The Colored Lens #15 – Spring 2015
The Colored Lens
Table of Contents
- Turn of the Wheel by David Cleden
- Souvenir by Robert Dawson
- When the Waves are Whales by Sarena Ulibarri
- The Things We Should Be Doing by Drew Rogers
- The Mutable Sky by Jamie Lackey
- At Any Cost by Ashley Rose Nicolato
- First Try by Derrick Boden
- Ashika by Brian Ennis
- Good Guys Always Win by Aaron Grayum
- This Mortal Coil by Barry Corbett
- The Clones of Tehran by Mark Hill
- Space Rat Black by Aidan Doyle
- Blood Feud by Jim Lee
Turn of the Wheel
By David Cleden
The surgeon hesitates, bathed in the harsh lights of the operating theater, scalpel poised above the patient’s exposed abdomen. The patient’s skin is slick and yellowed by the antiseptic swabs, not really human at all-–like the flesh of some alien creature. Now, as with every surgical procedure, he senses a moment, a turning point where outcomes are yet to be determined–and briefly revels in the uncertainty.
He will know soon enough. Just one touch will tell him. Success or failure, life or death–and all before an incision has even been made.
Distantly, he hears the drone of another wave of bombers heading out on a night raid, delivering their payload of terror and destruction by order of Bomber Command. Whose turn tonight, he wonders? Hamburg or Dresden or perhaps Berlin itself?
Around him, the anesthetist and theater nurses wait patiently for him to begin.
He feels paralyzed; unable to move. He cannot bring himself to touch the body. Seconds tick by. Minutes. There are anxious glances but no one dares disturb the silence.
At last he takes a long, shuddering breath, wills the trembling in his hands to cease, and makes an incision. He draws the scalpel downwards in a smooth motion, a line of red beading behind it. He repeats the movement, this time parting layers of subcutaneous fat with deft strokes. As he does so, the strangest feeling comes over him: the sensation of something pushing back, struggling to free itself from the body, slipping and wriggling out through the wound. For an instant he thinks he sees something move past his blade; insubstantial and tenuous, like a barely perceptible waft of smoke.
Hesitating, a nurse steps closer to swab sweat from his brow. He resumes his work, but now the tremors are back.
This will all be for naught, he thinks. The patient will die no matter what I do.
Ah yes. Just another turn of the wheel.
But one word crowds into his thoughts.
John knocks and enters. He is at once struck by the gloom. Small windows set high in the wall and cross-hatched with blast tape admit little of the wintery afternoon sunlight. A single, underpowered bulb hangs from the ceiling, casting its jaundiced, ineffectual light onto the jumble of manila folders on the desk–some, John notices, bearing the unmistakable stamp of the War Office.
He makes it a rule never to touch bare skin, but old Postlethwaite has already risen from behind the desk proffering a hand, and ingrained social habits die hard. Before he can stop himself, John reaches out. Briefly he has time to wonder if his superior will notice the hand tremors which seem to have worsened.
Such irony! Under different circumstances, this might be the affliction to end his surgical career. But it’s nothing more than a nervous tic; the façade behind which his true demons lurk.
Their hands clasp and the curtain drops momentarily across John’s vision as it always does at the touch of another’s skin. There is no real tactile sensation, no tingle or spark of electricity–merely a dimming of his sight, like a slow blink. Then a moment later, vision returns. And like an after-image burnt onto his retinas, the number is left behind.
Ah. Long enough, John thinks. No need to trouble himself with a calculation. Enough, perhaps, even to outlive this interminable war. Dr Postlethwaite may yet enjoy a peaceful retirement. You can, after all, live a long time in twenty five thousand heartbeats.
The Senior Registrar nods at the vacant chair and John sits.
“I have the papers, John,” he begins without preamble, “but I won’t approve them.”
John blinks away the last remnants of the number. “I’ve made my decision.”
“And a bloody silly one it is too. If it’s danger you want, you can find it right here. Half of London is charred rubble. We’re digging people out with our bare hands some nights. It takes just as much courage to stay behind and fight on the home front, you know.” He sighs. “You’ve all the makings of a fine surgeon, John. We need people like you.”
John passes a hand across his face but he cannot wipe away the tiredness he feels. He wants to shout, Can’t you see that my nerve has gone? Surely you’ve heard the rumors? Instead he says, “I’d stay if I could. But they need medics at the front too. Maybe I can be of some use after all.”
Dr Postlethwaite lays the papers aside. He removes his glasses and polishes them absently on his sleeve. “Look. The damned Luftwaffe has us all under strain, night after night. You have family? Go and visit them. Take yourself out of the city for a while. We can spare you for a week. Then we’ll talk again.”
After a moment, John gets up to leave. This time they do not shake hands and he is at least grateful for that.
John walks the streets without purpose. It’s easy to become lost, the familiar London side streets transformed by the bomb craters that now pockmark the city. Gap-toothed rows of grey tenement buildings push up from piles of still smoldering rubble, where bustling thoroughfares ran only days before. He thinks, all I have ever wanted to do is help people. Make them better if I can. And now it’s all slipping away from me.
The advent of war has finally explained a mystery that has puzzled him since his schooldays. Why the curiously low number of so many classmates, seemingly destined never to see thirty? Now he understands the chilling certainty of so many lives pre-ordained to be cut short. He suffers the knowledge in dreadful silence. What else can he do? Who would believe him?
He has watched for other signs in his behavior and thoughts, for hints that what might only be self-delusional beliefs are metamorphosing into true insanity. But how would he know? Could he ever trust his own judgment?
Then too, he has prayed for this ability (no, this curse) to wither and fade, or to be proven erroneous–anything that means he no longer sits in judgment over others, knowing merely from the briefest touch the span of their lives.
And what of his own number? Ah, but cruelly that is beyond his reach. The one person in the entire world that he cannot fathom in that way is himself.
He turns his collar up as the rain falling out of low-slung grey clouds becomes heavier. He is on the point of turning for home when ahead of him a young woman stumbles on a broken paving slab and falls. For a moment she lays sprawled in a puddle as rain soaks into her winter coat. Then she is uttering a string of unlady-like curses as John instinctively reaches to help her up. A bus rumbles by, seemingly only inches away, its spray soaking them both.
Her wrist is slim and delicate like a child’s. He has time to see her flash a tired, grateful smile and then–-unbidden–the curtain drops across his vision. When it rises the young woman is standing awkwardly, reaching down to massage her twisted ankle, still muttering under her breath.
John frowns. He must have made a mistake. Such a number cannot possibly be right. The woman (girl, really) can be no more than early twenties; fit, healthy, vibrant with youth. He closes his eyes, tries to catch the number again, but it has gone.
“Thanks,” she says, brushing ineffectually at the scuff marks on her coat.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” John asks.
“Fine. Bloody coat is ruined, though.” She shrugs, laughs lightly, obviously unharmed, the flush of embarrassment still in her cheeks.
Hope surges through John. If he can be wrong about this number, he can be wrong about any of them! All of them, maybe. Thus the spell breaks–
She girl is turning to leave. John reaches out, wanting to touch her skin again, to put his hand on her cheek. Instinctively she steps back from him, suspicion and anger on her face.
“I’m sorry, I just–”
The girl hurries away leaving John standing in the rain. She crosses the road, turning back to glance suspiciously at John halfway across. She does not see the taxi hurtling out of the gloom, but the squeal of tires is loud above the hiss of the rain. The girl is spun round and tossed into the air to land in a crumpled heap in the road.
For a long time, nothing in the world seems to move. Not John, the rain drumming against his skull as he stands motionless. Nor the taxi driver–frozen into immobility, his eyes wide and staring, hands gripping the steering wheel convulsively. And certainly not the girl lying in the road like a lifeless rag doll. Only the rain keeps falling.
Eventually John turns away. He finds a quiet alleyway and is violently sick until his stomach is dry and aching.
They come pouring out of the cinema—grumbling, grim-faced or just plain scared. Against the blaring of the air raid sirens, an ARP warden is shouting orders. “Down the street. Turn left. Down the steps into the Tube. Come along, now. Get a move on! Nearest air raid shelter–down the street, turn left–”
John tries to push his way through the crowd. On impulse, he seizes a woman’s hand.
“Oi!” A rough-looking man in uniform with a day’s stubble on his chin shoves John backwards. “Keep yer hands off my girl.” John reaches up to touch the man’s forehead, for all the world as if taking his temperature.
“What the hell–”
John is thrust sideways, colliding heavily with another man. John seizes his bare forearm, partly to stop himself falling.
“Don’t go that way!” John pleads. “Stay away from the shelter.”
Two young women stare at him open-mouthed. He grabs at them, like a drunkard.
“Bloody disgrace,” someone says. A fist jabs at him. There is a sharp pain in his chest and suddenly he is fighting for breath. “Not down to the shelter,” he wheezes. “Not safe.” His legs are kicked from under him. As he goes down, he reaches for a bare ankle just in front of him. A woman shrieks.
Someone kicks him hard in the ribs and the world seems to recede. More blows follow. Moments later he is hauled upright again. “What’s your game?” the ARP warden demands.
“Got to get people away from here. Not the shelter–”
“Not bloody likely. Safest place for all of us. Been drinking, have we? Best you come with me, mate.” A hand slips inside his jacket and withdraws his ID papers and ration book but John wriggles free. He crashes into more cinema-goers, cannoning off them like a pinball until at last he is free of the crowd, running, tears streaming down his face.
Now the wail of the air-raid siren is supplemented by the drone of aircraft overhead. Moments later comes the banshee shriek as the first bombs begin to fall. He keeps running, even as explosions begin to rock the buildings around him. He only stops when the blast wave from the biggest and loudest explosion close behind sends him sprawling. Tomorrow he will learn from the grim report in The Times that it has destroyed the road outside Balham Tube Station, bringing water and sewage tunnels crashing down onto the northbound platform where several hundred people have sought shelter. 68 people die on this grim night.
Perhaps, he thinks, I should have gone done there with them.
When John returns to the hospital the following week, Dr Postlethwaite does not ask to see him. Instead, John finds a brown envelope stuffed into his pigeon hole. Inside are his call-up papers. He leaves the hospital without saying goodbye to a soul.
Two thirds of the way up the forest-covered slope, John spots movement to his right. Private Walton is gesturing urgently. Enemy ahead. Close. Walton’s eyes are gleaming with excitement.
John finds cover behind the thick bole of a pine tree and peers out cautiously. He can see nothing but waist high ferns covering the slope, a blanket of dappled greens and browns. Mature pines rise upwards every few yards, spreading their canopies high and wide. All day they have been blundering around in this shadowy twilight, playing their game of cat-and-mouse with the Germans.
He looks again where Walton is indicating.
Then, like one of those trick drawings that suddenly shifts to reveal a different image, something. The tank, a MkIII Panzer most probably, is draped with camouflage netting, only the squat black muzzle of its 50mm cannon showing. Just an hour ago they heard the growl of its engine, tracking it through these endless woods, trying to circle round from behind.
The engine is quiet now, the whole forest unnaturally still. Then there is the unmistakable rasp of a match flaring, two or three syllables of muttered German ending in what might be a tired laugh. Yes, close.
Further to his right, Lieutenant Jackman rises to a crouch gesturing Private Walton to follow. The rest of the company is to stay put. The blacking on Jackman’s face makes his expression unreadable, but his eyes are burning brightly with cold determination. John knows him to be a taciturn, domineering man whom he does not entirely trust. The two men move away soundlessly and are lost to view.
Seconds become minutes. The silence settles more deeply over the forest. Then–a flurry of movement, a startled cry, the clang of metal. A figure scrabbles up through the hatch, only to be flung to the ground by an unseen assailant. But the falling German pivots and looses a burst of sub-machine gunfire, shockingly loud. More shouts. Fire is returned from somewhere out of sight, three short rifle shots. Then the muffled crump of a hand grenade exploding and from inside the tank a column of thick, oily smoke pours skywards.
John begins to crawl towards the burning tank. At any moment he expects to hear the rattle of a machine gun and feel bullets tearing through his tunic.
“For god’s sake, stop crawling around on your belly like a bloody worm.” John looks up to see Jackman standing over him, cradling a German MP-40 sub-machine gun like a new-born infant, his own rifle slung nonchalantly over his shoulder. “Over there. Quickly.”
It is Walton, his face white as a ghost’s, eyes closed. Blood is soaking into the ground from the front of his tunic which has been shredded.
“Work fast,” Jackman says. “We can’t stay here. Where there are scouts, the main division won’t be far behind. What can you do for him?”
John lifts Walton’s pale, limp wrist, not even making the pretense of checking the pulse. The soldier’s eyelids flutter and he moans feebly. After the necessary few moments, John lets go of the wrist. “Nothing I can do for him. Maybe if we were nearer a field hospital…”
“You’re sure of that?”
“Nothing? You’ve barely examined him.”
Jackman’s cold blue eyes stay on him for a long time. They both know that carrying a wounded man will slow them down. The very survival of the company depends on speed.
John makes no reply.
Jackman unbuckles his service revolver, checks there’s a round in the chamber.
“Wait–!” John says.
Jackman raises an eyebrow. “The boy doesn’t deserve a lingering death. He doesn’t need to suffer.” On impulse, he flips the revolver, presenting the butt to John. “It’s the least you can do for him.”
John stares at the revolver. Eventually he says, “I’ll do what I can to make him comfortable.”
Jackman holsters the revolver again. “You do that.” To the rest of the men, he calls, “Move out!”
They assemble a makeshift stretcher from branches and tunics. John is surprised when it is Jackman who helps him ease Walton onto it, hoisting one end with John taking the other. Wordlessly, they move off into the forest.
By candlelight in their makeshift bivouac, he changes Walton’s dressings again. He’s running a fever, yet the boy is wracked by uncontrollable bouts of shivering. In one of his more lucid moments, the young soldier’s hand grips John’s and their eyes meet briefly but uncomprehendingly. Then Private Walton slips into something resembling sleep. The only sign that he is indeed still alive is the occasional soft moan.
A touch on John’s shoulder makes him start. “How is he?” Jackman asks.
“Still dying,” John says. “Same as before.”
“You’re pretty bloody sure of that, aren’t you?”
John freezes in the act of repacking his medical kit. The words hang in the air between them as if reluctant to depart.
“I’ve watched you,” Jackman continues. “Been watching you for a while now, in fact. And you know what troubles me? You fight like crazy for some of the wounded lads. You’re like a terrier then. You just won’t let go. Even when it seems hopeless, when you’re beyond exhaustion and having to shove their guts back in with your bare hands or sew up some tattered stump in the mud–you don’t give up. You’re a genuine miracle-worker. And then there are the other boys you barely look at. Oh, maybe you check their pulse or mop their fevered brow, but not much more than that. You just turn your back on those men. And then they die, almost as if you know it’s going to happen.”
John makes to stand up. “Just leave me–” but Jackman pulls him down again. “What’s your secret, eh? Do you enjoy deciding who lives and dies?” he whispers in his ear. “Are you getting your kicks playing god out here on the battlefield?” After a moment he lets go and John pulls free.
John stares out into the darkness. How could there possibly be a god in this forsaken place? “Do you think I’m some kind of monster?”
“I don’t know what you are.”
John checks Walton is comfortable and squats down in the shadows. “Long ago,” he says, “I was told a story about a strange little boy, a bit of a wild boy, who grew up out in the country. He didn’t have many friends but that didn’t matter to him. He liked his own company best. Some of the villagers thought he wasn’t right in the head, and that may have been true because after a time he came to believe he possessed a weird, impossible talent. Not the kind of talent that most young boys develop–an aptitude for sport or climbing trees or farting the first verse of ‘God Save The Queen.’ Something much darker, a kind of forbidden knowledge: an ability to foretell death. He believed he could tell–to the exact number–how many heartbeats were left in a person’s life at any given moment. All from one brief touch.”
Jackman is watching him with the same intensity a hunter regards its prey. “Ridiculous.”
“Oh yes. It’s that alright. The boy was clearly deluded, or just plain mad. Because to live with that kind of knowledge, to be reminded each day with just a casual touch, or a handshake, or a brush of lips on the cheek, which of your friends and family will be taken from you and when–to the nearest hour or minute–that kind of knowledge would drive anyone to insanity, wouldn’t it? Pity that boy.
“Once he dreamt of studying medicine. How pathetic is that? He wanted to cure people, make them well, yet nothing he did could ever make a difference after he discovered the terrible truth. You see, he believed–no, he knew–that everyone has a number, a secret number. No one knows what that number is–except for him. Quite literally he could tell you when your number would be up. But try as he might, he couldn’t find a way to change it.”
“Who was this boy?”
“Oh just a boy in a story. It’s a tale my father used to tell me around the camp fire, probably the same one his father told him.”
“What kind of idiot do you take me for?”
What kind would you prefer? John thinks, but wisely stays silent.
Jackman takes a long, deep breath. Eventually he says, “This isn’t finished with, but now isn’t the time. Get some sleep. We’ll move out under cover of darkness and begin the attack at first light.” He looks over to where Walton lays. “Maybe you’re right about him, maybe not. It doesn’t matter. We’ve come too far to turn back. I have the mission to think of.”
“No turning back,” John echoes.
When the screaming starts, the timing can hardly be worse. The company is scattered just below the ridge line. Beyond lies the iron trestle bridge spanning the deep gorge which bisects the landscape. The men are tense, keyed up for battle. Jackman’s pre-dawn briefing is stark. This is one of only two possible crossing points for Hermann Göring’s army on its relentless push westwards. There may be no better chance to halt its momentum, even if only temporarily. Document remnants recovered from the Panzer hint that the bridge is only lightly defended but heavy reinforcements are less than a day away. This, Jackman emphasizes, is their moment for glory. Generaloberst Gerhardt Weckmann himself is expected to be at the head of at least five divisions intent on making the crossing, most probably within the next 48 hours. Denying them this bridgehead will stall progress for days if not weeks, giving the Allied forces a key advantage. This may be, Jackman says, his eyes gleaming, a crucial turning point.
‘Lightly defended’ turns out to mean a garrison of at least forty German soldiers, with more patrolling on foot through the wooded slopes on either side of the valley. Pitted against them is Jackman’s platoon of fifteen exhausted men, one of whom is stretcher-bound. It hardly seems a match.
At the sound of Private Walton’s tortured screams, Jackman, some fifty yards ahead, signals frantically and John rips a sheet of muslin into strips, stuffing them into the man’s foaming mouth. He has nothing better to offer. The effect is negligible. Whatever private hell Walton is enduring continues in muffled fashion, threatening to bring down a different kind of damnation on the rest of the platoon.
As the cracks of rifle shots begin to echo around the valley, John takes Walton’s pulse again. Weak, erratic. The man’s flesh is cold and lifeless. And the number…
He remembers Walton telling them about home, the farm somewhere in the Dales that will one day be his upon his father’s retirement. And of the pretty brunette in the next village he was courting when his call-up came, the girl he plans to marry. Dreams of a different life in the midst of this nightmare.
He feels a sudden, desperate anger. Walton, the rest of them, don’t they deserve their chance of happiness, of a life?
John closes his eyes, summoning the number.
Change, damn you! He pushes harder than he has ever dared push before, harder than he thought possible. He senses something slipping from his grasp, greasy and elusive, close yet just out of reach. Again he pushes, but it’s like going up against some rusted mechanism that will not budge; a wheel that will only turn in one direction no matter how hard he pushes against it. If he can just find a way to squeeze another hour’s life back into the boy. It might be enough to get him back to proper medical facilities in time.
He can’t do it.
The number ticks downwards with each fluttering beat of the boy’s heart. He will be dead soon; certainly by nightfall. As might they all.
Suddenly Jackman flings himself down next to him. “A lightly armed patrol,” he shouts into John’s ear above the crack of rifle fire. “We’ve lost the element of surprise, but we still might be able to push them back to the bridge. We can pin them down while a couple of the men rig explosives. If I’m right about Weckman’s division… Imagine if we could throw a spanner in his works! Damn! It’s a gamble but we won’t get another chance like this.”
Yes, a gamble that could cost all of them their lives.
Jackman casts around, noting the dug-in positions of the platoon with a practiced eye. Then he turns to John and says quietly, “Which is it to be?”
John stares at him in astonishment. “What?”
Jackman grabs John’s arm and brings his hand up until it is touching the side of Jackman’s dirt-streaked face, like a lover tenderly caressing a cheek. Unbidden, the number swims into John’s head. “Tell me!” Jackman shouts above the rifle fire. “Do I order the men to press on? Tell me if I survive the next hour! Will the attack succeed?”
John pulls his arm back. “It doesn’t work like that.”
“Just tell me the damn number!”
But Jackman’s number means nothing. Suppose he lives? The price for this might be a heavy one paid by the rest of the company. And if he dies, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are all lost or that the sabotage fails. There is no way of knowing the outcome, but the wildness in Jackman’s eyes tells John that rationality counts for nothing at this moment. Heroes are not forged in moments of bravery and courage, John thinks, but blind stupidity.
“Pull back,” John says quietly, knowing it really makes no difference. Somewhere, the future is already written in heart beats.
Jackman’s eyes bore into him but, swearing under his breath, he gives the order and the men begin to retreat. Jackman glances at Walton, begins to unclip his revolver. They both know everything now depends on speed. Alerted, German patrols will be hunting tirelessly for them. Two men to man-handle a makeshift stretcher, two men less to fight with–the odds are poor.
“No. I’ll stay behind with him,” John says.
“Don’t be a bloody–”
“I said I’ll stay.” John’s rifle is raised, pointing at Jackman. The barrel wavers in his trembling hands. Just as well the safety catch is still on.
“Can you do anything for him?”
“No. But I won’t leave him either.” The faint after-image of Jackman’s number is still blurring his vision. It should be Walton’s number, too. He wishes there was a way to swap them.
Swiftly, the company is gone, the crack of rifle-fire receding with them. John turns back to Private Walton, grasping clammy hands in his. He closes his eyes.
Is he beyond help now?
Come on! Come. On.
In all his years of experimenting, first with a pet rabbit, later with creatures that he trapped in the woods, he has never found a way to add to the number. The wheel turns only one way; the grains of sand do not flow back into the hour-glass. Yet still he tries, concentrating, reaching through and beyond those clammy hands to push at the coldness creeping into the other man’s soul.
Walton groans. His eyelids flutter. John pushes once, briefly, in a different way. Walton settles, becomes still and calm.
The next thing he feels is the barrel of a rifle pressing into his neck. “Hände hoch oder ich schieße!”
John raises his hands slowly. A knee in the small of his back forces him down and he lies prone next to the Walton. “I have information,” John says urgently, in broken German. “Important information. If you spare my life.”
“What information? Tell me!” the German soldier replies in equally fractured English.
“I can only reveal that to Generaloberst Weckmann himself. Take me to him immediately.”
The soldier casts a sneering look at John. “You are nothing but a lowly medic. Not even a real soldier. A disgrace to your homeland. What could you possibly have of value to him?”
“Allied troop movements. Our army is not as weak as you believe. A trap is being set for your divisions. Are you prepared to explain yourself to Generaloberst Weckman if this information is not disclosed to him in time?”
