plead with men who slouched in blue uniforms. She was with child, she cried, but the soldiers, drunk on Wallace’s own label, didn’t let that hamper them. In a fit of shame at himself and his remaining son, the father would grasp a blade, the saber of his fallen eldest, and hold it to his own throat.
“I hate this world,” Wallace said. The music yielded to his words. His each syllable fell lyrically with the meter, as if the song had been written with his interjection in mind. “Now I have nothing.”
From the darkness, a chorus hummed the tale of their own demise, cheated out of living.
“A pistolshot to the brain isn’t enough for a despot!” Wallace cried. He spun to all sides. Their cold gaze was upon him, he knew. “They should all burn for what they’ve done. If there were any justice, if Providence smiled upon its children, they would be made to suffer as I have. As we have!”
Wallace fell to the floor and sobbed. The music went on, pulsing with each inhale, metronomed to his heartbeat. The song of his failings would never end.
Cold hands tucked themselves around him and bore him to his feet. The others had heard the ballad of his past. They understood his earlier intrusion and, as brothers, they forgave. Wallace sagged forward but didn’t fall. As they dragged him toward his bedroom, his feet trailed loose over the dusty floor.
The next season arrived and Wallace sat slumped and ragged on the south edge of the porch. He watched his boy down by the waters, playing his tiny drum and marching up and down the beach. Wallace hadn’t wanted to return the instrument to him, but too much was in motion. At this point he wasn’t sure he could say no. It had been difficult to coax the lad away from the house, but the boy relented when Wallace explained the reasoning. The boy’s audience went with him.
Wallace looked up at the piano tuner, a slight man with a feminine face, one whose youth was beginning to seep into crinkled corners. The tuner leaned in the doorway and folded a long strip of felt into pleats. He placed it in a leather pouch. The tuning wrenches holstered along his belt jangled lightly.
“Are you done?” Wallace asked.
“Yeah. Fine instrument.”
Wallace nodded and turned back to the shore.
“That’cha boy?” the tuner asked.
“He’s my youngest.”
Luckily the wind carried the beat of the boy’s drum away. There was no telling what it could possess a man to do.
“Saw some of his scribblins upon the music stand,” the tuner said. “Quite remarkable.”
Wallace didn’t answer.
“It’s a long ride,” the tuner said, “and I was wonderin’. I won’t reach home ‘fore nightfall, but it would be worth it to me, I think, if you’d call him up to play.”
“Trust me. You don’t want to hear.”
“Oh, but I do!”
“I sincerely doubt that.”
“It’s not meant in jest, suh. I’ve heard things concernin’ him.”
“And what have you heard, pray tell?” Wallace glared sideways at the man.
The tuner rubbed at his fingers. He came close to Wallace and sat. “He paints with sound. He’s a genius, they say.”
Wallace scoffed. He thought of all the potential gossips who’d visited the home—the school master, the one-time maid, the delivery boys. The minister had come by once. That hadn’t gone well.
“I meant it as a healing tool,” Wallace said. “Ernest always loved music.” He scowled at the distant beach. “I didn’t think it would lead here. I thought it would help him to . . . forget things.”
“How long’s he been playing?”
“Almost a year.”
Down at the shore, the sand kicked up in a mile-long swath and the waters churned. One would think it to be an insistent gust from the sea, but Wallace knew that wasn’t the case. The air along the waters buzzed like a ball of hornets, but not on account of the weather. How many were there? Fifty abreast, sixty? How far back did they go? Wallace mentally tallied columns.
“Remarkable suh,” the tuner said. “Self-taught, they say.”
“Yes. He learned at the Battle of Manassas,” Wallace said. “He saw and he heard and it changed him forever.”
The tuner fiddled with his pipe. “I don’t follow.”
“My eldest, Franklin, joined Stonewall’s forces. He took Ernest with him, so that they could both revel in glory.”
“Yes, and done without my approval, mind you. Though I blame myself for encouraging him, both of them really. I say things sometimes I shouldn’t. My wife, she used to scold me.”
“Sure ‘nough. Bet he was good though.” The tuner gave his pipe a few strong puffs, working up a thick cloud.
“He kept their attention.”
The boy had sent the men into a frenzy. He struck out rhythms that drove them mad, turned the most sheepish into demons. It was his hand that guided each blade, his finger that pulled each trigger. By proxy, he had slain a thousand.
Wallace watched the beach. The waves washed the footprints away, but they reformed the moment the waters receded. He hoped the tuner hadn’t noticed that fact.
“After Manassas, the brass never allowed him back on the field of battle,” Wallace said. “I’m not sure, but I think they feared him.”
The tuner let the conversation wilt away. Perhaps he found it too much of a struggle to maintain his part in such an odd discourse.
“You’re not gonna let him play for me, are ya?”
“No. I like you. I want you to come back for the next time. You’re Cajun?”
“A touch. Transplanted from Baton Rouge, after.”
“I thought so. I left your payment on the front table along with a thank you Ernest wrote for you. A short sonatina, I believe. I told him to keep it light.”
The tuner’s eyes lit up. “Thank you, suh.”
“Light, I told him. If it seems off-key, you should burn it.”
The tuner slipped his tools back in his saddlebags and carefully laid the gifted pages within. With a farewell tip of his hat, he took his horse up the north road at an easy pace. Wallace felt a pang of regret. He hadn’t considered sympathetic bystanders, but then again, neither had innocence shielded his own family.
The months of music had trained Wallace’s eyes as well as his ears. If he ever again approached that lone magnolia on the hill, he would see its forgotten occupant. He’d notice that forever twisting body the same way he spied the reconnoitering troops hustling past the tuner’s mount, the same way he heard the stamp and press of the furious masses climbing the far bluff, each soul brimming with a shared rage for that which they’d lost.
The boy stood before the porch with his drum slung over one shoulder and lashed around his waist. Wallace had tried to talk him out of this and promised to have the piano tuned—a loose bribe to keep the boy here—but knew it wouldn’t work. He could say that he’d tried, though he’d never meant to succeed.
“Ernest.” Wallace placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“It’s for Ma and Frankie and everyone else.”
“For us,” Wallace said.
“Especially for us.”
Wallace’s eyes brimmed with tears. A part of his youngest had been lost with the oldest. Wallace needed to listen to the dead to hear him clearly. This young boy with ancient eyes echoed Wallace’s own thoughts, yet once this was put into motion Wallace had no idea how it could be stopped.
“Come back to me,” Wallace said. “If I lose another—”
“Naught shall touch me.”
As if in response, the double phalanx of spirits about the boy glowered out of the ether. The air burned like salt in a wound. Wallace knew they offered only the merest taste. Their true power would blister a body into paste.
“Follow the beach for the entire night,” Wallace said. “Turn in at Herring Bay and you’ll reach Annapolis by this time tomorrow.”
“We’re behind enemy lines. My scouts will guide me.”
“Yes, they will at that.”
The boy turned to his troops. He sounded a long roll upon his drum and ended with a snap. Wallace found himself sitting ramrod straight. The call couldn’t be resisted.
The boy, conductor and general, cried out, “The South shall rise again!”
A half-million boots cracked heel to heel.
A Memory, Perfected
By Derrick Boden
“Let’s play hooky.”
Jessie’s fingers tiptoe down my chest, sending tremors across my naked body. Her heart pumps hard against my side.
I grab her hand and bring it to my lips. “Wish I could.”
She juts out her lower lip. The morning sunlight filters through the blinds, casting patterns across her skin. A Stellar’s jay whines from the oak tree.
“If you drop Cat off at school,” she says. “I promise I’ll still be in bed when you get back.”
I scratch my head. “Big day at the office, today. The neural processors are ready. Another week and we’ll be cleared for our first human subject.”
Jessie rolls her eyes, then drops into a radio announcer drawl. “Topping the charts of inappropriate pillow talk for twelve consecutive months: brain transplants.”
I start to laugh, when a rumble shakes the room. The window goes dark. A knot forms in my stomach.
A voice, throaty and thick, rolls in. “Resuming cerebral scans.”
I blink. The darkness evaporates. Jessie’s looking at me, expectant.
“You’re not even listening,” she says. “Your head’s already at the lab.”
I shoot a suspicious glance at the window. Sunlight floods in. The Stellar’s jay whines.
Jessie stuffs a pillow on my face. I flail my arms around like I’m suffocating, then go limp. She prods my side with a finger, but I don’t move.
“Oh my god, are you ok?”
I hold my breath. She can be so gullible.
After a pause, she prods a bit lower. I flinch, and she cackles. I toss the pillow aside and draw her body to my own. I can afford to be a little late.
Downstairs, Cat’s shoveling giant spoonfuls of granola into her mouth, sloshing milk everywhere.
“Easy,” I say. “Remember to breathe.”
She pauses between bites to push her glasses up her nose. The frames are black with tiny skulls. She says they’re “counter culture,” one of the many phrases I never expected to hear from an eight-year-old.
Cat scrutinizes me as I pack up my briefcase. “Aliya gets Fruit Loops every day.”
“Well then, Aliya will be learning about diabetes very soon.”
“Hey,” Jessie says on the way to the table. “Aliya’s a good kid.”
Jessie’s eyes close as she savors her first sip of coffee. Her hair’s pulled back into a ponytail, and she’s wearing her red shirt that plunges tantalizingly deep. Tight pinstripe slacks. A hint of perfume drifting in her wake, as if whispering: “Should’ve played hooky.”
I look away. “You about ready, Kiddo?”
Cat drops her bowl into the sink. “Born ready, Daddo.”
Outside, Cat hops into the backseat. Jessie slides in at my side. My phone buzzes as I’m backing out of the driveway. It’s work. At this hour, that’s either very good news or very bad news.
Cat’s messing around with her seatbelt. “Can we go swimming this weekend?”
I fumble with my phone, manage to get the speaker engaged.
Rustling on the other end.
“Sure, kiddo,” Jessie says. “As long as–”
Brakes scream against asphalt. I look over in time to see the grill of the truck. Both side windows explode. I can’t hear my own yelling over the crunching of metal and glass. Ribbons of blood stream through the air, and–
The glass freezes. The blood lifts up, like rain moving in reverse. Metal and flesh fade into blurred patterns, then into distinct shapes. Faces. Dr. Roberts, from the lab. Dr. Stephens, behind her. The intern, Harry.
“Did you see that?” Stephens’ big gray mustache bobs up and down as he talks. “The neural activity.”
They’re poring over machines. My machines.
“He’s accessing episodic memories.” Roberts chews on her pencil. “But his cognitive functions are all over the charts.”
Then I see it. Past the doctors and the machines and the blinding fluorescent lights. Against the far wall, a mirror. In the mirror, myself. Or the thing that stands where I should be. I’m strapped to an upright medical bed, facing forward. I’m wearing another man’s body. Hairier, thinner. Knobby knees. Small, sagging gut. My head’s shaved, and framed with surgical scars. My eyes are brown, instead of blue.
I try to move, but only my eyes respond. I can’t speak.
“The neural processor isn’t reacting properly,” Roberts says. “It’s having trouble bridging the gap between perceptual awareness and residual memory.”
“Could be a result of the trauma.” Stephens drops his voice and leans closer to Roberts. “Emotional, I mean. Do you think he was conscious, when his family died? It took the EMTs twenty minutes to get there.”
A coldness slips across my new skin. I want to close my ears, forget what I’ve heard, what I’ve done. I need to get out of this place. My heart beats faster, and my fingers twitch.
“Look.” Roberts walks closer. “We’ve got progress.”
I want to tell Roberts that she’s wrong. This isn’t progress. But my lips won’t move.
The weight of the neural processor presses against my skull. Having trouble bridging the gap, they said. I focus on my reflection, the false brown eyes and the hairy chest. I know this technology. It has flaws. I can exploit them.
“Something’s happening.” Stephens’ voice edges up a notch. “He’s slipping back into episodic memory.”
“Keep monitoring,” Roberts says, but her voice comes from underwater. Their faces, the machines, the room all fade to white.
I blink through the sunlight. My heartbeat slows.
“Let’s play hooky.”
Jessie’s fingers are like tiny ballerinas against my skin. Outside, a Stellar’s Jay sings a quiet song. I grab Jessie’s hand and hold it against my face, soak in her warmth and her strength. Her aliveness.
I open my mouth to respond, when the room trembles. A fissure forms across the ceiling, revealing an impenetrable abyss.
“Resuming cerebral scans,” a voice says. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”
I blink. The fissure is gone. I look back at Jessie, draw her body closer.
“Sure,” I say. “Let’s play hooky.”
By Amelie Daigle
Sophie is in the first grade when she finds it hiding in the rocks beside the koi pond. She has never seen one before. She reaches out to touch it with two fingers, the way she has been taught to pet animals at the zoo. It is slimy and soft, but not unpleasant to touch. It reminds her of a manta ray’s back, or the way a live fish feels when it tries to jump out of your hands. Its limbs wave weakly in response to her touch. Watching them, Sophie feels sick and slightly afraid.
Sophie goes inside to tell her mother what she has found. Her mother is eating a salad.
“I found something in the garden,” Sophie says.
Her mother drops her fork. “What did it look like?” she asks.
“Like a jellyfish in the shape of a person. It felt like the manta rays at the aquarium.”
“You touched it.” Her mother shudders and pushes her plate away. “Where did you find it?”
“By the koi pond,” Sophie says, wondering if there is going to be trouble. If this is like the time her bug collection fell over and worms and everything spilled out on the floor and her mother had to clean it all up.
Sophie’s mother walks to the back door and locks it. “Don’t play in the backyard any more today, Sweetheart,” she says. “Stay inside until your father comes home.”
Sophie’s father is a large man with sad eyes and broad shoulders. He sits in his favorite chair while his wife paces back and forth. “Those things give me the creeps,” Sophie’s mother says. “I can’t sleep with it in the yard. I keep picturing the way it must look in the moonlight, like an aborted baby in a piscine eggsack. The color of something that was born in a cave and never saw light.”
“What do you expect me to do about it?” Sophie’s father asks.
“I know better than to expect you to do anything.” Sophie’s mother crosses the room again. “What really gets me, you know what really gets me is the eyes. Those black beady eyes. And the way their limbs just sort of flop around.”
“They’re harmless,” Sophie’s father says. “Even if I could get rid of it, I wouldn’t, Lisle. It isn’t hurting anyone.”
Sophie’s mother sighs. “I can’t think straight with that thing in the yard,” she says.
Sophie’s father is an artist. He teaches at local high schools or wherever else he can find a temporary position. Any spare cash goes towards his paints and canvases, and in times when work is hard to find, he resorts to painting with leftover house paint from around the neighborhood, Kool-Aid powder mixed with water, Sophie’s old dried-up watercolor sets, his wife’s expired makeup. He experiments with crushed fruits and berries, jellies, jams, and fruit juices. His more organic creations line the backyard fence. Some of his concoctions grow mold over time. Some begin to smell. Over his wife’s objections he allows his blueberry jam painting to be overrun by fire ants. “Avoid that corner of the yard,” he tells Sophie. “They’ll stay where the jam is.”
Sophie’s mother is appalled. “It’s my yard,” she says. “It’s the yard my daughter plays in. Would you like it if Sophie tripped and fell onto an anthill?”
“Sophie’s a sentient being. She can avoid that corner of the yard.”
“I don’t want those ants in my yard,” Sophie’s mother says irritably.
“Where would you like them?” Sophie’s father asks.
“Not in my yard!”
That night, Sophie can’t sleep. She goes downstairs to get a drink of water. There is a pot boiling on the stove.
The next day, the anthill is smaller and smoother and soggier, and the ants are gone.
At dinner Sophie’s mother says that there have been more and more of them, and that no one knows why, or if they reproduce, or how they reproduce at all. They simply appear one day, she says, on a street corner or under a tree or in a body of water.
“This is happening all over the world,” she says “for no discernable reason. It’s like a plague of locusts or something. It’s created an entire industry of confused scientists.”
Sophie has seen three of them in her neighborhood, and one when she went to the grocery store with her mother, and one when her family went downtown for Sunday brunch. When her mother turns on the news, or leaves a newspaper lying around, she always looks for pictures of others.
They are limpid, floppy, and pale. They have small, dark eyes, and something that looks like it could be a face if it tried harder. But Sophie’s mother says that isn’t the worst part.
“The worst part,” Sophie’s mother says, “is that they behave in ways that we can’t explain with our current science. Some of them just lie there like blobs, and then there are others with these weird characteristics.”
“I read about one they found on the beach in Florida,” Sophie’s father says, “that appears when the tide goes out, but when the tide comes in and the water covers it, it’s completely invisible.”
“There’s that,” Sophie’s mother says. “They’ve found one near Madrid that grew to completely encase a tree. So there’s a tree in Madrid that’s covered with that filmy flesh, you know what they’re like. And one actually appeared near campus the other day, so we had it transported to the lab for experimentation. It fluttered about in the wind as if it were nothing, but when they lifted it, it was heavier than lead.
“Kim, she’s in the physics department, she’s going out of her mind,” she says. “There’s no way to account for the weight discrepancy. We’re thinking of performing a vivisection.”
“Don’t you hate looking at them?” Sophie’s father asks. “Why would you want to cut one open?”
“It’s important to know how they work,” her mother explains. “Either the universe is changing, or these things don’t belong in it. I suspect the latter.”
“It seems cruel to me,” her father says. “To cut something open while it’s alive.”
“If you can call them alive,” Sophie’s mother says. She shudders.
One appears on the blacktop at Sophie’s middle school. This one is ambulatory, which is new and disturbing. It is vaguely humanoid, but skeletal and distorted, all ribs and no skin. And dark, glistening dark, like an oil slick.
Sophie’s friend Brian claims a lunch table by the window so that he can watch the Pest Unit operate. Sophie isn’t sure she wants to watch the Pest Unit, especially while she is eating, but she wants to watch Brian watch the Pest Unit. When Brian is excited by something, the blood drains from his face and his eyes are striking.
It is ambling purposelessly around one of the basketball hoops. “Look at how it moves,” Brian breathes. “It’s like one of those wooden snakes with the notches in, you know. It kind of… slinks forward, look, it’s like it leads with its abdomen—can you call that an abdomen?”
“My mom uses terms from insect anatomy,” Sophie says, hoping this comment is useful. “The abdomen, and the thorax.”
“What’s the sense in that?” Brian asks, amused. “Insect bodies have defined segments. I can’t even tell what this guy’s skeletal structure is trying to do. It’s just ribs all the way down. What do you think it feels like?”
