The Colored Lens
Table of Contents
- My Father’s Withered Hands by Reshad Staitieh
- The Steam Lord’s Autumn Ruby by Jamie Lackey
- Devil At The Crossroads by Shannon Waller
- Blindsight by Dean Giles
- A Dose of Treachery by Michael Siciliano
- Ephemerality by K. A. Blaha
- Old Boys by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
- If You Give a Girl a Blaster by George S. Walker
- Cuts by Michael Carter
- The Flames in Flesh by Jackie Neel
- Aerobrake by Sean Monaghan
- She Leaves Things Behind by Sarena Ulibarri
My Father’s Withered Hands
By Reshad Staitieh
The strings of my father’s oud were broken. Unchanged for five cycles, the gutted strings snapped in the humidity like the arthritic sinews in his hands. Soon, mine was the only music left.
I sat by my father’s sandaled feet, the heavy bowl of my instrument resting between my legs. My left ring finger cramped as the final note resonated and hummed a gentle vibrato with the hot wind.
Children and their watchful parents lined the tent, listening with feigned indifference. My note rang. Surrounding brush and the heavy fibers of their tattered robes absorbed its final sigh.
When the venom took father’s hands, it damned him and rendered him feeble, unable to perform. There was no cure, the Crones said. Its cause was unknown. I refused to play without him until ghastly visions of my mother guided my unwilling hand.
A child sneezed like thunder claps and broke the lingering silence. My father tapped his foot, and the onlookers retreated. His yellow toes wiggled in the dirt that filled his shoe.
“Why that song, daughter?” He asked.
“Because you said it was her favorite.”
“It was.” Memories of her struck him. Deep wells around his black eyes filled. Tiny droplets ran down the dry canyons of his scarred cheeks, concealed themselves in the ruts of his face, and vanished. “And do you know who wrote it?”
“You did, Baba.”
“Yes.” He wiped his face on his sleeve and straightened his back. He wrote it for her during her final weeks. This was before the Crones’ assurances that her health would outlast his wandering the wasted lands for a remedy. In her moments of lucidity, she would happily hum the melody through her cracked lips. When he returned from the wastes, she was gone, and his limbs were ruined.
He stopped playing after that.
“So tell me what you did wrong,” he said.
“I’m slow. And the notes move too fast for me,” I said.
“This is all true, yes. But you’re forgetting something. It’s the most important part,” he hinted.
“My oud was out of tune?”
He shook his head. The white cloth around his neck unraveled. “Feeling. You must feel the notes. This only comes through possessing a true understanding of your subject.” He gestured for my oud. “Here, I will show you.”
I obliged, supporting the oud with both hands as I gave it to him, ashamed of my apprehension that his hands, which children mocked, would not be able to hold the instrument as they once could. But father clutched it in spite of the indelicate claws that had consumed him. There was pride in his eyes and poison in his limbs. He settled into a familiar position and smiled.
A smile like rain to end ancient droughts.
He watched the strings vibrate in anticipation. He brushed them with his knuckle to relieve them of their burden.
Father searched for notes with his fretting hand. His plagued fingers, which spent the recent months making crescents in his palms, refused to obey. Shadows of rage touched his face as he looked twice at his ailing hands. The strings whinnied under his touch, then brayed like horses. I strained to hear past fumbled notes, to focus on his intentions and the meaning behind his clumsy movements. But the sweat on his brow was distracting.
Some foretold his arrival. They dreamt of gold and woke somber with silver in their pockets. They dreamt of oceans and found small puddles seeping through the barren land.
In these visions, they all saw the shifting tail of the night sky dragon.
The Crones looked to the bright stars and the patterns they told. After three nights, they called Council and announced that the fallen traveler would be arriving within one cycle. Their dreams were true dreams.
The same visions afflicted my sleep. I knew it to be a parting gift from my dead mother who once told me of the traveler.
I told father.
“You mustn’t tell anyone,” he ordered.
“But this could bring us wealth. The Crones are revered. I could be like them. Replace them, even. This is what mother would have wanted for me. This is why she gave me the visions. She did it for us. We would never worry about food or clothing again. And now that you can no longer travel and perform…”
“Tal, you will not tell anyone,” he interrupted. His face was red. “I forbid it. I will not have you exploited like she was. You cannot. This is not the life I want for you or that you should want for yourself.”
He left. Our argument was over. I peeked from the tent and saw him float like a phantom through the camp, hands hidden beneath overlong sleeves.
The pale stranger arrived in our camp on a night that obscured the skies beneath a gray cloak. He entered without ceremony or introduction.
He carried a golden rebab. Dark fabrics that hid the stars tore above him. The rift followed him, ripping with his movements and revealing the giant stars inside longing for their departed. I knew their names, these glittering diamonds. I knew that without him those heavenly images were incomplete, a dragon without a tail.
He was glowing. His face stoic.
But the Crones said that he was a glimmer of his former self. His stay, they said, would not be long.
Even the howling gales quieted to hear the stranger speak. His celestial voice cooled our fires and darkened our torches.
His name was Ath-Thu’ban.
He would be with us for three nights.
When he arrived, my people had been meandering through the wastes for sixteen months, discarding pieces of themselves in the unforgiving dirt.
That night, as Ath-Thu’ban walked to the center of the encampment, we stood still. He moved his lithe form with pantherine grace. Nearby the forgotten coals burned, orange then black. None noticed. Our hearth was walking among us.
Ath-Thu’ban sat on the ground with folded legs and pulled a slender bow of olive from the sky. The rounded bowl of his rebab, small and worn, clawed and broke the unforgiving dirt beneath it. Its neck stretched above Ath-Thub’an’s head.
His bow glided upon the strings before making sound. It worked over them with subtle trepidation. The wind parted for his song and swirled.
It was perfection.
Dawn neared and the visitor retreated behind the mountains with the moon.
“What did you hear tonight?” We had returned to our tent. Father was at his cot. His shadow danced in torchlight.
“I heard everything,” I said. “Everything. It was a marvelous story. Filled with so much suffering and joy. I heard the beating of their wings, the Dragons, and I wept when they left us for the heavens. I felt his pain as he was sent away from them to walk among us.” I thought of his white eyes.
Father listened intently as he removed his scarf. “What did you hear, Baba?” I asked.
“Your mother’s voice,” he said. “I heard her voice, and I felt complete.”
“Do you believe what they say about him?”
“That he can make our wishes come true.”
He thought for a moment. “I’ve heard those stories, too. From your mother, yes? She used to tell you that to make you sleep. To make you not fear the night. I see why you would want to believe in him, Tal. But nothing is free. I’m certain of that.” He struggled to remove his sandals as he spoke. His clumsy gestures betrayed his outward composure. Lines on his face darkened in frustration.
“I’ve no doubt that this traveler is special. His music even touched me. But, then again, I’m an easy critic.” He grinned. “Still, is he the star she said, I mean, they say he is? I think not. But I don’t know. Nor do I care.” He rolled over, barefoot. “I’m through with this mystic babble. And so are you, Tal. No more visions. No more talk of this nonsense.”
“The Crones say that he can rid you of the venom.” I blurted out. My face was instantly flush but he could not see that with his back to me.
“Not without a price,” he said. “Not without a price.” He blew out the lantern.
“But I trust him.” I said in the dark.
“No,” he said. “You want to trust him. You want to believe.”
On the second night of his visit, Ath-Thu’ban visited members of the camp in their huts. Father was the only one who turned away his song. Ath-Thu’ban looked at father from our threshold. He only stared for a moment. His unblinking yellow eyes examined father’s limbs. I watched from inside as the traveler turned away, the glowing rebab on his back fading as he walked away unaffected.
Father demanded I play my oud for the remainder of the night. Content that dawn was coming, he retired.
I slept through the midday heat and woke to find the torches already lit for dusk.
“You overslept,” father said.
“I was weak from before. My arms and fingers are aching.”
“Such practice makes you strong. It will prepare you for what’s to come. The life of a true musician.” Concern washed over my face and gave him pause. “What do you want more than anything, daughter? And don’t dare speak to me of a life with the Crones.”
“I want to be a musician like you were, Baba. To travel and perform.” A half-truth. I wanted him to be whole again, for us to travel together.
“We can make that happen. See?” He smiled and beat his broken hand on his chest. “You don’t need wishes. Everything you need is right here.”
Father left me for the market, and I wandered alone through the camp.
I decided to seek out the visitor.
The square was bustling with controversy. Firan the shepherd looked taller, but his back slanted like a cracking post and he walked as if his feet were different sizes. Jamal, the butcher, had arms as thick as the lambs he slaughtered, but his voice had left him. His legs bowed. There were others like them. New, but broken. They all lined the streets, feed for the gawkers, basking in unwanted attention.
Wafts of ginger and cardamom filled my nose. I looked to the hill and saw the Crones in their tent creating a powerful ward to block meddling spirits.
Part of me remembered the same scent pouring through our tent as mother spent her final, helpless days.
Then I saw a gentle light gliding over the hill. Strange colors danced with the dry brush. Through the center of camp, I heard faint music coming from the valley below.
I walked out of the camp to the hilltop and saw Ath-Thu’ban alone in the valley with his rebab. The bow in his hand was level with his shoulder. He had angled his instrument so its sounds echoed off surrounding hills and vanished into the thick cloak of night.