The soldier glares at him. The barrel of the rifle pushes deeper into his chest. It could still all end here, John thinks. But the soldier is weighing up what he has said. He is thinking, if I shoot him now, will it matter if this isn’t a bluff? Weckmann will never get to know.
They leave Walton lying in the undergrowth. Could I have done more? John wonders. Did he really believe he could bargain for more time? The wheel turns only one way.
Generaloberst Weckmann is an important man. Popular with his men, he is also influential amongst the Wehrmacht High Command. His opinions are listened to, his abilities respected as a ruthless tactician. He is the sort of man that events and battles hinge upon.
When I meet him, John thinks, he will be suspicious. I will need to convince him I am a traitor. But before he can uncover the truth, I will congratulate him on his clever strategies and ask to shake his hand.
Then–a push, because now I understand the deal that has been made. It’s as I’ve known all along: the wheel turns only one way.
And I will take from him as much as I can.
By Robert Dawson
Let me just freshen your glass, Lera darling, and we’ll go into the garden to see my latest treasure! But can I trust you with a secret?
You remember how, just before the last time I went back to being a girl, I went on the Grand Tour for seven months? With Teldon?
No, not a whisper from him, not since Ringwinter. And my spies tell me
I’m the one who should be asking you, darling, anyway! Well, I booked us a sinfully luxurious suite on the Andromeda, and we went everywhere: Valirette, Holalasha, Nuevo Perú, Yeldi, all the most exotic worlds you can imagine.
Yes, darling, it really is true about the night life on Valirette. Teldon went quite wild in the clubs – you know what he can be like! Of course, at our age, we’ve seen it all, haven’t we? And done it.
Let’s go out through the herb garden. Watch your step! Do try one of these leaves. It’s stensiga, just a nice buzz, hardly addictive at all. No? Well, maybe later?
Anyhow, as I was saying, Holalasha was an utter disappointment. We’d looked forward to seeing the Ice Caverns – well, doesn’t everyone? But after we landed, they told us that they were four hundred kilometers away, and no heliport! We’d have had to take a bus, and spend a night in a nasty local hotel. They showed us a stereo of the rooms, just so shuddersomely primitive: no sensies or even gravbeds! So I told Teldon, if he wanted to go he could, but I was going to stay on board in the suite I’d paid for. In the end he stayed: I think the silly boy thought I was angry with him about that birdgirl in the mud pit at the Casino Valirette.
Well, I may be a century-and-who’s-counting, but I’m not a prude. And besides, the last time this girl got seriously jealous over anything, Teldon wasn’t even born. After all, if I was the jealous type, we wouldn’t still be such good friends, would we, darling?
But Yeldi, now! You’ve seen stereocasts of the Yeldian Flower Jungle, haven’t you? That was one thing I was absolutely not going to miss. Even though the uncouth natives who run the so-called tourist agency there put us through the most absurd nonsense. (Do watch the thorns on that one! Very nasty.)
Before we even got off the ship, we got this idiotic lecture about not touching anything, and had to put on bodysuits with helmets – like space suits. No air tanks, just filters, but utterly, utterly uncomfortable, especially as my hair was right down to my derriere then, and it all had to fit into my helmet. And the stink – my dear! I don’t suppose they ever bother cleaning them, and I think they use the same ones for tourist class passengers. They said the suits were to keep the insectoids away from our skin. Apparently their venom puts you in a coma, and then they inject their larvae and – you don’t want to hear the rest. Trust me.
And after all that, the guide wasn’t even a botanist. Just an enormous Yeldian native, two meters tall, and she didn’t even speak System! Fortunately we had a crewman along to translate.
But the jungle itself? Lera, the stereocasts don’t show you the half of it. All the leaves are dark, dark reds, blues, and purples, like velvet. Even darker than these hexaploid coleus over here. We went at dusk, after Kinna, that’s the bigger sun, had set, so they looked even darker. And you have never, ever seen so many flowers! They came in every size, from huge flowers on the trees a meter across to shrubs with tiny flowerets you need a magnifier to see. And all in more colors than you can begin to imagine. Then Merax set too, and the flowers started to glow, pulsing slowly. And the scent! I was in heaven, darling. Heaven. Even Teldon was impressed.
There was one kind of flower, trumpet-shaped and the most perfect robin’s-egg blue. Each one was about half a meter long, only the narrow part was coiled up in a shape that made your eyes go all funny if you tried to follow it, like one of those clever exhibits in the Topology Room in the Imperial Museum. The guide took out a pocket light, and showed us insectoids, like flying jewels, as big as a fingernail, flying in and out. The odd thing was, if you watched some flowers, one insectoid after another would fly in, as if the flower was sucking them up and destroying them. Quite sinister. And other flowers were just the opposite; the bugs kept flying out, as if the flower was spawning them.
Teldon asked about that. He’s quite clever. About some things, anyway. The guide said something, very low and rumbly, and the translator said these insectoids were the ones that – well, you know. And then she said something else, and the translator said some nonsense about these flowers, all over the planet, being joined together in the fourth dimension. But maybe he hadn’t understood properly. Probably some local superstition or other.
Here we are, Lera! My prize! Yes, you guessed, didn’t you? I was very naughty, and smuggled back a few seeds from that gorgeous blue corkscrew-flower plant. They actually searched us, can you believe it? I planted the seeds this spring. Only one germinated, but isn’t it wonderful? And it’s flowering this week for the first time ever. Doesn’t it smell marvelous?
A bee? Bees aren’t green. No, of course I don’t know, angel. I’m a gardener, not an entomologist. How many legs does it have? Can you see?
Lera! Did it sting you? You really shouldn’t have got so close. You will understand if I stay over here, won’t you?
No, darling, I don’t think there’d be much point calling them. I don’t think there’s any treatment. And, do you know, I think I may have told you a fib. Maybe I was just the tiniest bit jealous about Teldon after all.
When the Waves are Whales
By Sarena Ulibarri
The day before I left to go to sea, I went to visit Alana. She was an aunt or cousin of some distance, but when I was a boy my city was at war and my parents had sent me to stay with her, through the mountains to where the slopes dipped into the sea.
I knocked on the door, though I should have known better. She was not the type to be sitting quietly inside, knitting or reading like my mother, especially on a sunny day like this when the wind rocked the water into gentle waves. Finding no answer at the door, I looked to the garden, where she had once taught me the healing properties of various herbs, where we had once sung the old shaman songs together to encourage the plants to grow.
The garden overflowed with bright blooms, but Alana wasn’t there. I found her sitting on a rock by the shore. She didn’t turn when I sat beside her. Her face looked blissful, her eyes softly focused on the ocean waves.
“I had a dream you’d come,” she said.
“You didn’t get my letter?”
“Mmm,” she said. “Maybe that was it.” Her eyes crinkled. “No, it was a dream. We were watching the whales together, just like now.”
I followed her gaze to the water. The wind pulled the waves up into white tips. I watched for the spout of a whale’s breath, for the emergence of a dark flapping tail.
A few minutes passed before I said, “I don’t see any whales.”
“They’re everywhere,” she said. “Hundreds of them. Look!”
She pointed to a large whitecap, then clasped her hands in delight. It wasn’t her eyesight. She had been old as long as I’d known her, and she’d never had to squint to identify faces or read signs. It was the way she saw.
I tried to see the waves like she did, wanting to believe that her way was right, that there were hundreds of whales cavorting right there in the bay. Maybe they were whales of a different dimension, the songs of their bodies vibrating on a different scale than the songs of our world, and she could see them because she had one foot in that world too, like the shamans who had long disappeared. I tried, but the whales always turned back into waves for me. Just white caps created by the wind.
I kissed her head, the gray strands of her hair soft under my lips. She wrapped both her hands around one of mine. We sat there for another hour, me watching the waves, she watching the whales, until the sun flashed green as it disappeared into the sea.
My sea voyage was nothing grand or heroic. Fishers had complained of a recent surge in the sea-squirrel population. They ate too much and reproduced too fast, and chewed apart coral reefs so they could burrow in the rubble. The fishers’ nets were full of them instead of the fish they could sell in markets. So our task was to hunt these pests, which we did by a number of different methods. We launched spears after them when we saw solitary squirrels leaping along beside the ship. We dropped nets and captured hundreds at a time when we found a dray of them, tossing back the odd fish or octopus also caught in the net.
The sea-squirrels had thick rodent-like bodies and yellow fur like the mountain-squirrels, but had gill slits behind their ears and thick fins with claws at the end that could slice your hand if you picked one up live. I’d seen some as big as a puppy, though most we caught were much smaller.
They were coarse and tough, but the ship’s cook fried and spiced them in a way that made them tolerable. It was during one of these feasts, the stars bright above us and a thick candle drawing our shadows long on the wooden deck as we lifted bites to our mouths, that my crewmates started telling stories.
Their stories were not of their own pomp and bravery, because our generation had grown up with the war, and we didn’t tend to display pride about our petty achievements. They were stories about their mothers, their uncles, their teachers, and were told less to brag or entertain than to show the others who they were, what they valued.
I listened to several before someone suggested it was my turn. I chewed my fried sea-squirrel and stared into the candle flame, thinking. My father had been injured in the war and had spent most of my life clouding his sorrows with sedating smoke, saved from destruction only by my mother’s quiet devotion. There were stories there, but not ones that my sea-brothers wanted to hear. And then I smiled, and told them about Alana.
Once, she had grown the largest flower anyone had ever seen. I came back from my rowing lesson to find her in the garden crooning over an orange blossom that had expanded overnight to the size of a dinner plate. She held her finger to her mouth when I walked up so that I wouldn’t interrupt her song. I crouched in the dirt beside her, poking the ground with a stick. It was normal for her to sing the old shaman songs in the garden, but she usually serenaded the whole plot while she watered and pruned.
I looked up from the ground, bored with the designs I’d scratched into the soil, and watched the blossom grow before my eyes. She sang, and new petals unfolded from a seemingly infinite center. I watched, entranced. Eventually her voice cracked and she stopped, nodded.
“That’s enough for today,” she said, and took me inside for dinner.
Over my shoulder, I could see the blossom still growing.
The next day it had doubled, and again the day after that, until its radius was nearly the length of the rowboat I practiced with daily. Each day she sang to it, starting when I left for rowing lessons, and continuing until after I returned. The vegetables we picked during that time were small and bitter, but the flower just kept growing.
Around that time an artist announced a contest to become the subject matter for his new mural, which would adorn the marketplace wall. It was an ill-defined contest, and I heard the parents of my rowing friends complain that it was a scam, this artist just looking to be coddled and fed.
But Alana was determined to win.
“I’ve always wanted someone to paint a portrait of me,” she told me one day while we were washing dishes together.
“Really?” I asked. I wondered if she would be happy with the way he painted her. She was not beautiful, not like the girls who practiced dancing with palm leaves on the shore while we practiced our rowing on the sea. But she did have vibrancy, a glow that affected her every movement, and I wondered if the artist would be able to capture that, rather than simply painting a squat gray woman.
“Oh yes,” she answered. “When I was young I knew an artist who used to draw sketches of me. He always promised one day he’d paint me.”
Suds slid down her arms. The water splashed.
“What happened to him?”
“Mmm,” she said, stared out the window and then shook her head. She never said anything more.
She invited the artist over to see the flower. I stayed in the house and watched them through the window. The artist was a tall man with long fingers, whose head protruded in front of his neck rather than sitting on top of it. Alana talked, her hands flying to illustrate her ideas. The artist nodded. She tried out several poses in front of the flower. I laughed at how silly she looked and imitated the poses in the bedroom mirror, laughing at myself too.
The artist stayed for lunch. He was a serious man. He asked questions about my rowing lessons and told me grotesque details about the war on the other side of the mountains, which I tried to forget as soon as I’d heard.
“Do you think you’ll win the contest?” I asked Alana once he was gone.
“Oh yes,” she said. “I’m quite sure of it.”
She made the mistake of expressing this confidence to a number of people we saw at the marketplace that afternoon, and when we woke the next day, the flower was gone. A hole occupied the center of the garden where someone had dug it out by the roots.
Alana paced the edge of the garden, wringing her hands. I assumed she would be most upset about losing her chance to be painted, but what she kept repeating was, “The flower can’t keep growing if I can’t sing to it!”
Together we launched a thorough investigation, scanning the garden pathways for unusual footprints, going door to door asking if anyone had seen who took it.
“It’s a giant flower,” I said to Alana after the fifth household that told us they knew nothing. “There aren’t many places it could be hidden.”
“It will die if I can’t sing to it,” Alana said, despair saturating her voice.
In the marketplace I spotted the artist. Alana called to him but he didn’t turn so we ran to catch up. She caught him by the sleeve, wheezing. He looked at the two of us as if we were thieves demanding his wallet. Alana put her hand to her chest, still wheezing from the run, so I started our standard questioning about the flower. Alana interrupted me.
“You, sir,” she said, still breathless, but looking up into the artist’s face now, “have mud on your shoes.”
We tracked down the stolen flower in a shed behind the marketplace, then the artist admitted he planned to paint the mural of the flower–without Alana–and sell the flower to the highest bidder.
The flower was so big by that point that it took ten of us to hold it up and carry it back to Alana’s garden, where she placed it into the hole, packing dirt as close around its roots as she could. She sang to the flower and it grew even larger until it filled the whole back yard.
My crewmates smiled, nodding up at the sky, and in the candlelight I could see a touch of that same bliss I had seen on Alana’s face while she watched the wave-whales.
“That’s not what happened,” one of the men said.
I squinted through the candle flame, and realized this was one of the boys I had taken rowing lessons with as a child. I didn’t want to admit I hadn’t recognized him before.
“What do you remember, then?” I said.
He shrugged and retreated into the shadows and all eyes turned back to me. So I told them the truth.
We carried the flower back–it took five of us in this version–and planted it. For several days, Alana sat out there singing to it. But the brown tinge that had already affected the outer petals by the time we found it just kept spreading. Every day the orange soured to brown a bit more, no matter how much and how lovely Alana sang.
One night she was still out there when I went to bed, and I woke up to find her crying next to the dry tendrils of what had once been the biggest blossom anyone had ever seen. I sat there and cried with her, and then helped her inside and tucked her into bed, as she had done for me so many times. Instead of going to my normal rowing lesson, I dragged my canoe up the hill and loaded the dead flower into it. I took it down to the shore and dumped the brown petals in, watched the flower get torn apart by the waves.
“Better?” I said to the man who had questioned my story.
He nodded, a smirk on his face. The others began to wander back to their bunks, leaving other stories untold for the night.
I slept poorly even on the easiest nights, jerked awake by every creak of the mast, every snort of my bunkmates. One morning a few nights after I’d told Alana’s story, I was on deck in the soft pre-dawn light, lowering the nets. My hands burned from the rope and my eyes throbbed from lack of sleep. The water heaved and peaked like mountains rapidly building and eroding. Water sprayed against the ship and it sounded to me like the spout of a whale, that thought coming from the back of my groggy mind.
When the nets were fully lowered, I looked down to see them trailing in the water. Somewhere below the nets a shadow grew darker and then a patch of oily gray skin surfaced just beside the edge of the net. It disappeared, dove, and reappeared a bit further from the ship with a glimpse of a wide flat tail. I leaned on the rail and watched as a second one breeched with a spray that sounded like the water against the hull, and I was left unsure what I had been hearing a few moments before.
After a while we were called back to shore, our task of checking the sea-squirrel population accomplished, at least for now. I found myself back on land sunburned, wobbly-legged and nursing a poorly defined sense of dissatisfaction. I considered going back through the mountains to see my parents, to see if fortunes had changed, but I decided not to, for now. It was hard enough just to walk on dry land, and I couldn’t imagine going back to that land-locked city, mountains on one side, desert on the other. As a boy when my parents had come to claim me from Alana’s and take me back to the war-ravaged city, I had been so excited to go home. But when I got there, it wasn’t home anymore. I missed the sea, and the garden. I missed the girls with their palm leaf dances, and the boys I rowed with. I missed Alana.
I waited a few days after returning to shore before going to see her. When my legs felt more solid, I climbed the short hill to her house and, even though I knew better, knocked on the door. But this time when she didn’t answer, I didn’t find her in the garden, or at the beach. I went in the back door, calling her name. The house felt warm and sweet. It smelled like her, but she wasn’t there. I went to a neighbor to ask if they’d seen her. They pointed me up the hill.
A trail forked at the edge of the forest, and I spied a footprint on the one leading up into the mountains. Narrow and tapered, like her favorite shoes.
It didn’t take long to catch up with her.
“Alana!” I called, but she didn’t turn. She held her skirts in both hands and stepped solidly, quickly up the rocky trail. I hurried behind her, calling her name again.
“I had a dream you’d come,” she said, without turning to me.
“Alana, what are you doing up here?”
“Oh, you won’t turn me back,” she said.
Her cheeks were flushed bright red, but her breath sounded strong and steady. No wheezing from this exertion, not yet. My own pulse was raised, my throat dry.
“But where are you going?”
“Just come along,” she said.
So I did. We climbed together until I felt my heart would explode. Until my head felt dizzy and light. This was a different path than the one that led through the mountains to the city. This one led up a tall conical peak, one that stood above all the others. The air grew colder. Fog swirled around our feet.
“Will you tell me where we’re going?”
“There was this man in town,” she said, “From somewhere to the south, where there’s still a living shaman. He was talking about what keeps our feet on the ground. He says if you go high enough, it has less power. He says if you go all the way to the stars, you could float in the air like a fish floats in the sea.”
“Oh, Alana,” I said. “That’s why we’re all the way up here?”
She didn’t stop climbing, though it was steeper now, a slower ascent. I didn’t know much about how the world worked, but I knew that if I dropped something, it fell to the ground, and it didn’t matter how high or low I was. It was always the same. The shamans were long gone, and I doubted even they could have changed that basic truth.
She got far enough ahead that I lost her in the mist for a moment, and when I caught up, she was climbing a loose rope ladder that hung along the side of a sharp peak. I paused, looking up to where the mountain vanished into more fog. I waited until she had almost disappeared again, then I gripped the rope rungs and started to climb.
Her movements twisted the ladder, challenging my own climb, and I had no doubt that if we fell, we would both be drawn right back down to the closest solid surface, given an unforgiving reprimand forever doubting the ground’s pull. My rowing teacher had told me never to turn my back on the sea, and I felt here as if I had turned my back on the ground, so that it might sneak up on me like a big wave. I looked down, but the ground was obscured by fog.
Then the ladder lost some of its tension, and I could tell her weight was no longer pressing on it.
“Alana!” I yelled, my voice cracking from exhaustion. I looked wildly around, but didn’t see her body tumbling past me. I climbed faster, and the summit came into view.
She balanced on the tip of the mountain, teetering and laughing like my friends and I when we had tried to balance on the poles at the dock. I stayed below, hands gripping so tightly that the rope burned my palms. She wobbled, then seemed to find stability. I held my breath. She looked up into the sky, swirls of blue breaking through the fog. With grace she lifted her arms, letting the skirts fall around her ankles. Then her feet lifted off the mountaintop and she floated, the fog flowing around her like water.
The Things We Should Be Doing
By Drew Rogers
The person who stops to help me leaves their headlights on, and I can see my body folded up in a way that makes me certain I’m dying.
I can’t move.
This must be what going into shock feels like: nothing at all. But I know I should be feeling something because my left arm bone is sticking through my leather jacket. And I have all these thoughts queued up—the things I know I’m supposed to be thinking about while dying—but all I can think right now is how stupid this fucking jacket is.
Ride or Die. Really?
The man gets out his phone to make a call. I can’t hear anything, but I assume it’s to 911. Then he paces for a bit, probably working up the nerve to comfort me in my last moments, putting on his mask of false-positivity, because he must also know I’m dying.
Then he holds up his phone and walks toward me. I hear the muffled scuffing of his shoes against the asphalt as he approaches, sounds that are far away but close at the same time; or maybe I don’t hear anything. He takes one step back as the glistening pool of my blood almost touches his shoes. He’s still holding up his phone.
Is he filming me?
And now I’m thinking about what I should be thinking about: my family, and how my daughter is only two years old, and how my wife is the most beautiful soul in the universe, and how I am—how I was—so lucky, and how I’m hurting them by leaving them, and how I’m so so so sorry that I’m leaving them, and is this fucking guy actually filming me?
The man is expressionless, his mouth a hard line, his eyes a thousand-yard stare. I try to scream at him, try to yell help!, even though I know he can’t do anything for me. Nothing happens; I don’t move or make a sound.
He continues to circle me, a timid coyote passing out of my field of vision and then back in. He sweeps his camera over the pieces of my motorcycle strewn about the street, then he fixes it back on me again. He stays that way for what feels like the rest of my life.
I still can’t feel anything, but somehow I know my breathing has slowed and I’m getting close to my last moment. And my last moment is going to be with this guy caring more about getting a good shot than me going peacefully. Part of me doesn’t care, but another part feels more alone than ever, and I can’t do anything except lie here and keep on dying, can’t do anything but think things like what’s going to happen after this?, and what if my family sees this video?, and I can’t let that happen. And I get so angry I start to rage inside and think why are you doing this?, and I’m dying!, and leave!, and fuck off! fuck off! fuck off!
And now I’m thinking in pictures. Pictures of all the things I want to see just one more time before I’m gone, but I’m thinking them right at him: a picture of me lying on the couch with my daughter asleep on my chest, of my wife with her hair all messed up in the morning and how it makes her look like a lion, of my daughter hugging our cat a little too tightly, of my cat being fine with it, of my wife in the shower, of my wife squinting because she can’t see me without her glasses, of the three of us sitting around the TV, eating pizza and watching cartoons.
This last thought is a whip lashing out of me, and the man staggers. His eyes go wide and he struggles to regain his footing.
But he still has his phone held up, and my anger becomes a sun in my chest; a fiery star that burns burns burns, then shrinks, waits, and detonates.
The supernova is a bursting series of images, the colors of it lighting up the street: an image of us quietly drinking coffee and my daughter still asleep, of my daughter insisting that I pick her up, of me picking her up, of my wife insisting that I pick her up, too, of both of them laughing, of me laughing with them, of me asking my parents questions that I’ll never get to, of my brothers and sisters, of me telling them I love them, of my little girl’s cheeks, of my wife’s eyes, of their hands and feet, of them happy, of them happy without me, after this, not forgetting me, but being happy.
For a second I forget the man as he’s swallowed up by the spectacle, but when the colors fade I see his hands are shaking so violently that he drops his phone. He’s looking me right in my eyes for the first time, and his face drains of all color. It’s as if he’s just now realizing I’m not an alien. His phone hits the blacktop, and I hear it crack before I actually see it crack.
And now he’s kneeling next to me, his hands still shaking as he takes mine into his. “I’m so sorry, buddy,” he says, “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Then he starts saying all the things he should be saying, and I realize I wasn’t the only one in shock.
He says, “It’s going to be okay-ay.”
And, “Y-you hang in the-there.”
And, “Thambulance is on sway.”