Sophie winces a bit, and regrets it immediately. “I touched one once,” she says. “It felt sort of like a fish, but without scales. Just the slipperiness of a fish in your hands.” Sophie looks down at her sandwich, tuna on white bread. It looks pale and cold. She takes a bite.
“I’ve touched plenty,” Brian says. “But they’re not usually black like that. They don’t usually look so boney. Do you think it feels like bone?”
“I don’t know,” Sophie says. The Pest Unit is fanning out in a circle. The principal and a few staff members stand well back from the scene in a tense cluster. The object of this intense scrutiny seems entirely unaware that anything unusual is happening. It continues its patternless ambling, always around the central point of the basketball hoop.
“What do you think they have eyes for?” Brian asks. “It’s like they can’t see anything. I’ve clapped my hands in front of their eyes—nothing. No reaction. But they never walk into anything, either.”
“It’s not like they can’t see anything,” Sophie says. “It’s like they see you and they don’t care.”
Brian smiles, and Sophie feels filled with flushed buzzing. “You know, I hadn’t thought of that, Soph,” he says, sounding slightly awed. “They’re looking at you, perceiving you, but they’re entirely indifferent.”
One of the men around the perimeter of the circle takes out a metal pole. He prods the thing, and it slinks away from the stimulus towards the direction of the schoolyard gate.
“Even a pigeon or a squirrel or something,” Brian says, “if you reach out to touch it, it’ll move away. Everything that isn’t domesticated lives in fear of us. Most species don’t want to be anywhere near us. If humans infiltrate an area, they’ll leave.”
Subject to continual prodding, the thing slinks a good eight feet or so from the basketball hoop. Then it blinks out of existence. Instantaneously it is standing directly underneath the basketball hoop. Again it slinks forward in its ambling way, unconcerned that it has just violated the laws of physics. Sophie can’t hear the members of the Pest Unit through the window, but she can tell that they are cursing.
“I don’t think they’ll be able to move it,” Sophie says.
One of the Pest Unit women walks over to the principal. The man with the pole continues to poke at the thing, and it ambles forward again until it crosses its invisible line and is transported back to its point of origin beneath the basketball hoop.
“Do you think they’ll kill it?” Brian asks. His eyes are blazing. Sophie doesn’t know what answer he is hoping for, and her hands tremble with desire and confusion.
“My mom says they don’t know how to kill them,” Sophie says, “yet. People are working on it.”
“Your mom is, you mean?”
Sophie glances through the window at the unfamiliar skeletal structure slinking forward grotesquely at each prod of the pole.
“Yeah. Her lab is.”
Brian leans forward. “She’s got test subjects?”
“I don’t know,” Sophie says. “She doesn’t talk about work much.” Sophie takes another bite out of her sandwich.
“What does she mean, they don’t know how to kill them? What happens if you stab them, or shoot them?”
“She says it leaves a hole,” Sophie says. “But they heal very fast.”
“Well, what if you cut them up into little pieces and scatter them all over, what happens then? Do all the little pieces keep moving? Do they try to find each other and connect back up?”
“I don’t know, Brian,” Sophie pleads. “I’m trying to eat.”
“Sorry,” Brian says. His eyes wander back to the window, where the thing is being prodded in the opposite direction as before. “I guess they’re trying to gauge the circumference of its territory,” he says.
Sophie puts the sandwich back in its plastic container. She decides to focus on the Cheetos instead. They are crunchy and dry and don’t look like they’ve ever been alive.
“They regenerate like starfish,” Sophie’s mother explains, “but it’s not really like starfish at all.” She carves a piece of roast lamb and places it on Brian’s plate. “They’re not very organized—they don’t have a skeleton or layers of fat or skin. The material they’re made of varies, but there’s no pattern to it—a bony, skeletal material might coat one appendage, for instance. And if you cut them open, you’re as likely to find soft, pliable tissue as you are anything resembling a skeleton.”
“Does that hold for the ambulatory ones as well?” Brian asks.
“The ambulatories are more structured, but we don’t understand how the skeletons they have support walking upright. That being said, we haven’t had a very good chance to examine one. They’re difficult to examine because they won’t stop moving, and there’s no way to sedate them.”
“For someone who dislikes these creatures so intensely,” Sophie’s father says, “you do seem to enjoy talking about them.”
“This is my work, Viktor,” Sophie’s mother says with a dangerous laugh. “If you talked to a detective I’m sure you’d hear all about the criminal mind. That doesn’t mean that detectives like criminals.”
“They must like something about them, or they wouldn’t have gone into that line of work,” Sophie’s father says.
“I sort of like them,” Brian says. “The creatures, I mean. They’re biologically unprecedented. You don’t find that just a little exciting, Ms. Engel?”
“I think they’re abhorrent,” Sophie’s mother says. “But I’ll give them this much—they’ve exploded the field of biology. Not to mention physics.”
Sophie’s mother talks about the structure of the creatures, the instability of their particles, the ratio of oxygen, carbon, and heavy metal particles in comparison to ordinary carbon-based life. Sophie begins to construct a tower of peas using her fork. It isn’t until her father stands up and leaves the room that Sophie tunes in to the conversation.
“We’ve found that anything acidic or corrosive will affect them,” her mother is saying, “but their bodies rebuild at almost the same rate as they’re dissolved. They heal at a speed that is quite literally unbelievable—it doesn’t look like anything we’ve seen before. But we’ve had some progress with nanoparticles, particularly reactive oxygen compounds, injected directly into the organism—”
“Excuse me,” Sophie says. “I think I’m finished eating.”
She finds her father in the backyard, his easel set up beside the koi pond. He has outlined the shape of the creature in translucent pink-white against the blue-green water and cool grey rocks, and he is dappling the creature and the water with flecks of light. Sophie looks at the painting, then she looks at the being again, startled.
“It’s kind of beautiful,” she says uncertainly.
“It is,” her father says. “But it’s not beautiful enough.” He mixes more gold into his paint. Sophie stands and watches.
Brian and Sophie are walking home from high school when Brian says, “Look, Soph.”
Sophie looks. She sees one nestled in the grass, naked and pink, like a baby animal.
“I bet it would fit in my backpack,” Brian says. He moves towards it, brimming with scientific curiosity. He prods it with the toe of his shoe. “If you tear a hole in them, they just grow back,” Brian says. “So but what if you distort them, like, do they just snap back into place, like a rubber band? Or do they kind of… slowly reform.” He lifts his foot. Sophie’s stomach drops.
“My mother would know,” Sophie says desperately. “Brian you don’t have to, my mother already knows that, we can just ask her. I bet she’s at home right now.”
“Your mother doesn’t come home until six,” Brian says distractedly. His foot is slowly lowering onto the creature’s head.
What there is of a head. Oh Sophie hates those things, she hates the way their limbs wave helplessly like something underwater, like a sea slug or a kelp plant drifting in a too-strong current.
Brian’s foot is lowering onto its head, and it is squashing, squashing it, and Brian’s face is tense with cruel concentration, measuring the sensation of the pressure exactly. Brian, stop. Sophie’s lips move. She has no voice. She is voiceless in the face of its appalling, distorted head that slowly gives way to Brian’s foot. Its distended pancake of a head, with only one eye visible, the other on the other side of the disk, fishlike. Its black, beady, unchanging eye and its waving limbs.
Brian swivels his foot. “Geez, these things are malleable,” Brian says. “Are they all like this?”
He lifts his foot. The head does not snap into place. For one horrible moment, Sophie fears that it will stay that way forever. But it billows out again, an object unrestrained by gravity or physics, lazily deciding to retain its original shape.
“They’re regenerative,” Brian says. “So if you tear off a limb, another will grow back, yeah? Like a starfish, but faster.”
“I have to get home, Brian,” Sophie says.
Brian kneels down on the grass.
Sophie walks away as quickly as she can.
“I’ve done it,” Sophie’s mother says. Her cheeks are flushed and she is breathless, as though she has been running. She’s forgotten to take off her safety goggles.
“What have you done?” Sophie’s father asks. He sounds tired.
“You forgot to take off your safety goggles,” Sophie says.
“Oh!” Her mother laughs and hangs her goggles on the coatrack. “We found a way to get rid of them today. We had been applying ROS in concentrated doses, and we had some positive results from that, but today we discovered that we can induce endogenous production! Their own overactive regenerative abilities can be harnessed to produce poison. It grows in them like cancer.”
“ROS,” Sophie’s father says. “What’s ROS? An insecticide?”
“It’s a reactive molecule that’s present in all forms of life, but in excess it’s incredibly damaging. And if an externally applied liquid can induce endogenous production of ROS, exclusively in the type of organism being targeted—this has wider applications than the specific pestilence we’re working with now. We’ve already started negotiations with a few pesticide companies, and this is going to be an incredibly lucrative enterprise. You know they still have that ambulatory on the middle school blacktop fenced off? And that’s just in our neighborhood, this is happening all over the world… imagine what the government of New York will pay to rid itself of the ambulatory in Times Square!”
There is silence for a moment. Then Sophie’s father says: “I’ve made spaghetti.”
Throughout dinner, Sophie’s mother continues to talk about the future—we will be able to vacation this year, she says, and not just Disney World, either. “We’ll go to Europe! Venice, Florence, Milan. Didn’t you tell me you wanted to see Venice before you died, Viktor, and I’ve done it!”
“Lisle,” Sophie’s father says. “Do you remember the day we had a picnic by the river?”
“Yes,” Sophie’s mother says, smiling. “We’d been dating for six months or something like that. I remember.”
“You brought Silent Spring,” Sophie’s father says. “You read passages out loud while we watched the river boats. You loved Rachel Carson.”
“I do love Rachel Carson,” Sophie’s mother says. She isn’t smiling anymore.
“What do you think Rachel would say about all of this, Lisle?”
“What do I know about what Rachel Carson would have to say about creatures who don’t obey the laws of physics, or chemistry—who don’t even seem to belong in this dimension,” Sophie’s mother says. “I have absolutely no idea what Rachel Carson would think about that, because she didn’t live in that world. We do.”
Sophie begins to eat her spaghetti as quickly as possible.
“You used to want to save the world,” Sophie’s father says.
“You used to want to be a famous and successful artist,” Sophie’s mother snaps, “and look how that turned out. Now I would love nothing more than to go save the rainforest, and when you start earning a salary that will put our daughter through college, that’s exactly what I’ll do. In the meantime, however, I have just participated in an earthshattering scientific breakthrough, and I come home, and I expect you to be happy for me at least this once, at least tonight—”
“That’s blood money, Lisle,” Sophie’s father says, and Sophie’s mother laughs shrilly.
“Blood money?” she says. “There’s as much blood in those things as you’d get out of a rock. What blood?”
“I’ve finished my spaghetti,” Sophie says. She puts her plate in the sink and goes to her bedroom and shuts the door.
Now when Sophie walks home from school with Brian she keeps her hands in her pockets and her eyes on the ground. Brian kicks a stone with his foot, catches up to it, kicks it again. The stone doesn’t roll straight ahead consistently, so Brian zigzags from one side of the sidewalk to the other. Sophie is walking behind him in a straight line, thinking, when Brian kicks the stone into the grass, wheels around, and looks Sophie in the eyes with an intensity that startles her.
“Yeah?” Sophie says, confused.
“Can I try something?” Brian says. “Like an experiment.”
He kisses her.
Sophie tries to pay attention to the sensation of his lips, tries to focus on their texture—soft, warm, wet, pleasantly strange—to the exclusion of all else. But she can hear Brian’s mind working, evaluating, measuring the kiss and adjusting the movement of his mouth. With her eyes closed, she can see the look of intense concentration on his face—the same concentration with which he had lowered his sneaker—
Brian pulls back. “Are you crying?” he asks.
Sophie lifts a hand to her eye. It feels wet.
“Geez, Soph,” Brian says. “What am I, Georgie Porgie?”
Sophie hiccups a sad, wet laugh, and then she begins to sob uncontrollably.
“Alright, alright,” Brian says, alarmed. “Sorry, Soph, I thought you’d like it. I thought you’d be into it—geez, Soph, what the hell is wrong?”
Sophie tries to speak between sobs. “You—can be so nice—Brian—”
“Well, that’s nothing to cry about,” Brian says, bemused.
“Things—could be so—good—”
“But I guess they’re not,” Brian says. He puts an arm around Sophie. He is warm, and she leans in towards the comfort. “It’s alright, Soph,” he says soothingly. “Failed experiment. You’re practically a sister to me, anyway.”
Sophie hiccups, confused and miserable.
At night, Sophie can’t sleep. She goes downstairs to get a drink of water. As she turns out the light, she looks out the window into the backyard. Her mother is kneeling beside the koi pond.
“Where is it?” Sophie’s father asks.
Sophie begins to push her meatball around with her fork, wondering how long she has to pretend to eat before she can excuse herself.
“What happened to it?” her father says.
“I got rid of it,” her mother says. “Why? Did you need it for something?”
“It might have needed itself for something,” her father says in a voice as calm as a dormant volcano.
“Ex—” Sophie begins.
“Those things don’t need anything,” her mother says. “Not food, not oxygen. They’re not alive in the sense that we understand the word. You’re wasting your sympathy.”
“My sympathy,” her father says.
“Yes,” her mother says, “Your sympathy for those things, which are now more important to you than your wife, your child? Where are your priorities?”
“Excuse—” Sophie attempts.
“Who’s making me choose? When did I say that you were less—”
“When is the last time you’ve asked me how work is going, Viktor, when is the last time you showed a shred of concern for me—”
“Why are we having this conversation at dinner,” Sophie says helplessly, and both of her parents fall silent. Their eyes lower towards their plates.
“I’m sorry,” her mother says curtly.
“Excuse me,” her father says. He opens the screen door and goes outside to the backyard.
Sophie and her mother finish their spaghetti in silence.
The next day, out of some morbid fascination or misguided sense of nostalgia, Sophie goes outside in the backyard to look at the koi pond. The thing is gone. But she finds, in its place, a painting.
Sophie’s mother’s company sells the ROS-inducing compound, ReOx Active, to a pesticide company. Large-scale manufacturers of ReOx Active spring up overnight, creating sprays and dusts for the purposes of pest-termination. Sophie knows that this is happening; she sees it on the news, on the new television that her father refuses to watch. She sees them take down the barriers in Times Square that marked the territory of an ambulatory. She thinks about leaving the room when her mother turns on the elimination of the one on Venice Beach, but she stays, and she watches its pale body that remains rooted in the same place on the surface of the water, regardless of the motion of the waves, dissolve into the foam. They shrivel and shrink like salted slugs. Each one dies surrounded by hostile spectators who cheer for the victory of humanity, or who silently observe and record the process. Every time Sophie’s mother turns on the news, another is being destroyed.
Brian is agitated. “We’re destroying them, and we don’t even know how they work! There are experiments left to be performed. We don’t understand their regeneration—what if we could harness that? These beings can teleport, Soph, and we’re killing them off haphazardly!”
Sophie doesn’t talk to Brian much anymore, and when she does, she feels a vague, dull ache where something wonderful used to be.
They are disappearing around her city, as well. The ambulatory on the middle school blacktop is gone, as are the two who lived in the hollows of oak trees she passes on her way to school. The scaly flounder-like one that flops in the grass in the Trinhs’ front yard. An intersection that had been closed off due to a thing that was tough enough to total cars is now open for the first time in years. And the bank of the river seems empty without the dozen bizarre creatures that had lain limply among the rocks.
Sophie’s walk to school becomes marked by places where they had been. Bare patches of grass, moldy spots on trees. She counts them off, without wanting to or trying to—the floppy, pale one who peered impassively out of the hollow of the oak a block from her house. The pinkish, opalescent one that always seemed to hold rainbows within its nearly translucent flesh. The tiny one that hid in the azalea bush in front of the Stampleys’ house and shimmered in and out of existence, wavering between visible and invisible. Every day, she silently marks each one missing, and the list only grows longer as even the most well-hidden are discovered by professional exterminators.
One day, Sophie walks past the Trinhs’ yard and realizes that the empty patch of grass is inhabited once more. Standing in the grass is a painting. Sophie blinks and approaches the canvas.
It is a painting of a being, smooth and radiant white, texturally distinct from the rough, green grass that surrounds it, both in the painting and outside of it. Its black, perfectly round eye is echoed in a second round shape—the reflection of the sun, gloriously refracted through the scales of an uncomfortably beautiful rendition of something exterminated.
Sophie kneels in the grass and looks. The sun passes overhead.
The paintings appear more rapidly than the beings had vanished. The neighborhood is spotted with paintings propped up like tombstones, and when one is removed or thrown away—as they often are—another rises to take its place.
Sophie moves through school and through her neighborhood feeling that the paintings are always being discussed just out of earshot, that conversations are hushed and halted when she enters the room. She finds herself missing Brian’s insulting directness. Brian would not be afraid to tell Sophie what people are saying about her father. But Brian now spends his days in the school’s chemistry lab with a group of boys who are equally fond of chemicals and explosions. Sophie feels no desire to seek out his company. So she continues to drift through halls and down streets, imagining herself the eye in a hurricane of conversation.
At school the silence is permeable, a thing that can be moved through. At home, it sits in the center of the table, and dinners are tense and heavy, punctuated by such phrases as “Please pass the potatoes,” “School was fine, thank you,” and “I’m finished eating, excuse me.” Sophie’s father’s face is lean; his eyes are bright and manic. After dinner, Sophie’s mother retires to her office, pointedly ignoring Sophie’s father’s return to the backyard, and Sophie goes to her bedroom to be told by textbooks that chemicals break molecules apart.
Sophie always tries to fall asleep before midnight, before the silence breaks and she is forced to lie with a pillow pressed over her head hearing snatches of conversations she isn’t meant to, shouldn’t have to hear. One night among others, her mother’s melodic voice rises to a sharp metallic octave that she never uses when talking to Sophie, and her father’s softer yet more penetrating voice pierces the walls of Sophie’s bedroom, accusations coming to her in fragments, like barely-remembered nightmares:
—Lisle, please. It isn’t right and I know you know, Lisle.—
—I don’t see you doing anything to help, I’m the one working every day to keep this family, and you never even, and it’s always me who—
—This isn’t the woman I married. The woman I married would never, ambition tempered with kindness, you always used to say—
—I’m not a work of art, I’m a person, I’m a human being and I change—
—When you said you wanted to save the world, I should have asked what you were going to save it from—
And finally her father’s voice, rising to a desperate break:
—I don’t care about the blasted creatures! It’s you, Lisle, it’s you, it’s what they’re doing to you…
In the morning, the house smells like blueberry pancakes. Everything’s alright then, Sophie thinks with relief.
