The Colored Lens #16 – Summer 2015
The Colored Lens
Table of Contents
- New Boy, New Girl by Rhoads Brazos
- Lighter Than Claire by Steve Simpson
- Time as an Opened Letter You Didn’t Want to Read by Andrew Kozma
- The Blue Tigress Dreams by Sean Robinson
- Soup by Sandra M. Odell
- The Redemption by J.A. Becker
- Just an Expression by Jarod K. Anderson
- Strange Eats at the Swan by Lynn Hardaker
- Gills by Steve Bates
- Final Exam at the Academy by Jamie Brindle
- Amsterdam’s Gods by Bo Balder
New Boy, New Girl
By Rhoads Brazos
On a springlike end-of-winter morning I awoke to a furious itching deep under my skin, as if my upper ribs were chafing one against the other. I prayed it wasn’t a rash or a spider bite or any other mundane nothing. I mumbled silent vows. Tithing my allowance at church? I’d do it. Treating Dirty Joe to a dollar menu burger? As soon as he drew near. I’d even try and be gracious with my older brother, Pete.
Hours later, I fidgeted in the back row of Geometry class. The pain in my side flared with such searing intensity that I nearly fell from my seat. For two merciful inhales the agony faded. It swelled again. Pinprick needles chased a disconcerting crackle that I knew to be bone. I wiped away tears before anyone took notice and felt the inside of my shirt with the stubs of new fingers.
Approaching Mr. Henderson’s desk with casual swagger wasn’t easy. The titters of the class threw off my stride, and the singing in my head made my feet feel as if they weren’t my own.
“Johnathan?” Mr. Henderson turned away from his whiteboard proof.
My voice came close to breaking. I couldn’t finish. I couldn’t risk the class hearing such a quaver at such a time. It was all too cliché.
Mr. Henderson didn’t miss a beat. “Do you need to see the nurses?”
The classroom stilled. They sensed the importance of this moment. Even the rudest among them found it too boorish to intrude.
“Your right, is it?” Mr. Henderson asked, but that’s not where his eyes were. He knew. He was giving this to me.
I cleared my throat. “Left.”
The class buzzed and whispered incredulously.
“Let’s see.” Mr. Henderson capped his marker and helped me with my shirt’s lateral zipper. It didn’t lower easily. Bad luck befalls eager fingers, as the saying goes—I’d never dared touch it.
My third hand slipped free. Everyone saw and everyone knew. My new arm was growing fingers first, fully sized and already straining out beyond the second knuckle. No infantile growth. No months of exercise to match my new limb to its peers. Not only was I a lucky lefty, I’d jumped over years of development.
The rarest of rare beginnings. And everyone saw.
Every other high school student already had a second right, though precious few limbs were yet the equal of the originals. Corey, in back, was respected for his three rights, and though Nathan, the star basketball player, had two rights and two lefts, both were slight compared to his natal pair. He folded them, smooth and feminine, across his desk. They’d look right at place on his sister—still, he took due pride.
Today though, belonged to me. I’d caught up. At the rate my arm was progressing, I’d be passing some of my classmates by the weekend.
Mr. Henderson slid open the bottom drawer of his desk, retrieved a double wrap, and secured my new fingers. I’d bled no little amount, but didn’t mind at all. I wished eleven through fifteen could feel the open air. I wanted to watch them wiggle.
“Get down there pronto,” Mr. Henderson said. “It starts to really bite in when the adrenaline fades—always just in time for the wrist too. Trust me.” He waved a dozen times at the class and they chuckled at his humor. Very few adults ever reached ten. That made Mr. Henderson the coolest teacher in the building.
“For the rest of the week I’ll pipe the lesson down to Miss Oshi’s offices. Channel—” Mr. Henderson punched at his computer keyboard while signing out a hall pass and gathering up the day’s assignment as he cleaned his glasses. “—twenty-three. There are so many mending this week. Something in the air?”
The class chuckled. It may have been at my expense.
“Hurry down. And call your parents too. They’ll be proud.”
“I know. I will.” I thought of all the early morning promises I’d made and didn’t regret a single one.
We all have our place in the world. The strong chose it; the weak accept it with a shrug or a grimace. I’d always been the grimacing sort.
“Mindy really wants you.”
A week after my lucky day, Nathan stopped me in the hall to deliver this news. Mindy, an attractive double-right sophomore with a pleasant predilection for short-shorts, had the eye of every student—the jealous and the eager. She’d been feeling the twinges of a second left all year, so she claimed.
“She said that?” I asked.
“Hell yeah.” Nathan leaned in close and set twenty fingers on my shoulders. “Don’t miss your chance.”
He began a sordid tale of what such girls could be coerced to do to earn a desirable guy’s favor. I’d heard it all before, but now that it applied to me personally, my neck set to burning.
“It’s the lefts that do it,” Nathan said giving a quick look over my shoulder at a group of passersby.
“I know. For dancing.”
“Yeah, but no. The holdin’ hands in the hall shit? That’s—symbolic?” He squinted.
“You line up,” I said.
“Oh, you really do. Chicks like getting tangled. Skin on skin. You gotta have everything in the right spot.”
He snickered. I tried to laugh along with him, but couldn’t. Being a part of this conversation had left me stunned.
“Man,” Nathan said. “Don’t miss out. I wouldn’t.”
“Hey, you talk to Coach?”
Nathan desperately wanted me to try out for the team. We would dominate the left side court. He didn’t seem to realize that talent was in the equation too.
“I don’t see how—I’m—”
The bell rang.
“Think about it,” he said. “Seriously, do.”
When I sat down again in the back of Geometry class, I was thinking about it nonstop. I’d forgotten all about basketball.
“Are you new?” asked a light voice from nearby. It jolted me from my daydream.
She sat in the neighboring desk. No girl had started a conversation with me since late in junior high. My precious few witty openings scampered away. I breathed in deep. With her so close, it was as if the air were sugared.
“I’m April,” she said. “I just moved here too.”
“No, I’m not. Not new,” I said. “I meant to say.”
Her eyes shone with amusement.
“I’m April,” she said again.
I could kick myself. “Johnny.”
“Johnny, you miss a lot of class.”
“I was at the nurses.”
“Hmm . . .”
She trailed off with a smile and didn’t ask for an explanation. I wanted to give one, because I had the best excuse ever, but noticed the empty desks around her. People used to sit there. Corey with his triple right had always loafed two rows across from me. No longer. He’d scooted up and over to a new spot where he whispered behind a screen of fingers. Sly glances were being cast our way—her way.
They hadn’t wanted to sit near me either, though they probably would now. I could go up front and they’d free a spot for me, but not for her. Not in her condition.
“April,” I said.
Her eyes really never quit smiling. They pinched like tiny crescents against her cheeks. She must laugh a lot. I’d had a hard time finding anything funny when I’d been relegated to these seats.
A turn of fortune makes every man a philosopher.
In the two weeks since my maturation I’d done more than my share of questioning. Why me, why now? What doors had been opened and did I dare step through them? It pleased me that my classmates now approached me—that I’d become one of them and left the life of an outcast. The tension at home had eased too. On Pete’s weekends away from community college, he treated me with respect—not much, but enough to notice. Even Mom and Dad were less tense. My own college situation loomed ahead, and with my new condition hinting at scholarship chances maybe I’d have more luck than Pete.
I strolled downtown while mulling over my present and future. A canopy of cherry blossoms, the pride of the town, shaded the walks.
To my surprise, I spied April up ahead in pink overalls and a T-shirt. She knelt at a wrought-iron bench and spoke to another soul I knew but always avoided, Dirty Joe.
Dirty Joe, the town’s local derelict, had lost his lower arms in the war—only four stubs remained. I’d never seen another two-armed adult in the flesh. A bibrachial cripple. That’s what the news called them.
The kids had stories about the old guy. How he’d had his arms blown off in Mosul. He’d lost his mind at the sight of it all and went on a civilian stabbing spree. Say the wrong thing and he’d yank that same wicked blade from his boot and go for your digits.
“Johnny!” April called out to me.
I winced. Now Dirty Joe knew my name. He didn’t look up—his fingers worked at unwrapping some find—but he surely squinted in recognition. I trudged nervously over and stopped a dozen paces away, unwilling to come within stabbing distance. I glanced from Joe to April. She had the same wrapping in hand.
“Well?” she asked.
April stood, and to my shock, patted Dirty Joe on the back. He chewed and nodded. April walked toward me. In her left she held a croissant, of all things.
“He’s gonna hassle you every day now,” I said, careful to keep my voice low.
“Let him. Gives him something to look forward to.” Her gaze moved from my lips to my eyes, filling me with a pleasant nervousness. “Everyone deserves that.”
“How’s your classes?” I was just trying to be congenial, but I regretted the words once they were in the air. I’d heard things about her that I’d rather not discuss, but April didn’t hesitate.
“I’m trying out for the cheer squad. They need another now that Heather is—you know.”
“Out of town?”
“We’ll call it that, sure. They need a new girl quick.”
“Not for the next—”
“Trial by fire.”
Incredible. She would just hop up and present herself to that many people? Just like that? She must know what they’d do and say. I couldn’t manage such a feat and I at least had the proper look.
“But a lot of their routines take—” I bit short a blunder.
Her smile faltered and she looked away. She didn’t speak. She didn’t need to. I didn’t need to be told what I’d done.
Finally, she replied. “It’s still worth a try. Right?”
She rubbed at her forearms. Her smile found its place again.
“Come root for me. Having someone in the stands helps.”
I looked over to Joe licking at his grubby fingers, and a quiet guilt settled in. I’d spoken without thinking and she’d brushed it away. I’d had to do the same in the past, but always sank into a sullen funk afterward. Yet there was something else here, some other promise broken.
“Please?” she asked.
“I’ll be there.”
At Monday’s after-school tryouts, I found an out of the way place in the gym. The basketball team ran drills at the far side of the court; the girls’ cheer squad had staked out the other.
Nathan chased a ball over toward my direction. I think he sent it there deliberately.
“You signin’ up?” he asked.
He dribbled the ball between his lefts and eyed the assembling cheerleaders.
“Man, you spent a long time like that. Ages.”
“Whatever. It’s all behind me.”
This hadn’t occurred to me. I blinked and stared at my shoes.
“You know what?” he said. “I felt sorry for you. I think I still do. But you’re here now, man. Wake up.” He smirked past me.
I followed Nathan’s stare over towards April. She stood amongst the cheer squad and nodded quickly at their instructions. When I turned back to Nathan, he was dribbling back across the gym.
April twirled and kicked alongside the other girls, bounding about with them in a most pleasing manner. It seemed odd to me that more guys didn’t come to watch this. Compared to the varsity team’s drills across-court, this was utterly fascinating.
April knew all the chants and she jumped even higher than the other girls. Lacking the weight of an extra limb had a few tenuous benefits. The practice went on for a while—bouncing about, call outs, and posing.
When I clapped at the end, the girls were too engrossed to notice. They gathered around April in a flurry of talk. She kept a smile in place, but it seemed painted on. Her eyes didn’t show happy laughter. Her attention darted nervously from girl to girl as each ladled criticism and concerns and she struggled to answer.
Mindy, in the squad front and center, jabbed a single finger at April’s shoulder, eliciting a laugh and a witty rebuff. I could tell by the way the other girls snickered.
At that moment April spotted me. Mindy saw April’s mild surprise and looked my way too. With so much female attention settling on me at once, I was pinned in place, like a specimen on display.
I waved back with both lefts.
Mindy pressed her lips together tight over a smile and, in a blonde swirl of hair, spun back to the cheerleaders. The girls chattered amongst themselves and gathered up their little equipment. April gave me a worried look before hurrying after them.
It’s all behind me.
That’s what I’d thought, but now I wasn’t so sure. Despite being such an oaf, Nathan had a point. I’d spent so many years in that state. I forgave things no one else could. I’d had to, to live with myself. Maybe I feared moving on and the possibilities that waited. Or maybe, though I’d never say it aloud, I’d grown comfortable with my place in the world.
The thunder from the stands drowned out Pete.
“—my old bike?” he asked.
“Do you want it? You can work the hand cranks now.”
I’d headed back home for dinner and managed to convince Pete, home on a three-day weekend, to join me at the game. We’d wedged ourselves into spots on the front row bench. The bleachers behind and above us shook with the roaring of the home crowd and the deafening applause of a thousand hands.
I answered during a brief lull.
Pete looked at me strangely. The audience exploded into a frenzy of shouts as our team scored another basket.
“We’re pulling away,” Pete said.
I didn’t reply. I watched the cheerleaders capering through another routine. They had a new girl in their midst. I didn’t know her.
“Or is that what this is about?” Pete saw the object of my attention. “The tall one?”
“You are freaking kidding me! You move fast.”
Untrue. Hesitation crushed me down with a mass of what-ifs.
Pete laughed. “You know, at first I thought she was making eyes at me?”
I grabbed Pete’s shoulder and pressed my head close to his. “Listen,” I said. “If family means anything to you, you’ll help me.”
“Whoa. Three’s a—”
“No goddamn jokes.”
Pete set his jaw firm. “All right. So you want my seal of approval? Cause that girl’s—” He gave a whistling exhale.
“What do I do?”
Pete smirked. This situation was ripe for insults. He rubbed at his mouth. “Well, I’d say, go have fun. Just don’t do anything stupid, you follow?”
I frowned. The clock had paused for a time-out and showed only seconds to go. I’d lost track of the game’s progress long ago.
“Listen,” Pete said. “I’ll give you the steps, since you can’t figure them out. At the buzzer march your ass over. Before she can say a word, ask her out. Polite but direct. Would you like to go somewhere? Just like that. And then take her there.”
“No point in waiting.”
“And if she’s not interested?”
“If?” Pete laughed. “God. Yeah, if. So damned lucky.”
The buzzer sounded, a painful shrillness piercing through the crowd’s roar.
Pete dug in his pocket and threw a jangle of keys onto my lap. His car? He’d do that? He pointed from me to the squad, and left. As he’d said, three’s a crowd.
I cupped the keys in my lefts. I appreciated Pete’s generosity—this little assist—but he didn’t understand my situation as well as he thought.
As I rose, the Mighty Crawdad mascot hurried up before me with its claws snapping and its tail upturned.
It spoke, foam-muffled. “What’d you think?”
“Me?” I asked.
I felt a familiar nervousness, and knew.
April was in there. The girls had given her this sad task, made her a token part of the group and allowed the former mascot to join the squad proper. Despite April being as good as them—even better in some ways—she’d been treated like a joke.
The honorable part of me wanted to shout and cry out at the injustice of it all, but some helplessly male aspect took the fore. I couldn’t see anything other than April’s spandexed legs, strikingly long and so out of place on this creature. They didn’t belong here. She didn’t. I didn’t.
My scrutiny couldn’t be more hopelessly shallow, yet it somehow defied every pair of male eyes here. Under that costume and beyond the cosmetic, I saw her. She never hid. She was right out in the open, but only I noticed? It wasn’t possible.
I’d spent a long time like that. Ages.
“What’s wrong with us?” I asked.
While Mindy had had her back turned and cast that wink, she hadn’t seen April raise her single right, touching her fingertips to the sky.
“I’m really glad you made it,” I said.
“Oh, me too. I mean—” She trailed off. “It was hard.”
“I liked it when you did the Shimmy Strut.”
“Ha ha.” She spoke the words with a droll air.
“Really. You can’t imagine how much.”
“Hmm . . .”
This wasn’t the first time she’d approached me. Yet I knew from seeing and knowing her that, unlike the others here, she didn’t care about my second left. She saw who I was even when I lacked the surety myself.
I let the words come without second guessing.
“Would you like to go somewhere?”
The Mighty Crawdad stared at me with unblinking eyes the size of hubcaps and with its mouth frozen in a cartoon grin. April’s silhouette shifted behind the dark mesh of its irises. I wished I could see her expression. Not in a million years would I have guessed it would happen this way.
And that is how a fool finds himself. He struggles and stumbles until a forgiving someone takes him by the hand and leads him to a better place.
Every school day between classes, I carried April’s books. Hers and mine tucked together under my lefts while she held my free right. There were whispers, but they weren’t about us; they didn’t know who we were. April wore her cheer uniform in the halls because she never had a chance at the games. I noticed the sideways scowls and heads that turned away when I met their stare. Before, I’d told myself this shifty-eyed nonsense didn’t matter, when it had been just me, but now I truly believed it.
Each weekend we were together. Mom, and Dad especially, didn’t have too much to say about April—neither to her nor to me. Pete seemed confused.
Two months later at the Spring Dance, I held April tight. With the lights so low, our neighbors didn’t recognize us; they didn’t always have time to move away. In the middle of the gym, right there in front of everyone, April slipped her arms around my neck and kissed me with such depth and passion that for a moment I was somewhere else. I was someone else. My old self, my true self. And she was with me.
Mr. Henderson stepped in and pulled us apart. Just for the moment.
“What is it with you?”
Nathan caught me in the hall one day when April wasn’t around. I never did try out for the team and at first thought this was his familiar haranguing. Perhaps he was prepping for next year.
“Me?” I asked. “Nothing.”
“Seen you around.”
“With that—whatever you call her.”
I didn’t respond.
“You two’re sick. She’s gonna slime off on you.”
I spoke slowly. “Shut your goddamned—”
“You that fuckin’ brave or just plain gross?”
Fifteen fingers trembled, eager to roll into fists. Whatever Nathan’s problem might be—whether he thought he needed to tear me down to keep himself at the top, or if he just felt like voicing his bias—for whatever reason, he didn’t stop.
“Queerin’ it up with a diseased freak.”
In a flash I had Nathan’s strongest wrists in my grip. He punched at me with his free arms but they pattered uselessly against my sides, still too immature to be of real concern. My much more formidable second left squeezed his throat tight. Nathan choked and spluttered. Not until I saw proper fear in his eyes did I shove him thudding into the lockers.
He shook himself loose and casual, as if it hadn’t hurt, though I’d made sure it had.
A crowd of students had stopped with mouths open, drinking in the confrontation. The class alpha male versus the class rebel—for since I’d met April, that’s what I’d become. Now everyone knew who had the upper hand.
Nathan sneered. “You deserve each other.”
Those were the only insightful words he’d ever spoken.
I left the school grounds that day in a black mood, the worst I’d felt in ages. They thought they had a right to choose for me? Never. I refused. My family had enough wisdom to not say anything, but these schoolyard nobodies lacked the sense to know where they stood.
Still mumbling and fuming, I slumped up the front walk to the house. A shadow shifted on the front porch.
“Hey!” I took the front steps in one leap. April sat on our porch swing, slowly easing forward and back with her legs. Her hands lay folded in her lap.
“I missed you today,” I said. “Are you—”
She lifted her face toward me.
For all the insults I’d heard her endure and all the fickle disdain that had been tossed her way, I’d never seen her break.
Tears slipped down April’s cheeks.
“Can we go inside?” She fought to keep her voice steady.
No one was home. Once April and my relationship had been made known, rules about this sort of thing had been sent down from on high.
They’d just been overridden.
I took April’s hand and led her in. We set our things in the kitchen.
“Are you okay?” I asked. I brushed her tears away.
“I did try calling,” I said. “Twice.”
She squeezed my lower left with her right. Before I understood her intentions, she’d slipped our hands under her shirt and pressed my palm to her.
At the touch of her skin my pulse always went cartwheeling uphill at a downhill pace. This brazen maneuver should have upped the intensity to a carnival ride dizziness. But to hear her grief—it stabbed me clean through.
She pushed my hand up higher, letting my fingers trace over her ribs to rest on the nub of her second right. She sobbed.
“April,” I whispered.
She twined her arms up around my neck and hugged me tight. Under my palm, the modest beginnings of her new arm followed the motions of its sister.
She’d never wished for this the way I had. Instead, she’d built a strength I could never claim. Even now, in spite of the tears, it filled her core.
April wept against me and I spoke the words she’d come to hear, the same ones she’d taught me.
“Don’t be afraid,” I said. “You’re still you.”
Lighter Than Claire
By Steve Simpson
“We were scaly. We scurried through the undergrowth.”
Claire recalled a jagged light, exploding into brightness. “We hatched from eggs, we cracked our shells.”
“Do you remember flying? We swooped and soared.”
Claire saw it and felt it, but she didn’t understand.
“We flew before we ran. Were we birds once?”
Magda shook her head, not in denial but not knowing.
“Does a fish swim?”
“I suppose it does.”
“I don’t think so. We swim. But for a fish, the ocean is air. She flies on her silver fins.”
The crystal bell chimed. It wasn’t loud but it carried everywhere because the school was made of cardboard, and it had no windows or doors.
It was time for special studies class, and Claire and Magda sat in the front row because the teacher wasn’t like the others–he let them ask questions.
Claire remembered their first class, when he still shaved and didn’t fall asleep halfway through.
“I have no name but I have a rule. Numbers are not permitted in my classroom. Once you start with numbers and counting you never stop. You reach infinity before you know it.”
He took a piece of purple chalk from his pocket and wrote ‘Special Studies’ on the wall.
“This is class is about …”
He lit a cigarette. Even back then he was a heavy smoker.
“Well. It’s self-explanatory isn’t it?”
He contemplated the purple letters. “Perhaps it will explain itself tomorrow. Does anyone have a question?”
Magda put her hand up. “Sir, why doesn’t the school have windows? The rain comes in.”
“Glass is a sharp liquid. It would damage the walls.”
Claire was next. “Sir, why are the walls made of cardboard anyway?
“Metaphors are just ideas. They’re not real.”
“Let’s not be too clever.”
Afterwards Claire understood that when he said that, it was a signal not to keep asking, but in the first class she didn’t know.
“The more you know, the more you have to forget. What’s your name?”
“Does anyone who isn’t Claire have a question?”
Eduardo raised his hand. “Sir, you’re different to the other teachers. They’re all ghost people and they never let us ask anything. You’re the first teacher who’s done that.”
He was startled, and he dropped his cigarette.
“The rule. You’ve forgotten the rule.” He shrugged. “I suppose you’ll get used to it soon enough.”
He picked up the cigarette stub and brushed it off. “The ghost people are just projections. They teach you what you already know. I’m the counterpoint, the antidote to all their pointless truth.”
Claire had a thousand questions on the tip of her tongue in that first lesson, but she wasn’t allowed to ask them.
“It’s almost the end of semester so we’re going on an excursion–a bus trip to Forget Me Park. We’ll visit Soleil Station where the trains arrive.”
There was a buzz of chatter in the classroom. A change was coming, the end of their school days.
“Sir, what powers the trains?”
“Hasn’t the science teacher explained where our power comes from?”
Claire shook her head, and he seemed smug. “The school bus, the trains, everything is solar powered. We’re at the sun’s eastern terminus, the sun is all around us.”
“But if the sun is–”
“I’m sorry Claire, no more time for questions now. We’re going to make kites.”
“We’ll press the paper for the kites here. It looks complicated but it’s simple enough to use.”
They were gathered in a room at the back of the assembly hall, standing in front a large papier-mâché press. It was covered in buttons and dials, mostly drawn on.
The teacher picked up a knife and used it to cut out a slab of air that he maneuvered between the jaws of the press.
“It doesn’t matter which button you push.”
He chose one and the press closed with a hiss and a groan. When it opened again, the air had been flattened into a sheet of tissue paper.
They ran and laughed, flew their kites, and the teacher looked on, with his scruffy diamond kite on the ground beside him.
Claire’s was made of paper boxes, wonderfully misshapen, and unfolding new adornments as it drifted high above the fields of forgotten flowers.
“It doesn’t look like trains ever come along here, sir.”
The rails that ran through the park to Soleil Station were rusted and overgrown with weeds, and the teacher was standing on the tracks.
“They’ll turn up soon enough. You’ll know when it’s your turn. You’ll hear your carriage a long way off.”
“What do the train whistles sound like?”
“All different. Mine was the sound of raindrops falling on a clock.”
Their teacher decided it would be best to fly the kites from the top of the ridge, so they wound them down and set out along a path through the flowers. He was short of breath, and he occasionally stopped to pick up dried leaves for his cigarettes.
The path zigged and zagged up the slope, and the teacher trailed further and further behind. “I’ll see you at the top. Just go ahead.”
Their kites swooped and twirled, sparking in the sunlight. Tiny pieces broke off and blew away, and their strings tangled and untangled.
“Just let them go now. Let them drift away.” A hazy blue cloud wearing hessian pants had appeared over the rise.
“Sir, can’t we keep them?”
“Sir, where will they go?”
“Sir, what’s the sky made of?”
“It’s made of dreams. And a little macaroni.”
“No, it’s not.” Claire spoke sharply, irritated without knowing why. “The science teacher says the sky is molecular. There are amoebas in the raindrops, and the clouds are full of microorganisms.”
“All part of the dreams. Not knowing is a blessing. Free your kites and imagine where they’ll fly.”
He pulled a pair of scissors out of his pocket. “First cut the strings so the spools don’t tangle in the trees.”
They passed around the scissors and cut the strings. The kites drifted so high that it seemed the sun might set them alight, or they might tear a hole in the molecular sky as if it was painted on paper.
Claire whispered to Magda. “I’m sure I’m forgetting things. Important pieces of information.”
Magda whispered back. “Sometimes I’m not even sure I’m Magda anymore.”
They watched their kites until they turned to dots, and in the end the sunset swallowed them.
The last class started with a coughing fit. “It’s the dreams,” the teacher croaked, “They make the air too thick to breathe.”
He turned and drew on the wall with his purple chalk—ellipses and curved arrows. It looked deep, almost metaphysical.
“In this lesson we will learn to dance the mambo. Without counting the steps, it goes without saying.”
They danced without music, which is mathematical, mostly counting in their heads although a few lips moved, and the crystal bell rang for the last time.
“Well I won’t be seeing you again, so good luck and goodbye.”
Claire thanked him for his efforts on behalf of the class, and suggested he might cut back.
He studied his cigarette. “Let’s not get emotional now.” He wiped his eyes on his sleeve. “We still have a little time for questions.”
Eduardo asked what all of them were wondering–where their trains would take them.
“You will follow your kites.”
For a moment, he seemed to be thinking. “We always forget when we learn. Every piece of knowledge is a piece of ignorance forgotten. But in the end, when everything collapses and folds in on itself, it’s better not to know too much. Otherwise there’s no room left for dreams.”
Claire had never heard him talk like that before, about an ending. “Sir, if everything collapses, what’s left?”
He looked surprised, as if the answer should have been obvious. “This. This is what’s left.”
One by one, carriage by carriage, the class disappeared until only Claire remained. She heard a wren singing at the end of a summer rainstorm, and it was her turn.
The special studies teacher came to Soleil Station with her. She knew he wanted to make sure she boarded her train.