And, “Withwith st-stay with me stay me with…”
The Mutable Sky
By Jamie Lackey
Sky took a step forward. Her leg stretched out toward the desolate horizon, then came down behind her. She wobbled and half-fell before she regained her balance. She closed her eyes, but it didn’t help.
She’d never been comfortable in her body, but this was ridiculous.
Oil slick-purple clouds rumbled, then dumped sheets of rain that billowed like sails. They smelled like burnt sugar and felt like feathers on her upturned face.
Sky stood, let it drench her. She glanced down at her naked body, trying not to hope and failing.
It was still wrong. Unchanged. Still her familiar, male prison. Reality itself bent and broke around her, but her body remained stubbornly unaltered.
Her tears tasted like cilantro.
Bare trees loomed to her left, and a herd of horses lumbered by, competent if not graceful on their lengthening legs.
Sky watched them, hoping to catch the trick of it.
“You’re new,” a voice said.
A woman floated toward her. Her long blond hair curled and billowed around her naked body, and her pale, bare breasts reminded Sky of how wrong her own body was.
“Yes,” she said. To her delight, her own voice sounded different. Feminine, like she’d always heard it in her head.
The woman blinked. “How strange you are.”
Sky had always been strange. She had thought no one would notice, here. “I’m sorry.” Her voice wavered, new and old within single syllables.
The woman shrugged. “Strange is not bad.”
“Oh,” Sky said. “Good.”
“What is your name?”
“I’m called Celina.” She floated around Sky, looking her up and down. “I’d like to have sex with you. Your body is very fine.”
Sky’s hated penis twitched. It stretched to the horizon, then returned to normal. “I’m sorry, but I’d rather not. I hate this body. I hoped I might change, here.”
Celina frowned. “I don’t understand. Your body is lovely and strong.”
Sky shrugged. She was tired of explaining herself.
“Well, things do change here.”
Celina shrugged. “Why would I wish to?”
Jealousy twisted Sky’s stomach. If she looked like Celina, she wouldn’t want to change either.
“Is there a secret to walking?” Sky asked.
Celina shrugged. “I’m sure there is. But I never bothered to learn it.” She floated in a fast circle around Sky, smirking as Sky’s head turned all the way around to watch. “I float instead. I can teach you.”
“You are interesting, and I am bored. And I am selfish and optimistic enough to maintain designs on sex.”
They floated after the horses. The animals frolicked across the flat, brown ground, around rocks that cracked open like eggs. Tiny horses spilled out of the rocks, awkward and shaky, but still beautiful. Sky liked looking at them. Their strange bodies gave her hope.
A herd of elephants trotted up on spindly legs, and they eyed the horses warily. They gathered around a cluster of darker rocks, and tiny elephants scrambled out and clustered around them.
Sky turned to Celina. “How can I change my body?”
“You could try bathing in the ocean. Water is mutable everywhere. It might help.”
“How do I get there?” Sky asked.
Celina shrugged. “I just float around till I hear it. Or smell it, sometimes.”
Celina’s body stayed constant, even when she moved. Her solidness was starting to look wrong. Everything else flowed and changed, but not Celina.
“Let’s try this direction,” Celina said, floating off.
They floated through huge melted clocks that felt like warm pudding against Sky’s skin, climbed trees that cast no shadows and felt like old plastic, and skated across perfectly smooth pools that smelled like fresh cut grass. They spoke to huge floating faces, but none of them knew the best path to the ocean. It moved so often. They agreed that it was the best place for Sky’s needs.
The sun hopped around instead of sailing across the sky, so Sky had no way of tracking time’s passage. They rested when she was tired–Celina never seemed to tire.
Sky found a stray tiny elephant tucked into one of the trees, and picked it up. It fit in the palm of her hand, and its tiny heart beat so fast that its whole body trembled. “What are you doing?” Celina asked. “Those things carry disease.”
“We have to find its mother.”
Celina rolled her eyes.
They met no one who could care for the elephant, found nothing that it would eat. Its heart slowed. Darkness fell, and purple fire danced across the sky.
The elephant slept curled against Sky’s throat. When Sky woke, its body burst into a thousand tiny hummingbirds that scattered in a thousand directions.
There was no food. Sky dreamed of hamburgers and warm slices of chocolate cake. She woke feeling full, but the feeling faded quickly.
“I’m starving,” Sky said.
Celina nodded. “You will have to go home, soon. Or you’ll die.”
Sky’s stomach fell. She looked down, hoping to see it hanging at her knees, but her body remained unchanged. She wondered if she was spending too much time with Celina–if her constant-ness was contagious. “Everything else here changes. Why don’t you?”
“I just don’t.”
“Are you human? Will you starve, too?”
“Tell me why you want to change your body, and I will answer your questions.”
“I want who I am on the outside to match who I am on the inside.”
Celina bobbed up and down. “At least you know who you are on the inside.”
Celina shrugged. “I’m not sure I have an inside.”
Sky’s stomach rumbled. “I need to go home.”
“Perhaps the ocean will help.”
“Do you hear it? Or smell it?” Sky asked.
“Soon,” Celina said.
Sky wasn’t sure if she believed her.
Sky’s feet dragged. Hunger made her dizzy. “What happens if I can’t get home?” She refused to think about her failure–about returning home with her still-wrong body. Right now, she just didn’t want to starve.
Celina pointed to the horizon. “Look.”
Water’s shimmery reflection danced ahead of them, and distance-tiny white-capped waves crashed against the shore. Sky ran. Her legs tangled together like strands of overcooked spaghetti, but she didn’t stop. She barreled forward until she fell into the waves.
The water burned. She yelped and stumbled back.
The ocean branded golden stripes on her flesh. The foam clung to her and soothed the blistering pain. The smell of cotton candy overpowered her.
A cloud of butterflies drifted out of the waves and settled on her face. Their feet pricked with tiny, painful shocks.
Sky waved the butterflies away. “It’s hot!”
Celina rolled her eyes. “Of course it’s hot.”
Sky took a deep, bracing breath and stepped back toward the water.
Celina grabbed her hand. “Wait. Before you go in, please, have sex with me.”
Sky’s hated penis responded, like it always did. “Why?”
“Maybe it will help with the emptiness I feel.”
Sky had tried to fill emptiness with sex, and it hadn’t worked. But things were different here. “Okay.”
Celina grinned and pounced like a tiger. Her breasts stuck to Sky’s chest and stretched like taffy when she pulled back. She straddled Sky, and pleasure more intense than any Sky had ever known spiked through her. Celina covered her face with kisses, then raked long nails down her back, and her skin parted with a hiss. Celina thrust and rocked and arched back.
She collapsed on top of Sky, winded and giggling.
“Thank you,” she whispered. She lifted herself away, and Sky felt a strange pulling. There was an instant of pain, then a strange, giddy relief.
Sky looked down, and there was nothing between her legs. Breasts rose from her chest, mirror images of Celina’s. “Did you know this would happen?”
Celina shook her head. “But I do feel better. Thanks.”
Sky ran her hands over her changed body. She touched her face–her smooth cheeks, her smaller nose. It felt like the face she’d always dreamed of seeing in the mirror.
Celina pulled Sky to my feet and kissed her. She tasted like smoky chocolate.
Sky jumped into the water. It burned, and her skin turned gold. She swam deeper, into deep purple water that was cooler against her skin. Fluorescent butterflies swirled in the waves. Tiny bubbles fizzed all around her body, and then she could feel them inside her.
Sky laughed, and the air bubbles emerged as bright golden fish.
She swam until the water was black, then burst to the surface of her own bed. Tiny flecks of gold flaked off of her skin, and a single bright purple butterfly fluttered out the open window. Her skin smelled like spun sugar. “It actually worked,” she said, relief and joy washing through her. Even just sprawled across the bed, she felt more at home in her body than she ever had before. Her stomach grumbled.
She scrambled to her feet and ran to the mirror. She examined every inch of her new body, laughing her new laugh and missing Celina and the golden fish.
At Any Cost
By Ashley Rose Nicolato
Somewhere beyond the edge of camp, the things were waking up. Somebody had mentioned it would be better to adjust to their schedule: sleep during the day, be vigilant at night, stop being taken by surprise. That week’s leader had refused, every single time. They had made enough concessions.
The dusky purple of twilight settled over the treetops as people kicked dirt over the glowing embers of their dying fire. On top of everything else, it hadn’t rained in weeks, and the whole wood was as good as kindling. They had nearly finished setting up camp for the night, and as the dozen or so remaining campers settled in for what was sure to be an uneasy rest, they rolled dirty sleeping bags onto dusty piles of dirt and leaves in a poor attempt to soften the ground at their backs. It was nearly winter. Jem sat at the edge of the tent circle, fluffing what now passed for a pillow. She hadn’t slept soundly in days, and it wasn’t because of what lurked beyond the tree line. The wood was filled with a million unfamiliar sounds–was that an insect? Some kind of bird? What makes a buzzing sound and also scurries up and down the trees at all hours? She wondered in silence. There was nobody to complain to any more.
She watched as a few of the others went to bed. Floating through the spaces between the zipped flaps of tents came the murmurs of pillow talk and the occasional sigh of pleasure–not everything had changed. She longed for the life she was used to: a life of clean sheets and fresh fruit and meat that didn’t come from whatever was crawling around. As she pondered her fate, resigned to a life of sore muscles and aching vertebrae, someone tapped her on the shoulder. She looked up, her thoughts interrupted. Kelvin.
“You’re on watch with me, Jem,” he said, and stalked off to the edge of the clearing without waiting for a response.
Kelvin was, in every sense of the word, a redneck. Jem had never socialized with people like Kelvin before all this happened, and she thought it a particularly ironic twist of fate that they were the only ones likely to survive this hell. She found herself wishing she were a little more rough around the edges. Everyone at camp treated her like a burden, making a point of explaining every chore assigned to her as if she had never heard of washing clothes or boiling water. Instead of proving them wrong, she half-assed every responsibility they gave her. If they think I’m so useless, she thought, I’ll be useless. It occurred to her that sort of response was infantile, but Jem wasn’t particularly concerned with earning their good favor. She wasn’t here to make friends, now.
Jem groaned and followed him to the spot he had chosen. Leaning against the tree was the rifle, which she took, wrinkling her nose at its weight. She slid down to sit, facing the direction opposite her partner, and supporting herself against the trunk for a moment before it occurred to her that was probably the worst possible place to be if she wanted to avoid getting crawled on. She shuddered, and Kelvin snorted. Almost as if he had read her mind, he said,
“Tiny bugs’re the least of your problems. Look out o’er there,” he said, and pointed to a place between two trees, a few yards beyond the campsite. Stretched between their branches were thick strands of pinkish grey, and though she couldn’t make out much more than their color, she knew what the rope-like webbing meant.
Jem swallowed, grasping the rifle tighter. “They’re out here?”
Kelvin shrugged as he searched the forest floor, kicking over rotting leaves and disturbing tufts of dead grass.
“But that’s so close to camp!” she whispered, eyes darting back to the spot between the trees.
He picked up a stick then, reaching into his pocket and taking out a knife, and began whittling it down to size before responding, “We swept the area pretty thorough before settlin’ in. They may make their way over, but if they do… well, that’s why we’re on watch. So keep your pretty peepers peeled.”
“Hmm,” was Jem’s only response. A biting wind blew through the trees, and she pulled her jacket even tighter around her well-fed frame. Suddenly, she felt a little less irritated and a lot more anxious. She didn’t want to be responsible for the welfare of all these people. She barely wanted that responsibility over herself. She thought about the last time she was on watch. She remembered Henry.
He had been in the group from the start–the only one she’d really liked, even if he was a little gauche. Something about him had smitten her, and it wasn’t his good looks or even his strength. It was his attitude, she thought, and his unwillingness to bend. He was solid on all counts, and maybe even a little stuck in his ways. Henry had come from circumstances similar to Jem‘s, in “real life” as she now referred to it in her private thoughts. He hadn’t been so different from her. Henry hadn’t lasted too long.
“Have you ever…” she started to ask, and trailed off. Kelvin grunted. “Have you seen one? Up close, I mean,” she finished.
Kelvin stopped whittling and turned to face her, his nose inches from hers. “Are you kiddin’?” he asked, and she shook her head. “Miss, most anybody who sees one up close doesn’t come back to tell of it. Mostly.”
Jem nodded, but pressed on. “Mostly?”
Kelvin sighed and set down the knife and stick. “You ever see someone with a bite?”
Jem trembled again, and hugged the rifle to her chest, leaning against it for support. She hadn’t seen a bite.
“We had a guy a while back. Back when everything went to shit and we were still thinkin’ we could avoid ‘em if we holed up. Got bit by a little one, barely bigger’n you. Least that’s what he says. Said. Anywho,” Kelvin picked up the knife and went back to whittling before continuing his story.
“He got bit on the leg somethin’ awful–I mean, pus and gunk all runnin’ out, and… Sorry. You probably don’t want to hear about that. Anyway, he’d been close enough to get bit, and he got an eyeful and then some. He told me what it looked like but… I don’t know if he was right. In the head, I mean. By that time his fever was pretty high and most of what came out his mouth sounded nuts.”
Jem coughed and turned around again, staring out into the green-black of the nighttime forest. The wood was mostly quiet now, and she breathed in the silence for a while before she began to speak. She remembered Henry–his piercing blue eyes locked with hers as the thing dragged him away.
“What happened after he got bit?”
Kelvin paused and answered, “We didn’t stick around to find out. He lasted for a couple days and then he got so stiff he couldn‘t move, and his eyes wouldn’t stay open. And he smelled nasty. It was like he was rottin’ from the inside or somethin’. We got overrun around that time and had to leave him. Shit!”
Jem jumped up, rifle in hand, before Kelvin waved for her to sit back down.
“Just nicked my finger on the knife,” Kelvin explained, “Gotta grab a bandage. Sit tight for a second, will ya?”
“Alone?” she whispered, but he was already walking away. Jem took deep breaths, trying to calm her nerves. She would be fine, she told herself. He was coming right back. For a while she concentrated on her breathing, listening to the steady sound, in and out. And then she held her breath. For the past few weeks they had been wandering this forest, avoiding the enemy against what she perceived to be very narrow odds. She wondered if she had gotten used to the sounds somehow, after all this time. But it wasn’t familiarity tricking her senses–save for the rustling of leaves and the gentle snoring of Gina in her tent, there wasn’t a single sound. No scurrying creatures, no birds, no insects. The woods were silent.
Panicked, Jem’s eyes widened as the realization struck her. What could silence an entire forest? She supposed she knew, but it wasn’t until she turned to look towards Kelvin, returning with a fresh bandage, that she forced out the word: “Bugs!”
Kelvin’s eyes strayed up to the treetops as he stood frozen in place, his rifle several feet away. Lowering itself to the spot where he stood was one of them, pincers snapping and dripping with pink foam. Jem screamed, and the thing lurched forward, Kelvin’s shoulder now caught between its gleaming appendages. The camp awoke quickly, men and women leaping into action, as Kelvin thrashed in a feeble attempt to free himself.
Without thinking, Jem raised her rifle and fired into the thing’s back. It burst open with a fresh outpouring of grey-pink webbing, falling to the ground as it released its hold on Jem’s frightened partner. It dissolved there into a pile of foam, staining the ground as it sunk into the dirt. Kelvin’s face had been completely drained of color, save for a streak of red across his cheek. Hands quavering, she reached forward to wipe away the blood, followed it to the source, and felt the scratch on his shoulder. It was deep.
Meanwhile, the rest of the group was starting to gather around. They stood shoulder to shoulder in a circle, a wall of backs surrounding the two on the ground, eyes frantically searching the forest canopy for any sign of movement. Chests heaving. Legs quaking. Mouths exchanging panicked whispers.
“Do you see anything?”
“Where did it come from?”
“Are there more?”
“There’s never just one.”
Time ticked by at a snail’s pace, the moments stretching into what felt like an eternity, and still there was no indication of more of the bugs. They couldn’t be sure, but after fifteen minutes or so of standing at the ready, five of them broke off from the group to search the perimeter, leaving the rest behind to wring their hands and strain their ears for any change in their carefully placed footsteps. Jem sat, powerless to do anything. Coming back to herself for a moment, she hurriedly wiped the blood from her hands and onto the ground beside her, and brought a tentative hand to his wrist. There was a pulse–faint, but steady. Jem lowered her head to his chest and watched it rise and fall: slow, irregular. She didn’t know what any of it meant. The rest of the group returned. For now, it seemed, they were alone.
Henry was Jem‘s savior. She had been hiding out with a bunch of her neighbors for three weeks before one of them finally lost it and killed himself. After that it was like a domino effect: others followed suit. Some people just wandered out into the woods and didn’t come back. Jem waited it out. Those people weren’t built for life after civilization, but they didn‘t have it so bad. There was plenty of food, the shelter was fairly secure, and Jem didn’t mind the boredom. Henry said later it was cabin fever–some folks just can’t adjust to the seclusion.
By the time this group had found her, there was just Jem and David. He was gone now, too. The others had come looking for supplies and weren’t exactly excited to see that they came with the added bonus of another couple of mouths to feed, but Henry had gone a long way towards convincing Kelvin to bring them along. She wasn’t sure what would have happened if he hadn’t been there. She didn’t have anything to offer these people besides what they could take by force, and there weren’t many women in the group. Somehow, she got by.
Kelvin didn’t wake until sometime the following day. By then, his wound had begun to fester, and though the odor sickened her more than once, Jem remained dutifully at his side. She wasn’t entirely sure why. She felt a little responsible, perhaps, for his present state. As the hours dragged on before he regained consciousness, Kelvin’s temperature climbed steadily, until Mark–the only one in the group with any medical training–insisted they cover him with cold, wet rags. Anything to keep the fever down, he said. Jem wasn’t so sure it would help. She wasn’t sure it was merciful to keep him alive at all.
Something had changed in Jem, even as it changed Kelvin. When he awoke, he did little more than ramble, so she did most of the talking. Mostly she just thought aloud, baring her soul after so much time spent stewing silence. It was nice to have someone to talk to.
She told him about her high school biology teacher, Mrs. Fitzsimmons. She remembered them glossing over the subject of evolution to appease some of the more influential religious parents. The class had spent maybe two days on the subject, but she had been fascinated by ideas like “natural selection,” and “survival of the fittest.” The strongest species gets the resources, the strongest within that species get to breed, making each generation more capable and more likely to survive. And then, a new element is introduced to the environment. Entire species could be wiped away with the arrival of a foreign plant or fish. Or insect. She thought that maybe their fate was sealed. All because they couldn’t adapt.
“Why are the bugs so interested in people to begin with?” she asked her sleeping ward. “There’s plenty of animals, and they don’t seem particularly picky about food. We left the cities empty, and they followed us into the woods. Why?”
It had started with farmers complaining about missing animals: cows, sheep, goats and pigs. It couldn’t be coyotes, but what could run off with an entire cow? And then they found the webs.
“And it seems ridiculous to me that we still don’t know where they came from. Outer space? Underground? Some lab experiment gone terribly wrong? When we still had a government, they should have at least been able to give us some answers. But I guess it‘s like my dad used to say: government isn‘t good for much more than spending tax payer money, covering up truths and ignoring facts. Of course, he didn’t believe in paying taxes, either, so maybe he‘s not the best example… Are you awake, Kelvin?”
Three days after the bite and there were still no signs of improvement, though Kelvin was resting more easily now. Jem changed his bandages three times a day–or every time the blood and pus seeped through and began to stain the sleeping bag. On the fourth day, Jem awoke to Kelvin sitting up, staring down at her.
“How are you feeling?” she asked, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. He didn’t answer right away. Instead, he shifted his gaze to the wound on his shoulder, and as she watched he began to unwrap the dressing.
“Hey!” She jumped up, grabbing his hand and taking the gauze from his grasp. “Let me do that. Is it bothering you or something?”
“No,” he replied, “But I think it’s gettin’ better. It don’t hurt as much today.” His voice was shaky, his speech halted. His entire body seemed to be vibrating at once, though he insisted he was not cold.
Jem looked up to meet his eyes, placing a hand on his forehead and quickly pulling it away.
“You’re boiling up!” she shook her head, standing to exit the tent and gently pushing him back onto the sleeping bag. “I’m going to get Mark.”
“Wait,” Kelvin pleaded, “can you unwrap my bandage first? I just wanna see…”
She hesitated, noting the wild way his eyes fluttered back and forth from her face to the door of the tent, the fresh outpouring of sweat on his brow. He was deathly pale. Was he delirious, she wondered? The tent was frigid, pitched as far away from the fire as possible, and yet he was nearly nude. Jem wore two jackets and thermals and could barely contain her shivers. Finally, she decided to humor him.
“Okay, but let me rewrap it afterwards. You should be resting.”
“You know,” Kelvin said, squeezing his eyes shut and snapping them open again, “It looked funny.”
“What do you mean?” she asked him.
“It reminded me of someone. In my dreams, I see it again. It had these green eyes, like…” He pointed to his eyes and then hers, then stopped to examine his fingers. Cyanosis had settled into his nail beds, either from the cold or lack of circulation. Where had Jem heard that word before, she wondered? Probably from Mark, she guessed.
He had already unwrapped some of the gauze, and through the fibers Jem could make out the slightest change in color. She raised her eyebrows–maybe he was right. Maybe he was getting better, after all. And then the bandage was off, and what lay underneath was exposed. Her heart sank into her stomach and rose again with a fresh outpouring of bile. She leapt up, rushing from the tent, and spilled her dinner onto the dirt. Eyes closed, she watched the memories of weeks ago unfold on the back of her lids, retreating to something close to normal.
Winter had been fast approaching, and the campers began packing five or more people into each tent. Two people in most sleeping bags, trying to combine their respective body heat into something more tolerable than the steadily escalating chill beyond the tent flaps. Jem slept alone.
In the sleeping bag next to hers, the man turned over and sighed, brows drawn together in silent consternation. Jem recognized that look from the first time he’d seen her, sizing her up, trying to decide if she was worth saving. She’d nudged him gently.
“Henry,” she’d whispered, scooting herself closer to his slowly stirring form. He rolled over and groaned, and his other neighbor on the floor of the tent shushed him impatiently. Rubbing his eyes with mittened fists, Henry allowed himself a smile and answered Jem.
“You’re always getting me in trouble. What is it?”
Jem bit her lip and said, “Where did you grow up?”
Henry groaned again, and now his neighbor shoved him testily. Jem suppressed her laughter long enough for him to answer.
“A little suburb not far from here. My dad was a veterinarian and my mom was an accountant in a big firm. Pretty basic stuff,” he said, rolling over to lay on his back, arms folded behind his head. Somebody had stolen his pillow hours before, and it was just like Henry to sleep through it.
“What about you, Jemmy?” he’d asked, poking her in the head until she finally had to smack his hand away.
“I hate it when you call me that,” she’d grumbled, but softened immediately when he turned to face her. Damn him, she’d thought, fighting back the urge to pinch his cheek. “My father owned a textile factory a few miles away. We lived closer to the city. He didn‘t come here much.”