They’ve made breakfast, and everything’s going to be fine. She whistles optimistically as she slides into yesterday’s jeans, and she bounds downstairs two steps at a time, fully prepared to do her part in pretending that nothing is wrong. Her mother is at the stove flipping a pancake.
“Good morning!” Sophie says brightly, in a voice that means last night never happened.
Sophie’s mother turns. Her eyes are red and sleepless. She is wearing yesterday’s clothes. “Good morning,” she says, and she smiles. She gestures towards the counter, where Sophie sees a stack of half a dozen blueberry pancakes, a dozen strawberry waffles, two large plates of cinnamon swirl french toast, and fresh-baked raisin bread artfully arranged among assorted seasonal fruits.
“What’s all the food for?” Sophie asks apprehensively.
“I couldn’t sleep,” her mother says, turning her attention back to the stove. Her shoulders shake. “Grab a plate, darling.”
“Mom?” Sophie steps forward. “Is everything okay? Where’s…”
“It was all made this morning,” her mother says in a small and trembling voice. “If any of it is cold you can—” She breaks off with a sob. Sophie’s hands rise to cover her ears. Guiltily, she lowers them again.
Sophie grabs a plate from the dishwasher and loads it with some of everything. She sits at the table and begins to shovel her mother’s cooking into her mouth. She eats it slowly. Methodically.
Sophie excuses herself as soon as she can. Her stomach curdles with the guilt of wanting to be away from her mother, but she cannot listen to one more broken, half-stifled cry.
As she walks to school, Sophie wonders where her father has run to. If he has gone to stay with a friend, or another woman.
If he is nearby, or if his car is still driving and will not stop until he is far away. Her ears still ring with the sound of her mother’s sobbing. She tugs at them angrily.
Out of the corner of her eye, she notices that the lagoon is busier than usual. Far busier than usual. The lagoon is surrounded by dozens of people, many of them holding the orange hoses that spray ReOx Active in its liquid form.
Later, she will try to justify it to herself retroactively. She will make up reasons about her father and her mother, about her confusion and her rage, and every time she replays the scene in her mind the reasons will be different. She will never know why, when she passed the extermination on this day of all days, instead of walking away with her head down, she walked toward it.
Most of the exterminators and spectators are concentrated around one knob of the lagoon, an area of shallow, still water that is known to be a friendly habitat for tadpoles and ducks. Sophie remembers catching frogs on its banks as a child. It is a large knob, but not unmanageably so, and at its narrowest part one can cross it by means of a bridge, which holds its own fair share of exterminators as well as a smattering of children. The goal, then, will be to corner the creature in this particular section of the lagoon, between the bridge and the banks of the knob, thereby cutting off any avenue of escape.
Sophie sits down beside the small children on the bridge. They are babbling and throwing small stones into the water, talking about the creatures they’ve seen and how they watched them die. “I saw one get shot in the chest,” a boy tells his friend, “like blam-blam-blam! He fell down like this.” Sophie hears the boy groan dramatically and fall to his knees. She grins, and immediately hates herself for it.
She is distracted by the sound of a motor. A small boat approaches the knob, carrying several men with ReOx Active hoses spraying full-blast. “We’ve got ‘em!” one of the men shouts. “Keep your eyes on the water!” The men are aiming their hoses so that the ReOx Active advances in a line. Presumably, the chemicals are pushing their prey towards the knob, and towards its certain death. But Sophie does not see what they are aiming at.
And then she does. It is only for a moment. It wavers into existence, pale blue and humanoid, and wavers out as seamlessly as ripples on water. “You see that?” somebody yells, and the men on the boat redouble their efforts, in which they are joined by the men and women on the bridge.
Sophie clenches her fists. Her nails press into her palms. She wishes that they would draw blood.
She glimpses it again, briefly. A waif of a being made from translucent jellyfish material, speckled lightly with what looks like scales. It drifts slowly away from the stream of ReOx Active. Sophie wonders if that is as fast as it can swim.
It is closer now. The men and women on the bank of the lagoon turn their hoses on and pump their poisons into the water. The creature is fully visible now; whether it was invisibility or camouflage that hid it before, it is no longer working. It drifts towards the center of the knob, as far as it can get from the hoses. Its limbs waver in the water like ripples, like a trick of the light. One limb is fully extended, reaching out for something. Sophie silently screams inside of her mouth.
When the second one appears, shimmering in and out of existence in the water, and reaches out to touch its companion, Sophie feels like she already knew. They reach for each other, wavering pitifully; they are falling into foam at the edges. Sophie clenches her fists tighter. The ReOx Active is clouding the water. The second being opens all of its limbs, wraps itself around the first one, shielding it from the cloud of poison. You can’t protect them from this, Sophie wants to shout. You idiot, you idiot, can’t you see there’s nothing you can do?
The little boy and his friends are shouting encouragement to the exterminators, shoving each other out of the way to try to get a better look at the water. One of the exterminators squints with cruel concentration, adjusting the aim of her ReOx hose.
Stop, Sophie thinks. Stop. Stop.
She opens her mouth.
By Will Gwaun
Tess is furious, screaming at me in those moments before the rental car goes off the road. It is on auto-drive but nonetheless I stare forward into the flickering silhouettes of the pines, my fingers knotted tight around the wheel.
The shouting reaches its crescendo a minute before the crash. “Just tell me who the fuck you are, if you’ve done something terrible, whatever, we can work through that, but tell me–” her voice is pulled hard, a voice I only hear when the office calls her with some other-time-zone banking crisis in Tokyo, Berlin, Taipei, and she answers, sharp and hollowed of tenderness.
This voice makes me tremble inside, a little boy who wants nothing more than to look down at his shoes and say sorry. I almost blurt it all out right there, the truth, imagining the lightness I’d feel. The unburdening of all these fictions I have conjured for no reason other than that I can make people believe them.
But how weak, how vulnerable that position, naked of the smokescreens and labyrinths I clothe myself in. Instead I cobble an armor of silent, simmering anger and refuse to engage, having no idea how I will talk my way out of this.
I hack into her retinal display and watch it in the corner of my eye. She riffles back through images of us stored in her cloud cache; the rush of encounters our life has been. I see flickers of weekends in one city or another, half way between where she and I must be the following Monday. We are at dinner, or in the shade of palm tree, or holding hands on a snowy evening beneath a street light, trying to grasp our relationship together against the demands of our work.
She begins to delete them, one by one, our smiles, a tableau of warmth dissolving into so much binary. Unbearable to see, I snatch and secret them into an archive, though their safety offers no protection against the threat of weeping like a child.
She scrabbles, amateurishly, into the sprawl of social media, looking for traces of my identity though she knows I have little to nothing there. I explained that absence away four years back, when we first met, saying it was protection against identity theft, necessary for my work.
“Did your parents really drown? Is that true? Is your job real?” She slashes at the undergrowth of my fictions as if she will blunder into a clearing of truth. “All this shit at work and now… I need you to be…”
Her voice almost waivers then but she wrenches it tight and suddenly she is doing something I did not expect. Something I’m not sure I can protect myself against, here on the fly. Buried in an encrypted window she logs into the bank’s employee net, bringing up a secure line to an anti-fraud application, a precursor of which I myself had a hand in testing. She is spitting my details into it, photos, dates, times, and it is trawling databases the public only dimly know exist.
I am panicking, scraping at the depths of my boxes of tricks for a way to foil her. And then the auto-drive clicks off and the wheel jerks in my hand and the car skids, thuds and we are spinning, floating, clattering into the darkness.
I wish that I could say that the lies were for a reason. That this is all some elaborate life I have had to lead out of fear of the mob or love for another woman. Anything. But there is nothing like that. There are only the games of a little boy who was nothing but a tiresome distraction from his mother’s Xanax trance of television shows. A boy who once learnt he could amuse himself by seeing what he could get other people to believe. A habit that, instead of growing out of, he grew into. And it grew into him, like a cancer, too deep to be removed.
In the hospital I sit by her bedside, feeling the pressure of tears, the urge to fucking break down and weep into the sheets. But as ever, nothing comes.
There’s a chance, I realize, that it was me, my hands that twisted the wheel and spun the car off the road. A good chance, because I had all my fake everything to lose and how often do these cars ever crash under their own control in conditions like that? If I could remember maybe I’d know if I’d hacked the system, twisted the wheel, just to stop her searching any deeper, if I could remember. And that would mean I’ve hurt her and this has gone too far, this has to stop, no more lying.
I tell myself that as soon as she wakes I’ll tell her the truth. But there is so little of me, with the lies all stripped away. No part of me that would interest her, that she would care for, that she would scream the name of and dig her nails into in the dead of night.
A doctor comes and lays a hand on my shoulder. She asks me if I have family nearby and I mutter something imaginary about an estranged brother up in the Yukon. She smiles supportively. “I’m afraid we have to run a procedure, on your partner.”
I sit upright, sweat beading on my palms. “They told me there’d be no need for surgery…”
“No, it’s a condition of the insurance, of her employer. Shang Bank has a requirement that all executive staff are scanned and uploaded on a quarterly basis and immediately in… situations like this.”
The pair who come and perform the scan are serious-looking men with white coats over their business suits. They are polite though the taller of the two watches me with a silent, predatory gaze I decline to meet. I have to leave the room though they let me watch through the glass as they place their machines around her.
I sit back in the chair and while they boot their devices I bring up my retinal and poke around on the edges of their security. This is the flip side of my habit; while I will lie for no reason, the presence of other people’s secrets troubles me like an itch. This compulsion has served me well at times, has led me to the line of work I follow, has prepared the groundwork for the stories I can tell people, most of all to Tess.
But they are a bank and the security is tight. I can only observe the general motion of their software’s functions. But when they begin the deletion of their local backup they use a shortcut protocol their analysts should have rooted out long ago, and I find I can mirror the pattern and read it off. Scan and copy until, hidden away in my implant, is Tess. The last scan they made of her, almost three months ago, back when the threads of my stories had only just begun to come unwound. I bury it beneath a mound of static, stand and leave as if this is too much for me to watch.
Tess wakes two weeks later and tells me to leave. I move out of our apartment (two suitcases, we barely live there) and am in Denver for work the same night. I call her two, three times daily but get no reply.
The stolen scan of her, hidden in my cache, provokes me like some Pandora’s Box to which I have no key. I don’t have the sort of computing needed to run a scan of that definition. It can’t be had without attracting attention from the authorities or spending beyond my means down in the recesses of the shadow web.
It takes me a week but I find what might be a solution. There’s a job–a vast, unmanned telescope array gone on the blink somewhere out in the back of beyond, British Colombia. For no known reason the thing had locked down all its transmitters and ‘crypted all its data for good measure. A couple of months of work they reckoned, coaxing its systems out of catatonia. And while the telescope was down that vast computer had nothing to do and nobody watching it. Nothing to do but bring Tess’ scan to life.
The journey up there is a minor adventure, though greater than any other I’ve had. A large plane and then a small one and another yet smaller. The university department that manages the telescope had left me a battered jeep at the airstrip. I bounced for half a day along minor roads and woodland tracks, the forest vast and dense on every side.
Leaving the town my security ‘ware noted the wash of a powerful scanner frisking the memory of my implant drive. It had the feel of a local PD, basic programming, and my ‘ware is good, palms the scanner off with some generic, citizen-going-about-his-business materials.
At the foot of the mountain where the telescope stands is a lake and beside it a low building where the staff lived before the telescope was automated. It has a terminal wired to the telescope’s computer and a wireless array I can access for miles around.
In the bedroom nearest the kitchen I make myself at home by throwing my bags down in the corner. I lie back on the bed and with a squirm of the eyeballs bring the retinals to full opacity. The web signal out here is almost dead but I can reach the wireless from the mainframe; the slumbering giant of the observatory’s computer.
They’ve called it Thoth, some academic in-joke I can’t be bothered to decode. Thoth’s voice is a deep baritone that informs me its systems are secured pending diagnostics.
I woo it with packets of code, awaken unused functions as yet untouched by whatever has infected it. And there with cunning, with sleight of binary hand, I load the copy of Tess into the observatory’s mainframe and bring her into being.
Thoth fashions the room from her memories of the scanning suite; the last place this scan of her remembers, a virtual hospital room lit with the flat glow of a fluorescent bulb. It builds this room in VR engine my paralyzed body now believes itself to be in. And there in the bed is a Tess who doesn’t yet hate me, still thinks she knows me, my past and present still as real as the words I have described them with.
She lies on her side, the hospital gown slightly apart at her shoulders. Her body is fashioned from a snapshot that Thoth digs from that part of her mind that remembers such things, the company having had no use for a physical scan to embody her within. The appearance is a close simulacrum, though it differs in subtle ways.
Her back is denuded of detail. Her real body has freckles there, constellations I have traced with my finger. But she does not remember them and so they have not made the cut. Other subtleties, a sharpness of her collar bone I do not recognize, the childhood dog bite scar just at the hairline, long-since faded to almost invisible, now stands red against the skin. I wonder what differences an observer might see in my own represented body?
I draw a breath, ready, to say what? This moment I have imagined, the undoing of all the threads of BS I’ve wasted so much energy on weaving. To start at the beginning, with those lies she has never heard, that would contradict the ones she knows. The stories the school counsellor gobbled whole; stories that bought me passage from that darkened, cigarette reeking room to a new family. Tell her of the jobs I’ve left, having failed to die of the terminal disease I’d told my colleagues of…
…and the copy of Tess rolls onto her back and looks up at me, the eyes a true copy, pure green, and I feel a twinge of something. Something about doing this is wrong. This room unreal, my body not here at all, a simulation Thoth has summoned for her, and hers falsified as well. It would sully everything, to start from here, for the foundation of this confession to be itself untrue.
And so I have Thoth stop this program and drag me back to my body. I dress in the outdoor clothes I have bought, walk the circumference of the lake, looking down into the waters at the reflection of the mountain and pondering the issue of Tess. It is early March and the world is a blandness of brown grass, cloud, clingings of snow. My ‘ware pings, as if to alert me of another scan coming down out of nowhere, but when I try to trace it it is gone, a ghost, a false reading.
It takes a month of work to conjure a truer approach. I slide into the bed beside her and count the freckles between her shoulders. She wakes and wriggles to my embrace, then tightens. “Jake?” she says.
“Shh, shh, relax, it’s OK,” I whisper in her ear.
“Jake where are we?” she asks, an edge of urgency in her voice.
“It’s OK, you were in an accident, you’ve been unconscious, but don’t worry, you’re fine now.”
“But this… this isn’t a hospital,” she says.
And it isn’t, it’s the bedroom in the staff building. Not some simulacrum, at least for the most part. What she sees is there in real time, the product of a drone that hovers on hummingbird wings, poised where her face would be, turning its cameras this way and that, mimicking the movement of her eyes according to the volition of Tess’ copy.
I do not see this, of course, I see Tess, her head turning this way and that. I see a perfect image of her, of the blanket lain over her, beamed into my retinals by Thoth, ever watching through a dozen other drones that hover invisibly around us.
It is a complex feat, but not one I have built from scratch. The military (who else) have developed this tech beyond the limits of anything I could build. They learnt that to simulate a battlefield it takes far less computing to have the field already and impose images of the battle onto it than to simulate the world entirely. So I have borrowed their work and the civilian versions of it.
I move then in the real world, everything I see is real but for Tess and the things she touches. The blanket that lies over Tess is not there, cannot be, for there is no body there to support it. But Thoth recreates it for us faithfully, replicates the weight and texture and warmth of it. Through my implants it resonates these sensations into my nerves, superimposing them over the real world my unaided senses bring me.
It is a complex game. I have agreed with Thoth that all windows will seem sealed shut and all the doors within the building will stay open. Should we try to close them Thoth will simulate this experience for us, but stay my body’s hand. It would do no good for Tess, who has no real body, to appear to open a door and for my real body to blunder into it, seeing the open doorway Thoth has simulated for us.
Thoth does not render every tiny detail, it needs only make suggestions and the brain leaps in and fills the gaps itself. I can see no difference.
But nevertheless it is complicated. In those first days, when Tess slept I watched the drones recordings of the moments we’d been together. Ran the camera feed of me talking to no one beside the feed from retinals where Tess stood looking out the kitchen window. I watched her pick up a bowl I had been eating from and place it in the sink. In the moment, I saw just as she saw. But she has no physical capacity to touch the real objects in the world. In the drone’s recording the real bowl remained where it was, on the table, though the two of us saw only empty space. And later, in the recording, I saw I knocked it from the table though Thoth had suppressed the sound of shattering, suppressed even, the crunch of the fragments beneath my feet.
It is a deception, that much I will admit, but it is truer than to fake her world in its entirety. And now the stage is set I will have no more say in how this world is than she. It is as it would be if she were here in body and in that sense at least it is true and so a better climate for confessions of the truth.
“No,” I said at last, and then the words slipped out like a breath held too long. “This isn’t the hospital. You’re nearly better now. You woke up a few times, but whenever you saw a stranger you started to panic… they wanted you away from other people, just while things stabilize.”
That feeling as I spoke, heart stuttering, waiting for the moment when she would give me that look of knowing I was lying. But this was the old version of her, from before the time when all the threads began to unravel. It trusted me so completely and I wanted so much to honor that trust, to protect her from anything that might hurt her.
And how could we begin by my telling her she isn’t real but a copy that I have stolen? There would be nothing after that, no listening. Instead I will start at the beginning, start small, rebuild these basic facts with truth until she is ready to know why I have made this place for us.
Tess hardly questions why we are here, the nature of her injury, though even I can see that the story is dubious. She never suggests any suspicion that her last memory is of the anesthetist at the hospital where the scan took place.
She seems relieved almost, to be here. A heaviness seems to have slid from her, a watchfulness which I had not noticed but see only now in its absence. She looks out onto the lake and asks if we can go for a walk.
In the month between bringing her to life in the simulation of the hospital room, and her coming awake here, in the real world, the days have warmed and lengthened. The snow melts and the forest ticks with the dripping of water. We pass a month in enjoying it, setting out in the gold light of morning, the sun raising phantoms of steam from the damp moss cloaks of boulders.
We see no one, hardly a sign of humans having passed this way in years. Only once, the silhouettes of two figures, high up on the skyline by the observatory, there for a moment and then gone.
It is good for us. I feel the hunch of my back unknot, the muscles in our bodies growing toned. In the mornings we walk or take the bicycles we have dug out from the cellar. We explore the gullies and the heights, finding caves and the ruins of old homesteads swallowed in the undergrowth. And Thoth imagines for us her every footprint in the wet earth, every cloud of her breath, the letters she writes with a fingertip in the frost on a barkless tree branch.