“There’s so much I don’t understand. I want to stay and find out.”
He sighed. “I was like you. I didn’t take my train and I was left behind. But I’m sure you’ve already guessed that.”
He inspected his cigarette. “Why do I bother? They’re just props. I know too much, and I can’t unremember it.”
“Everything is thin here, temporary, waiting for something, and you know what’s behind it all.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know everything. I don’t know the reason for eternity. I only know it starts and ends here.”
Claire looked along the tracks and saw a star on rails falling towards the terminus. “My train’s coming.”
“It’s best to forget. Eternity isn’t meant to be felt by anyone.”
The sun carriage stopped and the doors slid open. Warm air gusted onto the platform.
“I won’t forget you.”
He stood back. “You have to. You have no choice.”
She grabbed hold of his arm and pulled him into the carriage with her.
“No. I won’t.”
The penne and spirali dance and turn in the amniotic fluid–an Italian mambo, repetition with variation.
She knows she isn’t Claire now. Claire could spin on a thread–she’s much too heavy for that.
She opens her eyes to the light. She’s not aware of the nurse or the doctor, but she sees Claire, recognizes her at last, and mother and daughter are at journey’s end and beginning, all stations west.
“They’re fine, perfectly healthy.” The obstetrician is defensive. “I don’t know how we missed him. The ultrasounds–there was no indication, nothing. I’m so sorry, Claire.”
“He’s a little mystery then.”
Two pairs of brown eyes are watching her.
“They’re beautiful. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Time as an Opened Letter You Didn’t Want to Read
By Andrew Kozma
“I can turn back time,” my father says, or he will say. He will tell me that he will save my mother who died when I was just a child. He will say this, or he has already said this, or he is saying it right now.
This morning, I was a simple man with a simple life and a simple job as an accountant. My life was scheduled hourly, and there was never any question of where I was supposed to be when. But now time is fractured and I have seeped through all the cracks. I find myself in a business meeting with J about my father’s new invention at the same time I’m deep-sea fishing the Gulf with my father, who, as usual, is barely aware I’m there. I am a child again, meeting yet another fly-by-night stepmother-to-be at the same time I’m in Dallas watching JFK’s parade, an event that happened before I was born. I know what the real when is, because I know the blending of time happened today, but those terms are rapidly losing their meaning as time scrambles itself like an egg.
Even right now in the nowest of nows, in the midst of talking with J about patents and business plans, I am also in the Intensive Care Unit standing beside my father, wires sprawling on the floor like spilled spaghetti and everything smelling of antiseptic null. My nose is scoured of scent. J finishes a joke and his face wrinkles in the beginning of a laugh, but even as I hear his voice rise, it is mixed with the sound of nurses washing their hands, torrents of dirty water swirling through an aluminum basin.
The heart machine’s tubes stick into my father’s chest with the awkward beauty of an octopus’ arms. The tubes pulse slightly with every pump.
“I’m sorry,” I say automatically, without regret, the same way my father apologized to me for years without ever looking me in the eyes.
The pumped blood turns from red to a brighter red, then dulls.
J’s face darkens slightly, then smooths into a white sail.
“It’s okay,” he says. “I don’t expect everyone to get the joke.”
There are a hundred other moments I’m living, but these two stick into me like hooks in a fish’s mouth. J, waiting for me to pronounce on my father’s intellectual property. And my father, waiting for a priest to pronounce last rites.
My dad is swaddled in bandages. His eyes are covered with jelly to keep the staring eyeballs moist. I shut my eyes and focus on J’s office, but I can still hear the subtle beep of the heart monitor, the suck of the pump, the intercom crackling in some other room.
My father is an inventor of the old school, of the purest sort. He is more a philosopher than a scientist, seeing technology as the means towards plumbing the depths of the human heart rather than a method for making money or for improving society. An idealist.
“And what do you want to do with your father’s blueprints?” J says. The ends of his mouth turn up, predatory. He’s been our family’s financial advisor for as long as I can remember, a friend of my father’s from when they were in school, latching onto genius, and hoping that it would pay off. I am a child in his office, and he hands me a lollipop. “I wish I had a son just like you,” he says.
As J’s excitement grows, his ears turn scarlet. Normally a handsome man, now he looks like a troll. He knows my father had a breakthrough, and he’s waiting to hear what it is. He’s waiting to tally up his profits. He’s waiting to put a payment towards that yacht. He’ll still be waiting years from now.
This morning, as my father called to tell me the good news, I listened to him in my office at the same time I was in the alley behind my condo burning all of my father’s notes and designs and blueprints in a garbage can half-filled with garbage. The smell of burning paper and rot made my mouth water. I didn’t know why I was burning his things, but I could feel in my gut that it was the right thing to do. The necessary thing.
At my long silence, J’s smile cracks to reveal uneasiness.
“Send the blueprints to the patent lawyer, of course,” I say, standing. “I’ll send copies once I get the originals from my father.” I pat J on the back. We’re co-conspirators in the world of business, and though he nods in agreement now, he’s also snarling at me from behind the bars. Except I’m the one behind bars.
It was exactly a minute before my father called me that I found myself in two places at once. His voice was ecstatic – a minute before, he’d completed his invention – full of a life and a confidence I hadn’t seen from him for years. He hadn’t been so happy since the birth of my sister.
Except I don’t have a sister.
“Oh God,” he said. “Now I’m a god.”
He says the same thing in the delivery room, my sister in hand, my mother beaten into a stupor by labor, nurses cleaning up their prostrate bodies, and the doctor the only one noticing business-suited me in the corner of the room, my mouth agape in wonder. Before he can blink, I am gone.
I barely knew my mother. She died when I was three, sideswiped from the sidewalk by a bus with a blown tire on her way home from the grocery store. But I recognize that woman in the hospital bed from the family albums, even if she’s older than the pictures, older than the girl of twenty-seven who died out of my life so long ago.
Now I’m a man of forty, responsible for my own affairs and my father’s. I pay my bills on time and float a responsible amount of debt. I’m not religious. I believe in what I can see and hold. I believe in history, and the fact that our past is what molds us, continually, into who we are.
Now I am walking up the front walk of my father’s house. Instinctively, I step over the concrete raised up by the roots of the oak tree that I had removed five years past as a hazard. There’s a scar on my chin from when I tripped on that concrete for the first and last time when I was ten.
Now I am in the shower washing the blood from my body. It comes off easily.
Now I am in the Intensive Care Unit, but I am also still in the shower. I am naked and wet before my father’s dying body, also naked and wet. Water pools on the floor beneath me. A nurse screams, and her screams echo in the shower.
I am in all of these places at once, and none of them for certain. I can sense the distance I am from the hospital bed while I step up to my father’s door. It is growing harder and harder to focus on exactly who I am and when I want to be, but I am learning small tricks. If I bite the inside of my cheek, the pain brings me back to the now I need to be in, back to the me that is pressing the doorbell on my father’s house a little too forcefully. Even so, I can sense all the other places I am. If I look away, I know I’ll be standing before the chair that is waiting for me to be strapped in it.
A car honks, and I turn to see M, a childhood friend, wave as he drives by. But when I turn back I am in my father’s laboratory. He is removing his new invention from its protective case. I need to explain to him what he has done. But then my mouth drops open.
“You invented a gun?” I’m amazed. My father doesn’t believe in violence. When I asked him what he felt when mom died, he’d told me he simply felt sorry for the bus driver and all the passengers, having to witness such horror.
But it just appears to be a death ray or freeze beam, because my father isn’t crazy. He’s just a little misguided.
“With this,” he says, “I can turn back time. Well, if time could be turned, which it can’t because time isn’t a sphere or a circle or even a line. It’s a point. And with this I’ll be able to see all points at once.”
“And how is this supposed to make us money?” I ask.
“This is more important than money,” he says. “With this I’ll be able to save your mother. Don’t you want to meet your mother?”
“Dad, you can’t change history,” I say.
He doesn’t argue. All of his excitement falls away to reveal desperation and disgust.
“You never cared about me,” he says. “All you cared about was what I could give you. But I’ll bring your mother back! And then everything will be as it should have been.”
He turns the invention on himself, but I leap forward and grab the tip and pull it away. He pulls the trigger and the end of his invention glows with an unearthly light, the tip emitting a beam which slams into me with all the force of a feather.
My father’s eyes are wide with alarm, but I’m fine. Nothing’s changed.
But everything has changed. The moment my father finished the invention, this event was destined to happen, and when it did I was shaken from the fixed timeline of my life like water from a dog’s back. As soon as it would happen, it did happen. But only now do I fully understand.
I can see the future where everyone is lost in time, everywhen at once. History is a water-soaked tissue, transparent and fragile, and if you pick it up, it falls apart. And for one final moment, I am at my 41st birthday party and my mother and my sister and, yes, even my father, are watching me blow out the candles with joy and pride and –
– and I am there in my father’s laboratory and I am burning his notes and I am dismantling his invention and I am at his death bed and I am facing the electric chair and all because time cannot be changed. It will not be changed. I won’t let it be changed.
I ring the doorbell to my father’s house. When my father opens the door he grins so fiercely I’m afraid he might pull a muscle. It is the happiest he’s been to see me in a long, long time. He doesn’t suspect the knife until its already deep, deep inside him.
He looks into my eyes, but he isn’t shocked. It’s as though he is seeing me – the real me – for the first time.
But we both know that’s a lie.
The Blue Tigress Dreams
By Sean Robinson
To: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
From: Lurie Kysiene
Did you know that at Rilltide, there are six names for mold? It all depends on what the color is and where you find it. Today we were scrubbing green slime from a bank of failed oxyinators. They call it “Green Jenny.” It smells like that time you decided to make us compost. Remember? A month of rotting garbage in bins before Mom called it off?
Gross. I can still smell it under my fingernails.
Work sucks, Tav. If we didn’t need the money, I’d find something else. I don’t know what or where but…
She knows when I hurt her. I don’t care what you say about “Machinae don’t feel pain” garbage. Blue Sion hates it when I weld her. And I don’t blame her, not really.
But there’s not much choice, is there? Palladium armor stripped off to keep the sodium-lights running and the saline purifiers keeping us wet or not and we shut down shop and that’s not going to happen.
So, that has been my week. Mold and torture.
We can’t leave her bone motors and silica-net to the air. It’s too wet in the station now, and we both know what will happen if moisture gets into the systems, let alone mold. I don’t know what they’d call mold inside Blue Sion.
She’s too old.
I asked around like you wanted me to, there’s no one at the station who has any idea what to do if she had a major malfunction. There are a couple of deadwater techs who think they know how. I wouldn’t trust them to fix the toilets right.
I’ve been here for six months, Tavis. And no one even knows my name.
To top it all off, the tide generators aren’t working right either, so they’ve shut down half the station and there’s talk about more layoffs. There are whole sections of the station where the lights are off and there’s nothing but the sound of the ocean pushing against the walls. Things aren’t looking too good. We turned the water system off for two days to get enough power into the mag-dock. No showers, only bottled water.
We both know I need this job, big brother. If we’re both not working… I don’t know what Mom will do.
The work still sucks though.
I felt bad about what we had to do, watching her handler lead her into the gate only to have the locks turn on. I don’t know what you do for Red Sion, but Blue fought it when the magnets pulled her paws down and made her crouch down. I worried that her plasteel frame would break under the strain.
She roared while we did it, Tav. There are only five people left on the welding team, it took most of the day to pull the plating off her. Without the dock I don’t trust our chances to do it again. Her claws are still palladium and there’s no way we’re going to declaw her.
At least we’ll last a little longer. The Site Manager said the palladium we took off her would keep us going for another six months. It’s sad to see the station this bad off. But what do you do with a weapon when the war’s over?
I love you. Please don’t spend your entire letter-allowance writing to me a lecture. You’re not a doctor yet.
Love your sister,
P.S. Everything still smells like mildew. The eco-grid is awful.
P.P.S. Yes, I remembered to transfer money into Dad’s account. I won’t forget again.
To: Lurie Kysiene
From: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
I’m sorry things are mildewey. If the heating-shield fails this close to the caldera, mildew won’t be our problem. There are some issues with the thermal transformers, but all-in-all, things aren’t too bad out here in the heat. If I get bored, I can go out and get a tan.
Thanks for sending Dad the money. It’s been busy here, too, but just because we’re busy doesn’t mean we don’t have responsibilities, Lurie.
And yeah, it’s been busy here.
Can you believe we ran through an alarm drill last week? I don’t know what Management was thinking. A whole lot of work for nothing. Red actually tried to fire up his thermal cannons. The lights were flashing and the alarms blared for almost an hour. It’s been fifty years since there was an incursion.
The old thing actually thought his Pilot was calling. Red Pilot must be what? Seventy? It was actually sort of sad, Red bashing against the hatch.
There must be something wrong with his wiring. He should know better. Took his handler most of a day to calm him down. We’ve scheduled the blaster removal for next week. Something that old has no business with a gun the size of a star cruiser on his back.
Red’s been on half rations since the Calm started, thank god. You’ve probably sat through the same video training I did when I started: the Sions blasting away whatever the Enemy called up. We had to watch the one with Shadow Zerker at our last facility training. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the one from when the war just started and they were still filming in color.
There’s good footage of Blue Sion, if you ever get bored. You were always the sentimental one.
Still creeps me out to see that cannon’s turbines whirring though. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sound.
Anyway, I’m going to write the Systems Manager at Cobblerock Station. He was visiting last month and I think we hit it off. I know they frown on inter-base relations, but it’s not like we get leave or live off-base. Can’t spill secrets, right? I’m sure Green Sion’s no different than Blue or Red—out to pasture waiting to get put down. At least it’s a paying job, right?
I know it gets lonely. I feel it too. Keep writing me.
Lurie—write Dad. He says he hasn’t heard from you.
P.S. Don’t forget to wash your underwear.
To: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
From: Lurie Kysiene
I’m writing from Blue’s observation deck. The windows look out over the enclosure with its deep pools and high rock. It’s amazing to think that the water goes down ten stories.
It’s quiet, and as close to abandoned as Rilltide is, quiet is a luxury, so I sit here and ponder three important things, dear brother:
1. My underwear is none of your business.
2. I’m not writing Dad anything. Stop asking. I sent the money and he can go to hell.
3. Tavis got a boyfriend? Are you kidding?
You can imagine which of these things matter to me the most. I thought you were dating an engineer? Did the volcano finally blow up? No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. I hope it works out, Tav. You deserve someone nice, and someone whose underwear you can ask about besides your sister’s.
I don’t know why I keep sitting here. Observation deck has a nice kind of mold they call “Grey Prancer” and it makes my eyes water. Too dry in here to get slime, but no one sits on these chairs and watches her anymore. Not in years.
She’s pacing in the enclosure tonight. Sometimes she acts like a real cat—dashes from place to place, claws at the rocks. Remember when Mom brought home that kitten? Kind of like that. I figure Red does the same, huh?
Do machinae dream, Tav? I wonder what Blue dreams of when her systems slow and the sodium lights are turned down for the night. I don’t dream of anything, any more. There’s not much in this place worth dreaming about, even if the pay is steady.
I don’t want to be here. I want to tell Dad he can pay his own bills. He could get up and find a job, do something good instead of live off his kids.
I’m watching her tonight to make sure the new welds hold. She doesn’t have any palladium left, and the metal looks like a motley coat. We’ve salvaged whatever we could—steel, aluminum plate to weld the gash. Blue Sion is twelve meters at the shoulder; there isn’t enough metal in stores for that kind of repair.
Weird, she’s grooming herself like a real cat. I never stop being surprised by her, Tavis. There’s something beautiful about her, the way she is so perfectly herself, no matter how bad things have become. She saved the world from the Enemy and we repaid her with a cage. I wonder sometimes.
Anyway, I hope things work out with the guy from Cobblerock. A piece of advice though? Don’t ask him about his underwear until the third date. Believe me. Third date.
P.S. I overheard a couple of the deadwaters talking about Important Visitors coming soon (capital letters and all). Not sure what that’s about.
To: Lurie Kysiene
From: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
I know I said I wasn’t going to write to you this week, but my letter to Siao got returned, unopened and my letter allowance got credited. I don’t know if he just didn’t want to talk to me, or whether Management cares more about inter-station relations than I thought they did.
Damn it, Lurie. You know I agree with you. This is a good job and there aren’t a lot of them. The pay is steady and I’m not killing myself in a factory somewhere. But… it’s lonely. All the windows look out onto the Caldera. There are—what did you call them? Deadwaters. The old timers who remember when working on Red Sion was a privilege, they were helping stop the Adversary. There’s no one here that I’m friends with, and being stuck on “special assignment” makes it all that much harder.
Dad can’t work and you know it. It’s not his fault. I’m as lonely as you are.
You mentioned Blue grooming after you took the plating off: there’s a machine inside the tongue system on the Sions that regenerates armor after battles. That’s probably what she’s doing.
But look, Sis—go make some friends. It bugs me knowing that you’re stuck in that station and it was my idea to get you there in the first place. Don’t sit up in the observation deck for hours in the dark. That’s how you go crazy.
Anyway, there’s not much going on here. Work work work, sleep, eat processed food. Watch the lava flow, wait for the alarms to ring. They’re never going to ring, though. The Calm is going to last forever—isn’t that what the news says?
It’s good enough for me. It’s what people like Dad fought for. The least we can do it keep the lights burning a little longer.
Any new molds?
P.S. No PS this time. But maybe you should talk to your boss about a promotion or something? Seems like you’ve been working hard. Tell them I recommended you.
To: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
From: Lurie Kysiene
The Important Person was a surprise visit with the War Minister. Tav, you wouldn’t believe how crazy it was—like someone had kicked an ant hill! I don’t think an attack from the Adversary would have sent us scrambling so bad. They had to dig out uniforms from stores.
I’ve never seen a uniform in this place. And they were made of this weird plastic-feeling fabric. There was blue fringe and epaulets and whatever else.
Mine was too big, almost down to my knees. But something got through them so there were a bunch that were ripped or eaten or gnawed. There was mold on a few of them blue-grey like the dinner we had a few nights ago (Blue Jimmy, since you’ve become fascinated with mold).
We stood in line as though we practiced that sort of garbage every day. He walked down the line, didn’t stop to talk or inspect or whatever the War Minister does. He was about as tall as you. About as fat as dad with a thick moustache the silver of plasteel. We lined up on the launch deck and it surprised me how few people were actually at Rilltide. Maybe fifty. This station used to hold seven thousand.
Blue Pilot came, too.
She was old like you said, Tav. It’s hard to imagine her as our age. She was fat, and it strained the suit she wore. The suit was peach colored, like the water gets when the desalinators don’t work right and the chemicals wind up in the drinking supply rather than in the filters. She lurched behind the War Minister and didn’t say anything to anyone.
Tavis, she never saw Blue. She didn’t ask the handler anything. She showed up, walked a few hundred yards and then left.
How could she have done that? I don’t think Blue realized what happened. If she knew it, it would have broken her heart.
We got the order after the Minister left.
Tav, the order is to get the palladium off her claws. They’re going to declaw Blue Sion. The order says they expect “residual damage” from the process. They don’t expect her to make it.
This isn’t what I signed up for. I watched the videos again—where the Scions came together and made MechaSion and the final battle when they defeated the Adversary and brought the Calm. Where’s the pride we had then? Where is the loyalty? How can the Sions be scrapped for parts, while we wear hand-me-down uniforms and pretend to care?
To: Lurie Kysiene
From: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Come on, Lurie. They’re machinae. They were built for a purpose and it’s over. The bases are falling apart and they’re not going to upkeep obsolete systems. It costs money the government can’t afford. This isn’t about Blue Sion and you know it.
But sure, if you want to say it is, let’s talk about some things:
1. It’s been fifty years and there are still cities in rubble. The communication framework is restricted to military personnel. We have to write letters to each other and get one letter a week. The days where these stations matter are over.
2. We’ve been bleeding Red into the power systems for years. His reactor reinforces the Goutflame Station. If we weren’t, the Eco-grid would fail and the station would melt into the volcano. Same way Rilltide would drown or Guststorm Station would fall out of the sky. Hiding these bases made sense in the war, but now we’re haunting the relics.
3. It’s over, Lurie. Do your job. Get it done.
They’ll find another place for you. Maybe White Sion or Black. Look, I’ll talk to the Station Manager here and see if you can transfer.
You won’t be lonely forever. We can talk about Dad and see if we can’t figure out something. I’ll send him a little more and maybe he can just make do, okay?
Just get through it. I’ll take care of you, sis.
To: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
From: Lurie Kysiene
The mag-dock was broken. They’re calling it sabotage. There’s no way for them to take her claws now.
It’s not about Dad or the money. It’s not about mold or quiet halls or…
I’ve been dreaming, Tavis. That my claws are digging into the rock. The alarm is my heartbeat. There are monsters to fight. The Adversary cannot win. There is a Pilot to guide me. When I dream, I know I am not alone.
How did they build the Sions, Tavis? If they’re just machinae why does she howl and claw and pace? Why does dread move down my back when I wake up? I’ve started sleeping here in the twilight of the observation deck. I don’t want her to feel so alone.
To: Lurie Kysiene
From: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Sis, you’re scaring me. I just got your letter. Are you crazy? Do you know what they’ll do to you if they think it’s you? It’s just a machina. It is just metal and parts and pieces. It’s not alive, Lurie.
No, I don’t know who built it. Some government program long-since shut down and forgotten. They’re going to shut down the stations. We just had a walkthrough too.
But it doesn’t matter, we’ll land on our feet. Talk to someone you trust, sis. Or don’t trust. Only don’t do this. I’m half a continent away and can’t lose you. Who’s going to write to me? Or remind me of stupid stuff we did growing up? Pull yourself together. If not for yourself, than for me. Please.
Things are getting ugly here too. Pay didn’t get distributed this week, but they’re still collecting rent for rooms and food. There’s grumbling and a few people tried to talk to the Station Manager. No luck there. What else can we do?
Let me know you’re being safe. Please.
Love, your brother,
To: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
From: Lurie Kysiene
I went into her enclosure tonight. The station sleeps by 20:00 hours. They’re rationing power now. Four of the tide generators shorted out over the last week. There’s water rationing going on too. More of the sodium lights are off and the hallways are filled with darkness so thick you half-expect a monster from the Adversary to materialize.
No one checks the doors anymore. There’s not enough people to care. There’s probably a system somewhere that checks for codes and scans finger prints or something. It wasn’t hard to pop the lock. We used to do it as kids, remember? One of the useful things Dad taught us from his army days.
I wanted to see her. No, I needed to see her.
It was cold in the enclosure. The sea water lapped at the rocks. They don’t bother with lights inside either, at night. At first, the only thing I could hear was my heart beating. They told me at orientation that the Sions weren’t safe to be around outside of a Mag Dock.
And I kept thinking that I was one of the people who peeled her armor off and replaced it with scavenged siding from walls and decking from old floors off the station. She should hate me.
Blue’s paws didn’t make noise on the rock. I didn’t realize she was behind me until I saw four stories of Sion leaning down. How she moves so quietly, I don’t know. Her eyes double as lights, Tavis, did you know that? They made two pools of blue light. And as I looked up there were her eyes and her teeth.
It felt like I stopped breathing, looking into those lights. It’s probably how a mouse feels before it gets eaten. But Blue didn’t stamp me out with her paws, or claw me. She didn’t knock me into the water and watch me drown.
She lowered herself beside me, tons of metal. She put her head down on her paws, looking out into the dark water. I don’t know how long we sat there, until I rested against the smooth metal.
I didn’t realize that Sions were warm. Is there a system that makes it happen?
She was warm, even though the air was cold and the sea lapped at the edge of the enclosure. I don’t know, Tavis, but as the hours past I watched as another light grew. There is a hatch near her shoulder. It opened on greased hinges. There is a stair that descends all the stories.
Blue didn’t move. Didn’t growl or shake. She only offered, Tavis. But as I saw it, I got scared. It hit me that I shouldn’t be there, like you said. That I had no business in the Enclosure and what would happen if I got caught. At best, I’d be fired and there’d be no one for Blue Sion at the Station. At worst…
Tavis—the alarm’s ringing. It’s ringing. The lights just went up. The sirens are echoing down the hall. Tav–I can hear her roaring. I can feel it echoing through the Station. I need to go, I need to go…
Be happy, Tavis.
To: Lurie Kysiene
From: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
What’s going on? Your last message was cut off. We had an alarm here. Lurie, answer me as soon as you can. Red went crazy. The containment systems failed. There was an alarm and the outside hatches opened. The Eco-Grid almost went off. We tried to stop Red, but he went out into the heat. No one realized that he had enough energy to get the jet boosters going, but he did.
Red Sion’s disappeared. We’re trying to get secondary systems up and running to track him, but they’re old. We’re not even sure which of the computer banks the trackers are, even if they worked, or if we could get enough energy without compromising the entire station
Jesus Sis, we’re not getting news reports. What’s going on? Management is telling us to calm down, but Red’s gone. Without him to back up the reactor systems, we’re not going to be able to keep the Eco-Grid going. I don’t know what we’re going to do.
When you get this, please let me know you’re alright. Hopefully—hopefully the Sions will be back. It must have been an accident, or some sort of test? No one’s sure and they’re starting to get scared. If you’re okay, I don’t need to be scared. I’m sending a letter to Dad too, to make sure he’s okay. Please, please, please tell me you’re okay.
To: Lurie Kysiene
From: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
It’s been a week, Sis. You haven’t answered. Red hasn’t come back. There’s rumors that there was an attack on one of the cities. People are getting drunk and saying that the Adversary is back and the Sions were called.
How could they have called the Sions? The Sions were being scrapped. They didn’t have Pilots, or weapons or armor. How could they?
No one will say if Blue Sion was there. No one says what happened. They all just keep looking at me from the side of their eyes as if they know something I don’t. People keep asking me if I have a sister from Rilltide Station.
Where are you, Lurie? Goutflame’s Eco-Grid is failing. We can’t stay here any longer. I won’t be able to write you.
Look – I’m coming, alright? They’re shipping us out and I’ll start making my way to you. It will be a few weeks for me to get to Rilltide, but I’m coming. I promise. Please hold on.
Please be there.
I love you, Sis,
By Sandra M. Odell
The old woman ladled broth and noodles from the clay cook pot into a wide wooden bowl. “Whatever your problems, they can wait until your stomach is happy with hot soup.”
Icho wiped a hand across his eyes. “No! You don’t understand! My family – ”
“Yes, yes, your family.” A spoon and a splash of shoyu, and she pushed the bowl towards him across the low table. “Problems can wait until after soup.”