Many breaths passed before the note ended and Ath-Thu’ban spoke. “I see you there. Please join me.” I walked down the hill and slipped on a loose stone.
He lifted his head, and up close I saw oceans in his obsidian eyes and pearl waves breaking within. These were mysteries I could never comprehend.
“They make wards against me now. It seems I’m not what I was.” I heard remorse in his voice.
“I was the one star. The followed one. But, by heaven’s grace, the skies shifted. And I fell, a lowly comet out of favor.”
I sat in quiet awe, unsure why he would confide in me. He continued, “I came here long ago when you were nothing but dust. Even then, my powers were fading. But one believed enough to sustain me for another generation. Now even that sustenance has withered because of my actions.”
“My mother?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Your father.”
He sighed and began to rise. “I leave tomorrow. When I do, I will be forgotten. My time here will be a tall tale the old tell children on solstice nights.”
“I have been thinking of you every day since she left us for the Better. I cannot forget you. You must let me hear your song. Let me make my wish.”
“I’ve taken enough from your family. Look to your father’s hands and see what I’ve done. See how I failed him. Look to the sands that carry your mother’s bones and understand that I failed her, too. I am weak because I could not save her. He pleaded with me to take his hands, his life’s work. In exchange, I would rid her of that which poisoned her. I tried, but it was too late. I betrayed him that night in the desert. And he is right to deny me tonight. You should do the same.”
I saw truth in his eyes.
“Please, then, make it right. Make him whole again.”
Without speaking further, Ath-Thu’ban picked the olive bow from the dirt and played a song only I could hear.
I closed my eyes and wished.
Three weeks later, I sat atop the Crone’s perch and relished the silence. My new companions looked to me fondly as they wrapped me in their red veils. We stood together, a blanket of crimson. Our visions were the threads that united us. They welcomed me to my new life while the ground around me was cracking and dead.
My father played to those healthy enough to listen. Their faces locked in collective bliss. His deft fingers glided artfully over fresh strings. Each note he played with youthful alacrity, urging the song forward into the next stunning movements.
Finished, he set his oud gracefully on the pillow next to him and waved sheepishly to me with spread fingers across camp. I looked fondly over my folded hands and clenched my brittle fingers that had failed me days ago. I looked up to the nascent stars in the purple sky. One star of shifting colors looked back. I could not remember its name.
The Steam Lord’s Autumn Ruby
By Jamie Lackey
Tan knelt in a narrow stairwell and reloaded his steam-bow. He grimaced as its familiar hiss filled the tiny space. The sword strapped to his back was both quieter and more elegant, but it was also ineffective against the terra cotta golems that were chasing him.
He was glad that his master hadn’t lived to see the way the world had changed. Steam-powered men policed the streets, and cowards hid behind weapons that killed from a distance. Even the people had changed. No one had moved to help or hinder him on his mad dash from Lord Chen’s palace. They had huddled in the shadows of their peaked roofs and turned their faces away.
The door exploded inward, its thin wood no match for a terra cotta boot. Tan fired on instinct. The bow recoiled into his shoulder, and a short metal rod burst from the end with another hiss. It blew a hole the size of Tan’s fist in the golem’s chest. Steam billowed out of the wound.
The golem used its last moment of animation to bellow an alarm and crumpled to the ground.
Tan vaulted over its cooling body and fled. He had to find someplace to hide–sooner or later, they’d wear him down, or he’d run out of bolts.
He almost wished he’d never heard of The Steam Lord’s Autumn Ruby.
Charity pinned a lock of her red hair back and tried to ignore her shaking hands. Tan could take care of himself. He’d be fine.
She imagined him held in terra cotta hands, dragged through the streets, and pushed to his knees in front of her lord, who would shoot him right between his dark, serious eyes.
She powdered her cheeks.
Tan would be fine. He’d escape, and then he’d come back for her. He’d promised.
Countless men had lost their lives trying to rescue her from her captivity, but they’d only come for her because of Lord Chen’s game. He’d promised his estate to any man who could rescue her. She’d stopped shedding tears over them years ago.
But Tan was different. He’d made her feel like a person, instead of a thing. He didn’t even want the estate.
She glanced up at her automaton maid. The mechanical woman had orders to strangle her if she tried to hurt Lord Chen. But it left for three days to recharge its steam reservoir once a month, and it would be leaving at sundown.
Her lord entered without knocking. Charity plastered a loving smile on her face. “Chen, darling.” She held her hands out to him.
He took her hands and returned her smile. “Did that intruder disturb you, my Ruby?”
Charity shook her head. “I hardly noticed him. You know that I only have eyes for you.”
If he hurt Tan, she would finally have to kill him. She could do it while he slept, while the maid was recharging. She squeezed his fingers and pulled him toward her bed.
Tan huddled in an abandoned basement, his bow aimed at the door. Cold and damp seeped through his thin robes, and exhaustion blurred the edges of his vision. Ruby’s–no, Charity’s, she’d told him that her name was Charity–beautiful face regarded him from the backs of his eyelids.
He’d failed her. But then, so had a hundred men before him. He wondered if she’d told them her real name.
He doubted it. Something told him that no one had called her Charity for a long, long time. Lord Chen had reduced Charity to an object when he boasted that he’d give his title to any man who could overcome his golem security and steal his greatest prize.
Tan knew that he should leave the city, should forget about her and be grateful that he’d escaped with his life. His bid for revenge against the man who destroyed his world had failed.
But he wasn’t going to leave. Over the years, he’d left too many things that mattered to him behind. He was going back for her. He wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he didn’t.
But first, he was going to sleep.
Charity looked down at her sleeping lord. Her fingers tightened on her pillow. It would be so easy to hold it over his face. He wouldn’t struggle long. He wasn’t a very strong man. He ruled through cleverness and fear.
She wished that his soulless guards could be bribed. Or that her tower wasn’t quite so tall. Or that she could find the mechanism to open the door to the secret passages that he spied on her from.
But there would be no escape for her. Killing Lord Chen wouldn’t win her freedom. Only swift, unforgiving justice at terra cotta hands.
She rolled away and stared out the window. Not yet. Tan couldn’t rescue her if she was dead.
She was getting tired of waiting for rescue.
Terra cotta golems prowled the streets, their red-glowing eyes scanning for Tan’s face. But he couldn’t hide in a basement forever.
He palmed a few dumplings from a food stall. There’d been a time when thievery was beneath him. When he’d wandered the countryside with his master, working to right wrongs and protect the innocent.
But that had been a long time ago.
A thin, dirty-faced boy darted out of the shadows and tugged at Tan’s robe. His dark eyes latched on the dumplings. Tan dropped the food into his palms, and the boy vanished back into the shadows.
Tan’s stomach grumbled, but for an instant, he felt like himself again.
A cluster of golems appeared at the corner. He turned up his collar and ducked his head, but it was too late. A golem pointed, and their faces turned toward him.
A small, greasy hand grabbed his and pulled him away. “This way, sir,” the boy whispered. “Come with me.”
The golems waded through the crowd, as deliberate as the tide. The boy could be leading him straight into an ambush. Tan let him pull him along.
“Are you here to save the Autumn Ruby and kill the Steam Lord?” the boy asked, pulling him down a narrow, winding staircase.
The boy looked up at him. “You’ll probably die.”
The boy waved him into a closet and pushed the door closed. “If you don’t, remember that I helped you. My name is Lee. I’ll tell you when it’s clear.”
Tan nodded again. “I’ll remember,” he whispered.
The day crawled by. Charity worked on her embroidery. She read a book of poetry. She painted a watercolor landscape. She only allowed herself to cry at dinner, when she knew that Lord Chen was occupied elsewhere.
While she cried, she got up and trailed her fingers along the cold stone walls, looking for hidden doors.
Two iron foo dogs guarded the main gate. Tan had no weapons that could even dent their thick metal hides.
He slipped into the servant’s entrance with a load of rice. If any of the automatons recognized him, he was a dead man. He hurried through the kitchen, dodging the hard-working mechanical men and women. Their eyes remained fastened on their tasks–they hadn’t been programmed to look for him. He allowed himself a small sigh of relief.
Lord Chen must not expect to see him back here, especially not before dark.
Still, it felt too easy.
He slipped into Charity’s room. She turned, a false smile plastered on her face. Then she saw him, and the mask cracked.
“Oh, Tan,” she whispered. “Thank God.” She threw herself into his arms. “I was so worried.”
Tan inhaled her scent and stroked her hair.
“Well, this is touching.”
Lord Chen stood in an open section of the wall, smirking at them. Tan drew his sword.
Lord Chen laughed. “Put that away, boy. You don’t want me to call the guards, do you?”
“He’ll call the guards anyway,” Charity murmured.
Lord Chen shook his head and the pistol belted to his side. “Dear Ruby, if I wanted him dead, he’d be dead.”
“I could kill you before you could draw that,” Tan snarled.
“Yes, but then my guards would tear both of you apart,” Lord Chen said. “Their orders are very clear. They’ll start with her.”
Tan’s hand fell away from his sword. “What do you want?” he asked.
“I want her to love me,” Lord Chen said.
Charity barked a laugh. “What?”
“I tire of this hero-killing game, and I can see that you care about this one, Ruby. I will let him live, but only if you stay behind willingly, if you kill your dreams of freedom.” He held out a collar. “If you wear this.”