We come home, eat wholesome meals. We make love, not as we once did, rushed and urgent with the need of days apart, but with gentleness, care. Afterwards, through the afternoons, I work and Tess sleeps.
“I feel like I haven’t slept in a year,” she says. “All this time, at work, it’s been so horrible.” And she tells me how files have been leaked from somewhere in her department, vital files relating to fortunes that cannot bear to have their secrets exposed. Constant suspicion, late nights in the office under the scrutiny of the investigators. “It just went on, everyone watching everyone. All these cross examinations until I realized the way I was remembering things, or the way they made remember, it wasn’t… consistent, you know? Couldn’t have happened the way I thought it did. You start to wonder if maybe you had done the things they’re asking about. I remember, just before the accident, sitting at my desk, looking out through the window and wishing I could just step through it, fall into the street and for it all to be done with. I never imagined… I’m not someone who thinks like that, you know?”
We are sitting by the lake when she says it, the air still with the cold of morning, a layer of mist balanced above the water. I feel light, like air, listening to her saying that. I have rescued her, done what is right. I would have told her then, told her everything, but there is this feeling, this strange sense that she is on the brink of telling me something, something vital that I must hear before I reveal my own secrets.
The first glitch comes early in April. I have been fastidious in many things, but there is a day when the weather is setting in and we hurry out, wanting to at least make a circuit of the lake before the rain traps us indoors. I do not pay attention to the pushing of chairs back under the breakfast table. Tess does hers, which has never, in reality, been moved, but does mine as well, and as she turns to leave the kitchen I stumble across the chair which still sits in my path, cloaked by the transparency Thoth has made for it.
Thoth tries to deceive me, to feed sensations into my implant that tell me I’m standing, but it is too much, too paradoxical for my nerves to handle and the chair flickers, leaps from the place it has taken out onto the floor.
After our walk Tess sleeps and I conference with Thoth, agree how these problems might be avoided. I do not want to be shown things that Tess cannot see, it is against the spirit of what I am trying to do here. Thoth suggests a robot, some domestic model big in Korea that could arrange things when we are out. But I don’t like the thought of it, stupid as it sounds, some silent figure creeping among our things.
Instead we determine a solution, imperfect but good enough. Thoth will keep track of everything Tess touches, its real place and where it comes to rest when she has moved it. When we sleep Thoth is to take my body in its slumber and without waking it, make it rise and walk through our rooms gathering those things that she has touched but not touched and moving them, fill or empty them, dirty or clean them, so that the world in its physical form, hidden from us, is made to correspond to ours.
Spring warms, my heart opens. I tell Tess, trembling as I say it, that I would imagine living somewhere like this forever, would she? Would she imagine children one day? She smiles, closes her eyes and turns her face up into the sun. Yes, she could imagine it.
The work, thank God, will last longer than planned. I cannot, and will not imagine what I will do when it is done. The transmitter and the controls of the observatory still will not speak to Thoth, the problem seeming to have mutated in response to the controls I have tried to place on it. There will be no sudden solving of this, only a steady war of attrition.
I have not yet done what I have promised myself I would, no confession yet but then also no more lies. I have never been so long without my mouth conjuring some story, so that is something, at least.
With the lake thawed we decide to row the small boat out across it. We slide over the trembling reflection of the mountain and watch the fish nuzzle up from the depths to investigate our trailing fingers. We return to our bed and when Tess sleeps Thoth wakes me on the shore, wet through and shivering. Tess and I had carried that boat together but in the world without Tess the boat was too heavy for me alone. In that world the boat fell from the rack and lay there while my body walked alone, miming the weight of it. Thoth imagined it for us, imagined us floating out on the water while my body waded into the lake and stood there, waiting for my imagined body to float back into its proximity when it waded back onto the shore and collapsed.
I am almost hypothermic when I get back inside, having staggered and then crawled up those steps. I huddle beneath the shower, shuddering, sluicing myself in hot water. In the depths of my implanted drive there is a quiet havoc, files being opened and shifting beyond my reach, but it ceases as the shivering recedes and I crawl then into the bed.
It takes me all day to recover. I lie there as Tess cooks me imaginary soup with a smell that makes my stomach roar.
Thoth wakes me with the howl of an alarm. Tess is perched at the edge of the bed, weeping, her skin flickering with pixels.
“Did you know?” She drives that look into me and I give the game away before I can think to hide it. She twists her eyes shut, the skin trembling beneath the jump of the pixels. “Am I dead? How? How long ago? When were you going to tell me?”
This is not how it should be. I have readied myself to tell the truth, but not like this, hurried, the need pressed upon us. I pull myself upright in the bed, “No, Tess, please, let me explain…” I start to speak, thinking by instinct that I should take this misunderstanding of hers and run with it. But a look begins to form across her face already, a realization, a horror.
“You’re fucking… you’re one of the investigators, aren’t you? This whole thing… just a trick to… to what? See if I’ve been lying? Fuck you, whoever you are, fuck you!” She is screaming and it breaks my heart, the idea of her believing that, believing this place we have found is a sham, part of some other purpose.
“Thoth,” I say through the implant, “Pause program: Tess.”
There is a flicker in the room while Thoth thinks. Tess vanishes and all the reality augments Thoth has built up for me, all the traces of things Tess has done, has touched or moved, are erased.
There is garbage everywhere, a curtain pulled down, scraps of food in among the sheets. Fragments of glass lie across the floor, bloody footprints on the linoleum in the hallway. The air carries a musty, vegetable rot. A buzz and our life flickers back into place, Tess frozen there on the bed.
“Thoth what’s happened?”
Thoth’s voice stutters, “Firewall breach… third party contamination…”
I bring up the retinals and try to discover the source of the interference, but the interface between here and the observatory is a mess of gibberish commands. Tess twitches, turns to me, speaks a single syllable and freezes again.
I understand, from the readings I draw from Thoth, that I am powerless here. I will have to go up to the observatory and plug directly to the mainframe.
But there is worse; there is not the memory, even in Thoth’s vast reserves, to keep track of all our moments. Thoth must erase as he creates. There is no saved version I can bring back, shortly before this glitch occurred. I will have to fix this problem and then unpause her, face her as she now sits, furious under this wrong-headed notion I may or may not be able to dissuade her from. Or we have the scan. We can reset, go back to the first moment of her waking, the memories of these last perfect months gone from her, mine alone, a treasure I can behold only in secret.
I take the hiking bag from the hook on the wall, lace my boots and set off into the morning. I will make the decision when the time comes.
Underfoot the logging road is soft from the rain, the reflections of pines plunging into the murky tyre-rut puddles. Some trick of the light makes a shape in the reflected silhouette of the canopy, a figure, asleep, curled fetus like, but when I when I look up into the branches the image is no longer there.
A mile on I think I see her, somewhere back there, a flash of her red jacket among the trees. But of course she is not; she is still in the apartment, paused and muted, waiting for me to reset her. The flash of red is just a shape cast by a branch of rust-bright maple leaves clung on through winter.
Down in the valley a wind bends the trees all together and in that creaking a whisper, almost. “Don’t you dare delete me, don’t you dare try this again, you fucking corporate slug.”
“It’s me, Tess, please!” I shout it into the wind.
“Then why…” but it is gone, swallowed in the rush of leaves.
My key to the control room turns smoothly in the lock, though my hand is trembling, having made no decision yet and knowing the time is near.
I begin the work, finding that, instead of fixing the problem in the mainframe these past months, I have allowed the problem to grow worse, teased at systems until the lockout spread to them also.
After an hour I find my way in, greyed out menu options thickening into bold when the wind gusts in. In the doorway stand two figures, silhouetted against the light.
“I think we’ll take it from here, Mr. Whoever-the-fuck-you-are,” one of them says and I know I recognise that voice as the darts of the Taser punch through my jacket and clench my body rigid.
I wake bound, in darkness, in silence, shaken roughly till the haze clears. Images begin to flicker across my retinals, a separate stream to each eye and a voice, distorted and robotic commands me to watch.
They are images of a leaner, younger me, images I have no recollection of: Me in some military uniform. Stills from a security camera of me in the lobby of some corporate building reading a document printed in Sinhalese. A mugshot of me with my face beaten and swollen.
“State your name,” the voice commands.
“Jake Durse,” I say through a throat cracked with thirst. They hit me with the electric again, worse this time than the Taser, sharper and with no escape into blackness. More images, flickering stop and start; me somewhere in the desert shaking hands with a man in a suit and shades, the towers of a wind farm lining the horizon. A scan of some ID card with my face on and writing in a language I don’t know. I wonder what this is, if these images have been doctored as some means of making me question myself, some aid to interrogation. And so it goes on, images, the command to state my name and the shock that follows whatever answer I give.
“We’re going to ask you some questions. We’ve made a scan of you and it will be undergoing the same interrogation. If the information the two of you give does not correlate the consequences will be severe. Do you understand?”
I mumble answers to their questions, my lips all numb. I tell them everything, all the things I tried and failed to tell Tess. The release I once thought such a confession would bring does not come and they do not believe me or do not care and the shocks keep coming.
They want to know what Tess told me, what secrets she gave away and who I was selling them to, but I have nothing that satisfies them. I have no sense of time, no sense if I have slept and dreamt for the dream is only the flicker of images, the voice and the pain.
But after hours, days, weeks it stops. They pull the mask away from my face but still there is only darkness and a light in my face that the shapes of men move behind. My head lolls to my chest, my body too weak to hold it up.
“He doesn’t know,” says a voice I know I recognize, the man from the hospital who ran the scan on Tess, the man I stole her from.
“Increase the voltage, that fucker knows,” says the machine voice.
“The resonance image reads clear. Whoever’s asset he is, they’ve done the number on him. He might have some liminal awareness of the goals they’ve set him but he’s no idea who he or they are. This Jake Durse personality is built from the ground up, it’s all he knows. He’s more like a bug, a listening device than an agent. Whoever this body originally belonged to–”
“Let me take a look, link me in, I’ll find who’s buried in there if I have to dig it out with a spoon.”
“It might not be wise, there’s a strong likelihood of countermeasures.”
“I don’t think this little fish is going to put up much of a fight, are you?”
I feel a rough hand reach under my chin and lift my face into the light, a palm slap at my cheek. “Don’t remember? Nothing? Just good old Jake Durse the liar. No friends, no family because he’s lied them all away, doesn’t seem a bit fishy to you, little fish?”
He lets my head drop and something winks in my retinal, something beyond a scan, a sense of other thoughts pushing down into my own. I try to hold it back but it oozes down like the wash of some narcotic. I feel him groping among my memories, between implant and grey matter.
“There. There. There it is,” the voice says with the weird, triumphant bark of a laugh distorted. A memory, one I do not know, flickers up through my thoughts and as it surfaces I feel a small part of myself collapse into static. He digs, deeper and deeper, dislodging one unknown episode after another and I haven’t the strength to fight.
I should be afraid, should be outraged that this me I know is a fake, an imagined personality cooked up as a sleeper agent, a somnambulist. I should hate whatever mafia or government agency brought this mind to life just to wheedle some bank’s secrets out of Tess. But really it seems right, only fair given the way I imagine I have lived. There is even a touch of admiration in my thoughts; what perfect cover a liar like me would be, his past so enmeshed in smoke and mirrors its absence is impossible to detect.
I give in, I let my guard down, let his implant burrow down through mine. But as he digs and my thoughts fade into static, I creep, with utter stealth, down into his archives, unearth the copy of me that they have made and steal it. This scan they made when they first dragged me in. It hasn’t seen these images, doesn’t know they are saying about another mind buried deep in my head.
I wrap the scan carefully and glide it into my inquisitor’s inner drive. He will never know that it is there. But like a message in a bottle, cast out into an unforgiving ocean, it will be swept up. As soon as he connects it will slip free, out onto the web, knowing it is looking for Tess. Not the copy of her that I am sure they have imprisoned somewhere, but the Tess who sits in the office, somewhere in Seattle, staring out from the glass.
And when it arrives there is not only this scan, but the program I wrote with Thoth, the program that allows us to exist, shared, out there at the foot of the mountain, and the program the interrogators have used to delve into my secrets. It will be there for her, to see every secret, every fiction I conjured for nothing, and if she wishes, she can bring me back to life, out there, in the forest, at the foot of the mountain.
Miracles Wrought Before Your Eyes
By Jude-Marie Green
Springer the dog howled like a wolf when the ambulance arrived. I clapped my hands to my ears but her sorrow broke through to my heart. She was an old dog, Roberto’s dog, and followed him around the grounds of the former church and theater auditorium and kitchen like a piece of his own self. When she barked, not a rare thing, Roberto laughed a bit and shushed the dog, which almost never worked. She didn’t shush this time either, since Roberto was on the kitchen floor, unconscious. The ambulance was for him.
The gang of three alley Chihuahuas echoed Springer’s howls. They were always yowling about something, lonely, I believed, that they weren’t invited into the circus. The ambulance plowed into the back lot, scattering the suddenly-voiceless Chihuahuas and raising a dust devil that picked up bits of raked leaves and discarded plastic. The ambulance’s brakes squealed, competing with Springer’s howls. Half a dozen men poured out of the wagon and I thought about clown cars but did not grin. Some went around to the back of the wagon and removed the gurney. The others carried heavy briefcases that I identified from television shows: heart defibrillator, scan monitors, cases with saline and needles and bandages.
A destructively-handsome man – curly dark hair, blue eyes, Adonis-sculpted muscles – asked where the victim was. Victim. He meant Roberto. I jerked my chin towards the kitchen. The bunch of them flooded into the kitchen. They were quiet and deliberate and quick.
Springer stood over Roberto and howled again. She did not have an aggressive bone in her body but she was not going to budge.
“Can you move the dog, please, miss? And what happened? Can you describe the event?”
I clipped a leash onto Springer’s collar and pulled her away. Roberto, conscious but not alert, followed the dog with his eyes. Men bent over him, cutting his tee-shirt and placing monitors, wrapping a cuff around his upper arm. I was not sure he noticed them. He did not say anything. No one else spoke up, either.
“He fell down,” I said. “Apoplexy.”
The paramedic threw me an odd glance. I remembered that ‘apoplexy’ was an old word. I shrugged.
Roberto’s wandering gaze accused me every time his eyes met mine. Even as the ambulance guys and the circus people and Vicky, his wife, pushed me and Springer further away from Roberto I could not stop staring at him as though I had never left his side. I swallowed the excuses and apologies that wanted to flow from my mouth, my throat, my heart. Nothing here was my fault. He had made a deal with the devil and the deal fell through. He needed someone to blame. I was convenient.
But I was not at fault.
Roberto whispered instructions while the ambulance guys – medics – stuck needles into his arms and placed monitor leads and inflated the blood pressure cuff.
“Alice,” he gasped. “Take care of Vicky.” He pushed aside the oxygen mask.
“I will,” I promised from across the room. Roberto could not have heard me.
The ambulance guy, Adonis with the cold blue eyes, pushed him flat again. So gentle, yet implacable. Roberto did not resist. From across the breadth of the kitchen commons, I saw him give up. Stop. Lay back and accept help against whatever came next.
In the blink of an eye, or so it seemed to me, the room emptied. Roberto on a gurney, the hilarious number of medics, the circus performers, herded along by Vicky, all uncommonly quiet, all fled the room. Chasing off to the hospital.
Springer curled around my feet. Her hurt and puzzlement washed over me. I bent down and rubbed her ears. What I had to give, I gave to her. Some peace and some love, some reassurance. Nothing miraculous.
Just a few days ago I had smelled my brother’s miracles and followed his stench to this place. A church, unconsecrated. A circus, dedicated to performance art. A sign in the front window heralding miracles with every show. Another sign, smaller, advertising rooms for rent. A tall wooden door, brown paint peeling off in strips, represented my choice: enter and fight again, or walk away.
I’m tired, I cried wordlessly. I am not ready. I glanced at the tar road behind me. Then I faced forward and knocked.
Roberto had opened the door, but Springer let me stay. I sat at the big wooden table while Roberto had discussed ifs and maybes and possibilities. We don’t usually rent to women, he said. The dog had walked into the room. Springer. She held her human-given name in the first layer of her soul. I plumbed it easily enough. She stopped in mid-step, her left paw raised, and gazed at me with her caramel eyes. When her inspection ended she padded over to me and licked my bare ankle. Then she sauntered over to Roberto and laid out flat next to his chair.
“Good enough for me!” Roberto exclaimed. “Any friend of Springer’s can’t be all bad. You’re in.”
He assumed I was one of the desperate homeless and I didn’t disillusion him. I did offer him money. He took half. He told me where to get free food and medical attention, gave me a sheet of paper listing the rules. ‘Don’t hang out in the theater’ was number one with a bullet.
“I can’t go into the theater?” I said. I was here because of the theater, or rather because of what my brother had done with the theater. Because of the miracles.
“It’s for the performers only, the artists.” His assessment that I was no performance artist was accurate and instant, though it hurt a bit. Who doesn’t want to be a circus performer, somewhere in their soul? I nodded dumbly.
“You can join the audience during the shows, though. Free. There’s a show tomorrow.”
He walked me through the dirt-packed compound to my trailer, a cold metal bullet every bit as unpleasant as I had expected it to be. I had a small sack of possessions: a change of clothes, a book. Roberto loaned me a blanket, well-worn and multiply-mended, but clean.
I wrapped myself in the blanket and sat cross-legged on the floor, waiting through the night. But my brother didn’t show himself then. He was far too wily.
I’d find him, my brother, my adversary. I’d find out about these miracles of his. He was the devil to my angel and I’d fight him if I had to. I hoped I wouldn’t have to fight. I was tired. Winning would not be a certain thing.
I closed my eyes to listen to the world around me.
The muezzin at the mosque across the black tar road sang his final night call to prayer. His mind strayed from God and into his creature comforts, dinner, soft clothes, where he was happy. Content. His content flowed around me like a sweet breeze.
The theater was louder than his song, discordant.
Someone played a honky tonk piano riff.
Someone else strummed a nylon string guitar through a few cowboy chords.
Someone, no: two people, a man and a woman, threw pins at each other, meaty thuds each time a hand caught one, shouted ‘Ha’s as they tossed them again.
Someone sang breathlessly while balancing on a skateboard balanced on a box on a chair on a bucket. He juggled tennis balls above his head. All those sounds, song click roll thump, mixed in a rhythm. Ah! That was how he did it, synchronizing all those rhythms.
But I heard nothing of my brother.
The muezzin began the day break call to prayer. Venus hung bright in the pre-dawn sky. There would be a full moon later. Later, I would search the grounds for him. My adversary.