“I can’t eat! Bandits attacked my village! They killed my father, and, and – ” Icho looked around the hut, eyes wide. He saw fire, bloody blades, his father falling. He’d run, run so fast he thought he might die like a coward and not his honorable father’s son. He’d eventually found the old woman when he really wanted a soldier, an army, anyone else. “Please, you must help me. They’ll kill everyone if I don’t do something.”
The old woman patted his cheek. She was fat like a toad, with a wide mouth, and bulging eyes beneath wiry brows. She wore a simple green kimono and thick tabi. “Soup first, then talk.”
Desperate, Icho grabbed the spoon and took a sip of broth. The sweet warmth of ginger filled his head. Another. He’d had nothing to eat since his onigiri at midday. Tasty bits of daikon and egg hid in the nest of noodles. He slurped the bite of chilies and onion, the salty tang of fish sauce. Before he knew it he‘d finished his second bowl, and the autumn night had wound tight and dark around the tiny hut.
The old woman set the bowl and spoon in the wash bucket by the cook fire. “There. You have had your soup, and your stomach is happy.” She grinned with crooked, yellow teeth.
“I guess.” Icho rubbed his eyes. “Can you help me now, please? I need to reach the garrison in Nagasaki before. . .” He stifled a yawn.
“Nonsense, you can’t travel at night.” The old woman led him to a tatami mat he had not noticed against the far wall. “Rest here tonight, and tomorrow you can go for help.”
The mat pulled Icho to his knees, then his head to the barley husk pillow. “But my family. . .”
The old woman tucked the kakebuton around his shoulders. “You are a good son. Sleep now, worry about your family later.”
Icho opened his mouth to protest, and was asleep before the first word came out.
The old woman whispered in his ear, “You must go now, Icho.”
He sat up, squinting in the candlelight. “How did you – ?”
Four men in dirty padded armor sat at the low table, battered helmets beside them. The old woman moved around the table, ladling hot soup into their bowls. Icho recognized the long knives tucked in their belts, and fear splashed like winter water down his spine. Brusque chatter, and the whinnying of horses came from outside.
The old woman set the pot back on the fire and wiped her hands on her kimono. “Awake finally, hmmm?” She waddled to the tatami mat and took Icho by the shoulder. “Up and off with you, then.”
Icho clambered to his feet. He screamed a bare whisper: “That’s them!”
The old woman looked over her shoulder. “These men? Bandits? Certainly not.”
Icho clutched her kimono. The threadbare cloth was bitter with woodsmoke. “No, you don’t understand. They’re the ones who attacked my village.”
The men watched him with sharp dark eyes, dog eyes. One sneered at him, made to stand.
“Don’t mind the boy,” the old woman said with a laugh. “Eat, eat. Make your stomachs happy with hot soup before it gets cold.”
The man hesitated, then settled back with the others. He lifted his bowl and gulped the broth. His eyes widened, he smacked his lips, and nodded to the others. After a moment, they lifted their bowls to join him.
The old woman walked Icho towards the door. “Head back home. Bring me noodles for my soup the next time you come this way.”
“They’ll kill us. We have to – ”
The men standing with the horses looked up from their dice as she pushed Icho outside.
“Of course not. Get on home now.” She motioned the men inside, her eyes sickly yellow in the dim light. “Come in. I have soup to warm your bellies.”
The dark woods reeked of smoke and hot metal. Blood and death grabbed Icho by the heart and he ran, the way he ran when the bandits came for his family. Left the old woman standing in the doorway, her terrified screams so much like his mother’s! Icho raced his shame into the night until fear tore the breath from his chest and he tumbled into darkness.
The next morning, Icho followed his shame along the path of broken branches to the hut. His coward’s heart would have rather kept running, but honor demanded he return. If he couldn’t apologize for his cowardice, he could still bury the old woman’s body then give himself to the sea in shame.
He stopped at the edge of a small clearing littered with slick, white bones and bits of cloth. Shreds of padded armor hung from dead black branches overhead. In the center of the clearing, leather reins knotted around a pile of human and horse skulls at the base of a small stone altar. A fine breath of smoke hung in the air, then drifted away on the wind.
Icho walked to the altar. He pressed his palms together and bowed low to the stone soup pot perched on top. A master’s hands had given it life – a wide toad mouth with crooked teeth, and bulging eyes beneath lightning brows. “I thank you. My village thanks you. My father thanks you.”
On the other side of the clearing stretched a wider path made by horses. Icho started home. Noodles. He would not forget.
By J.A. Becker
Three years and not a word from the world. Three years of fighting to stay alive in the overgrown nuclear wasteland of Chernobyl amongst desperate criminals. Without law. Without hope.
But our redemption is now at hand. We remaining three. We insidious, hateful three–a thief, a prostitute, and an assassin–have packed our atonement into a thick lead case, placed it in the back of a rusty Kamaz truck, and are rattling down the highway to Moscow for deliverance.
Anastasia sits shotgun. Her AK-47 rests across her lap with the loud end pointing out the open window. Yuri sits in the truck’s cab behind us, an MP412 REX revolver–a Russian knockoff of the .44 Magnum–is in his hand; it’s more gun than hand. And then there’s me, Gordon, in the driver’s seat with my Glock resting in my lap and my AK-47 snapped into the gun rack over the windshield.
I can’t tell if Yuri and Anastasia are sick, nervous, or otherwise. I can only see their eyes through the glass portholes of their black masks. The rest of them is sealed up in yellow radiation suits, which are broiling in this summer heat. The pavement shimmers like a watery dream and even though the windows are down and we’re driving at a good clip, I’m sweating like I’m in a sauna. The short, hot breaths I have to suck through my mask’s circular filter are leaving me dizzy and gasping for more.
I don’t know if this is the hangover, the heat, or the radiation poisoning, but my stomach feels like I ate a bag of nails.
We partied like it was the end of the world last night and I think Yuri and Anastasia got together. I remember at one point her arms were around me, bottles of Black Cherry Stolichnaya were in our hands, her tongue was flickering in and out of my mouth, and she was grinding her crotch against mine in time with that godawful Russian music. Then I can’t remember what happened next. I woke up in bed alone.
I am mentally kicking the hell out of myself for this. She is an absolute knockout with a body as sleek and as sexy as a Bengal tiger’s. The Russians would line up around her decrepit apartment building in Chernobyl. And then there’s Yuri: skinny, sickly looking, and with just a handful of teeth. How the hell did I lose out to him?
“Anna,” I say, but my mask muffles my voice and she can’t hear me. “Anna,” I say louder and put my hand on her leg. She bats it away and looks at me. Her angry blue eyes shine through her mask’s dark lenses.
“What did I do?” I shout.
Then I slam my heavy rubber boots down on the brakes, throwing everybody violently forward. At the side of the road ahead and glinting in the sharp sunlight is a Skitter. He’s alone; just one from the hungry hordes that swept across the world, devouring every animal, man, woman, and child, leaving nothing but stillness in their wake.
Anna snaps back the bolt of her AK-47 and Yuri cocks the hammer of his hand cannon.
“Time for go!” Anna whoops.
The end started with a tiny tear in the fabric of space, right in the middle of Moscow in a dilapidated warehouse.
In a way, the rift was beautiful; so black it seemed to shine. A perfect pearl suspended five feet in the air above mirrored floor plates that were somehow making it all happen. Bit by bit, we watched it grow.
They cut power when it reached the size of a small car, but the hole stayed–a permanent rip in time and space.
Dr. Sergey Kracovich–the world’s foremost astrophysicist–was all smiles and bows while the assembled Russian politburo cheered. “Da, Da! Very Good Da!” Then in the midst of all this backslapping, a Skitter casually walks in through the tear.
Three feet high, eight legs, a circular abdomen, two long feelers attached to a tiny head, and all formed of some kind of clear crystal. The sound they made when they walked, this skittering sound, which I don’t know if it was caused by their crystal legs scraping over the ground or it was the sound of their joints bending, was like nails on a chalkboard to me.
At first, he was just as confused as we were. He froze like a deer in the headlights and his feelers went wild, swinging round and round as he took everything in. And then the antennas stopped, like he didn’t need to process anymore. He knew what to do.
Good old Sergey was the closest to him and the Skitter walked up and casually did what I should have damn well done two weeks before.
Back then, I put the business end of a 9mm silencer up to Sergey’s big, brainy head as he slept. But I couldn’t pull the trigger. A blond haired cooing angel, Sergey’s son, was fast asleep in the crook of his arm. I figured if the muffled pop didn’t wake the boy, the warm blood spraying over his face would. And then there would be a terrible scene of the child screaming and clutching at his father as Sergey’s head rolled lifelessly about.
Even I–I then realized–had limits to what I could do.
So I slipped out and went back to pretending I was just another one of his bodyguards, biding my time till I could get him alone. The CIA would just have to wait.
How was I to know that was my only shot to save the world?
In the warehouse, the Skitter stretched out a long leg and nonchalantly shoved it through Sergey’s abdomen and abruptly pulled it out. Sergey screamed as his guts hit the floor. Then he collapsed to the ground and the little shit finishes him with a crystal leg through Sergey’s big head.
Everyone starts screaming and my gun’s out and I’m firing at the little bastard, but before I can hit him the thing skitters back into the tear with Sergey’s body in tow. I don’t know what happened next in there, I can only guess. Somehow the little buggers can communicate, not in words, maybe telepathically, and I think the Skitter went back through the tear and shouted: Dinner’s On! And then it was like we had torn a hole in an anthill, thousands began pouring through the rift into our world.
I ran for the fire exit with the screams of the dying in my ears. I was about a hundred yards from the door when Skitters began appearing in front of me in bright flashes. The little buggers could teleport.
My Glock rattled hot in my hand as I emptied the rest of my clip into them. Even with all this insanity going on about me, I don’t miss. Six bullets went right into six little heads, popping them like shot out light bulbs. They collapsed into jumbled piles and I ran on, not once looking back.
All roads lead to Chernobyl; at least that’s what it felt like. I was fleeing down the highway in a rusted-out shitbox jeep and whatever turnoff I’d take, a tide of humanity with Skitters nipping at their heels would force me back.
Like cattle, the Skitters were funneling us onto the main thoroughfare and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. It was already too late. The trap was sprung and we were on the killing floor.
A seething sea of humanity blocked my junker, so I had to get out and run alongside the reeking crush of people. All along the road’s shoulder, Skitters would appear, dive into our midst, tear someone apart, and then take the carcass back to the rift.
There is a certain kind of person who survives something like that. It’s not the kind that stops to pick up a screaming baby that was dropped by a mother who was ripped away by a Skitter. It’s the kind that runs by and doesn’t look back.
I’m not proud of what I did to stay alive.
By the end, the only ones left running along with me were thugs, pimps, criminals. And then suddenly the Skitters were gone. I don’t think they planned that. I think they were happy to keep us running and whittling us down to nothing. They weren’t expecting to run into something like Chernobyl.
Our foe is alone on the side of the road. He’s likely a scout. His little feelers swing round and round as he tries to puzzle out what the hell we’re up to. He’s probably thinking: all the delicious fleshy things run when they see us so why aren’t these ones?
“Don’t shoot,” I shout and put my gloved hand on the stock of Anna’s AK-47, which she’s raised up to fire. I gently push the assault rifle back down into her lap. “I want you to see this. You need to see this.”
I take the Glock from my lap and step out. The Skitter is frozen, watching us, processing us. I aim low and rattled off a hail of bullets at him. A brilliant rooster tail of shattered crystal winks in the sun as I shoot his legs off. Then I get back in and drive towards him.
I’ve left two legs intact, which he tries to use to drag his body away from us. He’s like an insect that some kid tortured, not some fearsome creature that the world capitulated to without even a whimper. But that’s not what I wanted to show them. What I wanted to show them starts when we get about twenty feet from him and he stops crawling and begins shuddering. His body arches like a jolt of electricity ran through him and then he drops down flat. His screams sound like glass crackling under a heavy boot.
We pull up alongside him and watch him squirm in the dirt. The radiation is destroying him. Cracks spread across his body and some kind of clear fluid hemorrhages from the fissures. His head swivels madly about, looking for some way to escape. Bubbles start forming in his abdomen like he’s boiling inside and then all at once he collapses into a pool of liquid crystal.
Two weeks ago, I caught one and dragged it back to Chernobyl, just to see why they were so adverse to coming near the place. When that little bugger started melting in the back of my truck, for the first time since my son was born, hope caught me off guard and I broke down and cried. I was grateful only a pile of crystal goop was there to witness that.
Anastasia slaps me hard on the knee, breaking my reverie. I look ahead to where she’s pointing.
Before us, stretching from the base of the hill we’ve stopped on and into the bright horizon, is an undulating sea of sparkling crystal. There must be a billion Skitters, stacked ten deep, all the way from here to Moscow.
I’d like to think my son is still out there. That somehow he survived all this. His mother and he ran through a gauntlet of hell just like I did and made it to Chalk River, or Three Mile Island, or some other nuclear accident site.
But that’s just what I’d like to think. Not one baby, not one toddler, not one child, made it to Chernobyl. With those odds…well…I don’t want to think about the odds.
“There’s no going back,” I shout to Yuri and Anna. “Point of no return! Understand? ???????”
“I hero,” Anastasia shouts defiantly.
“I too hero,” echoes Yuri.
I look at humanity’s last chance: crusty radiation suits, grotty black masks, terror-filled eyes. They’re unskilled, uneducated, violent criminals. There’s just no way we’re going to make it.
“OK,” I say. “It’s as you say, time for go.”
We drive on slowly, parting the Skitters before us like Moses did the Red Sea. They give us a hell of a wide birth.
In the side mirror, I watch the crystal sea close in behind us. We’re like sailors pulling away from port, never to return.
While the collective pauses to contemplate what we’re doing, the Skitters are stone statues, except for their feelers which whirl like little tornadoes.
It dawns on me that we may actually have the upper hand here. I haven’t seen them so stumped before. They don’t know what we’re doing. They’ve only seen us run.
They’ve never seen anything like this.
Worse than the drone of a billion whirling feelers, which feels like paper tearing in my hungover head, is the sudden silence that follows when they figure out what to do.
With a kind of choreography that only a collective consciousness could perform, a mass of Skitters starts to form into a tower.
They begin with a thousand or so piling together into a mound, then others climb up the sides to the top of the heap and interlock their legs. Then on and on they build like this, rapidly forming a tall crystal spire that grows to block out the sun.
The road bends towards it and we drive into its cool shadow, marveling at how quickly they built it and how impressive it is; they are industrious little buggers. The tall minaret bends like the Leaning Tower of Pisa and all the little Skitters furiously strain to pull it back straight.
Whatever the hell it is, it can’t be good. Anna and Yuri’s lenses frost over with worried breaths, and, despite my training, I’m feeling it too. The acidic taste of fear and anticipation fills my mouth. I grip the steering wheel tighter, making my rubber gloves squeak.
Just as we get directly beneath it, I figure out what it is. They’re far smarter than I ever realized. They know the danger we hold, know what it’s capable of, and know they must stop us whatever the cost.
The crystal tower, the deadfall trap, lurches over and topples down on us.
The outer layer of Skitters turns into a pile of watery crystal goo as the spire falls into our hot zone. But the inner core, blocked by the outer frame of Skitters, remains somewhat intact. Crystal ooze and partially melted bodies slam down on the truck like a tidal wave dropped from the sky.
The windshield goes white and shards of legs stab through the roof. The force of the blast pushes the truck down, bottoming it out with a horrific crunch. Anna screams as we start to turn over. I twist the truck into the roll to throw the weight back the other way. All four tires touchdown with a protesting shriek and then we go sideways, skidding across the goo covering the highway. In my mind, I see us slamming into the guardrails and then going end over end in a fiery crash. But at the last second, the tires catch a patch of clear pavement and we straighten out.
The spears piercing the roof have melted and drip through like a light rain. I flip the wipers on to clear the boiling liquid from the windshield.
To my left, another spire is forming.
“Shoot out its middle!” I shout. “Cut it down!”
When I don’t hear gunfire, I turn my head to glance at my crew. Despite having survived the highway gauntlet run and the kill-or-be-killed order of the day that followed in the burnt out husk of Chernobyl, these tough sons of bitches are paralyzed with terror.
I hit Anna hard on the leg and then reach back and smack Yuri across his mask. Untrained. Unprepared. We are morons carrying a hot mess made by other morons, hoping that somehow it’ll all come together and we’ll save the world and redeem our hideous selves.
I slam down the breaks. Anna braces herself, but Yuri finds himself up in the dash. I grab him by the collar, throw him back, and jam the truck into reverse. We back up, rapidly accelerating.
As the tower falls, it twists itself towards our reversing vehicle. But we’re too far back now and it topples to the ground in front of us and explodes like a glass building dropped from the sky–a wonderful ear-shattering crash.
I stop, throw the truck into gear and gun the engine. Half-melted Skitters try to drag themselves out of our way, but they don’t have a chance. They explode like water balloons on truck’s front bumper as I plow straight through them.
“There is no going back! ??? ????????????!” I shout to Anna and Yuri, just in case they were thinking about turning around. “So get it together or it’s here we die!”
I’m too focused on the road, the sea of the Skitters, and a newly forming tower, to check if my words have any effect on them.
I reach over to give Anna another firm rap on her leg, but she knocks my hand away. I give her a quick glance and see she’s giving me the finger with her big black glove.
Still angry at me for God-knows-what, but at least she’s snapped out of her paralysis.
“Shoot out the middle of the tower!” I shout and point to the growing citadel on her right.
She rests the barrel of the AK-47 on the windowsill and unloads. It’s a drum magazine with about 300 bullets, and in three seconds flat it’s empty. Hot shells bounce around in the cabin and I have to shake my legs to get them off my lap before they melt through my suit.
The tower crumbles in the middle and the whole thing collapses in on itself, like a skyscraper falling to controlled demolitions. The Skitters at the top disappear in bright flashes as they teleport to safety, but the others at the base–the others near our truck–stay put and are gloriously crushed underneath the weight of the toppling tower. The crunching crackle of their screams is music to my ears.
Another pillar begins to rise from the crystal sea, but Anna unloads a new drum into it, shattering its middle and down it falls. Unbelievably, the handguard on her AK-47 catches fire and the sharp smell of melted plastic fills my mask, making my eyes water. It’s a cheap gun, scrounged from a pile abandoned by the Red Army as they evacuated Chernobyl; probably deemed too contaminated to use. Anna furiously pats it out with her gloved hand. Black smoke curls across the windshield.
Seeing that their towers haven’t worked, the Skitters have stopped and are now planning something else. The horrific drone of their billion whirling feelers cuts like a buzzsaw through my tender head. While they’re frozen in contemplation, I use the pause to our advantage and jam my foot to the floor. The wind whipping past our windows sucks some of the blistering heat from our bodies, giving us a small amount of relief.
Something must have slipped when we loaded our cargo or these crap Russian-made radiation suits are nothing more than like wearing a t-shirt in Antarctica. I can feel clumps of my hair collecting at the back of my neck and it occurs to me that my skull splitting headache and my acid-filled guts might not be from the hangover.
“Everybody OK?” I ask. “Da Gordon!” Anna replies. “Da Da!” Says Yuri.
It is a cosmic joke that the world’s redemption rests in these incapable hands. Moscow seems as far away as the moon.
In silence, we drive down the highway with the Skitters quickly parting before us. Suddenly one of them explodes across the windshield and we all jump. I didn’t see him coming. It’s like he teleported into us, but from what I’ve seen it’s not possible for them to do that into a hot zone.
Another Skitter smashes down on the truck’s roof and we collectively wince from the booming assault on our senses. The dent he knocked in the roof is so deep it brushes the tops of our heads.
I look up into the bright, stabbing sky and see camera-like flashes. A stack of interconnected Skitters, twenty deep, drop from the heavens like a loosened icicle and stabs down into the highway just in front of us. They explode and cover the truck in a slushy gush.
“They’re dropping from the sky!” I shout. “Shoot them! Shoot them!”
Anna leans out the window and fires into the heavens. Yuri climbs out of the window behind me to sit on the sill and finally puts his hand cannon to good use. The booming crack of his gun rocks my tender ears and I roll up my window to deafen the noise.
I vary our speed and randomly swerve so I mess up their aim, but I do this carefully to avoid launching Anna and Yuri off the truck.
It’s a hard thing to hit a moving target. Even with a high-power rifle, the wind at a standstill, and nothing between you and your prey; just an inch over and it’s a complete miss. Teleporting in, way above a small target that’s going at a hefty clip and jerking about erratically beneath you is–as I figure–damn near impossible to hit.
Unfortunately, despite my figurings, it isn’t. Not when you’ve got a billion desperate minds calculating all the variables.
Ten feet to our right, the first stack of Skitters smashes down into the highway, spraying shattered crystal over the truck’s side like a hail of bullets. The next group nails us, just behind my seat. A concussive whump knocks the wind from my lungs and throws me into the wheel. The horn blares and we dangerously skid on the road.
Dazed, I look through the side mirror and see a bunch of half-melted Skitters, a crumpled side door, and Yuri’s form, all cartwheeling down the road behind us.
I slam the truck to a stop just as Yuri comes to lie still on the pavement. His yellow suit is shredded and patches of bloody skin peak through the tears. He doesn’t move.
There’s nothing I can do and stopping just means we’re an easier target for the Skitters, so I drive on.
The wind whistles terribly through the void where the passenger door was and the engine rattles and pops uneasily. The rusted seams of this crate must be just about to burst from this brutalization. Judging by the odometer, Moscow is miles and miles to go.
Another bundle of Skitters slams down on the road in front of us, sending a spray of bulletlike crystals across our windshield. The glass is so full of dings I have to lean my head out the window to see.
“Anna!” I shout. “Try to kick the windshield out!”
She doesn’t budge. I bring my head in so the wind whipping past our truck doesn’t suck my voice away.
Through her mask’s glass portals, I can see tears flowing in her bright blue eyes.
“Anna!” I say. I reach out to touch her leg, but she bats my hand away.
A break appears in the form of an underpass just ahead. Our truck darts into the dark, cool shade and I slam down on the breaks, stopping us somewhere in the middle. Far down the tunnel, in the bright chink of day, I can see the boiling crystal sea. Behind us is the same.
The spluttering engine worries me, so I decide to get out and check on it, but then Anna suddenly hauls of her mask and I’m stopped cold.
Despite the few red sores on her face, she is as beautiful as ever. Long, jet-black hair and bright, sultry eyes.
“What the hell are you doing?” I shout. I take her mask and try to put it over her head, but she won’t have a bit of it and pushes it away.
“No Gordon,” she says.
“Why?” I ask. “With what we’re carrying,” and I point behind us.
A thunderous crash fills the dingy tunnel. Dust rains down on us. The Skitters, I realize, are trying to pound through by appearing high in the sky and then slamming down like a jackhammer into the concrete above us.
“I hero,” Anna says to me and locks her blue eyes with mine. “Yuri also hero.”
“OK! I get it. Now put your mask on!”
“I no prostitute!” She shouts.
I look at her in confusion. Her beautiful body is swallowed up by her bright yellow suit. Her stunning eyes gleam with anger.
“What are you…” and then I trail off as I remember something from last night. I told a joke, a really bad one.
It’s the end of the world and an assassin, a thief, and a prostitute walk into a bar in Chernobyl.
It didn’t have a punchline; the setup was the punchline. I thought it was funny because there the three of us were, in a rundown bar in Chernobyl.
“You hero,” she says. “You no assassin.”
“It was just a joke,” I explain, but that doesn’t register a bit in those ocean blue eyes of hers.
“Hero,” she says again firmly.
Another group of Skitters slam into the overpass, sending sizable chunks of cement down on us.
I feel like we’re arguing about something here, but I don’t know what the hell it is. I want to grab her mask and shove it over her face and drive on, like we planned–like we promised each other we’d do. It’s the end of the world goddammit! Can’t she see that? Can’t she understand that? We’re the only ones that can stop this.
The engine stumbles, and then stops for just the briefest of seconds. My heartbeat pauses and then the engine catches and I can breathe again.
“We need to go! OK? We need to!”
The radiation poisoning must be affecting my tear ducts because I’m crying now. It’s all coming down my face and I can barely see. It’s too hot and wet inside the mask and I have to pull it off, just so I can breathe. Cool air rushes over my freshly shaven face.
“People are counting on us!” I say. I nearly tell her my son is counting on us. “Can’t you see? We need to get to Moscow.”
“You hero,” she says and I just want to smash her face in.
“This is my fault! Do you understand? I’m trying to fix this!”
She doesn’t understand, not in the slightest because I’m babbling and crying and everything is coming out in a watery, blubbery mess.
“I was supposed to stop something like this from happening,” I tell her. “But I couldn’t. I didn’t do my job. This is my fault. All of this is my fault!”
She nods like she understands and puts her hand on my knee. “Hero,” she says again.
I don’t get mad this time when she says it because I understand her now. She’s pounded it into me.
We are not going to make it. We were never going to make it.
Our redemption isn’t in Moscow. It’s here. It’s now. The act–this attempt–is our redemption. That was why she was so mad when I called her a prostitute last night. She is a hero now, as I am a hero, as Yuri is a hero. No longer a prostitute, no longer an assassin, no longer a thief, we are much more than what we were. We are saviors. We are heroes.
“I hero,” I say and she nods firmly in agreement. She snaps another drum into her AK-47 and looks ahead, ready for what is to come.
I let my mask drop to the floor, put the truck in gear, and drive.
Just an Expression
By Jarod K. Anderson
The job posting on the Newark Advocate’s website read, “Do you have an expressive face?” Beneath that single question was an inky little drawing, like a grayscale watercolor, of a man’s face. The only other text on the ad was an address.
The face from the ad had a kind of careless artistry about it, like it hadn’t taken much time or effort, but still hinted at a real mastery of proportion. More importantly, it was my face. It wasn’t a detailed drawing, just a smudge of a thing. But the angle of the nose, the jawline, the receding hairline, even the stippled hint of a five o’clock shadow were all mine. I’d seen them all in the bathroom mirror moments before opening my laptop.
It had been more than five months since I could reasonably call myself employed, so I was ready for a sign of hope from the universe. Hell, I would have settled for something vague. The faint s-curve of a dollar sign burned onto my toast. A fortune cookie promise of wealth. This wasn’t vague at all. It was right there on my computer screen in black and white. My face was on a help wanted ad.
My hands started shaking before I had finished running the iron over my interview shirt. I hated interviews. I also hated walking into a job without knowing a thing about it, but getting evicted was still the greater evil.
I did my best to think of witty small talk on my drive to the office park. I thought we could have a laugh at how much I looked like the little drawing.
“Looks like I’m you’re man,” I’d say.
“Ha, what a fun coincidence,” my soon-to-be boss would reply just before offering me a sizable signing bonus. Sure.