“So what were you doing in town?”
“My mom moved here after the divorce,” she’d said, turning onto her back again to peer through a hole in the roof of the tent. She never had gotten used to seeing so many stars at night, like pinpricks in the blackness of the sky. Dad had told her once that they were air holes poked in the top of the box they lived in, when she was old enough to know it was nonsense but young enough to eat up every word.
“So you went with her, then?” Henry asked, drawing her back to the conversation. Jem nodded. “Why?”
She hadn’t thought about it much, but tried to give an honest answer. “I don’t really know. I never made a decision one way or the other. I just… well, it sounds stupid. But I wanted to wait it out. I didn’t want to have to choose.”
“Because you loved them both, right?”
Henry was quiet for a moment, and the silence began to weigh on Jem. Fearing his disapproval, suddenly self-conscious, she’d asked,
“What are you thinking?”
He’d said, “I guess for me it would have come down to being comfortable. I mean, my parents never split up so I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but out of the two of them my mom made a better living and was around a lot more. I probably would have picked her.”
Jem thought about this and nodded.
“It just comes down to survival, right? You do what’s necessary to get by.”
“Exactly,” he said, and lowered his voice even further. “Like, if we ran into another group and they had a better chance of survival, I’d jump ship right away,” he’d paused before adding, “I’d want you to come with me.”
Jem hadn’t said anything, but carried the resulting smile with her until morning. She would have followed him anywhere.
“What did it look like?” Mark had asked her, and though it was all she could picture no matter how hard she tried to force the image from her mind, she couldn’t form the words to explain what it was that she thought she had seen. Jem had been lying on the ground, trying to remember how to breathe. He hadn’t waited for an answer–she’d heard his screams from the tent moments later. That had been hours ago.
They had set to work trying to pry the black, scaly growth from Kelvin’s skin, but all their efforts only seemed to cause him pain. Someone remarked that the bite might have been contained to the shoulder, and if they amputated his arm… but then Mark had lifted the blanket and they saw the spreading scales across Kelvin’s stomach. The familiar, hardened flesh. It hadn’t been there a few hours before, when Jem had brought him fresh towels. Then he started coughing up the pink foam, and someone else said what nobody else wanted to. They didn’t wait for it to spread further.
One morning, just before sunrise, Jem crept past the night watch and into the forest. The ground was slick with rain, and as she climbed over a fallen tree she slipped and landed, legs splayed out but unbroken, at the bottom of a hill, far from the light of the campfire. This section of woods wasn’t part of their usual route, which Jem had long ago realized was nothing more than a disjointed circle. She pulled out a flashlight and shone the beam beyond her muddied boots, out into the opposite side of the clearing. There lay several bugs, maybe even a dozen, resting peacefully together. So close to camp, she thought. The trees around them were shrouded in webbing, which Jem took to mean they had been there at least a day. Why haven’t they approached the camp? One of the bugs stirred, stretching its scaly legs to brush the side of another, and they rolled into each other, locked in a sleepy embrace. Jem felt a tug at her stomach. She watched them for a while before heading back.
Jem and Mark made their way through the brush, tiptoeing past a pile of sleeping bugs. She lagged behind a bit, and watched, until he pulled her roughly to her feet and forced her on. Once in the clear, he turned on her with the full force of his exasperation.
“What the hell was that?” he asked her, pointing towards the woods.
Jem shrugged, holstering her weapon, and said, “I was just looking.”
She wasn’t sure how to answer, and finally decided she wasn’t worried about what he thought anymore. She had been thinking for a while.
“Doesn’t it seem odd to you?”
“The way they all sleep together like that. How they follow us where ever we go. How there’s always more of them and less of us. Don’t you see what it means?” she asked him, placing a hand on his shoulder which he quickly brushed off.
Mark stood and stared her down for a moment, incredulous, before responding.
“What does it mean, Jem?”
She looked back towards the tree line.
“We don’t have to die.”
Mark didn’t say anything. A few of the others were watching them now, and Mark made a point of stepping back, separating himself further from Jem.
“We can survive, one way or the other. We can stop running. We can live, no matter what that means. Don‘t you see? We’re fighting a losing battle, but… We can change!” she shouted now, unconcerned by their worried looks, their disbelieving faces.
“Jem,” Mark said, holding his hands out in a gesture of pleading, or perhaps warning, “You don’t mean that. You’re just tired. And hungry. It‘s okay–we all are.” His face was gaunt, eyes sunken into pallid flesh. The rest of them didn’t look much better. Supplies were short.
Jem cast her eyes towards the ground, then back to the tree line. He was out there, somewhere, she thought. These people didn’t mean much to her, but if she could persuade them, she would take them with her. The more the merrier, right? And it would be better than this. She looked into their disbelieving eyes, each carrying with it a note of impatience. There would be no convincing them. She nodded and followed the rest to set up camp, her outburst set aside until later, fuel for hushed chats around the fire.
That night, under cover of darkness, Jem left her post and stole away towards the clearing with the sleeping bugs. She left her gun, and her knife, and her canteen. Sliding herself along the ground, she peered out from behind a large oak and watched as the bugs began to awaken. They stood fully erect, shaking the dew from their feelers, grooming each other’s pincers. Jem waited until they all rose, and searched each face, straining to find the one she was looking for. She rose, and stepped into the clearing, and they all turned to face her. A low hum rushed through the crowd of bugs, and somewhere near the back of the clearing one scuttled forward as the rest parted to let it pass. It was slightly larger than Jem, and as it reached the spot where she stood, it raised itself on its hind legs to meet her face to face. Its eyes were so blue, so familiar, so welcoming. Honey, I’m home. She realized she was smiling. The hum of the bugs changed in pitch as Jem unbuttoned her jacket, letting it fall to the forest floor, holding out her arms, ready to make her choice.
By Derrick Boden
The habitat doors hissed open. Steam slipped from Vesha’s body. The air grew cold, until ice strands formed between her fingers and toes. Her lungs burned. The plastic umbilical cable tugged at her navel as it pumped stabilizing chemicals into her bloodstream.
Vesha squinted through tears of pain. Outside, Torumba’s frozen landscape stretched to the wall of the Border Zone. A layer of mist clung to the blue ice field.
Her earpiece crackled. “Acclimation sequence complete.”
Vesha strode out onto the ice.
“Crystozoa concentrations at point-six above. Lung capacity at fifty-five percent. All systems operational.”
Vesha coughed, and tasted blood. Operational. Yeah, right.
“Evening, Vesha.” Through the habitat windows, Jacob’s bushy hair stood out like an orange sun. He sounded different today. Nervous.
“Hot date today, doc?”
Jacob forced a chuckle. “Yeah, right.”
He rattled off her test parameters. It had been a year since her inception date, and the damned tests never ended. If she was meant to parent humanity’s next generation, shouldn’t she get started? The habitat would only hold them for another few years.
She crouched at the test site and planted her fingertips atop the ice. Liquid pooled in small circles. Beneath, the soil was visible. Her fingers sank, and for a moment it looked like it might work. Then a chill overtook her, and the water froze. She tore her hands free, and her skin bled.
Vesha gritted her teeth. More failed tests. They had built her to thrive on Torumba, not just survive. But Jacob himself had admitted, halfway through a bottle of chag one night, that they’d rushed her genetic encoding, pressured by worsening habitat conditions. There was still no word from Earth, and everyone feared the worst. Their meager colony might be the last vestige of humankind. They had no fuel to venture beyond this system, which meant they had to adapt. Vesha was their only hope for survival. “The key to humanity’s future,” Jacob called her.
Vesha spat, and the ice stained red. Some surrogate mother she was.
She shot a glance at the habitat. A gaggle of scientists peered over Jacob’s shoulder. Vesha’s earpiece buzzed, and the white-coated team shuffled down the hall, leaving Jacob alone.
“What’s going on, bud?”
Sweat glistened on Jacob’s brow. “If you run, you might make the border in time.”
Vesha snorted. “Not following you.”
“You have to go. It’s your only chance.”
A tremor rippled down Vesha’s spine. “Are we under attack?”
Jacob hesitated. “Check the west corral.”
The wall dividing her corral from the next loomed fifty meters away. That corral had always been empty. What was he getting at?
Jacob slammed his fist against the glass. “Go!”
Vesha ran. Her lungs felt ready to burst. Her muscles strained around the joints, where the tests always showed signs of genetic defects.
She reached the wall and leapt. She hauled herself atop the wall. Blood streamed from her nostril onto her lips.
A shadow played across the ice in the adjacent corral. A woman. On the surface. How was this possible? Vesha was the only one with lungs that could handle the Crystozoa.
The woman’s skin was a dull green. Her fingers and toes were long and thin. The light from the habitat caught her face. She looked just like Vesha.
The woman crouched, and sunk her fingertips into the ice with ease. She tossed chunks of the blue stuff aside and clutched the rich soil beneath. Her breathing was relaxed. She was perfect.
“Jacob, what… is she?”
Jacob sighed. “There isn’t time–”
“She’s… your successor.”
The woman in the corral dug out a handful of soil and studied it. Vesha clenched her teeth.
“But I’m… key to humanity’s future… ”
“You’re just our first try. You’re not the… finished product. Listen, Vesha. You have to go–”
“First try? We’re all first tries! What about you, Jacob? Are they building your successor, too?”
“It doesn’t work like that, Vesha.”
The woman shook Crystozoa strands from her hair. Vesha fought off the urge to leap down and tear that hair from her scalp by the fistful.
“What will happen to me?”
“It’s not my decision. I just found out. Doctor Thomas–”
Jacob’s voice quavered. “You’ll be decommissioned. But you still have a chance, before Doctor Thomas gets back. You have to run.”
Vesha looked across the ice fields. Beyond the far wall lay the Wilds. Where would she go? The Wilds were filled with Crystozoa breeding pools and god knew what else. And she was… flawed. She didn’t stand a chance.
An angry voice piped into her ear. Doctor Thomas.
“–the hell? Vesha, return to base immediately.”
Vesha’s umbilical cord lay sprawled across the ice like the slack string of a kite, waiting to reel her in.
“Return to base. That’s an order.”
Vesha drew the cord to her mouth and gnashed it with her teeth. The fibers snapped. Milky liquid spilled across the wall.
An alarm blared. From the habitat, a security automaton shot into the night on blazing thrusters.
Vesha ran across the top of the wall. Her thighs burned like hell. The border of the Wilds loomed closer, a knife’s edge of white against azure mountains.
Metal hands gripped her. Her feet slipped from the wall. She twisted in the automaton’s grasp, but its fingers dug deeper. It hauled her toward the habitat.
Doctor Thomas stood in the window, hands on her hips, a venomous glare in her eyes. A pair of guards restrained Jacob nearby. His eyes were wide, locked on Vesha as she drew nearer.
Vesha thrust a hand upward. Her open palm smashed into her captor’s chin, and sparks flew. She tucked her legs, planted her feet against its chest, and pushed.
Metal fingers slipped from her skin, drawing out ribbons of blood. She flew backward. A flash blinded her. Pain lanced through her torso. She gagged as her fingers felt the gaping hole in her abdomen.
Vesha landed atop the wall and the air shot from her lungs. Jacob’s voice rang in her earpiece, a string of muffled words. She tried to sit up, but the pain was too much. Her legs were numb. Crystozoa clung to the surface of her eyes. She let her head drop.
Over the west side, her successor stood in her corral, watching. A thin trail of blood ran from the woman’s nostril. Vesha smiled bitterly as the pain slipped from her body at last.
By Brian Ennis
At first, Mark took her for just another illegal: they all looked the same, heads down, feet shuffling, dressed in off-white paper suits so thin that the whole line trembled on their way up the ramp and into the back of the lorry. It was only when she looked up that he realized who she was.
Asha to her friends. He had been one, once.
He had fallen for her hard, the first girl he had ever thought of as more than just a fluffy pink annoyance. The entire spring the year he turned fourteen had been spent trying to impress her and the entire summer holiday spent longing for her. He cried when he returned to school in September and found her gone. He suffered his first broken heart by proxy, victim of Asha’s family moving away from London to care for an elderly relative.
Six years had barely changed her; she was still Asha, still dark-haired and dark-eyed and petite, a cocoa-skinned pixie. She shuffled past on the ramp and for a second their eyes met. When she didn’t seem to recognize him, didn’t even blink, it was a sucker punch right in the gut. She was in the back of the lorry before he could catch his breath, just another illegal for Jones to tick off on his clipboard. Once the rest of them had joined her the ramp was lifted, sealing her away in the dark.
Jones drove, easing the lorry through the gate and out of the holding camp, a squat building that had once been a primary school. The outskirts of Leicester were a ghost town of hollowed-out take-aways and boarded-up corner shops covered in graffiti: “Illegals Go Home”, “Britain for the British,” slogans from the government’s last election campaign. They made Mark think of the prisoners, crammed in the back of the lorry like cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse.
Jones was old-school; shaven head, bulldog tattoo on one forearm and a pin-up on the other, a faded St George’s Cross poking out from the collar of his camo shirt. They hadn’t worked together before and Jones was too big, too imposing, for Mark to be the one to break the silence. Instead he checked the clipboard, as discreetly as he could. The girl in the back of the lorry was definitely Ashika. Seeing her name made him tingle.
“Done this run before?” Jones asked, making Mark jump.
“No,” Mark replied. “You?”
“Thought not,” Jones said. “Would’ve recognized you. Done this a few times meself. Never gets any easier. Searchers keep finding more ‘n more of ’em.” The older man flicked him a glance. “Strange, that, eh?”
There was a challenge in Jones’s voice that demanded the correct answer, something that was safe and appropriate to say. “Well, y’know, they breed like rats, don’t they?” He thought of Ashika and felt disgusted with himself. “So,” he added, trying to move the conversation on, “you been in the regiment long?”
“What did you do before?”
“Bit o’ this, bit o’ that,” Jones said noncommittally. “You?”
“Nuffin’,” Mark said.
Jones frowned. “Why’s that?” he asked. “Man’s gotta work.” There was another challenge in his voice, sharp and almost angry.
Mark swallowed; Jones was six inches taller and six stone heavier, built like he could bench-press the lorry. “It was hard,” he said, “until we started kicking this lot out. I’m working now, aren’t I?”
“Coming over here, taking out jobs?”
Jones nodded as if that told him everything he need to know and turned his attention back to the road.
Outside, the Midlands were slowly becoming the Fens, the hills and farmland becoming flatter, gentler, duller. Mark was afforded a view of very little for miles in all directions.
Twenty silent minutes farther on the road was blocked by plastic barriers. Soldiers patrolled on foot or glared from the Plexiglas windows of the temporary building that had been erected in the nearby lay-by. Mark and Jones got out and had their paperwork checked and double-checked. Still unhappy, the checkpoint’s lieutenant ordered the passengers out and the register confirmed. Jones rolled his eyes but they had to comply; there was no stronger force in Britain than bureaucracy. The passengers sidled back down the creaking ramp, arms wrapped around themselves to try and keep the cold out, the drizzle turning their paper suits translucent. Mark tried not to stare at Ashika.
“What have we got here then?” the lieutenant said, scanning the clipboard. “pakis, niggers, polskis. Got your hands full then.”
“Yeah.” Mark laughed obligingly.
“Keep up the good work.” The lieutenant slapped the clipboard into Mark’s chest. “Everything will be better once they’re gone, mark my words.”
As the prisoners filed back up the ramp Mark couldn’t resist glancing at Ashika. She was glaring down at him, eyes narrowed, disgust etched in every line of her face. He looked away, like a kid caught staring in public. His shame burned, not just for what he had said but for the whole sorry situation, for the fact he made his living from carting illegals away like rubbish to a landfill. Seeing Asha had made him uncomfortably aware that illegals weren’t the enemy they had been painted as; they were people, too.
His newfound anxiety continued in the cab as they drove on, the landscape continuing to flatten around them. After long minutes of consideration he plucked up the courage to speak. “That’s weird.”
“Well, says here that some of the illegals are third generation. I thought we were only authorized to deport second generation.”
“Bet they’re plannin’ on changin’ the rules again,” Jones said. “You can report it if ya like?” He grabbed the cab’s radio mike and held it out.
There it was again: the challenge, the anger in Jones’s voice. “No, no,” Mark said quickly. “I mean, it’s been checked, right? I’m sure someone would’ve said something if it’s wrong.”
“Thought so,” Jones muttered, and slammed the mike back.
The villages they passed seemed frozen in time, unchanged by current events. It was from here that the country’s new elite drew their power and support, and no matter how bad the cities got, how many homes and businesses burned to ash and how many lives were destroyed, the villages remained peaceful and picturesque. On the drive up Mark had found the sight of them comforting, the epitome of traditional Britishness. Now the sight of them made him feel sick.
They hit a pothole and bounced, painfully. Mark imagined Ashika thrown across the back of the lorry, smashing her perfect face against the metal wall. He screwed his eyes shut until flares of light replaced the image. He searched for a distraction. “Any plans for leave this weekend?”
“Football,” Jones said. “You?”
“Yeah, the same.” He didn’t want to admit that he planned to play games online instead. “Who do you support?”
A sudden banging cut off Jones’s reply. “They’re gettin’ rowdy,” he said instead.
Mark pictured Ashika again, this time face down and still, the other prisoners hammering desperately on the walls as blood pooled around her face, soaking her soft, dark hair.
Jones slowed the lorry and swung it into a lay-by. He swallowed nervously, the St George’s Cross on the back of his neck rippling as if caught by a strong breeze. “Better check ’em.”
“Make sure they’re not causing trouble?” Mark said, hiding his relief.
Jones opened his door. “The UN are about, inspecting. Can’t turn up with a lorry fulla dead people.”
“Might make our job easier.” The joke spilled from Mark’s lips without consideration from his brain, something he’d heard back at his base. Jones ignored him, climbed out, slammed the door behind him.
The lay-by was deserted. The Fenland wind gathered so much speed over miles of featureless terrain that it could cut to the bone. They dragged the ramp down for the third time in less than an hour and the prisoners peered out, wary, as if suspecting a trap. The acidic stench of something deeply unpleasant made Mark’s gorge rise.
Ashika was the first out, and Mark’s heart sang to see her safe. He didn’t want Jones to think him soft, though, so he put a shaking hand on the pistol at his hip. “It’s Aggy,” Ashika said, head up, defiant. “She’s sick.” Her voice was pure Midlands now, no trace of her old London accent remaining. The change made Mark inexplicably sad.
Jones said nothing but looked across at Mark. It felt like another test. “What’s wrong?” Mark barked, using the same imposing tone the other soldiers used with illegals.
Asha narrowed her eyes. “She’s sick,” she repeated, as if he was stupid. She was fearless, one hand on her hip, head cocked, staring him down, demanding that he do something. Her fierceness made him want her more than he had ever wanted anything or anyone in his entire life and for a crazy moment he saw himself racing off with her, across the flat Fenland fields, her knight in camouflage uniform. The sight of Jones, shaven-headed, tattooed, muscled fit to burst, was enough to freeze him in place, indecisive, hand on his gun, doing nothing.
Jones shook his head and spat onto the tarmac. “Get her out,” he said.
Ashika helped a tall blonde girl, probably Eastern European, down the ramp and held her hair back as she vomited in the bushes.
“Water,” Jones said. It took a glare for Mark to realise the instruction was for him. He fetched a plastic bottle from the cab. Jones snatched it off of him and offered it to the sick Aggy.
It felt to Mark as if he was failing Jones’s tests.
Once Aggy was finished the two girls trooped back up the ramp without being told. Ashika turned to Jones. “Thank you,” she said. Mark burned with jealousy. He wanted to scream, to tell Asha that Jones was only covering his back, making sure they passed inspection, but he managed to stop himself.
They got back in the cab and started off again. “Are the UN really inspecting?” Mark asked Jones He envisioned himself turned whistleblower, the UN allowing Ashika to stay, her calling him her hero. He liked that.
“Yeah.” Jones stared at the road ahead like he wanted to kill it. “There’s a lotta talk that what we’re doin’ is wrong. Crimes against humanity, they’re callin’ it.”
“They reckon some of ’em go missing, don’t make it back where they’re supposed to.”
Silence descended, demanding to be filled. The bulldog and the pin-up on Jones’s arms danced as he twisted the steering wheel in a strangler’s grip. Mark had heard rumors, of course, but hadn’t given the matter any thought. Until now.
He searched for the right answer, thought of what his dad might say. “No great loss, eh?”
Jones’s laugh was bitter. “Some people,” he said, “killing’s too good for ’em.”
Silence reigned. Mark’s guts writhed like fighting snakes, afraid for Ashika and what might await her once their journey was complete. Lost in dark thoughts, he didn’t pay any attention when the radio squelched and Jones answered.
“Change of plan,” Jones said. “Heading south to Stansted. Gonna hook up with a civvie flight.”
“A civilian flight?” The snakes in Mark’s stomach tied themselves into tighter knots. “They’re off to five different countries. Makes no sense.”
“They’ve got another camp there,” Jones said. He looked pissed off at the prospect of doubling their drive.
“Never heard of it.”
“You wouldn’t of. It’s secret. Can you believe, they call it a ‘black site’.” Jones’s laugh was still bitter.
Jones words thumped home with the weight of a block of concrete, pressing on Mark’s chest, crushing him, making it impossible to breathe. He lowered the window and tried to get some air.
“What’s wrong with you?” Jones asked, devoid of sympathy.
Mark fought to control his breathing. “Travel-sick,” he croaked. Jones muttered something sharp under his breath and carried on driving.
In the distance Peterborough still burned, a year on from the troubles. Smoke drifted on the horizon. They turned aside and headed south on the A1, following signs for London.
Mark had to do something, now, before they reached this “black site”. No – Jones had a personal radio, would be reporting back to base in seconds. Could he overpower Jones? The older man’s shaven head was dented and scarred, his arms thick, his chest twice as wide as Mark’s. There was no way Mark would win any kind of physical confrontation.
There was always the gun.
Mark had barely fired the thing, had barely practiced due to his quick enlistment, a product of the troubles. He’d certainly never pointed it at anyone. The thought of shooting another person made him feel sick. Jones didn’t know that, though. All Mark had to do was scare Jones into getting out, leave him on the side of the road, and take off.
It was a crazy plan, had be if he was considering pointing a gun at someone driving a lorry at seventy-five down the motorway. He had no plan for what he would do after, either. He knew no sympathizers, no-one who would take in a dozen illegals. He was certain to lose his job, his family, everything.
But he couldn’t just leave her.
The pistol’s grip was cold.
“I need a piss,” Jones declared. Mark’s hand sprang away from the gun as if it had burst into flame. They pulled over into the next lay-by and Jones got out, boots crunching on the thick layer of rubbish that littered the verge. He stepped into the bushes.
Mark knew he had to get that radio off of Jones, at any cost. He got out on hollow legs and stepped round the front of the cab. Could he even pull the trigger, if Jones resisted? What if missed, gave himself away, got himself caught? As he tried to screw his courage up Jones turned, drawing his own pistol. “Hands up!” Jones yelled.
Mark did as he was told.