I shrugged off the blanket and wandered into the yard. Uneven red brick laid in pathways to big Persian rugs spread over the hard-pack dirt to a little bit of worn concrete surrounding the outside of the theater. Dirt and weed and stones. A glossy black raven perched on a barren jacaranda tree and laughed.
At me? Maybe.
Coffee stank up the kitchen. I filled a mug, grateful that someone had been kind enough to brew it. I straddled a bench. Springer rambled into the room and woofed at me. Roberto followed close behind her.
“Show tonight!” he said, enthusiasm wafting from him in clouds. “You’re welcome to watch. For free. I’ll bet you’ll like it! We have a special, a special, a special…”
Springer raised her head and whined at him. Me, I could smell my brother’s work, mental sulfur. I frowned.
“I know, dog. I got it.” I said a Word, not strong enough to knock out the enchantment but Roberto’s head should clear temporarily.
“Uh.” Roberto’s eyes cleared. “Guest performer. He does sleight of hand. We’ve all been very impressed…” Again he paused after delivering wooden words. Then he shambled out of the room. Springer followed with her tail drooping.
My brother had made a strong home here.
I huddled around the still-hot mug. The Word had taken so much from me. Not physically, no. I was a strong wiry girl. But my mind was blank, used-up. I had nothing, no resources, no reserves. I would need to gather more to myself before trying to find my brother.
Who would be here, tonight, performing ‘magic.’
A woman lurched into the kitchen on stiff legs. Blonde hair sat in a pile on her head. The knuckles on her hands were enlarged, gnarled with arthritis. She cautiously poured a cup of coffee for herself, adding sugar and milk and delicately stirring it all together.
She glanced at me with red, worried eyes. A crease ran deep between her eyebrows.
“I’m Vicky,” she said. “You must be the new one.”
“Alice,” I said.
Time froze. My cheeks flushed and my whole body tingled. I knew this woman. I had fought for her before, against my brother. I had won, the woman released. Surely this was no coincidence.
I raked through the layers of her soul that I could reach. Nothing but fatigue and disease. I saw where I had touched her previously. She was uncompromised. And she did not recognize me.
“Alice,” she repeated. “Goodtameetcha. Roberto said you’re doing chores for your rent. Let me show you around.”
I rinsed out my coffee cup. She brought hers with her.
The kitchen side-door opened onto the theater lobby. The lobby inclined upwards to a concession stand swathed in disco-sparkly decorations. Black velvet curtains hung at the two entrances to the theater auditorium.
“Don’t go in there,” Vicky said. “Performers’ safe space.”
I nodded. The entire space, though neat as a pin, oozed decrepit age from its polished wood to its care-worn walls. Dust glazed every surface. I ran my hand across the counter. No dust after all. The glaze was metaphysical, dried-on ectoplasm. Vicky couldn’t see it, I was certain. I would try to wash it away, later.
Vicky led me outside.
Chain-link fences ringed three sides of the yard with the theater building, the old church, on the west side. Walls stood against the fencing, wood stakes, bricks, a hedgerow. Artistic diversity. Many hands had labored to build these fortifications.
Vicky slid into a rocking chair under a shade-awning. She waved me away.
“Make yourself at home,” she said, faint and faded. “If you have questions, just ask anybody.”
I hadn’t seen anyone else. Not that I had questions. I nodded to Vicky and continued my explorations alone.
I followed the fencing around to the side gate. The wall here was built of bottles, all the rich colors that soda manufacturers used, amber green yellow red blue. A spectrum in glass. When the right wind hit the bottles’ lips, they whistled eerie as a Theremin. A rug propped up as a canopy protected me from sunshine and shaded the yard from prying eyes.
I grabbed a broom and swept. I raised tornadoes of dust from the rugs on the hard-pack. I raked the barren ground. Inside the common rooms I swept and mopped and scrubbed. A vacuum stood near the front door. I plugged it in and tracked it over all the worn red carpet, wall to wall and up and down risers and aisles. I cleaned out cobwebs. Supernatural crud, the gleaming dried ectoplasm, dissolved with little effort. All the time my mind was blank. No songs or prayers or thoughts. Just blank. Recharging.
In the lobby I dropped the vacuum back in its place. I meant to take a cloth to the walls but there was too much hanging decoration. Art, I guess. Strong women in acrobatic situations. Writs of wisdom scrolled on the wall. Plaques, awards, newspaper clippings.
Wait. Wisdom on the wall? ‘Miracles Wrought Before Your Eyes,’ promised with a Bible quote and additional painted flourishes.
I laughed aloud. Yes. I would witness them.
It was time to wash myself. Earlier I had scrubbed the shower clean. Now I scrubbed myself clean. The joy of modern baptism flooded me with wonder until I shouted with joy.
I wrapped up in a bath towel and stepped out, soggy and cleansed.
A clown sat on the toilet, resting his head on his hands, a red wig of tulle and glitter spilling over his face.
“Hello,” I said, tugging my bath towel tight.
“Uh,” the clown said. He sat like his colorful clown pants were glued to the toilet seat, which was closed, I noted.
“You need the shower,” I suggested. His thoughts were opaque. Perhaps he was drunk. A shower would help.
“You can’t help me.” His voice, distant, calm, echoed in the steamy bathroom.
“Do you want my help?” My automatic response. Ancient. I had that phrase in languages that no one spoke any longer.
“It’s too late, too late,” the clown muttered. He stomped into the shower, one clown-shoe-clad foot rising and slapping down, his other foot dragging with a whisk across the tile floor. He leaned against the glass door. Water spattered and flowed.
I whispered, “Have faith.”
I sat front row center during the show. My brother would know I was here. I had no reason to hide. The lights dimmed. Hidden spotlights sparkled on the worn red carpet and green velvet of the seats. A big-screen above the stage showed a film of colorful shapes morphing into new shapes. Droning music played low, enough to itch a mind to alertness but not yet a signal for silence and attention.
People occupied all the theater’s seats. Families with kids of all ages, popcorn and soda. Couples on dates holding hands. In the seats near me, the front row, wheelchairs and crutches and walking sticks and a guide-dog resting his head on someone’s shoes.
Oh. Those kinds of miracles. I had wondered.
A piercing shriek of feedback startled us all to silence. Was it deliberate? A brilliant horrid way to catch a happy audience. I scowled.
From the first moment I was swept up in the night’s entertainment. The lights doused and neon-glowing performers tumbled onto the stage. My gasps and laughter and applause mingled with everyone else’s. I allowed the ordinary enchantment to engulf me.
I enjoyed the performances. Masses of athletic men and women, and even a child, swarmed on stage from left and right and front. Some gyrated in dance and gymnastics, flipping somersaults and kicking up high-stepping can-cans. Performers entered and exited the stage at random, changing the acts, lights flickering and changing color and intensity. Should I have felt guilty about appreciating their art? No. Not even the drunken clown had asked for help.
Some musical note must have signaled a pause. I stirred in my seat. The whole theater rustled as people fidgeted, moved, changed position. No one stood up, though.
The lights brightened. The wild calliope crashed to a stop. The performers on stage froze in mid-finale. Surly Girl stretched on an aerial ring. Giorgio juggled tennis balls, now motionless in a circle above his head. The clown paused with a half-inflated balloon. The magician was caught sliding a card into his coat. And my brother…
My brother sauntered on stage, right up front. His jeans were uncreased indigo and his boots alligator-green. He squatted and a spotlight made his average clean-shaven face gleam.
“Five,” he said. And, “Choose.” Then he stood up, relaxed, waiting on the audience.
In my experience, that kind of command resulted in chaos. Easily fifteen people near me sported injuries, handicaps, bottles of oxygen, helpers. I tensed against the inevitable fight.
But no, quiet consultations and five people were pushed forward. They lined up at the step to the stage. My brother towered over them.
He pointed at a young woman. “You have eyes but you cannot see. Open your eyes. The scales shall fall away.”
All so quiet. The woman’s mouth dropped into an ‘O’ and she flailed with both arms. Two friends grabbed her, supported her, hushed her – unnecessarily – and dragged her up the aisle.
“But I can see!” she wailed.
My brother called from the stage. “Don’t leave! The show isn’t over. Let her see it.”
The woman and her companions sank into the nearest seats.
“Now you!” he said, pointing to a man in a wheelchair. “You’re sitting down on the job. Get off your ass.”
The man stood up, shaky at first, then like Charlie Bucket’s Grandpa Joe, with hope and joy and increasing strength.
My brother pointed at a woman with no obvious handicap and told her that she was clear and clean. He pointed at a one-armed man and said that the arm would not grow back but his mind was healed, incisive and ready to work. He pointed at the little boy and had him dance a jig. He said disease was banished by physical activity and the boy’s gymnastic future was assured.
I sank in my velvet seat, deflated. These people were honestly cured, truly miracled. They wouldn’t relapse in an hour or two or twenty-four.
My brother had performed good deeds.
The calliope music wailed to life and the performers unfroze. They completed their paused acts. I struggled to my feet. This was not my fight. True miracles? I would not interfere with those. I retreated up the theater aisle. I wanted the door. I could leave! Springer, on stage, wearing a ruff and walking on her hind legs, rolled an eye at me and whined. She continued her performance, like a trouper, and I kept walking.
Until I was not. I was in a dim tiny closet of a room, the projection room. So was my brother.
“Hugh,” I said.
“Alice,” he replied. “I’ve missed you.”
The silence increased between us.
Then I sighed. “I was just leaving.”
He laughed. “They sent you after me – you, my favorite sister – and you’re giving up without a fight?”
“What’s to fight? You’re helping people. This was a mistake.”
“Oh. You missed it?” Disappointment. My brother was disappointed in me. Nothing new there.
I did not say anything. He would show me.
He pointed to the windowless aperture. We were in the projection room, high above the theater floor. He gestured and the aperture widened, swallowing most of the wall. Would anyone, looking up, see us? I doubted. This was one-way magic.
The performers were on stage, taking bows. My brother pointed at the little boy he’d cured. The child pinched an infant held by his mother. While the infant screamed, distracting the adults all around him, he dipped into the pocket of the man in the next seat over and drew out a wallet. He slid it inside his pants. No one saw this.
“Catch ‘em young and they’re yours forever,” my brother said. His satisfaction painted the air between us.
I folded my arms across my chest and shook my head.
“That was practiced,” I said. “He was like that before your miracle. You cured his body, not his corrupted soul.”
My brother stamped his feet. “Look! Look you! Where is my sister who knows how to see?”
He swept his arm out. The five people he’d cured – not touching them, never from him a touch – they glowed like jellyfish on a moonless night. Like fireflies on an infinite summer night. Like mushrooms on a velvet painting under black light. Dark, rotten, luminous. My brother, a lord of light, had illuminated these people as his own with dark torches.
“They’re mine,” he said. “Here and forever. She’ll murder when I tell her to. That one-armed man can still hold a gun. As for the boy, well, you’ve seen my little thief in action.”
“Oh, boastful,” I said. My voice shook. So did the rest of me. “I would have gone and let you continue. But you had to brag.”
He snorted. “My sister would have let it go? I think not. You are here for the battle. How is it I always know you better than you know yourself?”
My fists shook as I held them close to my ribs.
“You don’t know me. You just follow the script of our fates. You run, I chase. You harm, I fix. You challenge, I fight.”
“Yes, yes,” he nodded. “Let’s get on with the fight, shall we?”
My brother and I stand at the same height, 5’8”. We are both built slender and straight. He wore his hair short and mine was coiled above my ears. When we rushed each other, our conflict was equal, like twins come to blows over a constant argument.
We battled in front of the projector and our shadows played on the theater curtain. The house lights were up and people milled with performers for end-of-show mix-and-meet. They all saw our shadows then, and they watched.
Hugh and I grappled, wrestling. Our cast shadows showed our wings, our hair straining in a numinous breeze, our muscular bodies, skin to skin, struggling. We were perfectly matched. Neither gave, neither gained. Our shadows locked.
In that endless minute, the audience watched and listened while angels fought.
The dog barked. Oh Springer! I received a thrill of energy from her. Her life and support and pure doggish loyalty infused my spirit.
I threw my brother down.
The breathless pause broke. The people in the theater cheered and yelled and continued to disperse. Damned good show, for them.
I panted as I stood over my brother. The aperture returned to its true size. So did our shadows.
Hugh, my brother, my adversary, lay prone on the floor. He’d flung an arm over his face.
“Defeat is never easy,” I said. I offered my hand, to raise him up.
He ignored me.
Springer charged into the room. She placed herself between me and my fallen brother. I put a hand on her head. “Good dog,” I praised.
Roberto ran into the tiny room right after her. Crowded, too crowded, we’d have to exit soon, I thought, my brother and I.
“What have you done?” he shouted at me. Springer whimpered but didn’t move. Roberto knelt at my brother’s side. “Are you all right?”
My brother ignored Roberto. He lifted his arm and looked at me.
“It’s always a dog with you, isn’t it?” His voice could have doubled for Eden’s serpent.
I gripped Springer’s collar to keep her from lunging at him. “You are defeated,” I said. “You must go.”
Roberto cried out, “No! Vicky! You promised you would cure her! That was the bargain!” He was on the verge of violence, ready to hit at Hugh or at me. Or at himself.
“My brother keeps the bargains he wants to keep,” I said. “If Vicky isn’t healed already, she won’t be.”
“You lied?” Roberto grabbed Hugh’s shirt in both hands and shook him. “You promised!”
“He is the liar,” I said. “And now he must go.” We both knew that, as victor, I could enforce his departure. I preferred to let him voluntarily go. A weakness on my part, sympathy for him.
My brother pushed Roberto away. He sprang to his feet. “I will go,” he said. Then he laughed, a hard ugly sound. “But first…” He pointed at the dog. “Stop.”
My brother’s Word, vicious as a cobra’s backlash, failed to meet its target. I brushed it away. The freed Word should have dissipated but my brother’s hot anger goaded it forward. The Word gained another victim. Roberto laid out flat on the projector room floor, stopped.
My brother’s laugh was the only thing left of him and it too faded like the Cheshire cat’s grin.
I stood over Roberto. Miracles are hard and exact all kinds of prices, from the giver as well as from the receiver. I breathed in deep and said a Word. The strength of my wish staggered me and I tripped against Springer, falling onto my backside. Roberto’s heart started again, along with his rasping breathing.
His eyes clouded. I did not know how much he would remember. I did not care. He turned from me and climbed down the stairs like an old man, hesitating on each riser.
Springer and I followed him into the kitchen. Roberto leaned against the counter, his back hunched up like he was warding off blows.
The performers danced and drank and spoke in high excited tones. Their good energy filled me.
“Roberto!” someone yelled. “Best show ever! That angel-shadow-play thing, we have to do it again!”
Roberto turned around. Drool spilled from his lips. He took a single step forward and collapsed.
Roberto passed away. He struggled but never managed to forgive himself. He bargained with my brother. Deals with the devil never work out well.
I grieved, as much as I could.
Vicky kept the theater going. She had always been strong, under her illness. Now she showed her strength and more. She threw her energy into organizing the shows. The performers honed their acts. Gloom, the otherworldly glaze of despair and bad choices, gradually faded. Even the clown walked with a jaunty step.
The shows attracted the whole neighborhood, despite losing the miracles. I never looked for my brother’s cured audience. The miracles were transferred to me as I had won the fight, victor’s spoils. The dark light he had contaminated them with would fade. Hugh would not be able to call them in the future. I suppose this should have pleased me. I was indifferent.
I did not feel the need to attend another performance. I sat in my trailer and listened to music and laughter and applause. I hung out with Springer, that good dog.
After a while, Vicky visited my trailer. I had not been invited to Roberto’s funeral or even to the wake held in the kitchen. I had an idea that Vicky blamed me for his death. Maybe the performers did, too.
“You have to go,” she said simply.
I nodded at what she left unsaid. Besides, it was well past time for me to follow my fate to its next destination.
“Vicky,” I said. She paused in the act of turning away.
“Thank you.” I grasped her hand. Some miracles required more than a Word. My restored energy poured into her. And the lupus drained away. She would not know it immediately. She pulled her hand from mine.
“Tingles,” she said.
I left my borrowed clothes and blankets in the trailer. One last time I swept and cleaned and raked. I left Words behind, using the last of my strength. This place had refreshed me. I returned the favor.
I went out through the front doors and no one saw me go. I walked around through the alley to the back fence. The gang of three Chihuahuas yipped in their tiny dog way.
I wove my fingers through the chain link fence, never mind the oxidation and bird-dirt. Vicky gripped a coffee mug and took in the changes to the compound. The bemused look on her face pleased me. The dirt and dust and trash were all gone. Flowers bloomed: hardy geraniums, hedge roses, long-necked poppies and thick stands of jonny-jump-ups. Bright green grass tufted up through the bricks and coated the paths between the trailers. Even the sad jacaranda tree dripped with purple blossoms. She might have sensed it, that the freshness was there to stay.
She closed her eyes and tilted her head towards the sky. I heard the edges of the prayer she sent up.
Springer danced around her legs, yipping like a happy thing. Vicky reached down and stroked her head. Springer sat and barked at me, on the other side of the fence, once.
“Whatcha barking at, old girl?” Vicky said.
She couldn’t see me. But Springer could. I waved at the dog. She watched me fade away.
Darkly with the Shadows
By C. Allen Exline
They say the world used to have only one moon.
I wonder if this is true, or whether it is just another of the old wives’ tales they tell you, one of the many myths which surround the past. I shake my head, staring into the night. It does not matter, I realize. It’s irrelevant. What matters is now. What matters is tonight, under the twin luminaries of Vox and Nox—the voice and the night. The sky appears angry.
I feel the grit beneath my boots and smell the urban stench that forever billows up from the undercity. I feel my perspiration as it clings to the heavy cloth of my garments and threatens to sting my eyes with salt. I feel the stagnancy of the air, so calm, so balmy; it is almost like oil, slicking all beneath the celestial sphere, which glows with a wan blue light almost as bright as the moons.
I draw one last breath. The time is now. It can be no other.
The first man goes down quiet, just a dull wet thud. No one notices.
The second man sees me. Recognition dawns upon his face. The briefest moment of knowing, and yet he will wear that expression into eternity. He is dead before he can even scream, before he can cry out for his gods, or against them, to rail against his fate. He is dead before he can warn his fellows, who still pace the grounds, who wear ruts into the ancient flagstones that betray their paths.
Two sentries remain.
My heart is a hammer stamping out the seconds in my ears. I grip the hilt of my sword and I swear to myself. I swear. And they fall.
The next man is dead before his face breaks upon the ground. But the last is alert, more so than these oblivious dolts who would not have caught a vagrant sneaking into their demesne. He goes for his blade, but that is all. He dies with honor, with his hand firmly gripping a weapon, even if it does remain in its scabbard. His head tumbles from his shoulders to roll into the gutter.