I found the address and parked. The office looked just like every other office in the complex, a brick façade with mirrored windows that showed nothing of the interior of the buildings. The door swung open just as I was getting out of my car. A young man with tidy blond hair and a charcoal gray suit stomped down the front steps scowling and muttering to himself.
He saw me heading toward the door and shook his head.
“I wouldn’t bother,” he said. He threw his arms up in exasperation and continued walking.
I decided to ignore him. After all, it wasn’t his picture in the ad and he didn’t seem like someone I would want to hire anyway.
The door to the office read, “Miriam Wilcox: Animation and Design Consultant.” I took a moment to smooth my hair and straighten my tie in the mirrored glass of the door. Realizing that someone could be standing just inside the door watching me preen, I swallowed and went in. The door opened on a small lobby. Everything looked crisp and bright. There was a reception window like in a dentist’s office, though unoccupied, and half a dozen white leather chairs were arranged along two of the walls. To the left as I entered was a bright yellow accent wall covered in framed company logos. The word “clients” was painted in an impressive script in the center of the cluster of frames. I recognized a number of animation studios including Disney and Pixar, plus some software and videogame developers among numerous names and logos that weren’t familiar.
“Hello out there,” said a woman’s voice from somewhere deeper in the office. “Here for the job?” There was a singsong quality to her voice, like someone overacting a fairy godmother role in a play.
“Uh, yes ma’am,” I said.
“Good. Good. Come on back then. The door to the right of the window.”
“Sounds good,” I said and cringed at the awkwardness of the reply. “Be right there.” Just stop talking, I thought and headed for the door to the back office.
The rest of the office looked much like the front, clean and bright with a sense of quality and professionalism. A short hall led me to an open studio space. It was a large room with more than a dozen easels setup here and there. There were several tables full of expensive looking cameras and computer equipment and in the center of the room was a large black chair a bit like an overstuffed barber’s chair.
Miriam Wilcox was standing near the empty chair beaming at me. She was a short woman in a nearly floor-length white lab coat. Somehow, she made the outfit look both formal and fashionable. She had red hair and emerald green eyes. The intensity of both the colors made me think of hair dye and contacts. Those colors couldn’t have come from nature. I couldn’t guess at her age. She didn’t seem young, but I couldn’t pinpoint any signs of aging either.
“And there you are,” she said, doubling down on her singsong cheer.
I returned her smile and thought of the banter I had planned.
“Yeah, I thought I looked just like the picture in the ad, huh?”
“Of course you do,” she said. “I’m a professional.”
I wasn’t sure what to make of that, so I just nodded and kept smiling.
“Now then,” she continued, “if you’ll extend me a little trust, I suggest we put off the formalities of your employment and dive into the work at hand. Now that word is out that I’m back from my sabbatical, the orders are pouring in and one of my more insistent client’s needs something today.”
“As usual, it’s a subtle job. The client needs a precise mix of two specific emotions and he simply won’t move forward on the project without my help. Prudent man.” Miriam smiled and actually winked at me.
I nodded again and smiled. So much smiling.
“Shall we begin?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
Miriam clapped her hands together and continued to beam at me.
“Good man. I’ve been thinking on this one and I believe you’ll need to go to the west storage room and get into file 212.”
She gestured to a door on the western wall.
“Off you go,” she said and winked again.
I wasn’t sure what was going on exactly, but it sure seemed like I had gotten a job. I made a beeline for the west storage room and file 212. Miriam patted me on the back as I walked past.
The storage room was even bigger than Miriam’s studio, though it was absolutely stuffed full of filing cabinets, card catalogs, dressers, wardrobes, chests, plastic storage bins, and other strangely shaped furniture covered over with plastic tarps or heavy burlap. There also seemed to be numerous doors opening off of the storage room.
Thankfully, the first line of files just inside the door started at 200. They were standard two drawer stacked filing cabinets like you’d find in any office. The drawer marked “File 212” wasn’t more than ten feet away from the entrance.
I was already pulling on the handle before I realized that I had no clue what it was I was supposed to be retrieving. The drawer glided open and didn’t contain anything, but it also wasn’t empty. Where the bottom of the drawer should have been was just an open space and a narrow set of polished black stairs leading down into darkness. My stomach turned and a sudden feeling of vertigo made me sway on my feet.
I had opened the top drawer. I reached under the drawer and felt the metal beneath. It was solid. I stuck my arm into the drawer up to my shoulder and felt the stairs. They were also solid. The knot that suddenly appeared in my stomach also seemed pretty solid.
I stood there for a moment looking from the impossible filing cabinet back to the door to the studio and back again. I could just leave. I could go ask for some clarification. The whole thing felt ridiculous. Sure, I needed a job, but was this a job?
The reasonable thing to do would have been to go demand some explanation. It would have been reasonable, but it just didn’t feel right. Did the guy who stormed out of the office as I arrived ask for clarification before he was told to show himself out? I thought of the logos in the lobby. Companies that created fantasy. Whimsy. Maybe this was some elaborate test to see if I had the right sense of adventure, the right spirit of discovery.
“Well,” I said to the staircase in the drawer, “she did say to ‘get into’ the file.”
I pulled the drawer out as far as it would go and hiked up a leg to step inside. I had to sit on the top steps and scoot down until I was past the frame of the filing cabinet, then I found I could actually stand up straight on the staircase. I’m not usually claustrophobic, but having to sidestep down that stairway with my arms pinned to my ribs by the narrow corridor walls made me think of being buried alive.
I kept moving downward and I managed not to panic, at least not until I heard the door slide closed and the little rectangle of light that had been my main source of strength and comfort went dark. Then I panicked. I screamed just to scream at first. I was sure something was rushing up from the bottom of the staircase to grab me. I was equally sure something was rushing down from the darkness above to grab me. I screamed and screamed and nothing happened.
Eventually I started screaming words. I yelled for help. I called Miriam by name. Nothing. Not a sound.
My heart was beating in my ears and I was beginning to sweat. Standing still started to weigh on me, so I began moving down the stairs again. I don’t know how many stairs I had descended before I fell. Enough that I had become comfortable with the regular rhythm of the staircase I guess, so that when the stairs ended and the shaft became a smooth slide I was taken completely by surprise.
I tried to press against the walls to slow my slide as I fell, but the walls were too smooth and in the cramped space I had no leverage to push. I wanted to scream and laugh at the same time. The situation was terrifying, but it was also ridiculous. I was falling to an unknown fate deep within the bowls of a filing cabinet.
I passed through the ceiling of Miriam’s studio and fell directly into the padded black chair with a thud. I flinched and squirmed at the sudden brightness and change of scenery. Miriam was a red and white blur, circling me and taking photographs.
“Fear and incredulity,” she said in a whisper of her usual melodic voice. “A tricky mix. Subtle. Bravo. Bravo.”
I rubbed my eyes and sat in the chair panting. I searched for a word to scream or a laugh to laugh, but nothing came I was so torn between… well… fear and incredulity I guess. So, I just sat and tried to take deep breaths and slow my heart rate.
Miriam set her camera on a table and took up a brush and a vial of something dark and began slashing at a canvas faster than seemed possible. A moment later, she was finished and there I was again in black and white. This time my face was a strange mix of something like terror and mania, but with the hint of a crooked smile just beneath the surface.
“It’s… beautiful,” I said after a moment.
Miriam looked from the canvas to me and smiled. It struck me as the first sincere smile I had seen on her face.
“This is usually when people quit. Do you quit… I’m sorry I didn’t catch your name.”
“Richard,” I said, “and no, I don’t quit.”
Miriam’s smile brightened.
“But, I think you are going to pay me very well and I’ll have health insurance and dental and some vacation days and… and a retirement plan.”
“And sometimes clients are searching for emotions much nicer to experience than fear and incredulity,” she said. Her singsong voice had grown in intensity to a level that seemed hardly human.
“Well, that sounds okay too,” I said and then I got to my feet and shook hands with my new boss.
Strange Eats at the Swan
By Lynn Hardaker
You could say The Swan is a bit of an anachronism. Actually, you could say it’s a complete and utter, outlet-on-a-castle-wall-in-a-bad-movie anachronism. Maybe that’s what I like about it. It’s an honest to goodness, bad lighting and vinyl swivel stools diner. Has been since the forties. It used to be in good company on this street, but over time, all of the small independent shops ran to seed, and were bought up by this and that chain of cafes where coffee comes in a paper cup and cost three times what a coffee should. Hell, maybe It’s just my age, but I like it that at The Swan you still pay less than two bucks for a coffee that you can nurse well into the night without being bothered.
My coffee’s getting cold. I look at my watch. Have to squint to read the hands. Feels like an hour has passed since the last time I looked. Nope. Seven minutes. The waiting has become the hardest part.
The Swan is the kind of place where, in days gone by, blue-haired ladies would come on an afternoon to eat soggy-crusted pie and drink tea from those metal pots with hinged lids that would never close properly. A place where people would take a paper serviette from the metal stand on the table, unfold it and place it on their laps.
Whatever happened to all the blue-haired ladies? Nowadays they all take yoga classes and join book clubs. They drink decaf coffee and eat sugar free cookies. Lord above.
I have my usual table, a booth right next to the front window. The glass is late-night black and I see my shadowy, transparent self looking back at me. I want to put my hand out to see if it will go right through my reflection, but stop myself. I watch my face. Seems it’s been a while since I shaved. Can’t remember the last time. An all-night streetcar rumbles by, confusing the images. I look away.
The coffee tastes weak, but it does twice the job, caffeine-wise, of a coffee you get anywhere else. Another reason I like the place. And they serve it in those off-white cups and saucers with a band of off-white swans swimming around a robin’s egg blue rim. Robin’s egg blue. Not a color you hear of much anymore. Come to think of it, I don’t even remember the last time I saw a robin. Let alone a robin’s egg.
The middle-aged waitresses here are also from another time. Their uniforms are that color–since we’re on the topic of almost extinct colors–that used to be called mint: that pale, slightly sickly green that went out of fashion decades ago and for good reason. But I kind of like it. Here at any rate. It wouldn’t be the same if the waitresses were all eighteen and went around in tight black tee shirts and jeans. Wouldn’t be the same at all.
The clientele has changed over the years. And not for the better. They all look the same these days: the old and young, the rich and poor. And everyone looks so damned clean and fresh and healthy. Squeaky clean. Much as I hate to admit it, I’d love to see a kid with a hipster afro, or a foot-high punk mohawk hair-do walk in here. Hasn’t happened in ages.
I look down at my wrist again. Eleven minutes. That’s better. Though I’m starting to get that fluttery, colony of moths in my gut feeling. I’m sure they should have been here by now. But, as I know well enough, there’s no rushing these things.
I tap my cigarette pack on the table top. Used to be able to smoke in here. Not anymore. Not for a long time. The waitress is glaring at me from behind the counter. She’s already given my cigarettes a warning stare. Now she’s coming over, slowly, on white sneakers that squeak slightly on the linoleum floor; the kind of shoes you can only find in service uniform shops. She reminds me of an overworked nurse as she makes her way to my booth, holding out the coffee pot like it’s a bed pan she’s just changed. I feel sorry for her. I really do. She looks tired. But I can’t help fidgeting with the end of a cigarette, pulling it slowly out of the package. The damned thing is I don’t even smoke. Never have. But I like the way a pack of cigarettes feels in the hand. Just noticed that my hand’s shaking. More than usual.
She comes closer. Then out of nowhere, I get the taste in my mouth. God. Can’t even begin to describe it. And it’s a bit different with each person. Depends, I guess. Although I try not to, I find myself chewing. There’s nothing in my mouth but that taste. And as I chew, the image of two people appears, just behind the woman, grainy in a bad TV reception sort of a way. One’s the waitress. The other some guy. Their images sort of cling to her as she saunters through the diner; warping slightly each time she takes a corner. Damn. They aren’t always this strong, but she must have been musing on it today. Whether relishing or regretting, I’ve no way to know. Don’t much care, either.
“Refill?” she asks. I nod and put the cigarette back in the pack and push the pack away. She pours coffee that’s never quite hot enough into the cup. The swans keep swimming around and around. I swallow half the cup in one go. She walks away and I notice that one heel of her white sneakers is worn down more than the other one.
The bells over the front door jangle to life and my heart bounces into my throat. My hand rests on my throbbing neck as I turn to see who’s come in. I’m disappointed. And relieved.
A young couple bubbles through the door. They’re nuzzling each other and smiling like they just got away with a bank robbery. In spite of the hour, they still look annoyingly, artificially fresh. I’ll bet they go to a tanning salon. That’s probably where they met.
They approach the booth next to mine, then stop for an instant. Their faces change as they look over at me, then carry on to a booth further down the row. I don’t take offense at their not wanting to sit at the next table, I’m not looking too terribly fresh these days, but what I do take offense at is that they don’t look the least bit embarrassed by not wanting to. Can’t say I’m not used to it. And I can’t say I care. Really.
One thing about waiting is it gives you time to think. And one thing about thinking in a place like The Swan, is that the thinking tends to head in a backwards direction. Mine does anyway. I’ve never been one to think to the future much. The past has always been more comfortable territory. Funny, there seems to be a whole lot of it all of a sudden. Not quite sure when that happened.
The bells jangle again. This time I know it’s them and don’t bother to look around. My heart jangles in my chest just like those bells. They approach my booth. It’s just two of them, the man from the graveyard and another one. A sick man. A man who looks like he’ll be dead by morning. I’m pretty good at guessing.
My tongue feels like it’s swelling with an unpleasant bitterness. I try not to chew, but can’t help it. This guy’s full. I try to ignore the army of shadow people that’s starting to form just behind him. And I do mean army. One of them is him in a uniform.
They slide into the vinyl bench opposite me. My heart feels like it’s going to keep on jangling till doomsday. I fumble with the pack of cigarettes. Feels good to have something to hold onto.
The man from the graveyard leans across the table and whispers something to me in a voice that never lost its Welsh lilt. I’m only half listening. It’s all things I’ve heard before. Over the years. Over. As though we were standing on a tall bridge looking down. I feel dizzy.
A memory appears stubbornly at the forefront of my brain; like a dog demanding to be taken out to pee: The first time I met the graveyard man. It’s a memory I haven’t dusted off for a long time. I was napping under a tree in a small graveyard on the edge of town, well what used to be the edge of town. He came over and said something to me. I thought he was joking at first, pulling my leg. Pay me to eat someone’s sins, he’d said. Ha. Thought he was crazy, once I realized that he wasn’t taking me for crazy. Never thought much of sin. One way or the other. Not my rules.
Used to be, I had to do it over the corpse. Good thing I’m not squeamish about that sort of thing. A body’s a body as far as I see it. But for the last few years, he’s wanted me to meet the person and actually hear their sins just before they die. Don’t know why they don’t just meet with their priest and tell it all to him. I thought that’s how it was done. I asked the graveyard man about it once. He told me that some people preferred it this old method. I said – then why the change? He got this kind of funny smile and said that people didn’t trust their families to take care of these things properly anymore.
The graveyard man brings a wooden cup and a wooden bowl out of his knapsack. The other man hasn’t said a word to me. Not yet. I watch the quick movements of the graveyard man. Efficient is what I’d call him. He’s bringing out a small thermos of beer and a paper bag. He pours a bit of beer into the wooden cup and recaps the thermos. Then he opens the paper bag and takes out a dinner roll. This he puts into the wooden bowl. Dinner is served. He sits back and leans into the sick man’s ear, saying something so quietly I can’t hear it.
The sick man jolts as though he’s just become aware of where he is. His eyes open wider. The whites of his eyes are yellow. A nasty yellow. Stitched through with red. I swallow hard. So does he.
The sick man puts his hands palm down on the table top. I find that I’m relieved to see that they’re older and wormier looking than mine. I wait. You can’t rush these things. He closes his eyes. I wait. The fluttering moth colony in my gut is doing a group tango. I try to ignore it. It really is getting worse each time now.
Finally, slowly, as though he knows he’s doing something deliberately for the last time, he opens his eyes and fixes them on me. They’re grey. The part that isn’t yellow and red, that is. Same color as mine. The last time I really looked.
I wait. He stares and I can feel a lifetime of experiences–good and bad and everything in between–packed, genii-like, into those burning grey irises. I run my hand through my hair. At least, I still like to think of it as my hair. There’s a bit left. Around the edges. Sounds better than saying I’m rubbing my head.
He takes a deep breath. The air rattles into his lungs. Then he speaks. I watch him.
Funny, I don’t often think of what’s going to happen to me, you know, after. When it’s my time to die. I’ve never been a religious man. Never believed in God. Well, that’s not quite true, but true enough. Sometimes I do wonder. More often than before, it seems.
The sick man is still talking. I resist the urge to pick up my cigarette pack, and force myself to keep staring into his eyes. He’s telling me things and I find myself listening, really listening, not just the polite half-listening I usually do. See, I’m not a busybody; never really been that interested in other peoples’ lives. Never bothered myself much with other people at all, for that matter. Too much trouble. Too much mess.
Now I’m listening, and I want to keep listening, to these scraps of this man’s life. Sins, sure. A couple of pretty juicy ones, but most are fairly harmless. I look into his eyes which are so much like mine in their colour. I try to guess his age. No idea. I try to guess what he might have done in life for work. He doesn’t give me any clues. I find myself trying to guess at the missing pieces of his life story, the gaps he leaves unfilled. But it seems I’m no good at that kind of thing. Don’t even know where to start. I feel like I’m sitting for an exam that I completely forgot to study for. Or worse, like I wasn’t even aware of being enrolled in the class in the first place. No wonder I’ve developed this hunger for other peoples’ sins. Easier than collecting my own. I guess.
Now his eyes aren’t burning like they did at first. I can tell he’s close to finishing. He stops. There is the slightest phantom of a grin at the corner of his mouth. His eyes close for a long minute and his hands slide off the table into his lap. He looks frail and thin and done. I feel like I could wave my hand right through him and fan him away like a cloud of smoke.
After a moment, the graveyard man lays an envelope on the table next to the cup and the bowl. It’s a clean, new rectangle of white. So improbably clean against the stained melamine. I stare at the table top. Stained by how much coffee and ketchup and powdered gravy and fake maple syrup and cigarettes and newsprint. Years and years and years of stain after stain after stain. But isn’t that why I like the place.
I reach for the wooden cup, but hesitate a moment before raising it to my lips. The graveyard man notices. For an instant, I see a look on his face that I’ve never noticed before. I can’t quite read it, but it seems soft and almost pitying. After a couple of seconds, I realize that I’m not the only one who’s gotten older. There is white at his temples and his face is lined like an old leather glove. Why hadn’t I noticed that earlier? For an instant I feel a piercing tenderness for him. For us both. But only for an instant. In half a thought, his look has reverted back to the usual cold, impersonal look I’m familiar with. Truth be told, I prefer it.
He manages to get the sick man out of the booth, and puts an arm around his waist. Without another look or word to me, he helps the sick man out of the diner. The young couple at the end of the row don’t notice. The young don’t seem to notice anything these days. The waitress looks up then quickly looks back to her crossword puzzle. The bells jangle, and for the first time, my heart doesn’t jangle along with them.
The wooden cup is at my lips, but I haven’t taken a drink yet. The feeling of the wood in my hand is suddenly unpleasant. So is the smell of the beer. I’ve never liked the stuff. I put the untouched beer down and look at the dinner roll nestled in the bowl. It lies there like a small, cold fetus. Next to it lies the untouched envelope. Stupid of me to think they could feed me forever.
With a bit of difficulty, I manage to reach down and pull a handful of change from my trouser pocket. Lately, the coins I’ve been getting are larger in value and more plentiful. I look into the window-mirror again. No wonder. I count the coins and lay out the exact amount for my coffee. In a pile next to it, I leave the waitress her tip. I’m a good tipper. Always have been. It’s not an easy job they’ve got. I’m sure she’d rather be at home sleeping right now, or watching the late night movie on TV. Or maybe just sitting in a dark room owning her own time.
I put the rest of the coins back in my pocket and get up slowly. My knees hurt. They always do after I’ve been sitting for too long. A bit of a walk’s what I need. I’ll head down to the park. Yes. A walk would do my knees a world of good.
I nod to the waitress. She gives me what I choose to take for a return nod. Leaving the cup and the bowl and the envelope lying on the table behind me, I push the door open and the bells ring overhead. Simply bells over the door of a diner that’s on its last legs. From the corner of my eye, I see the waitress walking towards my booth carrying a plastic tray–salmon colored, if you must know–to clean up. I turn away before she gets to the table. I don’t need to watch.
The sidewalk is empty. A taxi sails past, then the street is silent again. A halo of moist Summer air cups the streetlights. My toe sticks out the side of one shoe. I put my hands in my pockets and walk away with what feels almost like a smile on my dry old lips. I lick my lips. I think how damned good a cigarette would feel right now. Might just be the day to take up smoking.
By Steve Bates
I run my fingers tentatively over the rough outer edges, my face almost touching the mirror. Folding back semi-rigid slits, I examine the tender pink tissues penetrating both sides of my neck. No question about it: These are serious gills.
I first noticed them yesterday, on my day off. Shaken, I paced the floor for a couple hours before checking out Wikipedia. I learned that gills are a common feature of aquatic organisms. Fish have them. Some amphibians do. They extract oxygen from water and eliminate carbon dioxide. I suppose they could come in handy, like when you go swimming. Maybe it’s not the end of the world.
But why now? Thursday is the evening that Liz comes by the restaurant for the vegetarian omelette, washing it down with decaf coffee and leaving me a decent tip. I finally decided that today is the day I am going to ask her out, on a real date. How many times have I pictured myself cruising in her sleek silver BMW convertible, with the top down and the wind blowing through her gorgeous shoulder-length red hair.
And there’s this other problem: I’m a couple inches shorter than her and working on a beer gut. As for waiting tables at IHOP, I can explain that I have greater aspirations, that I earned a degree in hospitality management, after all. Maybe she can overlook the fact that I spend most of my spare time in my tiny man cave watching episodes of “Lost” over and over. And perhaps she won’t mind that I don’t have a stereo or a bar–just a second-hand couch, a flat screen, and a few old pictures, like the one of me at about age six standing in front of the Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica pier.
Yeah, Sal, you’re a real prize. And now you have gills on your neck.
I rub myself down with skin cream, cram two tubes of it into my pockets, and rummage through the bottom of my closet. I dig out a black turtleneck sweater, a gift from my ex-girlfriend. Not exactly my style, but it does cover most of my gills. I finish dressing, grab my keys, and head out.
I’m five blocks from home and already I’m running late for work. It seems like there’s a fender bender at every other intersection. What’s wrong with you people?
I jog from my Prius to the front door. Gabriella is filing her nails and barely looks up from the reception desk as I rush by to get my apron and name tag. My asshole boss Crusty still hasn’t fixed the ceiling fan over my section. I bet he disabled it to save a few pennies on his power bill.
I enter the kitchen and realize instantly that something is terribly wrong. It’s Charlie, the head cook. Charlie who is always making up silly songs about women’s anatomy as he flips pancakes and slaps bacon on the griddle. Charlie who is always grinning like he’s higher than a kite, even through double shifts amid the relentless glare of ceiling lights reflected by an ocean of stainless steel.
Charlie is staring straight ahead, eyes wide and mouth half open, scratching himself absentmindedly with his non-spatula-bearing hand. He doesn’t appear to realize that food is burning in front of him. Crusty is lurking several paces to my right, even more stooped than usual, his arms bent and waving erratically, his beady black eyes sweeping the kitchen from side to side before fixing on me.
“Where have you been? We’re down a person and you better get your ass out there right away–”
Hold on, Mr. Carlson, I want to say. It’s a Thursday evening in August in Cedar City, Utah, for God’s sake. There’s nobody here but the usual senior citizens who have been nursing java refills all afternoon, plus what looks like an unemployed guy pretending to read the help-wanted ads and a tourist trying to figure out why she brought the family to a ski resort during the summer. But I can’t get a word in.
Charlie signals me with his eyes. Two quick, furtive darts to his left, toward the food storage lockers beyond Crusty. I hazard a glance, but the boss scuttles sideways to block my view. A low moaning emerges from that direction. I look back at Charlie, nod my head slightly, hand him one of my tubes of skin cream, and retreat from the kitchen.
As I prepare to greet a couple of teen-agers on a cheap date, I silently curse the guidance counselor who steered me into this line of work. Mr. Denning, you made the fundamental mistake of assuming that I like people.
I avoid the kitchen as much as possible, hanging by the register when not waiting on tables.
Right on time, Liz arrives. She’s wearing a blue jacket and red blouse with pearls and a dark skirt. I bring Gabriella a box of candy every month, so she always seats Liz in my section. I guess everybody realizes that I’ve had a crush on Liz forever—everybody except Liz.
I try to avoid eye contact, but my God, just look at this woman. Tall, thin, with legs that go on forever. A slightly pointed chin, but intoxicating blue eyes and that spectacular hair brushing her face in just the right places. On top of that, she’s a successful real estate agent, well known and well heeled.
I pull myself together. “Welcome to IHOP. Can I start you off with a beverage?”
“Coffee, regular,” she states, not looking up from the menu. “And the bacon omelette.”
That throws me off. I mutter: “Regular, not decaf? And the bacon omelette, the one with six strips of bacon?”
“Yes. Any problem?”
“Uh, no, of course not. I’ll be right back with your coffee.”
What an idiot.
I slouch back into the kitchen. Charlie’s expression is even more grave. Crusty, leaning over a prostrate figure in the far corner, is covered in blood and making noises that I don’t even want to contemplate. I drop off Liz’s order, yank up my turtleneck collar, grab a pitcher of coffee, and take a deep breath.
Okay, Sal. You’ve rehearsed this a thousand times. Be relaxed, confident. Tell her that you’ve noticed her on Thursdays, that you think you have some things in common, that you’d like to get to know her.
Of course, I blow it.
Liz is scanning property listings. As I pour her coffee, I say without conscious premeditation: “I’m thinking of buying a house.”
She stares at me, hard, with more than a hint of amusement. I weigh the merits of bolting out the door and driving for days until I’m thousands of miles from anyplace where someone might know me or care that I have gills.
She opens her purse, withdraws a business card, scribbles on the back, and hands it to me.
“I’m usually up late,” she says.
Back by the register, I check out the writing. It sure looks like a residential address.
Somehow, Charlie produces an edible dinner for Liz. Somehow, I get through the rest of her meal without further screw-ups. She gives me a polite nod as she leaves.
The remainder of my shift is a blur. So is the drive to her house, in a trendy subdivision up the hill—if any address in Cedar City can be considered trendy. Liz greets me as if she’s expecting me. I plop down on a beige loveseat next to a coffee table with a thick glass top. She produces two glasses of red wine and hands me color printouts of local properties–condos and small single-family houses, all light-years beyond my price range. I sip my wine and pretend to study the listings.