It was made of thin, delicate porcelain. Rubies sparkled on the front, but a bulky box stood out from the back. And there was a needle as long as Tan’s hand on the inside of the collar that would stab into the wearer’s spine.
Charity’s eyes flicked from Lord Chen to Tan. “What is that?”
“It’s my latest invention. It plugs into a human brain, and holds punch cards just like the ones that govern the automatons.”
Tan felt sick. What Lord Chen was asking from her was worse than death. “Don’t even think about it. I’ll call the guards myself,” Tan said.
“He’ll die, and I’ll collar you anyway,” Lord Chen said. “I’m trying to be kind, Ruby.”
“You don’t know how to be kind,” she said. She turned to Tan and gave him a tiny smile. She brushed cold fingers against his cheek. “I love you.” Then she turned and took a step toward Lord Chen.
Charity felt like a sleepwalker as she moved forward. Tan was shouting behind her, telling her to stop.
The guards would hear him, and come whether Lord Chen called them or not.
Lord Chen had offered her a chance to save someone else. She’d never thought about saving anyone before. Never seen herself as a savior.
She stepped into Lord Chen’s embrace. His arms closed around her like prison bars, and his chest shook with victorious laughter.
Charity pulled his pistol and shot him. The pistol hissed, and Lord Chen fell away from her, into the still-open passage. The collar tumbled from his hands and cracked against the stone floor.
She looked at Tan. “Go.” She pointed the pistol at the door. “I’ll hold them off.”
Tan gaped at Charity. “What are you doing?”
She didn’t look away from the door. “Saving you.”
“I’m not leaving you here.” Tan ran to the bed and started tying sheets together. He should have brought rope.
“They’re not long enough,” Charity said. “I’ve tried.”
Heavy boot falls echoed up the stairs. Tan pulled off his jacket and tied it to the last sheet. He pawed through Charity’s wardrobe, tossing robes on the ground. “Damn it, put the pistol down and help me!”
She turned toward him, blinked, seemed to finally return to herself. She stared at Lord Chen’s body. “Why don’t we try his secret passage?”
He grabbed her hand and started running.
Charity wasn’t used to running. She struggled to keep up, and her mind labored over what had just happened. She’d actually killed him. After years of thinking about it, it was done. He was gone. She was running toward freedom with a man she actually loved.
She desperately hoped that this wasn’t a dream.
They came to a fork in the passage, and Tan paused. “Which way?” he asked.
It was so strange to be asked. She looked down both branches. “This one probably leads to his rooms. We should try the other one.”
Tan nodded, and they ran.
The passageway ended in a solid wall. Tan swore.
“There must be some mechanism to open it,” Charity said. “I think they only open from the inside.”
Tan started pushing on random stones until one gave way under his touch. The wall rolled back with a faint pneumatic hiss.
Charity stared out at the sunlight. “I–I’m free,” she said.
Tan pulled her out of the passage. “We still need to get out of the city.”
“And once we’re outside the gates, you can come back as the new Lord,” Charity reminded him.
“I never cared about that,” Tan said. But he remembered the boy, Lee, his unexpected savior.
Maybe, as a lord, Tan could do some good in the world again.
Charity pulled him into the sunlight. “Come on!”
They ran through the streets. Her bright hair blazed in the sunlight–there could be no doubt of who she was. But there were no golems in sight, and no one moved to stop them. People averted their eyes and stepped out of their path.
Tan grinned back at Charity. Maybe this new world wasn’t that bad, after all.
Devil At The Crossroads
By Shannon Waller
Willie’s full of shit, Colton thought. This thing doesn’t lead to the devil. He glared at the brass compass duct-taped to the dashboard of his Chrysler 300. The black needle hadn’t changed direction for over an hour. It still pointed due east, further into flat, dusty, desolate Utah.
He ought to turn around right now, go back to Reno and kick Willie’s ass. He smiled at the image of knocking out some teeth with his fist or his nightstick. No, he would use his mini baseball bat. Then he’d break a couple of those saxophone-playing fingers. Well, maybe not Willie’s fingers – his music sounded too good now to ruin. He’d bust Willie’s toes. Did you need all your teeth to play sax? He’d ask him first.
He reached up and covered the pentagram-shaped compass with the palm of his hand. It gave him the same tingly, belly-flipping sensation that convinced him it was legit when he stole it out of Willie’s saxophone case last night. Reassured, Colton settled back into his seat and adjusted the angle of his counterfeit Gucci sunglasses.
He’d been on the road seven hours since he’d followed the compass out of Reno and onto the highway. He was surprised when it didn’t point south. He would’ve bet money the devil was in Vegas, but no. The needle summoned him eastward. He figured he was getting close when it steered him onto US-6. He kept watching the highway markers for those two missing sixes, but an hour into Utah it was still just Route 6. Where the hell were the crossroads? How much further could they be?
He had to take a piss. He shouldn’t have gotten that Big Gulp when he stopped for gas, but the cashier was too pretty to pass by. He’d hoped to hustle her back into the storeroom. She’d giggled when he offered to demonstrate the Cherokee method of going down on her (seeing as he was one-eighth Indian), but he didn’t have enough time to talk her into it. He had places to go and a devil to meet. It had taken ten minutes to get her phone number as it was, and he drank more of the Dr. Pepper than he should have while he was flirting.
He pulled over, shut off the car and watered the bedraggled vegetation with his name in cursive. He crossed the T with a flourish, zipped up, stretched and looked around. Hazy mountains off in the distance broke up the boredom of the baked scrublands surrounding him, where the tallest weed didn’t reach his knees. There was something peaceful about mountains. Like if you climbed one to the top you’d get away from all your problems. Of course, trying to climb to the top of a mountain was a problem, but there you were. Life was like that.
BANG! The sound of a gunshot had him flat on the dirt and cursing himself for leaving his Glock in the car. He twisted his head toward the road and saw a dark blue station wagon veering past him and trailing tire tread from the rear rim.
Colton let out the breath he’d been holding. Not a gunshot. A tire blowout. He rose and brushed himself off.
The Saturn careened to a stop on the side of the road about fifty yards ahead. Smoke drifted from the tattered wheel and the smell of burnt rubber wafted back to him. He got back in his car, took the pistol from the glove box and shoved it in his waistband under his shirt. He should just keep on driving. If he didn’t have time to bang a cashier, he sure as hell didn’t have time to do roadside assistance. Everyone had cell phones, anyway. They could call for help.
He pulled back onto the road. As he maneuvered around the debris, he locked eyes with the driver – a steel-haired, weathered woman who strongly resembled his deceased grandmother. Mean old bitch. He shuddered at the memory of the switch bush outside her front door, then sighed and steered his sedan over to the side of the road in front of the Saturn L-Series. Great. They didn’t even make parts for that anymore. He’d just make sure someone was coming to help, then he’d get going.
He shifted into park and opened the door. Wait a minute. Maybe . . . he checked the compass. Still pointing east. The old bag wasn’t the devil.
Ten minutes later, he was squatting at the back of her car, threading the lug nuts on the spare tire while she chattered at him.
“Why are you wearing all black in this heat?” she asked. “You think you’re Johnny Cash or something?”
Blood doesn’t show up on black. He flashed one dimple. “I do like some of his music. You think I could be a rock star?”
“Feh.” She shook off the notion with a push of her hand and a curl of her lip.
“Come on, now. Listen to this:
I fell into a burning ring of fire
I went down, down, down and the flames went higher . . .”
He gestured with the passion of Pavarotti as he sang and tightened the lug nuts. When he finished serenading, it took a moment to realize the raspy noise coming from the old woman was laughter. He let his shoulders droop as he rose to his feet. “I bare my soul, and she mocks my voice.”
She shook her head. “No. You have a beautiful voice. You should sing in a church choir.”
“Ha!” He stowed the bent rim in the trunk along with the tire iron. “I really would burst into flames. Don’t go over 55 miles an hour, and get a new tire put on as soon as you can.” He brushed his hands on his Dockers, leaving dun colored dust smears on the black fabric.
She fumbled with her pocketbook. “Here. Here’s five dollars. Now where did I . . .?”
Five? Seriously? I just saved you at least a hundred. He backed away to his car, palms out. “Your money’s no good here, Ma’am. I’ve got to be on my way. You be careful on that tire.”
She was still twittering as he pulled away. He floored the gas pedal as soon as he could without showering her with debris.
Five miles down the empty road, at high noon, the compass needle began spinning counterclockwise. He slammed on the brakes, parked and snatched the compass off the dash, barely aware of the electric buzz it gave his hand. As he climbed out of the car, he scanned the area. Same as it had looked for hours – pitiful tufts of dry weeds dotting brown flat ground.
The road ahead began to shimmer, and crossroads appeared where none had been. It looked kind of far to walk. Maybe he should drive the couple hundred yards to . . . nope. As he grasped his door handle the crossroads started to fade from view. He locked the car and started walking, and the crossroads reformed. His palms became damp as he strode forward. He was used to the rollercoaster belly feeling now, and he was glad his black t-shirt wouldn’t show the pit sweat trickling down his ribs.
A lone Joshua tree coalesced at the crossroads as he approached. Then he appeared. That had to be the devil leaning against the trunk looking all James Dean in jeans, biker boots and a white t-shirt.
