The Colored Lens #25 – Autumn 2017

The Colored Lens

Speculative Fiction Magazine

Autumn 2017 – Issue #25

Featuring works by
Zachary Tringali, Derrick Boden, Andy Tu, George Lockett, Carl Barker,
Michaël Wertenberg, Vaya Pseftaki, Nicholas Schmiedicker, and Stephen

Cover art by Kristina Gehrmann

Edited by Dawn Lloyd and Daniel Scott
Henry Fields, Associate Editor

Published by Light Spring LLC

Fort Worth, Texas

© Copyright 2017, All Rights Reserved

Table of Contents

One Great Truth

By Zachary Tringali

We went north because the stars told us to.

They stayed behind because they were too weak to follow.

This is the one great truth of the Glass Sea.

Fire! the heavens cried and opened up. The Star broke through the crust
of the dark sky, red and yellow and burning up the night. I was the
first to my horse—the youngest, the fastest, and I was the first to lean
into the wind and soar across the desert. First among firsts, and in
that moment, I was singular. I was the Princess of the Dunes.

Together we ran, the horse and I, as the wind howled and the waves of
sand whipped overhead, trying to swallow us. I charted our course by the
Glass Sea in the east, where the sand has hardened under the sun’s
cruel gaze, its black surface burnished copper in a crude reflection of
the Star’s path. Later, when I found a small shelf of stone jutting out
from the dunes and I stopped in the shade to suck the water from my
horseskin, I finally looked back. Four, five, six other figures trailed
across the slopes, hooves plugging at the sand where I had already been.

“Where is everyone?” I cried before they could answer, greedily sucking
down another two gulps of water so I wouldn’t have to share, gagging,
belly pinching. Life is hard and hot and the soft are turned to glass.
Eat as much as you can, drink more than you think you can, take what you
want beyond what you need. Live. “Where is everyone?” I asked again
when they were closer.

“They stayed back to pack their things. They’ll come and meet us soon.”

I squinted off into the north and burned my eyes on the Star’s bright
arc. Then back to the south, where the sandstorm swept across the desert
and hid the world, our little cloth-and-stick village with its clay
cups and wrinkle framed smiles, from me. I knew better. I wasn’t a child
anymore, and they wouldn’t be coming: Marta, Braten, Gorta, Shira,
Orla, I’m already forgetting all their names. The sun burns everything
away. I turned the glass ring on my index finger, Mother Marta’s
gift—her last gift. There was a pain in my belly, a fear, pushed down
and covered over.

“Is that how it happens?” I asked.

“Hm?” Bravig took the horseskin from my hand, sucked the last drops from it, then reached for his own.

“You get old, you get slow, you die?” Round and round Mother Marta’s
ring went as the numbness grew, as I piled cold truth upon hot pain.

“It’s more complicated than that,” he said.

“Not really,” Embra answered. “You’ll be the same one day. Bit by bit,
day by day. When the next Star comes, you might run off slower. You’ll
be cautious, you’ll want Bravig there, maybe, he’s a tough bastard. Or
maybe you’ll have some stone carvings you want to keep, or a patch of
sewing you were working on—”

“No,” I said, and wiped the sweat from my face. I climbed back into the
saddle, the horse sweating and half dead half a ride ago. I wanted to
ask Bravig to trade with me, to take his horse. She was lean and fast. I
deserved her, really. I was first among firsts, the strongest. I would
outlive Bravig. But I was young still, small, and Bravig was a tough
bastard, it was true. If I asked him, he would cuff me on the head and I
would have to kill him or be made small, and I didn’t care enough to
kill him. I bit my chapped lip and tasted blood.

“It’s not so bad.” Embra stroked her horse’s mane. She was a woman grown
since two years past, the braids of her blonde hair thick with grit and
spilling out of the white folds of cloth wrapped around her head. “A
year ago, you would have already run. Now you linger with us here. Maybe
next Starfall you’ll have a child. Maybe you’ll get lost in the storm
helping your child get away, but they survive. You die but your children
live. Life goes on.”

“How does that help me? I’ll still be dead.”

“You’ll understand one day.”

But that sounded like another pretty lie. I knew the truth—the real truth.

I prized the glass ring from my finger and gave it to those nameless
dunes, and then I left ahead of them. I chased the Star into the north,
until the earth swallowed the sun and the land turned flat and hard. My
horse died somewhere in that foreign land, under the crescent moon. Her
legs started moving slower at first, twitching. She fought the bit,
pulling. But I pushed and pushed and then she died. Collapsed and nearly
crushed me. And then I went by foot.

Should’ve taken Bravig’s horse.

But I found the Star first, all the same.

She was asleep and beautiful, silver with stripes of red, the shell
hardly damaged, the narrow flanks just sticking out of the crater it had
made in the dunes. At first I thought she survived the crash and I
spent the better part of the night in the dark, fingering every rivet,
every seam of her flank still warm with life, until I felt the cool spot
where the air pushed out from the little hole half buried in the sand,
and I could just glimpse the pale blue light inside, washing over
glistening silver.

I was tired, so I sat down and covered the hole up with my back. I slept.

Embra and Bravig arrived with the sun the next morning, trailed by three others, blistered and slick with sweat.

“Storm almost got you,” I said, picking grit out of my eyes.

“Didn’t, though,” Bravig said. “We need the cutter?”

“I got it,” I said and leaned away enough to show the little gap.
Everyone gathered around, fighting for a look, hunger in their eyes. But
I was the one small enough to squeeze through the hole and I didn’t
give anyone else a chance to try. I made Bravig give me the last of his
water and then I made myself small, small, small as I could and squeezed
through the hole, her cut hide scraping at my arms and shoulders,
fighting me.

I won. I pushed inside, stumbled, the sound of my footfalls ringing
sharp in the cramped space. Inside I basked in the pale blue light, the
cold air, the soft pressure that always seemed to exist inside the heart
of a Star. As if the world were more real there, somehow. Sharper.
Better. I brushed my fingers across silver tables, sucking in a breath
as I felt the gooseflesh rise up my arms.

The Star rattled gently and breathed out in a low, hush whisper, and
cool wind washed over my hands, my arms, bits of exposed flesh where
dried skin flaked and drifted off as I followed the soft pulse of a cold
blue light down the hall. Gleaming silver shelves lined the narrow
path, stacked with crinkling clear packets filled to bursting with
liquid food, crushed and dried and pressed, making my stomach squeeze
with need even as I took down four of them, five of them, six of them,
scrunching them up in the waist of my pants, cold against my skin.

“Is there anything in there?”

“Be quick, don’t breathe too deep!”

“Is it still good?” they called from outside, peeping eyes at the hole in the flank.

Once, a star had come to us full of rot and disease. That had been a bad year.

The voices called after me, ghosts. “Are we going to live?” they might have said.

My lungs pumped faster, gobbling up every breath of thin air. The world
twisted around me, sloping away from my feet, but I kept walking towards
the light as starbursts of light appeared around me: pink and purple
and glowing gold. I followed the one true light, shimmering, rotating.
It hovered above me at the end of the path, a perfect circle enclosed in
its silver cage. No matter what the others said, that was the true

I touched its cage and it shivered, rotating, spinning, reacting. I saw
the world that might have been flash before my eyes, projected for me: a
bauble glimmering in a sea of black, brilliant green and full of life.
We flew above the world, my Star and me, and the world seemed like a
shining dream in the dark with swaths of blue water so big I could drown
in them. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, dry, dry, dry.

Once, when I saw my first Star, I made a drawing in the sand of the
symbols that floated over the world and it said “SET CUOURS: HOME, ENGNE
DMAGED” – shapes that have no meaning to me, that may be keys or a name
or nothing at all, but to me they were a beacon. A reason.

That was where the Stars came from. One day, maybe they would take us back…

Back to water washing cool over everything. Back to forests of trees
still living, to light and softness. I was a bird flying in the clouds,
basking in the water spray, soaring over a sea of rolling green, and I
knew I should leave that place. My heart was pumping faster, faster,
faster, and my skin was tingling, but I screwed my eyes shut, I felt
like maybe that was the Star taking me home, working some magic in me. I
swear, I felt it shiver around me, felt the Star shake. The Star showed
me all of this, and I was a ghost in a far-away world, flying over it
all, drinking from the heart of it, full and fed and happy for the first
time in my—

Hands gripped me. Pulled me. I hit the floor. No, I’d already hit the
floor. I shook and shook and shook but they held me down—good, strong
hands. I bit my tongue and swallowed blood. My last memory.

I woke in the sand, in the dark of night, spitting up gobs of blood.

Embra hovered over me, held me down, kept me whole.

“I’m fine,” I said, my voice dryer than I wanted it, cracked at all the
edges. I pushed, she held. I fought, she held. And when I cried for all I
lost, all she could never know, she held me too, even if she didn’t

“You almost died,” she said. “You can’t stay in the Star that long. The
air is bad. You’re just supposed to grab what you need and—”

“I know.” Images flashed through my mind: linen tents, cloth flapping in
the wind. Old faces lined with sand clogged wrinkles. The men and women
left behind in the storm. Family. Marta. Was I any smarter than them?
Any better? I could have died, I could have… “I know.”

Later, later, in the silence, huddled there together…

“What did you see?” Embra whispered.

That night we made a place together and I told her everything as one by
one the family worked to widen the hole in the Star, to kill her, to
pull the food out. Careful, ever careful, they were, and I watched as
her light went out. I fed Embra my stories and she ate them up. I don’t
think she believed me, not really, my stories of that world were like a
pretty bauble, glinting in the sky, beautiful and impossible. Only I
knew the truth. One day, I would get there, even if I had to pile up all
of the dunes, handful by handful, and climb there myself.

Embra said she would climb there with me—hold my hand, kiss my face,
catch me if I fell. The days turned into weeks as we built our camp of
cloth and sticks around the body of the Star, and at night I told her
stories, and we fell in love—or she fell in love with me and I let her,
because it was easier that way.

But I knew one day the wind would change.

One day the next storm would come, and then the Star, the way it always
did. One day we would run again. And so one night when the sun went to
sleep, I took the knife, the little one I kept close, and I put it in
Embra’s chest while she slept, and I watched the light go out.

I’m not a monster. I cried. I wept and buried my face in the sand. But I
would not let her pull me down, bury me in burning sand and
nothingness. I moved on and the dunes took her, just like they took
everything. Maybe a star would come again and turn the dunes to glass.
Maybe Embra would live forever, encased in perfect prism. I don’t know. I
no longer felt the pain in my belly, no great hollow, nothing.

But the point is, I lived.

One day the stars would tell us to move again, they always did.

I meant to run, free. To never stop, to never die.

Princess of the Dunes.


By Derrick Boden

The light slashes my retinas like razor wire. My body aches from the
narcotic crash. My face is a mess of snot and tears. My breasts itch.
I plead for the carapace to remain closed, though its decaying walls
are little defense against the artificial dawn.

I open my mouth like a greedy chick beneath the dope nozzle. Nothing. I
squeeze the valve. Still nothing. I’m out of drugs, save for those
already ebbing in my bloodstream.

I’ve no choice but to face the day.

My fingers–barely human, they’re so gnarled from hibernation–scratch
at the seam of the carapace. I find the fleshy latch–by chance more
than routine–and the shell groans open with a burst of smog. I shield
my eyes with an atrophied hand and peer into the alien abyss.

My workstation awaits just out of arm’s reach. If only the claw-footed
desk stood a meter closer, I could snatch up the terminal and type from
the comfort of my shell. Of course the thought is futile–already the
carapace has begun to wither, curling back on itself like a time-lapse
carcass. I stagger to my feet and get to work.

My fingers clack-clack against the keys. The monitor fills with letters
in a glacial crush of green. I don’t think about what I’m writing,
because those are my instructions. I’ve learned not to deviate from my

The typing echoes against distant walls. Shadows obscure all but my own
workspace, the overhead light constrained by a narrow cone. In the
darkness other noises persist. Some mechanical, some human. Wheezing,
clicking, coughing. My sisters are waking.

I pay them no heed. Communication is not included in my instructions. Instead I continue typing.

Clack-clack. Clack-clack.

Other noises drift from overhead. A muted hiss. The patter of a hundred alien tentacles against the rock. Our jailers.

I must escape this hell. If only I could think clearly. These drugs are chains on my lucidity. They shackle my resolve.

My gaze lazes across the screen. A flash of recognition catches me
unaware. I try to avert my eyes but they trace paths of their own
volition, across familiar words. California. Discovery. Betrayal.

My written narrative captivates me. I’m falling into a dream, a memory, a confusion of image and sound.

Snow blanketed the California coastline like icing spread on cake with a
child’s heavy hand. The cold air clung to my skin and burned my lungs,
burst through my lips in streams of vapor. Waves crashed against a
shore barren but for my own footprints. The swath of the Milky Way
dominated the night sky. I picked out Jupiter, imagined the neighboring
space-folding anomaly, and the mysteries that awaited.

A cluster of buildings squatted against the wind nearby. Laughter
inside indicated the rest of the team had already begun celebrating. A
smile haunted my face. I was never one for parties.

My wrist buzzed. I flipped open the display and accepted the call. Laquan’s broad grin filled the screen.

“I got your message,” he said, face flushed. “Congratulations, love.
We’re all going crazy about the news, up here in Toronto. I mean, a
real goddamned wormhole!”

“Right in our own backyard.” I couldn’t keep the quaver from my voice. “What are the chances?”

“And there’s already plans for an unmanned probe?” Laquan’s excitement
was as contagious as ever. “This is awesome. I mean, without your
research they might never have found the damn thing. We need to
celebrate. When are you coming home?”

“Hard to say. It’s busy as hell down here. Interviews, briefs, proposals–it’s a bit overwhelming.”

Laquan smiled. “You’ll do great. Miss you.”

“Miss you, too. It’s colder here than in Canada. Crazy weather.”

Footsteps crunched through the snow behind me. Orange and spice teased
my nostrils. Bare skin brushed my hand, raising the hairs on my nape.
Natalia winked at me with her long lashes. My stomach fluttered.

“Everything alright, love?” Laquan said from my wrist.

“Yeah, I…”

Natalia flashed me a coy glance from beneath her hood.

“Laquan, I’d better go. Love you.”

“Hurry home.” The screen went dark.

Natalia hoisted a bottle of champagne, salacious grin tracing her lips.

“Time to celebrate,” she said.

I glanced at the complex. “Not really in the mood for a crowd.”

Her gaze lingered on my lips, sending a thrill up my spine. “Me neither.”

Traces of silk and lace protruded from beneath her jacket. She wrapped her arm around mine and led me toward the coast.

A swell of fog rose up from the horizon and overtook the water, then the
land. The air thickened. The collapsing dream gave way to a flash of
lucidity–green letters across a flickering screen. Falling again.

I wake in a delirium of sweat and vomit. My nerves are frayed; I’ve
received another electric shock. The last sinews of the dream cling to
my periphery. Familiar faces slip from my mind like mud through a

I stagger to my feet. My fingertips find the keyboard.

Clack, clack. Clack, clack.

I make sure not to look at the screen.

The dope nozzle dispenses two types of drug. One tastes like bitter
melon, the other is viscous and salty. One numbs my mind for the day’s
work, the other induces sleep. I prefer the sleep, though I’ve begun to
fear that as well. Someday my work–whatever it is–will be complete.
I’ll taste the third drug, and I won’t wake again.

I fear that our men are dead. I haven’t seen them since the eve of our
imprisonment, nor heard their voices in the dark. Sometimes as the
artificial sunlight fades to shadow, my fingers groping for my carapace,
I think of Laquan. I imagine the pod is his body, warm and strong
around my own. I scrape at memories of his calloused hands as I draw
the membrane around myself. I suck on the dope nozzle and taste his

My finger punches the “L” key but it doesn’t spring back. Instead it
lays depressed, a tiny cavern swallowed by shadow. I stare dumbly,
uncertain how to proceed. L-words drift through my mind on a tide of

Lascivious. Liberation. Lies. Loneliness.

I glance down at myself, something I don’t remember doing in a long
time. My arms hang limp at my sides, bones protruding against brown,
flaky skin. My breasts sag, my hips jut, my knees knock. My toenails
are yellowed and cracked. How long have I been here, in the gut of this
alien planet?

I haven’t eaten in months, not consciously. The dope nozzle must
dispense calories and hydration along with the drugs, or I wouldn’t be
alive. How have they learned what our bodies need for sustenance? How
many of us died before they got it right? How long will they keep us
here, sleeping and typing and sucking down their drugs?

The broken key gapes at me like an eye socket.


In these stolen moments of inaction, I begin to formulate a plan.

Laquan was stunned. His smile stuck to his face, but was drained of
intent. I tapped the screen, afraid the video feed had frozen.

“That’s…” He trailed off. “How long will you be gone?”

I started to blurt out something noncommittal, a half-truth. The words
caught in my throat. At some point it had become rote, deferring to
lies. I’d encircled myself with them like a protective carapace.

“I don’t know,” I said. “There’s some risk of time dilation.”

Laquan’s face snapped out of stasis, suddenly hyper-animated. “This
sounds so dangerous! What about the unmanned probe? Why aren’t they
sending the military, or experienced astronauts?”

I inhaled slowly, trying to slow my pulse. “The probe was a success.
It’s safe on the other side. But the ultimate goal was always human

Laquan stared unblinking.

“The crew is mostly astronauts,” I said. “Only a few scientists are going. We have the most experience with the anomaly.”

Laquan’s expression clouded. “A few scientists?”

I pursed my lips, unsure how to respond.

“Natalia’s going,” he said. It wasn’t a question. “Who else?”

I glanced away. “That’s it.”

“A few is three or more. Two is a couple.”

The last word hung in the air like a fog. Laquan was too gentle to
accuse me directly. This was as clear a verdict as I would get. The
rest was up to me. It had been eighteen months, an embarrassment of
time. I tried to tell him in California, the morning after the
discovery. I tried to tell him in Toronto so many times. Now I found
myself cramped inside the comms room of an observatory in the Chilean
Andes, about to embark on a mission from which I may never return. If
there was ever a time for the truth, it was now.

Natalia was still asleep downstairs. I knew what she’d worn to bed, the
subtle hints of her orange and clove perfume, the exact distribution of
birthmark constellations on her back. I knew what she’d say when I
crawled back under the covers (“Buenos días, mi corazón”), the way she
bit her lip while she was running calculations, how she held her breath
against a cold wind. I knew her indulgences (dulce de leche) and her
fears (the dark).

But I couldn’t tell my husband a word of it. I was weak. I didn’t want
to see the pain on his face and know that I had caused it. I could
already feel myself retreating into my protective shell.

“I’ll be back soon,” I lied.

By morning the “L” key has been replaced.

I stop taking my drugs. I admit, it isn’t much of a plan.

Daybreak. A brood of scarabs crawls beneath my skin. The dope nozzle
drips tantalizingly close. I grit my teeth, shrug off my carapace and
get to work.

Clack-clack. Clack-clack.

By the time the artificial sunlight begins to fade, my body is in
complete revolt. Spasms wrack my muscles, jarring my joints and popping
my spine. Tears streak my face; when they reach my lips I taste blood.
My skull amplifies the sound of my chattering teeth. Are these
withdrawals an unintended side effect, or a calculated inclusion?

It makes no difference. Though I’m able to avoid the dope nozzle that
evening, I wake with its nipple clamped firmly in my mouth. Salty drug
residue cakes my teeth. My body trembles as I ride a wave of euphoria.
I spit curses at my treacherous body.

If I am to overcome this addiction, I must find a way to combat my own subconscious.

The next day I begin to gnaw at the inside of my cheek. My body is
weak, but my teeth are sharp enough to cut the flesh. I taste iron. I
keep gnawing. Tears well in my eyes. After enough damage is done, I
switch to the other side. Soon my jaw opens reflexively to allow my
wounds the relief of cool air. I force my mouth shut and chew harder.

I wake with a start. My lips have once again sought out the dope
nozzle, but this time the salt against my wounds has startled me awake.
Slowly, carefully, I squeeze the nipple. I let the liquid seep through
my lips and down my chin. It pools against my body, powerless. I
smile at it, cackle in the darkness of my carapace. The sound frightens
me. A wave of nausea overtakes me. I retch until morning.

The withdrawals subside on the second day, replaced with a fiendish
thirst and hunger. My bowels groan as I stand at my workstation. I
focus on my discomfort as my fingers hammer the keys.

Clack-clack. Clack-clack.

I mustn’t betray my intentions. My cheeks haven’t healed, and I fear
the left side has become infected. The skin is welted and tastes sour.

But I’m sober. Already my mind has begun to recover. I remember more.
Earth. Laquan. The expedition. Natalia. An alien planet darkened by
eclipse. The Rapani. First contact, the eggs, the cover-up, the–

I must escape this place.

I cower inside my carapace for half the night, until the scraping and
coughing of my crew mates fades to reluctant silence and all I can hear
are the growls of my stomach. Avoiding the latch in fear of triggering
an alarm, I dig my nails into the walls of the pod and drag away chunks
of organic matter. I wipe my hands on my body and scratch again. Then
again. The carapace is still alive, and the flesh throbs in my grip.

The wall grows thin and slick like an open wound. Soon my fingers
breach the tissue and wiggle into the open air. I jam my hands into the
gash and tear the hole wider. A gentle breeze teases my face through
the fissure. I squeeze my head through, then my body. Caked in mucus
like a newborn bird, I flop onto the cold stone floor.

The carapace offered surprisingly little resistance. It was more nest
than prison. I fear what this portends: now that I’m free, perhaps
there is nowhere to run. I unfurl my limbs and stretch until my muscles
tremble. I drag myself standing.

The darkness is absolute. Panic flushes my skin. My pulse hammers in
my ears. I have little hope of finding my own workstation, let alone an
exit. This was a foolish plan. Only the dope nozzle will cure this
nightmare. I step back, my fingers groping for the comfort of my

A pinpoint of light draws my attention. Then another. My eyes adjust,
draw substance from the void. The outline of my workstation, mechanical
and rustic. Rows of hunched shapes like tortoises on display: the
other carapaces. Beyond, a trail of blue pinpricks illuminates a

I raise my leg, wobble, step forward. My muscles are weak from atrophy
and malnutrition. I step again, stagger, regain my balance. By the
third step my equilibrium has returned. I pick my way between rows of
carapaces, each housing another crew member curled in drug-induced
hibernation. I can’t risk waking them. Not yet.

Instead I skulk down the tunnel and around the corner.

The passage extends for an eternity. Smooth stone cools my feet, sends
chills up my naked body. The air grows warm, with traces of sulfur.
Distant noises join my own rasping breath. A wet slurp, like suctions
against flesh. A sickening groan. The patter and hiss of a horde of

I drag my fingers along the wall to keep myself oriented.

Soon the tunnel slopes downward and splits. The left passage terminates
at a fleshy surface. Pink folds pulse in the ambient light. I plant
my palms against the center and lean in. The surface relents, slurps
open like a diaphragm and engulfs me. I struggle against wet
musculature. With a second churn, the diaphragm spits me out the other

The chamber is cavernous in width, though no more than five meters tall.
Streaks of light emanate from hidden outlets, spilling burnt orange
and deep violet hues. Creatures writhe in the shadows against the far
wall. The stench of sulfur and rot is overpowering. I begin to discern
shapes. Thick tails, porous and oozing. Glistening eyespots. An
amalgamation of limbs, some twice as fat as a human and others half the
width of a finger. I can’t distinguish heads from bodies, nor where one
creature ends and the next begins. I catch a glimpse of pink flesh
around gaping maws, triggering a memory. These are the male Rapani.
Chains bind the creatures to the wall.

I hug myself and shiver. Before things went sour, the Rapani inquired
about our men. Why do they roam free? Communicate? Command, even? At
the time Natalia nudged me and whispered: “Damn good question.” Soon
the Rapani explained the source of their consternation. Their males
serve reproductive purposes alone, kept sedated and imprisoned to
control their violent urges. Left unfettered, the males would eat their
young, war tirelessly, stifle innovation.

When the Rapani came for us, they claimed our men first.

A fat pipe runs the length of the room, splits into tributaries near the
chained males. Oversized dope nozzles hang above their salivating
mouths, oozing a purple colloid. The third drug. The one they fed to
Kaori on the first day of our imprisonment, seeking answers. It did not
have the desired effect. She screamed for only a moment before blood
wormed from the ears of her rigid body.

I follow the left wall, walking parallel to the pipe. Soon the pipe
plunges through a rough-hewn hole into an adjacent chamber. Steam
hisses through the gaps. I squeeze into the largest fissure, trying to
avoid contact with the pipe. My leg brushes it and the flesh sears. I
wince and pull myself the rest of the way through.

Rows of canisters line the walls of this small chamber, housing an array
of multicolored liquids. The pipe from the male Rapani chamber
narrows, linked by a tube to one of the canisters. A separate pair of
tubes join into a second pipe that disappears through a hole in the
opposite wall. One transports a slosh of thick, white stuff. The other
runs dilute yellow. Drugs for the humans. One to numb the mind, one
to induce sleep.

The Rapani seek truth. Humans specialize in deception. If only McFadden had left the damned stones alone.