“How’d you rumble me?” Jones jabbed at him with the gun. “What are ya, special ops? SAS? Fucking MI5?”
“What?” The concrete block was back, pressing on Mark’s chest, starving his brain of oxygen, making it impossible to think.
Jones flicked the muzzle towards the back of the lorry. “Move,” he said.
Mark stumbled round the lorry like new-born Bambi.
“Let ’em out,” Jones ordered.
Mark fumbled for his key. The ramp crashed down, chipping the tarmac. When he opened the hatch Ashika was waiting for him. Up close she stank of sweat and fear and weeks without washing, but looked perfect. He raised a hand to smooth the hair away from her face. If Jones was going to kill him, he wanted Ashika to know it was all for her.
She grabbed the pistol from his holster and smashed its butt into his face, turning the whole world white and sending him crashing down onto the ramp. When he could see again she was embracing Jones.
“You did it!” Ashika cried. “Uncle Steve, thank you!”
Jones grinned. “Sorry it took so long, Asha.” He looked over her shoulder. “Good swing.”
Ashika gave Mark a look of utter contempt. “I thought he knew,” she said. “Bastard wouldn’t stop staring at me.”
“I know.” Jones sneered. “Fucker was gonna pull a gun on me earlier.”
Mark spat a mouthful of blood onto the ramp. The illegals in the back of the lorry stepped away as if he was diseased. “You’re helping them? You can’t be.”
Jones laughed. “Why not?”
“Look at you,” Mark said. “Skinhead, tattoos…”
“Typical,” Ashika said, “judging everyone by their appearance. And the things he said…”
“No, no,” Mark cried, raising his hands, “I was only trying to fit in. It’s just how people talk. I wanted to let you go. I did!”
Asha laughed. “Really?” Mark nodded. “Then why’d you always have your hand on your gun? Itchy trigger finger?”
“No, no -”
“I nearly punched the little shit,” Jones interrupted, “blaming others ‘cos he couldn’t get a job. Said immigrants were rats!” He ticked Mark’s offences off on his fingers. “He didn’t wanna stop when you were banging. And he stood there watching Aggy puke without a care in the world!”
“No…” Mark trailed off. There was too much, all at once, for him to take in and make sense of. “Look,” he said, starting again, “Let me help. I can prove myself. I’m not like the others!”
“That’s what they all say.” Jones strode forward and jammed the gun into Mark’s face. Mark quailed. Jones laughed. “They’re always cowards, too.”
“We went to school together.” Ashika spat the words out as if the memory disgusted her. “I quite liked him. Bastard’s changed. Probably thought I was just another Paki. Either that or he recognized me and didn’t care.”
“No -” The rest of Mark’s sentence was choked off by a sob. “No, I knew. I wanted to help you run away. Please, you have to believe me!”
“I don’t have to do anything you say.” Ashika held up a small radio transmitter that had been concealed in her hand. “I heard everything you said, how you called us rats, how you laughed when we were called names, how you said it wouldn’t matter if we all died.” She bared her teeth in a savage snarl. “No. Great. Fucking. Loss.”
“I didn’t mean it,” Mark sobbed. “I didn’t mean it.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Ashika raised the pistol. “Pull the other one.”
There was a bang, and blinding pain.
The world went white again, then black, then swam into focus. Asha stood over him, frowning. “We need to hide him,” she said. “Get him in the bushes.”
Grey clouds slipped sideways as someone dragged him by his ankles. He tried to kick out but his legs were frozen. White hot pain engulfed him as he was spun off the side of the road. Spindly branches cracked and fractured the sky. Asha, beautiful Asha, loomed over him, arms laden with plastic bottles and fast-food wrappers. “In with the rubbish, where you belong,” she said, and threw an armful of rotten litter onto him.
She was probably right.
The last sounds he ever heard were her footsteps, leaving him behind.
Good Guys Always Win
By Aaron Grayum
All of this will be gone soon, he thought, looking out his living room window at the quiet neighborhood. Ed Richards sipped his first coffee of the morning, admiring the poplar trees that lined both sides of the main road before it branched off into his cul de sac.
His house was on a higher elevation than most in this part of Poplar Cove, and that gave him an extra advantage when watching the sunrise peek just over the trees. He wondered about the people who planted them – did they have families too? They probably had never lived here, and likely never even visited the street again once their job was done. Could they have imagined the saplings they were putting into the ground would one day grow up to be such magnificent relics, standing guard over the families who breathed them in? Could they have imagined how the lives of these trees, of those families, were going to end?
He took another sip of coffee, not waiting for it to cool. It burned, and he held onto it until he could no longer feel its sweet black bitterness on his tongue, and then he let it continue its path down his throat.
The television had been unplugged since the weekend. He didn’t want to know any more about what was happening. Several evenings ago he’d watched the bombs take out a dozen cities on the east coast in just a few hours. Boston, New York, Charleston, Atlantic City, even as far south as Jacksonville. All gone. When they started hitting further inland, he just couldn’t watch more of the same. It was total destruction of every place that got hit, and they were hitting every place. Their country was helpless. The president hadn’t been seen for days. It was bad, and it sure as hell seemed like THE END. He didn’t want the kids to know about any of that. He wished he hadn’t known it himself.
His wife walked up behind him. He put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed softly.
“I think I’m going to make some eggs, how do you want yours?”
He didn’t answer right away. He couldn’t peel his eyes away from those trees. They seemed extra vibrant today and their solidarity felt comforting. “Thanks, hon. I don’t think I feel like eating anything. Not this morning.”
She rested her head on his shoulder. “Any idea how much longer?”
“No,” he sighed. “Just feels like today could be the day, you know?” He felt her head nod.
Ed couldn’t tell how much time had passed as he stood there holding Carrie, and he was fine with that. Time was something they had spent far too long paying attention to, and he was done with it. Her hair smelled like cinnamon and he was quite alright with that.
The poplars just stood there, looking back at him, and they hadn’t so much as swayed since he’d gotten out of bed. They were like the Royal Guard, standing at attention despite the world making a fool of itself right under their noses. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a bird in this area. He wondered where they’d all gone, and if his family could go there too.
The house was still. The boys were asleep and the only sound was the hum of the fridge (the air conditioner had not yet switched on due to the unusually cool summer weather). Earlier, Carrie had plugged in the coffee maker just long enough to make a single pot, and then she unplugged it again. Conserving electricity was the rule now. The President had addressed the nation briefly before the attacks, and with his signature game show smile he assured everybody that the United States would prevail, and that sourcing every working power generator in the country toward that one goal would somehow help. Not once did he ever refer to this thing as a WAR. Of course that was back when Manhattan was still an island.
Several days ago, a tall man with a white moustache on an otherwise clean face stopped by the house. A badge dangled from a blue lanyard around his neck. On it was a black-and-white picture of a clean-shaven version of himself, and the letters DOE spread across it in all caps. Ed knew that the letters stood for Department of Energy. He also found it odd that there was no name on the badge either. The Moustached Man announced that he was operating under Executive Orders and going door to door, checking electric meters and walking through homes, making sure people were complying with the Emergency Energy Conservation Act. Maximum kilowatt hours had been established nationally, with southern cities being allowed more kWh per month than the northern ones during the summer. The Moustached Man quickly made his sweep through the lower level of the house, like a trained dog in a canine unit, and then walked upstairs and did the same. After a few moments he briskly descended the stairs, and with a nod and a cowboy grin, he told them ALL CLEAR and thanked them kindly for their service and to have a fine day. The screen door whacked sharply against the doorframe as he left, like a rimshot at the end of a bad joke.
Ed had wondered why the Department of Energy wouldn’t just have the local government (or even the power company) do such a menial job. Couldn’t Southern Electric just send out their meter-readers and report anybody who was playing too much Xbox? He watched The Moustached Man walk across the street to knock on the Silverman’s door, and that was when Ed saw a large green truck that looked like something out of M.A.S.H. parked at the end of the street. The back of it was filled with men wearing camouflage and helmets, sitting along the siderails and holding M-16 rifles.
These are the good guys, right? he thought.
Ed took another sip of his coffee. It didn’t seem to be cooling off. Carrie leaned up and kissed his cheek and told him she was going to start some eggs anyway, and she’d make him a few over-easy just in case he changed his mind. “Don’t worry, I’ll unplug the stove as soon as I’m done.”
She walked off. In the distance, he heard what sounded like a low roll of thunder, and he thought about Moustache Man and the men holding M-16s, and he wasn’t sure if the presence of the soldiers was supposed to make them feel safe or threatened.
Last fall before any of this, Ed took the boys out to the lake up at Center Hill. He’d wanted them to start learning how to fish, and with Chris in the 2nd grade now (Luke wasn’t far behind him) they were old enough to start getting a feel for it.
They tied down their camping gear into the back of the pickup, and the small fishing boat stuck out past the tailgate. The campground was about a half-hour west, and when they arrived they paid nineteen bucks for an overnight pass. Then they found their campsite and Ed pitched the tent while the boys watched. Then Ed gave them each a paddle and a fishing rod and he hoisted the boat over his head, and they walked the trail down to the water.
Sometime later they still had not caught anything. He hadn’t really expected to, he just wanted the boys to experience sitting on the water, drifting in silence and without anywhere to be.
Then Chris asked him a question he wasn’t expecting:
“Dad, are bad guys real?”
Ed stumbled, not anticipating that type of question. He sure as hell didn’t want to answer it, either.
“Why are you asking that?”
“Miss Tanner told us they were real, and that they were the ones that made those buildings fall down.”
“Your teacher told you that, huh?”
“That’s right, they did.”
“So bad guys are real, right?”
“I wish I could say they’re not, but they are.”
“Do they want to hurt us?”
“Well…they do want to hurt some people, but not necessarily us.” His own use of the word “necessarily” made him cringe.
“Why do they want to be bad?”
“Well son, people have their reasons–”
“Do they even know they’re the bad guys?”
“I don’t know that for sure but I imagine they must.”
“Because we’re definitely the good guys, right dad?”
“I would never want to be a bad guy.”
“Of course not.”
“Because the good guys always win, right?”
“Right.” Ed knew better, but what was he supposed to say?
Chris sat in silence, looking out over the water with his fishing rod drooping near the water. Luke may have been listening, but he hadn’t said anything. Ed hadn’t noticed the clouds moving in until he heard thunder somewhere nearby.
“Better get back to shore, guys. We don’t want to get caught out here in the rain.”
They set down their poles in the boat and Ed picked up both paddles and handed one to Chris.
“The bad guys – they aren’t anywhere near us are they?”
The question echoed back at Ed in his living room. He couldn’t remember how he’d answered it, and it seemed like such a long time ago. He figured he’d said something about the bad guys being far away and that the Army men would surely stop them with their tanks before they got too close. And at the time he could have even believed that himself.
There was a knock at the door, and it startled him out of this trance. He hoped the knock didn’t wake the boys.
He looked through the peephole and saw the telltale gator-skinned cowboy hat perched atop his neighbor’s much-too-tan scalp. It was Joe and he was propping the screen door against his back, like he was waiting to get invited in. Ed opened the front door.
“Good morning Joe.”
“Mornin’, Buddy, hope I didn’t wake you. Hey, ya mind if I borrow your boat for the day? I had mine all loaded up when I saw this crack in the seam, and I don’t think it’s busted all the way through yet, but I don’t want to take the chance testing it out on the water. Know what I mean?”
“Sure, I guess. You know where it is, right?”
“You bet. Thanks Eddie-boy, I’ll try to bring her back in one piece!” Joe said, his voice trailing off as he disappeared off the front stoop and ran around back. Ed lunged and caught the screen door before it could wake the kids.
He walked into the kitchen and leaned over the island and looked at Carrie, who had two eggs on a plate and was frying two more. She’d unearthed the “special occasion” cast iron this morning. She asked him what all that was about at the door and he told her.
“He should have invited you to go with him! I’m sure you’d have loved to get on the water one more time.”
“It’s okay. Everybody wants to be on the water today, you know the lake’s got to be packed. Besides, why on Earth would I want to spend today with him when I could be right here with you?”
She smiled. The toast was ready. She pulled it and set it on the cutting board next to the butter, and then unplugged the toaster.
Carrie had a sweet voice and he wanted to hear more of it this morning. She wasn’t saying much, but she seemed content. She spread butter on the toast and cut it in half. Quiet wasn’t so bad either though. The morning silence had been peaceful, and he was grateful for it, for her, for them.
Something suddenly broke the silence behind them and they both jumped, and they saw Chris and Luke on the staircase, leaping off the third step from the bottom. Carrie laughed.
“Look who’s up,” she said. “It’s not even eight! Who’s hungry?”
Both boys raised their hands and ran over to the kitchen. Ed didn’t know why they were in such good moods, he was just thankful they were.
“You boys can fight over my eggs,” Ed said. “I’ll get in on the next round.” He stood up and gave both boys a quick hug, kissing them on top of their heads, then poured himself another cup. “Honey, what kind is this?”
“It’s some kind of summer blend. I’ve never seen it before.”
“It’s good. You’ll have to get more, this isn’t going to last.”
“I’ll be sure to do that the next time I go to the store.” He knew she said that last part out of habit. It was hard to get over the thought of there being something called a “next time.”
He walked back over to the window and looked out over the scores of roofs that seemed to stretch forever into the distance. Their house had been the first one built in this section, and that’s how they’d lucked into being on the hill at the end of a cul-de-sac. And it also gave them a sense of security, tucked in the back where nothing could get to them that didn’t have to go through everybody else first.
That’s when he saw the mushroom clouds near the horizon. Not just one, but several. His blood froze, even with hot coffee running through his veins. This must be what happened out east, he thought. He’d expected something different, like explosions or some dramatic flash of light. He’d expected Hiroshima. But these mushrooms were silent and dark, appearing one-by-one across the sky like raindrops falling on a still lake. They seemed alive.
A part of him wanted to run, but there was nowhere to run to. During tornado-packed evenings the family would huddle in the downstairs bathroom, listening to the static-filled radio until the storms passed. But this time there was no safe place to go, and the radios had been nothing but static for some time.
From the kitchen poured beautiful sounds like he hadn’t heard in months, maybe even years. Carrie was making up silly songs and singing them loudly, making the boys crack up as they tried singing along. He had no intention of making that wonderful painting of a scene end a moment before it had to.
The sky over their street was cloud-free for the moment, but that was about to change. The poplars were still. They were ageless guardians, and Ed’s family was like a fragile figurine collection that the trees had sworn to protect.
But there was only so much the trees could do. Today they could only stare and watch as the clouds moved closer by the second, each one seeming to be larger and darker than the one before. In a few minutes, the clouds would cover their street and invade their homes and bring darkness to everything. But not yet. For now, for at least the next few moments, the sky over their street was still quite nice.
Ed sighed and finished the last of his coffee. He slowly pulled the curtain closed and walked away from the window. He crossed the living room toward his family, unaware and blissful. He placed his mug in the dishwasher.
“We can’t run that anymore, remember? Just set it in the sink instead and I’ll get it after breakfast.”
“Ha! You’re right, I forgot. Hey boys, you’re mom’s the greatest, isn’t she?”
They gave their thumbs up approval as they began stuffing their mouths with eggs and toast.
He smiled back.
This Mortal Coil
By Barry Corbett
“He’s real,” said Freddy.
“Death. The Grim Reaper.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I saw him, Dave. He was just as I pictured him.”
“The Reaper,” I said with some irritation. “Death himself.”
“Yes! He’s real! Are you listening to me?”
I was used to Freddy’s little jokes and this was not one of his better ones. When I turned to look at his face I expected his affable grin. Most of the time he can’t keep himself from laughing. He wasn’t even smiling and his face had a wild, intense look to it.
I replied, “You’re not making any sense. How did you come to this conclusion?”
“The climb, man. I was halfway up on Cannon when my carabiner malfunctioned. I was toast.”
“You fell off of Cannon? Weren’t you locked in?” I asked. Of course, I knew the answer. Fred had long ago dispensed with the safety protocols. He had been free climbing for years and this was not his first serious accident. I sat down, prepared for yet another of his narrow escapes from the jaws of death–except that there was no death anymore. There hadn’t been one in 340 years and for that reason his embellished stories were not the exception; they were fairly commonplace.
With a life expectancy of well over a thousand years, humankind had grown bored. Nobody died of old age. Our everlasting bodies were full of tiny Nanobots, their sole purpose to seek and repair cell damage at the molecular level. Accidents were rare due to electronic surveillance that reached even the most remote locations. Our microscopic caretakers operated as a single entity, communicating instantaneously over great distances. Death had been conquered, or so it seemed.
With a lifespan that stretched out infinitely before them, humanity had lost their sense of urgency. Generations of comfort had dulled our survival instincts, bringing progress and innovation to an interminable crawl.
The majority of mankind now fell into two categories, those who sleepwalked through their idyllic life seeking constant entertainment, and the StimSeekers who sought out physical risk, always on the lookout for dangerous experiences to make them feel more alive. Some of these adventurers found their way off-world, bound for the outer limits of the galaxy where unexplored planets were being colonized. As you may have surmised, Freddy was a Stimmer. He was always finding himself a new and ever more dangerous playground.
But I digress. Fred was literally bursting with energy while waiting to tell his story. “Fine,” I finally said. “Tell me the whole sordid tale.” I knew it would be a whopper.
“I was near the top of the cliff face when the carabiner snapped. I hung there for what seemed an eternity, one hand on the outcropping and the other grasping for the safety line, which, you know… I had unfortunately failed to secure. Nowhere to go, and my fingers were cramping up so I lost the grip. I must have plummeted four hundred feet, bouncing and rolling down the cliff face. I tell you, it was painful but I was still conscious!”
I interjected, “Didn’t the MediDocs get there?”
“That’s the thing,” he replied. “I struck the ground but fell into a crevasse. They knew where to find me but it took them hours to bring in a LaserScoop and carve up the mountain. The tree huggers are not going to be happy about that!”
He laughed at that and then continued with renewed fervor. “I was dead, man! Not the NearDeath. I think it was the real thing! I’ve been through the NearDeath thing a number of times. Nothing to it.”
His face took on a new expression. I would describe it as awe.
“Dave, this was different!” he almost shouted. “I was rushing through some kind of tunnel. There were frightening sounds, as if something lurked in there just out of sight. My body was different, lighter, almost as if I were made of pure energy. I was moving at a tremendous speed and, you know I love speed but this was beyond belief!”
His demeanor was beginning to frighten me but the story had me transfixed.
“Suddenly I was stopped cold. That’s when I saw him.”
“Yes, the Grim Reaper, the whole deal with the black cloak, the hooded skull face and even the scythe!”
At this point I began to laugh. He almost had me for a minute. I really ought to know better. “Come off it, Fred. How gullible do you think I am?” His expression never changed.
“No prank this time Davey. I saw him. It was Death himself, come to take me home. He looked to be over seven feet tall–but his eyes, man–his eye sockets were like red coals. I looked into them and I felt fear like I had never experienced, a deep, crippling terror that had me rooted to the spot.”
Again, I tried to bring him back to Earth. “Freddy, it had to be an hallucination. You know that can happen under extreme duress. There have been lots of incidents like that.”
“Not like this, man. I knew this was real. I could feel it in my soul. I was dead! The real death, and he was there to claim me but something happened! Maybe the MediDocs got there in the nick of time. During that moment when he first appeared, all sound and motion ceased. It was just him and me, all alone in the universe. His universe. Then I felt a tug, as if something called to me, urging me to return. My body moved away from him.”
“That’s when he spoke! It was more of an angry roar, a deep baritone scream that scared me even more, as if that was possible. Just two words, ‘He’s mine!’ but it was too late. He reached out with the blade and almost got me but I was out of reach and gaining speed. For a moment he gave chase but he couldn’t catch up. The critter seemed angry and frustrated. As he faded into the distance I heard him cry out in rage, an unearthly sound like you couldn’t even imagine. That voice will haunt me for a thousand years.”
A chill ran up my spine. In that moment I believed Freddy, believed every word of it.
“The next thing I knew, the MediDocs were calling my name. I walked out of the Unit completely healed but I remember it, Dave. I remember it like it happened this morning. It was no vision, no drug induced fantasy. I was there and the worst part of it is, that I’ll be there again someday…and so will you.”
The more we went over his story, the greater his conviction that it had been real. At some point I considered the possibility that this was no illusion and if that were so, what would that imply–that all of the various myths and legends over the centuries had some basis in truth? There was one way to find out. If we could simulate the near-death experience with a different subject, we might be able to verify Freddy’s experience.
Fred had a number of StimSeeker friends who would probably jump at the chance for something this intense but I volunteered as the subject to ensure a more objective response. We had no trouble finding a crew to help us prepare for the experiment. Freddy’s friends were game for anything that pushed the envelope. It was just another lark to them but many were qualified professionals who excelled in their chosen fields. It took us weeks to design the experiment, one in which the conditions were perfectly controlled in order to bring me as near to death as possible and coordinate the timing of my extraction. To do this, we had to delay the emergency transponders and roving MediBots long enough to prevent my resuscitation. What we planned was illegal. Of course, that made it all the more attractive to this bunch.
Julianna Mikita, a world-renowned BioSurgeon had the task of generating the electrical current that would stop my heart and follow it up with an injection of Epinrahl-D at precisely four minutes beyond the time of death.
My goal was to disprove Freddy’s conviction that his experience had been real. Unlike Fred, I had never been through NearDeath. As I lay on the Surgeon’s table in the final moments before the event my mind was filled with apprehension, nor was Freddy his usual self. He knew what was in store for me if this actually worked.
“Dave,” said Julianna. “You’ll feel a slight vibration as we inject you with a sedative and then, the lethal dosage.”
“I’m ready, Dr. Mikita,” I replied. Within seconds the room was fading around me. My fingers and toes suddenly went stone cold and I wondered if somebody had spilled ice water on them. There was no transition. The moment I went under I found myself hurtling through the tunnel that Fred had described. I felt the same transformation, as if my body was no longer bound by gravity, or any physical limitation. I was a being of pure light. The tunnel raced on, impossibly fast and I heard–no, I felt–the other entities around me, beings born of darkness, filled with a venomous rage. I felt fear, cold, numbing fear but the mysterious creatures kept their distance.
There was a sudden shift in my perceptions. All motion ceased. Even the tunnel was gone. I was alone in a sea of nothingness when it appeared, a giant figure cloaked in black, its hooded face moving slowly toward me. Good God. It was true, all true! This fearsome apparition waited here for us, had waited over a thousand years to collect its grim fare. It raised its face and I gazed into two shadowy sockets where its eyes should have been, and those frightening cavities began to glow a deep, crimson red. I felt it looking directly into my soul. It knew me, knew of every private thought, every misguided action I had ever taken. There were no secrets from this dark, brooding demon. When it spoke, my fear elevated to panic.
“There are rules, David Schofield. You have made a grave error.”