Be cool. Colton straightened his shoulders, scratched an ear and sauntered towards the devil, heart pounding. Don’t trip. Don’t run your mouth. Get your game face on. He felt a sneeze tickle. No! Not now. He pressed hard on the tip of his nose, breathing through his mouth deep and slow. The tickle faded. OK. You got this. He hitched his thumbs through his belt loops and adjusted his saunter so it didn’t raise so much dust.
Ten yards away, and the devil still hadn’t looked up from his folded-armed slouch. Colton stopped, jerked his chin skyward. “S’up.” His mouth was dry and his greeting didn’t carry like he’d meant it to. Should he repeat it? No. That would sound weak. He shuffled his foot and kicked a stone. Don’t fidget. He stilled. Waited. The devil didn’t move. This was getting kind of awkward.
He cleared his throat. “I’d like to make a deal.” Aaarghh! How game show did that sound? Dammit!
A smile curled the devil’s lip. “What kind of deal?” He tilted his head just enough to show blazing red irises under hooded eyelids.
Colton was glad he’d stopped to piss before he got here. He’d looked the devil in the eye and didn’t wet himself. Not many men could say that. He wanted to stare and get a real good look at the devil’s face, but his eyes started to sting. The pain increased until he dropped his gaze. “I’ll sell you my soul.” His hand itched to wipe his watering eyes, but he held tight to his belt loops.
The devil uncrossed his arms and straightened, pushing off the Joshua tree with his boot. “What do you want for it?”
This was it. No more taking orders from mobsters. No more watching scumbags advance in the organization while he was stuck doing loan shark collections year after year. No more seeing assholes get rich while he scraped by. Time to get paid. “I want to be a rock star, just like in that Nickelback song.”
“You don’t . . .” The devil’s thick black eyebrows flew together. “Nickelback? Really?”
“Yep. The hilltop house, the star on Hollywood Boulevard, the VIP passes everywhere, the centerfold girlfriend. Everything in that song – that’s what I want.”
He shook his head, a little smirk on his face. “Sorry. You don’t have enough soul left for all that.” He leaned back onto the tree.
Colton’s eyes bugged out as he went lightheaded. What the hell did that mean? He took a deep breath and blew it out. Sure, he was no angel, but he already had the rock star look – ripped body, spiky brown hair with blonde highlights, blue eyes. He even had dimples, for chrissakes, and he could sing. How hard could it be to put him in a viral YouTube video that got him an agent and fortune and fame? The devil was trying to trick him into a bad deal, the sneaky bastard. He puffed his chest out. “That’s what I want. Take it or leave it.”
The devil shrugged. “I’ll leave it.” The air around him began to shimmer, obscuring his form.
“Wait! What can I get?” He wasn’t that bad. His soul had to be worth something.
The shimmering stopped. “Why should I give you anything? I’ve already got most of your soul, and you’re only 25. You’ll give me the rest of it on your own within the next decade.”
Colton began to pace, forgetting the terrain. Now what? He’d be stuck at the bottom of that mob racket forever, always being told what to do and when to do it. The hours sucked. The cloud of dust raised by his steel-toed Red Wing boots tickled his nose, and a massive sneeze rocked him before he could suppress it.
“Thanks.” He wiped his nose on his wrist and his wrist on his pants. “Look, there has to be some arrangement we could come to. I’m not that bad a guy. I could meet some nice Catholic girl, settle down, raise a big family. You’d lose me then, right? Why roll the dice?”
“You think that’s what’ll save your soul?” The devil sat on a tree stump that materialized underneath him, and gestured for Colton to sit on another that appeared next to it.
“I don’t know.” He slumped on the stump. “That always sounded like hell to me, so I figured it must earn a ticket to heaven.”
“It wouldn’t earn you one.”
Colton picked at the rubber sole of his boot. The heat coming off the devil was uncomfortable, like sitting too close to his grandma’s pot-bellied stove. He wasn’t going to scoot away, though. Didn’t want the devil to think he was intimidated. “Guess I never thought I was all that bad.”
“You hurt people for a living.”
“C’mon, man. So do boxers. They all going to hell, too?”
“You like it.” The devil held out a lit hand-rolled cigarette. Colton accepted it and took a drag. It tasted funny. Kind of sweet.
He did like to hurt people. Not everyone, just his opponents. Ever since he was little he’d look for fights to jump into. He got in less trouble if he jumped in on the side of the weaker kid, so he started doing that. He didn’t get hurt much worse, and he liked seeing how big a kid he could whip. Or how big a kid it took to whip him. He played football for an excuse to hit, joined the wrestling team to learn ways to hurt. He went to bars for the fights more than the booze, and he did take pride in the effectiveness of his loan collections. He took another puff of the cigarette. “I s’pose I do. But I never hit a woman or an animal.”
“You’re young, yet.”
Colton bristled. “I wouldn’t. I never have and I won’t. And I don’t pimp or deal drugs or cheat on my tax . . . well, I guess I don’t really pay taxes. But I’m nothing compared to some of the other slimeballs out there. I helped an old lady change her tire on the way here, for chrissakes. I can’t believe my soul won’t buy what Snooki’s got.”
He swiveled around on the stump and pointed his cigarette at the devil. “And Willie! You made a deal with Willie.” He ticked off points with his fingers. “Number one, Willie doesn’t take care of any of the four kids he’s got from three women. B, he’s a cokehead and a gambler. Finally, he leeched off his girlfriend, who works her ass off trying to get that catering business going. And fourth, I know he knocked Mona around. She did not get those bruises falling down the steps. And yet you gave him that music! He barely knew which end of the horn to blow. Now he makes magic with that sax. Clubs are standing in line to get him onstage. He’s making a name for himself, pulling in some real money. And you know the first thing he did when things started happening for him?” Colton was breathless with indignation.
“He kicked Mona to the curb and got him a white girl. How evil is that? You telling me he had more soul to trade than I do?”
The devil rose and locked his crimson eyes on Colton’s. “I don’t have to tell you anything. You’re not worth any more of my time. Give me the compass.”
What did I tell you at the beginning, Colton, you asshole? I said not to run your mouth. “Wait! I’m sorry.” He jumped to his feet and held out both hands, appealing. “I didn’t mean to be disrespectful. Please give me another chance. I’ll make my soul worth your while, how’s that? I’ll go get born again. I’ll . . . I’ll get a legit job. I’ll donate to charity. I’ll visit my ma more and help take care of my grandpa. What else, what else would make my soul worth becoming a rock star?”
“You’re asking me to tell you how to save your soul?” The devil chuckled, and the sound surrounded Colton and gave him a crawly tickle on his scalp, like a cockroaches skittering through his hair.
He shuddered and wiped his hand over his head, relieved when no insects were encountered. Shake it off. You can still do this. Think. Colton mopped at the moisture on his forehead. “Yeah, my bad. I can figure it out though. I know I can. Give me . . . give me a year. Let me keep the compass, and give me a year to make my soul worth selling.”
“You intrigue me.” The devil stroked his cleft chin. “But how do I know you won’t decide to keep your soul after you’ve cleaned it up?”
“I’ll sign a contract. You draw it up. I’ll sign right now.”
The devil flourished a pitchfork-shaped pen with tiny flames coming off the tines and held out his hand. “Sign here on my palm. Right on the fate line,” he said, pointing.
“Hey, cool pen.” Colton took it and ran his hand over the flames, flinching when they singed his finger. “Can I keep this?”
“Oh. OK.” The devil’s big hand was unmoving as Colton wrote the first letter of his name on the smooth palm. “Uh . . . you got all the details about being a rock star, right? Everything from that Nickelback song is part of the deal?”
It was then that Colton remembered the line ‘we’ll all stay skinny ‘cause we just won’t eat,’ but decided it was too late to worry about that. He signed the rest of his name and handed the pen back. “Oh, wait! I won’t have to stay celebrate, like a priest, will I?” He thought his stomach was flipping before – he could almost feel his bowels loosening with fear.
The devil furrowed his brow. “You mean celibate? Chaste?”
“Yeah.” He puckered his ass as tight as he could. He would not shit himself in front of the devil.
“It couldn’t hurt.”
He wiped the sweat from his upper lip. “It’s not a deal-breaker, though, right?”
The devil shook his head. “It’s not a deal-breaker. But no more hints.”
Colton’s knees buckled and he grabbed the trunk of the Joshua tree for support. “Thank God.”
“Hey, hey! None of that.”
“Sorry! It slipped. I’ll just be on my way then, all right? I’ll see you in a year.” He touched the compass to his forehead in a little salute and trotted back to his car.
The devil watched as the sedan turned westbound and disappeared. He sat back on the stump and puffed on a fresh cigarette. His features blended and reformed into a long sharp nose and tall pointed ears. Light brown fur covered the coyote head that now perched atop human shoulders.
The old lady from the Saturn strolled up, melted into the form of a dun-colored hare the size of a raccoon, and hopped onto the vacant tree stump. “Ho, Coyote,” she said.
“Good day’s work, Trickster.”
Coyote bowed his head in acknowledgment. “Thank you.”
“You going to make the Rockstar song come true for him next year?”
“Nah. That would ruin his life.”
“Yeah.” Rabbit peered around and scanned the sky. “One of these days, the devil’s going to figure out who’s been impersonating him. My luck, I’ll be sitting next to you when he does.”
“I don’t believe in the devil.” Through his canine snout, he blew a smoke ring that rearranged into a horned head before it dissipated into the air.
She shook her long ears and looked about once more before settling onto her haunches. “I didn’t know about Willie. Why did you give him The Music?”