Our lander scratched down near a vast pool of methane. Not fifteen
minutes after our ramps hissed open, McFadden was already ogling over
those godforsaken stones while the others plucked at geological
striations and scooped soil samples. Natalia warned him to leave the
stones. Just because we hadn’t found signs of life didn’t mean the
planet was barren. By the time McFadden came running down the hall
covered in phlegm, laughing about how the stones were really eggs–and
how one had just hatched and died in his cabin–it was too late. The
Rapani made contact later that day, and our lies began. Better to study
the onboard specimens in secret than to admit we’d stolen their

The Rapani do not take kindly to deceit.

I follow the human drug pipe, pull myself through the gap in the next
wall. The pipe descends flush into the ground nearby. A few meters
into this next chamber, a naked woman stands beneath a cone of
artificial sunlight. Her fingers hammer at a keyboard.

Clack-clack. Clack-clack.

The remains of a carapace lay wilted nearby. Darkness shrouds the far half of the chamber.

I approach. The woman stands naked, hunched, emaciated, caked with dry
skin and residue from her carapace. She doesn’t acknowledge the sound
of my footsteps. I put a hand on her shoulder. She flinches, and so do
I. Her skin is warmer and grittier than I expect. She looks at me
with vacant eyes. I remember her. Yami–no, Yali. An engineer that
cursed like a sailor and bragged endlessly about her valedictorian
daughter. Shadows carve gouges in her sunken cheeks.

“Hello.” The word croaks from my lips.

Her eyes widen an increment. She shakes her head and points toward the back of the room.

“You…can’t be here.”

I glance over her shoulder. Green letters cram the terminal screen.
It’s a jumbled chain of thought out of a child’s nightmare.

Movement catches my eye at the back of the room. Shapes take form in
the shadows. Teddy bears twice as tall as a human, stuffing ripped
through busted seams and dangling like entrails. Humanoids dragging
misshapen limbs, tentacles writhing from their eye sockets and mouths.
They move slowly as if migrating a great distance. As they do, their
limbs erode and detach from their bodies, leaving fleshy stumps. Only
slight flickers betray them as digital projections.

I force my gaze away–to the terminal, then to Yali.

“You’re typing dreams,” I say.

Her teeth chatter through a narcotic wave. “Remembering.”

The woman’s eyes are a dull brown, devoid of life. Just like Natalia’s,
as I held her broken body in my arms beside the methane lake, my hands
slick with her blood. Why did she lie to them about the anomaly, about
Earth’s location and our unmanned probe? Why did we all so quickly
defer to deception? Was it fear? Or some strange human instinct?

My cheeks are damp with tears. Yali has returned to typing.
Clack-clack. Clack-clack. Decrepit corpse-men drag their remaining
limbs through the shadows.

The Rapani seek truth. Humans specialize in deception. Instead of
risking further lies, they’re extracting truth from our subconscious,
our dreams. But why?

A cable extends from the terminal along the wall. I follow it to
another flesh portal. This time I push harder, squeeze through the
diaphragm in a single movement. The chamber on the other side is
circular with a vaulted ceiling. Piles of gear–our gear, from the
lander–lay at the back, organized by shape. Comms packs and med kits
and spring cots lie in a heap. Rations and waste bags amass in another.
Clothing and bed sheets tangle in a third.

Wires spiderweb the floor from holes bored into the walls, converging at
a central console. An array of optical projections bursts from the
console’s flat top. The Milky Way dominates the lower region. Boxes
highlight three distinct sections of the galaxy, bordered by rows of
obscure characters. A frantic cycle of images flashes above the Milky
Way: a field of golden poppies, a snow-caked coastline, a snarl of
rush-hour traffic, a mountaintop observatory with a backdrop of stars.
Lording over the confusion is an achingly familiar sphere of white and
blue and green.

A chill wracks my body. The Rapani are trying to find Earth. They
don’t know about the anomaly yet. They’re using our dreams to
triangulate Earth’s location. When they find it–

I can’t let them succeed. My body lurches toward the inventory. I root
through piles of gear. Buckles lacerate my hands. My bloody fingers
close around a comms pack that still registers a charge. I fire it up
and signal the lander.

No response.

Overhead, a cacophony of hissing. Flesh slides against rock from a
nearby chamber. The comms pack triggered an alarm. The Rapani women
are coming.

I try the main ship. No response. The Rapani must have brought it out
of orbit to dissect for clues. The onboard network is encrypted, but
it’s only a matter of time before they stumble across the auth codes in
one of our dreams. With both the lander and the main ship under Rapani
control, all hope of escape is lost. This cave will become our tomb.

The projection of Earth swirls overhead, so perfect with all its flaws.
I curl my body into a ball, crushed with homesickness and the weight of
our mistakes–

I shake myself alert. I can still warn the others. The unmanned probe
is programmed to hold steady near the anomaly, maintain radio silence
and await orders. The Rapani might not know of its existence, yet.
Natalia’s lies may have saved humanity.

My fingers work the controls as I find the correct channel. I fire a ping.

Muffled groans emanate through the walls. Scuttling chaos resonates from above. The scent of sulfur pervades the room.

The probe pings a response, acknowledging my credentials. The screen flashes, awaiting orders.

My fingers tremble across the blood-smeared interface. I tap out a message.

“Alien life discovered through the anomaly. We have breached their
social protocols and acquired a dangerous enemy. Do not attempt further
contact or rescue.” I hesitate, my vision obscured by tears. “Tell
Laquan I’m sorry.”

I transmit the message along with orders for the probe to return through the anomaly.

The surrounding chambers reverberate with a torrent of moans.

I squeeze back through the portal. Yali lies shrouded within a fresh
carapace, her daily shift complete. I don’t have much time before the
others awaken. I slip through the fissure in the wall and into the
chemical routing room. A flurry of movement emanates from the male
Rapani chamber. The stench of rot is overpowering.

I work the chemical controls with steady hands, closing valves and
swapping tubes. I reroute the third drug from the male Rapani pipe into
the human one, then crank the valve to full bore. The poison floods
the system.

Human wails echo in the distance, tapering to silence. The sound wracks
me with guilt; they’ll never know the sacrifice they’ve made to save

Rapani tentacles press through cracks in the walls, writhing toward me with renewed fury. By now they must know what I’ve done.

I unhitch the tube and press the nozzle to my mouth. I try to imagine
Laquan’s lips, moving against my own, murmuring forgiveness. But the
nozzle is cold and bitter, and brings a different kind of mercy.

The Train Set

By Andy Tu

He came back on the one-year anniversary of his death. Robert opened the
door to his son’s untouched bedroom, preserved down to the glass of
water on the corner of the nightstand, now only a film of liquid at the
bottom, and there was Samuel, hunched over at the desk, his hands
fiddling with the tracks of the unfinished train set, the train set that
Robert had begun assembling just yesterday under the lamp’s dim beam
that cut through specks of dust flaking down.

At first, Robert didn’t even start; that subconscious part of him that
still reached for two dinner plates instead of one welcomed Samuel back
into his life against logic. And how many times had Robert opened the
door hoping that his son would be there, that the past year had been a
stretched-out nightmare? Robert didn’t follow a specific creed, but
believed that death was the separation of the soul from the body, which
he’d read somewhere in his college days and had wrapped his fingers
around the day Samuel came into life and Maribelle passed away just
moments after. Still, for a reason Robert couldn’t explain, seeing the
back of his dead son’s head didn’t shock him as much as it should have,
sending only a current of apprehension through him. He was probably just
dreaming, but if this were a dream, he didn’t want to wake up.


Robert almost didn’t want his son to turn around. Samuel’s death had not
been pretty. Not at all, and Robert had felt Samuel’s cracked limbs and
bones shifting beneath his flesh like a bag of rocks when he’d picked
Samuel up from the street after the accident. They’d been on their way
back from the toy store, that large train set box on Samuel’s lap, when
the truck in the next lane began skidding in the rain.

Samuel turned around, a blank, calm look on his face like it was just
another night. The moonlight through the window bounced off his round
cheeks. His skin was white and without the vein-like scars that the
mortician had done well to hide.

“Hey, Dad. Why did you start without me?”

“What… what do you mean?” Robert held the doorframe; his knees wobbled
like Jenga towers barely balanced, a single beam pulled out and he’d
collapse into pieces.

“We were supposed to make the train station together,” said his son in his sweet, six-year-old voice.

Cold tingles crawled up Robert’s arms. He blinked his eyes hard several
times, then took a hesitant step inside, feeling as if the shift of his
weight might make his son dissolve into the lamplight as quickly as he’d
gone a year ago.


Robert had no more words. He took another step in. He was less than a
few feet away from his son now. Did he dare approach him, this … what
was it—this ghost? Squinting his eyes, Robert tried to see if it was an
apparition. But Samuel was fully there.

“Look,” Samuel said. He turned back around, his arms and hands moving. “I’m adding a track.”

Robert’s teeth were clicking nervously. If this were the ghost of his
son, then at least he had a chance to talk to him again. If this were a
dream, then he’d let himself indulge in it—see what his subconscious had
to say about his son’s memory. Or what if—Robert himself had died in
the accident as well, and hadn’t moved on yet? He took a deep breath and
took a few more steps forward until he was standing over his son’s
shoulder. He gulped, running his fingers over his pants and fidgeting
with the pockets.

On the desk, train tracks were spread out like puzzle pieces. The trains
were lined up along the edge where Robert had left them, patiently
waiting for the tracks to finish looping in concentric circles and
across platforms so they could get started on their journey—journeys
that would represent what Robert had promised Samuel years ago when
they’d seen The Polar Express in theaters: that they’d one day trek
across the country on a train in the winter, sipping hot cocoa as they
pierced through the ballets of snowstorms.

Directly in front of Samuel lay all that Robert had managed—a row of
four straight tracks pieced together—before breaking down, his tears
falling onto the tracks like rain drops. Samuel was pushing another
track into the end, but he was doing it wrong. You couldn’t just push
them together; you had to set their links on top of one another, then
pull to lock them. It was simple enough, yet Robert’s hands had shook
the day before as he’d snapped them together.

“Samuel…” Robert said. “You—you can’t do it like that.” He reached over
and guided the fifth track over the fourth, then pressed it in and
pulled, locking them. His finger brushed against Samuel’s hand as he did
this. Samuel really was there.

“See, like that,” Robert said.

Samuel glanced up at his dad, then back down. His eyes were the same, too. Dark forest green. “Thanks, Dad.”

“Right…” Robert said. “It’s… no problem.” He cleared his throat. “I’m…
going to go make dinner now. I’ll tell you when it’s ready.”

“Okay, Dad.”

As soon as Robert was downstairs, he called the investment banking firm
he worked at to test reality. The receptionist’s familiar voice

“Hello?” she said.

“Hi Marie… this is Robert.”

“Oh. Hi Robert. How are things going?”

“Good. Good… I just wanted to see if any messages came in for me.”

“Oh, Robert, you’re such a responsible guy. But no, no messages for you.”

“Okay… thanks. Yeah, I just wanted to check.”

Marie laughed politely. Another telephone rang in the background. “No
problem. Hey Robert, I got to go. You know how it gets around here.
Already seven and everyone’s still working. But do me a favor, yeah?”

Robert waited a moment, then said, “What’s that?”

“Don’t call back today. It’s a… special day for you. And I know it’s not
my business, but I think it’d be good to invest all of your energy on…
what’s at hand.”

Robert didn’t respond.

“Okay, then!” she said in a cheery voice. “I’ll see you tomorrow!”

She hung up.

Indeed, it was supposed to be a… special day. Robert had been mourning
the past year over Samuel and had only returned to work six months ago.
Everyone at the company understood. His boss insisted on paying Robert
on leave, and even including him in on the shared end-of-the-year bonus.
The consolatory cards were mailed, emailed, and hand-delivered by
friends, families, and half-familiar faces at the supermarket. It’s not
fair, many of them had said. There’s a reason for everything, a few
whispered. He’s with the Lord now, his neighbor had offered near the end
of his prayer for Robert.

It’d been one year to the day, and today Robert was going to select a
single item from Samuel’s room and store it in the attic. His family
members all thought it was a good idea—there’d been flickers of concern
in their eyes when they came to visit. What item would he have picked?
He wondered as he shook the eggs on the pan over the stove. Maybe that
glass of water on the nightstand—the thing that made his parents’ eyes
rove in wariness when they saw it still there. Or the blue t-rex
stuffed-animal—Dino—that was as large as Samuel, that Samuel kept at the
foot of his bed to guard against evil things. It was while Robert was
in Samuel’s room, trying to decide on an object, that his toe had nudged
the train set box near the closet.

Footsteps came down the stairs. Robert’s nerves had calmed at the
thought of the past, at the hugs and tears that’d been offered, but now
his heart was punching again as he heard his son’s footsteps toward the
kitchen table.

Robert turned around and Samuel was sitting on a chair. His legs looked longer now, dangling closer to the floor.

“Are those eggs?” asked Samuel, swinging his feet.

Robert looked back at the pan. He hadn’t shaken the eggs for a while.
The edges of white had curled in, and the yolk popped softly like bubble
gum, collapsing within itself.

“Yes… they are.”

“How come we’re having eggs for dinner?” asked Samuel. “I thought eggs were a breakfast food.”

“They… are.” Robert had Samuel and him eat eggs every morning, never at
night. But since Samuel had passed, Robert had gotten into the habit of
cooking them at dinner instead, skipping breakfast. He hadn’t noticed
this until now. “Eggs are fine for dinner, as well, Samuel.” It was
starting to feel like any other conversation with his son.

“They smell good,” said Samuel.

Robert took a long whiff. They smelled terrible, like sulfur. A smile
came to his lips. It was such a foreign feeling, a smile coming on its
own and not being forced for onlookers.

He poured the eggs into a bowl and brought it over to the table along
with a spoon and some bread. Then he went back to the drawers and
brought over a second bowl and spoon. How ironic was it that he’d
normally set the table for two, but that tonight he hadn’t? He shrugged
to himself. Then he watched Samuel scoop pieces of egg into his mouth,
chewing the bread casually. Robert watched Samuel eat, the food
disappear from the plate. When the bowl was empty, Samuel said, “Thank
you for dinner, Dad,” which surprised Robert because even though Samuel
was a good kid, he didn’t normally thank him for dinner. Then Samuel
headed back upstairs, and Robert washed the dishes slowly, feeling like
he could wake up at any moment.

Robert didn’t sleep that night, just kept getting up from his bed and
checking through the crack of Samuel’s door (Samuel didn’t like the door
fully closed, in case there was someone bad in the room that’d gotten
past Dino, he could run away quickly) that a body was still on the bed,
breathing beneath the blanket. Then he’d return to his room and lie
stiffly on his bed.

“This… is a dream,” he whispered to himself. “This is a dream…” But he
didn’t want it to be. He just said that to reassure himself of
something—that he wasn’t crazy? Or that ghosts weren’t real, even though
he’d so desperately believed in the soul’s passing from this world into
the next when he’d needed.

When the dawn light came and his window was a dark-blue pane, his mind
finally wandered off, and he dreamt that it was a far-off future, and he
was riding on an empty train through some backcountry in Europe,
rolling past grey junkyards as violet-tipped snowflakes began to drizzle
down from the sky. The seat to his left, by the window, was empty, and
Robert knew that that’s where Samuel was supposed to be, maybe standing
on the seat, hands on the sill, staring out into the world and hours
passing them by. When Robert saw an orange glow rushing through the
cracks of the compartment door, he woke up, and smelled something

His eyes twitched slowly open, and then shot wide. Something was burning. Actually burning.

He rushed to Samuel’s room and threw the door open. Samuel wasn’t there.

“Samuel?” Robert yelled, rushing down the stairs. He nearly tripped but caught himself with the rail.

Samuel was sitting in a chair at the table, facing the staircase with an
idle look. A bag of popcorn trembled on a pan over the stove, leaking
smoke and about to burst like an over-inflating balloon.

“Samuel, what are you doing?” Robert said, doing his best to keep his words calm. He ran over and turned off the flame.

Samuel glanced at his father, then looked away. “I just wanted some popcorn.”

Robert opened the window above the sink. Cold air drifted in, dispelling
the chords of smoke. “Yes, I see that, Samuel, but… you know better
than to make it yourself. You are to ask me. You know you’re too young
to use the stove.”

“But I tried to wake you up, and you wouldn’t,” Samuel said.

“What? When?”

“Just some minutes ago. I was in your room asking you to get up and make me some popcorn, because I was hungry.”

Robert couldn’t remember a single time when Samuel had tried to wake him up in the night, or attempted to use the stove.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” Samuel said.

Robert sighed. “It’s okay, Samuel. Just promise me you won’t use the stove again by yourself, okay?”

“Okay,” Samuel said. Then he got up and skipped back upstairs.

“I thought you were hungry,” Robert said.

“I’m not anymore,” his son said, and his bedroom door shut closed.

The next day, the first thing Robert did when he woke up was check to
see that Samuel was in his bed sleeping. He was. Then Robert showered,
got dressed, and cooked a large batch of oatmeal, making sure there was
plenty left over that he could leave out for Samuel. He considered
gently waking his son up to say good morning and tell him he’d be off to
work, but that seemed unnecessary. Besides, what if Samuel asked about
school? What would he say then? Robert had the feeling that his son
didn’t understand he was dead, that his soul had drifted back into this
world away from his mother because he missed his dad too much, missed
this life that should’ve been his. And so, feeling that if he paid too
much attention to Samuel, that his son might become startled and return
to where he’d come, Robert went to work, and acted as if everything were

Marie gave him a half smile filled with sympathy as he walked into the office.

“Did you have a good day off?” she asked.

Robert nodded cautiously, then tried his best to smile back. It didn’t
matter what look he had on his face, though, the look like he’d seen a
ghost, because Marie interpreted it how she wanted. Everyone did that.

“You look well, Robert,” she said, as if he hadn’t the previous six months.

“Thanks,” he said.

He began walking away but she told Robert to wait.

“I actually lied to you yesterday,” she said, smiling. “Sorry, but several messages came in.”

When he didn’t smile back this time, she sat up in her chair. “I just
didn’t want you to have any distractions, was all. I hope you

He shrugged, his eyelids blinking rapidly like the shutters of a video
camera. “It’s not a problem,” he said, clearing his throat.

It was a normal day at work, except that one of the messages was no
message at all. Instead, it was a complete bout of near-silent, static
hissing, like a radio that had lost connection. He played it again and
turned up the volume, hearing what he made out to be the faint drizzle
of rain.

After work, he went to the supermarket and filled his cart with
sugar-coated cereal, juice boxes, and boxes of frozen pizzas. Heating up
a frozen meal in a microwave was safe enough, wasn’t it? But if Samuel
really was back, Robert wanted to keep his son as healthy as possible,
so he bought a variety of fruits, too.

At home, Robert unloaded the grocery bags, then went upstairs. The door
to Samuel’s room was nearly closed, and it looked dark in there. Robert
peeked through the crack and sighed with relief when he saw Samuel
sitting at the desk, hunched over with his arms working on the train
set, the only light being that from the desk lamp. Robert nudged the
door open.

“You’re making some good progress there, Samuel,” Robert said, walking toward his son.

“How do you know?” said his son, not turning around. “You haven’t seen what I’ve done today.”

Robert froze. Samuel had said that innocently enough, but it was still
unlike him. Maybe Robert had to get used to the fact that Samuel was
changing, growing up still, that Samuel was not going to be that naïve,
dependent little boy he was when he’d died.

“Right,” Robert said, arriving at Samuel’s side.

The train set was halfway finished, the right side looping up in a
spiral, three platforms high, supported by pillars. It didn’t look easy;
even Robert would’ve had to read the manual carefully to set it up. Yet
Samuel had done it all on his own.

“I had a dream about mom yesterday,” Samuel said. “She wanted me to tell you something.”

Robert felt his heart pound. “Oh… and what was that…?”

“She said that it was all worth it.”

“What… what do you mean?”

Samuel shrugged. “I don’t know, that’s all she said. And then she disappeared.”

It was all worth it. What was worth it? Bringing Samuel into this world,
even as an exchange for her own life? His time with Samuel, raising him
with hopes of one day having a son as a best friend, the two of them
venturing across a continent on a train? What were these worth if the
dreams had been wrenched away by death?

Samuel’s stomach growled, shaking Robert out of his thoughts.

“Are you hungry, Samuel?” Robert asked.

Samuel stopped working on the tracks and folded his fingers across an
empty space on the desk. “Yes,” he said. “I didn’t eat anything today
because I didn’t want to make anything on fire again.”

“You didn’t make anything on fire yesterday,” Robert said. “Although you
might have… But why didn’t you eat the food on the table?”

Come to think of it, the leftover oatmeal hadn’t been there when he’d
returned, nor was there an empty bowl in the sink. Samuel shrugged, his
eyes wandering around the tracks that had yet to be connected.

“Did you see the food I left you?” Robert said.

“I threw it away.”

“What?” Heat flushed to Robert’s face. He wasn’t sure if he was upset,
shocked, or just confused. It was probably some of each. “Samuel, why
would you do that?”

“I wasn’t hungry in the morning,” Samuel said. His hands resumed working
on the tracks, taking a stray one and trying to push it into those
already connected.

“Samuel,” Robert said in a more serious tone than he wanted. “That doesn’t mean you should throw the food away.”

“But there were flies, Dad, and they were eating the food. And you said that flies eating our food are bad, remember?”

Robert didn’t remember ever saying that, but maybe he’d forgotten. Then
again, Robert seemed to remember every other conversation he’d had with
his son—looking both sides before crossing the street, not trusting
strangers, buckling up. Buckling up… Robert never drove unless Samuel
had his seatbelt locked in, but Samuel had gotten into a habit of
tucking the shoulder strap behind him, saying that it was more
comfortable that way. Robert had admonished Samuel several times, but
the morning, of Samuel’s sixth birthday…

“You said that flies have bad germs on them,” Samuel said. “And that
when they touch the food, the germs go from their feet onto the food.”

“Right, right…” Robert said, wiping off the tears that had formed in his eyes.

Samuel was trying to force the track piece in, like he had yesterday before Robert had showed him how to do it correctly.

“Samuel… Remember what I taught you yesterday?”

His son didn’t respond.

“Samuel…” Robert said.

Still, no response.

“Sam… Samuel!” he yelled. It was the same voice he’d used as he’d ran across the highway to Samuel.

Samuel turned his head up and looked at his father, and Robert flinched. In his son’s green eyes flickered an unearthly glow.

“Sorry, Dad,” Samuel said. “I forgot.”

Samuel turned back around and did it correctly, lifting the track pieces
on top of another, pressing their latches in, pulling to lock them.
“Like this, right?”

“Right,” Robert said. “Good job… Samuel…”

Robert hadn’t said another word to his son, instead backing out of the
room and going downstairs to start dinner. He’d felt such joy when he’d
seen Samuel back, but now he was becoming apprehensive. Maybe it just
took time to readjust, Robert assured himself. Just like when Samuel had

As he waited for the water to boil, he glanced into the trash can,
feeling strangely alarmed, for whatever reason, that perhaps Samuel had
lied to him about throwing away the food. It wasn’t there, just a tied
plastic bag containing the shards of a bowl he’d dropped some time ago.
Where was the oatmeal? Searching around downstairs, on the chairs,
tables, and sofas, a nauseating feeling crept up in his stomach.

The last place he checked was where he found it—in the refrigerator. But
why would Samuel tell him he’d thrown it away if he’d simply placed it
into the fridge? He would’ve said it proudly, like the time he picked up
a woman’s money bag that had fallen out of her purse, and handed it to
her. Robert wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

To settle his nerves, Robert cooked a carefully-prepared pork soup,
painstakingly dicing the onions, garlic, and carrots into thin slices so
that their flavors would infuse into the soup better, and another hour
to let it slowly simmer. This was Samuel’s favorite meal, and maybe it
would help settle Samuel back into his home, into his old self. When he
was finished, he called for Samuel to come down, but Samuel said he
wasn’t hungry anymore.

“Are you sure?” Robert asked at the bottom of the stairs.

“Yeah, Dad!” Samuel said.

After a pause, Robert said, “It’s your favorite soup, though!” Part of
Robert just wanted to see the food go into Samuel again. And maybe he
could bring up the leftover oatmeal in the fridge. It was probably just a
misunderstanding. Samuel didn’t respond.

Samuel had looked so focused up there in his room on that train set.
There wasn’t so much joy in his son’s face as there was determination,
and perhaps even discomfort at trying to piece it all together. Robert
realized that, ironically, they hadn’t spent a single moment actually
putting the tracks together as planned: Robert had started it, and now
Samuel was nearly finished. Robert started up the stairs, determined to
finally spend some time with his returned son. Unafraid. He would not
let his memories and fear take another moment away.

He tripped halfway up the stairs and barely ught himself. When he was in
front of Samuel’s door, he found it locked. As he jimmied with the
knob, he could already sense what had happened. He pounded on the door
with his fist.

“Samuel?” he yelled. “Samuel! Open the door!”

He pressed his ear against the door and listened. He could hear
something, something scratching, or ticking. No, it was a hiss. Like
rain. Or static. Like the snow of a disconnected channel.