I open the gates and step forth.
With a gauntleted hand I signal the waiting soldiers. They creep forth from the shadows, pale and resplendent in their armor. Once they see I have won they rush past in rust-colored livery. It is almost purple in this light. Their armor clanks as they pass. The rest is up to them. My part has been played.
Once they are well within the gates I take care that I am not observed. I glance suspiciously over my shoulder before I withdraw my magic amulet, which governs the doors. I step into the passage and seal it shut behind me. The tunnels are long and dark as sleep, yet they are safe. None know them but me. So I sheathe my sword and make my way in blindness. I consider producing the witchlight from the folds of my cloak, but I refrain. It’s okay, for I have memorized the way. It isn’t far.
I come to the proper hatch and I open it with caution, peering about to make sure no one has seen. I have had enough killing for one night.
All is clear. I emerge, sealing the passage behind me. I must always seal it, lest another might discover the way. The way is my edge. And a sword is only as valuable as its edge.
I am in a great hall. Columns climb into the gloom of a great, vaulted ceiling high above. Pilasters stand like stone ribs against the wall. All is distorted by writhing shadow. I walk into this grand chamber and notice the row of barred windows high up the far wall. Lightning flickers there. Perhaps the gods are angry. I would not know; I do not speak with them.
Each flash throws bars of purple light upon the columns, for the windows are glazed with a roseate hue. It is by this intermittent radiance that I navigate, until I reach the chamber’s end. There Gustabbian Ward sits alone at his desk. It is a lonely escritoire, with a single candle placed upon it to banish the darkness in fits of quivering light.
For a few moments I watch my friend from the privacy of the relative gloom, outside the narrow circle of light offered by his candle. He writes upon a long scroll, occasionally dipping the point of his quill into a jar of ink. Every so often he sprinkles sand upon his work. I decide to interrupt him.
I call his name and he looks up, startled. “Who’s there?” he calls, groping for a dagger that rests upon his desk.
“It is done,” I tell him.
“How did you get in here?”
“I have my methods. You know that, Gus. That is why you hire me, is it not?”
Gustabbian neglects to answer. “My men have entered the demesne?”
“Yes. They are there now. I had no need to wait, did I? I have no interest vested in their success.”
Gustabbian pauses for several moments, not moving, not speaking. He is occupied with thought. Then he moves as if to stand, but stops himself, saying, “Why do you not step forward, into the light?”
It is a suggestion.
As he speaks another charge of lightning throws a bright velvet cast upon the cavernous room, lining my helmet with vivid color. He sees this. His eyes play over the dusky impression of the colossal column against which I stand. “Why don’t you come out?” he says.
“Very well,” I say, stepping into the candlelight. “Where is my pay?”
“I may have another job for you.” Gustabbian rises to his feet, gripping his quill pen with a firm but delicate grip. He peers within the shade of my helmet, where he knows my eyes to be, though they are veiled in darkness to be revealed only in the lightning flashes. I prefer to keep it that way.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Oh, pretty much along the usual lines for you, Castor.”
“Well, now.” He spreads his arms wide in a gesture of inclusion. “I would prefer some guarantee, my friend, before I put forward such elements as are vital to my plans.”
“You have been in this basement too long, Gus. I will offer no guarantee. Tell me the job and I will consider it, or simply pay me and I will leave.”
“You know I am hesitant in my dealings with Heretics.”
“I know you are hesitant in your dealings with those you do not control.”
“Is pay not a form of control?”
“It’s not if I do not accept the job.”
For several minutes we stand in silence, merely watching the interplay of lightning and burning tallow upon the curved faces of the columns, upon the chairs which are arranged like emaciated shadows crouching before the Drighten’s desk. Gustabbian lifts the flaming candle from the desktop and moves to a tall candelabrum, which he lights. The orange circle of firelight expands immediately in diameter, so that the wall behind him is shown in sharp relief along with the tapestries that drape it. The light plays upon the contours of my helm and the curving ram-like horns that are mounted there. A tusk-like extension protrudes from the jaw area, casting a dark bar across my face where the light has otherwise intruded upon the open visor.
“Your aspect is hardly less daunting in the light,” Gustabbian grumbles.
“My ‘aspect’ is of little consequence at the moment.”
“Oh, is it not? When I do business, Castor, I prefer to look my associate in the eyes. I prefer to see their faces, for much is written there. A man’s mark on parchment may not be of more consequence than a stray look or an errant press of the lips. A mien can tell you much that one would not disclose in words.”
“Perhaps,” I concede. “Nevertheless, you know what I am about.”
“Aye, and that is what worries me, Castor. I would rather give no more information on this matter than is necessary to do the work. If you have no desire to commit to the work then all information is not necessary.”
“I understand your dilemma. I will not commit to a task I know nothing about. I cannot promise that I will commit to a task I do know something about, either. All I can say is, “I may be interested, depending on what it is.”
“Yes, thank you, Castor. That is quite helpful. Perhaps now I should disclose to you all of my plans? We both know you are a dealer in more than death, even if that is ever the outcome of your enterprise.” Gustabbian chuckled softly. “It would behoove you to accept a special offer on my account.”
“Would it,” I say, dryly.
“Indeed, it would. I believe it may interest you, that I have considered an invitation.”
He hesitates for effect. I press him. “Yes?”
“I would like to invite you to join this House.”
Fascinating. “I will have to consider it. Regardless, the last job has already been completed. I have delivered to your men the western gate of Harkweal. You owe me payment.”
“Aye, that may be so. Oh, I do not doubt your word, once it has been given, Castor. I believe you that the deed is done. Still, I thought you might be more excited by the prospect of permanent employment. It is a means to escape your peculiar stigma, Castor. Who else would—who else has—extended you such a generous proposal?”
It was true that no other had made such an offer. It was almost unheard of–and certainly within my lifetime–to sponsor a Heretic. “It is a most courteous offer,” I admit.
“That, I believe, is a gross understatement. Even so, it occurs to me that you may be more interested in this other contract.”
Skeptical. “I find few things more interesting than getting paid.”
Gustabbian chuckles again, more heartily this time, moving to yet another candelabrum. It is like a tree of iron, roughly head-high, each of its branches terminating in a flat disc of metal housing a tallow pillar. These Gustabbian lights, sending out yet more luminosity as if in an effort to fill the chamber. “What say you, Castor?”
I am irritated that he does not accept my statements, annoyed that he continues to press me for this action despite my demands for the pay I have already won. I answer hotly. “I have already answered you.”
Pause. “Very well.” Gustabbian motions with a curiously overblown gesture.
I hear the soldiers enter. Clink. Clink. Metal on metal, and the scrape of arms upon their scabbards. Two men. I can smell their breath wafting over my shoulders.
I place my hand upon my sword. “What is the meaning of this?”
“I do trust you, Castor, I really do. I accept your word. Your deeds, however, are another matter entirely. You are a Heretic, after all.”
Rage rushes through me like lava in my veins. It reaches my temples, threatening to surge forth in a tempest of carnage. Two soldiers. Only two?
What is he after?
I relax and my hand falls away from the hilt of my sword. I must negotiate this encounter with utmost deftness. Radiate calm, I tell myself. I am at ease, even though fury surges like a river within me, threatening to burst through, to rupture the bonds of reason. “All right,” I say, and my voice does not quaver. It is perfectly even, perfectly sedate. “Tell me your plot.”
“You will partake, then?”
My heart beats time. I can hear the breath of my prospective assailants—strained, shallow. They are serious, a real threat. I imagine I can see their faces, though they are amorphous and without character; they watch Gustabbian, awaiting the sign. Awaiting the command to plunge their blades into my back. Like cowards. They are cowards. They will not face me. Merely assert their menace in every passing instant. I can almost feel their gaze upon me, their scrutiny, watching for any swift movement. Then I almost wish I were without my helmet, for my sight is restricted; my periphery is constrained by the curving horns that shield the sides of my head and guard my vision slit. But I know I have registered movement at the verge of my awareness.
You clever bastard.
Mind. Racing. What is this? What does it mean?
I will be followed.
They shall discover my secret.
Have they already?
Perhaps this is a coup de main. A killing stoke. He has uncovered my secret, and this is his warped scheme. Is it Comeuppance? His diabolical rendition of justice? He shall kill me and bury my knowledge of what he has stolen.
Can it be? Does he truly know?
I sense my body growing rigid. But the soldiers will notice, they shall signal the assassins if I make a move. I must settle my nerves, banish this burgeoning alarm. Perhaps these waiting killers are merely insurance. Assurance. That guarantee of which he spoke so favorably I must go along with his plan, for now. “I will participate in your scheme, Drighten.”
The gesture is ever so slight. It would have gone unnoticed were I not hyper-attentive to his every motion. Every subtle twitch, each step as he paced, every flick of the eye I studied. For any of these things might be a signal to the waiting bravos. I see the gesture, and I know my would-be killers are withdrawing deeper into the lightlessness which surrounds the ring of orange glow. They are melding into the recesses. But merely to wait, to slay me once this final task is completed? As soon as I step out of line, for a certainty. And perhaps before. Perhaps as soon as I leave this room. And how many? How many are they? I know only of one, but my intuition informs me of more.
“What is the job?” I ask. My voice is placid.
Gustabbian quits pacing. He stops. And he turns to face me in the full brunt of many candles’ glow. “Then you shall join my house as well, friend Heretic?”
This rankles. I swallow. I swallow the lump in my throat. I think it might be my pride. “Aye.” It is done.
A broad, almost sadistic smile breaks upon Gustabbian’s broad, sparsely bearded face. “Good,” he declares. I can feel tension melting from the room, oozing out through the stonework. The men who stand behind me announce their relief with a slightly less inaudible exhale. I can smell the stench of it. I can almost picture their faces, broken, rotting teeth set in slightly pudgy masks. Another quick, easy-to-miss gesture from Gustabbian and I hear them take a heavy step back. “You will now how did you put it? Have a vested interest in our success.”
Or what? I wanted to say. You banish me? Bah! I can survive as an outcast, without Gustabbian’s contracts. “Alas,” I say, “What is the job?” and my voice is just as placid as before.
“Are you not glad, my friend? Are you not joyous? Overjoyed, even? You have been welcomed into my House—a house. You shall have food. Shelter. Women.”
I have food. I have shelter. I have Zora. I have all I need.
“So, come now, Castor. Rejoice!”
“Truly, I am beside myself. It must be that I simply conceal my excitement well.”
“That is ‘I simply conceal my excitement well, my liege.’ Well, you will adjust, I’m sure. You always do. After all, it has been a while, I know. A while. How long has it been, Castor? How long since you have pledged fealty?”
I have never. “It has been a long time, my liege.” I want to spit, to cleanse my mouth of the words.
Gustabbian nods, placing a bent finger to his lip as if he would bite his own hand. Meditating. “You,” he says, looking at me with a cold stare, “are like a wild dog. It will not do to train you, Castor. Not like these other curs.” He insults them to their faces. And yet they do nothing. They call it discipline. They are curs.
“No,” he continues. “You, I think, deserve a different treatment. Castor, I shall dub thee Thane. You will be not a cur but a fine hound, for a hunter you are at your core. Will you accept this charge?”
He shows some deference.
“Yes,” I say, my voice thick with mixed emotion. “This I will accept.” It is not enough to be given a place at the table. It must be a place of honor.
“Ha ha!” He relishes. “Then so I will it. You, Castor Thorne, are henceforth a Thane in the House of Ironlatch.”
“All hail Ironlatch,” chime the henchmen at my back. Finally they speak.
I groan and hope the others do not hear me over their pageantry. “All hail Ironlatch.” Again I want to spit.
“Now,” says Gustabbian. “I believe you had inquired about that job.” Yes. I did. “One thing you must understand, however.” The catch. “All jobs, from this point forward, are Ironlatch jobs. Everything you do, Castor, must be in the interest of Ironlatch. You do comprehend this, yes?”
I am not a dog. “Yes,” my voice grates.
“Good. So, I intend to move against House Fellbrook.”
Fellbrook? No wonder he needs my help. Fellbrook is the strongest House in this sector. When Fellbrook moves the lesser houses must move in unison or be quashed. My interest is piqued. “What is your plan, Gus?”
“Oh? Gus, you say? Yes, old habits. Very well,” he says dismissively. “For the time being you are granted certain allowances. At any rate, my plan, I seek to move against the great House. I desire first that you provide me, and my advisors, with any privileged information that you may have acquired in your dealings with them.”
“You would command me to break an oath,” I bark.
“Well, you are not at liberty to grant an oath against your house, are you?” Ex post facto. “So, any oaths which you might have outstanding are invalidated, are they not? I say they are, and I am your Drighten, so they must be. You are relieved of them. Proceed as though you have no bonds of any sort up to this day. Only the bonds of House Ironlatch constrain you now, Castor. Am I understood?”
I hide a sigh.
“Good. Then you shall accompany me in the refectory, for tonight we feast. But first, you must pledge fealty.”
“If you so command, my liege.” Again I want to spit, but in Gustabbian’s eye.
Time sloughs away like the flesh from a dead man and I am seated atop a rostrum spanning the width of the room and a step above the rest of the floor. Our table is very long, space for maybe forty individuals. Other such tables are arranged throughout the room, which is deep and smoky. The exit is opposite us, we face it as we eat, though the other tables are set perpendicular to our own so that their occupants must turn their heads to the side as Gustabbian stands and calls for attention. His voice carries well through the deep room and a hush falls like a spring rain in the wake of his call. “We are gathered,” he announces, “in celebration of a great victory over House Harkweal. For this night we captured that house’s western gates.” He hesitates before an onslaught of applause. “This feat was accomplished through the efforts of the most recent addition to our number.” He urges me to stand and I do so with a groan. “Welcome Castor Thorne, thane of House Ironlatch!” Clapping. “Now all of you, drink, and be merry.” Cheer and approbation.
I reclaim my seat and Gustabbian sits at my right, and to the right of him is Gwayne, his top dog. I see Gwayne only in half-caught glimpses between Gustabbian’s epic bouts of engorgement. Gwayne and I have met before. He is a severe man, a natural killer and fearless combatant. His features are wide and angular, his expression grim. He eats with slow, controlled deliberation, contrasted by Gustabbian’s wonton gluttony. Gustabbian shovels mana and garden vegetables into his orifice with disregard for courtesy. He thinks this is merry.
Racks of lamb and basted fowl clutter the table before me, with yeast rolls and the mana and garden vegetables with which Gustabbian is so taken. Yet I hardly touch it. My appetite is overcast by my intuition, which once again speaks to me like an informant whispering hushed secrets beneath the steel of my helmet.
Then Gustabbian speaks to me. “You will not regret this day, Castor.”
“Aye. Rarely do I regret decisions made under duress.”
“Sarcasm is not lost on me, my friend.”
“Then I must use it more often.”
“Do not overextend yourself,” he says around a mouthful of food. Disgusting. Grease coats his jowls as he predates upon the meat lain before us. He is a carnivore, to be sure. A dangerous man. Once my friend but perhaps no longer, for I am a captive to his employ. And how many of these others feel the same, I wonder. How many would turn upon him, given the opportunity? How many begrudge him their lot?
Yet most people fear apostasy. They will not be heretics, rejecting the patron gods of their houses, rejecting the divine rule of their masters. Most people are fearful, and dwelling thus in fear they will commit any atrocity; they will turn blindly to acts of abomination undertaken by their lords. They depend upon the hierarchy for their welfare. They would sooner be slaves to their house than free outcasts. But I will not be among them. I will continue to live as I choose to live, for I am a true heretic. The gods of House Ironlatch hold no dominion over my soul.
My introspection is disrupted by Gustabbian’s clapping hands. A call to order. A call to silence. “Clear the plates. Bring forth the girls,” he commands.
Grime besmeared servants spill forth from the doorways, gathering up the scraps, the dishes, and bearing froth-capped pitchers of ale that they poured into the proffered cups of Ironlatch’s many thanes. Then the dancers come forth. Slinky. Seductive in their movements, in their very being, climbing upon the tables to entertain the warriors who froth as surely as their cups.
“You may have one of them, if you wish.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The dancers. You may have one. Oh, just for the night, of course. But you may, you may. Don’t be modest.”
Such is the drighten’s madness. All men are chattels to him. Be they thane or dancing maiden, they are but an object to be added to his hoard, a collection to be displayed in expression of his greatness. Now Gustabbian has exerted his power over me. I am become just another of his trophies, to be paraded about and exploited to the fullest extent.
“No, my liege,” I must be careful with formalities. Gustabbian must keep face in front of his minions and will take me to task for any missteps.
“No? No, you say? You do not like women?”
“I have no need of your dancers, Drighten.”
“Then you have one of your own?”
Give as little information as necessary. “I have no need.”
“Are you a heretic or a monk?”
“I thought I was a heretic no longer, if you will recall. You are my liege now, are you not?”
“Indeed so, Castor. Indeed.” He sounds amused. “I am your liege. So monk you must be,” he pronounces. “No women for you then, my celibate thane. We must get you a habit, that you might look the part.”
“If you so command.”
“I do like the sound of that!” He roars and suppresses a laugh. “And now that you mention it, monk, I shall require any and all information you may have on The Great House. For that matter, I shall require all the information you may have on all the houses.”
Defensive. Hackles rising. “I cannot do that,” I state levelly. It would destroy what might remain of my reputation after this debacle. Yet opposing him openly before his minions exposes me to strict repercussions. I must be careful.
“You can and you must for, as you put it, I am now your liege. I should hate to resume this talk in the Chambers of Truth.”
“You would torture me?” I rage. And my hand drifts unconsciously to the comforting grip of my sword.
“Ho, of course not my friend,” he flashes a smile, quick as the girls who dance on the tables. “For you will give the information freely. There shall be no need for such inconveniences. Still, I desire to communicate my seriousness in this matter.”
“If you will not torture me then you will not have my knowledge.”
“But I may have it then?”
In a level tone I say, “You misjudge me, Drighten.”
Gustabbian chuckles now, almost a cluck. “Good man, Castor. You have passed the test. This is how I know I can trust you. You are not the common mercenary. I will divulge to you my plan. Later. In my study.”
The study is an annex of the writing room, buried under the piled stone of the midcity and within ancient permacrete vaults. It is cramped but comfortable, sheltered by a labyrinthian array of bookcases laden with the timeworn tomes of some forgotten era–plenty of space for assassins to lurk. The room smells of moldering parchment, stale smoke. Buglamps glow brightly on end tables situated between padded armchairs that are arranged in the nucleus of the room. “Sit,” Gustabbian instructs me, and I do so. “Would you care for some brandy?” he says, opening up a small liquor cabinet.