I hovered on the precipice, perfectly balanced between life and death. Then I felt them drawing me back to life. There was a strong tug and I began to move away from the specter. He did not give chase. He merely reached out with the scythe. With a ghastly feeling of dread I knew that they had not been quick enough. I raised my arms in defense but the blade touched the tip of my finger. I quickly accelerated, praying that the wraith would not follow. He merely laughed, a malevolent cackle in a voice like gravel. The sound continued to echo in my mind as I sped back towards life. Already I felt that something had changed. It began in the fingers and slowly spread down my arm. My body raced back through the tunnel and then, oblivion.
Voices called out to me, familiar voices followed by bright lights and a tingling sensation in my limbs. Something was wrong. My right arm was completely numb.
“Dave,” shouted Freddy. “You okay, man? Can you hear me?”
It took a few moments before I could respond. I was no longer in the operating theater but on one of the aerial transports. We flew above the city in a roving MediUnit. Fred and Julianna sat beside me.
“Was it there? Did you see him?” shouted Fred. “You were screaming from the moment we awakened you.”
“I still feel like screaming. You were right. He was there. Listen! He touched me with the scythe. He touched me but I’m still alive!”
The arm was swelling and there was intense pain. I tried to close my fingers but they would not respond. I had known as soon as I felt his touch that something terrible had happened, some dark process had begun. Warning messages were plastered all over the BioMonitors. Julianna looked distressed as she studied the readouts while the MediBots did their best to stabilize me.
From the moment the MediUnit landed I was surrounded by shouting physicians. I was ushered into an emergency room and connected up to every diagnostic tool they had available. Their drawn faces registered deep confusion. No, more like shock. Within twenty minutes, the arm had turned a grayish shade of blue. The pain radiated further and I felt similar sensations in other parts of my body. Above the operating theater, I could see a second crew conferring frantically with holoscreens, very likely the top specialists from around the world. It was not a comforting sight.
“It’s spreading Dr. Mansse, faster than we can control,” shouted an attendant. “We’re losing him.”
Mansse was studying new information. The team debated hotly for a moment but soon reached a consensus. It was the Nanobots. They were attacking the cells at an alarming rate, completely reversing the process they had been designed to perform, the work of eight hundred years undone in thirty-two minutes. Mansse looked horrified. It soon got worse. Two of the specialists cried out in pain, tearing off their surgical gear and revealing skin with the same sickly hue. The rest stepped away, grave apprehension written on their faces.
Mansse literally shoved the team out of the room. “Quarantine immediately!” he barked. “I’ve never seen anything like this! Seal off this whole floor. No, the entire building. Nobody gets out!”
Stepping out of the room, he pulled off his own gloves to reveal the same greyish skin. With a gasp he turned to the Observation Team and said, “Nanobots were designed with a hive mentality. They are programmed to communicate, not only with the body but with the entire hive instantaneously. You can’t contain this; they don’t require physical contact.”
Soldiers in HazGear suits moved in and secured the lab. BioDisaster Control Bots swept the entire floor with HazMist. Robotocists and Nano specialists worked furiously to cut off the Nanobots’ communication. I knew I was doomed, the pain having spread throughout my entire body. I would last two more days lying in ZeroG isolation.
The infection spread with alarming speed. Every human body had millions of Nanobots traveling through their bloodstream. Within an hour sixty percent of the patients and employees had contracted the infection.
Android technicians took over my care and were kind enough to give me access to the NewsVid. I watched in horror as the Pandemic spread to the surrounding area, the Eastern Hemisphere and within a single day, the entire planet. Martial law was enacted but they needn’t have bothered; we were dying so quickly that there was no time for rioting. The infection took hold within hours, immobilizing those who contracted it. The world was now in the hands of the androids, who did their level-headed best to control the chaos. In the end they were reduced to undertakers with the monumental task of collecting and incinerating the bodies of twelve generations.
Spaceports were immediately shut down across our entire world. Orbiting military stations were ordered to destroy any ship that tried to leave the planet. Earth would become a tomb, our home world forever lost to the space faring colonists. Our orphaned children had miraculously been spared; the Nanobots were not introduced before full maturity. The androids would see them safely off world, where they could be absorbed into the colonies.
Nearing my last, gasping breath, I waited for the Reaper to arrive. As the moment drew near and my vision began to dim, his hulking figure loomed above my rapidly aging body, those glowing coals once again peering through my soul.
I whispered one last question, “Why, demon?”
He leaned in closer and the rasping voice replied, “I was bored.”
The Clones of Tehran
By Mark Hill
Drones buzzed overhead as Miller entered the restaurant. The front looked normal enough, but the back half was a mess of rubble and blood. Policemen collected evidence and took statements as paramedics carried out bodies covered in white sheets. Miller flashed his badge at the soldier who greeted him and walked over to a pair of policeman chatting in the corner.
“Well, if it isn’t my favorite buddy cop duo.”
“Miller.” Ezra, the taller of the two, offered his hand. The short, perpetually scowling Ali merely nodded.
“How many this time?”
“We’re still scraping bits and pieces off the ceiling, but at least twenty. Mostly civilians, plus a couple IDF soldiers on patrol.”
“Any ideas on a motive, besides the usual troublemaking?”
“The owner is related to one of the big shots in the Transitional Government,” said Ali. “But he wasn’t in the restaurant today.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time they’ve acted on shoddy intel.”
Miller pursed his lips as he glanced around the remains of the building. This was, what, the third bombing this week? Fourth? At least it wasn’t as bad as the mosque. Shame, though—he had always meant to eat here.
“Another vatman?” he said.
“Do you even have to ask?”
“No need to get snippy, Ali. Let me know when your tech boys have figured out what the bomb was made of. I want to know how they got past the sensors this time.”
“One of the witnesses said he saw the host slip out the door right after the bomber came in,” said Ezra. “We’re thinking he was bribed to disable the sensors.”
“Find him, fast. Shouldn’t be hard for Tehran’s finest, right?”
Neither of the men looked amused by Miller’s joke. He made a mental note not to try another one just as his ear buzzed.
“Miller? It’s Browning.”
“What’s up, Chris?”
“The police have a guy they’re pretty sure has a connection to the Guard. They’re holding him for us.”
“Is ‘pretty sure’ more or less sure than when they were ‘really sure’ about that student being a Guard agent?”
“Come on, just get down here. I just had to listen to another lecture from Langley, and that was before they heard about the latest bomb.”
“Alright, I’m on my way.” To the policemen he said, “Duty calls, gentlemen. I take it you know the drill by now?”
They nodded and went back to picking through the rubble. Miller walked back out into the beautiful spring evening, taking care not to step in any blood on the way.
Light, muffled sounds. Blobs moving on the other side. He was used to all this. But the sounds were louder now, the blobs closer. Suddenly, the liquid that suspended him began to drain away. He felt his feet touch something cold, heard a crack and a hiss. The other side was coming to him. He was scared.
A door swung away and a blob took shape. It looked like him. The man offered him his hand. He hesitantly took it.
“Hello, Navid. My name is Yousef.”
“I am… Navid?”
The man smiled. “Yes. Yes you are.”
The interrogation room was cramped and grimy. A paunchy middle aged man, head drooped, was tied to a wooden chair in the center. Behind him were two policemen, their faces blank. Browning stood by the door. Leaning against the wall was Simon, the Mossad man.
“What do we got, Browning?” asked Miller.
“This is Saeed. Runs a bakery near the school that was bombed last week.”
“Yeah? His bread any good?”
Miller lifted the man’s head up. His face was battered and bruised, his nose broken. The fear in his deep brown eyes made Miller think of the deer he used to hunt back home.
“Christ, Simon, what did you do to him?”
“We were just getting to know each other.” Simon grinned.
“Do you actually think this guy’s with the Guard, or are you just looking for an excuse to beat up some Iranians?”
Simon’s smile vanished. “Don’t tell me how to do my job, Miller.”
Miller saw the policemen exchange a glance.
“Alright, Simon, I’ll show you.”
Miller lifted the prisoner’s head up again. Taking a cloth from his pocket, he wiped the blood from the man’s nose. In Farsi he said, “Hey, Saeed. My name’s Miller. We’re going to have a little chat.”
“I didn’t do anything.” Saeed’s voice was ragged.
“I’d like to believe that, but you’ve got to convince me. You have any friends in the Guard?” Miller crouched down to Saeed’s level.
“No. I don’t want trouble.”
“Come on, you’re an older guy. No buddies from before the war you’ve been staying in touch with?”
“My ‘buddies’ were killed in the invasion.”
“You sound a little bitter, Saeed.”
“No! No, I don’t want any problems.”
Miller glanced back at Simon. “You have any motives for this guy, or are you just wasting my time?”
“Money. Our baker is in debt, and his creditors are… impatient.”
“That true, Saeed? You having money troubles?”
“People are afraid to go outside and shop. I had to take a loan to keep my bakery open.” The man had calmed down a little when Miller started talking to him, but now he sounded nervous again.
“Must be tough to pay back a loan when the economy’s in shambles. But I hear the Guard pays well for help…”
“I would never work with them! Please, I swear.”
“Saeed, what’s the name of the man you owe money to?”
“Karim. He’s a thug, but I was desperate.”
Miller stood and addressed the policemen. “What was the name of the guy who tipped you off?”
“Karim, sir,” said the Iranian one.
“So our suspect owes money to a man named Karim, and you roughed him up because a man named Karim told you he might be a terrorist. Great fucking detective work, guys. Really impressive stuff.” Miller clapped as the policemen dropped their gaze. “Hey, Simon, I thought you were supposed to be teaching these guys not to be such dumbasses.”
Simon glared at Miller, then the police.
“Come on, Chris, let’s get out of here.” Miller left the room.
Navid liked Yousef. Yousef was a nice man who was teaching Navid a lot. He told Navid that they were both people called Iranians, and that they could not go outside because people called Americans and Israelis were trying to kill Iranians. But Yousef taught Navid how to behave for when they were allowed to go outside. He showed Navid pictures and videos of what outside looked like. Outside looked nice. Yousef also showed Navid pictures of Americans and Israelis. They looked mean. Navid didn’t like those pictures.
Navid did like his brothers. They all looked just like Navid, though their names were different. Yousef was teaching them, too. He said that one day, hopefully soon, they would all get to go outside. Navid liked to talk with his brothers about what outside might be like, though Yousef didn’t like it when they talked without him. He said that would put silly ideas in their heads. Navid didn’t understand, but he obeyed. He trusted Yousef.
Navid didn’t like Hamid. Hamid was rude to Navid and his brothers. He was even rude to Yousef. Yousef would tell Hamid to be patient, and he would go away for a few days. But then he would come back and be rude again. He had just come for another visit, which had put Navid in a bad mood. But Yousef had just announced that he had exciting news, which made Navid happy. He couldn’t wait to hear it.
Miller looked up from a dossier on the restaurant host Ali and Ezra had tracked down. “Take that next right,” he said to Browning.
“Right? Isn’t it faster to go by the university?”
“Not if you want this hunk of junk to stay in one piece. Students are protesting again.”
Miller laughed. “What do you think of your first couple weeks in Iran, kid?”
“I think it’s a mess. Half the country wants democracy, the other half wants the Ayatollah back, the Mossad doesn’t want either, and none of them trust us. How the hell are we supposed to do anything?”
“Don’t worry, we don’t have to rebuild the place. We just need to stop the Guard from blowing people up long enough for the Israelis to slap together a government that can keep order while still kissing their ass, and then we can go home until somebody fucks things up again. So, a few months.”
Miller laughed. “It’s not that bad. We’re here to save lives—that’s a good thing no matter whose side you’re on. Hell of a lot better than what I had to do in Damascus. Take that left.”
“You served in Damascus?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
They drove in silence the rest of the way to the police station. Miller watched a drone fly by before they entered the building.
Ezra was waiting for them at his desk. It hadn’t been long since Miller last saw him, but he looked more stressed.
“Miller, Browning.” He didn’t offer a hand.
“Ezra. Where’s your buddy?” asked Miller.
“Stakeout. Our restaurant host was… talkative.”
“You don’t sound convinced.”
“It didn’t take much to get him going. The Guard must be getting desperate if they’re hiring unreliable help. Either that or he’s lying. My bet’s on the latter.”
“Let’s hope you’re wrong. What did he say?”
Ezra swiveled his monitor around, showing them a picture of a house. “Says the Guard have been operating out of here.” The address indicated it wasn’t far from the station.
“Looks big enough to hold a cloning lab,” said Browning. “But how could they suck up that much power without drawing suspicion?”
“There are ways to mask consumption,” said Miller. “Still, they’d have to have some serious balls to run one of their labs just outside the Green Zone.”
“Hiding in plain sight, I guess. I don’t buy it, though,” said Ezra.
“I take it this is what Ali is checking out?”
“Yeah, he’s keeping an eye on it. Hasn’t reported anything unusual yet, though.”
“Guess we should pay a visit. Thanks, Ezra.”
Miller and Browning stood to go. Ezra was already on the phone, learning about the latest problem.
Navid was very happy. He had been wondering why he had not seen some of his brothers recently, and now he knew it was because they had gone outside! He asked Yousef when they would come back, and was sad to hear that they were too busy outside to come and visit. But he cheered up when he was told that soon he would get to go outside, too. He had already been allowed to leave their home—Yousef had brought him into what he knew was called a van. He was in the back of the van, so he couldn’t see outside, but he enjoyed being bumped up and down and side to side as they moved. But the van hadn’t moved for quite some time, and Navid was getting lonely—none of his brothers were with him. Yousef had promised that he would be back soon, and that once Navid went outside he would be reunited with his brothers. So Navid waited patiently, smiling as he imagined the wonderful things his brothers would tell him.
Miller and Browning slipped into the backseat of Ali’s car. Ali was looking out the window with a pair of smart specs and, to Miller’s annoyance, Simon was with him.
“I was wondering when you two would show up,” said Simon. He removed his specs and handed them to Miller. “Have a look.”
Miller slipped the glasses on. The house at the end of the street zoomed into view.
“Looks normal enough. What do you think, Ali? You’ve been here a while.” Miller gave the specs to Browning.
“I think we’re wasting our time. It’s been a bit busy, but nothing suspicious.”
“I disagree,” said Simon. “I had a chat with a few of the neighbors. ‘A bit busy’ would be a severe understatement.”
“Alright, well, keep watching it and we’ll see what happens,” said Miller. “Sound good to you, Ali?”
“We can’t afford to sit around and wait. By the time our suspicions are confirmed there will be another bombing,” said Simon.
“So what, you want to send a team in?” asked Miller.
“Forget it,” said Ali. “We’re not going to send police in there. Do you have any idea how many booby traps the Guard will have set up?”
Simon swore. “Fine, then I’ll call in a strike. But don’t blame me if it gets messy.”
“You want to use a drone? In the middle of a suburb?” Ali removed his specs and stared at Simon. “Are you crazy? Come on, Miller, back me up here.”
“You sure about this, Simon?”
Miller and Browning exchanged a look.
“Your call, boss. I’m just the new guy.”
“Fuck you, Chris.” Miller sighed. He thought of the restaurant and the mosque, and the men back home demanding results. “Alright. Hit it.”
Simon got on the phone and said a few words in Hebrew. Then they waited.
It didn’t take long. There was a buzz, a boom, a flash. When the dust cleared, they saw the house had turned to rubble. Miller heard a few screams, but he had learned to tune those out long ago.
The men got out and walked down the road, passing fleeing civilians as they went. They found bodies in the wreckage, a man and a girl that had been crushed by the collapsing second story. Blood and body parts suggested others in the house had been caught in the explosion.
“Shit,” said Ali. “I told you.”
“Maybe if your men weren’t jumping at shadows we wouldn’t have to resort to this,” said Simon.
The men glared at each other. Miller worried it would come to blows, but Browning relieved the tension by calling them over.
“Basement’s over here.” He pulled out a penlight and shone it down the stone steps.
“Let’s have a look.” Miller led them downstairs and flashed his own light around. The shock of the strike had made a mess, but his eye still caught things that were out of place. Somebody had left in a hurry.
Simon plucked a fluid sack from the ground and waved it in Ali’s face. “You told me, huh? Look familiar?” It was the liquid used to sustain vatmen while they were gestating.
“You think that’s proof? Where’s the rest of the lab?”
“Oh, shit,” said Miller. “It’s mobile.”
“What?” Simon wheeled around to face Miller.
“Their labs are mobile. They make a vatman, break the lab down and scatter the pieces, then reassemble in a different location. Hell, they could even be making them in stages.”
“That would explain how they’re masking their power use,” said Browning. “If they only spike the power for a day or two, it wouldn’t be enough to arouse suspicion.”
“Hell, they could even be running on generators. And they could be sneaking into houses when the owners are gone, bribing or threatening people for an overnight stay, calling in favours… Jesus.”
“If you’re right, this means a complete change in tactics. We’ll need to start searching cars, too.”
“We’re already stretched thin,” said Simon.
“Well, we don’t exactly have a choice.”
Ali had wandered off to take a call, and now rejoined the group. “That was Ezra. You’re going to want to hear this.”
Navid was so excited, not even the presence of Hamid could dampen his spirits. He was going to go outside! The van was moving again, and Yousef was giving him instructions as Hamid fitted a vest on him. It was a little bulky, but Navid didn’t mind.
Yousef was telling him that he would see some Americans and Israelis when he went outside, but he needed to be nice to them. He asked Yousef if they would try to kill him, and Navid said they wanted to, but couldn’t. He asked why, but Yousef told him to stop asking questions. He was a little rude to Navid, which was unlike him, but Navid thought he was just sad to see him leave.
Hamid put something in Navid’s hair and eyes that changed their color. As he did this, Yousef told Navid what he had to do outside. They were going to let Navid out near a restaurant, and Navid was to go in and order some food. Yousef told him to enjoy his food until a man—Yousef showed him a picture—arrived. This man was a friend of Yousef’s, and Navid was to go over and introduce himself. He was then supposed to press a button on his vest, which would let Yousef know the man was there. Then Yousef would come and tell him what to do next.
Yousef kept repeating his instructions, but for the first time in his life Navid ignored him. He was too busy wondering what he would be able to eat at the restaurant.
Miller sipped his drink as he watched people enter the restaurant. Simon sat across from him, toying with his food.
The presumed target of the last restaurant bombing was visiting his other two establishments, to ease the concerns of jittery workers. Miller couldn’t decide if the man was very brave or very foolish, but either way he was a target. As they looked for vatmen here, Browning and Ali were across town doing the same.
Miller had seen army and labor vatmen, and he’d seen what was left of the corpses of the vatmen the Guard were using, but he had never had to pick out a live bomber. He looked for single diners, or pairs of men that were suspiciously similar—but the Guard were good at disguising their operatives, and that sent his heart racing whenever someone so much as dropped a fork.
He had his eyes on one man sitting in the corner, and a pair not far from him. Simon, looking in the other direction, had his own targets. Their table in the center of the room gave them a view of the entire restaurant, but it also meant they would be caught in a blast no matter where it came from.
“There’s our man,” said Simon. The owner had arrived. Miller wrapped his hand around his gun.
Navid was having the time of his life. Outside was loud and confusing, but by sitting in the corner of the restaurant and watching the world go by he was starting to get a grip on it. He gave a friendly smile to anyone who looked at him and, to his great satisfaction, most people smiled back. Even the Americans and Israelis were being friendly. That confused him, but maybe they had been told to pretend to be nice just like he had been.
Navid especially liked his food. It was far better than what Yousef had fed him, although he wouldn’t tell him that. He didn’t want to hurt Yousef’s feelings. He didn’t even know what he was eating was called—overwhelmed by the menu, he asked the waiter to bring him the tastiest food the restaurant had. That had amused the waiter. Navid raved about how much he loved his meal whenever the waiter came to check on him, and that made the waiter very happy. He would have to ask the waiter what the name of it was.
The man in the picture entered the restaurant. Navid tensed—this was his chance to prove to Yousef that he could be trusted. This was his chance to prove that he belonged outside.
He let the man and his companions get settled as he thought about how best to approach him. When he decided, he stood up and walked to the man’s table. He was so excited that he walked very quickly.
Another man, an American, got up and blocked Navid’s path. He spoke to Navid in a deep voice.
“Hey. What’s your name?”
This American was not pretending to be nice like the others. He sounded stern yet nervous, like he didn’t trust Navid. Navid didn’t like this man, but he remembered Yousef’s instructions and responded politely.
“Hello, Navid. My name’s Miller.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“What are you doing here today, Navid?”
“I’m just enjoying a meal.” That was what Yousef told Navid to say if anyone questioned him.
“Oh yeah? You seem to be in a hurry to go somewhere.”
“I saw a friend. If you would please excuse me, I would like to talk to him.” Navid tried to step around the American, but the man did not relent.
“What’s your friend’s name, Navid?”
“I’m sorry, I must go speak with him.” Yousef had not told Navid the name of his friend. The American was making Navid very nervous.
“What’s the rush? I’d like to ask you a few things.” The American put his hand on Navid’s shoulder. He was smiling now, trying to look friendly, but he didn’t fool Navid.
“I…” Yousef had not told Navid what to do if this happened. He was getting very worried.
“How did you get here, Navid?”
“A… a friend drove me.” Navid decided to be honest with the American. All Yousef wanted Navid to do was say hello to a friend. There was nothing wrong with that. If the American realized that, he would have no reason to distrust him.
“A friend, huh? Did your friend ask you to do anything while you were here?”
“He told me to say hello to his friend.”
“Yeah? Anything else?”
“He told me to press a button.” Navid opened his jacket to show the American his vest. He saw a man behind the American point something at him, and then he saw nothing at all.
“Jesus Christ, Simon!” Miller wiped blood and brain from his shirt. “I was trying to bring him in alive!”
There was panic in the restaurant. People ran or hit the ground while soldiers rushed in to control the situation.
Simon kicked the vatman to make sure he was dead. “He was going for the trigger.”
“Bullshit. He was answering my questions. I had him under control.”
“You don’t know that.”
“The hell I don’t. Weren’t you listening to us?”
“I wasn’t about to risk the lives of everyone in here so you could have a chat with a terrorist vatman.”
“Do you have any idea how valuable a live one would be to us?”
Before Simon could respond the restaurant’s owner, pale-faced and trembling, asked them for an explanation of what just happened. Miller left Simon to answer. He stepped outside and watched as a drone soared overhead.
Space Rat Black
By Aidan Doyle
I peered through the coffin window at the dead alien. “Are we at war with them?”
Yuko shrugged. “I’ll have to check the database.” Nothing the universe threw at Yuko – from exposed biological hazards to escaped flesh eating cargo – fazed her.
The Ithpek vessel had no crew and no declared cargo other than the blue-scaled humanoid stored in the hold. The inspection station’s scanners had verified the ship as clean. No trace of biological, nuclear, or chemical weapons or toxic nanobots.
“We were at war with the Ithpeks for about six years,” Yuko said. “The conflict ended forty-four years ago.”
“Who won?” I asked. Endless political tangles meant whole species were sometimes annihilated before outlying worlds even learned there was a war going on.
“Their colonies surrendered after we nuked their home world.”
“Go us.” The dead alien’s final destination was listed as Tokyo’s Museum of Defense. It must be a trophy.