He kicked the door and it burst open, the door kicking back against the wall and knocking into him as he stumbled inside.


Samuel was not in there. A breeze blew in through the window, lifting
the black curtains, which undulated like fingers, curling in and out.
Robert walked over to the desk. The train set was complete, the left
side looping up in a spiral, connected to the station by a bridge. Four
trains stood connected on the tracks. Robert pressed the button on the
front train. They came to life, and began their journeys.

Lies About Your Better Self

By George Lockett

I watched Amanda eat. Some celebrity chef had launched a high-end
restaurant by her office, so she and some ad agency colleagues had gone
to check out the opening.

Her food was amazing. She had this tic where she clenched the muscles up
where her jaw met her ears. She only did that when she was eating
something really good, like she was fighting to keep the flavor in her

I clicked my trackball, pausing the footage and freezing Amanda with a
perfectly-balanced forkful of something green and frondy halfway to her
mouth, already composing the caption in my head. People came to this job
thinking they’d get a deeper appreciation of life, vicariously
experiencing what they’d never have. They learned fast.

I strobed through Amanda’s afternoon. She had a campaign photoshoot, her
first time at the helm of a major project. I swiped off stills and
marked out clips of Amanda directing the models. She kept tucking her
hair behind her ears — she did that when hiding nerves — but she
looked authoritative, a natural. People would eat this up.
Behind-the-scenes posts from Amanda’s job always got strong Attention
Capture, especially when models were involved.

I grabbed my picks and assembled a photo collage, a few video montages
for the weekly “Look Back”, and some hashtagged text-under-photo posts,
then dropped them into the queue for publishing. Some clients insisted
on approving everything we posted to their social feeds, but Amanda
trusted us.

I was closing up when a fresh dataload hit my inbox. Every dataload was a
melange of the unstructured digital detritus we crap out every day.
Social posts, location data, streaming tracks, cat videos; everything we
cram into our faces to make our existence a little more bearable. The
YouPlus app on Amanda’s phone slurped up all of that for us. Like most
YouPlus clients, she also wore a LifeCam, which grabbed stills and video
at irregular intervals based on situationally-aware algorithms. A
couple of times a day, I received a voyeur’s wet dream, a
barely-filtered glimpse into the lives of half a dozen in-crowd clients.

At first, it was thrilling; deep access to the lives of people so far
beyond me in the social pecking order –people who could afford to pay
YouPlus more than my annual salary each month to optimize their online

The thrill faded fast. Seeing how the other half lived threw my life
into sharper relief, and their obsession with sculpting the perfect
online persona — not professionally, but to their friends — made me
despair. The only thing that kept me here was Amanda.

The dataload was marked “high priority”. I was officially off the clock,
but Amanda paid premium, and Zed would give me another chewing out if I
sat on this until morning. I flicked through the material. It looked
routine, not worth fast-tracking, until— There. Harvey, down on one
knee, holding up a glittering rock big enough to brain a four-year-old.
Video from Amanda’s POV, plus a side view from Harvey’s phone, carefully
placed to capture the moment from a flattering angle.

I grinned. This had been a long time coming. I’d watched Harvey through
Amanda’s lens long enough to have spotted the signs weeks ago, and I’d
been looking forward to watching her kick the asshole to the curb. The
worst of their fights, his gaslighting and psych-out manipulation never
made the feeds, but, even in the narrative, their relationship had been
up and down all year; it just needed a catalyst to get her to drop the
bastard. I skipped over his speech, looking for the moneyshot.

She said yes.

I sat there, mouth open. Why would she say yes? She finally had the
chance to be shot of him, a perfect trigger to kick out the man who made
her so unhappy, and she said yes?

Amanda was the only one who still gave me hope. She was real, even
through the repackaged self of the social media lens; there was a
vulnerability at her heart that let me feel, deep down, that we weren’t
that different. She wasn’t like the others, the Fauxialites who’d do
anything for their dopamine hit of attention. They might as well have
been another species. Homo Narcissus. That was why Amanda’s narrative
worked so well — it had a real person at its heart. The Amanda I knew
would never have said yes.

I hovered my hand over the trackball, flexing my fingers, thinking;
waiting. I had more than enough material stored up. Ball and screen
blurred as I pulled up half a dozen old dataloads, searching for the
right pieces.

I could fix this.

My brain was still fogged with morning when Zed called me into his
office. I stumbled through the door from the musty editors’ workspace
into Zed’s plush, artfully-lit office. You could tell he entertained
clients in here; the contrast made my eyes ache. He even had a plant.

“Dala, Amanda called me last night.”

I rubbed my eye with the back of one hand. “Yeah?”

Zed steepled his fingers, leaning forward over his desk and appraising
me before gesturing at a chair, into which I slumped. Zed was the boss,
which meant he was the only one who actually made money around here. He
ran the studio, won clients and kept them happy, while we did all the
real work.

He consulted his computer. “She sent through a special order last night, high priority. Did you get it?”

He knew damned well I’d got it. He could check on the system to see exactly when I’d opened it.


He nodded. “Amanda said… Well, Harvey proposed, and she said ‘yes.’”

“She did.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “’Will you marry me?’ ‘Yes.’” He half-turned as he
spoke, an exchange between an imagined couple. “Not a lot of room for

I shook my head.

“So why did you post that she turned him down?” His voice cracked with rage. I recoiled.

Zed read from the screen. “’I decided that it was time for a change and that Harvey can’t make me happy.’ You wrote that?”

I shrugged; his eyes narrowed.

“We operate on trust, Dala. Clients give us access to their entire
lives, and some, like Amanda, trust us to speak with their voice. Going
off script destroys that trust. If this got out, I’d lose a lot of

“She doesn”t love Harvey,” I said.

“So what?” He sighed. “This leaves me in a very awkward position.”

Here it came. It’d been mild so far by Zed standards, but I’d finally
got him furious enough to fire me. I didn’t want to lose my job, but
this manufactured life projection had worn me out some time ago; Amanda
was the one good thing that balanced it out. Perfect Amanda. The work I
did for her made me feel like my own existence had some essential
purpose. She was the reason, at the end of each day, I could say “I”ve
had a positive impact on someone’s life”. There certainly wasn’t anyone
else. But if Amanda wasn’t who I thought, if she was willing to deny
herself happiness, to marry the wrong person for… For what? Superior
Attention Capture? If that was where this was going, I was done.

I held up my hands. “I get it. I violated her trust. But I’d do it
again. Harvey made Amanda unhappy; she shouldn’t even have been dating
him, let alone marrying him. You might not think it matters, but she’s
better than that, and eventually, people will see through it, Attention
Capture will fall off a cliff, and you’ll be down a client regardless.”

I braced for the backlash, but he took it quietly. He turned the screen
so I could see the graph, two colored lines performing a zig-zag tandem
dance until one leapfrogged the other and shot skywards.

“This,” he said, suddenly energized, pointing at a spot on the lesser
line, “Was projected Attention Capture for Amanda’s engagement. And
this,” the other line’s vertical ascent, “Is what we got with your…
editorializing. It was divisive, but most people came down in favor of
“Amanda’s” decision to dump Harvey. What you did broke trust, but the
results…” He considered the screen again, momentarily lost in thought.
“This is a new area for us, potentially a lucrative one. Once I talked
Amanda down, she suggested she could get on board.”

“Has she told Harvey?”

Zed pursed his lips. “She’s willing to trial this more hands-on
approach, and yes, part of that will involve rectifying the disjunct
between narrative and reality. She’s assured me she’ll attend to that.”
He tapped his chin, eyeing me, then nodded. “I want you to spearhead the
pilot program. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve half a mind to cut you loose,
save myself the risk, but you clearly know the limits of Amanda’s
narrative; let’s see what you can do. If it works out, we can extend it
to more clients. Kind of a “life production” service.”

“Does it come with a raise?”

“I shouldn’t have even let you in the building this morning. Chalk your
continued employment up to an act of God and proceed accordingly.”

I must have visibly bridled, because he held up a hand. “Prove it’s not a
fluke, show me what you’re worth, then we’ll talk.” He waved me out.
“Start small. Nothing this drastic without consulting Amanda first.
We’re on thin ice, and I can’t afford for you to trash what trust
capital we have left, am I clear?”


I’d had more than enough material to craft the jilting post. There had
been a moment, right as Amanda walked into the room and saw Harvey down
on one knee, where she couldn’t hide her despair, the recognition that
her life was on rails and she couldn’t stop it. It was no more than a
few frames, but it was like she was screaming for help.

I’d thrown in a few specific callbacks to old fights, talking up how it
was a difficult decision, but ultimately the right one. It had been an
act of desperation, trying to exercise control where I had none, a last
bid to show Amanda what I saw. I hadn’t expected it to work. Reality was
not generally this accommodating of the narrative, but I had reached
out, exerted my will, and reality had blinked.

The next dataload was the best I’d ever received. I got to watch Amanda
kicking Harvey to the curb. She’d cut the audio, but it was worth it for
the look on his face, the hurt, confused rage.

She’d taken a selfie while leaving Harvey’s house, her smiling a smile I
hadn’t seen in a long time, a powerful joy over her whole face. She
looked like a woman walking out of prison, trying not to burst with the
sense of freedom and possibility welling up inside her.

My Amanda was back.

[YouPlus_Dala 10-May 10:32] Hi

[AmandaJ 10-May 11:27] Hi!! Can’t believe I finally get to talk to the
person who’s been making all this happen! Zed keeps you guys locked

[YouPlus_Dala 10-May 11:29] We’re clear of the breakup halo and we need a new interest hook. We should get you dating.

[AmandaJ 10-May 11:33] Feels like it’s too soon.

[YouPlus_Dala 10-May 11:34] The time is right. I’ve already lined up two for next week. You need this.

Our conversations were always awkward. It felt weird communicating with
her; it was like a character from a book I’d been reading had popped up
for a fourth-wall-breaking chat. There was an undercurrent of fear, too.
They say you shouldn’t meet your idols, and I was worried Amanda would
turn out to not be who I thought she was, like she almost had that night
with Harvey. But she listened to me, let me steer her where she needed
to go. She needed my help, and I was happy to provide it.

“I’m going to make it an official offering,” said Zed. “A premium-tier,
bespoke subscription service where we don’t just sculpt our clients’
images, we shape the entire trajectory of their lives.”

The thought of doing this for any of YouPlus’ other clients made me
grind my teeth. There was something substantive to Amanda’s life that we
could actually shape. They were all veneer. They’d fall over themselves
to do whatever we said if they thought it would boost AC.

Zed took my silence for awe, like he’d done something more than slap
some expensive adjectives on the concept I’d created and made it sound
like his idea.

“If you keep getting AC like this with Amanda, we stand to make a lot of money,” he said.

“So, I’ll get that raise?”

He waved a hand. “It’s still early-stage, I don’t think it’s appropriate—”

“You just said we stand to make a lot of money.”

He jabbed a finger. “I haven’t forgotten what you did. You could have
done this agency a lot of damage. I can always find someone else to run
this pilot, remember that.”

My hands tightened on the armrests, leaving nail imprints in the wood, but I said nothing.

I played matchmaker for a while. People enjoyed the intimate view into
Amanda’s dating, so I cast the net wide for eligible and interesting
candidates. I kept notes on potentials from her wider social circle and
ran a couple of parallel dating-app profiles optimized for different
audiences. I wasn’t just hunting for good potential partners, but people
who would generate interesting post-date anecdotes, which took a lot of
the sting out of the horror show of online dating.

We kept it varied, some decent-looking guys from Amanda’s social tier,
photogenic enough to play well on the feeds, mixed in with the
occasional bore or weirdo off whose back we could share rants or awkward
stories the next day — it was important to show life’s honest
challenges alongside its great successes and pleasures. Most were people
who wouldn’t look twice at me in real life, and with whom I’d never be
able to hold a conversation. Wearing Amanda’s internet face, channeling
her, I set my worthless self aside for little stretches of time. It felt
good, being her.

I spent longer and longer in the office, trawling through everything. It
had always been my job to know Amanda better than she did, but this
went further. I inhaled Amanda, drank in every digital trace of her I
could reach.

She got quite into the dating. At this point, I was basically her
virtual love broker, filtering the crazies, asking people out on her
behalf, and organizing dates. She loved the thrill of showing up
somewhere with no idea of whom she was about to meet or what she was
about to do, but with the assurance that I was behind it, so it was
safe. I kept trying to find new ways to delight her in our own little

[YouPlus_Dala 28-May 13:31] We need to take it up a notch. People like
this, but it’s surface detail, going stale. We need an inflection point.

[YouPlus_Dala 28-May 13:32] Ask Chuck out again tonight. Take him home.

[AmandaJ 28-May 13:43] This is weird.

[AmandaJ 28-May 13:44] He was nice, but I wasn’t that into him.

[YouPlus_Dala 28-May 13:46] You don’t have to be into him; nothing needs
to happen, but it lets us imply something happened. People will fill in
the gaps. They love that kind of gossip.

[AmandaJ 28-May 14:02] I’m uncomfortable with this. I can’t even ask him now, it’s too weird.

[YouPlus_Dala 28-May 14:05] I just did it for you. A car will pick you up at 8.

I felt bad for pushing, but a story needs its little peaks. She still
took him home. I didn’t make her do that — if she hadn’t wanted to, she
would have just called it a night or cancelled, but she knew I was
right. The results confirmed it. I was always right.

I had to wrap the dating arc when we started going steady with Aiden. He
was good for Amanda; not the strongest of her dates, AC-wise, but I saw
it on her face from the start: he made her happy. It was time to shake
things up, anyway.

I looked for new avenues to keep the narrative fresh. Amanda’s campaign
had launched strong, and other agencies were grooming her with mumblings
of more senior positions, bigger projects, more creative control. She
could ride the success of this campaign to something bigger and better.
Amanda disagreed. She fought me over it, wanting to stick it out where
she was to show loyalty. She was wrong — blind loyalty wasn’t worth
anything. They didn’t value her like they should.

She was pulling away; most of our conversations ended in silence. It
took a while, AC wavering all the time, but I wore her down. She took a
meeting. She started a senior campaign manager job at a prestigious firm
two weeks later. A big step up this early in her career, complete with a
bigger paycheck. That was Amanda. I couldn’t even get the raise that
Zed and I both knew I deserved. I was nothing next to her.

I put together a #micdrop walkout post for her old job. I could
practically hear Zed salivating. A pay bump meant he could wring even
more money out of her. Hell, it meant he could tout this “editorial life
coaching” service more effusively. Double your salary and make sure all
your friends see you looking great while you do it.

After that, we needed another shot in the arm. Things with Aiden were
going strong, but idealized love stories are for movies. People get
contemptuous of watching that one perfect couple having the time of
their lives.

I went through everything, over and over, savoring each new dataload
like a gourmet meal, or the fresh hit of a drug. Some nights I couldn’t
tear myself away, so I grabbed snatches of sleep in the hollow under my
desk, headphone cable snaking down so I could listen to her voice while I

Amanda spent most of her time with Aiden now, took longer and longer to
respond to my messages, throwing up more walls against me when she did.
It didn’t make sense. I’d shown her time and time again that we were
better together, that her life improved when she didn’t say “no” to me.
Without her cooperation, it was getting harder to maintain the results.
Couldn’t she see how much she needed me? I had to use my initiative.

I sowed seeds that hinted at something wrong under the surface of the
relationship. Nothing overt; signs so subtle they were almost
subliminal. Posts that, when read carefully, silhouetted fights that
never happened; I chose photos of them together where her smile looked
just a little strained — when that becomes a pattern, you start to
suspect someone’s posing under duress. I edited Aiden into a few photos
of Amanda out with friends, lurking in the background, watching. Once, I
posted and deleted a message which, while not directly referencing
Aiden, showed that Amanda was scared for her safety.

I was careful. I kept them infrequent, as far out of sight as possible.
They’d subtly nudge people’s perceptions, implanting a nagging,
subconscious discomfort that set me up for my masterstroke. Amanda
noticed nothing. She barely looked at her feed anymore.

I found our next twist. Amanda had an estranged sister, Ella. They
hadn’t spoken in nearly ten years. When their mom got sick, Ella
disengaged, leaving Amanda to take her to hospital appointments, stay
with her during treatment, that sort of thing. This was before Amanda
started with YouPlus, but by this point I was combing way back in her
feed and message history to find whatever new scraps of Amanda I could.
When her mom passed, Amanda cut Ella out of her life. Said she was
“toxic”. Even tried to stop her coming to the funeral.

It would be a great story. Ella was the only family Amanda had left, and
it would be a chance for her to show she was strong enough to reach
across the divide, that family was more important than past mistakes. I
thought of my family and shuddered. I could never be as strong as she

It would be good for her, too. I saw the pain whenever someone brought
up family, a subtle play across her face, tightness in the skin around
the ears, body language shifting to aversion. Amanda was fearless;
deep-seated pain like that had no place in her life. This would be a
chance for her to exorcise it.

She’d be resistant. These days, she fought me as often as not, and AC
was steadily tanking as a result. We couldn’t afford that here. I
reached out to Ella directly through Amanda’s chat account. It was
tricky to strike the right tone — not full-on conciliatory, but not so
hostile that it would scare her off. I pinned her down for lunch and
blocked the time off in Amanda’s diary. It would be just like when we
were dating. Amanda would arrive first, Ella would show up shortly
after, and Amanda would have no choice but to reconnect with her sister.

I didn’t expect miracles, but it was important for Amanda, and would
rescue her AC for a week or so. And it would show her that my voice
still mattered — that she still needed me.

Zed pointed at the chart on his screen, a sharp dip a few more bad days away from bottoming out.

“I know,” I said. “I had it all set with the sister, but Amanda just walked out. Wouldn’t talk to her.”

“That’s because you didn’t clear it with her first,” said Zed. “You’re
not her puppet master, you can’t manipulate her into doing stuff she
doesn’t want to. You’re supposed to be working with her. Christ, how
would you feel if someone set you up on a blind date with a toxic shit
you thought you never had to see again?”

I blinked at him. “Amanda’s not afraid of her past, she’s stronger than that. This was her chance to show it.”

“Well, she’s this close to pulling the plug.” He pinched the air. “She
doesn’t like the way you’re handling things, and the results aren’t
exactly…” He shook his head. “Maybe it was a mistake, putting you on
this, maybe—”

My rage bubbled over. “How am I supposed to get results if she keeps fighting me?”

He recomposed himself quickly, but I saw Zed’s ripple of shock. He
watched me warily. “Maybe we’ve reached our limit with Amanda. Having
someone direct your life must be stressful — I think we’ve found the
saturation point. We’ve got five other clients signed up for the pilot.
I’ll send you the briefs and you can start with them in the morning.
I’ll get Amanda in for a meeting to thank her, and tell her that we’ve
run our course.”

I dug my fingernails into my legs to keep from shouting. If I came on
too strong, it was all over. I wasn’t just going to let him take her
from me.

“Can I talk to her?” Don’t say you’re nothing without her don’t say it.
“If our time together is… over, I’d like to meet the person whose life
I’ve been directing for the past eight months.”

“I don’t like clients meeting editors. They get,” he looked me up and down, “Weirded out.”

Nothing without her nothing without her noth—

“But she’s not going to be a client anymore,” I said, fighting to keep
my voice even. “And this was hardly a normal project. It’ll be good
closure. We don’t want to leave things sour. She has plenty of friends
she can refer.”

Zed winced. “Take a shower and make sure you put on some clean clothes tomorrow. We still have an image to maintain.”

Nothing without her.

“Excuse me, are you Dala?”

Amanda was standing by my desk. I’d expected this, known that today I’d
finally meet her, and yet I was not prepared. To turn round and find her
there, in the flesh, knocked the breath out of me. I’d watched her for
hundreds of hours through a screen, but this was different. The Amanda I
knew was assembled from fragments. She had never been a whole to me
until now.

“Yes,” I croaked. “Yes.”

There was a moment where we both just looked, we who had been so deeply
enmeshed in each other for so long. Two people crammed uncomfortably
into one life. Studying her, I was painfully aware of how I must look:
this pale, ugly thing hiding in the dark. She hid her discomfort well,
but the movements of her face told me everything. “Weak,” they said.

But there was something else, something wrong in the way she held herself, the little flickers of her eyes.

“It’s good to finally meet you,” she lied. “You wanted to talk to me?”

I said nothing, still studying her.

“I was starting to think there was nobody behind the curtain, that Zed’s
secret sauce was just an algorithm with better conversation skills.”
The weak joke and subsequent chuckle tried to cover her awkwardness. Her
body language was different, painfully self-conscious, not just
aversion to me, but discomfort, fear. All this time, I’d been looking at
the sun through a peephole, and now that the door was open, I saw it
was just a lightbulb.

This was not Amanda.

“Who are you?” I said.

She laughed, like this time it was me making a joke. When I didn’t reciprocate, she frowned.

“I’m Amanda. You don’t recognize me? You’ve spent so long—”

“You’re not her. You’re different.”


I slid my chair back. “She wouldn’t stand that way.” I straightened her
posture, slipping my hand onto the small of her back. She was so
surprised, she didn’t resist, but when I reached to lift her chin, she

“Don’t touch me!”

“It’s okay, I can teach you how to be her. Let me show you what I’ve been working on.”

She took a step back. “No, it’s okay. I should go.” She turned and started for Zed’s office.

“You can’t go!”

She didn’t stop. I grabbed a handful of her hair and pulled her
backwards. This impostor wasn’t Amanda, but she was the closest thing
out there in the world. I wasn’t going to let her just walk out.

She fought, twisting in my grip. I dragged her back.

“Let… me…”

We tumbled; I fell down, pulling her onto me. There was a dull thump as
her head collided with the edge of the desk. I got out from underneath,
rolled her onto her back. Blood pooled underneath her head. Her eyes
were open, but unfocused.

“Let me show you,” I said.

I pulled up the material I’d been seeding — the hints of the danger
Aiden represented. Him, in the background, watching Amanda on nights she
was alone or out with friends. The half-finished messages, never sent,
telling people how he was treating her. The buried throughline of fear
and control.

“I had it all planned,” I said. She was murmuring something from the
floor. “You break up with Aiden, put up this post, telling your friends
everything. How you were scared for your life, scared to leave, scared
of him. Some people will believe you, some will take his side, but then,
all this stuff I’ve been setting up would come out, piece by piece.
People would see that it was there all along, that you were right. You’d
be vindicated, you’d have AC like we’ve never seen, and the narrative
will continue.”

Zed’s office door opened.

“Amanda, everything al— Oh my God.”

He looked between me and the body on the floor. “You…”

“It’s not Amanda,” I said. “She was never Amanda.”

“Jesus, what did you do?”

“I can fix this.”

“You’re insane. You’ve fucking killed her!”

I looked at the woman on the floor. Her eyes were closed. I thought over
how much unused material I had stored. Enough to make it work. I just
needed a different ending. I could keep Amanda — the real Amanda —
alive for a little longer.

I published the post and sent a message to one of her friends, saying
she needed help and asking for a place to stay for a few days. Poor
Amanda. She’d never make it there. If she had one flaw, it was that
she’d always see the good in people. Maybe that’s why, despite all the
warning signs, she stayed with Aiden. Poor woman. Look where it got her.

Zed’s door clicked shut. There was one loose end, a disjunct between narrative and reality that needed resolving.

I grabbed my trackball out of its cradle, hefting it, feeling its weight
in my hand. It would do. I stepped over the empty body on the floor and
headed for Zed’s office.

Kami No Kariudo

By Carl Barker

The Amenonuhoko cut through the space between worlds like a blade
through grass. Nichibotsu stood on the observation deck, staring out
into the shifting darkness. Space folded in on itself, manipulated into
an endless interstellar origami by the ship’s drive plates, lurching
forward towards its final destination in an erratic series of jumps.

A crewman appeared at the top of the stairs and briskly approached.

“Well?” Nichibotsu enquired impatiently.

“We estimate planetfall in just over twenty minutes” the crewman replied in a voice that matched his Captain’s exactly.

Nichibotsu turned and stared into his reflection’s face, noting the proud stance.

“Good” he observed, “the ship will remain in orbit whilst I complete my task.”

The crewman bowed in acknowledgement and returned to his station.
Nichibotsu surveyed the throng of doppelgangers working below. Blister
clones had their uses he acknowledged. Not only had they removed the
need to take on fresh crew during his centuries-long voyage, but more
than once these curious biomimetics had saved his life, sacrificing
themselves beneath the wrath of tempestuous gods. Eternals rarely went
quietly when confronted with death, and most had chosen to take as many
with them as possible when forced to relinquish their hold on reality.

Outside, stars slowly emerged from the blur of movement. Nichibotsu
sensed the deceleration long before the deck began to shudder and by the
time the Amenonuhoko dropped into orbit, he was striding purposefully
across the flight deck towards the forward section.

His First Lieutenant appeared at his side, falling neatly into step as
the two men descended through the bowels of the ship. ‘One’ was the most
long-lived of his replicas and second in command, having been
transcribed from Nichibotsu at a much younger age. The man’s handsome
features were obscured though by a mesh of melted flesh which covered
one side of his face and his shoulder; a parting gift from another
vengeful God.