“No, thank you.”
“Suit yourself.” He produces an aged bottle and a single glass, then pours himself a drink. He sips it and issues a sound of relieved satisfaction. He shifts, settling into the plush chair before speaking again. “Now that we are alone,” he begins. But are we alone? I wonder, peering about inconspicuously into the maze of book-lined shelves, trying to see through the stacks into the dusky recesses beyond. Do my assassins linger there? Do they see me? Looking into the warm glow shed by the little lamps? Do they merge darkly with the shadows, watching? Can they hear my voice drifting through the baffles of crumbling paper and dust-cloaked board? Even now are they waiting? Waiting for me to take any misstep? To make any abrupt move, or assume an aggressive posture towards he who holds the leash? Perhaps now they study the shape of my cloak as it falls over the pommel of my sword, the glint of buglight upon the sharp points of my helm. Perhaps their breath comes in slow, meditative waves as they ponder my demise.
It could be they are anxious. They want me to move out of turn, to take actions against their master that they might spring forth from obscurity to sever my veins and cleave my limbs. That is what they want.
“We may discuss your mission,” Gustabbian intrudes upon my abstraction.
“Of course,” I say in a rasp.
He nods. It is a solemn motion, as if in preparation to discuss this matter he must invoke some special reverence which has been reserved for this moment. “Fellbrook has a manticore.”
The reverence of the moment descends upon me as well. Indeed, it is as though the entire study, complete with its pregnant shadows, were thrown under the mortician’s pall. Breath stops in its slow, sensuous kiss of the air. Sound seems to become lodged in the throat of time. Only my heartbeat carries with it the vital immediacy of life, stamping out the long seconds in solitude. At length, Gustabbian resumes. “They have a manticore,” he repeats, as if to make sure I had appreciated the gravity of the statement. “If they have learned how to properly control it…” he lets the conclusion die in the air.
“Then you want me to stop them. Me and your warriors.”
“Your warriors, Castor. They shall be your warriors.”
“This is a grave request.”
“It’s not a request,” Gustabbian says flatly. “It is my bidding.”
“Be that as it may—“
“My arse! A manticore. Gods damn it!”
“Here and I thought I was the heretic.”
“This is no juncture for a glib tongue!” He almost spits the words.
I laugh a little. A low, grizzly laugh that almost hangs like chimes in the wind. “You fear your own doom, my friend. But Fellbrook is the greatest house hereabouts and such a move against you would surely galvanize the minor houses, unify them against such a monster.”
I smile within my helmet and I know it goes unseen. Unseen by Gustabbian. Unseen by his skulking watchers. Unseen even by the gods. It is another of my own, secret things. I smile for myself alone. For my own enjoyment. “You seek to tempt the dragon,” I say euphemistically. “You will push their hand, force them to attack you.”
He says nothing.
“That is a very dangerous approach,” I tell him, my voice now calm and severe. “You would force them to move against you, that you might rally the other houses behind your banner.”
He nods, sullen.
“How many others know of this?”
“How would I know? I was hoping you might tell me, but your oath binds your lips, it would seem.”
“I can tell you in all confidence that I have heard no such intelligence, rumor or otherwise, to that effect. I thought the manticores were extinct, the last of them destroyed generations ago.”
“And perhaps they were,” agrees Gustabbian. “Perhaps the sorcerers of Fellbrook have discovered a way of reviving them.”
“If indeed that is the case it does not bode well. Who knows how many revenants they might have uncovered. How many such creatures they may be willing to unleash.”
“They must be stopped. The biovores were purged for a reason, during the Cyborg Wars.”
“I have heard of these ‘Cyborg Wars,’” he includes the manifold volumes, the stacks and nooks with a broad spread of the arms. “Yet I know so little about them. They are only mentioned in several books I have read.”
“The whole affair is somewhat arcane,” I preface. “The chimera and biovores were forms of weapon. Beasts of war controlled by the magi of many centuries hence. There were a series of devastating wars to put a stop to that madness. The midcity hails from the labors of that period.”
“What know you of the manticore itself?”
“I know it is a fearsome monster, indeed.”
“Yes, that, to be sure. What do you know?” He fixes me with the most level, burning stare that holds a promise of threat. A menacing gaze. Tell me, I read in the lines of his face, or I will end your life now.
“I know only that it is one of the chimerae, a creature fashioned from many.”
“There is something more, something you are not telling me. My own scholars, mind you, have been able to identify the creature from accounts. You, I know, are something of a dabbler in lore. I trust you might be able to assist them with something more than merely appending a name to a description. We must learn how to kill it and we must do so before Fellbrook has a chance to strike.”
“Before Fellbrook has a chance to strike another house? You wish to goad them. To draw them into a battle with you. If you can unify the other houses behind your cause and overcome Fellbrook’s monster you will demonstrate your capability to the gentry.”
“You are the cutting intellect, Castor.”
“Aye, it’s why you need me, that and my lore. And my skill. And, most importantly, my allegiance. It is not enough for you to defeat Fellbrook with a mercenary. You need a house victory, pure and clean, to carry your publicity campaign.”
“Quite astute. You’ve figured it all out, except you still fail to tell what you know of the monster itself.”
“I have told you. It is one of the chimerae, a biovore that feeds upon the life-energy of its environs to sustain its own being. Some attribute such beasts with the destruction of the forsaken lands themselves. Beyond that, tales are vague. No one alive today has faced one. I dare say, few before have faced one and lived. But what I have found is that it is winged; that is sure. Some would say it has the aspect of a great cat, others that of a man. It has a terrible tail that stings and ensures death at a distance. I would have to do specific research on the subject.”
“Then you shall study with my advisors. I have no sorcerers in my employ; you know that. You may be the closest I can muster.”
“I will look at this with your scholars.”
“And you will fight it.”
“I will, not because it is your will but because it is my own.”
The scholars present me with many texts. We lock ourselves away in Gustabbian’s study and pore over the musty books. We scour them for mention of the monster; we scour every chronicle and beastiary, every oblique reference. Any scrap of information.
At last we uncover forgotten sketches tucked away in a mammoth volume, corroborating reports in another, and antique scrolls recounting its horror.
Most of the information is useless to us. But buried even in the most indirect references are kernels of insight. From the details of wounds inflicted by the creature we imagine how it fights. From drawings and plates we extrapolate its anatomy. From tales of daring we glean its weaknesses. And I know how to defeat it. Only I. But it shall require a certain relic. I do not tell the others. They believe it is some daemon, some supernatural creation. And mayhap it is.
I slip out.
It’s nighttime again and the moons are high, but their light hardly filters down to the midcity where I emerge. The tremendous bulk of stone, mortar and timbers looms above with an almost tangible weight. And the accreted masses of the uppercity above them, blocking out the lambent glow of the celestial sphere, encrustations grown over time. The uppercity, with its lofty emplacements and sky-gouging spires stands triumphantly over the midcity with its aged halls and stacked tiers, leftovers from the wars of our ancestors.
I have had to sneak.
Gustabbian does not trust me. Not truly. Not like he says.
No. He fears me. And that is the difference. The difference between faith and fright. He keeps me close, or tries to do so, because I represent the embodiment of his phobias. Keep your enemies closer.
I climb the aged stories; I descend the weathered thoroughfares. I maneuver through the ancient ways. Yet the undercity lies beneath and it is more ancient still.
Finally I come to my hidden passage. A mere seam among seams in the great blocks and the molded permacrete, the secret of which was lost before the oldest books were conceived of. And I must pause and peer into the night shadows, which are deep and wide this low in the city. Immense swaths of black drape the surrounds. Alcoves are clothed in dark swaths and nocturnal alleyways are lost in velvety pitch. Inscrutable.
I can only doubt that I have evaded the stalkers who would learn my secrets.
I leave the enchanted amulet concealed within the folds of my clothing.
The forlorn lands. Will they follow me thither? Few would dare. It is no place for Man.
Gustabbian will be angry. Furious. Dawn is breaking, shattering into myriad shimmering shards of color upon the celestial sphere and I have yet to even reach the limits of civilization. I will be gone for days.
Again night is falling. I have trekked all through the day as the sun shone down like a brilliant emerald lodged in the heavens. Now Vox and Nox are peeking out of the gathering folds of dusk, winking like pale sapphires in the gloaming sky. And I can see the degenerate sprawl of the forsaken lands. They await, broken and desolate, the home of renegades, outlaws, heretics. Only the most depraved and the most desperate dare to go there.
I pick through the crumbling ruins and the expanse of dust and ragged plants that grow haggard in the desert clime. Zora’s abode is not far now.
I see it on the horizon. It is full night, the landscape draped in a stygian gloom. But a small light glimmers, hanging in the stagnant air from a small metal hook at the entrance to Zora’s home. It is a falling tower, a remnant of some lost age. It slouches in the gloom like some sad, forsaken thing slowly returning to the earth. There are few windows, but they are alive with light. I pass the lantern, a buglamp pulsing with ethereal luminescence, the liquid light of glowing insects.
I pound on the door with a coded rhythm so she will know it is me. Loud, dull thuds sound as the bolts are undone and the crossbar is lifted. The door slowly opens and a metallic object greets me in the small aperture as the door parts its jamb. One can never be too cautious.
“Come on,” she whispers harshly through the gap.
I step inside and she slams the door shut behind me, relocking it.
“I see you still have the carving beam.”
“Yes. It comes in handy.”
“Have you ever had to use it?”
She regards me with a level, lovely look beneath auburn curls. Her skin is a pale gray and her eyes are pools of dark mahogany. “Where have you been?”
“That’s a tale for the telling,” I say evasively.
“If you have the time to tell it then you might as well start.”
“Gustabbian wants me to fight a manticore.”
“House Fellbrook will move, if Gustabbian’s reports are to be trusted. He claims the great house has tamed the monster.”
“So, let them move,” she says, sidestepping me and setting down the small cylindrical weapon on a small table before going into the kitchen. “Are you hungry?”
“Famished. I have been travelling since last night.”
“You did not take your secret routes? They are faster.”
“I was afraid to use them. Gustabbian has a tail on me.”
“What for? I thought you are helping him.”
“He wants my secrets. I know that.”
“And you think he will leave you in peace if you aid in with the creature?”
I hesitate, digging deep within my soul to find an honest answer. “No,” I say at last. “I do not believe it will make any difference.”
“Then why do you help him? We can take out his goons right now, together.” Her voice is level, collected. I adore her.
“I help him for balance. There must be strife between the houses. There is no place for a mercenary without rivalry, after all. Fellbrook would be too powerful. With a manticore they can conquer all the lesser houses with ease unless something is done preemptively. Gustabbian is willing to do that.”
“Yes, he is,” she says, chewing on a succulent. “Because it will advance his status amongst the other houses.”
“You are right,” I confess. “Nevertheless, something must be done. A terror like the manticore cannot be allowed to be unleashed upon Asylum.”
She screws up her face, placing a hand to her chin in contemplation. “But why must it be you, Castor? I could swear you have an affair with danger. Sometimes I think you romance death more than you romance me. It is not worth the risk. What do you get out of it?”
“But at what expense.”
“He has inducted me into his house.”
“That’s even worse! What are you thinking?”
“I am thinking that Fellbrook must be stopped, and had I not agreed to join Ironlatch I would now be dead.”
“Care to explain?”
“Gustabbian surrounded me with men. I was forced to join.”
“It will destroy your reputation. You won’t be seen as impartial with such deliberate ties to a house. You will ruin us. Quit this exploit. Let Gustabbian’s goons come. We will best them.”
“The beast still needs to be stopped. Fellbrook can’t be allowed to overpower the other houses.”
“Then let Gustabbian down. Do not tie yourself so intimately to any one house. It is foolish.”
“I am afraid it is too late.”
“How so? How is it too late?”
“I have already pledged myself to Ironlatch.”
“Then un-pledge,” she insists, crossing her arms in a way that is at once wroth and seductive.
“I cannot. I have given my word.”
“You and your word,” she huffs. “Fine. But heed me. This cannot end well for us.”
I bow my head. “You may be right.”
“I know I am,” she declares, placing fists on generous hips.
I smile and remove my helmet.
“It would be easier to stay angry with you if you weren’t so handsome,” she says. Then, in a gentler tone, “You know that he is only using you, right?”
I nod my understanding. “That does not mean I won’t use him as well.”
“Oh? And how do you plan on doing that?”
“I will find a way to make use of this situation.”
“Oh, come on, Castor! That’s such malarkey. What’s your plan?”
“I think you’re missing the bigger picture.”
“There’s no way the lesser houses will not rally together, whether Gustabbian actively tries to unite them or not.”
“You’re right about that.”
“Yes; again, I know I am.”
“There is something to be said for establishing a strong rapport with the winner. Ironlatch stands to gain quite a lot of place in this gambit. It makes sense to align with Gustabbian.”
“Would you have come to that conclusion on your own, if he hadn’t forced you into it? Or are you just trying to justify your own helplessness?”
“I am never helpless, Zora.”
“Maybe not,” she puts a finger to her lips. “Still, I think if your options were more open you would view the situation differently.”
“That’s probably so; however, they are not, and one must accept the lot he is given.”
“Acceptance has never been your strong suit. There’s more to this than you are letting on.”
“Like I said, the bigger picture. If Fellbrook conquers the other houses, if empire can be established, that puts us out, cripples us. I thrive on conflict between the houses. My livelihood depends on it. We cannot allow any single power to rule.”
“I am aware of that. It is your official tie to a single house that concerns me. You might just as easily insinuate yourself into this battle without formally joining any house. What use is a freelancer who is affiliated with a single faction?”
“I do not think it will prove as much of an impediment as you seem to believe. Any time I work with any house I tie myself to it, if only temporarily. This is no less temporary. I shall make sure of that. Or perhaps I won’t. It is possible Gustabbian will gain too much in this altercation.”
“And then what will you do? Become his lap dog and leave me here to languish in the barrens?”
“It should go without saying that I would not do that.”
“It should. Yes. But…”
“But nothing. That will not happen,” I declare, stepping forward and slipping an arm about her waist to pull her close to me. I press my nose into the auburn hair that falls over her ear and say, “I swear it.”
She pulls away a bit, fixing me with an acid stare. “I’m asking you not to do this. Do not be tied to Ironlatch. It is asking for trouble. Gustabbian will know he can control you. After word gets out, other houses will not want to work with you for fear that you are in too tightly with Gus, that their dealings will make their way back to him.”
“I do not violate my code. That is well known. I have a solid reputation.”
“For now. You know this will damage it.”
“I have worried over that.”
“And for good reason!”
“If I back out now, relations with Gustabbian may be irreparably damaged.”
“Can you defeat the monster? Tell me truly.” Her pupils transfix my own as though they seek to burrow into the pith of my brain.
“Then whatever house you choose to aid shall win the day. Take what you have learned—“
“I must not.”
“If I backstab Gustabbian I’ll lose respect among the gentry; I will become as any other petty, cutthroat mercenary.”
“And if you do not?”
I say nothing, so she continues.
“And if not, you become a lackey that no one else can deposit good faith in.”
“I do no such thing. Your reputation will be ruined as surely as these forsaken lands.”
I release her and turn away. My gaze lingers over the battery of bolts, chains, pads and bars upon the door. They are brassy and clean, well-polished, reflecting the ambient light of the room with a mirror finish. They are possibly the most well-maintained objects in view. Everything else reeks of age, decay, the degradation of the forsaken lands which seems to rake all within its perimeter into its fate. Time sloughs away like flesh, I cogitate. The forsaken lands steal the time away, entire, drag the world down into the dust with it. I lower my head and set about unfastening my cloak. Zora steps in close behind me and lifts the heavy, lank thing from my shoulders. “Then what shall I do? What is your thinking?”
“My thinking is that you rebel against Gustabbian. You want to give no one such control over you. Take the matter to a rival house and negotiate a deal on your own terms.”
I wait for a moment before I speak and the words roll off my tongue like mercury. “All right. I will do as you ask.”
The crash from the windows is startling. Black-clad shadows bursting forth from the shattered casements. The irony being she placed such importance upon the door while leaving the windows wide.
The first shadow rushes at me with a glint of steel. I leap back, evading the first lunge. I knock away the weapon then strike the shadow in the face. It does not go down. It hisses and spits in my face, striking me in return when I blink. Again we exchange blows. The shadow tries to grapple me, efforts to lock my arm in a bone-breaking trap. I hook a foot about its ankle and trip it. It falls to the ground and in the next instant my sword sings forth from its scabbard and the shadow is writhing, blood staining my blade.
Quickly I snatch the carving beam from the small table and I drop it into my pocket as I turn my attention to them. While one wrestles with the many locks, the other is dragging Zora to the door. A knife is held to her throat. “Come no closer,” the shadow croaks. “Or she dies. Surrender,” it says.
What are these shadows? Wraiths? Living shades that persecute Man. Or some biological nightmare revived from mist-shrouded chapter of history? “Let her go,” I demand, knowing, even as I speak that my words shall not be heeded. The shadows have no reason to listen.
“Never,” sibilates the shadow.
Defeat wafts over me like a foul odor. I throw down my sword.
The skeleton of time becomes a little more bare and I sit once again in Gustabbian’s demesne. Diabolical implements, horrid, tortuous devices filling the space with the torturer’s tools as might a blacksmith’s shop be filled with the trappings of his vocation. Dried blood stains the walls and sits in congealed pools in the corners. It glistens darkly in the pale light of a solitary candle.
I am shackled to a chair in the center of the room and the two shadowlings recede from the chamber, leaving me alone with a black-robed old man.
“Here today,” says the old man, pulling back his hood to reveal a shock of ghost-white hair and a row of gapped, rotting teeth. “Tee hee,” he cackles, “Gone tomorrow.”
I test my bonds, finding that they are well secured. The cold iron manacles weigh against my wrists, dragging at the skin. The old man’s rattle merges with that of the chains. Leisurely he strides over to a small cart with castform shelves, an artifact from eons past. From it he selects a cruel-looking instrument, a pair of something like pliers. “Do you know what we do to traitors, Thane? No? We make examples of them. Then we make eunuchs out of them. Then we make heretics out of them.”
“I am a heretic already.”
The old torturer cackles again. “You save us the trouble, yes? Yes. You save us the trouble. You will see what we do to traitors. And you will see what we do to spies. You will see, you will. You will feel what we do to traitors. You will feel what we do to spies. And you will tell us. You will tell us what we wants to hear. You will answer us.”
“I’ll tell you nothing.”