She turns on the TV. “My new commercial is supposed to air this evening,” she says as she sinks into the couch to my right and crosses her legs.
The news is on. The president and his staff are moving to a remote location near Cumberland, Maryland, as a cost-saving measure. All airports in Switzerland are closed for the fourth straight day, presumably for maintenance.
I need to break the tension. I say: “Switzerland. Isn’t that where some scientists said a research lab accidentally released a dangerous pathogen?”
“Switzerland, Sweden, someplace like that,” she states. “It had to be a hoax. The scientists vanished shortly thereafter.”
The newscasters are recapping the day’s top story. Sales of swimming pools and hot tubs have increased 800 percent. A great sign for the economy. Pool and spa businesses can’t keep up with orders.
Liz is staring at me again. I fight the impulse to pull up my turtleneck top. Too late, anyway.
She crosses to my side of the coffee table and settles in next to me. She leans so close that a few strands of fine red hair come to rest on my arm. She says softly: “See anything you like?”
Before I can respond, her fingertips start brushing my left gill, ever so lightly. I try not to betray my surprise or the degree to which I am turned on. Now her hands are lifting my sweater over my head and tossing it onto the coffee table, sending papers flying. I am not believing this.
I turn and am greeted by a wide smile and brilliant teeth as her face closes in. Warning signals flash through my brain, but they wage a losing battle with my reproductive system, and I react a fraction of a second too late.
Those teeth are pointed. And heading directly for my upper arm.
She sinks her teeth in with savage fury. Then she snaps her head back, her mouth filled with chunks of my flesh.
I cry out “Jesus!” as I leap to my feet and grab my arm. I watch in a stupor as she chews and swallows mechanically, her eyes locked on some distant horizon. Blood drips from her lips.
I stagger to a strategic position behind the couch, my attention alternating between my wound and my assailant. I grab some kind of fabric—possibly a shawl—atop the couch and wrap it around my arm to try to stanch the bleeding.
“What the hell was that?” I manage. “You—you tried to eat me.”
“Hey, don’t take it personally,” she replies, much too matter-of-factly.
I need to leave, desperately. But I can’t walk out on our first date, can I?
Liz sinks to the floor and starts rubbing her stomach rhythmically on the carpet.
I dash to the front door, pause, and blurt out: “I love you.”
Immediately, I regret it. Must have lost a lot of blood.
I find myself walking the streets. Nice neighborhood. Lots of big yards with pools. I come across one pool with several people in it, though the entire property is dark. I approach casually, hoping for an invitation to join them. The occupants are silent, immobile, gazing at the water, completely lost at sea.
I remove my shoes and slacks and ease into the shallow end, careful not to submerge the damaged portion of my left arm. An hour passes, maybe two, as I replay my disastrous date a few hundred times. Finally, I whip up enough courage to return to Liz’s house.
The front door is ajar, so I creep into the living room. The TV is still on. I search the house and garage, but Liz and the silver BMW are gone.
Back at my apartment, I examine my arm in the mirror and discover that the bleeding has stopped and the injured tissues are healing rapidly. I slip on a pair of shorts and a Foreigner T-shirt, and I jump in the car.
In 10 minutes I’m on I-15, southbound. Don’t ask me why; I just know that this is the way Liz has gone.
The road is an obstacle course. Some vehicles are piled up in clusters; others have come to rest at odd angles in driving lanes or on the shoulder. The congestion clears somewhat as I distance myself from Cedar City. The colors of the northern Nevada desert seem unusually vivid; I can almost smell the russet, ochre, buff, and sepia hues of the rolling landscape.
A few miles from Vegas, I exit and head for the first gas station, but the pumps are blocked by cars and a dozen or so oddly shaped figures. Standing or sprawled on the concrete, they look like cartoon characters or kids dressed in cheap Halloween costumes. Some have flattened heads and thick necks with elongated torsos. Others are bloated and display spotted skin and emerging tails. I discern a few gills, pincers, and fins here and there. Most of the creatures are gesturing awkwardly and arguing in high-pitched voices. Now and then one flicks out a long, thin tongue in an expression of … something. None of them seems to be able to work the gas pumps. Acrid smoke and a pulsating red glow down the street suggest even more trouble.
I return to the interstate and make the turn west. It seems that my Prius is getting bigger, or else I’m getting smaller. I crane my neck in order to see the road. My skin is bone dry, my mouth is parched, and my chest is heavy. I open a window.
Yellow lights dance on the dashboard: Check engine. Low fuel. I guess the battery will kick in when the gas is gone. Eventually, the battery will die. I know that, and I know that it should bother me. But it doesn’t. Things are getting weird, very weird. But they are also getting … simpler, I guess. I focus on what matters most.
I need to find Liz. And I need to go home. I will find her and go home. I concentrate on these thoughts, these words, as the miles pass. Liz. Home. I. Will.
Signs. Lots of signs. Los. Angeles. 18. Miles. I grip the steering wheel hard with thin, clammy fingers. I drive.
And I drive.
And now I can drive no more.
I can’t open the car door, so I wriggle out the window. The changes are coming faster now.
I smell smog, oil, sea. The sea: It is near.
I hear wind, waves, screams, moans. Agony or ecstasy? Is there a difference?
I see what appear to be thousands of large fish, dotting the terrain in every direction, as if deposited by a mighty storm. On closer inspection, the creatures are still vaguely reminiscent of people. I scan their faces but detect no sign of Liz–only confusion as the figures morph into ever more primitive forms and inch fitfully westward.
In the distance, I recognize a familiar shape rising above the menagerie: The Ferris wheel on the pier. That vacation seems like it was several lifetimes ago. I contemplate just how far we have come. The circle of life is nearly complete.
I lose my balance and collapse onto asphalt. I crawl as far as I can. Now I flap and flop and roll, leaving a trail of clothing fragments as I progress. Toward the water. Always toward the water. Always toward Liz and home.
I maneuver over and around scaly bodies. The sand is rough, yet it creates a pleasant tingling on my skin. I feel ocean spray. Not much farther.
A wave washes over me. It recedes and leaves me gasping. Now a second wave breaks. And a third.
A huge wave crashes and drags me into the ocean. I tumble and flail, disoriented and close to panic. My mouth fills with water. But instinct takes over, and I let go. Gradually, swirling shapes and colors coalesce into recognizable features: waves above; sand below; the world ahead. Energy surges through me. My gills. Of course.
I navigate the turquoise water. Streaks of sunlight stab currents, fracture, and dissipate in the depths. Every movement registers: Friend. Friend. Possible enemy. Friend.
I move on. It is darker and cooler. Better.
There! A cavity, almost totally concealed by vegetation. It is small and murky, yet it feels right. I enter it, my new cave.
I am home.
I rest. I am strong. I am ready.
Now! A streak of silver, with a splash of red. It could be. It could be her.
I chase the colors and the movement. Closer. Ever closer.
I really hope it is her. I really hope it is Liz.
Because it’s time for breakfast.
Final Exam at the Academy
By Jamie Brindle
Jhest waited for the toadstools to stop singing before emerging from his cocoon.
He peeled aside the gossamer threads of small magic that had cocooned him safely during the process of incarnation. The delicate web melted away to nothing, leaving him blinking in the bright starlight.
He was crouching on a beach of white pebbles, a lazy sea hissing up to brush his feet; further to landward, Jhest could make out the silhouettes of the toadstools he had heard, their strange booms almost completely closed now that their song was done.
To wait for the singing to stop, that had been the first rule the Warlocks had impressed on their young apprentices, five years and a whole lifetime ago. A diligent student would know better than to emerge from his cocoon before the singing was complete, lest they find themselves in a world not yet fully-formed, with dangerous currents of unearthed potential roaming the landscape, just the sort of thing that was liable to take an unwary apprentice before the exam had properly begun, and turn them from a promising candidate into a warning in tomorrow’s lessons.
Jhest stood, his lithe, efficient frame unfolding warily into an unconscious half-hunch, and tested the scent on the air. He could smell salt and sulfur and ozone, the bitter-blue tang of a freshly minted reality. Beside his feet, the last lambent strands of his decaying cocoon melted silently into the pebbles. He scanned the horizon, but saw no sign of any other nearby apprentices, no other flicker of magic draining back into the core of this little world.
For a moment he wavered, caught up by the unbearable solidity of the pebbles under his feet, of the sea as it rose to touch his bare toes, and of the impossibly bright stars that flamed in the sky above. The lessons had always made a point of emphasizing the solidity of this unreal exam world, the final hurdle after years of study, of how it would look and feel and taste, even, as real – no, more real – than the everyday world of lectures and libraries and endless hours of study. But even though Jhest had thought himself prepared for it, he and his little coterie of fellow apprentices, he realized now that understanding something on an abstract, intellectual level was no real preparation.
Then his months of training took over. First things first! He thought, and forced himself to concentrate on scanning the ground nearby. He made one pass, then a second, then a third. A feeling of panic began to rise within him. We’re meant to be sent with one, he thought desperately. They promised us! One amulet with every cocoon, so look carefully for it before running off into danger unarmed!
He stopped. Something faint glittered under the waves, a few feet out from the line of foam where the sea met the shore. Almost not daring to hope, he splashed out into the surf and bent down. The small amulet he pulled from the waves was silver and seemed to hold more weight than it had any right to. He turned it over, and smiled when he saw the blue lightning emblem that was engraved on the other side.
A lightning totem.
It could have been worse. A lot worse.
Lightning was not one of the four Primes, because it could be broken down to yield Fire and Air, and was thus subservient to those poles of magic, or at least, that was the way the Archmages were keen to represent it. But neither was it one of the joke totems, the five or six least powerful channeling stones that every apprentice learnt about almost from their first day at the academy, and which became the subject of much amusement, mainly because deep down, every apprentice dreaded more than anything emerging on the proving grounds and finding a Mud totem, say, or an Acorn, glowing mockingly up at them.
Jhest lifted the ankh and carefully hung it around his neck. At once, an awareness of the magical heart of this little world flared into focus in his mind. He had sensed it from the moment he had first arrived here, but the totem sharpened that sensation. More, it gave him a conduit through which he might draw on that power.
At that moment there was a flash of lurid red light from far out to sea. For an instant, a whole quarter of the world seemed illuminated, and Jhest had the impression of some vast, towering structure or vessel looming amongst the waves in the distance. A second later, and the light had faded again, but left instead a rising roar of wind that carried with it a huge tearing sound, as of some tortured fastness of metal rending back on itself; and mixed in with that, something small and human and desperate.
I am not the only one to have found a totem, Jhest thought.
The exam had started in earnest, then.
He quested through his Lightening totem towards the center of the world, and found there the fluttering, unstable heartbeat.
He weighed the feel of it in his mind, and estimated the amount of time that remained before the collapse began. The students were always given some time to find their way home after the start of the dissolution. After that, this unstable little world would fold back in on itself. And any apprentice unlucky or unskilled enough not to have found a way out and escaped back into the wider reality would collapse with it, siphoned back into the raw stuff of power from which this little world was made.
Jhest gritted his teeth and splashed back to the shore.
He looked to the left, then the right, then straight ahead, to where the land rose gently from the sea, and away towards a low series of hills just visible in the vivid starlight.
He hesitated for a moment. The shore might hold more totems or other resources that could be useful, but he felt exposed here, somehow, hemmed in.
An unseen bird cawed in the sky above. As if prompted by the creature, Jhest set off, away from the sea, towards the distant hills.
Not far from the beach there was a rattling from the road behind, and fast on Jhest’s heels rolled a cat riding on a pig riding on an ebony-dark wagon. The pig was trotting along on a kind of treadmill attached by an intricate system of cogs and belts to the wheels below. The cat had flashing green eyes and held the pig’s reigns in one manicured paw. Unsure of the protocol when meeting such travelers, Jhest stood to one side to let the vehicle pass by. As they overtook him, however, the pig came to a lumbering halt, and the wagon rumbled to a stop beside him. The cat looked haughtily down, but offered not a word.
“Hello to you,” Jhest said, trying to sound confident, though he could not stop himself from fingering his Lightning totem. They had been told that both help and danger might come not only from their fellow students, but also from many other strange figments of this miniature reality, and one ought prudently to be both polite and wary.
The cat licked his sharp teeth and yawned. Behind the dark glass of the wagon, Jhest fancied he saw the movements of a shadowed shape.
“Where are you headed on such a dark night?” he asked, when the cat’s silence had grown uncomfortably long.
“We’re goin’ to the market, sunshine,” grunted the pig, evidently still out of breath from his exertions.
“Silence, Bartleby!” Chided the cat, giving the reigns a vicious tug. “One must know one’s station!”
The cat raised an arrogant eyebrow, and pointedly looked away.
“Um,” said Jhest, trying and failing to catch the cat’s eye. “What market is this?”
“I don’t know, some people,” muttered the cat under his breath, before turning to look down his nose at Jhest and saying distinctly, “We are going to the Midnight Market, for our mistress has business there. Now, if you’ll excuse us, thank you so very much.”
And with that he gave the reigns another tug, and the pig started up his trotting again, and away the wagon began to roll.
But before the wagon had gone very far at all, there was a sharp cracking noise that sounded for all the world like the heart of a mountain breaking, and the door of the wagon swung open. A slender green-clad leg emerged and crunched down on the pebbled path, gently but very firmly.
The wheels spun and spun and the pig on the top trotted on for all he was worth, but the wagon moved not an inch.
The cat gave a sigh and let the reigns fall, slumping his shoulders sadly. The pig came to a halt.
Jhest peered towards the wagon, trying to make out the figure now sitting half in the darkness of the carriage and half in the silver starlight outside. He could see the slender leg and the curve it made as it rolled upwards to something firm and shapely and smothered in shadows. Two delicate hands entwined in the light, and a pair of large luminous eyes shone out at him.
“Now, I hardly think that was well met, Torquimada, do you?” the voice was silky soft, but with a dangerous undercurrent Jhest disliked.
“No, mistress,” purred the cat, so soft that the words were barely a breath of wind in the long grass by the path.
“No indeed. So tell me, young traveler, where are you travelling to on this bright night of beginnings? Perhaps we might offer you a lift there?” The mistress of the wagon leant towards him earnestly, but even though this should have brought her face out of the gloom of the cabin, still the shadows clung to her, and only her eyes and her hands were clear.
For a heart-stopping moment, Jhest recognized the formal words and yet could not order his mind enough to clasp the appropriate answer, lodged as it was amongst months and months of poring and searching in old, dusty books in the Academy libraries, one memorized item of lore amongst a million such.
“I am travelling,” Jhest paused, desperately trying to recall the phrase that would save him. The mistress opened her white eyes wide, and Jhest had the impression of teeth glinting somewhere in the darkness beneath.
Then in a flash, the words were back in his head.
“I am travelling to the black morning at the end of this world, and my own two feet will take me there,” he intoned, putting as much confidence into the words as he could–which was not very much–and laying a hand firmly on his Lightning totem as he did so.
There was a flash of purest lightning light, white as snow, and for just one moment the mistress of the wagon was illuminated, and Jhest was very glad he had gone no closer, nor thought of entering to join her.
The light he had cast faded at once. The two eyes in the carriage narrowed, and the hands moved back into the shadows.
“Very well,” she said softly, “I see you do not want my help. I suppose you would not let me have a little look at that pretty toy around your neck, would you?” There was something wistful in her voice.
Jhest shook his head.
“Not this time, good mistress,” replied Jhest, just as softly, for he knew now the danger was passed.
“Then we know where we are and who we are and what it is we both must do,” she clicked her tongue. “On, Torquimada!” she commanded, in quite a different voice. “It seems we must find some other meat to bring to market.”
And with that the leg was pulled back inside the darkness, the door was slammed, and wagon, cat, pig and all rumbled away into the night.
Jhest moved on towards the hills, the totem round his neck slowly losing the warmth the channeled illumination had awoken within it. There was still plenty of time before this world became so unstable that leaving the exam would be permitted. Still, how exactly he was to accomplish that feat was something he would have to turn his attention to at some point.
As he walked up the gently sloping hill, he twirled his totem in his fingers and wondered if he would be content to walk away from this world set on a path towards Lightning wizardry. It had not been his intent to follow that particular discipline, though of course there were many notable Lightning wizards, and one could certainly accrue a measure of respect in such a field. Many of his friends had very definite ideas as to what path they wanted their wizarding career to take–far too many of them envisioned themselves as Earth mages or one of the other frightfully competitive Primes, and most were bound to be disappointed–but Jhest had no such rigid ambitions.
He had covered Lighting magic in his revision, naturally, because it would have been foolish to have overlooked even one of the totems, but he had never paid it more attention than any of the others.
If he decided not to focus on finding a replacement totem with which to complete the examination, then in many ways the next few hours would be much simpler than if he made it his goal to hunt down a specific totem, a Salt or Feather, for example. These were branches of wizardry that were well–respected, and he had toyed with the idea of favoring both at one time or another.
He began to run over in his mind all the uses of Lightning magic, and imagined what it would be like to wield such powers.
The list was only just taking shape in his mind when there was a snapping and a commotion off to one side. Warily, he stepped off the path, and peered over the edge of a little clump of earth, to look down into a bowl-shaped hollow below.
In the darkness and the silver starlight, it was at first difficult for Jhest to understand what he was seeing. There was someone on the grass, he was fairly sure of that, a small figure running and diving here and there, occasionally shouting words he could not make out in a high, feminine voice. Above the figure, wheeling and diving and harrying them, a host of small creatures were swooping to the attack.
Jhest clambered over the little rise of earth, and slid some way down into the hollow, trying to move as quietly as he could. As he watched, the figure shouted something in a voice he recognized, and a pulse of dirty yellow light burst forth. The air shook with a low, powerful hum, and the creatures that flew about in the air were all knocked backwards and fluttered to the ground.
A rain of something soft slapped against Jhest’s face, and he blinked as some of it got in his eyes and made them sting. He tasted grit on his mouth.
Sand, he thought, and spat.
“Dirty bloody owls!” the figure shouted triumphantly, “How do you like that? Think you’re some kind of tough bird, just ‘cos you’ve got big bloody eyes and a stupid twisty neck?”
But the owls had hardly been floored for a moment before a fluttering noise revealed their persistence. They would be up again before too long.
“Alaine!” Jhest called out, “Are these birds giving you trouble?”
“Blimey, Jhest, is that you?” Alaine shouted back, sounding relieved, “You coming to save me, then?”
Jhest smiled in the darkness. The exam was a competitive business; in fact there were several other apprentices Jhest mistrusted, and whom he would have been loath to expose himself for. Alaine, however, as not one of them.
She was different. They had always been friendly during their time at the Academy, and had even taken to working together a little over the last few weeks.
The owls were beginning to pick themselves up. A few were fluttering dazedly into the air; and now that Jhest had made himself known, more than one was thinking of investigating this potential new target.
“Well, I don’t want to promise anything, but I’ll see what I can do,” Jhest called back.
He gripped his Lightning totem in one hand and followed the tendril of magic that crept back through the metal into the furious, pulsing heart of the world. He pulled off some of the power that writhed there, gently separating out the silver-white thread of Lightning arcana that would flow easily through his totem. This was such a small fraction of the whole tumult that it seemed almost pitiful, and the temptation was–as always–to make a grab for a whole handful of the raw stuff, Fire and Earth and Salt and all the rest–to pull it all like a vibrant rainbow storm out from the core and into the ether around him. But he knew the limitations of the totem he held, and resisted that deadly urge.
The arcana flooded into his hands, and as it pulsed through him, Jhest swept the power out into a cast that he had held ready in one corner of his mind, shot it outwards in one of the simplest, most brutal expressions of Lightning magic that he knew.
A bolt of white light shot from his fingers and slammed into the feathered chest of one of the birds. For a moment it was lit up impossibly bright, the little hollow around illuminated into a frozen tableau. Then the light was gone, and the unlucky bird with it.
There was no noise. The unfortunate smell of scorched owl filled the clearing.
“Well done!” Alaine shouted, but she sounded uncertain, and Jhest knew why.
In that one moment when the clearing had been illuminated, they had both seen how many, how very many owls there were: perched in trees, crawling on the ground, circling in the air above. It had been easy to blast one of them; but even that one bolt had made the totem hot against Jhest’s chest. It had taken much more magic than simply making a flash of light. And even the worst apprentice knew what happened to a totem that was used as a conduit for too much power–Jhest did not want that to happen.
So simply blasting every owl was not an option.
Jhest began to run towards Alaine. In the darkness, he saw the totem around her neck begin to glow. He hoped she had come to the same conclusion as him.
“Shield?” he panted as he reached her side, and she nodded, concentration hardening her usually friendly face.
A rough whispering noise began to rise up around them. The ground scratched and seethed; and singing up in five fine tendrils from the grassy earth, twists of sand began to form. Alaine gritted her teeth and nudged the pillars with her eyes. They spread out into thin sheets, swelling and joining until they formed an undulating dome around the two apprentices. That was the moment Jhest had been waiting for. Once again he reached through his totem into the seething mass of arcana, and once more he fished out a strand of power. He muttered a word and spelt it with arcana, and cast that spell into a second dome, smaller than that of sand, this one of lightning-white. The second dome expanded until the two shells were touching, and at that moment they fused and became something else, a glass shield, not as pretty nor perfect as the ones the apprentices had studied in dusty books, but serviceable all the same, and they were both immensely proud of it.
The owls swooped and battered at the glass shield, but they could not get in.
Smack went their talons as they glanced off the dome, and harsh were their frustrated cries: the glass was very strong.
But if the owls could not get in, Jhest and Alaine could not get out, either.
“Now what?” asked Alaine at length, “We can’t very well wait here until the contest is over!”
“I know, I know,” agreed Jhest, who was all too well aware of what would happen to them if this little self-contained reality collapsed whilst they were still inside, “I’d thought, well, I’d assumed they might have lost interest in us if they weren’t able to smell us.”
Time passed, and they were on the verge of dissolving their magic shield out of frustration and making a run for it when, all at once, the owls stopped their assault.
Jhest and Alaine peered through the glass, trying to make out what was happening. All around the little clearing, the birds were fluttering out of the sky and digging their claws into the earth.
“What’s going on?” Jhest wondered aloud.
But even as he said it, he saw that the shrubs and little trees all around were being lashed back and forth in a rising wind. Even the grass was being caught up in it, flickering in rapid vibrations too quick to follow.
“Someone’s coming,” said Alaine softly. “Can’t you feel it? Can’t you feel the magic being used?”
Jhest nodded. He could sense the power thrumming through the ether, like a thick tendril of knotted rope shooting very fast just behind his head.
“Whoever it is, they’ve got a powerful totem,” he muttered.
The wind faltered, settling for a moment. All around the clearing, the owls cocked their heads suspiciously this way and that.
The world seemed still.
With a roar that shook the earth even within the thick glass shield, the wind returned. It seemed to come from every direction; and dancing in the wind, many small blue figures came too, ephemeral, half-formed with slender limbs and shimmering faces. They rushed in from every side and fell on the owls with a great clamor.
Up the birds were swept, squeaking and squawking, turned head over tail and quite powerless to do a thing about it. One was smashed into the glass shield right where Jhest was peering out, and for an instant he saw quite clearly how the wind had been subdued and fashioned by tendrils of arcana into these wicked little sprites of blue. The owl desperately flapped its wings, but the wind sprite gave it no quarter, and soon the creature lay dead in the grass below.
All around them, the same fate was befalling all the hapless birds. Down they fell, from out the sky and amongst the branches, clattering to the earth enraptured and cocooned in little diaphanous bodies of blue, bent of wing and broken of beak.
The wind fell to a whisper, and the blue sprites faded away.
“Quick!” said Jhest, and began unmaking his part of the shield-magic.
He whipped the lighting away, and the sand fell back to earth, and there they were again, beneath the brightening stars.
But they were not alone.
“Ah, my dear fellow pupils!” said Topknot, stroking his thin beard with one hand, and caressing a delicately carved crystal feather with the other, “How happy we are to find more members to add to our company. When we saw the owls from the road, we knew they must have found some poor unfortunates to prey upon.”
Topknot was tall and thin, with a dark beard, and dark hair that was tied up on his head to give him his name. He was one of those excellent pupils who every other student was both impressed and intimidated by. Jhest had a more intimate relationship with Topknot than Alaine, who knew him only slightly: years ago, when they had entered the Academy together, the older student had taken Jhest under his wing, and under his spell. Topknot was the sort of person who did not have friends; instead, he had followers. As time at the Academy had worn on, Topknot had pushed these followers to ever deeper and darker acts–until Jhest had broken the illusion of friendship that had bound him, and in so doing, had broken the sway Topknot had over his other disciples.
Topknot had hated Jhest from that day to this. It had taken him many months to groom and whisper a new coterie out of the apprentices. Now, four of those followers had evidently been rounded up by Topknot, here in the proving grounds. They stood behind him in a ragged half-circle, three serious-looking boys and one tall girl. Jhest knew them all by sight, but only the girl, Raven, by name.
“Thanks,” mumbled Alaine. “Thanks for getting rid of the owls. Was that you, Topknot?”
“Naturally,” Topknot flashed a smile full of sharp teeth, and ran his hands over the feather Ankh in his hands. “I could hardly let them keep you prisoner, could I?”
“You found one of the Primes,” said Jhest flatly, unable to take his eyes off the precious crystal object.
“Well, there you are mistaken,” Topknot brushed an imaginary speck of dust from his shoulder. “Raven here found the Air totem. But we are a team, you see, and we do what is best for all of us. I am the strongest, therefore it is only natural that I should wield the most powerful Ankh.”
He said it with such an assurance that Jhest almost found himself agreeing with the older student automatically. Raven bowed her dark head for a moment. What did Jhest see in those green eyes? Resentment? Jealousy? Or was it something softer. Idolization?
“But that does not mean the others have to go without,” Topknot glanced from one of his followers to the next. “We have a fair number between us. What is the tally now, Bresh?”
Bresh, shorter than the others but broad and with a grim look, stared at Jhest, unsmiling.
“We have six, including your Air Prime,” he said curtly. “A mud, a mist, two shells, and Raven over there has a bloodstone, too, not that it’s awoken yet.”
“And, in that spirit,” Topknot went on, “if you are to join us, then you must tell us now what Totems you have found–though I fancy I could guess.”
Jhest shared a glance with Alaine. Her frustration was obvious. But there was no choice, not really; either they put their Ankhs into Topknot’s power willingly, or else…
“I’ve a lightning,” said Jhest, holding the small silver amulet up so the starlight caught it. “And it’s served me well so far.”
Topknot smiled, and his eyes glinted in the darkness.