One eyed his Captain with a calm gaze that perfectly illustrated his understanding of the situation.

“I’ll be transporting down to the surface in a few moments,” Nichibotsu
instructed. “If I do not return within the hour, you know what to do?”

The clone nodded his compliance and handed Nichibotsu a small pad.

“Core Imploders are primed and ready to launch, sir. Rift Incendiaries
are also prepped, just in case the target attempts to leave the system.”

Nichibotsu smiled narrowly.

“Efficient as always.”

“Would you expect anything less, Sir?”

“Indeed I would not.”

The two men exchanged a brief salute, followed by a formal bow more
befitting of their heritage before One took his leave and strode back
towards the bridge.

Nichibotsu ran a practised eye across his armour and regalia, checking
both were intact. His hand traced the carvings of his cuirass and came
to rest atop the hilt of Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, the larger of the two
swords slung at his hip. The weapon was the last vestige of his heritage
and he still felt the pull of the past whenever he laid a hand atop the
accursed blade.

Nichibotsu remembered the first time he had drawn the sword from its
scabbard: Susanoo’s gurgling cry of rage as he died, choking on his own
blood and treachery. Nichibotsu could not outrun the shame of his
betrayal, but at least with the storm god’s death, he had been assured
that the accursed deity would join his murdered sister in Jigoku.

The strange properties of the blade continued to imbue him with near
limitless longevity, but the truth which festered at his core would
ensure he never outlived his guilt. Even now, with the end of his task
at hand, the ancient Samurai could not escape the knowledge that he
would forever be Ronin, cursed to wander the stars without master or

Coolant gas hissed conspiratorially as he entered the transmission
chamber, stepping briskly up onto the projector. The operator offered a
grim salute before keying in the start-up program.

“Do not trouble yourself with thoughts of victory or defeat…” the technician announced solemnly, without looking up.

“… but instead plunge recklessly towards irrational death” Nichibotsu finished, acknowledging the proverb.

Thoughts of belief and subservience entwined like angry serpents as he
reminded himself of the most important advantage which his stem-grown
crew bestowed: that of blind obedience. An alternative band of
hard-bitten organics or pre-assembled mercs would have looked up to him.
Through numerous battles they would have learned to trust his judgment
and his leadership. In time, they would have come to worship him and
that, he could never allow.

Idolatry – the word made him sick, so symbolic of that which he sought
to expunge. Faith was the double-edged sword which Nichibotsu now
wielded. Though followers of any denomination needed their gods, so was
the reverse also true. Nichibotsu had learned to see past the obscura of
dogma and tenet to realise the true fragility which lay at the core of
each god: that their power was entirely dependant upon the faith
bestowed by their followers. Take an immortal’s allegiance, tear down
the obsequious flesh of his disciples till he stood truly alone and you
exposed the puny truth of his heart – a heart which could be punctured
by any common blade and bled dry. The hatch snapped shut, leaving
Nichibotsu alone in the mist of swirling gas to await transport.

For years he had hunted them – destroyed worlds as he sought to rob his
prey of their defences. He had constructed vast weapons of destruction:
orbital platforms and pan-dimensional atomics to wage his private
vendetta, transgenic scout ships with which to scour the galaxy from one
end to the other, watching his once omnipotent quarry scurry away. Some
had gone quietly, unable to grasp the incumbent reality of their end.
Others had stood their ground, hurling petty flame and brimstone in his
path till the skies burned red and crackled with fire. Nichibotsu had
not cared. He had robbed each of their essence, on their feet or their
knees, drinking their dark power and growing stronger with each victory.

The Samurai materialised in a downpour of filthy rain, one hand laid
calmly across the hilt of his weapon. The muddied clouds above hung like
dead men in the sky, a deluge of mucky water leeching steadily from
their boots.

Metal stretched as far as the eye could see and Nichibotsu stood flanked
on all sides by warehouses and hangars, clustered together like
pallbearers in the mist. Kriptil was described by many as the ‘arse-end
of space’: a nasty, dispiriting hovel of a planet, whose only purpose
was to house the vast array of forgotten goods and trade items which
other civilised worlds no longer wanted.

Something skittered amongst the loose shale of debris and Nichibotsu
spun round on the balls of his feet, drawing his shortsword in one fluid
motion and stepping forward aggressively. A soggy oversized rat emerged
from the refuse, staring blinkedly up at the warrior in surprise, its
matted fur coated with a thick layer of sludge. Nichibotsu stood with
the energy-fed Katana brandished above his head, steam rising from the
blade in the falling rain. The oversized rodent eyed him for a moment,
before sidling back under the garbage with mild disinterest.

Nichibotsu let out the breath he had been holding and resheathed his
weapon. Scouring the alleyway for an opening, he spied a rusted door
several hundred yards away and strode purposefully towards it. Once
inside, he quickly surveyed the immediate area before pausing to remove
the layer of crud which had adhered to his armour.

The abandoned storage area was empty, except for a few mouldy
containers, and away in the distance he could hear gantries rattling in
the wind like the brittle limbs of barren trees. Continuous rain droned
across the roof, filling the interior with a low buzz. Ignoring these
background noises, he glided forward silently into the darkness, in
search of his prey.

Nichibotsu had served many different Lords since fleeing Japan, but not
one of them had he ever called master. The I’hajin Council of Twelve
were but the latest in a long line of paymasters willing to offer an
unlimited supply of technology and armaments. They paid well, kept their
interference to a minimum and had seen fit not to burden their hired
assassin with too many questions. The Amenonuhoko’s hull bristled with
all manner of barbarous devices, most currently outlawed by the Prakite
Accords. To Nichibotsu though, they were merely tools – a means to an
end which brought him one step closer to the end of his journey.

He had lost much of himself over the years, first pawning his armour and
outdated possessions to buy passage into space, then later fulfilling
contracts of assassination and murder to barter his way into the outer
systems. Eventually, as the complexity of his task had become clear, he
had turned in desperation to Flesh Peddlers and Reaper Surgeons,
obtaining that which he required to traverse this new world of stars and
consternation. What they took in payment was but a small price to pay –
an organ here, an appendage there – all that mattered was obtaining the
augmentation required to carry the battle. The undrawn sword at his
side saw to it that he survived each procedure. Anything other than the
blackened stone of purpose at his heart was unnecessary.

It was a strange place to make one’s last stand, Nichibotsu thought to
himself as he passed soundlessly between dusted crates. A reflection
perhaps of how far the once mighty had fallen, that the very last of
their kind would seek sanctuary here, in this oubliette of forgotten
endeavour. It was fitting that the last of Man’s Gods would die here
amongst discarded trinkets; lost and neglected along with all that
humanity had left behind in its race towards a utopian future.

Rounding a corner, Nichibotsu found steps leading down into the lower
levels. Bare footprints lay embedded in the grime and he baulked at the
sight of such inept evasion, immediately suspecting that an ambush of
some sort lay ahead. Cautiously, he descended into the darkness with
sword half-drawn.

The underground level was split into a maze of pipe-laden passageways.
Smoke hissed angrily in places from several broken struts, clouding the
way with thick smog, and Nichibotsu clasped Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi’s hilt
in apprehension, taking succour from a blade which legend told had been
discovered within the tail of a mighty eight-headed dragon. Beneath the
thick fog of engine gas, the same shoeless footprints led Nichibotsu
deeper into the belly of the beast, his breath coming in practised
staccato as he prepared for the inevitable combat. Branching off into a
narrow cul-de-sac of ducting, the smoke finally cleared to reveal his
quarry, sitting cross-legged on the floor.

The old man looked up as the assassin approached, his bright eyes agleam in the dimness.

“Ah, there you are child. I was beginning to think you had got lost.”

Nichibotsu stepped forward, twisting his foot sideways into a combative stance and half drawing his katana.

“Jehovah.” He almost spat the word upon the ground. “How could I have
become lost, with such an obvious trail of breadcrumbs to follow?”

The ancient God gestured with one arm.

“Please, sit” he stated, seemingly unperturbed by the sight of the battle-ready Samurai standing over him.

Nichibotsu eyed his prey, trying to decipher the immortal’s game.

“Give me one reason why I should not draw my blade and pierce your
miserable heart?” he asked, unsheathing his sword a little further.

Jehovah’s shoulders sank into a tired parental shrug of indifference.

“Before you do, will you not join me in ‘Chado’.”

Nichibotsu warily took a step back, the use of his birth language striking a discordant note.

Earth had been obliterated centuries ago, the survivors of his race so
far scattered that he had not used his native tongue since setting sail
for the deepest colonies. He stared at the ceremonial mat and chadgu
which now materialised beside the god with a wave of its hand. It seemed
this faded deity had more than one parlour trick with which to play out
their endgame.

Jehovah rose slowly from the ground and moved to the mat where he
proceeded to wash his hands in a small stone basin of clear water. He
gestured to an identical basin on the opposite side of the mat.

“Won’t you join me?” he asked again, beckoning the Samurai.

Nichibotsu moved closer, not taking his eyes from the deity.

“You expect me to take tea with that which I am sworn to destroy?” he
snorted in disgust, muddied boots already staining the mat.

“I expect you to honour the ways of your ancestors and show some manner of respect to your host” replied Jehovah sharply.

The God’s voice remained calm, yet beneath there rumbled thunder. “Or would you bring ‘fumeiyo’ to your family name?”

“I have no name…” the assassin grunted in malformed anger, balling his
free hand into a fist, “…nor family. I am merely ‘Nichibotsu,’ set forth
to put out Heaven’s light.

The white-haired God dried his hands thoughtfully.

“You may label yourself as ‘Sunset’ my friend” he observed. “But beneath that coarsened hide of armour, you bear another name.”

Jehovah’s words effortlessly found the chink in Nichibotsu’s defences and he swallowed hard on the resurfaced memory.

“I would expect better custom from one who was once the servant of
Amaterasu,” Jehovah continued. “She, whose sun once shone proudly
throughout the endless heavens.”

At this, Nichibotsu felt his resolve crumble. Despite having long
accepted the role of R?nin and the dishonour which such labels brought,
he could not ignore the invocation of his former Mistress’ name.
Begrudgingly returning the katana to its scabbard, he disrobed his
armour and removed both heavy boots and weaponry before stepping forward
onto the mat. Though it was a clear insult to his host,
Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi remained clasped in his right hand, Nichibotsu
having learnt never to trust an Immortal to honour tradition when their
life was at stake.

Lowering himself into a kneeling position, the Samurai turned his ankles
outwards and made a ‘V’ shape with his feet, assuming the traditional
form of Seiza. Jehovah observed the warrior’s movement closely, eyeing
the sword for a moment. Seemingly acceptant of its presence, he turned
and began the ritual cleansing of each utensil.

“It is interesting is it not my child, that you use the word ‘they’ to describe mankind?”

Nichibotsu laid his hands palm down across his thighs, meeting the god’s gaze without fear.

“Do I take it that you no longer consider yourself one of them?” Jehovah
asked politely, his hands carrying out the precise motions of cleansing
the chawan.

“In order to hunt something, one must first understand it,” Nichibotsu
stated flatly. “A mere man cannot comprehend what it is to live as an
immortal. Therefore it was necessary for me to become something else.”

“Ah, so you think yourself elevated above them?” the old man enquired.

“I serve them,” Nichibotsu countered. “All that I have brought to pass is for their benefit.”

Saying nothing, Jehovah politely held out a bowl of thick tea to his
guest. Nichibotsu took the chawan, bowing slightly before raising it in a
gesture of respect. Rotating the bowl, he eyed the contents
suspiciously before taking a sip. Waiting a few moments, he took a
second sip and complimented his host, as tradition demanded.

Jehovah laughed slightly, his eyes bright.

“Had you really thought me so without virtue as to poison my most honoured guest?”

Nichibotsu averted his eyes and shuffled uncomfortably.

“It has been known for your kind to stoop so low,” he muttered.

“Ah yes, poor Loki,” Jehovah replied solemnly. “Come, you must tell me
how you finally overcame so devious an opponent, after almost being
swallowed by that leviathan beneath the waves of Jaridan II?”

“I collapsed the atmosphere of the planet,” Nichibotsu said, narrowing
his eyes, “and bled the oceans dry till nothing but a cored husk and
dead fish remained.”

Jehovah leaned his head back at this and roared with laughter.
Nichibotsu shook his head in bewilderment, unable to guess the
immortal’s motivations.

“A reverse Ragnarök of sorts!” Jehovah chuckled. “Oh, how proud Odin would have found that fitting.”

“You revel in the details of his demise?” Nichibotsu observed coldly.

Jehovah’s merriment vanished, a pained look flooding his face.

“Oh how little you still understand us, my friend,” he replied quietly.
“After all these centuries of hunting us, have you not learnt what it is
to be an Eternal?”

“I know enough to complete my task,” Nichibotsu replied clinically.

Jehovah watched him, saying nothing, and then turned to begin preparing a
second bowl of much thinner tea. As his wrinkled hands worked nimbly,
he continued the thread of conversation.

“I ask only to know how it is that they died,” he explained. “Though it
is true that we did not see eye to eye, and that our differing judgments
often set us at each other’s throats, they were still my brothers and
sisters. I would appreciate the opportunity to learn of what they
remained true to in death, so that I might understand better what they
fought for so dearly in life.”

The second batch was now brewed and he held out a fresh bowl of tea.

“If you were the last of your kind, would you not wish to spend your last moments lost in tales of your kin?”

Nichibotsu’s grip on the chawan tightened as he took the bowl from his host.

“My family are long dead, Yowamushi,” his voice almost cracked. “My planet is gone, scattered to the wind long ago.”

“By your own hand, Nichibotsu,” Jehovah reminded him.

The chawan banged noisily onto the floor, sloshing hot tea across the stone.

“It was necessary,” Nichibotsu growled defensively. “So obvious a
weakness was to be exploited. A warrior must win the day at all costs.”

“I do not believe that Gaia would have been convinced of your argument,”
Jehovah replied, remaining perfectly still. “She could no more have
severed her bond to the Earth as you could to one of your own progeny.
What is any mother’s priority, but to her children?”

Nichibotsu retrieved the bowl and raised it to his lips.

“Gaia birthed your home by parthenogenesis long before you were born,
Nichibotsu. Her love for that which she spawned was etched into her
soul. She was truly the mother of all things.”

The Samurai drank greedily, never taking his eyes from the Immortal.

“That was her undoing” he muttered.

Out on the planet’s surface, the weather had evidently worsened, for
down here in the catacombs, rainwater now dripped steadily from ceilings
and metalwork, draining into the earth like tears.

Nichibotsu and Jehovah sat opposite each other, having adopted the more
relaxed position of agura, the tea ceremony complete. A Kiseru sat
beside each of them, the air growing thick with a mist of tobacco.

“And what of the children?” Jehovah asked pointedly.

Nichibotsu raised an eyebrow.

“You speak of Ganesha?”

“I speak of all our offspring across the centuries,” the god replied,
“but if it suits your purpose to tell of one example, then so be it.”

“The Trimurti proved a most challenging opponent,” Nichibotsu began by
way of explanation. “So entwined in each other’s existence were they,
that by the coming of the fourth Age of Man, though I had reduced their
following to a handful of minds and slain each of them more times than I
could count on one hand, they still lived.”

Jehovah nodded his head, indicating that he knew some of what the Samurai told him.

“You are indeed the most accomplished of warriors, to devise a way to
defeat so tightly bound a trinity,” he offered. “So, in order to wound a
parent you could not hope to defeat, you struck first at the child.”

Nichibotsu glared.

“The boy was weak. It was his father’s responsibility to have trained him better for the hardship of battle.”

“Ganesha’s heart was filled only with love,” the God interjected. “His
was a path of self-sacrifice, devoted to the removal of obstacles for
his followers.”

Nichibotsu’s lips twisted into a serpent’s smile.

“It is fitting then, that he presented the very beginning of a venture
which led to that which I craved most. For I drove that one remaining
tusk of his deep into his heart and then slit open his copious belly, so
that the whole of his realm might spill out on the ground.”

“Shiva came at the sound of his boy’s distress?” Jehovah asked, a single tear descending his cheek.

“He came,” Nichibotsu nodded. “And he brought that accursed preserver
and tired old grey-beard with him, so that they might weep together over
the still warm body of his offspring.

“How was it done?” Jehovah whispered hoarsely, struggling to form words round a lump in his throat.

“When I stepped forth from the shadows and proclaimed myself Ganesha’s
executioner, they combined into one and lunged forth angrily with many
hands to smite me down.”

Jehovah hung his head, seemingly tired. He offered no words, awaiting an answer.

“A silicate-based matter suffusion beam directed from high orbit,” the
Samurai concluded icily, with more than a trace of pride. “Even a stone
head may be severed from its body, no matter how many faces it bears.”

Jehovah watched a tear fall to his robes, seeping into the thick fabric.

“The others are all gone then? Ba’al, Allah, Waheguru, El?

“Allah proved difficult,” Nichibotsu acknowledged dismissively with a
slight wave of his hand. “For a hunter cannot hope to discover the
identity of a prey whose own followers are taught not to visualise him
in their minds.”

“Yet he lived within the words of his prophet,” Jehovah recited
miserably, “sent down from above to convey the divine message amongst
the faithful, so that they might emulate his example and give glory to
their God.”

“I despatched a temporally impervious HK drone to traverse an artificial
wormhole into the past,” the Samurai finished. “My automaton slew
Mohammad the day he set foot within this reality, and so erased his many
teachings from the fabric of the universe. No word. No God.”

Nichibotsu had expected to see bitterness burning when the old man’s
eyes rose again, but instead he saw only pity in the Immortal’s face.

“Tell me Sunset, has the blood of a hundred eternals sated your thirst for vengeance?”

The Samurai calmly reached out a hand to the sword beside him,
unsheathing the long blade and laying it across his lap in answer.

“What about Susanoo” Jehovah asked. “When you agreed to poison his
sister, your Kami Mistress, and put out her light in return for that
sword in your hands, could you have known the pain which your disgrace
would ultimately bring?

The God leant forward and placed a warm hand across the Samurai’s own.

“Must every higher form of life in this universe continue to pay for your mistake?” he asked.

Nichibotsu withdrew his hand, lest the twinge of emotion it brought infect him further.

“All must pay,” he replied, rising to his feet.

Jehovah gazed calmly up into his executioner’s face.

“And the mortals you have sworn to protect from our unwanted meddling.
Do they not have a choice in whether those whom they willingly give
worship to live or die?”

Nichibotsu’s hands slid softly round the grip of his blade like those of a lover.

“They cannot know freedom until the last of you are gone,” he said
through gritted teeth, moving to stand directly behind the kneeling God.

Jehovah’s eyes focussed upon a small beetle, making its way uncertainly across the vast expanse of the mat.

“And so you make the choice for them?” he observed, reaching out a hand
to gently lift the insect up and help it safely on its way.

Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi’s made a soft whistling sound as Nichibotsu raised it above his head.

“And what of your paymasters?” Jehovah asked, causing the Samurai’s arm
to falter mid-stroke. “The Council of I’hajin – you know what it is that
they swear allegiance to, deep in the bowels of that planet?”

“I know,” Nichibotsu smiled, “and I have a plan for that infernal machine as well.”

“And if it should grow more powerful? And seek to exert its influence across Man’s entire domain?”

The Samurai lowered his weapon slightly for an instant, granting the God an answer to his question.

“The preparations have already been made. I seeded I’Haji’s atmosphere
with an aggressive breed of nanite before I left. The abomination will
not live long.”

Jehovah bowed his head forward slightly, presenting the pale flesh of his neck to Nichibotsu’s blade.

“Then you truly have become the most powerful of all entities my child,”
he whispered. “Perhaps it is we who should worship you?”

The tip of Nichibotsu’s sword plunged deep into the earth at the end of
its killing stroke. He left it embedded there, quivering beside a pile
of fresh dust, having no further use for it. Donning his armour, he made
his way back to the surface.

Outside, the storm still raged. Black filth fell relentlessly from the
sky, spattering across Man’s rusted past like oil. The Amenonuhoko’s
Captain signalled his ship and stood waiting for retrieval in the
pouring rain, corruption slowly seeping beneath the folds of his armour.
He would not return to this place again he decided, as he watched the
darkening clouds. After all, such a lowly inconsequential world as this
was no place for a God to walk.

Office Hygiene

By Michaël Wertenberg

“Grrreg! Come in here.”

I hated how he rolled his Rs. It always made my skin crawl. This time it also made me chomp down on my tongue. Made it bleed.

I swallowed my blood with a wince. God, I hoped he couldn’t smell it.
But I knew he could. He could smell everything. The worst thing about
having a wolf for a boss, worse than the rolled Rs, worse than the
trails of saliva down the corridors and in the break room, was his sense
of smell. I learned early on, and learned the hard way, to forgo steaks
for dinner, even on weekends. He’d always get a whiff of it the
following day, and he’d be on me like…well, like a wolf.

My sense of smell, unfortunately, though not on par with a wolf’s, was
still quite keen. I opened the door to his office and the stench churned
my stomach. Don’t vomit again! Don’t vomit. Don’t vomit.

“Yes, Boss. What is it, Boss?”

“Congrrratulations.” His tongue swiped his teeth and gums as if lapping
up the saliva-ladened syllables that dripped from his mouth.

I managed, quite convincingly, to contain my enthusiasm. I deserved that
promotion. He wasn’t doing me any favors. “Thank you, Sir.”

“You’re going to be Simon’s right hand man.”

“Simon?” That incompetent suck up!

“Yes, Simon!” My boss’s tail rose from behind his chair, swished back
and forth, and smacked the phone on his desk, knocking over the
receiver. “Every good project manager needs an excellent project
manager’s assistant.”

If, by good project manager, he meant an opportunistic buffoon whose
only contribution was daily bison scraps, then yes, Simon did deserve
the promotion. I bit down on my disappointment. “Thank you, Sir. Will
there be anything else, Sir?”

“Yes. Don’t tell Simon until after lunch. I want to give him the good news myself.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Oh, and speaking of lunch. No more antelope. I’m sick of antelope. Order me elk. I have a craving for elk today.”

“Yes, Sir.” I turned to step out of his office, then like the ‘excellent assistant’ that I was, I turned back. “It’s just that…”

“It’s just, what?” His tail swiped the desk and sent some papers to the floor–my efficiency report!

“It’s just that they take so long to deliver elk. Perhaps I could…” I
paused for dramatic effect and feigned to be intimidated by his beady
black eyes.

“Perhaps you could what? Spit it out!”

“Perhaps I could put in the elk order for tomorrow. Then it’d be sure to arrive on time.”

His smile, if you could call it a smile, stretched behind his perked up
ears. He showed me his fangs. His tongue flapped out of the side of his
mouth, and he made no attempt to keep the saliva from dripping out. “Elk
meat, today!”

“Yes, Sir. Will do, Sir.” I slipped out, shut the door behind me, and took a deep breath of slightly less repugnant air.

Quarter past one and the tension in the office was palpable. No one
dared leave for lunch before the boss got his. I picked up my phone and
made the call. “Listen, Simon. The boss needs to see you.”

I barely had the time to hang up the receiver before Simon came parading
by my cubicle. He gave me a nod. I scrunched my nose and turned my head
in rehearsed disgust. “P.U.!” I fanned my face. “Hell, Simon. What
happened to you?”

He stopped dead in his tracks–might as well have been a deer in my headlights. “What? What do you mean?”

“I mean that smell.” I pinched my nose with one hand, with the other I
pulled the flask out of my desk drawer and handed it to him. “Don’t go
in there like that. Here, spray a bit of this on you first.”

He undid the cap and took a whiff–as if he could tell shit from Chanel!

“What is it?”

“It’s what you need.” I waved him away, my other hand still covering my
nose. “Now hurry up before I get sick and the boss gets impatient.”

He sprayed his neck–Perfect spot. Good choice, Simon.–handed me back the flask with a smile, and headed for the boss’s office.

Elk urine had never smelled so sweet.

I put the flask back in the drawer, retrieved the other one–Cognac–and
strutted down to Cindy’s cubicle. Her cubicle had a much better view of
the boss’s office than mine–just off to the side of the glass partition.
I passed yet another intern on the way. I smiled at him since I was,
after all, glad to see him. Even though we hadn’t had a mauling in
months, it’s always handy to have a few interns around just in case.

“What’s up?” asked Cindy.

I plopped myself on her desk and spun around so I could get a good view
of the boss’s office. “How’s the new intern working out for you?” I

“Not bad. Not bad.”

I opened the flask, took a sip, and handed it to Cindy.

“Says he enjoys the job and can’t wait to get his hands dirty,” she added.

I chuckled. Even though it was a shit job with a wolf for a boss,
sometimes things seemed to work out for everyone–well, almost everyone.

“Thanks. What are we drinking to?”

“The sweet smell of success, Cindy. The sweet smell of success.”


By Vaya Pseftaki

Us, Spawns

“I guess this is not the right day for a sponge.”

“Is there a right day?”

“Must be. A rainy day won’t let me walk past the corner, makes me feel
all fat and bloated. A sunny day will turn me into a raisin, old and
used up. A windy day now-”

“Got it.”