“Then you will bleed. You will cry. You will call out in our ecstasy. Our joy. But your misery. You will be miserable until you depart this plane.”
I spit at the old man. He looks furious for an instant before he regains his composure, stepping in close to loom over me, glowering, gripping the pliers threateningly with whitish knuckles. He takes my head firmly and presses the instrument into my mouth. The feeling is so chilling I can almost hear it as the pliers clamp down on one of my teeth. Then the pain hits as the tooth splinters.
Now is the time. Before I am in too much pain to act.
I grip the carving beam which I stowed in my pocket, activating its magic. The beam rips out through my clothing, slicing into the torturer’s leg. He collapses, hard. I let the beam loose again. Its searing bolt laps at the torturer’s other leg, burning his foot from his body to leave a smoldering stump. The torturer cries out in anguish, but the shadowlings do not come to his aid; they must believe it is I who screams.
With a deft flick I turn the beam to my bonds. The iron turns incandescent, then melts away in molten runnels that radiate furnace heat. It sets my clothes alight and I swiftly busy myself with smothering the flames before returning my attention to the prone torturer. “Speak only what I tell you,” I say in a sharp, incisive whisper.
He ignores my command, instead calling for help. In a trice I am up against the span of wall adjacent to the door, listening as the bar is lifted on the outside and the leaf opens with a loud creak. The first shadowling bounds inside, pivoting in midair to face me. I point the wand at it and release its power, but it fades too closely. The shadowling is too far away for the artifact to kill it. Nonetheless, the shadowlings’ black garb is singed and the wearer releases an inhuman howl of pain before pouncing upon me. I squeeze the actuator again and cut into my assailant as it strikes me. I keep the beam trained upon the shadowling and it begins to writhe and grope at its abdomen where the mystic beam burns. Its howls become frantic. It falls to the flags and squirms. Then the last shadowling leaps in over the smoking body of the first. Again I squeeze the wand, but its magic has been spent. The brilliant beam flares into existence but dies, fading out in a wink before any real damage is done. I throw down the chrome cylinder and brace for the leaping shadowling. I grasp its arms and I feel the almost preternatural strength there.
Hissing. A small roar. A snap of clamping teeth. We tumble to the floor. I catch the shadowling’s head with a well-placed elbow. In a panicked instant I roll to my feet, in the same motion, as if capturing the latent momentum in my motion I grasp my witchlight. I dig my thumb into the soft circular switch. It flashes on. A magic torch shining its rays into the shadowling’s face; and there I see the hideousness that lies within the black cowl. I see that sickly glint, that scabrous, squamous, ophidian flesh and orbs like sickle-carved amber.
In that fleeting moment of distraction I strike the creature’s foul head with the witchlight and drive a boot firmly into its chest, shoving it away from me. Hurriedly I grope for some of the torturer’s instruments, flinging the pointed objects at my opponent. But without avail, for the blades are turned aside by its scaled hide. It regains its equilibrium and pounces, but not before I grab a pronged skewer that I hold out before me. The shadowling impales itself upon the needle-sharp points. I thrust forward, backing the lepidote horror into the stone wall and forcing the skewer forward until the creature’s bones collapse under the tremendous force. It slumps, lifeless, to the floor.
Blood is pouring from my mouth. I am sick to my stomach, nauseous from all I have swallowed. My jaw is badly swollen; my entire mandible is a surging drum beating with the quickened beat of my heart. The pain nearly engulfs me, sweeps me away on waves of agony.
I gasp; I spit crimson and fragments of tooth as I walk over to the languishing torturer. “Where is Zora?” I demand. “Where was she taken?”
The torturer grins, a glister of wild madness in his eye and a peal of likewise laughter strangling his response through gritted teeth.
I have my answer, but I do not bother to thank him for directions. Quickly I dash out, into a hallway that is filled with bilious buglight. I find Zora’s cell standing ajar with a stocky figure blocking the way.
“I’m impressed,” the deep, baritone voice of Gustabbian says. “You killed three of them, dismembered your gaoler. Chained. You bested those, too.” He claps in a lackadaisical, somewhat mocking sort of way. “Resourceful monk. Some might call you blessed, if they didn’t know better. I was hoping to get some information out of you for my trouble. But no matter. You have proven yourself and earned another chance at freedom.”
“Explain,” I mumble, speaking softly around the pain.
“I have the woman, Castor.”
“Her name is Zora.”
“Well. Whatever. She is my prisoner. If you want to see her freed, then you will slay the manticore. In the name of House Ironlatch, of course.”
“Should you refuse I will not try again to torture you. I will not even have you killed. You may call me generous. You will be released, but Zora will be sacrificed on the Altar of Rosha.”
I feel my cheeks getting warm as the blood flushes upon my face and the hammer of pain increases its rhythm upon my mandible. “And if I do not?”
“If you do not refuse? You will either succeed or you will die. But if you do not succeed, Zora will be mine to do with as I please.”
“Explain,” I grumble.
“I may kill her, still. Offer her up to my god. Or I may keep her. As a slave. Maybe as a personal slave. I shall decide when, and if, the time comes. So, what do you choose, Castor?”
“I will try. I will battle the monster.” My sigh is almost audible.
“Good. Then you will still have your warriors.”
“I have conditions.”
“Oh? You? You have conditions? I don’t believe you are in any condition to—“
“If you want the beast slain, then heed me.”
“Very well. What is your condition?”
“Conditions. I must be allowed once more into the ruins, into the forsaken lands.”
“You wish to return to your woman’s hovel.”
“What for? Excuse me for being circumspect.”
“You will have to trust me in the matter.”
He laughs. “No, I think not. Given the circumstances I am sure you will understand. So either explain to me why such a jaunt is justified or leave if you want, but you know what shall befall your beloved.”
“I require a certain relic which I have stored there.”
“What do you need this relic for?”
“To defeat the manticore. If you hope for any success in the undertaking.”
“Do as you will. I have what leverage I need. I will not even send an escort. We attack tomorrow. If you do not return in time we shall enjoy the ritual after battle. What is your other condition?”
“After it is done, I must return to my independence.”
I wonder if I am followed still, with the shadowlings defeated. Is some new threat lurking beyond my sight? Some new enemy that stalks and watches and waits to report my secrets to Gustabbian? Probably. No escort? Unlikely. Just none that I am to know about.
One day. Impossible. Even with my secret ways it could not be done.
But maybe there is another, quicker way.
I seek out Gavian. He is a mancer of House Homegard. I find him in his laboratory, after gaining clearance at the gatehouse. The guards know me there, for I have long sought Gavian’s counsel.
“Greetings, old friend,” I say by way of announcement.
“Castor! What a fine surprise, indeed. How are you, my lad? To what do I owe this visit?”
“I need to ask you a favor.”
“Ah hah,” he remarks, pressing the spectacles up the bridge of his nose where they have slipped in the thin sheen of sweat that leaks from his pores. The lab is hot, with fires burning under enormous iron cauldrons. “I might have guessed as much. Hah. What can I do you for? I will help if I can.”
“I must journey to the desert. Swiftly.”
“Then go. Hurry, lad.”
“I cannot make use of my usual methods of transit,” I tell him.
“So, you need transportation, yes?”
“Yes. That is correct. I must go to the forsaken lands and return inside of two days.”
“Yes, yes, you should listen, lad. I said I would help. And you’re in luck. I have just the thing.”
The dactl is saddled.
It tosses its head as I climb upon its back. A flick of the reins and leathern wings beat at the air, lifting us into the wind. We ride the convection winds up, up and rapidly even the uppercity recedes beneath me, its spires rushing past, ultimately to dwindle below us. The sun is bright through the celestial sphere, the glow of which pales as the daylight streams down in viridian rays. We soar upon the thermals, leagues and demesnes passing beneath us until the verticality the cityscape yields to the broken waste of the forsaken lands.
At Zora’s abode I enter the basement. It is dark, musty and fortified. And therein I locate what I seek.
The flight back wracks my nerves, for I can feel the time ticking incessantly towards my future. A future in which Zora’s life depends upon my encounter with a blight that was believed to be quelled long ago. The cityscape below is a patchwork of demesnes, each with their own distinctive character. The uppermost portions reach up for the sky, reach up for me as if they seek to bar my way, to reach up like stone fingers and grasp me from the sky. But they fail and soon I have done the improbable. I have journeyed to the forsaken lands and back in a single day. Yet the dactyl tires of flight. It grows weary, even as Fellbrook Demesne grows near. A forest of vertical structures glides by below until a great shelf of masonry comes into view. It is a lofty summit, a plateau of stone and mortar presiding over the midcity like a great, artificial escarpment, and upon it the armies are placed. Am I just in time, or am I too late? I scour the ranks and files below until I spy the rusty brown banners of House Ironlatch.
Gracefully the dactyl wheels like a circling raptor in its descent, alighting before Gustabbian’s forces. Gwayne hails me and approaches at a quick pace. “Castor, by the gods, you’ve made it.”
“Yes, but just barely it seems.”
“The warriors of House Harkweal have already engaged the monster. Their units have been broken like so many stones cast into the abyss. The beast, it rains death down upon them at a distance. House Homeguard has harried the creature from afar with dactyl knights and yet it burned them from the sky with the beam of scorching light that leaps from its tail. There is no way to fight such a terror!”
I see him surveying the relic, a concave shield with immaculate mirror finish. “There is a way, and I will see to it. Gwayne, rally your warriors. Bring them to meet me at the manticore.”
“It is suicide.”
It is not, I hope. “Just do it,” I say and spur the dactyl once more into the air.
At last I see it. The manticore. Yet the dactyl is flagging. It can go no farther. In a desperate effort, as we begin to plummet towards the monster, I pull the dactyl into a mad dive. Wind whistles past my ears and whips my clothes about. They flap and beat against my sides, going fluk-fluk-fluk as we close with the horrifying creature that swats warriors as a cat might swat its prey. The dactl unleashes an eviscerating scream before it careens into the manticore.
I am tossed from the saddle. The pavement slaps me hard as I fall, but lithely I roll to my feet, shield in hand. I am winded by the fall and pain still pounds in my jaw. I can taste the blood coursing from my destroyed tooth, but it does not matter. It’s irrelevant. What matters is now.
I am on my feet and I feel the grit beneath my boots. I smell the urban stench that forever billows up from the undercity. Sweat and clothing cling to me like dew to The Sphere. I heft my shield and feel the hilt of my sword in calloused hands. I eye the beast, which glowers at me in return with malignant eyes. Its wings scatter warriors like leaves on the wind. Its fangs are like sabers and its claws are lances with which to impale its foes. Its tail is an elevated thing terminating in a cruel stinger that deals death from afar, carving a flaming path with the beam it emits. It looms over me, a great colossus of muscle and fur and armored plates. I can smell the stench of its breath, which wafts over me in warm, rank waves even at this range.
The scene that surrounds me is a hellscape. Warriors from all the lesser houses charge at the chimeric monstrosity only to be cut down by its tail at a distance, hurled into the ranks by devastating claws or gruesomely caught in mighty, fanged jaws. I merely stand, studying the creature’s movements, the almost rhythmic strokes of its tail.
I draw one last breath. I can smell death in the air. The time is now. It can be no other.
I loose a fearsome battle-cry and charge ahead, pounding on the shield with the flat of my sword. I have its attention. It glowers at me still; even more intensely now, though I did not believe it possible. I am transfixed by those slitted orbs. The tail sways, slaughtering as it moves, until it is trained upon me. I raise my shield—and the beam breaks upon the reflective relic, bending back onto the creature itself. Perspiration breaks out upon my brow and I squint against the saline rivulets that moisten my face. Time seems to freeze. The carnage slows as the monster trains all its attention upon me. I carefully tilt the shield to redirect the beam, and the monster releases a deafening snarl of pain as its own weapon traces a smoldering line across its face. Farther and the beam cripples a wing. Yet the creature does not relent. Still that brilliant ray of death focuses upon my shield, which grows hot and begins to warp upon my arm. I tilt it further, until the beam intersects the manticore’s own tail. It is an abomination, but not invulnerable. The monster flails as its stinger falls, inert, severed by its own power, with a thud that is lost in the profound cry of anguish that escapes the creature’s maw. I fling away the melting relic before my arm is crippled by it. I inhale deeply, watching while the creature lashes about as might a drowning man. “Attack!” I cry, in an effort to outdo the clangor of war. I step forward, evading the wild sweeps of the manticore’s limbs and the dismembered tail as it tosses fitfully, showering gore upon the armies. I swing at the creature’s neck. I feel resistance in the blade as the impact travels through my gauntlets. Again the manticore roars, recoiling with trauma, and in that moment of chaos Gwayne appears with his warriors. With a fevered battlecry they rush at the creature. The clamor of clanking armor buffets my ears as they march past at a canter. They strike and leap upon the monster. They cling to it like so many ants to a bread crumb, stabbing and cutting even as they scale its colossal bulk.
It is a matter of seconds before a hush of awe descends over the battlefield as the enormous carcass slumps to the paving stones and conflict ceases momentarily.
After a moment of shock the lesser houses unleash a vast, collective shout of triumph. The warriors of Fellbrook are stunned and disheartened by the sudden loss. Many turn to flee. Others gape amazed and demoralized at their bested weapon. The tide has changed. Gwayne’s warriors and I cut a severe rent into the dejected enemy. Our enemies break like rock beneath the miner’s hammer.
Fellbrook is in retreat and we are marching from the great plateau with gladness in our hearts.
“Gustabbian!” I call as we return, surrounded by the minions of every lesser house. “I have done as you commanded. I have bested the manticore. It is time to return Zora and me to our freedom.”
“There you are wrong, Castor. I shall return Zora to you; but we shall see, once this war is at its end, whether you seek to leave our ranks.”
“You must honor our bargain.” I spit the words.
“And I have every intention of doing so. Just not right now. I still have uses for you, thane.”
“I am no thane, Gustabbian. I am a heretic.”
“Entertain your petty delusions all you like, Castor. But you shall remain in my employ, for the time being. Remember. I know where your precious Zora lives.”
I should have guessed. Ire rushes through me, a hot coil singing my soul. “I will not abide your treachery,” I say, taking a step forward as I draw up my shoulders in wrath.
“Gwayne! Take this malcontent into custody.” To me he says, “You shall do as you are told. Perhaps a fortnight in the dungeons will teach you some deference. ”
Gwayne breaks rank, stepping determinedly forward. “I shall not do it, Gustabbian. I followed this man into battle. He went up, bravely, against the most daunting foe this house, or any other, has ever seen. His reward for stemming the monster’s rampage shall not be shackles.”
“You, Gwayne, are in contempt. You are a traitor to your house.”
“And you are a traitor to your word,” I say.
“Arrest him!” Gustabbian points accusingly at me. “Arrest them both!”
No one of House Ironlatch moves, yet many from the other houses begin to intercede. It looks like a riot might be forming, as many small scuffles break out. But, at length it is Gwayne who speaks above the mounting ruckus. “I invoke the rite of challenge. As is my right.” A great unanimous gasp rises above the armies as men and women back away from the drighten and his challenger. “Face me, Gustabbian. And should I be defeated I shall bend to your will, no matter how debauched. But should I best you in single combat, it shall be my will that is heeded this day!”
A ring has formed around them. A storm of shouting erupts from the onlookers, chanting for the duel to commence. Yet Gustabbian blithely looks about himself and shrugs as if to say, “This is nothing. I am not perturbed in the least.” He says,“I will not fight you, Gwayne.” He steps close to his thane and looks him directly in the eye. “Have I not been a father to you? Did I not raise you both in fact and in status? Where would you be were it not for the kindness I have shown you? You would be a ragged pauper, a mere peasant. It is I you must thank for your every good fortune, for it is only by virtue of my kindness that you enjoy the life that you now live. Yet this is how you repay me. I will not stand for such a betrayal.”
Gwayne hesitates a moment before he responds in a solemn tone. “It is true. You have been as a father to me. You were, for many years. But now you are like one possessed. You have grown twisted and intoxicated with power. This display you have shown today will not be countenanced. If we are not to duel then you must abdicate.”
“I raise you up from nothing and you seek to depose me!”
“You have demonstrated that you are unfit to rule. The injustice you have displayed here today is unacceptable. Step down now or confront me in the honorable tradition.”
“No mercenary is worth an insurrection,” Gustabbian bellows. “Forget this foolish venture, Gwayne. I will release Castor from his oath, if it means so much.”
“No,” Gwayne says. “It is too late for that now. This matter is between us. Do not force me to slay you. Step down. Now.”
With a tear in his eye Gustabbian lowers his gaze. “Very well. If I have no other recourse, I must surrender the mantle of drighten to you.”
Hissing and booing at his cowardice bombards my ears. But Gustabbian would never give up so easily, would never give up his reign with so little resistance. Even if his situation were dire. Is he up to something? Is this another deception? I am attentive to his every move, his every subtle twitch. The two men step close, clasping arms in consummation of their pact. Then I see it. The dagger Gustabbian cleverly slips from his robes. In a fateful decision he raises the weapon and makes to strike. But I lunge forward, grasping his wrist.
Then I hurl him to the ground.
Gwayne takes a hurried step back. “He would have stabbed me! I am in your debt.” He looks to Gustabbian, who lies upon the flagstones. “The pact has been sealed. Thus you are drighten no longer. In recognition of all you have done for me, I will not have you executed, but for your craven attempt on my life I shall sentence you to lifelong imprisonment. Take him,” Gwayne commands the warriors of House Ironlatch. After a pause, several step forward to lead Gustabbian away in bonds. Gwayne says to me, “Thank you, Castor, for all you have done. I hate to see you leave us. I hope the two of us can move forward in good faith.”
“We’ll see. I never got paid for my last job.”
“As drighten, I will see to it that you are compensated. And then some. As for the monster it is sure we would never have defeated it without your help. For that, I extend you my everlasting gratitude. But come. We may speak of such things on the way. We must free your friend.”
Of the soldiers, some are relieved by Gustabbian’s removal. They jeer and mock him as he is ushered forth in shame. Some are shocked at his treachery; others at his cowardice. But most are indifferent. Yet all are pleased at the battle’s end, and we march to the tune of cheer.
Once we are within the demesne, the crowd begins to dissipate but, together, Gwayne and I make our way to the dungeons, with Gustabbian in tow, to a certain cell behind a door reinforced with rusted metal straps. Gwayne removes the crossbar and opens the cell. Inside is dark, inscrutable; but in a moment I see her. As she steps out of the dark confines, Gustabbian is thrust in her place and the door is shut.
“Zora,” I speak her name, and she speaks mine as I grasp her and pull her close. I say, “So, what was it you said about romance?”