Coyote stubbed out his cigarette and tucked the butt in his pocket. “It was the best way to get Mona free of him. Her business could succeed, now. Might rebuild her self-esteem. And it’s a long shot, but The Music is only thing that has a chance to save Willie’s soul.”
Rabbit nodded. After washing her face with her paws for a moment, she sank into a comfortable squat. “There’s a meth addict in Fort Lauderdale I’ve got my eye on.”
Coyote cocked his head. “What tribe?”
“Does it matter?”
Her whiskers twitched. “She’s Choctaw. Has some potential. You in?”
By Dean Giles
Warren fell into the backseat of the taxi and let the stillness settle over him.
“The wind will tear the clothes off your bloody back,” the cab driver said.
“Yeah, well, at least it’s dry today.”
The cabby pulled away and switched on the radio. A somber female reporter announced: “It’s official, we can now add the Butterflyfish to the list of marine species extinct in the wild. Numbers of coral fish have dropped dramatically since the unexplained death of large parts of coral in the Indian and Pacific oceans.”
“Is that for real, another one?” Warren said. He leaned forward. “Turn it up please?”
But it was too late; the reporter had moved on to the next horror story, yet another fatal air crash over the city. The Air Accidents Investigation Branch had cancelled all flights over central London until they carried out a full investigation into the multiple, seemingly unrelated accidents.
“Bloody madness,” the cabby mumbled. “People are wondering why this stuff is happening, ain’t they? Well, if they read the Bible they’d understand…”
Warren nodded politely and closed his mind to the cabby’s melodramatic reckonings. He was late visiting his mother and would have to put in another all-nighter at his lab tonight. The thought made his head throb.
The nursing home looked like the other neighbouring Victorian town houses. There was no shortage of profit in converting large houses into homes for the rising number of mentally ill. The only things that identified their purpose were subtle signs set back into the wide driveways. Warren’s mother, Joyce, had never outright said she liked it here, but Warren knew she enjoyed walking the grounds and listening to the residents natter.
Joyce was in her room. The walls were cream, the carpet a slightly darker wheatgrass. The cleaner had made the bed up with white linen to exact standards. Joyce’s only piece of personal furniture was her pale wooden chair with white floral cushions. A far-side window overlooked well-tended gardens, and the TV hanging from the wall angled down towards the chair, switched off. But Joyce stared up at it as if enthralled by an epic romance.
“Hi, Mum. What’s happening?”
She stiffened slightly, but didn’t face him.
Warren pulled up a stool from under a desk and lightly touched Joyce’s arm. Perhaps there was a hint of a smile, perhaps not.
“Are you okay, Mum?”
It was a standard question. He didn’t expect an answer, not when she was like this. He’d be lucky to get a coherent sentence out of her today.
“Work’s busy. The project deadline is this Friday and I haven’t even tested my scanning system yet.”
Joyce jolted like she’d just woken up. Her lips curled up into a sharp smile. “You better get it finished or they won’t pay you,” she said.
“Well, yeah. I know that, Mum. I was just… Never mind.”
“Your grandfather used to spend most of his money hot from the pay envelope, you know? The landlord of the Dog’s Inn did well, mind. I bet his daughters didn’t go hungry.”
Joyce’s breathing quickened, and her eyes glinted with tears.
“It’s okay.” Warren took her hand and looked her in the eye. “It’s my turn to look after you now, me and the nurses here.”
Joyce relaxed. Her frightened expression dissipated through an emerging smile, a breath-taking glimpse of the strong woman she had been. “Warren, I know you look out for me. You’re a good boy.” She giggled, then leaned forward, her face darkened to a knowing frown. Warren braced himself.
“I see them every day now, the hidden people. They fly in the clouds and spit their germs down on us. They make us crazy.”
Warren choked back sorrow. “Things will get better. The work we’re doing is taking us closer to mapping the brain. We’ll soon understand why so many people are falling ill like you. Maybe, one day soon, we will find a cure.”
Joyce’s expression glazed over. Her gaze stared through her son. He waited a minute, still and silent, then leaned forward and kissed her.
“See you tomorrow, Mum.”
Warren connected the MR equipment to a completed electroencephalography system. His head ached from working through the night, and his limbs were vibrating with too much caffeine. But this moment was four years in the making and to meet his project deliverable Warren knew it was make or break.
With bleary eyes, he glanced up at the clock – a little after 10am. His workplace was also his home. Worktops lined three walls, each filled with equipment, cables, and scribbled notes. A high-powered generator hummed loudly in the corner. On the forth wall, next to a door, was a prototype test tunnel clamped to the ceiling, above a plastic chair.
Warren’s lab was a 5th storey deserted office building. It had taken him considerable effort to move and assemble his equipment up here, where Warren did his contract R&D work. But he had to be realistic, this place, an ex-Magnetix lab, had a Faraday Cage fitted to the room, something he simply couldn’t afford, and without it the MR system wouldn’t work.
He used the grant money to fund his research and pay himself a small salary covering the rent. His mother’s care fees took the rest.
Warren looked out the window. The sun had made a rare appearance firing rays through the parting clouds. He took a moment to appreciate the sight. From the north-facing window in South London, Warren looked out across rolling rooftops and tower blocks, past metal spires, and all the way to the skyscrapers that defined The City.
His mobile phone rang.
“Hello, WJ Technologies,” Warren said.
“Hey Warren, it’s David Harris from Magnetix.”
Oh no. Not now… “Hi David.”
“Just a quick call to make sure you received my email. I didn’t get a response…”
Damn. “Sorry, I meant to get back sooner, but I was waiting to collate some results. Give you something solid.”
There was a stretched silence. “I should hope so.” David laughed. “Three days to deadline and we still haven’t had a full system check. Look, if you’re struggling to finish this we need to know. We can allocate you some resources, help speed things up.”
Warren knew what ‘some resources’ meant PhD students eager to prove themselves. Even if he could reveal to David that he was working in a deserted building he didn’t own, they’d only get in his way. Christ, it would take more than three days to get them up to speed. “That’s very kind, but not necessary. The scanning module is ready. I’ll have the test results written up before Friday.”
“Okay, Warren, I trust you, but I haven’t seen you at the last two project meetings and there have been some significant advances in the other camps. The Americans are claiming a novel scanning system using hyperpolarized compounds to increase scanning sensitivity. The Japanese have engineered a similar fMRI EEG hybrid system like ours. Eighteen months ago, we were miles ahead. The commission expects big things from this project, they believe we are world leaders. Anything other than a world-first paper next week will be considered a failure.”
There was a pause. Warren knew David was gearing up for a sucker shot. He braced himself.
“We need to get a post-deadline paper in at OTT Conference next week. A full system ‘hybrid’ test will get us that, but without your contribution, we have nothing. Our reputation as leaders will be gone.”
David stopped talking as if a response was expected.
Warren felt his skin grow hot; beads of sweat formed on his forehead.
He said nothing.
“We’re ready to go as soon as you meet your deliverable. Can we count on you?”
Warren didn’t have a test subject to authenticate his system. Even if he did, and it worked perfectly without any modifications – which was practically unheard of – it would take at least a day to write his report.
His mind clouded with panic, he tried to calculate the likely time he would need to complete… It was technically possible he could finish in three days, but he would be relying on luck and very little sleep.
“No problem,” he replied. “I’ll keep you up to date.” He could hardly believe he was uttering the words with such confidence.
“Okay, great,” David said. “And, Warren, if you want my advice, don’t get pulled into the details. Sometimes it helps to step away and look at the bigger picture. The devil lives in the details, and he’s your worst enemy. We need a solution here, not more problems.”
The phone went dead but David’s voice still rang in his ears.
His chair creaked alarmingly as he leaned back. The enormity of the work was an invisible ocean above him, pinning him to the spot, inactive. Where was he going to start?
Warren already knew the answer to that. He’d be testing himself. He figured there wasn’t any danger in it – it might be a little awkward – but it was his only option.
Warren rigged himself beneath the makeshift scanning tunnel, provided to him by his old University friend Tony, another researcher working within the project.
The machine activated with a deafening hum. The scanning tunnel was vertical, attached to the ceiling and chair so he could scan his metabolic activity under normal weight- bearing conditions. It also allowed Warren to remotely control his magnetically armoured PC from the hot seat.
It was past 4pm when he finished studying the test results. The sensitivity improvement was phenomenal, even better than he could have hoped. But there was something else, something inconsistent in the reading. A small section of his brain remained active throughout all stages of the tests; it seemed to vary slightly under each phase, but was entirely unrelated to the simple tasks he had performed. A rare pulse of anger throbbed in his temples. Why now? Why couldn’t the results be simple, conclusive?
He leaned back in his chair and clasped his head in both hands. Tears welled in his eyes. He was too tired for this news, news that could only result in more work.
David’s voice rang clear in his mind: The devil lives in the details.
It wouldn’t take a lot to modify the results, take out the anomalous reading, but he needed to study it further. He had to understand the implications. Could it be simple noise, a fault with the Faraday Cage? No, too ordered. Perhaps a glitch in the software? A bug to fix…? No, he would have seen it before. Maybe it was something unseen, an active, undiscovered section in the brain, no, surely not. What if he let this go and later they found his manipulation of the results caused misdiagnosis in patients. Or worse.