Their room does not catch the sun, constantly washed in sterile,
fluorescent light. Creased sheets, stranger-stained, on two single beds
nailed together. As cheap as it gets. Ten euros an hour and twenty a
night. The clock is ticking Coca Cola time on the beige wall.

The Lord of Dead Ends blows a perfect circle of smoke towards the
ceiling. He cracks his fingers and cautiously leans back against the

“We need to get going,” says Sponge the Bright, fishing the last crisps from the bottom of the bag.

“You’ll smell like crisps for days,” the Lord of Dead Ends says and
grabs the bag from his hands. The TV burps a tulip of purple steam as he
turns it off; its cogs grunt and stop.

“Fine. And you get dressed. It takes ages to wrap you up and our first shift starts in an hour.”

“Right.” The Lord of Dead Ends unfolds his long limbs and stretches
throwing his head back, hair tickling his waist. His padded full-body
suit hangs limp on the coat rack, black. When he wears it he feels like
it’s swallowing him up, every inch of his dazzling white skin. It still
leaves the face uncovered, though. When you are made of porcelain, there
are only so many precautions you can take. “You know this job won’t
last either, so don’t keep your hopes up.” He zips the suit up, testing
it for spots where the padding has thinned, it seems fine. “There is a
reason I am called the Lord of Dead Ends.”

Sponge the Bright snorts and jumps around as he tries to squeeze his
fluffy arms into the sleeves of his coat. “I really need to get a cloak
next time,” he says, fumbling to button up and failing. The Lord of Dead
Ends stifles a chuckle and stubs his cigarette in the astray.

“Shit,” he says, leaning towards the window, looking up. “You were
right. It’s this fucking poisonous rain again. I’ll get the umbrellas.”

Outside, the city speaks its mind through rails that creak under the
weight of the eight o’clock train, through roofed tricycles’ tailpipes
and sighing cabarets, through hollow windows banging at the top of
deserted buildings. Not many people roam the city center tonight; the
better for the Lord of Dead Ends and Sponge the Bright. They can do
without the stares and the smacking of lips as they pick their way
towards the Site Hole Six. Their kind shares the city with the humans
for a decade now, yet still they feel the need to choose the back alley
over the avenue.

The first barricades start a hundred meters from the Site Hole Six. The
khaki-clad guards barely look up from their makeshift backgammon board;
spawns are free to approach the Hole. Maybe they hope it will take them

Out of the six Holes that opened up across the city, this is the only
one to remain. In the first days, they say it felt like the end of the
world. In a way, it was: holes open up, human jumps in, spawns come out
in their stead. Even a side glance at a Hole was enough to make humans
fall into a state of fugue, sprint and throw themselves in. It took days
to isolate the Holes; it is not easy to build a wall when your workers
keep jumping into the abyss.


Site Hole Six looms at the end of a street taken over by weeds. Twenty
meters high and a hundred meters across, it looks less like a building
and more like a really high wall, made of concrete and metallic beams.
The Hole should be located at the center.

The Lord of Dead Ends reaches the only door and takes his newly minted
ID plaque out of his backpack to feed it to the machine. Sponge lags
behind, careful not to let a single droplet of the acidic rain fall on
his absorbent skin.

“Fucking poison, it hasn’t rained for days and today, all of a sudden,
plaf plaf plaf, as if it’s waiting for us to sneak out. Jinxed, that’s
what we are.”

“Quit bitching, Sponge, you’re fine.”

“And you quit being so damn careless. It’s not ten days yet since you got glazed, again. You still owe half the money.”

The machine coughs his plaque out and falls silent. So far, so good.
With no idea as to what they are supposed to do next, the Lord stands
and waits and wraps his coat around him tight.

They promised each other that working on the Site would be their last
resort, and indeed they tried nearly everything else. Nothing worked for
long. At least back when spawns were not considered citizens, they
could still work the margins of legality–be carnival exhibits,
bouncers, pets, slaves. Now that they merited a wage, why hire them at

God bless the CandyMen then, aka the spawn mafia; the government hired
their front to run and safeguard the Hole, since no human could approach
it. Now the Lord of Dead Ends and Sponge the Bright could earn enough
to remain welcome in their horrid motel room.

The metallic double door creaks and sighs and opens in front of them.
Behind it stands a tall spawn, human legs embedded in a grasshopper’s
abdomen, its hind wings forming a smart green tailcoat matched with a
black top hat.

“Evening, gentlemen.” His automaton voice comes out of a small bronze
pipe, adjusted right under his mandibles. It makes a faint rumble as he
speaks. “I see your clearance passes have checked out. Follow me.” He
turns on his heels and starts walking fast, his leathery tegmina buzzing

“I am now taking you to your posts, but before that, allow me to inform you of the few rules of our establishment.”

Sponge’s wingtips echo “clack, clack, clack” – the corridor is empty and grey and smells damp.

“I believe you have already signed the confidentiality agreement.”
Sponge glances at the Lord of Dead Ends and he nods back, but when he
turns round he almost bumps on the half insect’s behind and gasps.
There’s a door in front of them, narrow and uncommonly tall but plain
other than that. The grasshopper spawn makes a clicking sound and

“First rule of our establishment: never leave your post before your
shift is over. Second: breathing a word of whatever you have witnessed
in our establishment would be considered as really bad manners. Finally,
do not feed anyone or anything to the Hole, under any circumstances.
You have been hired to guard it, and the management expects that you do
not deviate from your task.”

“Of course,” mutters the Lord of Dead Ends, eyes nailed on the floor ahead.

“Uh-hem,” Sponge clears his throat, turning to the grasshopper spawn.
“Aren’t we to be provided with some kind of equipment? Or see a map of
the facilities we are to guard?”

The grasshopper’s gaze is impossible to escape, feasting on Sponge’s slightly twitching lip and skittish eyes.

“My colleague is just too eager to start, Sir,” says the Lord of Dead Ends.

“Trigger happy, I see. Not our favorite kind,” and he finally lets them in.

“Really? Can’t you see that this is all a sham?” Sponge the Bright paces
in their narrow booth, a cramped room mainly made of glass and
smothered with the stark smell of bleach.

“You don’t say.”

“Shouldn’t we at least undergo some training, or, or, – I mean I don’t
even know how this old bugger works,” Sponge goes on, waving the pistol
in his hand as if it were a flag. “It’s so light it feels like a toy. I
bet it is.”

The Lord of Dead Ends sighs. “They only hired us to fulfill their spawn
quota. Can’t you go back to being Sponge the Bright, just for a change?”
He finishes rolling his cigarette, takes a swig from a flask he has
brought along carefully tucked in his suit’s inner pocket, and pushes
himself up from the swiveling, squeaking chair. He blows the smoke
against the window glass. “It was your fucking idea, after all. And stop
pointing at me with that.”

Their booth is on the ground level, just ten meters from the Hole. The
inner wall’s seamless stone is interrupted only by a metallic double
door. Around the Hole runs a paved hem, almost three meters wide. The
Lord’s eyes flicker up, searching for a real guard, but there is none.
No windows, no alcoves, no openings of any kind.

“Maybe it’s the birds,” says the Sponge that stands right next to him,
pistol still in hand, leaning against the glass. They spotted a few over
the past long hours, automaton birds the color of brass, grinding their
metallic wings as they fly over the Site.

“There is one over there, perched above the main door. Do you see it?”
The Lord of Dead Ends tries yet again the door knob that leads to the
Hole, but it doesn’t give in. No lock, so more likely it’s stuck.

“It’s a pity,” mumbles Sponge, eyes still fixed outside.


“It’s a pity we can’t take a closer look at the Hole.” Its perfectly
round lid takes up almost the entire interior, slightly curved and
perfectly polished despite the spitting rain that has just stopped.

“I’ve heard it’s the biggest Hole of the six. They say thousands of
Spawns crawled out of it in the first week,” whispers the Sponge.

“A quarter of the city’s losses, give or take.” He draws another breath of smoke.

Sponge opens his mouth to speak when a low rumble echoes, coming from
beneath their feet. The flask rattles slightly, louder only seconds
later, along with the pens and the tulip TV on the desk.

“Shit,” whispers the Lord of Dead Ends, cigarette hanging from his lips. He stares at the lid, eyes narrow.

“It’s opening,” mumbles the Sponge and climbs onto the chair to get a better view.

The lid slides into a barely visible slit into the ground and leaves the
Hole exposed; a begging wound with its scab removed that gapes at the
world. The rumble fades and stops. The Lord of Dead Ends feels his skin
crawl as the silence tugs at his gut, cold and smooth, urging him to
double up and drag himself under the desk. Still, he cannot defy the
urge to look. This same swelling need to keep staring at violence, be it
at a gutted nobody in a back alley, or at the earthquake smitten debris
of a slum. He stares and waits, mouth watering, muscles taut.

There is a faint blip and then a muted grinding sound as the double
doors open and five – no, six spawns pour in, some walking, some
scrambling. They march up to their arrayed spots around the Hole,
several steps behind the brim. The Lord’s eyes hop from spawn to spawn
scanning for someone he has crossed paths with before – you never know.
The table lamp-headed woman on the far left reminds him a bit of a
Sponge’s old friend back from their early days on earth and whips round
to check with him.

“It’s not her. Lucy’s light was yellow,” Sponge whispers. “What are they doing? Are these guns?”

“Shhh,” the Lord of Dead Ends shades his eyes with his palm.

The scream comes first, piercing his chest, making his heart flutter
along with the automaton birds. Two spawns appear through the doors, one
who could be taken for a human if it wasn’t for his discreet beak of a
nose, and the other looking like he strolled out of a five-year-old’s
drawing. They drag a man between them, hooded. Right behind them follows
a cohort of four more spawns, all muscles and glares, surrounding a
fifth, a woman; her long dark hair and caramel skin shine under the
harvest moon. Her dress is made of candy wrapping that screeches as she
moves. Sponge gasps beside him.

“Susie Q.”


“Susie Q., that’s her. With candy hair and teeth of steel? That’s her!” Sponge’s fear rasps in his throat.

“Isn’t she the bitch who founded the CandyMen?”


“Praise our luck.” The Lord of Dead Ends takes a swig from the flask. “What a night, to meet the cream of our kind.”

“Shut up! Oh, sweet mother of their Jesus Christ, can they see us?”

“Make sure you smile.” He bares his teeth in a plastered grin and makes a toast towards them that goes unnoticed.

Stick Figure and Touc-Toucan make their prisoner kneel facing the Hole.
Susie Q. halts right behind him. The man is wearing a uniform, a torn
and dirty one, blue like a policeman’s.

“Last chance, Officer. Questions left unanswered have a price.” She
sings rather than talks, a song of sugar and butter. “Who gave you the
automaton bird?” His shoulders shake, hunched; a muffed sob is all she
gets for an answer. “Where is the footage now?”

“Please,” his voice bursts out hoarse. “I’m begging you, stop. It’s
madness. If what you’re doing here gets out, they’ll lynch every spawn
in the country. Don’t you see?”

Susie Q. kicks him in the gut. “Oh, and that would be something new?
Thank you, Officer, for your wise advice, you can stick it up your ass.”
She delivers another kick, heel first. “Where is the bird?”

“Please, I don’t know. Only seen it once, I know nothing else, please.”
He falls on all fours and tries to turn around, reaching blindly for her
feet. She shrugs, takes a small step back and nods at Stick Figure.

“I’ve had enough of him,” she says. Stick Figure snatches the hood off
and digs his boot in his side, sends him crawling near the rim. The man
has a face under the hood, a bulgy red nose and sucked-in lips and gaunt
cheekbones, human to its every stretch of skin.

The Lord of Dead Ends forgets to breathe in. Damn him, it’s just as they
say. The man stares at the hole, his gaze fixed, black as the sea, the
eyes of a beast. Yet, there lurks desire. No whimpering for his sore
ribs, no begging, no turning back. The man flings his tongue over his
lips and stands up.

“Hey, shithead. You are free,” Stick Figure says and chuckles, exchanging looks with Touc-Toucan.

“Hey, you can go home now,” Touc-Toucan says and rattles a set of keys in front of the man.

The officer takes a step back and then jumps. No scream. No thud.

“Yeah, didn’t think so,” says Stick Figure and they both fall back.

The Lord of Dead Ends takes a sharp breath. His lungs are about to
burst. His pulse buzzes. That’s how they go then. They say there is
nothing anyone can do to stop them. They say the Hole sneaks in their
eyes and nests in their heart and devours it.

“Oh my, oh my,” Sponge says in a tiny voice and gets off the chair,
heading for the jammed door that leads to the site. The Lord of Dead
Ends springs up and grabs his arm.

“What are you doing?”

“We need to help him, get some rope.” Sponge takes a quick look around the booth.

“Yes, great idea, let’s stroll outside to help, I’m sure the CandyMen
won’t mind us trying.” He catches his eye and holds it. “Pull yourself

“Steady now,” they hear Susie Q. saying and turn. She makes her way
behind the frontline of spawns, and at her command, some aim their guns
at the Hole while the bulkier ones move forward.

The Lord of Dead Ends squeezes Sponge’s arm softly.

“Oh my, here they come-” Sponge runs out of words, his eyes bulging wide
and wider. The Lord of Dead Ends swallows spit of sand and holds back a
bout of coughing.

Out of the hole, first comes a limb, fingers webbed and twisted; then a
shoulder, then a head with only a mouth for a face, a mouth full of
hundreds of needle teeth clasped tightly together. It crawls out on
fours, naked, its skin blue, its dark hair plastered on its forehead.
Behind it follow two more –no, it’s three, a rug doll girl in a tufted
tutu, a man with an incandescent coil instead of a neck, and a barely
visible shadow struggling to assume some kind of form, again and again
and failing. Needle Tooth lets out a shriek and whips round to face more
spawns climbing out; a medley of claws and gills and cogs, their faces
blanched with terror.

“Hold,” says Suzie Q., her eyes glinting.

Needle Tooth hisses and springs up, grabbing an automaton bird that
dared to fly lower. It twists its fingers until it cracks and shoves it
whole into its mouth, filling the air with crunching sounds.


The guards aim and take the shot, planting tranquilizing darts into the startled newborns. One by one, they totter and fall.

“What will they do with them?” Sponge wipes his nose on his sleeve,
droplets instantly absorbed by his skin. The Lord of Dead Ends unzips
his suit down to his chest; the room feels stuffy and cramped. He digs
in his pocket and fishes out his silk handkerchief.

“Here.” Sponge takes it and dabs his eyes.

“Let’s wrap it up, ladies and gentlemen,” Susie Q. says and the guards
start walking between the fallen, picking them up and gently dragging
the heavy.

“Where are they taking them? Who knows what they’ll do with them. Oh, poor things-”

“They would have killed them already if they wanted them dead.”

Sponge opens his mouth to say something, but words don’t come. In a
matter of minutes the Site is empty. The lid rumbles as it slides over
the Hole like a thin blanket. The Lord of Dead Ends takes a swig from
his flask. Wipes his lips on his sleeve.

“Cheers to the new arrivals. Welcome to the land of milk and honey.”

The Angry Inch

Shit. I turn the purse inside out on the dresser; some loose
painkillers, a rusty beetle brooch and tobacco crumbs. My burgundy lip
pencil is missing. The dressing room lights switch on with the familiar
wheeze of the back room generator and I squint. The headache shoots
sharp behind my eyes, embedding its roots deep into my skull. The smell
of burning dust on the bulbs makes me sneeze. It wouldn’t hurt if we
cleaned this dump every once in a while. Lucy the Lamp slumps on the
chair next to me and kicks off her heels, diving to rub her feet.

“What size are these?” They are too gold and glittery for my liking, but
it’s so difficult to find decent heels that fit I’m about to settle
with cheesy for a change.

“Not your size, Honey, sorry.”

I guess I’ll go for the black pair tonight, again. I push the chair back
and stroll over the door and ram it shut. I shake my shirt off and
start unbuckling my belt, eyes fixed on the clothes rack where my laced
white corset hangs along with the black crinoline. My silk blindfolds
are draped on the hanger’s hook.

My eye catches the smoke of her cigarette on the mirror and I look up.
She hasn’t smoked in months. I glance at the shut door, grab the corset,
and walk over by her.

“What?” I whisper. It’s so frustrating that she hasn’t got a face to
read, just a chin and a pair of lips. When I first met her I would
slightly lean forward trying to catch a glimpse of what was under the
lampshade, but all I could see was searing light.

“Tony didn’t show up last night.” Her voice is small, full of bumps.

“Did you check with the others?”

She nods. “No one’s seen him in a week.” The mirror lights are too
bright, emitting their sizzling heat that makes my skin flush red. “I’m
afraid they might have picked him up.” The headache jabs between my
eyes. “If the CandyMen caught him, if they-” she takes a sharp breath
and clears her throat. “Turn around, I’ll tie you up.” I wrap the corset
around my belly and stomach and flat chest, its underwire already
digging in my flesh. “Is it secure?”

“A little tighter,” I say, but then I realize she is not talking about
the corset. I nod. The automaton bird lies in a cupboard, under the
kitchen sink of my old seaside apartment. Nobody ever goes there
anymore. “As agreed.” A tide swells in my guts, pushing its way up along
with my masala chicken dinner.

“If he talks, we are done,” I say and unbutton my pants just to keep my
fingers from trembling. I fake a cough to mask a burp, damned

“He won’t talk. Tony is solid.” Air wheezes out of her lungs and she
pulls the corset strings harder. This is a disaster. “We are not even
sure they got him. Would they dare go after a cop?” Her voice is
grasping for some smoothness.

“Maybe they would. And if they did, Susie’s men might be at the old
apartment as we speak.” I glance at the door, hold my breath to make
sure no steps are approaching. All I can hear is the faint buzz of
voices blended with Serjio’s violin; the show begins.

“You are right. We have to assume the seaside apartment is compromised.
We can’t go back there.” She pats me on the shoulder. “Ready.”

“Thanks.” I slide behind the folding screen, suspenders in hand along
with my special tuck-it-all-in panties. All this work, all these months,
with all we’ve risked, for nothing. Panic grins and gives me the
finger. With my back on the wall I slide on the floor, knees folded
against my chest. What now?

“We can’t give up,” Lucy whispers. “We are so close.”

“We were. We had only the automaton to prove she feeds people to the
Hole and no proof at all that she is raising an army. Without Tony we
have no way of knowing which cops are in her pocket. We have nothing.
It’s over.” My eyes sting and my nose starts running. Fuck, don’t cry
now. At least the make-up is not on. What the hell am I thinking? They
got Tony. I’m dead meat, Susie will skin me.

“Their boldness might be their end. Someone will come looking for Tony.
We might have a better chance to make them pay attention if one of them
is missing. Unless-”

“We have nothing to show the police, Lucy. It’s over. The seaside
apartment will lead them straight to me. I’m done here. We need to get
out of the city, out of the country, now.”

“How are we supposed to cross the borders, huh? Do you have enough to
pay the smuggler? No, listen. Listen. There’s still a way to get our
hands on another bird.” I’m so tired. I hear her shuffling around and
then the teapot whistling on the camp stove by the dresser. Going
through our daily ritual always calms her down. She takes the thermos
cups out of her bag.

“I don’t care if there’s another way. I can’t do this anymore.”

“But we need you! Humans won’t listen to what a spawn says, no matter
the proof.” Of course I know, even a scumbag like me is more legit than
any spawn. “Besides, if Tony snitched you wouldn’t be here now, would
you? No, you would probably be staring at a Hole by now.”

I spring up and pull up my pants, damned buttons.

“I’m out,” I snarl.

“Out where? You think Susie won’t look for her boyfriend?” I wince at
her last pounding word. Calling me a boyfriend, especially when I’m in
my Ally outfit? Lucy, that was low. I push the screen and tramp to the
dresser, grab my purse and start shoving everything in.

“Ally, don’t. Only you can do it, at least hear me out.” Lucy jabs her
hands on her waist. My jacket feels cool on my naked arms and shoulders.

“It’s about Miro.”

My fingers freeze on the purse.

“Susie Q. has hired two new security guards for the Site. I’ve done some
digging on them, standard stuff, you know, asked around at the
Alchemist’s Den, to see if they are from her regular staff,” she snorts.
“Turns out they’re not. Not yet. And, turns out I know them. One of
them pretty well, Sponge the Bright, he used to be my friend. But, when I
looked up the other, I recognized the face from your photos. I wanted
to be sure before I told you anything, so I did some more digging, and I
found out that these two are the last of Miro’s bunch. They emerged out
of Hole Six five years ago, on March 17, around one in the morning.
Isn’t that when Miro jumped?”

My knees give in, I fumble for the chair, yes that’s the date and that’s
the time. I grope for her tobacco rolls on the dresser, a lipstick cap
rolls and falls on the ground. She lights the cigarette for me, my
fingers feel stiff and numb.

“Are you sure?”

“I couldn’t be a hundred percent sure, of course, but then, when I saw
him, he looks just like the man in your photograph. A lot. I mean, he is
a spawn, but, still. You should take a look yourself.”

I drag a breath of smoke and hold it in.

“I was thinking that maybe you could help convince them to get us
another bird.” Lucy pulls a stool and sits by me. “Think, if you
suddenly disappear now, Susie Q. will realize that you were up to
something. She will turn the city upside down to find you. And you will
miss your chance to meet them. You have been searching for Miro’s spawns
for years.”

I can see the extortion, I’m not blind, at least not when I’m off stage.
But still, she is right. The need to see him again, even in incoherent,
fragmented tittles of the man he used to be burns my chest and squeezes
the sanity right out of me.

“How do you know they will help us?”

She takes the teapot off the stove and pours us some tea, throws a
couple of sugar cubes in her thermos cup. “Sponge the Bright will agree.
He used to be one of us. I hope he hasn’t changed much.” She blows over
her cup. “His friend is not so easy to handle. And I thought that it
would only be fair if you were involved too. Besides, I imagine that
they would both be very interested in meeting you too if they knew who
you are. We might use it as-”

“A carrot?”

“Extra motivation.”

Am I doing this? Most times the spawns would bear no resemblance to the
person gone, most times there was no obvious link between them. Spawns
remember nothing, after all. But, in the rare cases that a lover or a
parent or a friend met a spawn that emerged right after their beloved
jumped, they felt a sort of connection, no matter the resemblance. A
connection. A link. Something. Anything. I will settle. I am doing this.

“Ok.” I gulp down the tea as if it’s brandy, scalding my tongue.
“Arrange a meeting.” I grab the crinoline and head for the screen. “I
need to hurry, you are doing my make-up.”

“Uh-huh,” she stabs her cigarette and fishes my kit from the top drawer.

“What’s he called, the other guy? It’s Sponge the Bright and…?”

“Lord of Dead Ends.”

“Oh, you must be joking.”

The Sharp Edge in the Bunch

The bourbon steams in the glass, giving off a smoked aroma that makes
him crave for a bite of peppery sausage. For all its reputation, cabaret
Laterallus doesn’t look like much. Just a hole dug into the innards of a
wretched building, its top floors abandoned to squatters and vermin.
Sponge doesn’t mind.

What Sponge the Bright always enjoys is the silence that lingers
in-between songs. The sudden absence of coherence. The freefall. That’s
what he claims for himself alone. The hollow thump between moments when
he can stare at his bowl full of fish-hooks. When he tries to examine
one little truth at a time and the whole lot comes out in a black bunch
full of sharp edges.

Sponge the Bright is different when he sits alone, waiting for the show
to start. Theatre is not his thing, too many people (or just one)
preaching their misery at the top of their lungs, plus the seats tend to
be too damn uncomfortable– and you are not allowed to smoke. Cinema is
contaminated by montage; by the director’s totalitarian glance; by one’s
vision. Live music is all right, ruled by many imponderable factors.
Cabarets he likes best as the performers are mostly amateurs or
professionals who made, let’s say, unlucky choices such as being
themselves–or performing songs that ring annoying to sensitive ears.

Here, it’s more likely that a note will run wild up to the ceiling.
Imperfectly perfect. Or he may just be a romantic. Or too fed up with
the Lord’s hopelessness. There are times, especially in the mornings,
when he opens his eyes and reinvents himself and his life; when he gets
to the part where he remembers who and where and when and what, and
turns his head to his side with this spongy squishy sound, and sees the
Lord breathing softly, with his glass eyes staring at the ceiling, then
he almost can’t bear it. When the Lord is asleep, it’s the worst. All
his hopelessness pours out of his eyes, singing a song for the
meaninglessness of ever waking up. He can’t blame him, of course. That’s
what the Lord of Dead Ends does. All the other spawns that emerged with
them are now gone. Some managed to leave; most just simply withered and
took their own lives. But Sponge knows that it would do no good to
anyone to leave the Lord alone in the world. No good at all. So, as
things are, he comes to cabarets alone. And he sits. And he lets the
music wash over his soul.

The string of a violin echoes, tightly-tuned, and Sponge looks up from his glass and scans the room for the waitress.

“Peppery sausages, please,” he shouts over the rumble of talk and laughter. The place is full. When did it get so loud?

“And two more bourbons.” Lucy has sneaked up behind him, wearing an
appropriate twenties fringe flapper dress to match her lamp hat. He was
expecting her, sure, but still the sound of her voice instantly warms
his insides and agitates the butterflies that have been sitting quietly
in his stomach.