“Very pretty,” he muttered. “Why don’t you hold on to it, for now? No doubt you have already formed some bond with it that would make swapping around–awkward.”
Jhest let his breath out, relieved; but as he tucked the amulet back under his shirt, he fancied he caught the others watching him greedily.
Topknot swiveled to regard Alaine.
“And you, my dear?” he prompted.
“It’s a sand,” she stammered.
“Oh dear, so it is,” chuckled Topknot. “Never mind, I’m sure you will have a chance to wield something better before the night is out.”
“Actually, I quite like sand!” Asserted Alaine, going red in the face.
“Why, of course you do, girl,” Raven countered, and when she spoke her voice was very cracked and raw. “For someone like you, a sand is just about right, I would say.”
Alaine set her hands on her hips, and rounded on the taller girl.
“And just what do you mean by that?” She demanded, ignoring the restraining hand Jhest placed on her shoulder.
Raven opened her mouth to say something, but before she could speak, “Enough!” commanded Topknot, and everyone went still. “There is no time to be bickering about such little things. At least, not now.”
Raven did not protest. Jhest knew she would not gainsay Topknot. Raven and Topknot were closer than friends, though no one at the Academy knew the details. If Jhest had to guess, he would have said that any true love there only ran one way. He knew from experience that the only person Topknot might really love was himself.
Now, Jhest saw an ugly glance pass between Topknot and Raven. He did not like it, not one bit.
“This exam is well under way,” Topknot went on. “I make it that we have just under two hours before the collapse begins.”
He looked around the little group, and everyone was nodding. They could all feel it, the fluttering, tender heart of the world, beating out its remaining moments one by one.
“I propose that this is quite enough time to find some more of what is yet to be found. Some of us may have obtained the totems they wish to graduate with, but others may still feel they can do better. And then, of course, there is the little matter of finding the way home before the collapse.”
They all looked uncomfortable at that. To be trapped here when the exam was over, that was something that haunted the thoughts of every apprentice.
With that, Topknot led the group out of the hollow, back to the path, and along it under the stars towards the shadowed hills.
They made good speed along the road, and almost it seemed that the land was in fear of them, for as they walked, a silence went with them, as if the figments of this little reality could feel the strength of Topknot and his Air totem, as if it magnified all of their powers. Twice, Jhest tried to position himself near to Alaine, to talk with her, but both times the other apprentices worked to break them apart, to keep them separate and silenced and alone.
Before long they were in the beginnings of the hills, and soon sweat was pouring down Jhest’s brow and his breathing was coming hard.
They topped a rise, and there it stood before them: a white stone door, pressed hard into the dark, damp earth of the hillside. A heavy chain of silver metal was looped around the handles, and the door was closed very tight.
“Ah, a tomb!” exclaimed Topknot, coming to an abrupt halt, excitement glinting in his dark eyes. “I have read of these! We are lucky to find one, very lucky. All sorts of treasures are said to lay within.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Alaine.
No one replied to her, but Raven gave a short nasty laugh, and Jhest felt the others exchange glances that included neither Alaine nor himself.
Topknot crept over to examine the door.
“This will not be easy,” he announced at length. “But I think we can do it, if we work together.”
Then he turned to Alaine, and placed a thin hand on her shoulder.
“Perhaps your sand can be of use, after all, my dear,” he said.
Jhest felt a shiver of cold run through him. He could see the indentations Topknot’s fingers were making in Alaine’s flesh, could almost feel the sharpness of his long nails.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she repeated.
Jhest could see his teeth glinting in the starlight as Topknot smiled his hungry smile.
“Well then, little one, simply hand your totem over and step away,” purred Topknot, reaching out for the amulet Alaine wore.
“Very well,” she grumbled, taking a pace back from Topknot and lifting the sand totem aloft, “I’ll do it if I must! Clearly, my choices are limited.”
She concentrated on the amulet, and a yellow glow began to suffuse the stone.
“Good,” muttered Topknot. “Now all you need do is make a little hard sand to form. Make it as rough, as hard, as unpleasant as you can.”
His voice trailed off, and Jhest saw that Topknot was concentrating very hard, too. He held the crystal feather in his hand, and made little passes back and forth. With each pass, the wind rose a fraction higher, blew a little wilder, until before long a great storm was blowing, blowing, blowing, whistling out from the totem, and beating down upon the door.
Sand began to rise from Alaine’s amulet, great ugly grains of sand, just as Topknot had directed. And every grain was whisked up by that unnatural wind, and borne aloft, and swept into those thick silver chains.
A rattling, roaring hiss filled the air, thin and terrible to hear; Jhest felt as if his very bones were being worn thin in that awful sandstorm.
The chains could not last long.
Away they were swept, falling apart as if they were being eaten away by an invisible creature with teeth as sharp and hard as shards of diamond.
The silver metal failed.
With a heavy clunk, the two halves slithered from the door and fell to the earth. The apprentices lowered their amulets.
“That was well done,” commented Topknot. Alaine said nothing. She did not meet Jhest’s gaze.
Topknot stepped forward, and kicked the remnants of metal aside with his foot. He touched the door, and open it creaked, and darkness there was within.
The blackness was not complete. A faint, silvery light emanated from the walls, and even when they had gone far enough inside the tomb that the outline of the door was far behind them, still there was light enough by which to see. The air felt still and cold, and had a certain thickness to it, as if some unseen force lingered there, waiting.
Topknot led the way, with the others bunched in tight behind, and Raven brought up the rear.
Jhest licked his lips, and tried to stay close to Alaine.
He had studied the tombs; of course he had, along with every other aspect of the exam that he could find information on. But try as he might, he could only remember fragments. As far as he knew, the tombs were not places where Ankhs or other treasures might be found. Why was Topknot bringing them down here? Something niggled at the back of his mind, some lost piece of knowledge, hankering for his attention…
They came at last to a ramshackle staircase carved into the rock itself, with twisted uneven steps that descended in a steep spiral down into the earth.
Their breathing sounded loud in the silence.
Down Topknot led them, turn and turn about, and the staircase seemed to go on forever, until Jhest began to wonder if it ever indeed had a bottom, or if it was not some cruel conjuring of this little world, impossible and without end. But if he thought about stopping, he never so much as hesitated. He knew they were committed now, for better or worse, and no turning back would be permitted.
At last, however, the final spiral was done, and they stood all at once in a great cavern, very large and empty, and not a wall was to be seen to any side. They walked a little way into the darkness, and Jhest could just make out the faintly luminescent walls of the staircase, a towering spire of rock within which the steps had been hewn, and which now shot up to vanish into the empty darkness above.
“Ah, feel the stillness,” whispered Topknot, and he was right: the air was so quiet that Jhest felt the words drift out into the vast cavern like an awakening; and maybe they were the first words ever known, down here beneath the earth.
A faint form shimmered in the distance, pale and hollow. It drew near, halted, came on again.
“Be ready,” said Topknot mildly, and Jhest was suddenly aware that everyone was holding an Ankh. He could feel them, feel them reaching through their amulets into the hidden mass of arcana that roiled and burnt the breadth of a shadow away. He glanced around. Bresh was gripping a mud amulet, brown, damp light sliding across its surface in little ripples. The other two tall apprentices held Shells, gripping them so tight their hands were white. Raven held the Mist totem gently in one hand; but in her other, she held something else, dark red and silent as stone, and Jhest eyed that one most carefully. Quiescent or not, he disliked it.
The figure drifted closer. Jhest felt himself tense. He could not make it out. Then something shifted in the light, and…
“Ah!” he exclaimed.
The figure wore familiar robes, pulled tight at the waist by a green apprentice’s belt. The hands looked young and supple, but where there should have been a face, only shadows and mist could be seen.
“It is just a shade,” pronounced Topknot, and his voice sounded very loud in the darkness, “We must follow it to the tomb. That is why we are here, after all!”
Forward he strode, brisk and fearless, and the ghost faltered before him. It started to melt backwards into the darkness, but Topknot held up his Ankh, and a cold wind blew out of the cave.
The wraith remained. It could hardly do otherwise.
“To your tomb, shade,” Topknot said, quiet and grim, and the ghost writhed and wrung its hands together very tight.
It began to float away, arms shuddering desperately. It drifted on, and Topknot led them after. Soon, the tall spire of stairs had vanished into the darkness behind them.
Jhest had the most uncomfortable feeling that it was looking particularly at him, trying to tell him something.
Why is Topknot so keen to find a tomb? He wondered. But there was no reason he could think of.
All at once, the shade halted, as sudden as if it had struck straight into a wall no one else could see. Topknot took a final step forward, and the ground crunched beneath his feet. Quick as a snake, back he jumped, and he was only just in time.
The crust of earth where he had been standing cracked and failed, and suddenly they were all standing at the very edge of a molten shimmering of light, sullen and spectral and strange.
“The tomb!” exclaimed Topknot, a nasty twist to his lips that could have been a smile.
Jhest exchanged a glance with Alaine. She looked pallid in the withered light, and her hair was palest gold.
“What now?” she said, half smiling at him, and that was when Raven pulled a dark knife out of her robe and struck her in the neck.
After that, everything happened at once.
Jhest was too slow. He reached through his Ankh for the arcana, but he had hardly made contact when Topknot was on him, bony fingers wrenching the stone from his grasp and severing the connection before it could be made.
Alaine was struggling silently, one hand gripped tight around her yellow sandstone, the other clasped to her throat. A bright light sprang up in the Ankh, and a tumult of sand sprayed violently into the cavern.
Jhest twisted and tried to break free, but Topknot, he was very strong.
Raven stepped forward, and forced the maroon stone into the spreading darkness around Alaine’s neck. She thrashed about, tried to push the older girl away, but Raven hissed in the darkness and held on tight.
Alaine’s movements began to fail. Her arm shuddered, wavered desperately, fell by her side and twitched. The last yellow light drained away.
Raven got to her feet, hard of breath and wild of eye. A dark fire was in the stone she held.
“It is awakening,” commented Topknot, glancing approvingly at the bloodstone, “Give the tomb its due, and the matter will be complete.”
They forced Jhest in front of them, powerless and weeping, while Topknot weighed the Lightning Ankh in one long hand.
Raven pushed Alaine into the shimmering tombwater, and the bloodstone flickered and flared brighter. Her body vanished beneath the cold light without a sound, and the faceless ghost looked sadly on.
Topknot shoved him out of the stone doors, and Jhest lay panting on the ground beneath the starlight. His face was cold from the tears, and the world seemed shadowed and strange.
He lay there for a while, half listening to the other apprentices as they examined Raven’s new Ankh, the red light pulsing and jagged in the windless hollow outside the tomb.
“What a pretty thing it is,” admired Topknot, “And almost as powerful as a Prime, I would say.”
“There hasn’t been a blood witch graduated from the exam in a hundred years,” said one of the tall apprentices, “You’ll make quite a stir when we leave, I’m sure.”
“I thought you were going to choose the boy,” commented Bresh, “He seemed the stronger, the better way to wake it.”
But Raven just smiled a nasty smile and looked at Jhest with scorn.
“We could have consigned him to the tomb, and maybe that would have worked,” Raven scratched in her broken voice, “But her blood was the stronger, oh and look how pretty my stone shines.”
“He still has a use, though, do not doubt it,” declared Topknot, “There isn’t much time left, to be sure, but we might yet have the opportunity for some barter, if we can just find a place to trade.”
Rough hands were forced under Jhest’s arms, pulled him to his feet, and set him staggering to a trot at the front of the party.
“On we go,” croaked Raven, “Along the midnight road.”
Jhest walked on weary feet, and every footfall was like a further dying heartbeat of the doomed world. Time was running out: he could feel it in his marrow.
Since his Ankh had been taken from him, his awareness of the arcana core of this world had been blunted; but he could still sense it, the heave and thrill of increasing instability as the end of the exam drew near.
They topped the rise of the last hill, and there in the sparkling starlight, waters shimmered cold. Jhest had journeyed the breath of this little reality: across the miniature ocean, he was sure, lay the beach upon which he had incarnated.
His weary feet started down a sandy path towards the water, but Raven cried out, and a rough hand pulled him back.
“Not that way, not yet,” said Topknot, “We still have time to walk another path.”
And another path there was.
It led off to one side, and steep down a treacherous expanse of scree, into the deep darkness of an ancient forest. It looked unsafe and threatening; yet Jhest was almost past caring. His friend was dead, his power stolen, his hopes were all but done. The end would come quick, one way or another, so why not the second path, beneath the darkening trees?
Half running, half sliding, the party descended the scree and entered the lee of the forest. Now the stars drew in, and only the awful red light of the bloodstone shone them their way.
Branches scratched at his face and unseen things in the trees above cried out and passed on. Yet nothing challenged them, and suddenly Jhest made out a string of fires, just visible between the encroaching trees.
With a burst of noise as if they were emerging out of deep water, the little party broke from the forest and into a clearing.
The fires were arranged in a ragged ring around the edge of the clearing with one in the middle one much larger bonfire, piled high with fresh-hewn wood damp with mildew that burst in astonishing flares of enchanted flame, green and blue and maroon, sending sparks dancing far into the night. And around this central fire, the market had been set up. Thousands of stalls there were, and what manner of creatures were they that hawked their wares there? Jhest could not name them all. He saw goblins and imps and pixies; sea squirrels and unfamiliar familiars, and who knew what other strange figments of this reality.
They passed into the hustle of the crowd, and all the while the various denizens pressed in close, yet Jhest could feel at his shoulders the weight of Topknot and Raven, pressing closer still. He could feel the burning red of the bloodstone, as if its light was just out of sight, constantly at the back of his eyes; the burden of Raven’s will on him was very heavy.
All sorts of wondrous and unpleasant things there were to buy, though Jhest was fearful to know the price, and for this reason alone: he knew quite well that the only coin the other apprentices had to pay with was himself.
Finally, Topknot pulled them up short to examine the wares of a certain doe-eyed goblin queen, all arrayed in netted silks, bejeweled, bedeviled and bewitching.
“Ah, my handsome young enchanters, the game is nearly done, yet time there is to make a purchase, would a pretty penny you have to spend?”
The goblin queen fluttered and charmed, and spreading a discrete hand over her stall, she revealed to the group her wares.
Topknot went from one fancy trinket to the next, glancing with the eye of a connoisseur, and clearly disregarding immediately six items of every seven.
But on this he stopped and sighed: a golden caged hare inside a silver carving, the cracked husk of an ancient oak, withered and weathered and old as bone.
“Now I have read of these,” said Topknot, and his voice was husky-worn, “Three there were once, maybe, though no one knows for sure. And now but one remains, in this world or any other. What a prize! You’ll want a high price, I’ll be guessing, so name it and we can begin the barter, for time is very short.”
The goblin queen leered at Topknot, and Jhest caught a waft of her spicy perfume, which set his head to spinning.
“The price for this item has already been set, and no bartering is allowed,” she pronounced, and ticking the costs off on her fingers, she continued, “One heart, young. One leg, firm. One eye, sharp. One lip, soft. That is the price, with all it entails, and not one morsel less.”
“Done!” shouted Topknot, clapping his hands together, then clasping the goblin’s very tight, “Here is your price.”
The bloodstone flared bright, and Jhest suddenly realized its awful power, for in that burning scarlet light his own blood leapt to the boil, pounding through his veins like molten lead, and his limbs were not his own. Puppet-like he staggered forward, and his knee sunk, and there he crouched, in oblation before his goblin mistress.
“Ah, it is well done!” crooned the queen, examining carefully with her sharp green eye, “Look how tender he is! He will make a sweet companion, once the offering is complete.”
And with that, she snatched up a black horn knife and began whetting it razor-sharp against her ghastly teeth.
Topknot lifted his prize, the golden hare in the silver oak, and tucked it away in the folds of his cloak. Then he turned without a backwards glance. They were all walking away, Raven and Bresh and the others, when a terrible crack sounded, so loud and deep that the earth itself seemed to shake, and everyone froze very still.
Topknot turned his eyes to the sky, and stared. Above them all, the stars themselves were bursting and gone, for the allotted measure of time had been spent, and this world was coming to an end.
The stars sang and flared and fell and failed. Topknot looked on, and Raven looked on, and the goblin queen stopped her whetting and looked on, and everyone else looked on, too.
All except one. Jhest did not look on.
Instead, he rocked forward as much as he was able, for the bloodstone held his blood still, and he could hardly move. Back and forth, he rocked, back and forth.
He rocked, and he rocked, and he rocked.
And then he fell.
Forward he rolled, and his aim was true and his luck was with him, for he rolled exactly as he intended, and he nicked his hand on the goblin queen’s bitter-sharp knife.
Out flowed his blood, and with the blood flowed the curse of the bloodstone, and suddenly he was free to move.
And move he did. Off he ran into the huddled masses as they gazed skywards at the breaking of the world, and not a moment too soon.
“Hey!” came the shout of the goblin queen, as she realized her prize was escaping, and she looked back and forth between Jhest’s vanishing back and Topknot’s hardening eyes, as if uncertain where to appeal.
But she hesitated too long, and in a moment Jhest had been lost to the crowd, and in a moment more, Topknot and the others had spirited themselves away too, and that just left one poor goblin trader, crying frustrated tears with the world folding up around her, as she desperately rushed to fold up her wares too, with no time now to think of revenge.
All around the midnight marked, the fires flickered and flared. They burst one final time to a spectacular brilliance, then all spluttered to nothing and died.
With the extinguishing of the stars, the world was frightful dark.
Jhest stumbled through the forest, lost and alone. Gradually, the hustle and commotion of the midnight market was lost behind him, and the only sound to hear was a bone-deep shaking and grinding within the earth, low and sour and awful.
He felt numb, mind and body and soul.
I have failed, he thought, I have lost my friend, and I have lost my ankh, and soon the exam will end, and I will have lost it all.
He wondered to himself what it would be like, when this artificial world finally collapsed into itself, taking him with it, smothering the strands of his fabric into the roiling arcana core. What would it be like, to be trapped in the raw chaos stuff of this miniature orb, allowed out only once a year on exam day to walk this little earth, one more figment amongst countless lost souls?
It hardly bore thinking on. Soon enough he would find out.
All at once, the trees ended, and Jhest staggered into the clear air beneath the starless sky. A hillock was before him, though whether it was the one he had descended earlier, who could possibly say?
Listlessly, he began to climb. Halfway up, the earth buckled so violently that he fell to his knees and rolled some way back down, and was nearly swallowed up by a crooked fissure that had opened up in the shaking earth.
He shivered and regained his feet, and recommenced his climb.
He came to a river, and it was flowing the wrong way.
He gazed at the silver eddies and currents, as they dashed from side to side, and the water rolled up the hill and away. Something shifted in his mind. A strand of hope formed.
Follow the impossible river, he sang to himself, and heard the words in the voice of his old lecturer. The real world can be found at the mouth where all the impossible rivers flow. That is the way home.
He began to run.
Faster, faster, faster his feet pounded up the slippery hillside. His heart hammered in his chest, and his breath came thick and fast.
The earth shook once more, but on he ran.
The river was broader now, so broad he could barely see the other side in the darkness. A roaring of water filled his ears. The top of the hill was very close.
With a final desperate cry, he flung himself up the last few feet, and in a single moment all his hopes blossomed, then died.
There indeed the river ran, roaring away from him and joining many others from every direction, rushing and shouting and coming together at last in a great pillar of water that shot upwards into the starless night. That was the way out. That was his hope of salvation.
But he was not alone.
Standing only a little way in front of him, ready and waiting and bathed in that awful red bloodlight, Raven and Topknot stood tall. The other apprentices were nearby. The path out of this world was blocked.
“I told you he would come,” croaked Raven, “I was sure he got away.”
Topknot nodded and smiled a crooked smile.
“And right you were, and I was wrong, and you may then take his life,” he said.
She held out the bloodstone, and a terrible scarlet lit up the hillside.
Jhest felt his will shrink to nothing and die.
The bloodstone took him, and he fell to his knees.
His heart hammered: faster, faster, faster. A crushing pain pressed his chest. He could not still the beating. His life was nearly done.
Distantly, he heard a noise.
A rattling came, quiet at first, but growing louder and louder until a familiar shape cleared the hilltop, and stood there in silhouette against the last light at the end of the world, and suddenly the bloodstone failed, and Jhest found he could breath.
He looked up, and it was just as he remembered.
The cat rode on the pig, which rode on the ebony-dark wagon.
The scarlet light from the bloodstone washed against the dark wood of the wagon, and vanished there without a trace, sucked into the darkness and lost.
Topknot narrowed his eyes, and exchanged a glance with Raven.
The cat yawned cavernously.
“Good morning to you, my lord, my lady,” he purred, and the honor sounded poisoned on his tongue.
“Good morning,” said Topknot stiffly. “And what business do you have with us?”
“Why, my mistress would have words with you,” the cat continued, and with that, there was a nasty little snap, and the door of the wagon creaked open. The darkness within was narrow and full.
Two luminous eyes shone out.
The voice, when it spoke, was as silky smooth and dripping with danger as Jhest remembered.
“And where are you going, my beautiful pilgrims, on the dark morning at the end of this world?”
Silence rushed in from all sides.
Now Topknot had studied long, and he was a most talented student. He knew a lot about tombs and markets and how to awaken bloodstones. Yet he did not know everything.
“I,” stammered Topknot. “I am going.” But he did not know the words, and his voice faltered to nothing and there was silence.
“I have travelled from the bright night of beginnings to the dark morning at the end, and I have been lonely for companions,” moaned the mistress of the wagon.
And the wagon was suddenly filled with light, and out of that searing light reached her long hand from there to here and scooped up Raven and Topknot and the others, and squeezed them very tight, and back they were pulled into the blinding brightness.
And for the second time in one day, Jhest had seen the true form of the mistress of the wagon, and he hoped very dearly never to see it again.
Topknot screamed and Raven screeched and the others made other sounds, and the air totem burst in a burst of wind, and the bloodstone shattered in a grim spreading of bloody light, and then the world was still.
Jhest buried his face in his shaking hands, and heard the wagon door click shut.
“Farewell, traveler,” came the voice of the mistress of the wagon, as it rolled and rattled away. “Perhaps you will join me, another time.”
“Yeah, see ya,” snorted the pig, and then the wagon was gone.
Jhest stood on his shaking legs, and surveyed the world as it came to an end.
The raging pillar of wrongwards water rushed past him and into the sky; and his way was unblocked.
But what good did that do him?
He had no totem.
Without a totem, he had no passage. He was still trapped.
He turned his back to the water and sat down and laughed.
Well, he had tried, hadn’t he?
He had won a totem and lost a totem, and fought and failed. But he had tried.
He glanced over in the direction of the forest, and just as he did so a wave of lightning sparked from the ground to the sky and the whole world was illuminated in a terrible chaos of broken elements and torque, and he saw that entire chunks of this reality were being lifted whole from the earth, and cast shattered and torn to a patchwork ruin of raw magic and bitter motion, and soon he would be taken too; and still he laughed and laughed.
The ground shook at his feet. The end was upon him.
A hand slipped into his own.
He glanced to his left.
Alaine stood by his side.
She was as white and shining as the ghost in the tomb; but she wore her own face, and on her face, a smile.
She kissed him once on the cheek, a single tear in her eye, and whispered something in his ear. Her words were quiet, but they were louder than the roar at the end of the world.
Jhest closed his eyes, and breathed in her smell, one last time.
Then he looked where she had told him, and it was there just as she had said.
The cold weight of the Lightning ankh felt wonderful in his hand.
The bloodstone had burst, along with the other ankhs as soon as they had entered the mistress’s wagon.
But the Lightning ankh had not, of course. It had been used correctly, with the correct words and gestures, and no mistress, wagoned or otherwise, had the Lightning ankh in thrall.
Alaine smiled the ghost of a smile and drifted away to her tomb.
Jhest called through the Ankh, and lightning took him, and he left this little reality a single moment before it collapsed back into the chaos stuff of which it was made.
What comes after is a story of wizards, not students.
By Bo Balder
Malachite, carrying her ailing father on her back, walked towards the city of Amsterdam over the ancient ringway. It had been ten years since she and Father had fled the ruins of their old life over this very road. She couldn’t remember anything about that journey.
“It’s easier to get into Amsterdam than out,” her father quoted the old adage in her ear, brandishing his stick in front of her eyes to underline the wisdom in his words.
The raised highway was blocked-in by ruined, overgrown edifices on both sides, so it was impossible to see where they were going. The old road was surprisingly passable for travelers on foot, but in spite of that few people were using it. Which suited Father, because he said the business of revenge flourished better without advertisement.
Malachite would have liked to speak to the other travelers, to get a feel for the city of their destination, but Father wanted speed and silence. She’d promised him she’d get him back to Amsterdam and to help him avenge her mother and her sisters. Malachite shifted Father’s fragile bones around to a more comfortable position on her back.
At the end of a day’s walking, there was seldom any comfort left. But at least she was seeing something of the world.
“We got out back then,” Malachite said, trying to fathom what the ruined castles lining the broken highway had once been used for. Forts, she guessed, to protect and oversee the great road. She had heard people could shoot from that far away those days, even without special divine powers.
“We did,” her father said. His hand clawed into her shoulder in a way that said, I don’t want to talk about it.
And he didn’t need to. Malachite had been ten years old when they’d left, wise enough to understand her mother and her sisters had died and that they had to flee from the god who had broken its promise. A guilty god was deadlier than an angry god.
Still, it felt uncomfortable to be out of the demesnes of Otte en Liet, the powerful gods of Rotterdam, after ten years of safety. She and her father carried small vials of river water for protection, in brittle but intact plastic bottles that had once been her sisters’, but in the end they’d be on their own. It would be just their wits to go up against Aterscha, the god that had betrayed them and caused their family to die.
The destruction of the known world hadn’t stopped Amsterdam being a home to many gods besides Aterscha, gods of all kinds, big and small, friendly and unfriendly. No other city was as god-rich, no other gods worked so hard to keep their promises and keep their many followers happy. No other cities had a god of fashion, a god of good hair and several gods of great shopping. Said Father.
“Are we going to get there before nightfall?” Malachite asked as she looked at the western sky. She didn’t want to be outside city walls at night, prey to the wild godlets that roamed the open countryside.
“It’s a big town, Mal. Bigger than what’s left of Rotterdam. Older and stronger and with more magic.”
Malachite shivered. She didn’t like magic, never had. She worked in the harbor with her strong back and her big hands. If she never had business with any god but friendly Otte it would be fine with her. Except for this: she still burned with anger for the god that had killed her family and forced them to leave their hometown. For revenge, she would follow her father’s crazy plans.
Father picked the off-ramps he wanted to use. They’d have to walk inwards on the spokes of the imaginary wheel that was Amsterdam.