Nevertheless, if he didn’t provide something, he wouldn’t get his grant money and that was not an option. He had to submit a successful report. It was that, or fail to pay for his mother’s care.
Warren stood up, felt disconcertingly dizzy, and steadied himself with a hand on the desk. He had to get some sleep. Then take a break. Well, his mother would be expecting him.
Joyce was staring out of her window, her hands tightly gripped on the windowsill, knuckles shaking and white.
Warren stood beside her and took in the scene. The sky was dark grey, almost green.
“What do you see?” Warren said.
Joyce appeared to deflate, all the tension seeping from her. She smiled, “The sky is darkened by their cities. Thousands of faces peer at me, filling me with their poison.” She looked at Warren. Her face seemed alive, coloured with emotion, and untouched by medication. “The doctors think I’m crazy. That to indulge others in my hallucinations is counterproductive. They say medication will help…”
Joyce opened a clenched fist, revealing three blue pills in her open palm. “They make me forget about the hallucinations… or stop caring about them, I don’t know. But they take away so much more than just the bad stuff. Everything becomes fog.”
“Do you want to get out of here for a couple of hours?”
Joyce glanced up . Tension contorted her expression.
“What is it, Mum?”
Warren took his mother’s arm. “Come on, Ma, we can go grab a coffee – I’ll look after you.”
Joyce’s shoulders slouched forward, as if she were trying to fold herself away. She started to shake as if freezing cold. Warren held her until she began to calm.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just can’t.”
“It’s okay… It’s fine.”
Joyce quickly swallowed her pills, closed her eyes for a moment. “Come and see me again soon?”
“Of course I will.”
The day before deadline, Warren woke at 6am. The wind hissed outside, rattling through vents like wailing ghosts. Rain pelted loudly against the office window. Through it all, Warren heard pounding footsteps in the dark hallway outside.
He jumped up and struggled into his tracksuit bottoms and t-shirt.
A man, completely covered by a waterproof anorak and carrying a heavy-duty umbrella stood outside in the narrow corridor.
“Hey, Tony, what brings you to my little backwater dump?”
Tony’s face was visible above his pulled up collar. “Are we going to talk out here or are you going to make me a coffee? You have got coffee in this ‘backwater dump’ I assume?”
Warren chuckled. “Yup, plenty of coffee and toast… just don’t tell the council I’ve rigged up a 7 Tesla magnet in one of their properties…”
Warren opened up and led Tony into his workshop.
Tony discarded his anorak and left it dripping on a wall hook. He was a little taller than Warren but massed only two-thirds his weight. “Fancy place you’ve got here.”
Warren filled the kettle. “Just because I don’t genuflect for David Harris on a daily basis,” Warren put his hand on Tony’s shoulder. “Like some people. It doesn’t make me a loser.”
Tony raised a single eyebrow, but couldn’t hide his smile from lifting his cheekbones. “So you’re keeping it real for the little guy? Battling one research project at a time, taking what you can from the evil corporations?”
Tony grinned wide, and it made Warren want to drop what he was doing, forget about the project, and take his old friend out and get drunk.
“You’re taking one for the team?”
“Screw you, Tony.”
Warren filled two cups with instant coffee, sugar, and milk. “Clear a space. Grab a seat on the bench.”
Warren sat back and cradled his coffee. He let the silence settle between them and enjoyed the moment before the imminent heavy conversation ensued.
“You know, if you didn’t keep pissing people off you’d be running your own team somewhere like Magnetix.” He gestured to old test equipment lining the grey stained walls. “You’d have access to all the equipment you could ask for and not be hiding out in an abandoned shithole with rats and the odd pigeon for company.”
Warren stiffened with tension. He’d tried to explain it before but Tony just didn’t get it. “I do what is necessary to finish a job properly. If I missed a couple of deadlines along the way, that’s because I needed more time to study the—”
“Stop it, Warren. You’re a bloody control freak, and you’re not a team player.” Tony drilled Warren with a stern gaze. “Dress it up how you like, mate, but you’re a difficult guy to work with. Believe me. I know.”
“So why are you here then? Actually, let me guess, David sent you to make sure his ‘wild card’ isn’t going to cock up his precious publication deadline?”
The silence answered him clearly enough.
“David spoke to me, sure. He just needs his nerves un-jangled. His reputation is riding on this.” Tony hopped off the bench. “Which I don’t give a rat’s arse about, but, if he doesn’t get this paper submitted you can be sure he’ll hold you responsible, and he’s the kind of guy you need on your side in this industry.” Tony pulled himself back onto the bench and leaned forward, forearms on knees. “Regardless, I didn’t come here for him. I came for you. No results equals no pay. I’m here to help.” He rolled up his shirtsleeves and clapped his hands together. “Where shall I start?”
Warren wrestled with his instinct to throw Tony out. He figured Tony would forgive him… eventually. Below his pride, though, Warren felt lingering helplessness, the nagging thought of moving his mother to a cheaper home, the stress of having to spend many more nights in this place. No, he needed a place of his own, but first, he needed to complete his part of the project and collect payment.
He couldn’t deny it. He needed Tony’s help.
“As a matter of fact,” Warren said. “There seems to be some anomalous metabolic activity in my initial test.”
“Who’s the subject?”
“That would be me.”
Tony grinned. “I wouldn’t have expected anything else.”
Warren ignored the gibe. He brought up the results on his PC screen. “Look.”
“Christ, these are awesome. The sensitivity is amazing.”
“Right, but look here.” Warren pointed to the image of his brain on the screen. Red and yellow patches of colour vibrated in various sections. “At first glance it all looks pretty familiar.” He zoomed in. “But there are active sections in the thalamus and cortex. Here.” He pointed with a pen to a small coloured segment, zoomed in again. “This is way outside the current state-of-the-art measuring capability.” Dozens of segments were alight within the area. “The odd thing is that they remained stable and active throughout the test.”
Tony looked at Warren. He was transfixed. “Could it be noise?”
“I thought the same, but it’s not random.”
Tony shook his head. “Is this the only data you have, just one test?”
“Look around, buddy, you think I have an assistant in here?”
“Okay, okay… perhaps the contamination is environmental,” Tony said. “I’ll play lab rat this time and we can compare results. If the anomalous activity shows up in my test, then we can assume it is noise related, and take steps to eliminate it.”
It was the next logical step. Warren couldn’t argue.
Warren displayed Tony’s test on the screen. The metabolic activity was so clear that Warren almost dared to believe he would make the deadline. But he knew these results had to be better than good. They had to be perfect.
“Zoom in here,” Tony said.
Warren zoomed in and corrected the screen resolution. “There.” Tony pointed. “It’s the same as yours.”
Warren felt his pulse jump a couple of beats. “Wait a minute.” He hit the print button, got his results up under the same resolution, and hit print again.
Warren placed the printouts over one another against the window. They didn’t line up. “The anomalies are similar, Tony, but they’re not identical.”
“So what does that mean?”
“If the anomalies are produced by the scanner, I would have expected them to be identical in both tests. This makes it tricky.” Warren pushed his forehead against the window, he let his mind wander with the view of the wet, wind-swept city. “Wait.”
Warren stalked back to his PC.
“Well?” Tony asked.
“The activity is generated in slightly different areas, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t caused by interference in the magnetic field.” He compared two similar segments from Tony and his own tests. “See? Both are pulsing at the same frequency.”
“Well I’ll be buggered. You’re right.” Tony slowly shook his head. “Magnetic interference… fine, so we just need to counter the signal, block it somehow.”
“Right. I can extrapolate the frequency and program the software to block the unwanted noise.” Warren checked the time. 7pm. He had until tomorrow night to submit his results. “I’ll go under the magnet this time.”
Warren sat back in the test chair. His eyes were heavy, but his mind was reeling with anticipation.
The scanning tunnel buzzed down on transition stages. Warren looked across the room. Through the window, the sky was beginning to darken. Heavy rain clouds covered in a blanket of swirling grey.
The shapes seemed almost to have depth, as if he could reach out and touch them.
The humming stopped. The scanning tunnel was in place.
Warren tried to clear his mind and concentrate on the coming questions.
“Are you ready?” Tony asked.
Tony switched on the system. The room filled with the incessant screams of the scanning system, like a malfunctioning robot from an old movie, or the dying splutters of an old floppy disc magnified a hundred fold.
Tony raised his thumb and mouthed “All good. Don’t move a muscle.” He started tapping into the PC, presumably activating the signal block.
Warren continued to stare out the window, trying to block out the sound of the machine. In the sky, thick clouds vibrated. They took on substance.
What had been miserable grey had somehow transformed into a collection of horrendous structures that hung in the sky like angry gods.
Warren closed his eyes tightly.
When he opened them again, the world was a different place. He ducked out of the machine, his gaze transfixed on what lay outside. The structures were shadowed with dark ridges and ugly extrusions that leaked black vapour. Like floating cities, dozens of them darkened the entire sky. Spires rose kilometres further through the clouds above. Below them, thousands of machines whirled through the air like swarms of insects.
Warren felt Tony stand beside him. He heard his quickened breaths above the racket of the machine. A quick glance in Tony’s direction confirmed that he too saw the impossible picture before them.
“Hallucination…” Tony managed. “The signal is messing with our information processing.”
Warren kept his eyes on the scene. “Tell me what you see?”