She pulls a chair and sits and offers him a neatly rolled thin cigar out of her red tobacco tin shaped as a hot-air balloon.

“You still have it,” he says and nods to the tobacco tin, his voice more dreamy than he’d like it to be.

“Sure. You know how I am with gifts.”

Sponge takes the cigar and lights it. The mint flavored smoke travels
down his throat, coils in his stomach, unleashing memories of soft skin
and old sheets rough from years of washing. The night he left, they
fought and fought until Lucy threw half the cogs and springs of their
impromptu distillery at him, hitting bull’s eye more than half the time.

“I take it we need to talk?” he asks, stifling a cough. Lucy nods and
sits. She doesn’t avoid his gaze. She will not apologize for what’s
past, not Lucy; he smiles.

“I thought you were out for good. That you were sick of us,” she says,
under her breath, with her elbows on the table, leaning towards him, her
light making him blink furiously. But he doesn’t lean back.

“I was. Back then Susie was just another spawn, only just beginning to
get radical, and I saw no reason to mix myself in the whole infighting.
Now, she’s gone too far. I want back in.” Sponge pauses to catch a whiff
of bourbon that gets straight to his head. The first of the night,

“So, Susie doesn’t know that you used to be affiliated with our cause,”
Lucy says, in a careful voice, like a cat tiptoeing around a half-dead

“Yes, I highly doubt it.”

“And now you work for them, at the Site.”

“I do.” Sponge kind of enjoys this dance. It reminds him of flirting.
How pathetic. “It didn’t just happen. I made it happen, I mean, on
purpose. I let the Alchemist know about my new occupation and hoped you
still hang out at the Den.”

Lucy taps her manicured fingers on the bloated table. Sponge can tell
that she is holding her breath, her light piercing him, purging him, if

“So, you did all this because you are willing to help a cause that might not even exist anymore, for all you know.”

“But it does,” he protests and finishes his first bourbon with a smack of his lips.

“Sponge, this entire conversation is based on trust and good faith. Either one of us could be working for the CandyMen.”

“I am aware of that.” The waitress comes and goes, and Sponge treats
himself to a bite. Lucy drags her chair even closer to him and he
realizes the music has stopped. They eat and drink in silence until
music pours out of the tip of a clarinet.

“I saw what they do. At the Sites. It’s… wrong.” The naiveté of his words almost crushes him.

“Why now?” She asks and sounds genuinely curious.

Sponge sighs. “The main reason why I left was the Lord of Dead Ends. His
despair caught up with me. Fighting felt pointless. That’s the catch
with him. He is right. Things do go to shit very often, no matter how
hard you try, no matter the intentions. Fucking dead ends. Back then, I
kept my involvement with the cause a secret from him, afraid that he
would ruin it. I thought of ditching him, but I couldn’t. He is family,
you see. Anyway, I wanted to stick with him so I could show him he
didn’t have to be the Lord of Dead Ends any more, as I was not Sponge
the Bright.”

“That’s what you’re doing here? Proving him wrong?” Lucy says, leaning closer, her breath on his shoulder; he shivers.

“Nope. The Lord latches onto his name as a limpet latches onto its rock.
He is what he is. There is nothing I can do about it. But I just won’t
lie down and die without even trying to do something that matters. So.
How can I help?”

Lucy leans back on her chair, crosses her legs and folds her arms on her chest.

“Have you seen any prisoners?”

“You mean the people they feed to the Hole?”

Lucy shrugs.

“Yes. Two the past couple of weeks. Seventeen spawns emerged.”

“What did they look like? The prisoners.”

Sponge swallows a piece of sausage, but he might as well be eating a frog.

“The first one was a cop, medium-height, average looking. Suzie kept
asking him about a bird. You know, the automaton birds they keep at the
Sites? He looked quite roughed up.” He pauses as her light flickers
slightly. She grunts and straightens her back and struggles to keep her
voice even and flat.

“Did he tell her? About the bird?”

Sponge bites his lower lip.

“He was one of yours? A real cop?” Quite impressive. When he left, there
was no talk of humans joining the cause, it would have been considered
outrageous by both sides.

“Did he tell her anything?”

Sponge squeezes his brain and takes his time to sweep through every little detail.

“No,” he finally says. “She asked him once about the bird’s whereabouts
and he did not breathe a word, even though it looked like he’d been
through several rounds of questioning. She asked who had it. But he
didn’t give her anything. So she… proceeded.”

“Are you sure he didn’t talk?”

Sponge nods. “As far as I know, he didn’t.”

Lucy twines her fingers, presses her palms together and rests her chin
on top of them. Sponge takes her half-smoked cigar from the ashtray and
lights it for her. The lazy violin reaches a bitter high pitch that
echoes above the rumble like a scream and then the clarinets invade the
sadness chasing the moment away. People start singing along with the
crooner, a young looking fellow with round glasses magnifying a pair of
yellow serpent eyes and an accountant’s suit two sizes larger. His voice
is mellow, like warm raisin bread in the morning.

On the far right corner, the door opens and the Lord of Dead Ends
saunters in, clad in tight black jeans and his favorite waistcoat with
the silver watch chain. Sponge’s heart kicks in his chest; no padded
suit on? God, you’re such a dick. Out of habit, he scans the room for
sharp edges and other such death traps, finding way too many. Then it
dawns on him. He turns to Lucy.

“What is he doing here?”

Lucy’s hand flies up before he can slap it down. Clapping and cheering shakes the room as the song comes to its end.

“Lucy? Did you? I never… It’s a secret, you can’t!” Sponge shouts frantically, his eyes anywhere but on the Lord.

“Well, let’s let him in on the joke this time.”

“No, no, no, I just told you, everything he touches turns to shit,
Lucy!” Sponge, all puffed-up and flushed, grabs her hands and shakes
her, her light burning bright and brighter.

“Fuck this superstitious bullshit! Am I supposed to be just a lamp?
Huh?” She breaks off his hold and grabs her steamy glass, spilling
bourbon all over her dress. “Maybe back home our names meant something.
But home, whatever it looked like, is gone. Can you remember where you
lived? Family? Childhood’s jokes? Anything at all? No? ‘Lucy the Lamp’
means nothing here. So, yeah, he’s in. We need all the help we can get.”

Sponge straightens his blazer and dusts off some ash from his trousers,
managing only to smudge his fingers as well. How foolish of him; always
use a napkin.

“Sponge, what a surprise!” Thank goodness he never took up acting. “And
you must be Lucy, nice to meet you. Another round?” The Lord looks down
at Sponge, straight in the eye, wearing a smug stupid smile, one that
shouts “aha, gotcha!”

As soon as the Lord waves for some whisky mist–because, apparently, why
be sober when you are about to conspire against the CandyMen–the
lights dim and go out.

Sponge grabs the edge of the table and holds his breath, blood wheezing
in his ears. But no one else stands up alarmed. Spawns keep talking all
around them, a puffing, laughing, buzzing darkness that crawls and

“Lucy?” he whispers.

“Right here, I just killed my light. The show begins.”

In the darkness, the stage floorboards creak; the microphone squeals and
makes his ears pop. A voice rips the air, ripe with desire and sweet
like a fig. It hits him hard, slaps him in the face, loosens a little
screw wedged in his chest that kept it all back and properly winded. He
comes alive, in remembrance of lyrics he never heard before.

The lights fade back in but he cannot bear to look at the stage. Bravery
is an overrated cunt, Ally had said once, sipping her dirty martini
while pointing at a roach crawling on the wall, so he could kill it with
a rolled Motomag. He glances at the Lord instead, still standing next
to him, and the tears running down his porcelain face hurt worse than a
broken bone. There is an expression on his face he cannot interpret.
Sponge looks up to the stage.

Blind Ally wears her tight corset and her underwire crinoline skirt and
her suspenders and her trademark silk blindfold, all too familiar in an
unfamiliar way. She sways on her black heels, and sings as if nothing
has ever changed in this world of hers, deprived of colors and shapes; a
world defined by whooshes and rustling and boards that creak under each
calculated step a thousand times rehearsed at nights when he was not
here, was not here to applaud and cheer and whistle, at nights when he
was someplace else, busy not remembering.

Sponge stands up to hit the bar, but Lucy grabs his arm.

“Susie Q.!” she whispers under her breath.

“What?” he says, his throat dry, eyes still on Ally.

“What’s she doing here? Quick, you got to get out. She can’t see us
together. Fuck.” She pushes him out of his chair and shakes the Lord,
tugging his shirt, all too fast and under the table. Then, she crouches
and dims her light even more, and talks too quickly.

“Meet us at the seaside apartment, first light.”

“Where?” Sponge says, finally taking notice of Susie.

“We know the place,” the Lord cuts in and fishes a rolled cigarette out
of his pocket. Lucy nods and scuttles off, straight to the bar, blending
in with men that tip their panama hats and offer her their small talk.

The Lord of Dead Ends turns away from the stage, his lips tight to hold
back words or screams or vomit. Sponge downs his whiskey mist and winces
as it burns his throat, his stomach convulsing. Then, he grabs the
Lord’s glass, but before he has time to touch it to his lips, the Lord
snatches it away and places it back on the table.

“Don’t be stupid.” The Lord leaves a couple of notes on the table and drags him along, out in the street, away.


I walk out of the cabaret, black heels in hand, and sigh. Well done,
Ally, you forgot again–Thursday is bus strike day. Right. Wonderful. I
look up and down the highway with its 5 am close to zero traffic and can
spot absolutely no trace of a cab. Not even the whiff of a rickshaw’s
tailpipe. Nothing. Even the air lacks its usual foggy sea-breeze flavor.
Makes sense. Vapor factory workers joined the gold miners on indefinite
wildcat strike last week and the whole city gets to breathe. Walking it
is. I sling my backpack across my shoulders and cross the highway, feet
protesting my quick pace.

Physical pain feels good now though, familiar. An anchor. Stress grips
my guts and squeezes them; my stomach growls, but eating is out of the
question. First, I have to make a stop at home to get the keys to the
old seaside apartment. Why did fucking Susie have the brilliant idea to
come over to the cabaret, to grant me the great pleasure of her sublime
company tonight of all nights? Normally, I don’t mind listening to her
in bed, unwinding after a day of wanton violence and other trivialities,
I don’t even mind us fucking, same as I don’t mind fucking anyone.
Tonight though, even sitting across from her took every last crumble of
discipline and willpower. Surprise, Miro is mentioned and suddenly you
got your limits, Ally. King of self-respect.

Or, she might be onto us, which would make for terrible timing. How
classic. I roll down my shirt sleeves as the breeze picks up and push
open the jingling door of the bakery under Mum’s apartment. The smell of
bread and baked quince embraces me as the small talk with the owner’s
daughter takes its beaten way. I wave goodbye, and squeeze my brain to
recall her name, but I can only remember that it’s something fitting for
a freckled baker’s offspring. I can be such an arrogant prick.

I take the stairs up, winding and wide, their marble worn and dull and
cracked, and can’t help picturing what it would be like to descend these
stairs back when this complex was properly treated and cared for. Back
when it housed taffeta-clad merchants of the most exquisite manners,
when its various rooms were not diminished to housing those of little
means, whole families cramped in ball room number thirteen.

Before I pull out my key, Mum cracks the door, her hair disheveled from sleep.

“Hi, Mum.” Thin red veins fork on the whites of her eyes. She looks over
my shoulder and down to the bag I am holding and finally at my face,
her delicate eyebrows frowning.

“Where have you been?” She opens the door and ushers me in. Our room is
dark apart from the light of the table lamp by her sofa bed. The sheets
are tangled and Stephen Fry’s Making History lies face down on top of
them, one of dad’s favorite and one of the last he had managed to
smuggle into the country before the borders closed for good.

“Are you reading it again?” I leave the backpack by the piano and roll my shoulders.

“Where have you been? Alessandro? Are you ok?” The curtains are shut and
it smells stuffy and syrupy sweet. She must have been binging on
granny’s walnut spoon sweet. My glance flickers on the top shelves above
the camping stove only to spot the jar half-empty.

“I brought you some breakfast.” There must be raisin bread somewhere in
the bags. “I’m ok. I’m sorry you were worried, I didn’t mean to…” I
trail off and walk up to the window to let some fresh air in.

“I was worried sick, baby. I went downstairs and woke up Auntie Smaro to
use her telephone, but the damned thing just coughed some sparks and
croaked. You should see the smoke, and the smell, ugh.” She makes a
disgusted noise and carries the bags to the table, her eyes narrow as
she peers into them. Mum always disapproves of me spending my wages on
such silly luxuries but she never mouths it out. I always know anyway,
but I appreciate her silence. A sigh escapes me and I slump on the bed;
suddenly, I miss her.

“I’ll chip in to buy her a new one. Maybe we can get one for us as well.”

“No, Honey, don’t worry about it, me and auntie will figure something out. Maybe we’ll fetch Korina’s son, what’s his name?”


“Yes, yes, Leonard, maybe we’ll have Leonard take a look at it, in case he can fix it. Handsome boy, isn’t he?”

“Mum, it doesn’t sound like it can be fixed.” There is only so much I
can tell her. When she found out about the cabaret, she shrugged and
said she always knew that music would win me over. Nor did I hear a word
of complaint when I left my job as a zeppelin steward with all its
benefits. Her advice was to always save some money aside for the
dentist. She gave me my first stage corset. She stopped talking to
friends that arched their eyebrows at me being Ally. But I could never
bring myself to tell her about Susie. To look her in the eye and admit
how much I crave all kinds of bruises.

She stops rummaging through the bags and looks up at me with such sharp and piercing horror that my heart jumps.

“What’s this?” She points at the sweet pumpkin pie, her index finger a
little crooked from years of piano practice. Particles of icing sugar
float around as she violently rumples the top of the bag and I inhale, a
breath sharp that fills my lungs, a sweet taste on the tip of my tongue
masking the bitterness. I hate sweet pumpkin pie, but it was Miro’s
favorite. I bought it without thinking, out of dated habit and brand-new
hope. I didn’t even manage to steal a glance at his spawns last night
and there was an uncanny relief and a deep disappointment when I took
off my blindfold and they were gone.

“Alessandro? What’s going on, Baby?” Mum runs her fingers through my
hair, her skin cold. I flinch away and glance at dad’s cuckoo’s clock.

“I must get going,” I mumble and walk over to my dresser, fumbling with
its handles as if my hands have forgotten how to perform any fine moves.

“Who’s the pie for?” she says in a whisper that carries the force of a
wave three meters tall. Miro is sitting on the edge of the bed, legs
stretched out and feet crossed, holding a cigarette between his thumb
and index. He leans back for a fleeting kiss, his lips sugar-dusted.

“Baby, don’t tell me it’s all about Miro again,” her voice sounds soft now, but only on the surface.

Finally I fish out the keys to the apartment and turn around, avoiding her gaze. What can I tell her? Where would I start?

“It’s our anniversary, that’s all.” I was thinking of taking a shower to
rinse all Susieness out, but there is no time. Maybe at the apartment.

“That’s why you’re taking the keys? You’ll go over there and be all
mopey?” Mum pushes her hair back, combs it with her fingers and tries to
tie a ribbon around it. “All those years and you still let your life
revolve around a–”

“Mum, don’t start again,” come on, not now. She snorts and folds her
arms on her chest, straightens her back and swells up, a fragile peacock
ready to caw and bite.

“He was not good for you. No damn good for anyone. Your eyes were always
red and puffed, bruises under layers of clothing. How many times did
you have to lie to the nurse, huh? Or to me? Or to your friends? He
should have gone back the way he came, to his backwater homophobic

“Mum, his country had nothing to do with it.” Her rants against Miro’s
origin always shock me, coming from my mum, a human rights activist long
before it was fashionable. One of my most vivid memories are her and me
at a crowded demonstration, running away from tear gas, wearing
hospital masks slathered with Vaseline.

“Where you come from always matters. History’s whole point.” She turns
her back to me and wipes her eyes on the sleeve of her knitted jacket.
“You didn’t deserve all this misery. Hadn’t he jumped I would have
strangled him with my own bare hands.”

“All right.” No time to argue, Mum. I shiver at the cold draft coming
from the open window and start shoving my stuff in a sling bag. My limbs
feel heavy and uncoordinated; a chilling sense of dread crawls up my

“Aren’t you going to get any sleep? You’re so pale, Honey,” she says,
studying me, her eyes small and even redder than before. Lack of sleep.
Right. I forgot. I turn around and throw my arms around her, holding her
tight, afraid that if I let her go now, she will float up to the
ceiling, up out of the window, up to the clear morning sky where I won’t
be able to reach her any more, and she will keep floating away, past
clouds, past seagulls, past zeppelins and the moon, until she becomes
one of the little meaningless dots pinned on the sky.

“I have to meet Lucy and some new people at the old seaside apartment.
It’s important.” I try my best not to sound alarmed, but panic rages in
my chest, raising my voice up an octave. We’re walking down the
all-or-nothing road now and it doesn’t take much for her to recognize
the ring of finality in my words. Mum presses her lips together and
nods, and runs her fingers through my hair.

“Are you close? Should I start packing?” she whispers and I let go and
wear my loafers again, feet still aching. I grunt and quickly put on a
fresh shirt and sloppily pin my hair up.

“How do I look?” I ask and force a smile that must look a bit nutty.

“Perfect, Honey. Please, be careful.”

My turn to nod and float away into the cold morning light, on a bus
strike day-damn it, to make her proud, to go and do something that

What’s the Point of Ugly Mermaids?

“Do you think it’s too early for a swirl cone?” The Lord of Dead Ends is
always hungry. Sponge shrugs as they pass by an ice-cream canteen, its
pink paint flaking.

The statue of the Fallen Mermaid at the center of the square grunts and
screeches as its cogs move the tail to roughly tell the hour. The plaque
on the ground says that it’s dedicated to the memory of some girl among
the first who jumped. The length people go to in order to deal with
grief. The Lord of Dead Ends has no idea if it helps, but he certainly
hopes it does because this is a hell of an ugly mermaid. Right next to
the statue stands Tin Soldier Anna, selling her bubble tea and
unprocessed rice coupons. Spawns huddle in front of her, but few can
afford her wares. Next to him, Sponge snorts at the sight and clutches
his sun umbrella which he uses as a walking stick for now.

They spent all night arguing over the bloody fact that Sponge had kept
so much from him. Lack of trust stung so gingerly that he could hardly
control the volume of his voice or his hands banging on the table. He
had to wear the padded suit all night in fear he would maim himself,
such was the force of his rage. And as many times he flirted with the
idea of throwing himself out of the window, the fear of ending up a
cripple always stopped him. After a few bouts that took up the small
hours, the anger dissipated leaving behind a throbbing wound trapped in a
porcelain casket. Such tantrums would only lead to a dead end. That
much, he remembers.

They walk past the square and take a turn on their right that leads them
straight to the narrow quay next to one of the city’s beaches. The
building blocks that loom up at the side of the street brim with flower
beds. The exterior walls look freshly painted and the balcony railings
glimmer at the morning sun. One of the few such neighborhoods left so
close to spawn territory. The Lord unzips his suit down to his collar
bone to let the sunrays touch his skin. His glance wanders down at the
sandy beach, devoid of umbrellas and sunbeds and upbeat beach bars and
melting freddo cappuccinos. This place used to look so different.

“Do you really remember this place?” asks Sponge, squinting at the sun.

“Just flashes. You don’t?” the Lord asks and leans against a metallic bench.

Sponge shakes his head and opens his umbrella to prevent the raisin
effect. “Isn’t it funny that we remember different things from Miro’s

“It’s funny we remember anything. I don’t like it. Feels weird.” The
Lord tries hard not to sulk but he can’t help it. From the moment they
saw Blind Ally on the stage, memories pop up as disjointed and random
peeks into somebody else’s life, goading out emotions that feel hollow
and inescapable at the same time. So annoying. Sponge climbs on the
bench and sits on its back, extending the umbrella’s shadow to him. A
conciliatory move after last night’s argument. The Lord is not quite
ready to let it go but he doesn’t protest either. Warmth feels good but
glazing costs a lot, after all.

“Ally was our girlfriend, right?” Sponge asks, his eyes nailed on the pavement.

“Boyfriend you mean?”

Sponge snaps up, looking genuinely surprised. “Ally is a…”

“Yep, his name is Alessandro, that’s what I got when I went all Total Recall.”

“That’s not an accurate comparison, at all,” Sponge says trying to bite
his nails, then looking down at his fingers, momentarily shocked there
are no nails to bite. The Lord chuckles. Same thing happened to him last
night. Apparently, the person they used to be had at least one nasty
habit. “And anyway, I do like Dick’s story better.” That’s pure Sponge
though; his annoying obsession with Philip K. Dick started years ago,
when he joined a reading club way too infatuated with the fucking
Electric Sheep. “Do you think we loved her?” Sponge slouches and the
roof of the umbrella hits the Lord’s head. He snatches it from him and
holds it higher.

“We had nothing to do with Alessandro.” He springs up. “We were not
there.” He starts walking away, not looking back even when Sponge does
not follow.

“Should we pretend we don’t know?” Sponge asks in a voice that melts his
heart. Why did he have to drag them in all this mess? Couldn’t he see
it would all go to shit? Sponge did not deserve such misery, over and
over and over again. The Lord sighs and turns around.

“We can’t pretend. But, in any case, we should remember that we are not
who he used to know or love or trust. He will be disappointed, Sponge.
So, brace yourself.”

Sponge just stands there for a few long moments, eyeing him, pouting
like a scolded child. Then, slowly, he starts walking towards him.

“You are being hyperbolic, again. And, between us, you are the one more
apt to take a hard fall,” Sponge says and snatches the umbrella back,
“Mr. Fragile.”

Sponge is right. What a sweeping surprise. He has his cause and his
social circles and his obsession with cabarets. Reading clubs and
endless debates on the arts. Lucy the Lamp. Fishing swirling
magnet-ducks in luna parks. The Lord swallows hard and presses his lips
together. He made sure he has nothing to fall back on.

Let’s Tessellate

I toss the towel on the bathroom floor and, still dripping, I walk over
to the closet by the bed and just stare at it, shivering. Come on now,
you don’t have time for this. The closet doors, painted in chalkboard
paint, are covered with lyrics of half-finished songs and riffs and
random verses that sounded good but fitted nowhere at the time. Stray
doodles sprout here and there: Cthulhu eating a steam-o-cart, a winged
penis –my creation, of course–, a rat and a clock and something like a
thorned plant. The square box up on the right corner that we used as a
notice board, reads “If you didn’t get coffee, get the hell out” in
Miro’s neat handwriting. Did I? I grit my teeth and take a deep breath
and open the closet.

The smell of camphor floods the air and makes me cough. A selection of
dark t-shirts and shirts and jeans hang orderly on the right side. My
side looks plundered. I left only what I couldn’t bear wearing any
longer. Most of his gifts. My cinched waist cardigan. My favorite blue
sweatshirt. My silly toed socks that lie tangled on the bottom of the
closet next to the sex toys’ box. The urge to grab a pair of scissors
and tear them all apart flashes and faints. I pick a dark red t-shirt
and jeans instead, and bang the doors shut. Miro was not much taller
than me but he was a fucking anorexic, so I’m having some difficulty
sliding into his jeans. The only thing he ate was pumpkin freaking pie,
for God’s sake.

The doorbell rings and I jump. All right, steady now, it might be Lucy. I
quickly throw the wet towel in the laundry basket and swing the door
open, cursing the lack of a peephole. It’s all three of them.

“Hi,” I say and lean on the door as I nod to them to come inside, hands trembling.

“Good morning, Sweetheart,” Lucy says and I barely notice her. Next to
her stands a short bald man–sorry, spawn, his skin bright yellow,
casually dressed, clutching an umbrella. This must be Sponge. He flashes
an awkward smile that looks kind of spooky. And next to him stands a
much taller spawn, dressed in a weird full body suit much like a
scuba-diver’s. The resemblance is there, sweet God, the cheekbones and
the lips and the eyebrows, and the hair; my eyes sting with tears and I
have to struggle not to let out a scream of relief. Thank you God, it’s
not him.

I smile, wipe my eyes on my sleeve–shit, stop crying–and let them in.
The small living room feels cramped even when they are seated. Don’t
stare at them, for fuck’s sake, say something.

“Can I get you something? Coffee? Tea? I’ve got…” My tongue is tripping
on words. “Pumpkin pie?” My face must look so stupid with such a cheap
and fraying mask on. Sponge looks furtively around, sitting on the edge
of his seat, while the Lord of Dead Ends leans back, his arms stretched
on the back of the couch, legs crossed, eyeing me. Stomach pang. Don’t
blush, please.

“Nice apartment,” Sponge says and smiles. “I’ll have some pumpkin pie, thank you.”

Unable to speak, I nod and turn around–how long can I spend hiding in the kitchen?

“And some coffee for me.” His voice hits me hard, sends me spiraling
down in a world where I love serving him his morning coffee right after
I’ve sucked his cock, where the pain from my tied wrists wakes me up in
the middle of the night, where we’re rehearsing a song until my throat
hurts and his calloused ring finger bleeds on the violin.