I double-checked the ship’s flight logs. The ship had left an Ithpek colony world forty-three years ago, just after the war ended, but something just didn’t feel right. “I’m going to run a more detailed background check.”
Requesting information from the station’s byzantine computer system was a painful process. If I’d been on duty with anyone but Yuko, I would’ve had to justify the delay.
I joined Yuko by the ship’s viewport and we waited for the computer’s report. The viewport showed a dozen ships waiting to dock at the station. A deep space cruiser bypassed the line and proceeded to a private hangar.
Yuko zoomed the view in on the cruiser. A Kurohoshi Nisshoku, the fastest human ship ever built. “Captain Wonder got himself a new toy,” she said, using her nickname for Hashimoto, the station’s chief administrator.
The closest I would ever come to owning a spaceship was playing a space sim. At least there were some advantages to working at Earth’s most important space station. Any cargo bound for Earth had to clear our inspection teams, which meant every day I got to board a dozen different alien spaceships.
The station computer confirmed the accuracy of the ship’s logs. The Ithpek vessel had left the colony after the war ended. The delivery code for the Museum of Defense was authentic.
I looked over the ship’s stopping points. The logs said the vessel had taken four years to travel from the Ithpek colony world to the first world in human space. That didn’t sound right. I checked my calculations three times. A vessel of this class couldn’t have made the trip in less than six years. What if the vessel had left earlier than claimed, when the Ithpek were still at war with humanity?
Repeated scans by the station’s scanners showed the spaceship as free of dangerous substances, but interstellar shipping law dictated a hazard team inspection if an inspector called an alert. Before Hashimoto took over the station and made cutbacks, hazard teams always arrived within ten minutes of an alert being issued. It took more than thirty minutes before the hazard team arrived. They scanned the bridge, engines and cargo hold with their handheld scanners, then transferred the data to the station.
I waited anxiously as the minutes ticked by.
The station’s computer system consisted of a dozen outdated operating systems patched together by dead species technology. Kurohoshi had won the salvage right to plunder abandoned Werleth orbitals after the Werleth were exterminated by a coalition of more than seventy different species. No one alive spoke Werleth, but the translation modules were supposed to ensure a problem-free system. Using an extinct species’ technology was deemed to be cheaper than building something yourself and supposedly made the system more difficult to hack into. It also made it more difficult to upgrade.
Team Leader Nakagawa’s scanner beeped. “All clear.” Nakagawa glared at me. “When you are dealing with relativistic travel and who knows how many interstellar time zones and ways of measuring time, you can’t rely on dates being that accurate.” She led the hazard team off the vessel.
My messagevault was bombarded with messages giving me guidance on how to love Kuroshoshi better. Didn’t I know that every delay cost the company dearly? Regulations forbade the punishment of an inspection worker that had due reason to call a hazard alert, but the company would find ways to make me suffer.
I retreated to the sanctuary of the station’s tea room. Yuko and I floated in zero gravity, canisters of green tea in hand. The first great tea master, Sen no Riky?, had stressed the importance of simplicity and criticized the love of ornamentation. Later tea masters argued gravity was another affectation hindering the contemplation of the purity of tea.
Yuko squeezed my hand. “Things will get better, Sora.”
“I’m okay.” We floated in silence, savoring the tea. All day long I smelled nothing but sterilized and recycled air. The tea’s aroma helped remind me that I was still alive.
I had never drunk much tea until I met Toru. Now every time I drank green tea, it brought back the taste of Toru’s lips after a tea ceremony. Yuko’s brother had been a kind, gentle man that filled my days with happiness. After he died in a refueling accident it felt as though my life broke into little pieces. Yuko’s support was the only thing that kept me sane.
I said good night to Yuko and retired to my capsule in one of the station’s sleeping caverns. The capsule bore a splash of gray paint indicating my status as a space rat. Minatonezumi iro – harbor rat gray – had once been scorned as the color of ash, but after Sen no Riky?’s call for simplicity, the rich began to covet the austerity of gray clothes. Space rat gray uniforms were supposed to be a source of pride, but I wanted the black of a spaceship captain.
The company had painted the slogan, “I work hard. I have a simple life. I am happy,” on the capsule’s door. It’s good to celebrate simplicity, but encouraging a life without desire is useful if you want to pay minimum wage.
I peeled off my uniform and crawled into the capsule. A photo of Toru’s smiling face looked down from the capsule’s ceiling. The company had used the cheapest possible fuel for their ships and it had led to Toru’s death. My efforts to prove Kurohoshi’s negligence had gone nowhere.
My messagevault filled with daily evaluations from my co-workers. The word stubborn was mentioned so often in my evaluations that I’d written a script that replaced stubborn with a smiley face. Tonight my reports looked very happy.
I was tired, but followed the company guidelines of reviewing my mistakes. My own calculations shouldn’t take precedence over the station’s computer. But what if the computer was wrong? Its scanning capabilities had been thoroughly tested, but no system was foolproof.
I opened a data window and accessed the species encyclopedia. The Werleth had been deemed too aggressive by their galactic neighbors. After they had been exterminated, Kurohoshi inherited their computer technology. I scanned the list of other acquisitions. My heart skipped a beat. An Ithpek colony had won the right to the knowledge accumulated by the Werleth Academy of Advanced Mathematics. If the Ithpek had the mathematics to unlock the Werleth encryption the ship could have altered the results of the scan.
I called up the station docking schedule. The Ithpek vessel had been detained for twelve hours because of my alert, but was due to be released in forty-five minutes. It would be free to proceed to Earth.
Repeated warnings about the same ship would be viewed as insubordination. By the time I explained to Nakagawa it would be too late. Besides, I still didn’t have proof.
I shrugged on my uniform and crawled out of the capsule. If I caused any more delays and I was wrong, the company would charge me for the lost time. I would never be out of debt.
My access privileges hadn’t been revoked and I boarded the Ithpek vessel. My after hours entry would hurl a storm of notifications at my superiors. I had to find proof before someone came and removed me from the ship.
Inspection teams carried handheld scanners that sent data to the station computer, which was kept up to date with the signatures of the endless varieties of possible hazards. Backup scanners with offline analysis functionality were rarely used as they required manually updating, but I needed something that didn’t rely on the station computer for its results.
I activated the scanner and waited for it to do its work. A camera feed provided me with a view of the corridor leading to the hangar. The corridor was still empty. “Hurry up! Hurry up!” I urged the scanner.
It buzzed. Red light.
The coffin contained a host of toxic nanobots. If the microscopic robots were unleashed on Earth, their poison could kill millions.
I didn’t hesitate. I issued a station-wide emergency hazard alert, which would lock down all ships. The company would be furious, but it was cheaper than the costs they faced if the nanobots escaped on Earth.
I tried again.
Nothing. The ship computer must have blocked my command.
There wasn’t time to panic. I had to think clearly.
The Ithpek must have got hold of authentic delivery codes and sent the ship as a last desperate measure near the end of the war. The ship had used a mathematical trick to break the Werleth encryption and taken control of the station’s computer.
I had to get control of the ship’s computer. I loaded a schematic of the Ithpek vessel from my personal database. There was no easy way to get at the hardware configuration panels to do a factory reset.
The Ithpek vessel only had a Limited Intelligence rather than a true AI, but the vessel must have been programmed to respond to anything it deemed to be a threat to its mission. A real AI would have spaced me by now. For once a cost cutting measure had worked in my favor.
If I didn’t act quickly, the ship was going to release its deadly cargo on Earth. Think, Sora, think. What would Yuko do?
The ship had stopped me calling in an emergency alert, but it was programmed to obey standard station requests such as transfers to another docking bay. Ships often handed over control of their piloting systems so busy stations could move them to another dock.
I frantically wrote a docking bay transfer message. A standard transfer message requested the ship’s access code so the station could control the ship’s piloting system, but the station itself would never see the unencrypted access code. I modified the request so it captured the plaintext form of the ship’s access code. It was like sending a phishing message to someone’s messagevault.
Three minutes until the ship left the station.
My mouth was dry with fear. What I wouldn’t give for a cup of Yuko’s tea. I just had to hope I hadn’t made any mistakes. I sent the request.
A true AI would be able to tell there was no need to move the ship to a different dock, but perhaps a Limited Intelligence wouldn’t undertake such detective work.
The ship acknowledged the station’s request and entered its access code.
I punched the code into the ship’s computer. I was in control!
The ship’s protected transaction logs revealed it had decrypted the Werleth encryption and retrieved the inspection station access codes. It had faked the results of the scans. I commanded the Ithpek vessel to delay its departure. I had potentially saved thousands of lives, but I wasn’t ready to call in the hazard team yet.
I controlled the ship and the ship controlled the station.
I navigated my way through the station computer’s archaic menu system until I found Kurohoshi’s classified reports. I created a search agent and instructed it find any information related to Toru’s death. I was going to learn the truth.
The agent returned with its results a few minutes later. I took a deep breath, then opened a classified report.
The report’s authors argued that using the cheapest available shuttle fuel would lead to a higher rate of incidents. However the cost would be outweighed by overall savings and by judicious employment of accident insurance. The report had been approved by Hashimoto, the station administrator.
I wanted to scream. Sweet, gentle, Toru was gone because Hashimoto wanted to save money.
There were so many ways I could take revenge. I could order the station to crash. I could redirect a spaceship to fly through the managers’ section of the station. I could unlock the station’s armory and exact bloody retribution.
But I didn’t really want to hurt anyone. And Toru wouldn’t have wanted me to throw my own life away on such futile gestures.
Leaking the report probably wouldn’t do much good. At best, Hashimoto would be tied up in lengthy court proceedings that the company would spend its way out of. Nothing would bring Toru back, but I had a better idea for getting even.
I left the Ithpek ship and returned to my sleeping capsule. It was standard procedure for the station computer to do one final scan before a ship left docks. This time the scan generated a threat alert.
The station was locked down. Nakagawa and the hazard team disabled and removed the nanobots. No one said anything to me about my earlier alert. That would have meant acknowledging a security failure.
Eventually the forensic data specialists would be able to use the Ithpek vessel’s logs to reconstruct what had happened, but I planned to be long gone by then. I waited until the emergency was over, then used the station’s codes to grant Yuko and me access to the section of the station reserved for senior management.
I paused in front of the hangar door. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
Yuko smiled. “Of course.”
I opened the door, revealing Hashimoto’s Nisshouku. Someone so mean didn’t deserve such a beautiful spaceship.
I reprogrammed the Nisshouku’s access codes, then Yuko and I boarded our new home. I shed my gray dock worker uniform and slipped on the black uniform of a starship captain.
The engines hummed to life and the ship slid into the blackness of space.
I projected a photo of Toru onto one of the ship’s viewscreens.
Life was getting better. Yuko was brewing a fresh pot of tea. We had our own spaceship. The stars were getting closer.
By Jim Lee
In the beginning, I knew her only as Kalomi of the Plains. The name, the simple and only vaguely descriptive sobriquet seemed enough to know. She was my Apprentice in the Sisterhood, bound to my side by chance assignment and solemn oath.
Soon, by shared experience, she became my true and trusted comrade. Inevitably, increasingly I came to know her as my friend. But still—and despite her many evident complexities of heart and spirit—she remained to my mind simply Kalomi of the Plains.
It is truly said that I am drawn to explore the exotic, the unknown. And yet, behold the paradox—I often fail to wonder at the unguessed ingredients in the stew, bubbling in the homey and outwardly familiar pot before my very eyes.
So it was with my Apprentice Sister—with my comrade and friend, Kalomi of the Plains.
It was in the early autumn of our second year together that I first encountered one of my Apprentice Sister’s family. He rode to our quarters in the Great Reserve on a typically sturdy spotted pony. He and his mount were dwarfed by the escort from the outer guard post—a muscular Eastlandic cavalryman on a large brown war-horse of the type these Plainsfolk raise and train so well, yet seldom choose for themselves.
Dwarfed physically, I noted, but in no way outwardly impressed or intimidated.
“Typical Plainsman,” I whispered to myself with mixed dismay and admiration as I put aside the bear grease, the oiling cloth and the double-edged blade I had been preparing for winter storage.
I rose from the mat.
My initial judgment changed as I saw his greying ponytail and beard, interwoven as it was with beads and feathers and intricately carved bits of wood and bone. The arrangement of these ornaments—and the fact they were worn on what was not, in itself, a day of special significance—suggested major news.
“You are the Sister Vendra—Vendra of Lum?” the man asked, polite in tone even as his eyes searched and judged my entire person.
I raised my chin then nodded. “I am she.”
“Good Sister, I would speak with your Apprentice.”
I blinked. “Might I ask who—”
“Pross of the Bright Sun Band of the Northern Owl Tribe,” he interrupted sharply, slapping his chest in introduction. “Kalomi’s Uncle,” he added, abruptly turning apologetic. “Forgive my impatience, Honored Sister. I bear news she would favor hearing—if the Good Sister grants me leave for the telling?”
Something in his small round eyes assured me I ought to agree—unless I wanted Pross’s next change of mood to feature strings of blistering invective, undoubtedly in some obscure Plains dialect but directed squarely and most bitterly at me.
“I’ll get her,” I replied, my voice mild.
I went inside, past the outer rooms and to the point where the wooden structure extended into the hillside to become half earth-lodge. Kalomi was in one of these deep, dark storage rooms—a butter-lamp flickering nearby as she surveyed the sun-dried fruit, berries and roots available for the looming winter season.
“Uncle Pross?” she said, visibly excited once I’d spoken. “Here? With news?”
“And done-up like the Day of the Convert,” I added. Then I smiled. Told her to go.
Kalomi rushed past me. I extinguished the lamp. Locked the storage room. Proceeded back, through our quarters and into the warm afternoon.
Her head turned suddenly at my return. Her ponytail lashed the side of her Uncle’s face. He laughed and his pony nudged him, whinnied as if laughing with the Plainsman. I saw that Pross didn’t even bother to hold the animal’s reins, so confident was he in the pony’s training.
Loyal and dependable as a Royal Black, I thought.
Then I marveled at the open joy on my Apprentice Sister’s usually serious face.
“Tenny is to be married!” she announced.
“Really?” It took me an instant to search my memories of Kalomi’s infrequent mentions of home. “Your eldest cousin—your daughter, Pross of the Bright Suns?”
The man nodded, pale blue eyes alive with pride. “Our band was passing just close enough for me to make the ride here—to inform and invite you both!”
“We both?” I murmured.
“Why, yes! Of course!”
I tilted my head toward my Apprentice.
“Uncle would have us officiate at the wedding.” Kalomi gestured to the north and east. “At our band’s ancestral home-site, just before they settle into Winter Encampment.”
I greeted this news with an expression of thoughtful, if uncommitted interest.
The Thirty Tribes still practice many pre-Conversion rituals—including a two-week Wedding Truce, during which all quarrels are put aside and all of that year’s wedding ceremonies are performed.
“It’s only a four-day ride,” Kalomi hinted, much like a child pleading to attend a distant fair. “Three, if we press hard.”
“I’m sure the Sister-Leader will grant you leave,” I told her.
“But not you also, Good Sister?” Pross screwed his face up. Gestured with emotion. “It would not be proper, surely—to have the Apprentice among us, without the Sister and friend we have heard so much of!”
I was stunned—till that moment utterly unaware that Kalomi kept any contact whatsoever with her nomadic family group of herders and hunters.
“Or—” Pross’s expression and tone now turned crafty, almost menacing. “Is it that the matter of two bands of the Northern Owl being joined together in the Sacred Rite is too unimportant to merit the attentions of a Full Member of the Sisterhood?”
This shocked me speechless. The old bastard was perfectly willing to blackmail a Full Sister of the Dragon Sect—to obliquely threaten a major political and social incident no less, if it served his personal desires!
I looked at Kalomi. She gazed back at me with a faint smile.
“I shall speak of this to the Sister-Leader of the Reserve,” I muttered in defeat. “About immediate leave—for us both.”
“Oh, no need for that.” Just as abruptly, Pross was all sweetness and reason. “We of the Bright Sun and our neighbors, the Great Eastern Band, will not be in our Winter Lands for another five weeks. This gives you time to prepare—and us, as well. It will be a rare honor indeed, to have a full consecrated Sister—a native of the Eastlands itself—take part in our humble affairs!”
He smiled and nodded, almost bowed.
I smiled back. Nodded in return. Then I gave Kalomi a look fit to wither buffalo grass.
My Apprentice Sister shrugged.
The cavalryman, still waiting in the background atop his equally listless charger, looked bored and oblivious.
But Pross saw the silent exchange between his niece and myself. He laughed and his spotted pony joined him with a head-bobbing whinny.
“I never said I did not wish to attend.” I turned, stretched in the saddle. It was our fourth and, I hoped, final day out from the Reserve. “But you know he’ll use my presence as a bragging point—claim that it shows his Band is favored by the Sisterhood. Even so, I’d have been happy to agree if he’d simply invited, rather than attempted to trap me into it.”
“Such methods are in our tradition,” Kalomi replied. “As is the accumulation and use of bragging points.”
“Well,” I softened, “it will be good to preside at a joining. What with our other duties, it’s been some time since I’ve had such a happy duty.”
Kalomi’s face was blank. “Our Scared Ritual differs from what you’re used to.”
“All the better.” I smiled. “The Way of the Goddess and Her Sacred Dragon knows many interesting variations. But your Uncle—to push things like that, with scarcely half-veiled threats—”
“To push you?”
I turned my head. Stared at the side of my Apprentice Sister’s carefully impassive face. “Very well. I have a good dose of Sisterly Pride.”
“Only Sisterly?” Kalomi chuckled—not an entirely pleasant sound.
I held my tongue, scanning the flat expanse of grassland before us. Except for the snorting herd of wild gaur before midday, this had been the least eventful of four uneventful days in the saddle. We now entered a region of the Upper Plains I’d never seen. Yet all about me seemed painfully familiar.
Dull, in other words.
“Very well,” I said at last. “I have pride in myself.”
“In your position.” Kalomi’s probing voice was more arid than the dun-colored grass.
I pursed my lips. “True, I suppose. But it wouldn’t have bothered me as much, if Pross had been some sort of Outlander.”
I shook my head. “Nonsense. He’s your Uncle. And a Convert—same as all the Thirty Tribes.”
“Yes. But we Plainsfolk don’t hold our leaders in such dumbstruck awe as your Eastlandic commoners are apt to.”
“Awe?” My lips curled in distaste. “I don’t want people to be in awe of me!”
She snorted a non-literal Tribal obscenity. Something about the use of only half-dried gaur droppings as a fuel source. Then she leaned over. Spat expressively in the dirt between our mounts. “You know how my people are. Yet you expected Pross to be different—more like folk where you’re from. Why?”
Such questioning by my Apprentice Sister was impertinent. But this was Kalomi—and she had a point. “He’s your Uncle,” I confessed to myself as much as to her. “I thought, having a blood relative so honored as to be accepted into the Holy Sisterhood—it would make him, I don’t know, take the Teachings of the faith more seriously?”
“My Uncle,” Kalomi said sharply, “takes the Goddess Way as seriously as any I know. But which of the teachings say ordinary folk ought to treat Sisters as if they were living embodiments of She-Who-Brings-Forth-All-Life? Perhaps I have not seen that particular Sacred Scroll? Or possibly I was absent from the Academy classes when such a passage was presented? If so, Honored Sister, please cite it for your shockingly ignorant Apprentice Sister’s edification?”
Her mocking tone stung me with barbed truth. I slumped in the saddle, my head down in shame. Under me, Nightmare whickered uneasily. Plodding at her side, Kalomi’s mount answered in kind.
“They don’t like us to quarrel,” my insubordinate friend said, fondness creeping into her voice.
“Don’t your traditions forbid it?” I murmured.
“Not yet. The Wedding Truce is yet to go into effect.”
“Convenient.” I snorted, raised my hand. “So you thought to get in a few final blows, while able?”
“Exactly.” Her eyes twinkled and we shared light, forgiving laughter.
“I’m actually in your debt,” I admitted. “Who else would have the gall to show me my own prideful ignorance like that?”
“Any true friend—if she was also of the Thirty Tribes.”
“Does that mean I ought to seek out friendship with more Plainsfolk, or that I should avoid them like the plague?”
“Your choice, Honored Sister.” Her face was profoundly solemn for an instant. Then we both laughed again.
Under us, the Royal Blacks strode along contentedly.
No more than an hour later, we sighted a fair-sized dust cloud moving to our northwest. “More wild gaur?” I speculated. “Or plains bison, perhaps?”
“This far north?” Kalomi squinted. “This time of year, the wild herds should be verging due south—avoiding the bite of winter as long as possible.” She drew her ceremonial dagger, used it as an extension of her hand. The glinting blade served as a pointer—focusing her mind, projecting the apparent path of the cloud into the future.
“Your folk then? Still out on the trail?”
Kalomi put the dagger away. Nodded. Turned her horse without another word.
I matched her.
Nightmare kept pace with Obsidian Maiden’s flank in a gentle and sustained canter.
Outriders broke off to meet us shortly after the dust cloud resolved itself into a mixed herd of half-wild cattle and larger, somewhat shaggy lowland yak. We speeded toward the approaching men and women for a bit, then slowed to a respectful walking pace—thereby proclaiming both our eagerness and our peaceful intent. Waves, shouts of welcome and finally spoken greetings were exchanged.
One of the outriders was Tenny, though all recognized my Apprentice Sister and spoke excitedly with her in the Northern Owl dialect. I made out perhaps three words to every five, but felt no irritation. Reunions are emotional by nature, especially after many years. And it was good to see Kalomi laugh and banter easily with someone other than myself.
Our warhorses towered over Tenny and her pony, but she stayed at our side as we pushed slowly against the tide of the plodding herd. Behind the yak and cattle came a smaller herd of ponies and full-sized horses. Further back, pairs of donkeys drew the light wagons. Those not in the wagons walked alongside. To the rear, I saw children and dogs and a pair of improbably tame griffins—and the goats all these were driving. Still farther back, a trio of widely spaced and well-armed outriders provided an alert rear-guard.
I turned my eyes inconspicuously to Tenny and noted the flint knife, the leather shield and mid-length lance. All were tucked away, yet positioned as for swift retrieval and nearly instant use thereafter.
My Apprentice Sister was home—back among people truly hers, as none of the other Tribes, or even the other Bands of her Tribe, would ever be. I saw this in a single startled instant as she sprang uncaring from Obsidian Maiden’s back and threw fierce arms about her screeching, joyful Aunt. The Royal Black was left to snort and paw the dirt, as surprised and amused by Kalomi’s impulsive display as I was.
This was Kalomi of the Plains—and yet not, for she was also and perhaps more properly—Kalomi of the Bright Sun Band of the Northern Owls, one Tribe of the Thirty and utterly unique. This Kalomi laughed at a playful barefoot kick in the back from her still-mounted cousin. She pulled her Uncle from his wagon almost before he could bring it to a halt. Kissed the grinning man’s tangle of beard without shame or embarrassment.