Tony’s voice was a throaty quiver. “I see what looks like metallic ships floating…” He pointed. “There, there… Christ, they’re everywhere. Flying things… another one over there.”
Warren pointed to the north-west. “Over there… see the cables?”
Maybe a mile off, cables as wide as trucks fell from an airborne structure. They penetrated the ground in a park close to the river. All around it, thousands of flying things heaved and shifted in the sky. The black sheet seemed to grow as Warren watched.
“I see it,” Tony said.
“They’re coming this way.”
Warren couldn’t drag himself away, and watched as the things drew closer. He could appreciate their scale now – each was the size of a house cat. Multiple appendages spiralled out from each individual in all directions.
Warren’s gaze flicked from one to the other in the cloud of the massing swarm. Each was similar in size and design, but all were fundamentally individual. Different limbs, or colour. The common denominator on each was two central stalked eyes, black and glistening like oil.
Warren felt the air around him charge with energy, like the moment before a lightning bolt hit. There was an ear-deafening crash behind him. The room filled with the smell of burning plastic—
—And the world snapped back into focus. They were gone.
The room was silent. Smoke rose from the inert scanning machine. The view was clear. Grey, wet, and miserable, and no sign of activity in the sky.
Warren thought of his mother staring out her window, knuckles white against the ledge. He thought about the billions of Euros spent developing technologies to cater to the exponential increase in mental health problems.
He thought about the freak weather and the inexplicable death of wildlife across the globe.
Tony stood at the window with his head slumped forward. His eyes were sunken in ashen sockets. The only sign of movement came from involuntary shakes that, on any other day, Warren would have mistaken for laughter. He pulled his phone out and searched for News stations: BBC, CNN, CBS… all nothing. “It’s not on the News. Perhaps some kind of shared hallucination…”
“Don’t you see? We are the only ones that could have seen it…” Warren pointed to the machine. “The scanner is passive; it can’t interfere with our processing of information.”
“No, but the signal could have.” Tony said.
“Tony, the system didn’t generate metabolic activity in our brains… believe me I designed this prototype. We simply blocked what is already there… Something else is interfering with our processing.”
He let the thought settle on him, sink into his skin and freeze his blood. “We unblocked an already existing signal… then, our reality is a lie. I–we-that bloody machine, just opened our eyes to a hidden world?” Warren joined Tony by the window and gazed over the Greater London sprawl – miles of land where millions of people lived and worked. “Those things are still out there.”
“We just can’t see them.”
“People need to know. We’ve got to tell someone.” Tony took his phone out and started to dial.
“Who are you calling?”
“The police. We need to explain what’s going on and get them to talk to the government.”
Warren gently took the phone away. “This isn’t something we can just tell people about. You really think they’ll believe you?”
Tony seemed to surrender. His arms went up, palms out. “Well what do you suggest we do?”
“I don’t know. Go see your family, girlfriend, whatever, make sure they’re okay. I’m going to see my mother.”
Warren felt the anger radiating from his friend, barely contained frustration born from fright.
Being scared Warren could understand. It loomed large and heavy, so strong, Warren could taste it like bile, blinding him of all rational thought.
“Like hell you are.” Tony said. “If we can’t tell people about this then we’re going to bloody show them.”
“Show them what? The scanner’s fried.”
Warren could see an idea forming on Tony’s face, his eyes ignited with mischief. He ripped off the scanner’s outer shell and poked around inside. “Some components are fried, but I think I can fix it.” He carefully removed a module and handed it to Warren. “We’ve got a magnet a hundred times more powerful at Magnetix. We take your program, bolt on your system, and then rip a hole so everyone can see through this fairy-tale bullshit.”
Warren tried to argue, he explored every avenue of defence he could find… but nothing materialised.
In the end, he adopted his stance – a single plea. “I’ll do it, but first I want to visit my mother.”
It was dark outside the nursing home, and well past visiting hours.
The on-duty nurse was plump and bouncy. Warren watched her through the window as she rushed to open the door. She pulled it open only slightly, the chain still attached.
“I need to see my mother Joyce. It’s an emergency.”
The nurse looked unsure, was about to say something-
“An emergency,” Warren repeated. Not wanting to make a scene.
She mumbled something about signing a register. Warren ignored her and headed upstairs at once. Tony followed close behind.
He knocked twice and didn’t wait for an answer.
Joyce was sitting in her chair with the curtains closed. She was watching the News. Images of dead coral reef dominated the picture.
Joyce smiled. “Oh what a surprise. How lovely to see you both-” She stopped talking with an abruptness that sent a chill through Warren’s spine.
Joyce screamed with deafening intensity. Shock contorted her face into an ugly mask. Her skin turned white and she scrambled to get away from him.
Warren ran to her.
“No! No!” she screamed, her hands coming up in protective defence. “Leave my son alone!”
Warren stopped dead in his tracks.
Her expression charged with soft lines of sympathy wrestling against hollow-eyed fright. But her focus was sharp. He couldn’t detect her usual drug-induced glaze. “You have to run, boy, get away from them,” she whispered. “Do you hear me?”
Warren felt strong arms push past him. Two nurses ran past in a flash of white and blue.
Joyce had fallen to the floor, cowering. One of the nurses produced a syringe and stuck it in Joyce’s arm.
Warren hurried over and tried to hold his mother.
The nurse looked back at him. “Just something to calm her. She’ll be okay but she needs to rest now.”
Warren backed away, unable to take his eyes off his mother slumped and shivering in the corner.
“Come on, Warren, we can come back in the morning,” Tony said. “There’s nothing you can do here tonight.”
The walk to Magnetix passed in a dreamlike haze. Warren carried a rucksack weighted with the scanning modules and components. It rubbed his back with each step. Warren’s mind bounced from the earlier impossible sights—a tear in reality, as he’d come to consider it – to Joyce’s reaction to him.
But really, it was the opposite to a tear in reality. His—no, everyone’s processing of reality couldn’t be trusted.
Magnetix loomed above them – a glass building eight storeys high. The lights were off on all floors, apart from the lobby.
Warren followed Tony through the rotating entrance. Tony flashed a badge at the security guard.
They rode the lift up to the fifth floor. Tony took white overalls and a hair net from a locker, and passed them to Warren. “Put them on.”
They walked through two doors into the cleanroom. The lab was a pristine example of what big money could buy. Warren felt a sharp pang of regret that he didn’t have the opportunity to work in such a place, but it passed just as quickly as he considered working for men like David Harris.
Tony flicked on the lights and the room came alive with a low hum. Before them, in the centre of the open plan lab was a fully operating MR scanner.
Warren checked his watch. “It’s gone nine, it’s probably going to take all night to get this hooked up and active. Are you ready?”
Tony nodded. His face was hard to read, but Warren thought he glimpsed a hard line of determination behind the white of his receding shock. “Let’s do it.”
The morning sun warmed Warren’s forearms as he screwed the panel back into the MRI machine. He looked left. Tony was still asleep, his rolled-up jacket supporting his head. Even in his sleep, his brows were furrowed.
Warren turned back. Just a few more tweaks and the system would be ready for testing.
God only knew what was going to happen when he switched the power on. Am I even doing the right thing? Warren wondered. Do people want to know what’s really out there?
What would happen when the world saw behind the veil? Christ, does it even matter? People have a right to know what’s happening to their world.
The door behind slammed open.
Tony sat upright so quickly it looked like he’d been electrocuted. The man that entered hadn’t bothered to don overalls. He wore a tailored suit with a slight sheen. His shiny shoes clipped loudly on the resin floor. He wore the skin of an executive, but it would take more than a good tailor to hide his slime-over cut and bad posture.
David Harris came straight for Warren and stopped inches away. His eyes were ablaze with a smoldering anger. Warren nearly fell backwards from the force of it.
“What the hell are you doing to my machine?”
David used a conversational tone that made his anger even more real. Warren felt his shoulders tense and in that moment, he wanted nothing more than to be away from David Harris.
Warren stumbled for words, somehow trying to explain the past twelve hours in a sentence but not being able to articulate a single point.
Tony loomed close and David snapped his focus on him.
Warren let out a long breath.
“Warren,” Tony said. “How long before we can test the machine?”
“Pretty soon I guess. A few minutes and I’ll have it hooked up with my PC.”
David’s face creased up into a wrinkled ball. Warren took an involuntary step backwards.
Tony put a hand on David’s back. “Sir, please, just watch. Give us five minutes and you’ll understand.”
David blinked, as if waking from a bad dream. “No way. You tell me right now why you’ve destroyed my equipment.”
Warren slowly backed away. It took him a few seconds to connect his computer to the machine. There were a few panels still to be mounted, and a couple of solder joints that could do with cleaning, but it wasn’t necessary. Not really.
Warren switched the power on. “Hey,” he said, looking directly at David. “I’m sorry.” And he set the blocking program running.
Shadows moved and changed, and the room dropped a shade darker.
The air became thick with the stench of diesel fuel and the atmosphere vibrated with a low groaning. Warren closed his eyes against the onslaught; it was as if he’d transported to a different room, a different world.
Warren counted a dozen or more things buzzing about. They held still for a second, then moved to a new, seemingly random place in a blink. They would linger for just a fleeting moment. Like faces flying past on a speeding train, Warren couldn’t absorb their features. He saw glimpses of metal fused with flesh, engines that spat black smoke, and large stalked eyes as black as his darkest nightmare.