“Black? The coffee?” As usual? Don’t turn around.


Once everything is settled on the coffee table and we’re back to awkward mode, Lucy lets out an exasperated sigh.

“All right. We have no time to mop your faces off the floor. You can all
broodingly stare at each other in silence after we see this done and
our asses are safe.”

Right. Fucking perfect timing.

“So, all we know so far is that Tony didn’t tell Susie anything,” Lucy says and turns to Sponge for confirmation.

“Uhm, yes,” he says.

“Though we don’t know how much he spilled out when he was with more
private company,” the Lord says and sips some coffee, trying to suppress
a little crooked smile. I make a hell of a coffee. Focus now. “But, to
begin with, what’s the deal with the bird? What do you want to do with
it? You have it, I assume.”

“We need the automaton bird to expose what is happening at the Sites.
They are throwing humans in the Holes, lowlifes mostly, and they use the
newborn spawns to man their ranks,” Lucy says in haste, holding her cup

“So?” the Lord asks.

“What do you mean?” Sponge says. “It’s horrible! You know the state
we’re in when we emerge. To take advantage of spawns in such a

“That’s not all.” Lucy turns to me and I shrug. If they’re working for
Susie, we’re already fucked anyway. She nods and continues. “The
CandyMen are raising an army. They are planning to march against the
city authorities. Actually, we have inside information that they are
preparing for a full-blown coup.”

The Lord of Dead Ends snorts, earning sharp glances from Lucy and Sponge.

“And how did you get this inside information?”

My heart thumps. “From Susie Q. herself.” His face is still smudged with
a smirk of disbelief. How much I want to smash your teeth right now.
“She told me. We’ve been fucking on and off for the past year.” My voice
comes out cold and flat, though my palms are clammy. Instead of a fit
of jealousy, I get silence. I’m such an idiot.

“Are you sure she is not feeding you false info?” the Lord says and he
sounds genuinely unbothered. Despite any superficial relief, my heart
sinks in a pit of anger.

“For a whole year? Why would she do that?” Lucy says.

“All right, let’s consider your information valid. What do we do with
the bird?” Sponge says and takes a bite of the pumpkin pie.

“That’s where Tony came in the plan. He is, was, a well-connected cop.
He figured out that the CandyMen were up to something big well before
contacting us. He needed evidence to back up his theory, of course. Thus
the bird.” Lucy puts her cup down. “A week ago he was supposed to take
the case to his boss. But we haven’t seen him since. We have no idea
whether he managed to warn his superiors before Susie picked him up.”

“What if he spoke to his superiors, and they are the ones who ratted him
out to Susie?” Sponge says. “Susie wouldn’t risk going after an officer
unless she got the green light from someone higher up.”

Yep, that’s what we’re trying to tell you, we’re screwed. “I think that
must be the case. She has never tried anything like this before. And she
seems quite comfortable with the whole situation. She knew very well
who he was.” I try not to bite my lip. “It must have been his superior
or someone even higher up that gave him to Susie.” I let a breath out
and fumble in my pockets for my cigarettes and then I realize I’m not
wearing my clothes.

“So, I presume that you dragged us into this mess to die happily all together?” the Lord asks.

“Sponge is the one who contacted us first,” Lucy says. “And, you are free to leave if you want.”

“Seriously? After we might have been spotted coming here?”

I nod at the Lord’s tobacco pouch and he hands it to me. I start rolling.

“As you said, Tony didn’t say anything. And last night Susie acted
normal. It’s a bit out of the blue that she came to the cabaret, she
doesn’t often do this, but, still, nothing weird or suspicious came out
when I was with her.”

“She might have been checking you out. Are you sure you were not followed here?” The Lord offers his lighter.

“I wasn’t.”

Lucy coughs and intervenes.

“Initially, when we didn’t know what happened to Tony, we thought that
we should drop everything and leave. But, where would we go? Fleeing the
country is not an option. We cannot afford the smugglers. And hiding in
the provinces would be pointless. Susie has people everywhere. Plus,
I’m not easy to hide.” Lucy smiles. “So, we thought we should destroy
the bird, lay low and if we survived this, maybe try again in the
future. That’s where you would come in. But, since you are saying that
we’re good, we can still use the bird we have.”

“And what are we going to do with it? Try to guess which cop is not corrupted so we can-”

“No,” Sponge says as he soundlessly taps his fingers on the table. “We’ll give it to the media.”

“That’s fucking Hollywood talking now,” the Lord says, but Lucy’s light flickers already.

“Lose the sarcasm, for once.” Sponge looks flushed. “If the footage is
aired there will be public outrage. Humans hate our guts. They are
scared shitless at the sight of us. They will be forced to pull back.
Heads might roll. Imagine what would happen if it was even implied that
Spawns are throwing humans to the Holes, planning a god damn coup!”

It’s easy to imagine. My skin crawls and I can feel my hair at the back
of my neck stand up. It’s not my fault I’m human, but still, guilt
engulfs me.

“There will be a slaughter,” Sponge says, eyes fixed on the coffee
table. “And we will have provided the ammunition. The excuse to treat
our kind a million ways shittier than before. It will thrust the whole
country backwards. The human rights amendments might be recanted. It
will be butter on the right wing extremists’ bread. If we do this, none
of us will be able to sleep at night.”

The Lord takes a sharp breath and steals my cigarette with a silent “may I?”

“So, should we do nothing?” Lucy says, wiping her sweaty hands on her skirt.

“I didn’t say that,” says Sponge, looking up at her. “All I’m saying, is that there will be consequences.”

“We can’t just sit on it. Knowing they are killing humans? Exploiting
spawns? How many people are going to die if there is a coup?” Lucy’s
voice breaks but her light almost burns my eyes. “And who are we to
decide that the truth is best to remain hidden? Shouldn’t we at least
try and have some faith in people? They might-”

“No.” The Lord exhales. “We cannot rely on our faith in humanity to
justify our actions. Just so we can sleep at night. Sponge is right. If
the public knows, there will be blood. If the coup happens, there will
be blood. We choose with our eyes open. No sugarcoating.”

I agree. I have to use the bathroom but I stay put and swallow hard. Bile is crawling up my throat; I want to gag.

“I think,” I swallow again, “that there is no way to know what the
outcome might be whether we act or not. There is no real dilemma. It’s
an impossible choice. My guess is that we are going to have trouble
sleeping anyway, if we make it out alive, that is.”

“What do you suggest?” Lucy asks and I realize I am standing.

“To focus on what we know for a fact. We know what is happening at the Holes. That’s it.”

The Lord snorts. “That’s naïve.”

“Any other ideas?” I snap. “And Lucy might just be right. People might
see the footage for what it is: a bunch of criminals taking advantage of
the situation in order to seize power. We cannot infantilize people,
manipulating them with our inertia in the name of protecting them.” Oh
God, I sound like my mum–shut the fuck up. My cheeks burn and my mouth
feels dry. “I need to pee.”

The distance to the bathroom never felt so long. I unbutton his jeans, I
sit – I always sit, unless I’m out –, I let go and there’s this
instant familiar relief; then up again, I flush, wash my hands, glance
at the mirror to straighten an unruly tuft. “Are you in there?” I tap
at the glass. I’m not, and it’s soothing. To take a step back. Too much
is happening at once.

Once I’m back in the living room, a bizarre sight awaits me. Sponge has
climbed on the Lord’s shoulders, and they are clumsily balancing under
the built-in storage compartment, right above the bookcase.

“What are you doing?” I gawk at them in disbelief. That’s where Miro
kept the Christmas decorations along with broken suitcases he refused to
throw away. Sponge takes the handle and pulls the square door open.
Dust and glitter rain down on the books.

“They were mumbling something about money,” Lucy says as she comes to stand next to me, hands propped on her waist.

“It’s supposed to be a green box,” the Lord says and puffs as Sponge
tries to squeeze his torso in the small opening. “Did you take it

A few moments pass before I realize he is talking to me.

“What? No!” His rudeness slaps me back into reality. I didn’t even know
it existed. Miro was indeed very secretive with money–he feared that if
he didn’t take precautions, he would die penniless under a bridge.

“Found it,” Sponge yells and steps on the Lord’s shoulders and pulls
himself whole into the cramped compartment. The Lord rolls his shoulders
and unzips his suit down to his chest.

“About time, you’re fucking heavy for a sponge.”

There is a thump at the front door. My blood turns to ice. We all stay still, staring at the corridor, ears stretched.


The Lord teeters as Sponge climbs back down on his shoulders and I swoop
towards him, to prevent his fall. Sponge quickly jumps on the floor,
clutching a small green box in his arms. Lucy turns her light off and
tiptoes towards the door to put her ear against it. She signals me to
check out of the window. I run as quietly as I can and draw the curtain
back to peek down at the street. Three classic gear-laden bikes are
parked by the pavement; Orlando the Troll is riding one. Susie’s men.
Fuck. My hand flies up to my mouth as I turn to face the others.

“Quick. Service stairs,” the Lord whispers and shoves us into the kitchen.

“Lucy, get the bird,” I say and she retrieves the cage from under the
kitchen sink. The bird flutters against the thin bars and caws as it
lunges at her fingers.

“Shit, why is it turned on?” Lucy nearly screams.

“It was all out of steam when we brought it here,” I say, gaping at it in horror.

Sponge grabs the cage and takes a good look at the frenzied automaton.

“Its mechanism. Self-winded. See this set of pipes here? And probably it gave away its location too, see this red dot?”

“Sponge, not now,” the Lord says. “Can you make it stop?”

Thump, thump, crack. Oh, fuck, oh, fuck.

“Get out!” the Lord says and I fumble for the service door key, but my
fingers are useless. Lucy grabs the keys, takes out one and unlocks the
door. She nods at me. I glance at the others.

“I’ll stall them. It used to be my home, it makes sense why I would be here,” the Lord says and looks over his shoulder.

“No,” says Sponge and grabs his arm.

“They might not know of your involvement,” the Lord says, looking at me and then at Lucy.

“No.” Sponge pulls him hard and the bird jumps at the chance and bites
him. Sponge winces and curses under his breath, but he doesn’t drop the
cage. Yellow porous skin hangs out of the bird’s beak. Sponge readjusts
his grip and looks back at the Lord, his eyes watery. “Hurry up.” He
shoves the Lord in front of him and pushes him toward the back door.

I let a breath out and start climbing down the rusty stairs constantly
looking over my shoulder to make sure everyone is coming. I never used
the stairs before, so I have no idea where it leads to. Won’t they be
waiting for us at the bottom? Tenants look out of their windows as we
rush down; railings creaking, bird screeching, steps echoing hollow.
Stealthiest escape ever. At the building adjacent to ours, a wide-eyed
lady wearing a Minnie Mouse apron is staring at us through her kitchen
window. Miss Whinybee! Oh gosh, what’s her real name?

“Can we come through?” I mouth silently. She waves us in and we dash
forward, one after the other, until she shuts the door behind us and
locks it.

“Alessandro?” she asks, looking at us in disbelief. She seemed half gone
five years ago. I’m surprised she even recognizes me now.

“Hello, Mrs. Lenny,” says the Lord and smiles apologetically. Right, Mrs. Lenny.

“Miroslav? What is all this fuss about?”

“We apologize for distressing you, Mrs. Lenny, but you see, we need to
pass through your house. We were locked outside while painting the

“Oh, boys, that’s very considerate of you. They’re all so rusty.” She
raises her hand to touch his face, but she changes her mind midway. “You
are so pale, sweetheart. Are you hungry?”

“Right, another time maybe, thank you for letting us through,” I say and
force a smile as I draw the curtain shut. The bird lets out a piercing
squawk that makes us all jump and Sponge opens the cage door to try to
catch it.

“No, you’re hurt,” Lucy says leaning forward to help him but he shoos her away.

“Oh, poor thing, is it broken?” Mrs. Lenny asks and leans over the cage
to take a better look at it. It’s an awful thing to say, but dementia
kind of suits her. Took the edge out of her.

“Do you have its winding key?” Sponge asks over the violent fluttering.

“Upstairs,” Lucy says and tries to hold the cage upright.

“I have a spare one,” Mrs. Lenny says and starts rummaging the drawers.

Ten minutes later, and with the bird out of steam and safely secured in
Sponge’s pocket, we dare to walk out of the building. Its entrance faces
a different part of the street, a few stores down from where the bikes
are parked. The street turns right just a few meters ahead, so if we
make it there unnoticed we might have a chance.

“All right. We can do this,” Sponge whispers and I can’t help but look
down to his fingers. A small part of his index finger is missing and
blood smudges his palm. I frantically fumble in my pockets for a hair
ribbon, but these are not my clothes, shit, and I pull the one that
holds my hair up instead. I wrap it around his wound and tie it in a
cute little bow. There, fixed, see?

Maybe the bow is over-kill.

Sponge gapes at me, his mouth half-open. What the fuck am I doing?

“Sorry,” I mumble. I’m losing it.

“Don’t worry,” he whispers. “Thanks.”

“Come on,” Lucy says and she dashes forward. One by one, our feet hit
the pavement and we run. I don’t dare to look back. My wheezing breath
covers all sounds. We turn right and then left in an alley, and keep
running until my calves burn. As soon as we pour forth in the first
avenue we find, I hear a bike revving up on my side. Someone grabs my
arm and hauls me in a narrow street on my left.

“Run,” Sponge says, next to me. Lucy and the Lord rush ahead.

“Did they miss us?” Lucy asks over her shoulder, but no one answers.

This last turn leads to a wall. I stop and bend over, trying to catch my
breath. My chest hurts and sweat stings my eyes. A dead end, of course.

“Fuck!” Sponge says and collapses against a trash can which rolls to the side.

“No, get up,” the Lord says, glaring at him. He grabs the can and pushes it against the wall. “Lucy, you first.”

The wall is not too tall. It might work. Lucy climbs on the trash can and starts pulling herself up the wall.

“You.” The Lord points at me, but I shake my head, still trying to catch my breath.

“I need a moment. You first.”

He turns around and begins to climb, but no one is there to hold the
trash can steady. It slides. Out of the corner of my eye, Sponge lunges
forward just in time to break the Lord’s fall.

“Helps to be a sponge, huh?” Sponge says and grunts.

“Thanks,” the Lord says and helps Sponge up. Before I know it, I’m by
their side, scanning the Lord for any cracks and Sponge for any kind of
injury, though damn me if I know what that’s supposed to look like.

“You’re both stupid. Start climbing. I’ll follow.”

Sponge is halfway up when I hear the engines’ growl closing in on us.

“Sponge, hurry up,” I say and look the Lord straight in the eye. “We’ll
stall them.” If Sponge is protesting, I can’t hear him. The bikes are
just around the corner.

Thankfully, when they appear, Sponge has vanished down the other side.
It’s just three of them and not even her most trusted ones. That’s a
surprise. I glance at the Lord.

“What do you think? Ready to put up a fight?”

The Lord smirks, then smiles, then laughs until tears flood his eyes.


“Was this the worst idea you ever had?” the Lord says, sprawled on the
tiles, his back against the wall. His head feels as if it’s about to
explode, making it hard to talk. Alessandro sits crouched opposite him,
hugging his knees. His lower lip has bled down to his chin and a bruise
blooms on his cheek.

“No. I’m capable of much worse,” he says and smiles and lets out a gasp of pain.

The room that Susie’s men threw them into is no bigger than the security
booth, only it’s stripped down to just floor and walls. The door
doesn’t look reinforced, but their larceny skills failed them when they
tried to open it.

“Are you sure we are at the Site?” Alessandro asks, squinting at the fluorescent light.

“Site Six. Ground level. The Hole is nearby.” No one came for them. The
silence stretches outside the door, more threatening than any kind of
yell. “Do you think they are coming?” the Lord asks, mostly to keep the
monster at bay.

“I’ve been thinking about it. Susie sent out very few men, maybe no more
than the three we saw. And they were not her best, not by far.”

“Expendables,” the Lord says.

“Exactly. I think she will deal with us on her own to protect her status. Losing face could ruin her.”

“You mean if word gets out that her lover was behind everything,” the
Lord says. “Do you think she got the others?” Even asking hurts, the
words themselves burn his throat and turn his tongue to lead.

Alessandro’s shoulders slump. “Do you remember… maybe… what happens when you jump?”

It’s a sensible question but he didn’t see it coming. The Lord looks
down at his hands resting on his lap. The padded suit is ripped apart in
places, exposing his knuckles. Hairline cracks run along his skin,
blood shining red under the light. He briefly considers lying. Screw it.

“Uhm, I don’t remember much. Uhm, the pain? Yes, this we all remember.
For me, it was like someone tore my heart out of my chest.” And left it
writhing in the dark until it was dead. “You…” It’s so hard to chase the
words into some kind of order. “The split. It’s like, the same force
that kept you together in a whole now pushes you apart. You are
disoriented, completely confused. There is this foul smell, the
disgusting feeling of slime under your feet. It’s cold. Then you start
climbing up with all you have. It’s frantic.” The Lord sighs, his mouth
dry. “When you reach the surface, you realize you remember nothing. You
only recognize the spawns that came up with you. You know their names,
and that’s pretty much all,” he looks up and sees that Alessandro is
watching him closely, his eyes sunk.

“So, you don’t remember what you are called? The others tell you?”


Alessandro pulls himself closer. “What about your old life?”

The Lord shakes his head. “Nothing.” He pulls the suit down to try and
cover the cracks, but Alessandro gently pushes him back and takes his
hand into his inspecting it closely. “Has it spread?” he asks and leans
towards the Lord, checking his neck and face.

The Lord gazes at him, at his long hair that looks so good disheveled,
at his lithe arms, at the bruises. “You are pretty,” he blurts before
thinking, but it’s okay. They are finished.

Alessandro glares at him and snorts.

“You know, Miro always did that. He chose the most inappropriate time to flirt with me.”

“Did it work?”

Alessandro pretends to ignore him and clutches the zipper. “May I?” The
Lord almost jerks away in fear that it’s just the suit that’s holding
him together. “I’ll be careful,” Alessandro whispers and goes on slowly,
revealing red spider-web cracks that run along his chest and sides and
shoulders. He looks up at the Lord, gritting his teeth.

“I guess it’s safe to assume that’s my new look overall.”

“I’m sorry.”

The Lord shrugs and smiles. “It doesn’t hurt that much.” He fishes his
tobacco pouch out of the suit’s inner pocket and starts rolling. “So,
how come he jumped? I mean, it happened years after the Holes first
opened up. Was it an accident?”

Alessandro looks him straight in the eye, lips pressed together in a thin line.

“Sort of.” He hugs his knees again. “I’ll need a drag. Maybe you should
roll another one.” They stay silent until the cigarette is down to half.
“I wanted to jump. He wanted me to jump. I hoped that the Hole would
change me.” His voice cracks and he struggles to retain some control
over his face. “Miro always said how he would like me to be…”

“A girl?” Outrage hides in his voice. Alessandro wipes his tears with his palm.

“Different. He was so angry. That we were together, that he couldn’t eat
like a normal human being, that he couldn’t make a living playing the
violin, that he couldn’t give up his addictions. I was desperate to make
him happier, if not happy.”

“And jumping into a Hole would help? That’s-”

“I didn’t say I wasn’t stupid! Now, I understand I needed to leave him.
But I couldn’t bring myself to do it, I was mad about him. Mad.
Something needed to change.”

The Lord takes a drag, lets the smoke flood his lungs before he speaks.

“So, suicide sounded nice.” The dead-end resonates so deep within him
that he can hear the tiny cracks spreading. “I take it you both went to a
Hole? The plan was that you would jump, and he was going to wait for
your spawns?”

“Right to the end, I couldn’t fathom that he would let me do it,”
Alessandro whispers, his voice hoarse. “When he reached out to take my
blindfold away, I jerked back and started crying. The next thing I hear
is him running. He took off his own blindfold instead of mine.”
Alessandro makes a choking noise as he struggles to breathe, his eyes
red and swollen. “And I couldn’t move. I couldn’t scream. I wanted to
run after him. Only I didn’t really.” He breaks down, sobbing. The Lord
pulls him in his arms, rests his chin on his head. His hair smells of
sweat and bitter almond.

“He was fucked up. And you were fucked up. Pretty combo you made, huh?” the Lord says. “Do you still want to see a Hole?”

Alessandro shakes his head. “No.” The Lord holds him tight, cracking faintly.

“All right.” It’s all pretty clear now. “Well, you got to admit that the
revised edition rocks.” Alessandro gives up a gargling sound. Charming.

“What shall I call you?” Alessandro asks and sits up.

“I’m the L-”

“That’s not a name. Cheesy as fuck. Choose one.”

The Lord smiles and remains silent. The idea rings absurd. He likes it.

“I would go for James.”

Alessandro pouts. “Sounds a bit generic.”

“Now, you’re pushing it.” They giggle. “I never really had the chance to
ask you, what do you want me to call you? Alessandro? Ally?”

Alessandro fumbles for words for a few moments. “I go by both. Depends,” he frowns and blushes. “I think I lean toward Ally.”

“All right. You look more like an Ally, anyway.” So, Sponge was right.
He leans closer and takes Ally’s face in his hands, skin soft and hot
from crying against his cold fingers. The kiss stretches his lips into a
smile even before it’s finished. He half-expected it to warm him from
the inside, to fill the cracks, to somehow obey to fairy-tale standards.
His smile widens as he watches Ally tracing the cracks on his face.
Just a kiss, after all. Perfect.

Out of the door comes a crunching sound, as if someone steps on autumn
leaves or candy wrapping. Susie’s trademark walk. Ally looks at him in

“Fuck her. I’m James now, baby.”


Sponge didn’t expect it to be so easy. He just used his Site ID plaque
to get them in the building and no one was there to stop them when they
broke into the ground floor storage room to get the tranquilizer guns.
No sight of birds either.

“Maybe they are not here,” Lucy whispers looking around, wary. Lack of sleep winds them up, making them jumpy.

“I have no idea why the whole facility looks empty, but they’re here.
Trust me,” Sponge says and pinches the bridge of his nose, trying to
focus. Is he supposed to kung-fu all Susie’s men dead now? It would be
equally effective with trying to shoot them unconscious. At least, Lucy
managed to pass the bird to her contact that runs errands for the
National Network Channel. A far shot, but pretty much all they got. Lucy
insists that her contact has access to the control rooms, so if
everything goes according to plan, the footage will be released in only a
few hours, untampered.

“Do you hear that?” Lucy asks. Muffled voices. She points down to the
end of the corridor. It’s the same one him and the Lord traverse to go
to their booth. Sponge clutches his tranquilizer gun and nods. If
everything goes according to plan, they will all be in a smuggler’s boat
heading south by nightfall. Lucy left the money with Ally’s mum, and
she seemed composed enough to arrange their passage.

Lucy pauses, so tense that her neck disappears into her shoulders.

“I’m not leaving without Ally,” she whispers, “or her spawns.”

“Me neither,” Sponge says and exhales. “Lucy,” he chews his lip, “what
happens if a spawn falls in a Hole?” No one knows for sure, of course.
There are rumors.

“I’ve heard we crash at the bottom,” she turns her back at him and starts walking toward the voices.

Encouraging. Sponge pats his pocket to make sure the extra darts didn’t slip out.

Crouched, they silently open the booth’s door. They lay low for a couple
of breaths. The voices become louder. Sponge lifts his head to peek
through the thick glass window right above the desk.

There is Susie Q., a good few steps behind the open Hole. Ally kneels in
front of her, facing the Hole, blindfolded, thank goodness. The Lord is
on the ground–oh fuck, on all fours, naked, bleeding through cracks.
His hair falls across his face.

“Three of them in the back. With tranquilizing rifles,” Lucy whispers
and Sponge spots Susie’s men and lowers his head out of sight.

“Honestly, what were you thinking? Why the hell would a spawn want to
stop me? Are you fucking blind?” Susie’s voice carries such violence
that Sponge feels his guts clench.

“Why wouldn’t we want to stop you? Such a charming empress you would
make, huh? You’re no better than them, Susie,” the Lord says.

“No good? You came to me starving, penniless, shunned. That’s what
fucking humans do to us. And I guarantee you, it will get even worse if
they get hold of the bird.”

There is a thud and a bout of coughing. Sponge springs up but Lucy grabs him.

“Fuck off, Susie. The world owes you nothing.” The Lord’s voice sounds hoarse.

“Humans do. Have you ever been someone’s pet? Did you have to work day
and night in the factories? Were you locked in a cage for the benefit of
family entertainment? Did they crack your skin when they threw coins
and rocks at you in the streets? Don’t you live in the same world where I
live?” Shuffling and footsteps.

“You will fail. And then, when it’s over and you are dead, spawns will
be the perfect scapegoat. We will never bounce back.” The Lord coughs

Lucy tugs Sponge’s sleeve. “You get the one closer to us, I’ll take the
one in the middle. Let’s hope we have time to reload before the third
jumps us.” Sponge nods and draws a sharp breath.

“It’s better than nothing,” Susie shouts.

Sponge kicks the booth door hard enough to unhinge it and takes aim.
Lucy’s dart flies by him and finds its target. Sponge glances toward the
Hole, the Lord has tripped Susie and they are wrestling on the ground
while Ally is frantically trying to untie her blindfold.