“Otte and Liet gave us specific instructions,” Father said. “We’d better stick to them. Promises go both ways.”
Malachite knew. One of her best friends when she was little hadn’t delivered the pink hair ribbon she’d promised to the god Oopgoot in exchange for curing her sick bunny, and the girl had ended up hairy, pink-eyed and dead by Christmas.
Here the ancient road descended from the elevated highway and segued into a bridge across the river Amstel.
Two steps on the bridge, Malachite halted. “Shouldn’t we pay homage to the river god?”
She walked over to the parapet to offer some spit, but Father pulled her ear to stop her. “No. Feel it. This is a dead river. Some other god killed Amstel a long time ago, and no one’s managed to claim her territory yet.”
Malachite pushed forward through the muffled, dead air on the bridge. So different from the sparkling exhalations over Otte and Liet. “I’ve never heard of a dead god before.”
“She probably reneged on a promise and all her adorers left her,” Father said.
Malachite shrugged. She couldn’t feel pity for a god. With great power came a great sense of entitlement and whimsy.
At the end of the bridge, she slammed her nose against an invisible barrier. “Ow!”
“I should have looked up the bridge god,” Father said. “Sorry.”
“What tribute does it want?” Malachite said, rubbing her nose.
Father flipped through his precious notebook. He could read and write, something Malachite had never taken to. “Here it is. Mstel bridge, a few drops of blood.”
Guess who was going to offer them? Malachite wiped her bleeding nose and flipped a few drops on the crumbling tarmac. Then she offered a few more for Father.
“Mstel Bridge, can we cross?” Father asked loudly.
No answer came.
Father shrugged. “I guess we’re good.” A little gingerly they crossed the spot where Malachite had hit her nose, but nothing happened this time.
Father relaxed and ruffled her hair, which she hated. “See? We can do this.”
Malachite hoisted Father higher and steered down the ramp into the city. Roads went right and left, with straight ahead a crumbling wall of old row houses. The old pavement here was covered with only a few inches of water and lined with skeletal relics of once green trees. Father had told her the inner city had a lot of planking pavement to keep dry, or used boats. No planking here, though, they’d get wet feet.
“Where to?” she asked.
A tall man with a tall black hat sprang from behind the trunk of a water-killed plane tree.
“Hello strangers! I sell a styptic to stop your bleeding, clean cloths, healing spells, vials with ten bridge crossings for the frequent traveler, and for only a little more, the protection of my god Eldestra.”
Malachite looked up at Father. He could use several of these items. But would he?
Father looked around, past the godseller. “What about dry feet?”
The godseller shook his head.
“Thank you, my good man,” Father said. “I will take your styptic and decline the protection of your god for now.”
The tall man wrung his hands. “The styptic, dear sir, only two florins. But if you become a member of Eldestra’s church, for one florin per month, the styptic costs only one florin! Much more cost-effective to join Eldestra’s temple! He offers excellent healing and insurance against small wounds, better breathing near the river and a guaranteed protection against mosquito bites.”
That didn’t sound too bad, but Malachite knew Father would never join the first church that crossed his path.
“I’m not saying a definitive no,” Father said, “I’m new to this city, I must weigh my options.” He held out the two florins for the styptic.
The godseller contorted his long narrow body, hitching out his elbows, waggling his hat, but he could find no new words to convince Father. Finally he parted with the styptic and called after them when they turned away: “Eldestra is not a vengeful god! You can change your mind anytime!”
Father tapped her right shoulder. Malachite turned right. A voice whispered in her left ear: “Pretty girl, I will take your subscription for free. Just nod to accept my token and you needn’t even ask your father for permission.” That must be the god himself, throwing his voice in her ear.
Malachite shook no. She wasn’t a pretty girl by any means, but even if he’d called her a strong and independent young woman, she didn’t want to have anything to do with unknown gods.
“Shoo!” her father called out.
The god’s presence dissipated.
Not far ahead of them, a river glittered under the afternoon sun. When they reached the half-submerged quay, Malachite finally dared look back. The tall man in the top hat was accosting another traveler.
“Are all gods like that here?” she asked Father. “I don’t remember that.”
“Probably they just trouble new arrivals,” Father said. “Gods need worshipers, that’s a well-known fact. I think the Amsterdammers aren’t as god-steady as the folk in Rotterdam, but I would be surprised if we saw any more of these fellows.” He nodded at the river. “Set me down and get your flask of Otte, dear.”
She slid him off her back, steadying him until he found his balance. “But that’s our protection! What are you going to do with it?”
Father pressed his lips together. He’d been like this ever since they left Rotterdam. He’d instructed her in what he wanted her to do, but not why. If they hadn’t shared the goal of vengeance…
“Bend over the parapet, dear, careful. It’s old. Now smell the river, sense it.”
Malachite did as he asked. There was nothing. She just smelled river water, dark and cool. No god fizzled just under the surface, imbuing the stream with meaning and purpose. It was empty.
Father looked around furtively and pulled his hood up further. “I can tell you now, I guess. Not that I don’t trust you, but if a god had taken you, you were better off not knowing.”
She watched with growing unease as he took both their flasks and poured them out into the dead river.
“The river Amstel encircles the town of Amsterdam and flows through all its canals and flooded streets. Otte and Liet hope to take it over.”
He gave the empty flasks to Malachite to string on her leather necklace and hide under her shirt. He grabbed her arm. “Come. We must get to the center of town before the evening curfew.”
Malachite crouched so he could climb back up on her back. They plodded on through the cold, dank, ankle-deep water beside the river. Tall buildings bordered it on all sides, some more or less intact, others just a heap of rubble. People lived in those buildings, judging from the lines of washing and playing children, as well as the midden heaps. Walking dikes had been created from the rubble, and Malachite used them whenever possible. Better than trudging through the water over ancient, slippery cobblestones.
“Isn’t this the city already?” Malachite asked.
Father shook his head. “Amsterdam is like a layered cake. This is just one of the outer layers. We have to get deeper in.”
At the ruins of another bridge, they turned away from the river. Malachite sneaked a last look backwards. The river oozed grey-green like before. Maybe it hadn’t worked. Or maybe it took centuries, who knew with gods?
As she walked through older, yet less flood-ruined streets, more and more people were out and about. Amsterdammers wore god-stamp tattoos on their foreheads, and not temporary ones either. Amsterdam was not like Rotterdam, where religion was more of a private matter. Rotterdammers discerned each other’s gods by subtle hints in clothing and hairstyle, like the braids Malachite wore at her temples for Otte. The elaborate tattoos on the citizens’ foreheads looked like disfigurement to Malachite. Especially since several people sported gnarly scars there, that had been tattooed over in more or less successful ways. Apparently it wasn’t easy to change religion here.
The houses wore skirts of planking, so customers needn’t step in the middle of the road, where a foot or more of dirty water sloshed. Shops sold all kinds of wares, pre-god tins and clothes that would never fade or rot, springy shoes, but also fresh produce and fish.
“Where is Aterscha’s temple? Aren’t we going there?”
“Shh. Don’t mention his name here. He might hear. I don’t want his attention on us just yet.” Father rubbed the old burn scar on his chest, through his shirt and vest. He’d burned off Aterscha’s tattoo after the flood.
In Rotterdam Father’s plan had seemed clear and well-detailed. But now they were here, she realized that she didn’t know half that she should. Father had a detailed plan, but she wasn’t privy to it.
As they wended their way to very center of the city, the fabled Dam plaza, godsellers and temple touts accosted them at every corner. Malachite put her head down and plodded on.
The narrow, crowded street opened out onto a big circular space, surrounded by more or less intact palaces. Malachite gaped. They were so tall, and even the roofs seemed intact, and glass shone in every window. She’d never seen so many old buildings in one place. The plaza was full of people, doves, gesticulating men on wooden crates, musicians, street organs and a buzzing din of many people speaking all at once.
A big hairy face thrust itself between her and IJenkorf Palace. “New in town? You need protection against all these people accosting you. That can’t be pleasant for a genteelly raised young lady like you. Subscribe to Eidsestra, one of the oldest gods in Amsterdam. He knows what women like! He guarantees good manners, cleanliness and prosperity.”
Malachite turned her face away. Genteel. There had been no time or money for genteel. She’d had to work hard to keep herself and Father alive. Maybe Mother had been genteel, although Malachite was a bit fuzzy on the exact meaning of the word.
The face was not to be deterred. “You prefer a female god? How about Allen, she’s the god of women. Pleasure in bed, plenty of men, and good health as well. How about it? Special reduction today, decide quickly, you’ll never get a better deal!”
Malachite put her arms about her head. “Father!” she said.
Father asked to be put off and hobbled up to the trader, leaning on his stick. “We’re together,” he said pleasantly. “Who is the best god or goddess for fathers and daughters? Or in fact, whole families?”
The bearded tout scratched his head. Malachite was sure she saw something moving. He must not subscribe to Eidsestra for cleanliness himself.
“How about Unt, Aterscha or Ictoriahotel? They cater to families.”
That sounded like the truth. Malachite wondered why he didn’t go on plugging his own god.
Father curled his lip. “Those old and worn godlings? Come on, is that the best you can do?”
The bearded seller fell back, confused. Others leapt into the gap.
“Here, Oorburgwal! Asnapolsky! Good health, sharp hearing, luck in games, healthy offspring–”
Malachite clapped her hands over her ears. So many people shouting at her, men and women, brandishing tokens and colorful arrays of god stamps on their hands and faces, amulets in dozens around their necks, ready to tie around the new adorers’ necks.
“Which one of you is the best and cheapest god?” Father asked.
Malachite frowned. He’d said they’d find Aterscha’s temple and destroy it. This, what he was doing now, seemed completely unrelated to that goal.
He made a chopping motion to silence her.
Malachite retreated a step, angry. More he hadn’t told her. What did he think, that she would blab details to their enemy? She crossed her arms.
“Who needs gods?” a soft voice said in her ear.
Malachite turned around to the voice. A friendly, smiling woman with an ugly scar on her forehead smiled at her.
“You look like you did once,” Malachite answered, not caring that she sounded rude.
“My parents dedicated me to the temple of Amrak,” the woman continued, in that soft, smooth voice. “But when I grew up I realized I didn’t need any god. And I’ve prospered. So I decided to help others.” She held up an arm full of blank amulets. “See, this is the sign of godlessness. Buy one and you will be protected against any and all gods.”
Malachite snorted. “And who’s doing the protecting? The god of godlessness?”
The woman shook her head. “We subscribe to no god. We are free of them. That means we have to help each other, because we can’t rely on subscriptions.”
Again the woman sounded truthful, not boasting of her godless powers but just stating its limits. Malachite expected sellers to oversell the qualities of their products. She smiled at the woman. She seemed nice.
“Malachite!” her father rasped out. “Come here. Pay attention, girl.”
Malachite sighed but went. He was her father. She’d promised. She looked back for the woman, but she’d disappeared into the crowd.
“Repeat what you just said,” Father asked a godseller, a giant dark brown man hung with a staggering amount of amulets. His face crawled with competing god stamps, none of them defaced.
“My gods have joined forces and so they can offer you much better terms than single gods,” he started his spiel. “I carry clean drinking water guarantees, your fire starting up at the first try, living through childbirth, a full belly.”
“Don’t believe that full belly nonsense!” a woman screeched. “My daughter’s belly felt always full when we subscribed to Eisteeg, but she almost died because she wasn’t hungry. It was only when we subscribed to Aterscha that she grew healthy again.”
“Aterscha, you say?” Father said, inviting the woman godseller to join in the pitch.
The many-tattooed man threw the woman a dark look from under his turquoise-stamped brow. “Stay out of this, I was here first.”
A small flame shot out from his upheld hand. A nasty singed odor perfumed the air.
The man prostrated himself with a shriek. “Am, my apologies, Am! I meant no disrespect, I really thought I was first.”
The faces looked down at him greedily, then fell when nothing further happened to him.
“No need to boast,” Father said with a honeyed voice. “Certainly not if Am objects to it. I’m new to Amsterdam, and I’m fascinated with all these gods you have. How many gods are there? Which one is a wise choice for a newcomer?
Malachite recognized Father’s tone. It was best to stay silent and wait him out. He used the same voice as when he used to quiz her when she still went to school, tripping her up and making her feel stupid.
Godsellers thrust themselves between her and Father. They shouted, brandished amulets and rubber stamps, praising their god’s benefits, reduced their prices for a subscription several times.
Father played them masterfully. He’d shush the crowd, ask one godseller to elaborate, make the man or woman think he was going to get a subscription and then said he needed some time to think.
Malachite glanced at the clock on top of one the palaces. It seemed to be working. Almost five, curfew time in autumn. At the first clang of the hour, the sellers became even more frantic.
“I can’t decide!” Father said. “Quick, you there, Aterscha tout, give me two–”
The Aterscha seller whipped two necklaces over his head.
“No, no, I don’t mean Aterscha, I mean, who did I mean, Malachite?”
Father said, “I know, I know, I want a ten year full benefits program from…eh.” The clock struck four.
“No, I’ve changed my mind, a day stamp from Okin for me and my daughter.”
He yanked Malachite’s hand forward, and just in time the dazed and happy Okin seller stamped their palms with virulent green ink.
The clock struck five and the crowd of sellers fell silent. They couldn’t ply their trade until nine o’clock the next morning. Father and Malachite received some dark looks.
“I’ll think about it tonight, good sellers, so I can make a better informed, more longtime commitment tomorrow!”
The godsellers departed home, muttering, but not actively hostile. They would get another chance tomorrow.
Father hugged Malachite. “Day one went well, don’t you think? Exactly as planned.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Malachite said sourly. “You didn’t tell me anything.”
“With good reason,” Father said. “Your face can be read like a book.”
“What are you up to?” the godlessness seller remarked behind Malachite’s back. Malachite’s heart jumped. She hadn’t realized the woman was still around.
“Hi!” she said with a wide smile.
“Who are you, then?” Father asked.
“I sell freedom, during working hours, that is,” the godless woman said, making sure the vigilant god Am didn’t misunderstand her.
“It’s not really freedom,” Malachite said. “It’s a like a favor from the gods.”
“A favor is a promise,” the woman said. “Promises are serious business, for gods.”
Father frowned, but didn’t answer. “Come girl, let’s find lodgings for the night.”
“My name is Gretta,” the woman called after them. “Find me tomorrow, I’ll keep a place open for you!”
Father climbed on her back and directed her to the north. “Do you believe Gretta?” she panted. She looked back several times, and each time Gretta still stood there, staring after them. Malachite liked that. She wanted to see the woman again. Someone who’d talk to her instead of Father. All these men acting like she was invisible.
Father shrugged. “I don’t care about godliness or godlessness, so it doesn’t matter if I believe her or not. But I don’t have time to strike up acquaintance with anyone, certainly not with a godseller.”
The next morning Malachite woke cramped and hungry. It had taken her a long time to find lodging, and they’d had to make do with cold porridge and old tea for dinner. They’d climbed to their room in darkness, only briefly lighting the stub of candle to stow their packs and find a spot to sleep on.
Malachite crept to the tiny window in their attic room, looking for a clock tower. She discovered several, but since they all seemed to have stopped at a different time, there was no saying what time it really was. The sun was up and her stomach demanded breakfast.
She touched a finger to Father’s shoulder and scuttled backwards when he twitched awake. “Fire!” he shouted.
He often woke up like that. Malachite didn’t know why. It wasn’t fire that had killed her mother and sisters.
Father scrubbed his eyes. The green godstamp on his hand was already fading. It would protect them from whatever the god in question protected people from until the end of the afternoon.
“Good morning, dear. Did you sleep well?”
Malachite grunted. She’d taken the floor, in deference to Father’s years, but she’d been cold and awoken many times in the night.
She needed breakfast.
“Let’s go down and see what breakfast the landlady has for us.”
Malachite got up and made for the door.
“You’re forgetting the pack, dear.”
Malachite turned. “We’re not going to stay here tonight? Why?” It wasn’t as if this was a wonderful place, it was too low for her under the attic beams, it wasn’t heated and the bed was too narrow for two. But still. It felt safe, just because she’d slept here for the night and nothing bad had happened. And she didn’t want to lug their baggage around another day. Loitering in city streets was far more tiring than walking with a purpose.
“We don’t want to be easily found, Mal,” Father said with a sigh. “You know that, I’ve explained it to you many times.”
“But we didn’t give our real names. How would anyone find us?”
Father combed his hair with his fingers. “Gods have ways. We’re good for today, we’ve got this godstamp that will hide us from other gods. We’ll walk past Aterscha’s temple while we’re invisible, see how he’s doing. Then in the afternoon, we’ll start the bidding again.”
Malachite sighed. “You promised me we’d go see our old house. When are we going to do that?”
Father bound his greasy hair back with an old leather tie. “All right, we can walk close to it when we’re going to A–his Temple. But promise you’ll keep walking and that you won’t stare or talk to the neighbors.”
“Will they remember me?” Malachite said.
“Maybe. But you’ve changed a lot. I should wear a hat and a muffler, I guess. I’ve only gone a bit grey.”
Malachite bit her lip and said nothing. She remembered Father tall and strong with brown hair, a big laugh and a stride like a giant. Little danger there.
Their one-night landlady served them warm porridge, salt herring, boiled beets and mint tea for breakfast. Malachite tucked in. The room had been grotty, but the breakfast was grand stuff.
Malachite hoisted Father and backpack and walked back toward Dam Plaza. Malachite felt warm and stuffed from the lavish breakfast.
They crossed bigger streets and wended through narrow alleys. Across another semi-circular canal an enormous temple rose up. “The Wester Temple, home to Aterscha,” Father said.
“Where’s our house? You promised to take us past it,” Malachite said.
“I did. I just didn’t tell you. Apparently you didn’t recognize it,” Father said and stared up at the church’s tall steeple.
Tears burned in her eyes. What was going on with Father? She wasn’t sure if he’d been deliberately cruel or just preoccupied with his thoughts of revenge. She craned her neck to look back the way they’d come. She didn’t even know what to look for. She remembered their kitchen garden out back, and the steps leading up to it. Right, up to it! So it had been a subterranean apartment. Which would now be flooded and inaccessible.
“That’s A–his sign all right,” Father said. “Those crossed bars. Look at these stained glass windows. He must have had them repaired, that means a lot of funds and new subscribers. I thought he might have perished because he didn’t keep his promises and all his subscribers would have left.” He rubbed his chest, as he always did when thinking about or talking of Aterscha.
Malachite hesitated a moment longer, but Mother’s angry frown convinced her. She turned on her heels and went back to look for the old house.
“Hey!” Father shouted and pulled her ear. “Turn back. Right now, young lady.”
“I want to see the house,” Malachite said.
“See if you can find it on your own,” he sneered.
Her eyes were drawn to a narrow, crooked house in the middle of a row of similar houses. The floodmark, apparently never cleaned off, rode higher than Malachite’s head.
“Here!” she told Father. “I remember it.”
It wasn’t quite true, but when she peered through the broken windows she glimpsed half-remembered bits of mantelpiece and a mahogany cupboard, miraculously still holding a few plates in the rack.
Just peeking into the window didn’t seem like enough. Malachite looked around quickly and when she saw nobody, she pushed against the door. It was locked.
“Father,” she said, “give me the key.”
Father blew a raspberry. “Why with Otte would I still have that after all these years?”
Malachite set him down hard on the slippery cobbles and held out her hand. “Now.”
Father hemmed and hawed but in the end he gave her the key. “What are you doing, girl? Didn’t you promise to help me? Don’t you want revenge?”
“Yes,” Malachite said distractedly and turned the key in the lock. The incredibly familiar sound unlocked a door in her mind she hadn’t known existed. Behind the door a flood of emotions streamed in. Good ones, such as happiness about her father coming home. Sad ones, about the flood and her sisters, her mother, anger against the god. And against her father.
She heard her mother’s long-ago shout at her father. “You and your plans! Why did you go and subscribe to that crazy god? What’s wrong with Ordaan, I’d like to know? He’s always done right by us.”
“My dear, allow me to know best about these decisions,” her father answered. “Aterscha promised great things, you know. Things like clean water and no red sicknesses for the girls. Doesn’t that sound good?”
Deep in remembrance, Malachite stumbled through the door and stood in a musty hallway. The wooden floorboards sagged with every step, waterlogged and rotten. Every yard she ventured further into the dim interior, more memories rose up. The hatstand, a discolored ball left behind, the view of the small yard through a green-scummed back door. She had slept in a small alcove off the front room. She wanted to see it one more time.
She pushed the door to the front parlor open. It fell off the hinges with a wet plop. The room had grown a carpet of moss and mushrooms. Its wet smell rose up and stifled her.
A strange growth poked up through the thick moldy shag. A thin, jointed mushroom in bone-white.
Malachite turned away and deposited her breakfast in a corner. Father put a cool hand on her neck. Malachite looked up.
“That’s why I didn’t want you to go in,” he said in a clogged voice. “I didn’t want you to see this.”
Malachite wiped hot tears off her face. “Why was Mother so angry with you?” she asked.
“It was my fault,” Father said. “I should never have subscribed to Aterscha. Most people who’d stayed with Ordaan survived.”
Malachite looked into Father’s eyes. For the first time in years, she felt him being present for her, not mired in his own pain as usual. The connection flared briefly in her heart and then went away as Father averted his head and shuffled off.
Malachite remained behind. She wanted to bask in the glow of connection a bit longer. It wasn’t likely to happen again soon, if ever. Father did love her, he just didn’t know how to show it. Yes, it was Father’s fault. So what? He was paying for it every minute of his life.
With a new spring in her step she went out, locked the rotting door and returned the key to Father. Wordlessly, she knelt and offered him her back. He climbed on and they continued in silence. A different kind of silence than before.
“Did he kill only our family or others as well?” Malachite asked.
“Many, many others. That’s why he’s moved his temple, I think. Nobody here knows how he failed them.”
A man staggered out of the temple. He threw his head back and howled at the sky. Clearly possessed by a god, presumably Aterscha. Gods liked the open sky and demanded worshipers use their vocal chords for no reason anyone had ever managed to find out.
Father’s head whipped around at the sound. “Don’t stand there gawking, girl, he might notice us. Come, kneel to tie your shoelaces. Only concentrate on your shoes, nothing else.”
As Malachite bent down, the empty god flagons under her shirt rustled and warmed. Did they still contain traces of Otte and Liet, maybe getting excited at the presence of another god?
Father hummed a melody and swung his stick.
“What are you thinking of?” Malachite whispered.
Father believed the attention of a god could be deflected if you seemed completely preoccupied with something other than god. She’d wanted to ask Otte or Liet if it was true, but Father had forbidden it. He thought that perhaps gods communicated with each other on a level only accessible to them.
“All right, go, back to Dam Square. We have godsellers to attract.”
Malachite strode through alleys and over humpbacked bridges with Father directing as if he knew every inch of the way.
On Dam Square they bought fries and mayonnaise, eating while Father scouted out the godsellers whose attention he wanted to draw.
Malachite spotted the godless woman Gretta across the square. She felt her face split in a smile, but she didn’t dare wave at her where Father might see it.
Father hobbled around, dodging the godsellers that approached him because they saw his fading day stamp. Malachite followed him in case he needed support. Maybe she should get a job when all this was over. Amsterdam had a harbor. There would always be work for a good stevedore.
The hours struck by. Father loitered on the edges of the square, keeping his head down and his godstamp out of sight. Then he spotted something because he walked off so abruptly Malachite almost lost him in the thickening crowd.
“You there,” Father whispered urgently. “Are you a betting man?”
The man shifted his chew straw from left to right in his mouth. “Could be. What do you want to bet on?”
“Well, not quite like that,” Father said. “I’ve got a proposition for you. Do you ever bet on which god people will subscribe to?”
The betting man exchanged a glance with his pals. “Never, stranger. Not going to, either. I’d be a fool to interfere in the business of the gods. Especially not here in the square. Am reinforces his curfew, and he prohibits lying as well.”
“It’s not lying if you do it right,” Father said. “Listen up. I’m a stranger, as you rightly spotted, and well done, sir. My godstamp is going to run out at the end of the day. I’m going to need a new subscription. Now what if I told you fellows to bet on a certain god, but I strung the godsellers along for a goodly time and everybody thought I’d take another subscription than I was planning to?”
The man pushed his ratty old hat back on his forehead and scratched his temple. “What’s my stake? Can’t see any.”
“Just hear me out? You work the crowd and call out you’re taking bets on who’s going to get me and my daughter’s subscription. You’ll collect. I get an unexpected subscription, you’ve won a lot of bets.”
“Why would you do that?” the betting man asked. “What’s in it for you? I don’t trust no proposition that only seems to benefit me.”
“Well, I want half your take,” Father said. “Simple as that. I need money to live on and find something more permanent here.”
“Easier ways to do that,” the betting man said. “Just subscribe to a god and the congregation will find you a job.”
“It sounds simple to you, maybe, but for a foreigner like me, it’s just hard to choose between all these gods. What if I pick one I find uncongenial? What if they don’t have work that suits me?”
“You’re a choosy bugger, you are,” the betting man said, but it sounded almost admiring. “You know what, I don’t think there’s any harm in it. I don’t see why the gods would object. Am hasn’t burned us for thinking or talking about it, why would he care if we actually did it? Right, fellows?”
His pals nodded.
Father and the betting man made their deals while the cronies surrounded them to shroud them from the godsellers’ sight.
Malachite’s attention slid away from the whispered numbers and counter-numbers Father exchanged with the betting man. Above the looming roofs of the Dam palaces the sky winked blue and inviting. At home she’d have been at work under this sky, feeling the weight of boxes and bales on her shoulders, pushing her down to earth, making her feel real. Here it was as if she could float away on the wind any moment, nothing to hold her feet on the ground.
She touched her palm, but the green godstamp had no fullness to it and she just felt her own weather-roughened skin. Why was she still alive, while her sisters Rosemary and Rosequartz weren’t? Had the god judged her and found her wanting?
Father’s bark startled her out of her reverie.
“Come with me girl, don’t stand there dreaming. I made a deal with Yoris and we’ve got to get to work.”
“What do you want me to do?” Malachite said, perking up at the thought of a task ahead.
“Stand close to me and listen carefully.”
“And then what?”
“Nothing, just do as I say.”
Malachite mulled this all-too familiar answer over as they threaded their way through the throngs to the old monument of some long-forgotten war on the right leaf of the square. Father would never let her take any responsibility. Not in things that mattered to him. He was fine with her breaking her back in the harbor and bringing home good wages, fish, and bits of damaged cargo.