“You met no trouble in reaching us?” Tenny asked me, her manner casual as we watched two young boys hurry to greet Kalomi and marvel wide-eyed at the Royal Blacks. “My brothers,” the bride-to-be observed.
“No difficulties,” I responded.
“Forgive the foolish question, Sister. Who would dare attack you? It’s just that, well . . . there was a raid the other evening. We beat them off without losing any mounts, but three cattle were either lost or stolen in the confusion.”
“Such acts are illegal,” I said primly. “Did you contact—?”
A thin smile crossed Tenny’s face. “No Magistrates on the trail—nor Sisters, usually. In any case, we normally punish such offenders ourselves. But father said to let it go.”
“Let it go!” Kalomi gasped. She turned to us then back to Pross.
“We had our Winter Grounds to reach,” Kalomi’s Uncle said, defending his decision. “A wedding to prepare for, as well—no time for a Blood Feud.”
“Whose raiders struck you?” she demanded.
“It was dark. None could be certain of their ident—”
“Muddy Creeks?” Kalomi spat the words.
Pross shrugged. “They were Grey Eagles. We could not be certain of the Band.”
“Uncle! You let Muddy Creeks raid us and escape unpunished!”
“We wounded one,” Tenny spoke up. “Possibly two.”
“And didn’t follow the blood trail?”
“It was my decision as Band Leader,” Pross said gruffly.
“A poor one,” my Apprentice muttered. “Have you grown so old in my absence, Uncle?”
“Kalomi!” I said with shock. All eyes turned toward me and I could only shake my head. A sister should not intrude in the affairs of Plainsfolk—they were to be allowed their independence, as much as possible. It was the standing order and wise.
But she was of these people. Their internal affairs were hers—or they had been, until her Oath of Sisterhood. I found myself on uncertain ground. But then again, so was she.
“The matter is past,” her Aunt said so quietly one had to strain to hear the whisper. “Let us concern ourselves with the present. And the happy future—the Wedding Truce and Tenny’s joining!”
Kalomi pursed her lips. Then she nodded, stroked and kissed her Aunt on the cheek.
My Apprentice joined Tenny and the other outriders in driving the yak and cattle into a pasture watered by the stream that curled among the earth-lodges where her people would pass the brutal winter months. It was a task better suited to nimble and experienced ponies like the one her cousin rode, but Obsidian Maiden did well enough at Kalomi’s direction.
“That big black horse,” Tenny told me later with delight. “One snort, one swing of that proud neck was enough to impress any wayward bovine!”
I nodded, turned my head. The light wagons had already been disassembled, with certain pieces put back together to form a Plains-style corral for the mounts. Tenny’s brothers—one seven, the other almost nine—fed sugar-root to the Royal Blacks.
I sighed. “Watching your people make camp is a breathtaking sight.”
Tenny chuckled. “It’s not half as disorganized as it must seem.”
“No,” I agreed. “It’s frantic and boisterous, but totally organized confusion—if that makes sense?”
The donkeys had been unhitched and taken, tethered together by one long strong rope, to water. The woven brush corrals for the goats and donkeys were ready by the time they finished drinking. Also by that time, the folding wooden frames of the yurts—again, detachable sections of the wagons—had gone up. Their yak-hide covers slid neatly into place, almost of their own accord. Butter-lamps were hung and more than one cook-fire crackled even as the Bright Suns’ namesake began to dip beneath the horizon.
Each family was eating supper by the time the first of that night’s two moons rose into the sky. I watched the second moon rise and eased back, turned my head. Beyond the flicker of the butter-lamps and the eight family cook-fires, all was darkness. I could hear the distant herd of cattle and yak, settling in with periodic moos and grunts. In the distance, at three carefully chosen locations, watch-fires burned with shifts of well-armed Bright Sun warriors tending them.
I looked across the cook-fire at Kalomi, silent as she ate. Livestock raids were still common among the Thirty Tribes. All complained about rivals stealing from them. Yet all did it from time to time. It was ritual of a sort—an informal passage to adulthood for young Plainsfolk.
But Pross had spoken of a Blood Feud, which was far more serious. And Kalomi held particularly bitter feelings for that one Band—the Muddy Creeks of Grey Eagle Tribe.
I pursed my lips, fed a handful of dried serviceberries into my mouth to finish the meal. The tangy purple berries were tasteless to me just then—even as the spiced trail porridge and sun-cured venison that came before. Only the rancid flavor of the butter-tea penetrated my mood. To be polite, I raised the skin when it passed to me and dutifully squirted a bit of the partially fermented yak-milk horror down my throat. I kept it down—with some effort—and passed the skin on.
Kalomi saw me watching as she took her turn and defiantly enjoyed a second squirt. My Apprentice had never named for me the Tribe or Band of the three men responsible for abducting, raping and impregnating her mother. But I’d seen her eyes this day, heard the anger in her voice.
The Muddy Creeks—I ran the name around in my head and sighed.
I looked up at the moons. The following evening, I knew, all three would rise together for the last time before Winter Solstice. That signaled the beginning of the Wedding Truce. It could not come soon enough for me.
The earth-lodges had to be repaired and cleaned out after sitting unattended throughout the Spring, Summer and early Autumn wanderings of the Bright Suns. Only now—in reluctant acknowledgement of the approaching season—did the Tribes return, each band to their ancestral homeland. The stable—the only permanent structure most Plainsfolk ever built—required even more concentrated repair than the underground lodges. Even so, it was only meant for the goats and donkeys and mares with recently born foals—and only used during especially murderous storms. Otherwise, Plainsfolk believed their animals preferred to face the elements head-on—like themselves.
And this year, the Bright Suns had a wedding to host.
“Your future husband will come here?” I asked Tenny.
“He and most of the Great Easterns. Of course a few will stay behind to tend their herds.”
I nodded. “And after?”
“We’ll assemble our wedding yurt together.” Grinning, Tenny pointed. “Far side of the stream—for privacy. By the time of Deep Winter, my folk will have dug a new earth lodge for us. D’Venk will have furnished it with blankets, butter-lamps and other essentials.”
“So he’ll live here? Be adopted into your Band?”
“Of course.” Tenny paused. Her high cheekbones flushed with pride. “The Bright Suns are the more prosperous now, though the Great Easterns are, you understand, quite respectable in their own right.”
“Interesting,” I noted. “It’s all a matter of which Band is wealthier—and therefore better able to afford a new member?”
Tenny put down the donkey yoke, the buckets of water she had been carrying. Hands on hips, she regarded me with mild displeasure. “Good Sister, D’Venk will be a good addition to the Bright Suns—hardly a burden to be afforded!”
I apologized quickly, assured Tenny that that wasn’t my meaning. “I never knew precisely how it was decided. Forgive my ignorance. I’ve been posted to the Great Reserve since being reassigned to the Plains and, as you know, things are different there.”
Tenny looked me in the eyes, seemed to decide I was sincere and nodded. “Yes. Very different—the Wolf-Folk do not wander freely, nor do they marry outside their group.”
They aren’t allowed to, lest their fearful curse spread amongst the remaining Tribes. Tenny did not say that aloud. But the knowledge was in her eyes. Both of us were silenced briefly by this sobering reality.
“My cousin,” Tenny spoke again, “says your curiosity about foreign ways is great. Her letters home remark upon it, frequently.”
“I can imagine.” I forced a wry grin and helped steady the buckets—preventing too much water from sloshing out—as Kalomi’s cousin slipped back into the yoke and straightened.
“She considers it perhaps your most personally endearing characteristic.”
“Kalomi said that?” I blinked and followed Tenny to her family’s yurt.
“Oh, yes. Yet you never asked about our ways?”
I helped Tenny ease the water buckets down beside the smoldering cook-fire and uncouple the ropes binding the buckets to the yoke. Sisterly detachment be damned—it was wrong to just stand around watching everyone else, regardless of rank or circumstance, do equal shares of the needed work.
“Thank you,” she said with surprise as I lifted the yoke from her shoulders and massaged her neck. “You never did ask?”
“I tend to avoid subjects too closely linked to sex or marriage with Kalomi. The subject of her parentage is so painful to her! I’m honestly uncertain what I can or cannot broach with her.”
“Oh.” Kalomi’s cousin’s eyes went sad. “I see. She’s told you about—that.”
“A little.” I drew a breath, raised my chin. “It was three of those Muddy Creeks?”
Tenny nodded. We hunkered down together to patch a goatskin garment’s torn hem. Her eyes flickered up at me—the same pale blue as her cousin’s and as full of controlled emotion, yet with an accepting peace that Kalomi lacked.
“Two of them are known to be dead. Before her death, Yopa—Kalomi’s mother—avenged herself on one. Split his skull open with a flint axe. Another died in a stampede that resulted from a raid against the Muddy Creeks by a Band friendly to our own. That was five summers ago, when Kalomi was still at your Academy in the East.”
“And the third?”
“Uiseann.” Tenny spat the name. “He leads them now—has for almost two years, since illness took his cousin. Unless you believe the whispers—that he poisoned his own kin!”
The look on her face said that Tenny considered that as possible as it was unpleasant to consider.
Three Guardian Moons stood high in the night sky, the Wedding Truce in full effect. It was the one time in all the year that Kalomi’s folk could relax their vigilance somewhat. Only one sentinel per watch-fire was now deployed—and they only against animal predators who knew no Truce.
My Apprentice and I walked together. She paused, stared into the darkness as if unable to believe in even relative safety. What was the time of greatest repose and delight for her people was one of fearful apprehension for Kalomi.
The Great Eastern Band reached Bright Sun Village well before midday. They paused just outside to put on their finest robes and decorate themselves with the intricate facial and hair ornaments of greeting.
Kalomi and I returned with the bounty of a successful morning hunt at one end of the village, even as the Great Easterns entered at the other. Appropriately, they received the more attentive welcome—the Great Easterns brought a husband for Tenny. All we had to offer was a fresh-killed blackbuck. Kalomi and I watched with the rest as her cousin embraced D’Venk.
Tenny had hurried to put on her finest—and most minimal—leather garments.
“So that’s him,” Kalomi murmured.
“So it would seem,” I replied.
“He just better make her happy.”
With everyone else, we followed the two to the stream that was the lifeblood of the Bright Suns’ Wintering Place.
We watched in silence—and I tried not to show my embarrassment—as the affianced couple slowly removed each other’s fine clothing. Nude and dignified, they joined hands and walked into the flowing water as one—signifying their final agreement to be wed later that evening. They knelt carefully at midstream, side by side and with their backs to us. Bright Sun and Great Eastern alike raised a cheer. I joined them. So did Kalomi, though a shade reluctantly.
The ceremony itself was a blend of rites. Ones I knew and treasured from back home, and the more ancient traditions of the Thirty Tribes. Bride and groom wore a matching set of loose robes, composed of geometric shapes of assorted hides—domestic and wild, familiar and exotic creatures alike—all sewn together with plant fibers and dyed a wonderful confusion of colors. They went barefoot, with toenails painted blue. Their ponytails and D’Venk’s beard sparkled with interwoven ornaments that reflected the light of the bonfire behind and the three moons above them.
I was glad to be part of it all and, when the new-made couple knelt before me, proud to touch my hands to their foreheads and intone the Final Blessing. “May the Goddess-of-All keep you in joy and make your union strong, courageous and noble—like Her most honored and blessed creature, the Holy Dragon of the Seas!” I paused the expected seconds, my arms outstretched. Then I concluded quietly, “Arise as one.”
They regained their feet in unison. Each kissed my cheeks reverently—beginning with Tenny, as this was her home village. Kalomi in turn received similar attentions, politely if rather too solemnly, I thought.
An elaborate and predictably raucous feast followed—with much butter-tea, alas.
I was sore and stiff the next morning as Kalomi and I prepared to depart. My travel tent would have been more comfortable and certainly more private than Pross’s family yurt. But he was the Bright Sun leader, to the extent they had one. To refuse his courtesies would’ve been rude—and politically unwise.
I smiled at how the youngsters—including Kalomi’s pair of male cousins—watched our every move. Or to be more exact, how they watched Nightmare and Obsidian Maiden, as the Royal Blacks stood with regal calm while being put to bridle and saddle.
My head turned and I glanced across the rushing stream, to the single yurt on the far side. I smiled, silently speculated that I was not the only one to get little rest in the night. But, in contrast to my situation, D’Venk and Tenny had likely enjoyed their lack of slumber. Such were my thoughts when Kalomi’s Aunt called her back to the family yurt.
Obsidian Maiden stood patiently, untied outside the corral and yet no more likely to wander off than I. The Royal Black even permitted the children to crowd around and stroke her flanks. No, the Plainsfolk are certainly not in awe of the Sisterhood. But our jet-black warhorses—as fearless and intelligent as they are beautiful—are another story.
Bright Sun and Great Eastern alike had turned out to see us away. Affectionate shouts of goodbye rose as Kalomi swung into the saddle, a bulging drink-skin over her shoulder. My heart sank, just a little. “More of your Aunt’s butter-tea?”
Kalomi gave me an evil smirk. She was about to make some comment when a rider on a lathered pony exploded into view. Jonus, leader of the Great Easterns, and Lavelle, D’Venk’s father, held the exhausted animal by the reins. The man—barely out of boyhood, really—slumped in the saddle, bleeding.
“Byelo!” Jonus snapped. “What has happened?”
“Raided.” The young Great Eastern spat crimson. “Tahk is dead. My sister too, I think—took an arrow and her pony ran with her!”
“Infamous!” Jonus glared about him, fists clenched. “To break the Wedding Truce! And our herders—attacked while riding with minimum arms at this Sacred Time! Byelo, who did this? What creatures would commit such infamy?”
“Grey Eagles,” the wounded man gasped. “I saw the patterns on their shields. But which Band, I’m not sure—”
“Muddy Creeks,” Kalomi sneered.
“We don’t know that,” Pross said.
“No?” She turned to me. “Vendra of Lum, have you nothing to say?”
I had plenty. Technically, terms of our leave called for us to return to the Reserve immediately after the wedding—but I had options. “A grave crime has been committed! Of course we shall ride with these folk, see justice is done. But you and I, Apprentice, ride wearing the purple tunics—as Sisters of the Dragon!” Yanking my Talisman from under my tunic, I thrust it into her face as a stern reminder. “Justice is our concern, not Blood Feuds—is this clear?”
Her face hardened even more than usual. But she nodded.
I turned, looked at the angry faces all around. “Be clear—all of you! I speak plainly, so all may understand. This is a terrible and evil thing. It shall be punished! But as Dragon Sisters, my Apprentice and I shall not stand for excess. The guilty and no other shall be punished!”
Jonus nodded grimly. Turned to Pross. “Know me now as Beautiful Clouds Arising,” he said with deadly earnest.
“And I,” Pross responded, “am Bear Tooth. We go to battle the foe together, as brothers, knowing each other’s Old Names.”
This tradition I knew about: Just as Tribes and Bands were known by names of animals or locations or natural phenomenon, once Plainsfolk had taken their names from the same sources. With the Conversion, Eastlandic and other foreign names—like Pross, Jonus or Kalomi—were given out. But each Band continued to give old-style names, to be used only in war or other extreme times.
“I present my niece,” Pross gestured.
“Sour Water,” Kalomi growled.
“No,” I spoke sternly. “This cannot be allowed. She is a Sister-in-Training. She wears the tunic and the Sacred Talisman. I respect your traditions, gentlemen. But they are no longer hers. Kalomi of the Plains—this is her only name.”
She glared at me and I glared back. She drew her sword halfway from its scabbard. Checked its edge with her thumb. Slammed it back into place.
“Very well,” her Uncle, now Bear Tooth, said without rancor. He turned his head. “Bring only your best, metal-tipped weapons—this is no mere hunt for game! We seek criminals and enemies of the good, and must be ready to struggle bravely—even unto death!”
The Great Eastern leader gave his folk similar orders then turned to me. “Honored Sister?”
“Yes, Beautiful Clouds Arising?” I replied, being careful not to smile.
He winced. “Call me Clouds. The others will know to do so.”
“Clouds,” I repeated. “You, Bear Tooth and I have no time to discuss strategy. I suggest we send out trackers immediately and mount an orderly pursuit with our main body, working out the finer points on the move.”
“My thought as well, Honored Sister.”
“I’m glad they left Tenny and her husband behind,” I remarked to Kalomi after my in-the-saddle conference with the Band Leaders. She shot me a hostile look, but I refused to leave her side. “Isn’t that for the best, Apprentice?”
“Newly married persons are not permitted battle,” she informed me. I saw the battle ornaments she’d added to her hair, but said nothing. Except for the sharp bits of metal and multi-colored shell money, these were the same decorations as the ones signaling happier events—only arranged in a different pattern.
I shook my head, adjusted the leather helm on my cropped hair. “You must understand—”
We rode on, silent.
“They took all the untrained horses and spare ponies?” Bear Tooth repeated the scout’s report then spat. “Greedy curs.”
“Foolish ones,” Clouds corrected with a sneer. “They left witnesses and now they burden themselves with too many frightened animals. Even if I were evil and reckless enough to attempt such horror, I would not be fool enough to do it this way!”
Bear Tooth agreed then pointed. “Another scout! One of yours, this time.”
The Great Eastern rode back to the advancing horde, shouting and thrusting his arm to indicate the direction. “Their trail, headed straight for Muddy Creek Village—not even trying to hide their tracks!”
“Pushing that many animals?” another of Cloud’s men commented. “The low things couldn’t obscure such a path with a solid week’s effort!”
“Let’s get them!” yet another said and many nodded. We quickened our pace.
We caught them just past dawn the next morning.
Clouds led most of the Great Easterns in a sweeping attack against the column’s left flank. D’Venk’s parents, now known as Whirlwind and Yellow Wolf, led the remaining Great Easterns in a dash to get in front of the enemy and block his escape. Bear Tooth, with Kalomi and I at his side, led the Bright Suns in an all-out drive against the Muddy Creek rearguard. The running battle that resulted was fierce as any I have been party to.
I clashed with an older Muddy Creek who proved a surprisingly good swordsman. We tied each other up, swords and arms interlocked. It might have gone either way, but for my Royal Black. Nightmare butted his smaller mount at a key moment. The nimble pony recovered his balance, narrowly avoiding a fall. But his distracted rider toppled with a serious wound from my suddenly freed blade.
A Bright Sun sprang from his saddle to finish the wounded man, but my shout and harsh glare had its effect. He merely took the Muddy Creek prisoner.
The three-sided attack eventually drove the raiders into a small ravine, from which there would be no escape. They turned the stolen animals loose in a final, desperate ploy. But both Northern Owl Bands were more interested in battle by that point than in recovering stolen property.
There were only four raiders left by the time Clouds, Bear Tooth and I called a halt. All were wounded, but still capable of doing damage. Like us, they had dismounted to fight on the uneven lip of the ravine. The woman and two of the men were quite young—led into this disaster by the older survivor.
“Uiseann,” Kalomi growled. “Offer the others their freedom, if the leader submits to Justice!”
It sounded like a Sisterly proposal, despite the wild look in her eyes. But I knew that Plainsfolk had a rather different idea of Justice than we Eastlanders. And right then the bloodied figure at my side was more Sour Water than she was Kalomi, more vengeful Plainswoman than Apprentice Sister. But Bear Tooth nodded and Clouds called down the proposal.
Uiseann agreed. The Muddy Creek leader came into the open, knowing no arrow or javelin would strike him down.
Clouds stood ready to descend and meet Uiseann’s war axe with an iron-tipped spear. If he survived Clouds’ attack, it would only earn Uiseann the chance to fight another warrior to the death—possibly Bear Tooth. Then another and another—by Plains’ Justice, he was already doomed.
“No!” Kalomi called out. “I claim the right! My claim to Justice is older than yours, Beautiful Clouds Arising!”
Uiseann squinted. “I don’t even know you, Dragonwoman.”
“No. You knew my Mother, though—Snow Woman of the Bright Suns, known commonly as Yopa.”
Uiseann grinned viciously. “Ah, yes—that one. The cur-bitch murdered my brother’s son.”
“Killed him in fair battle,” Kalomi corrected. “After he and you and other Mud trash carried her off, did evil upon her. And before you murdered her in turn, by cowardly ambush!”
Kalomi raised her sword, started forward.
I had my chance to stop it—I had the authority. I’m not at all sure Kalomi would’ve obeyed, but I doubt the others would’ve defied a Full Sister. At the least, I could have tried . . . yet I did nothing.
I watched them battle and, in my heart, I knew that if Kalomi failed and if Clouds Arising also fell before that bloody war axe, I would move ahead of the aging Bear Tooth and go next. I resolved that, should my Apprentice Sister die that day, I would see her avenged or die myself in the attempt. In that moment, my Oath and all my quaint notions of Sisterly Correctness meant little to me, indeed.
Fortunately, I’d made an expert swordswoman of Kalomi—passing along every trick and subtle skill I’d learned from dear old Akan at the Academy.
It was a short, brutal fight. But it ended as it should: Uiseann’s wide eyes staring sightless at the sky while Kalomi cleaned her blade on his dusty robes. Then the after-battle lethargy so common in the aftermath of victory’s exhilaration overtook her.
I used her moment of seeming inattention to put my Talisman to use, covertly testing the fresh corpse. The resulting truth shook me deeply, though I hid my emotions and dared hope, if only briefly, that my exhausted Apprentice had not noticed.
In any case, I saw Uiseann’s surviving followers freed—including the wounded we captured earlier. When these events became known, the Grey Eagles of course expelled and disbanded the Muddy Creeks for criminal misbehavior. Their outcast remnant scattered as individuals to create new lives.
Kalomi and I rested two nights and another day at bright Sun Village then started back to the Great Reserve.
“We could be back in our quarters now,” Kalomi said as she stared into the campfire, three nights later. “We might have pressed the horses that much more, with no real risk.”
I nodded. An unspoken, unacknowledged tension had been between us since the fight with the Muddy Creeks. Now it had grown to the point where I could no longer pretend ignorance of it. “I wanted one more solitary night on the trail—a last chance to talk, in total privacy.”
“You examined him,” she said tightly, keenly. “Tested his body with the Talisman’s power. So—was Uiseann my father?”
I had fully intended to speak the truth, when the time came. Had rehearsed the words in my mind, over and over again. And now I tried, but found I simply could not. “No. But he could as easily have been. In which case—”
“It would make no difference,” she insisted.
“Perhaps not. Pass me the butter-tea, would you?”
Kalomi grinned. “As what, Vendra? Penance for permitting a Blood Feud to run its ugly, natural course? I know you hate the stuff. Hell, everybody hates it! It’s quite hideous, actually.” She passed me the skin.
I raised it. Squeezed some into my reluctantly open mouth. “I must agree,” I said, passing the skin back. “But why do all you Plainsfolk act like you love it so?”
“Tradition. Oh, and do consider yourself duly honored that—as an outsider—I let you know this.” Kalomi took a squirt of the fermented milk and grimaced. “We have a great many traditions. Most more pleasant than butter-tea. A few as bad, or worse.”
“Like Blood Feuds?” I suggested.
Kalomi nodded. She reached a hand across, well above the low fire.
I took it, held it firmly.