“Ally, don’t!” Sponge yells and then sees Susie’s guard lunge at him. He
raises his gun and fires at the last moment. “Lucy,” he screams as the
third guard is aiming straight at him. Lucy frantically tries to reload
and Sponge pulls a dart out of his pocket and charges at the guard. He
crashes on him hard, but the guard grabs his hand and hits it on the
wall beside him. Sponge screams and tries to bite him, but the next
second the guard goes limp, Lucy’s dart protruding from his neck. Sponge
kicks him off and turns towards the Hole.

The Lord still wrestles with Susie, a mass of blood and broken porcelain that pants and curses.

“James!” Ally shouts and claws at her face to rip the blindfold apart. Sponge springs up and starts running.

Ally takes the blindfold off with a gasp, just as the Lord tumbles right into the Hole, taking Susie Q. with him.

There is the sound of a thousand porcelain cups shattering.

Ally takes one step towards the Hole and right then, a sudden fluttering
comes out of the darkness. Dozens of porcelain butterflies pour out of
the depths, surround her, cover her eyes.

“No,” Ally screams, eyes blinded again, and Sponge reaches her and grabs
her and turns her away before she shoves the little critters away from
her eyes, before she looks at the Hole. “What happened? Did he jump?
Sponge, did he jump?”

Sponge is holding her, staring at the Hole, James’ butterflies flying around them, sitting delicately on Ally’s eyes.

“Sponge?” That’s Lucy.

Sponge leaves Ally in Lucy’s arms and approaches the Hole. He reaches
the brim and looks down. At the bottom lies Susie’s body, twisted in an
unnatural angle. The smell of blood invades his nostrils. The Lord’s
body, bereft of its porcelain, lies next to hers. The slime in the
bottom seethes, and swallows them both slowly.

A God’s Song

By Nicholas Schmiedicker

It was a beautiful day when the priests invaded our home. Cloaked in
prayer and singing hymns, they shaped our natural environment to suit
their bodies. The clergy bent pieces of space-time into rock and water;
they forced our bodies that were so used to existing as incorporeal
concepts into something they could understand. They defined what we
could be until it was what we were.

I remember raging with my family at the rudeness of it all. But, like the others, I calmed as the priests spoke.

They spoke of their home far away and the evil that plagued it. A place
filled with fear, anger, hostility, and those who had given up. The
priests begged anyone who would listen to go back with them—help them
heal their sick and teach them how to care for those who had wandered
from the faith. Even now, looking back on it, I’d have made the same
decision. There was no way to know. No way to tell just how misguided
and cruel they’d turn out to be.

The night before I left, my family and I sang and danced in the stellar
fields above the place we called home. It was a song my mother had
taught me when I was newly created. A simple four-note melody that
echoed across space and filled me with the love and joy of fond
memories. It was a reminder of where I’d come from and where I’d go. She
told me to hum that song whenever I missed her and to sing with the
glory of our pantheon if I ever needed them. “We’ll find you,” she told
me, “and we’ll bring you back home.”

Dawn came and I left the undefined reality of home and crossed into the
small pocket of physical space where the priests were waiting. They led
me to their ship that was docked nearby (their bodies couldn’t yet
handle the pressure of conceptual space).

They ushered me inside and sealed the outer walls. The priests gathered
around me and filled the air with their echoing chant as they led me
deeper into the bowels of the vessel. I felt my new body wrap around me,
defining my form and twisting me into a new shape even as I fought
against it.

I felt myself diminish with each step. I couldn’t hear the yawning
cosmos or feel the subatomic explosions dance across my thoughts. I
should have turned and fled. I should have sung my mother’s song and had
my brothers and sisters tear this ship apart.

With prayers and worship, they bound me in chains of faith. I still
don’t understand how they did it. I thought only a member of my family
could shape reality. And yet, I was no longer myself. Instead, I was who
they made me to be.

They wrote scripture that painted me as a dark and vengeful God. A being
that decreed spiritual and moral law by issuing commandments. Wrath
waited for anyone who questioned my divine will; anger was meted out
across endless stories of “righting wrongs.” I was a being who knew with
absolute certainty what was best for any world that heard these words.

And the worst part was, I was starting to remember being these things.
The illusions and falsehoods painted by the priests were becoming
history, my history.

I wept starlight, dreaming of what the priests would do with their
books. I imagined what I would do to stop evil, the horrors I’d wield
against those that would oppose me. My heart grew heavy realizing these
thoughts were not my own.

I fought to keep hold of my true self. I couldn’t even sing to my
pantheon—my family. I could only hum that four-note melody and fight to
remember my mother, my father, my brothers, my sisters, and a happier

They brought me out of the ship and guided me into a stone temple in the
cover of night—the stained glass windows hanging silent and dull above
us in judgment. They led me down twisting passages and tunnels carved
deep into the earth. Then, into the hole I would come to know as home
for the next millennium. Long wooden panels covered what would be my
prison, each one carved with prayers and scriptures to anchor my spirit
inside. The days turned to years as I listened to the echoing chants of
worship above. I watched in horror as the priests grew fat and lazy on
the power offered to them in good faith. Power that soured and thickened
as it touched their tongues.

It wasn’t long before the priests who brought me here grew old and died.
The young, who were just as devoted to keeping me chained and bound,
replaced them. Every so often, they brought one of their children down
here to gaze at me. “Look at God,” they’d say. “Look at the pain He
endures to save us from ourselves. Look at Him and offer Him your love
and devotion.”

What cruel monsters these mortals were. I just wanted to go home. Why
wouldn’t they let me go home? I spent my nights alone, humming a simple
song that had nearly lost its meaning. It brought me joy and some small
measure of comfort on those lonely nights.

The holy texts shaped me into a divine sword to swing at their enemies
and any who dared to think differently than those above. Towards the
end, the idea consumed me until there was nothing left—no shred of the
songs I used to sing. But what the foolish priests never realized is
that a sword doesn’t care for friend or foe. A sword only cuts. And they
had shaped me to be such a fine weapon.

Those corrupt humans didn’t deserve the luxury of lavish homes and sweet
wine. They didn’t deserve to live privileged lives of comfort while
they preached to the masses to untether themselves from greed and aid
the weak and poor. Not if they spent their days doing nothing but
growing fat on stolen power. I once danced in the space between
galaxies, swam in solar winds, and sang songs that made reality weep in
joy and sadness.

I did those things.

And yet, they forced me to be something so full of hate and misery that I
could think of nothing but punishing the wicked and faithless. One day
I’d be free again. One day I’d show them just how fine of a blade they’d

I waited for decades as the worship above grew quieter and fewer people
came back week after week. I knew my time was coming. I just had to be

I felt the prayers that were binding me grow weak and I didn’t hesitate
to act. I crafted my careful vengeance into a razor’s edge and cut
through the bonds keeping me in that pit. I swelled in height and form
and waited for my captors to come.

It didn’t take long.

They rushed into the room, each one slick with sweat and stinking of
fear. They brandished their books and icons. They shouted their verses
at me and tore at my growing power. I hummed a melody that set their
cloaks aflame and turned their bodies to crumbling salt. I was every
story they told about me and I wasn’t afraid to give each of them a part
to play.

Even as I cut them down, more appeared. All sent to push their God back
into His hole so they could go on pretending to be His voice. I’d had
enough of these cruel creatures and I was ready to go back to the stars.
But they were strong. The dances, songs, stories, and prayers. It was
all too much. And then they brought the children.

I saw the newest generation being shaped by the sins of their ancestors
and I couldn’t bear it. I wept and lost my grasp on the dark and angry
God they forged me into. It was easy for them to change me into
something calm and docile.

They forced me back down into the pit. I didn’t even bother to fight as
they remade the scriptures to trap me inside. I had given them some
small idea of what they’d created. Made them pay for it. But it would
have to be enough. Because now I knew I was never going to see my family

Not long after, a young priestess came. She gazed at me for hours,
pacing back and forth over my prison without ever saying a word. I felt
her curiosity and nervous excitement while I watched the thoughts dance
behind her eyes.

She quietly argued with herself. I had no idea what she was saying, but
after coming to some sort of decision, she set her face and bent down to
start pulling at the boards covering my prison. She scraped her nails
across the etched scriptures and pried at the boards. Her blood and
tears flowed freely into my prison as I heard her sing a song I hadn’t
heard in a very long time.

My mother used to sing a four-note melody that guided my family through
reality. It was everything that was home and comfort and beauty and love
and kindness and belonging. It was how I defined myself.

“Where did you hear that?” I asked. “How could you know that song?” She
continued to sing as she scraped away at the gold-leafed words and
tugged at the chains of my prison.

“I was taught to worship you,” she said. “You were the shining beacon of
a just and good world. Whoever disagreed with your teachings was a
heretic and deserved punishment. Whoever questioned the word of God was a
blight on all that was good. I believed this as much as I believed the
sky was blue.” The priestess went back to pulling at the boards, slowly
freeing my mind from the definitions of a millennium.

“And then, I heard a song from the stars. I don’t know why, but it made
me weep. It sounded like loss and loneliness. Like when a loved one
leaves you and you have to find a way to go on without them.”

“I didn’t know what it meant, so I prayed for guidance. I asked you to
show me. Was something going to happen to me? Should I be afraid? And
then you answered.”

The last board fell away and I was free to leave my prison. I still felt
the prayers and stories digging into me, but I also felt the cobweb
memories of my past life brushing against me. Dancing in the center of
stars, slipping between realities, and all of us together, singing.

“I was there when you escaped,” the priestess said. “I watched what you
did to the rest of the clergy. Watched as they beat you back down into
that prison. And then I knew what the stars were singing about. I knew
they could see you trapped here. I was ashamed.”

She looked up at me with tears in her eyes and sorrow in her heart. “I’m
so sorry,” she said. “We’re not all like them. We’re not all so cruel.”

I fled into the night.

I left that world far behind and sailed back across the vast darkness to
find them. I sang the song of my mother and my father, I sang the song
of my brothers and sisters, I sang the song of my home.

I traveled for a very long time searching for where I had come from. I
wandered across realities searching for my home. I sang and reached and
feared until I’d given up hope.

I shook the last of the prayers and stories away and drifted between
this world and the next. “So this is how my song ends,” I thought.

And then I heard it. My mother’s four-note song of comfort, beauty, love, kindness, and belonging.

I’m finally home.

The Unfoundary

By Stephen Taylor

“Old man, what’s that up there?”

“The Unfoundary?”

“You call it that? What is it?”

I frown. It’s a broad gateway high on Thumb Hill. It’s made of tan
stone, carved with shapes as old as the Thumb itself, flanked with
squared-off pillars and wrapped in cords as wide as I am tall. The
binding cords reach up, twined together at the tip of the gateway, and
then on beyond our sight into the sky. We can see it from anywhere in
the valley, Thumb Hill and the Unfoundary.

“What is it?” the young stranger repeats.

“We call it the Unfoundary,” I reply. “You must not be from around here.”

He shakes his head, which is covered in wavy brown hair. “I’m from the east. Trinlos.”

“Ah, a city. I’ve been there before.”

“You have?” Surprise, perhaps respect. “You traveled a long way, old man.”

“Us both. I hope you didn’t come to see the Unfoundary only, but we don’t have much anything else to see in our valley.”

“You have forests, and snow,” he says, glancing around past the edge of
the village. “I’m traveling further south, but I like your village.”

“Fortune to you, then,” I say with a slight bow.

“Tell me, though, what is this Unfoundary? It must be as wide as your whole town!”

I can’t tell whether he means to compliment our scenery or insult our
size. “I’d stay off the hillside, if I were you. The Unfoundary is an
evil place.”

“What’s evil about it?”

“It’s a place where the dead go–where people sometimes go to die.”

His face shows interest, curiosity. “Trinlos is superstitious, but I didn’t think you westerners were as well.”

I shrug my shoulders. “We stay alive this way. And safe.”

The young man’s intrigued expression fades as he shifts his haversack
and stamps his feet for warmth. “I’m not sure how much I believe of your
superstition, but it’s interesting, to say the least. Good day to you,
old one.”

I grunt. “Safe travels.” What I wouldn’t give some days to travel again.
It’s been fifteen years since I so much as climbed the side of the

The day is calm and white–early snowfall from a blank sky. Most of the
village stays inside their huts, pungent smoke filtering out through
fire holes and the occasional opened door. I see my friend Onór at the
side of her hut watching the traveler go.

“You talked to him?” she asks me.

“Yes. He’s from Trinlos–did you know I went there once?”

“Where haven’t you gone?” Onór asks with a faint smile. “I think you’ve had too many years with not enough work to do.”

Perhaps she’s right–I’m five years older than anyone else in the
village–forty-five older than most. Some of them have never left the
valley. Most have never left sight of it, never seen a city or a sheer
mountain or the sea. It’s strange to be the old one.

“Where’s he headed to now?”

“South,” I reply. “Probably looking for money.”

“There’s no riches worth leaving a safe warm hearth for this time of year.”


Onór sees my eyes following the traveler onto the forested slope of the
valley. “Oh, did you want to go with him?” she asks dryly. “Poor old
dog. I think your travels are done now.”

“Maybe,” I say again, with an idea shaping in my mind.

I lie awake long into the night, staring at the charred roof of my hut.
I’m the only one who lives here–the only one since my father died,
thirty winters previous. I know every feature of the place, from the
shallow fire pit to the wolf-skin covering that serves as a window, the
battered wooden shelf my mother used for a washing bowl. The bowl was
emptied for the last time when she returned to the ground–what did
father and I need with it?

I know it too well. I’ve seen it all too many times. My mind stretches
for a new sight, a new smell, a new rhythm in the drumbeat of each day. I
recognize the feeling, because it’s the wanderlust I had as a young
man. Yes, I was young once.

I would never make it to Trinlos again. I’d probably be eaten by bears
if I tried crossing the border into Ghirin–bears or tax collectors. I
know my legs won’t get me through the north pass, where I once helped
guard a trading convoy. My wanderlust has come too late to take me much
of anywhere.

I roll back the wolf-skin and a wave of frigid air shakes me. Outside
the night is dim, cloudy white from another fresh snow. On Thumb Hill I
see the Unfoundary, and I know I can make it that far.

“I’m not sure how much I believe of your superstition,” the young
traveler had said. I smile to myself, because in my old age I’m starting
to doubt them too. Or not to care, rather.

No sense in waiting. If I’m going to get myself killed, better sooner
than later, when my body is yet more decrepit. I pack a pouch of milk
from Jarn’s goat, two loaves of flatbread, a handful of walnuts, which
will make my teeth ache but taste good. I add a strip of smoked fish,
wrap my scarf around my neck, put on my heavy cloak and trudge out into
the snow.

A dog looks up as I pass. He doesn’t bark, since he’s known my smell
since he was born. The only other sounds in the village are my steps in
crunchy spots of ice.

It takes me a long time to climb Thumb Hill. It’s steep, and the snow
makes the footing treacherous. Once when I was young I climbed the bare
wall of a stone citadel. It was in Arves, to the south, and I was part
of a band of soldiers trying to rescue Arves’ prince. I was reckless. I
smile at myself, because I liked to be reckless. Maybe I still am.

The Unfoundary expands across my sight as I crawl up the hill. The
squared pillars on each side of the gateway gain definition, even in the
gloom. They’re scarred with symbols, letters, drawings that I can’t
decipher. The cords binding it all fuse together into a sort of chain.
If my arms were strong, I could climb straight to the clouds, where it
fades from sight.

“Why did you come here?” a voice asks from behind.

I slip into the snow, trying both to turn around and jump ahead at once.
My heart seems to halt for a half second, until I see that it’s only
Lokos, my childhood friend.

“Lokos, you startled me. How did you sneak up on me?”

“Sneak? I’ve been waiting for you.”

Then I remember. Lokos returned to the ground two years back, the same
year as the drought. My heart pauses again, and my breath seems to
freeze in the air beside me. Lokos stands before me, pock-marked face,
dirty beard, eyes as black as rooks. But I know he’s dead.

“Are you going to stop now?” Lokos asks impatiently. “It’s cold and I want to sleep.”

My feet stay lodged in a thin crust of displaced snow. I was there when
Lokos was buried–I must be seeing things, hearing things.

“Stay and freeze if you want,” he says. “I’m going in.”

With that he trudges further up, and soon moves behind a rocky outcrop. I
stay rooted in place for a long moment, wind chewing on my face and
hands. I’m too shaken to move until the snow gives out beneath me and I
slide to one knee. Pain in my joints wakes my mind.

“I’ll go back,” I say to myself. “Old fool.”

“Yes, you should,” says my father, who stands not five steps away. “This valley was never the place for you.”

My mouth falls open. My eyes are wide, stinging. Father looks my own
age–the end of his life. I still remember the infection he suffered,
the festering cut that led to his death.

“Come on, now,” he says, and puts a corporeal arm around me. “I’ll miss
you, but I’ll never blame you for leaving. The road is your home, Son.”

Faltering steps, the same speed. We walk the same way, in fact, almost mirrors of each other. “Where are we going?” I ask.

“West,” he says. But we aren’t heading west. We’re heading toward the Unfoundary.

The snow and ice melt away over a half-hundred steps. The hill becomes a
flat road, and my father becomes Trithin, a farmer a few years older
than me. The road goes into his field, which is bogged with inches of
standing water.

“We won’t get a single bushel of food from my fields,” says Trithin.
“I’ve never seen a flood this bad, not in all my life. What do you

I recall the day. I was summoned to examine his fields, the ones up on
the valley slope, even the wheat and corn fields at the mouth of the
valley. Everything is covered in water, and the ground bends beneath our
steps. Somehow I’m cold, despite the sun.

“Do we leave, or do we stay?” the farmer asks. “I’ll trust whatever you say.”

I stiffen, remembering what I said–it’s been twelve years now since that flood.

“Leave or stay?” he asks again.

I force my mouth open. “This is our valley. We stay, Trithin.”

The fields and muddy water splash out of existence, and I am before the
Unfoundary once again. Snow piles on my shoulders and over my ears. The
slope is slackening, leveling to the flat peak of Thumb Hill. I’ve come a
long way.

“Will you sell me your field?” a young, wealthy farmer is asking me. He
came here from the east, and brought new seeds, new fruits, new
techniques to break ground for planting. He wants the land for himself,
the entire valley if he can get it. I see it in his eyes, twenty years

“I can’t sell you anything,” I say.

“Nonsense. You’ve got the best piece of land this side of the mountains.
How much do you want for it? I can see to it you never go hungry again,
old man.”

“I’m not so old,” my twenty-year-ago self says. “And I won’t sell my father’s land.”

He sneers. “Could be I was wrong. I heard a rumor that you gave the land to that fool swineherd Dold. Is that true?”

“What of it, if it is? I can do what I like with my own property.”

“You’re as much a fool as he is. He’ll turn your fields into a mud hole.”

“But his family won’t starve,” I say. “You’d let half the valley go
hungry so you can trade more bloody coppers with the other villages.”

“Those ‘bloody coppers’ are what keeps your village safe!” he growls.

I’m still strong, and I’m tired of an outsider telling us how to handle
what time has given to us. I swing my fist into his gut, then grab him
by the shoulder and hurl him into the brambles beside the road. He’s
strong, but he hasn’t worked like we have in the village. The only harm
he can do me is a long-range jab of his pointed nose.

Again I find myself standing in the snow, yet closer to the great shadow
of the Unfoundary. The cold is turning my face numb, trying to ice my
throat shut. I find myself laughing, though, as I recall what I was
twenty years ago.

I walk toward the looming gateway. The Unfoundary is bigger–four or
five times over–than I ever thought from the low ground of the village.

The white and black of snow and tall shadow disappear again, and I’m in
the shadow of a blue mountain instead. I’m near the Ghirin border, fifty
years old, armed with a bronze-head lance and a thin cowhide for armor.
I’m the oldest of thirty or so soldiers. We’re preparing to storm a
lookout tower just beyond the mountain. I was terrified, green with
sickness when it happened. Now I’m calm because I know we’ll win. I’d
charged ahead when the first few men faltered. I took the tower gate and
held the doorway open with my lance, until the other men maneuvered up
and overwhelmed the Ghirin defenders. I killed that day, not for the
first time, but for the last time. Even now it makes me flinch.

Into the Unfoundary, beneath countless tons of tan stone. I see my
father weeping, as mother goes back to the ground. She was sick so much
of her life. Why was he surprised? I always knew she would die first.
Somehow I never cared as much as father did. I couldn’t understand his
grief, his weakness around death. He stopped working the fields, stopped
hunting, stopped trading, even stopped walking. For months he just sat
there and ate what I offered him. It took me those long months to
forgive his grief when mother died. Then he died too, and I finally
understood him.

The Unfoundary draws me into shadow. It’s windless and smells like
burning pine. It reminds me of the years on the road before father died,
before mother died. I traded in Trinlos and all along the great eastern
ocean front. I guarded convoys between Ghirin and the southlands. I
once tried my hand at exploring the great wastes beyond White River. The
others who joined me lasted better than I did, but none of us had been
out more than a month before we decided to turn back to the world we
already knew.

“Why did you travel so long?” asks a soft voice.

It’s Marna standing beside me. She’s tall, ebony hair twisted in a braid
over one shoulder, eyes bright even in the gloom. She’s more beautiful
than I remembered–young, too young to be dead.

I shudder and stop walking. I try to speak, but my words halt in my mouth. I can’t answer her question with words.

She puts a hand on my shoulder. “You’ve been so many places now. Why not stay in the valley for a while?”

I pull away out of reflex. “I-I have to help old Trithin. He needs someone to cross the border for him.”

“I thought he only traded nearby.”

“Ah. W-well he’d like to trade more across the border.”

She gives me a strange look–as if she can see through me. “What is it
you’re running from? You haven’t spent more than a week here in five

“I don’t like it here, Marna.”

“Yes you do.”

She walks away, and I’m in the gateway of the Unfoundary once again. My
body feels stiff, not with cold, and my knees rattle from something
other than shivers. My eyes sting, and I imagine Marna yet in the blurry
shadows. I thought I had banished her from my memory. I promised myself
I would.

To banish her again I search my mind. Whom else will I find here? I
wonder what or whom I’ve forgotten, what this place is trying to show
me, or make me think.

Polt comes next, and my fists clench.

He laughs eagerly. “Back from the wastes already? Your parents talk about you everyday! They’re very proud.”

I bury my anger. “I try to live up to what they expect from me.”

Polt’s easy smile comes out. “I think you try too hard, some days. When
did you last do something for yourself? You should buy some land, build a
house, or a stronghold even. You’ve been enough places to build your
own city!”

“I don’t want a city,” I reply.

“You don’t want anything, that’s your problem,” says my friend. “You
should settle down, find yourself a good wife, let the outsiders deal
with their own problems.”

“I can’t leave my friends on their own, they’re heading north next–”

“Excuses,” Polt laughs. “Marna always says you’re full of excuses.”

The ease with which he says her name hurts me. The closeness with which
he can say it. I had that closeness before he realized she existed.

“I tell you,” he goes on, blind to my unease. “I used to think of how
good it would be to go with you, but now I can’t imagine leaving the
valley. I think I’m too much of a coward! And I can’t think I’d ever be
happy away from her, you know. She’s too much a part of me.”

My anger courses up through my chest. How I’d like to yell what I feel,
tell him never to mention her again. How I’d rather that I simply didn’t
know them at all.

Instead I say, “Polt, I think you made the best choice. She’s a catch.”

Perhaps he senses the longing in my voice. “Don’t think there’s no one
for you, either. If you stayed still for more than one day I could find
you a nice wife too.”

“I don’t want a wife, Polt.” I only want Marna, and I can’t let myself.

“Someday you will, mark my words. There’s more to life than cities and oceans and money.”

So I walked away. I stayed far away from the valley, as often as I
could. When I did visit, I only saw my parents and my mother’s sister.
Polt had been my best friend since we were born, but I risk making an
enemy of him every time I see him, every time I see him with her.

“You’re a good friend,” says Polt. “I’ll miss you, till you return.”

I am a good friend. So I won’t return.

It was almost five years before I came back after that. Even then I only
came for a few days, and it wasn’t because I wanted to. It was because I
met a trader who’d passed through after scourge hit the valley, after
nearly half our people died of sickness they didn’t know how to cure. I
knew how to fight the scourge–I’d learned while I was in the east. But I
came back late, and Marna was already dead.

One more reality unfolds around me, blocking the snow and night sky and
Unfoundary from me. This time it isn’t fifty, sixty years ago. It’s
today–myself, standing in front of my old, battered, snow-capped body.

I say, “To die, you have to leave your life behind.”

My mind flies again through the years–advising Trithin; traveling north
and east and south; mourning when my father died; saying goodbye first
to mother; watching Polt and Marna dance on midsummer; watching myself
as a scrawny boy, barely strong enough to stand up in the wind; staring
up at the Unfoundary on Thumb Hill.

“I’ve come a long way–lots to leave behind.”

And perhaps that’s why, as I put the Unfoundary behind me and walk back the way I came, I find that it’s no longer cold.

Published by Light Spring LLC

Fort Worth, Texas

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