As before, Father became besieged with godsellers in minutes. His daystamp was visibly fading. Godsellers of all genders, colors, sizes and style of delivery shouted so loud she couldn’t follow them. Anyway, she already knew what was going to happen. She let her eyes glide over the frantic crowd, rolling her shoulders and rejoicing in the lack of weight on them. She could stand straight and breathe deeply.
There, Yoris the betting man slithered through and placed himself on the steps of the monument. “It’s like a puppet show, isn’t it, good people? Which god is the traveler going to pick? Anyone wants to make a little money? I’ll take bets who it’s going to be. What do you think, Okin, Amrak, Alverstra? Take your pick, good people, come to me and I’ll tell you the odds. Maybe he won’t pick your god, but you’ll still have a chance of making money this afternoon!”
One man came up to Yoris, but turned away in disgust. Malachite knew she shouldn’t be watching Yoris, but here eyes kept slipping back to him. He moved around and repeated his pitch in another location in the crowd. As the afternoon wore on more and more godsellers took a chance on a bet with him.
As before, Father let the godsellers work to the last minute before five. The presence of Am loomed over the crowd, godly breath tickling their necks. Am took his curfew seriously, and everybody knew they wouldn’t get the few second’s leeway as they might have gotten on a less noteworthy afternoon.
The first bell of five o’clock tolled. Malachite’s attention sharpened.
“Aterscha, you’ve given me great odds, any chance of a reduction in price?” Father asked.
The Aterscha seller threw Father a disgusted look. “You’re going to pull that same trick on me again, right? Fine, a ten year subscription, first year free, all children and spouses free, added bonus of good housing and clean water.”
The second bell tolled.
“How about flood warnings and safety?”
The seller snorted. “Aterscha doesn’t do that, you’d have to ask other gods.”
“Well,” Father said, “in that case, I think I’ll be going with…”
The crowd drew a collective breath and held it.
“I have a deal for you, stranger,” a new voice started, nervously. Malachite couldn’t see where the speaker was.
“Okay, no more time to think, it’s going to be…Amrak.”
The crowd sighed in relief.
“–florins!” the nervous voice shrieked.
Now Malachite could see who’d spoken, because all his neighbors cringed away from him as fast as they possibly could.
It was a small man with only one god amulet over his arm, who looked horrified and started to bow. But before he could abase himself, he burst into flame. A pork-like smell invaded the air, but only briefly, and within seconds the man had burnt to a crisp and fallen to ashes. The crowd drew back and touched their tattoos.
Malachite gasped. How harsh of Am to burn that man for a few words of huckstering past curfew. Otte and Liet would never do that.
The Aterscha seller spit at Father’s feet. “See what you caused? I don’t know what you’re playing at, foreigner, but I don’t like it. There’s ways to get you kicked out of Amsterdam, you know.”
“I thought the gods wanted as many citizens as possible,” Father said.
“Ach. You’re hopeless. Don’t let me catch you here tomorrow,” the Aterscha seller said as he shouldered his way out of the tight crowd around Father.
Malachite’s gaze found Yoris. The betting man smiled widely and tipped his hat to Father. Then he walked off.
Malachite and Father waited until the crowd had thinned. Then they walked another route than Yoris had taken.
“Shouldn’t we go after him and get our money?” Malachite asked.
“Mal, weren’t you listening? We arranged a meeting point beforehand.”
“But what if he doesn’t go there?”
Father shrugged. “That would be a nuisance. But I think he’ll be there. He’s thinking that tomorrow he can make even more money. Didn’t you see the betting going crazy at the end? People like this kind of thing. They don’t know what I’m doing and why, but it’s entertainment. He’ll be there.”
Malachite soldiered on, following Father’s direction. It had been a long day. Standing around and waiting was far more tiring than stevedoring.
They wended through the ancient alleys until Father pointed out a street corner café.
Yoris was already ensconced at the bar, counting money. He nodded at Father, lifting a finger for another draught beer. Father accepted it gratefully and drank it down in one gulp. He burped and asked for another. Malachite coughed. Father glanced at her, and without acknowledging her ordered her a small beer.
Even after their brief moment of connection, he wasn’t behaving any better towards her. Maybe Mother was right, and his preoccupation and selfishness needed to be punished.
“You did me a favor, foreigner without a name,” Yoris said. “Here, fifty-three florins for you. Do you want to join forces tomorrow?”
Father’s shoulders lowered, but Malachite thought Yoris wouldn’t have noticed the subtle signs of relaxation. “Thanks, I would. Not exactly the same, though. Here’s my thoughts.”
Malachite tried to follow the explanation, but it was too hard in the café’s pleasant warmth, with her belly full of beer.
A hand landed on her elbow. Malachite drowsily turned her head. The woman smiled at her. It was Gretta again. Malachite smiled up at her.
“Can I offer you something to eat?” Gretta asked.
“Can you read my mind?”
“No. But you rubbed your stomach. And I’ve been young too, though not as strapping as you, and I was always hungry.”
“Thanks, I’d love to.” Malachite looked around for her father, but he was drinking beer with the betting man and his cronies. He wouldn’t mind, she hoped.
Gretta ordered pea soup and smoked smelt with beer. The woman ate sparingly while Malachite wolfed her meal.
“Are you and your father going to stay in Amsterdam?” she asked when Malachite was mopping up the last of the soup with a heel of old bread.
Malachite chewed while she thought her answer over. The truth was, she didn’t know. If Father got what he wanted, some kind of vengeance on Aterscha, what then? Originally, Malachite had wanted to return to Rotterdam and resume her life there.
But now that she was here she thought she might like to stay. She liked the old houses, the old brick and canal scent, the trees, the small harbor. Maybe some part of her felt at home, who knew? She’d spent the first eight years of her life here, although she didn’t consciously remember much of them. She could find work.
“Maybe I will stay here,” Malachite said and started on the rest of the stale bread basket. Peas and smelt were filling, but she was still hungry. Always had been.
“But not your father?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we’ll return to Rotterdam, I don’t know.” Malachite halted, conscious of blabbing out all kinds of things. But nothing important, she was sure.
“Done?” Gretta asked.
“Done with what?” Father put his arm around Malachite’s shoulders. “Time we were off home, dear. Say goodbye to the nice lady.”
Malachite frowned into her stale bread. Father thought she’d been speaking out of turn. “I haven’t said anything!” she said.
Gretta’s mouth twitched. It made Malachite furious. She wasn’t stupid. If only people would tell her things instead of smirking and making veiled remarks.
“Don’t be angry at the child, foreigner. I’m Gretta, seller of godlessness. What are you planning? Your antics have made quite a stir among the godsellers.”
Father deliberated. “You speak as if you’re not one of them. Yet don’t you peddle amulets like the others, only without benefits?”
Gretta’s eyes blazed. “No benefits? What about freedom? Freedom to choose where you live, what kind of work you do, what to think.”
“No god ever impeded my freedom to think,” Father said. “But what about poverty and health, bad luck and bad weather? Gods protect us against those.”
“I am not,” Gretta said. “I know we used to be, though. We used to create our own medicine, our own insurance, our own dykes against the ravages of disease and flooding. Why shouldn’t we do so again?”
Father’s eyebrows rose. Malachite could practically feel his interest evaporate. “Preach all you like, my good woman, but not to me. I’m going to find lodging for the night.”
“Stay at our hotel,” Gretta said. “You’ve purchased an Amrak stamp, but no one has offered you shelter and food, have they? We will, because we believe in people looking after people. Not trusting gods to do so.”
Father didn’t walk away at once. Malachite pulled Father’s sleeve. “Why not, Father? We have to sleep somewhere.”
“How much?” Father asked.
“It’s free,” Gretta said. “Though you might have to listen to us talk over breakfast.”
Father’s mouth twitched. “That’s a steep price, but I’ll pay it. Come, Mal.”
Malachite sauntered after Father and Gretta as they navigated the dark streets, only here and there lit by oil lamp shine from inhabited houses or street corner cafés. She had made this happen, she had made new interesting friends. She. Not Father, with all his wiles and machinations and dark thoughts.
The room Father and Malachite had slept in not only had two comfortable beds, it had a chair and a desk and even a carpet. Malachite woke up in sunshine, as morning light reflected off the smooth canal surface below her window. The glass was intact, the ancient double kind, with only a bit of a haze at the corners and edges.
Father grunted as he woke up. “I have to meet with Yoris again, dear. This is the last day, though. We’re going to get that god, make him pay!”
These angry thoughts propelled Father out of bed. He bent and stretched to unkink his stiff old muscles.
“Breakfast first?” Malachite asked.
In the big room downstairs twenty or so people sat around big tables to eat. Others rushed back and forth with porridge, hot boiled eggs, tea and light beer. A great breakfast. She would have liked some fish as well.
She was just finishing off her second bowl of porridge, when Father stood up. Already? It was so nice and warm here and no one bothered her with god talk.
“You can stay,” Father said and tousled her hair like he’d used to when she was younger. “I’ll come pick you up later, when we go to Dam Square again. Is that all right with you, Gretta?”
Gretta nodded. “I think Mal has had enough of hanging out on the streets.”
Father threw her a killing stare but Gretta bore it without flinching.
Gretta was so great, Malachite wanted to be like her. As she watched Father’s stooped back depart, she thought of never seeing him again, and staying here among the godless. There was a faint twinge of guilt, but no sadness at all.
She’d just settled into the washing up with Gretta when the outer door flew open, men’s voices shouting and panicking. Gretta put a hand on her shoulder.
Malachite put her half-dry plate down. “What?”
Gretta looked stricken. Why?
Malachite shouldered past the woman into the hallway, towards the shouting. She had no idea what was going on, yet somewhere inside she already knew. Something with her father. Her breath rasped in her throat and her hands felt thick and stiff like work gloves.
The throng of shouting men prevented any glimpse of whoever was being carried inside.
“Father!” Malachite called out. “Is that you?”
The men fell silent, as if recognizing her right to be more upset than they were, and opened ranks.
Father lolled between two men, blood on his brow and on his shirt. His feet dragged will-less over the floor, one shoe missing.
Gretta grabbed Malachite from behind and stopped her from throwing herself onto Father.
“He’s hurt, Malachite, don’t touch him. We’ll take care of him.” And to the men: “Take him to the front parlor.”
Malachite could only stand frozen as the men dragged Father’s broken form to the front parlor, onto the ancient couch.
Gretta bent over him, feeling his pulse, touching his face. She opened his shirt and touched his distended stomach. Her face fell. “Malachite, he’s been beaten badly. Go boil some rags in the kitchen. Clean water, mind.”
Malachite’s feet grew roots. All her irritation about Father had flown out of her head. He was her family. The kindness of strangers weighed nothing compared to the indifference of a parent. “What happened?”
One of the men said they’d rescued him from a group of Aterscha subscribers and godsellers. They wanted him to keep away from Dam Square.
Malachite nodded, and kept nodding until her head swung loose on her neck. “That fellow with the amulets, he warned Father before.”
“Sit down, girl,” Gretta said. “Hold his hand, gently, and talk to him while we wash his wounds.”
Malachite sank down on the footstool and grasped Father’s hand. It was cold and limp, and so heavy. She lifted it onto her lap and stroked it gently. “Father, dear Father,” she said, and then didn’t know how to go on. “I’m staying with you, right here,” she said. That was pointless as well. What did you say to a sick and…her thoughts stuttered. Sick people could get well.
Someone came in with hot water. She should have gotten that! She wasn’t doing anything right.
She sneaked a peak at Father’s bared belly. It was swollen hard and shiny. She hastily looked up towards his face. That seemed almost worse, although she feared the way the belly looked. His eyes were blackened and puffed to slits, his lip was cut up and one side of his face seemed strange, as if had shifted from its former shape.
“Father, say something.”
Father’s bleeding lips shifted and produced sound. He didn’t open his eyes, maybe because he couldn’t.
Her belly turned cold. “I can’t hear you,” she said.
She bent her head closer to his face. “It’s all set up with Yoris,” Father said. “Take over the bidding for me. They won’t suspect you.”
Malachite didn’t know what to say. She had wanted to wash her hands of the whole revenge business, and now he asked her to take over?
“Yes, of course,” her lips whispered, but her head was circling around the request like a cat in a basket, unable to settle on a yea or a nay. Was she really going to do it? Why should she? She’d be the one in danger, not Father. He’d called this upon himself with his public displays of the past two days.
Father’s limp hand twitched. Malachite held it gently, but although his breath fluted through his bluing lips, he didn’t speak again.
The light slanting through the big windows indicated that midday had passed and that mid-afternoon might have as well. Malachite had heard no bells and hadn’t felt time passing. She looked out over the canal below, and opened the windows. Father needed the fresh air.
There was no doubt in her mind now. She would go to Dam Square, do as Father had asked and take the consequences. She walked away from the still form on the sofa. She had a duty to perform.
Outside, a silence lay expectant on her shoulders. The empty godwater flagons rustled against her chest, but when she held them against her ears they were silent. She righted her shoulders against the air’s pressure and marched off, her footfalls loud on the wooden pavement.
On Dam Square, she found the by now familiar milling crowd. Yoris came over to her. “Where is Dries? I heard he got beaten up by some god’s heavy boys.”
Malachite nodded. “It’s true. But he’s asked me to continue his work. Tell me about the signals.”
Yoris plucked his lip. “You’re just a girl, even if you’re tall as a man. The Aterscha seller was angry yesterday. It probably was Aterscha’s fellows that beat your father up. Why would he cooperate now?”
Malachite racked her brain for the right thing to say. “I won’t wait as long as Father did. I’m not going to risk the curfew.” She shivered as she remembered the screaming, burning man Am had punished.
“Good. I already did a lot of work setting up the bets and the hedges. As we agreed, I get eighty percent of the take.”
Malachite knew nothing about betting, but she knew very well how to get a good price for kale and herring at the market. “That’s not the price my father agreed on with you.” She caught his gaze and held it.
Yoris broke first. “Damn, I can’t look a pretty girl in the eye and cheat her! You’re right, it was seventy percent.”
Malachite snorted. “I know it was fifty.”
Yoris scratched his head. “Yes, it was, but forgive me for saying, working with you is a bigger risk. You can’t ask me to take it for the same cut. Sixty percent, no more.”
Malachite held out her hand. “Agreed.” Yoris and Father might or might not have settled on fifty, but she was satisfied with this deal.
“Tell me about the signals,” she said.
“I’ve been taking bets all day. Some bets on which god your dad would pick, but most that he wouldn’t pick Aterscha. Then I laid off the bets as much as I could on subscribers of Aterscha. They think your dad will choose Aterscha in the end.”
“That’s the plan,” Malachite said. “He just wants a good deal.”
Malachite walked Dam Square, listening in on Yoris’ conversations with people he was trying to talk into betting.
Three o’clock passed by and the Aterscha seller moved to the crowd to take up his spot at the Monument. He was flanked by several heavily built worshipers. She risked getting beaten up like Father if she took his place, but it wasn’t going to stop her.
Any moment now.
A group of godless entered the square, within their midst the woman Gretta.
“Is he all right?” Malachite asked.
“He’s well looked after. We thought we’d come and support you. Since I’m sort of hoping you’ll join us.”
“I’m thinking about that,” Malachite said. “I like the way you live, and you’ve been very kind to me.”
Gretta nodded with satisfaction. “I thought so. Good luck, and let me know if there’s anything we can do.”
Malachite swallowed a lump of something bitter. “Thank you so much.”
She would not think about Father or what might happen to him. First, she would do what he’d asked her as best as she could.
She walked over to the steps of the ancient monument. The carved figures writhed above her head in forgotten torment.
“My stamp is running out!” she called out over the general din. “Who shall I subscribe to?”
At first no one paid her any attention, except a small man who elbowed his neighbor aside to come towards her. The crowd opened up to let him through and Malachite slid into the gap, getting two steps higher up to the monument.
“Are you looking for a day stamp or a yearly subscription?” the Aterscha godseller asked.
Malachite felt bad about having to play him. “I don’t know yet,” she said and twirled the end of a braid. “What are you offering”?
His eyebrows dipped. “Are you with that guy, that foreigner that kept us dancing yesterday?”
“What if I was?”
“Then I would tell you to stop playing games, if you don’t want to end up like him.”
Malachite swallowed and moved forward an inch. She mustn’t give any ground here. “A lot of people have come here today to watch this spectacle. I’m sure the god Am likes the revenue. And a lot of people have a stake in the spectacle, many of them your fellow subscribers.”
Something moved in his face, only minutely, but she’d been right. “It means I’m selling less subscriptions, got it? I couldn’t care less, personally, about your tricks and turns, but I’ve got a family to take care of.”
“Let’s play the game, no hard feelings, okay?” she said. “I’ll cut you in, 5 percent.”
The godseller’s dark eyes raked the crowd, gauging the take. “Ten.”
“Deal,” Malachite said.
She turned away to hide her flush of relief. She was just copying Father’s mixture of threats and blandishments, but it was working.
Not much longer now.
The empty flagons glowed warmly against her chest. She tapped them for luck. It was unlikely that Otte and Liet could help her here, in the stronghold of so many other gods, but the reminder of their existence comforted her.
The godseller rowed his arms to make space around her.
She raised her voice. “My stamp is running out! Who’s offering me a good subscription?” This time, through a trick of acoustics or a god’s help, her voice carried.
The Aterscha seller answered loudly. “I offer good health, painless childbirth and pleasure in sex!”
The surrounding men snickered. Malachite suppressed an urge to box their ears.
“That sounds good! But how about damp winters, flooding, leaky roofs?”
The Aterscha man shifted on his heels. “We offer housing above flood level, good health, leak-free roofs!”
“Anyone else?” Malachite yelled.
Offers came in of many children, mold-free storage, clothes that never tore or stained.
Malachite listened to each godseller in return, derided their offers and demanded better ones.
The tension rose as the hour progressed. She caught Yoris’ eye, and he nodded at her to proceed.
She steeled herself to play the game of offers and counteroffers until she heard the first bell of the four-o clock hour toll, an hour before the market would close. But also an hour of Am’s protection of Dam Square. She couldn’t hold on any longer.
“Aterscha,” she said to the dark godseller, “I accept your offer.” She held out her hand.
The seller’s hand shot forward as his face was still rounding out in astonishment.
Malachite grasped it and shook it three times. She unhooked an amulet from his arm and slung it around her neck.
The realization of what just happened eddied out in circles around the monument. Men cursed, women shrieked in anger. Their bets had gone awry.
Yoris tapped his nose at her and disappeared in the crowd.
Malachite shouldered past the godseller and climbed the highest steps of the monument. “Listen up, people of Amsterdam!” she said. “I subscribe to Aterscha, as I have done since my birth. Aterscha owes me a great boon. Because when I was ten years old, he failed to protect me and my family from the flood.”
People nodded, remembering.
“Aterscha, how will you repay me? You owe me life debts on three people, my mother, my two sisters. And my Father-–who you had beat up this morning.”
The vigilant god Am didn’t react, proof of Malachite’s verisimilitude.
The godseller’s face bulged as Aterscha possessed him, while at the same time the realization of the huge debt seemed to dawn.
“Liar!” Aterscha roared. “Cheat! I didn’t forfeit your trust!”
The air charged as he spoke. Am’s edict on lying and cheating clamped around the god’s manifestation, inexorable and impartial.
The crowd shut up. Many people standing close to Malachite wore the blues and amulets of Aterscha. What would they do?
A man next to her lifted his amulet over his head and tossed it at the godseller’s feet.
“Betrayer!” he said.
Aterscha roared and flailed the godseller’s arms and protested his innocence. But to no avail. The struggle between Am, who didn’t allow lies on his square, and Aterscha who was still a god with many worshipers, became more and more unequal as subscriber after subscriber tossed his necklace, spit on it and stepped away from the struggling Aterscha.
Malachite copied the action of her fellow ex-subscribers and started moving towards the safety of the godless group. The flagons beneath her vest tingled. She tapped them, but no response came.
She caught Gretta’s eye and waved to show she was all right. After the curfew, she’d go find Yoris and cash her winnings, but she didn’t care about money right now. Aterscha was humiliated and in the process of getting evicted from the center of town. Vengeance had been served!
She whipped her gaze back to the hapless godseller. The poor man now stood alone in a sea of tossed necklaces, as the crowd moved away from him and his tainted god.
Aterscha must still have followers who knew nothing of this debacle, but more and more people would learn of the event as disgruntled ex-subscribers went home. Good.
A hum in the air set her teeth on edge.
The godless group stiffened. Because all of them did it at the same time, it became magnified and meaningful. Malachite froze.
Her flagons tingled and burned. They got hotter and hotter and she opened her shirt to take them off their chain and toss them away. The fragile old plastic didn’t break on the wooden pavement, as expected, but emitted so much heat the air above them shimmered. The same shimmer was in the air above the frozen godless.
Malachite tasted the same flavor in the air as this morning, something salty and aniseed-sweet at the same time.
The godless broke out in a ululating chant. Then the invisible string that held them broke and they sagged into individual poses, no longer a group.
Malachite reached Gretta, who was bent over coughing.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
Gretta’s eyes rolled in her head independent of each other.
“I am. I wasn’t before. I am new. I came where it was empty.”
It wasn’t Gretta speaking. But then who?
“Get me the vessels that created me. I want to remember and honor them.”
It wasn’t until Gretta gestured to the pavement, where the no longer smoking flagons lay, that she finally understood. She had witnessed the birth of a new god. Gretta and her friends had been empty, uninhabited by a god. The waters from Otte and Liet she had poured into the dead river had given birth to a new god, and from the river it had entered the godless, and therefore empty humans.
Her new friend didn’t exist anymore. Gretta was a vessel inhabited by a god. If the god left, would Gretta then come back?
She handed Gretta the miraculously intact flagons. The godless moved as one to turn away and walk off, still possessed by the new god. To its temple? Very likely the same godless house where Father lay dying on the couch.
She ran to catch up. “Wait! What’s your name?”
The god’s foreheads wrinkled identically. “I have no name yet. Give me one.”
It seemed obvious. “Amstel. Mstel, I mean. You are the river.”
“You speak true. How did I come to be?”
“Your parents, river goddesses themselves, Otte and Liet, gave me water to pour in a dead river. You were born from that.”
The god nodded with its many heads.
“I think you should give me a reward,” Malachite said.
“That seems like a reasonable request. What do you need?”
Malachite liked that. Straight to the point. “My father, who carried Otte’s water all the way here at Her request, has been beaten up by another god. Heal him.”
“Show me this person,” the god’s mouths said.
Malachite and the now possessed group entered the old house. Father still lay on the couch, more or less alive. His color was ashen grey and his breathing loud and irregular.
“Heal him,” Malachite said, pointing.
Three of the god’s possessees stepped forward and put their hands on Father. Malachite cringed when their hands landed on his distended belly, almost feeling the pain herself.
The other god-possessed jerked as if cut loose from strings and staggered around individually, groaning, clutching their heads or throats. A scaled-down version of the hum she’d heard when the new god was forming emanated from the hands on Father.
Father jerked upright. His yellowed eyeballs circled, moving independently, finally settling on a leering squint. He was possessed.
“Do not touch this vessel!” something only barely resembling Father’s voice spoke.
The ex-godless jerked back from the body.
Malachite wrung her hands. It had been over. She’d allowed herself to hope the new god Mstel would cure Father. And if not, she would become a subscriber to Mstel and live out her life here.
But now this. Which god had taken him?
“Who are you?” she said. Her voice quavered.
Father’s head whipped backwards and a growling roar left his body. That kind of abuse would kill him even faster.
“If you’re not careful, you’re going to kill your vessel!” she said. “Who are you?”
The god turned the circling yellow orbs on her. “I am Aterscha!” it roared. “All bow before me.”
No one reacted.
This clearly didn’t please Aterscha. “Where is everybody? I was legion, and now I’m one.”
Malachite gasped. Only one. Father was his last worshiper? That was just wrong.
“If you want to remain a god, you’ll have to heal the vessel,” she said. “And double quick too, it’s dying right now.”
The god moaned, but let the body fall back.
“Do you believe in me?” a much smaller, politer voice asked from Father’s mouth.
“No,” Malachite said. She didn’t know that much about gods and worshiping, but she was pretty sure it would hop over to her head if she wasn’t careful.
She watched, but apart from Father’s continued breathing, no signs of healing or dying were visible.
She turned to the ex-godless. “Mstel, if Aterscha is healing that body instead of you, you still owe me a boon. Don’t forget.”
The three possessed nodded simultaneously.
Father’s body twitched. One eye opened. It was still suffused with yellow, but noticeably less so than before. The body lurched up, opened its mouth and vomited out black stuff.
Malachite keened. Gretta, or the god Mstel, put her hand on Malachite’s arm. “Shh. It’s part of the healing.” Malachite leaned into the embrace. Maybe some part of Gretta was still alive, after all.
Father clutched his belly. During the next hour, more necrotic tissue and old blood left his body in various ways. At last he seemed empty and was lowered back on the couch. Even the old scar on his chest had healed, showing a sharp blue and red tattoo of triumphant Aterscha.
“Mal,” his voice said.
It sounded like him.
“Where am I?”
Malachite told him what had happened.
When she told him how he’d been possessed by Aterscha, he covered his eyes with his hands. “No, that can’t be true. He can’t be in me. I won’t allow it.”
“You’re the last person to believe in him.”
“I hate him,” Father said and coughed up some blood. “It’s revolting to have it in me.”
“Please stay calm.”
Father levered himself upwards on his elbows, his face contorted in pain. “I’ve got him where I want him. No followers left. I’m going to kill him. He has to disappear from this earth!”
Malachite stretched out her hands, afraid of touching Father’s aching body.
“Father, don’t. Let it go. We’ve practically killed Aterscha. If you stop caring, he’ll just wither away and die.”
Father sank back in the pillows. “I can’t do that. I can’t, Mal. For so long it’s been the only thing keeping me alive.”
Malachite fought to keep her face calm and smooth. Father didn’t even realize what a hurtful thing he’d just said. He never did.
“Kiss me,” he said.
Malachite hesitated. He was never affectionate, but maybe he felt sorry for his thoughtless words. Father’s hand grasped her upper arm, the other hand touching her waist.
“No!” she shouted.
Father had taken her bread knife from its sheath. It was poised over the middle of the miraculously healed tattoo.
Malachite lunged to knock the knife aside, but it was too late. Father had plunged the dagger into his heart. A gulp of dark red blood shot from his mouth and he fell back into the pillows, already dead.
Malachite waited for Aterscha to heal the body once more, but nothing happened. Father had gotten his wish.
He’d killed the god. Their revenge was done.
Mal’s eyes burned. She didn’t feel triumphant, but empty and sad. Now she was all alone. No mother, no sisters, no father. She turned from the body and met Gretta’s eyes. Something else looked out of them.
No, not quite alone. She had a powerful new god as an ally. The rest was up to her.