Warren was aware of sounds from outside, it might have been screams, or the screeching of brakes. Explosions shook the building.
Warren moved to the window. On the streets below, people gathered and watched the skies. Others ran in panic trying to flee the inescapable horror above them.
David fell to the ground, a rush of air escaping as he hit.
Tony’s eyes followed the buzzing creatures that infested the lab. Together they moved towards Warren’s computer. They seemed to slow a beat, heaving slowly as if one independent creature.
And they disappeared.
Outside, the floating cities had fallen behind their cloak. The room once again smelt clean and felt safe.
“Did they switch the machine off?” Tony said.
Warren checked over the system. He made sure his program was still running. “It’s still going. All functioning.” He checked his PC and ran some numbers.
“The bastards have changed the interference frequency, they modified their blocking signal.”
Warren said, “We just need to scan someone again and we should be able to update my program.”
Tony nodded. Then his entire body lifted off the ground as if by magic, and struck the ceiling of the lab. He fell to the ground like a crash-test dummy. Blood spilled from his head in a growing circle of dark red.
In a similar way, David flew across the lab bouncing off the MRI machine to land in a broken heap next to Tony’s limp body.
Warren’s body filled with a sharp spike of adrenalin. He ran for the door. He pulled himself into the corridor and ran for the stairwell. His heart pounded in his ears, his breath wheezed alarmingly in his chest, but somehow he managed to find himself outside.
All sight of the intruders were gone, but everywhere Warren saw the devastation they inflicted. The invisible attackers smashed cars and crushed them into sheet metal. They threw bodies through the air like toys, piling them in hideous heaps of broken limbs and ripped flesh.
Warren tried to block out the terrible screams and deafening sounds of exploding concrete and smashing glass.
He pushed onwards, away from the city and the smell of fear, towards his mother’s nursing home. His feet pounded on the floor, step after step until eventually he arrived at the Victorian home.
All was quiet inside. No sign of the nurses. The only sound was the distant whimpering of residents behind closed doors.
Warren found his mother in her room. She sat in her chair staring at white noise on the buzzing TV. The curtains were open. Smoke billowed in the distance. Military aeroplanes roared across the sky.
Warren sat on the bed. He took his mother’s hand in his. “Mum?”
Joyce’s eyes flickered and then focused. “Oh hello, Warren. How lovely to see you.” She gestured to the TV with a mild sneer. “There’s nothing on the damn TV these days. So tell me, how is work?”
Warren quickly closed the curtains and knelt down. He held his mother’s hand tightly, thankfully.
He closed his eyes and let his mind search for the words – an explanation for the destruction outside. Words that might soothe the final moments of their lives.
Finally, he resisted the urge to explain. At least here, they could hide. Wait and hope the threat would pass them by. At least here, Joyce was comfortable, and if they came, Warren knew the end would be quick.
The sound of splintering wood resounded downstairs. Glass smashed and clattered loudly.
Joyce seemed oblivious.
The crashing sounds raged closer. Warren felt the vibration as the invisible invaders tore the house apart below them.
Warren breathed in deeply and tried to lift his lips into a smile.
“Work is… great,” he managed, before the door disintegrated into a thousand splinters and viscous pincers wrapped around his waist.
A Dose of Treachery
By Michael Siciliano
I trudged up the gravel path as the summer sun attempted to smother me. Sweat dripped down my brow and stung my squinting eyes. Shoulders aching, calves straining, I pushed myself forward. I wondered, as I often did, why the temple had been built atop a high hill rather than next to the well. Water sloshed inside the buckets when I jerked back from a flitting insect. I daydreamed of pouring the water over the top of my head.
The trail, bordered on either side by flowering bushes and slender beech trees, led up to the place I called home—a squat, columned temple built from beige stone. Mid-day glare radiated off its graceful curves, rounded pillars and bulbous dome. Beyond, puffs of cotton floated amid an endless azure expanse.
Mistress Eskelle stood atop the rise in her drab prayer robes, long white braids dangling at her back. Two strangers, one tall and one short, stood with her. “Lazio!” called Eskelle, her tone urgent. “Leave the water there and come greet our visitors.”
I lowered the buckets and wriggled out from beneath the bar. We rarely received visitors. Apprehension stole over me as I hurried over.
The first of the two strangers was a girl, roughly my age, which is to say newly an adult. Auburn hair, green eyes, and a freckled face marked her as an Easterner. She watched me approach, but looked away when I tried to meet her gaze.
The second was an older man. Tall and thin, he stood straight as a pillar. His long black beard hung clean and well-groomed. Thick eyebrows, beneath a wrinkled brow, strained to meet above the center of his eyes. A thin-lipped frown gave me the impression he was used to looking down his nose at people.
“Lazio, our esteemed visitors are from far Abados. This is Paltos Xerax-Thal and his apprentice Lanna.” Eskelle motioned to each as she named them.
My mouth dropped open and my heart skipped a beat. A Paltos. Wizard-councilor to the King. I knelt immediately, bowing my head. “Your lordship,” I mumbled, not sure if I’d used the correct honorific.
“You may stand,” Xerax-Thal said. His voice rumbled like a landslide.
I straightened, keeping my eyes fixed on the tops of my shoes. The girl snickered at my sudden submissiveness.
“Come inside and rest. We will talk as my boy prepares us tea,” Eskelle said.
I glanced up to see the Paltos nod. “That would be most welcome. We have travelled far, and could use a respite. Even so, events unfold as we speak.”
Events? What events? We lived simple lives out in the lowlands, far away from the machinations of the great cities.
“Of course, Paltos. Please, follow me.” Eskelle turned and strode back to the temple. She rarely moved with such purpose of late. Her joints had been giving her problems.
Xerax-Thal and Lanna followed, and I brought up the rear. It gave me time to appreciate the Paltos’s apprentice. She had a lithe, feline grace that brought a blush to my cheeks. I admired the hypnotic sway of her hips as we entered the temple, noticing too late that Lanna had glanced back. A private smile and an arched eyebrow told me she knew exactly what I had been doing.
“The Usurper has gained the support of several lesser lords, and somehow managed to harness the Trogs,” Xerax-Thal explained. “He is an ungodly man, using foul magics, and I fear for our King.”
Trogs. My blood ran cold. Twisted creatures, said to possess a dangerous cunning. I had never seen one, but I had heard enough tales to know they were real.
“This is terrible news,” Eskelle said, worry lines forming at the corner of her eyes. She set her teacup on the table at her side. “What can we do for you?”
“I read a cryptic and incomplete manuscript, written by the Ancients. It alluded to a terrible weapon stored in an underground stronghold in the southwest.” Xerax-Thal’s grip tightened on the armrests of his chair. “We must find this weapon and use it against the Usurper’s armies.”
They must be desperate if they were chasing legends.
I glanced at Lanna. The fear written across her face flared an unexpected sense of protectiveness in me. I hadn’t had much contact with girls since I’d been given to the temple. If this was a crush, I didn’t mind it at all.
Eskelle sighed. “I know what you read, and I would advise against it. The underground lair lies deep in The Blighted Lands. Few return from those swamps, and those that do are never the same.”
Xerax-Thal hummed and stroked at his beard. “Nonetheless, I believe we must press ahead. You must guide us to this lair.”
Mistress Eskelle’s eyes grew large. Her face turned ashen. In the seven years I had spent at the temple, I had never seen her look as frightened as she did at that moment. “My deepest apologies, Paltos, but I cannot. I am old and can no longer make long journeys. However, we have a small library here, and a collection of Ancient maps. With their help, you and your apprentice should be able to find the lair.”
The Paltos grumbled, perhaps unused to being denied. After a moment he nodded. “I would very much like to use your archives.” He unfolded from his padded chair, looming over us. “Come Lanna, you will make copies of everything we need.”
“Yes, master,” Lanna said.
“My boy will help you,” Eskelle announced. “He is good with pen and paper.”
My heart quickened. How would I concentrate on my work with Lanna by my side? One way or another, I would have to.
“You may stay here as long as you need Paltos,” Eskelle said.
“Two days should be sufficient. Thank you, Priestess,” Xerax-Thal replied.
Lanna and I copied dozens of documents, maps and accounts alike, during those two days in the dusty archives. I liked her immediately. She had a mischievous, playful quality fused with a quick wit and we flirted with one another as we worked. Furtive side-long glances, half-hidden smiles and suggestive tones passed between us. Her voice, musical and seductive, made my head fuzzy with lust.
On their last night at the temple, I shared my pallet with Lanna. She dragged me there, sure of herself in a way I wasn’t. It was my first time, but not hers. By the light of a full moon, I explored with an unexpected boldness. It was exhilarating beyond my wildest dreams. I will never forget her soft skin sliding against my own, our frenzied panting, and a deep yearning fulfilled in the midst of low moans. She made a man of me, and though I never told her I fell in love with her that night.
Afterwards, we lay in each other’s arms, cooing like doves. I was desperate to know if I had satisfied her, but was too embarrassed to ask. We giggled, touched, and whispered, but didn’t speak of the future. The night had been too perfect to spoil with Xerax-Thal’s worries. A lethargy, born from warm content, stole over me. It was good to be alive.
I drifted off with Lanna’s bare leg thrown over mine, her head on my shoulder, gossamer hair caressing my cheek.
I woke startled, my mind slow. Had I heard someone cheer? Lanna’s body, pressed up against me, shifted as she raised herself on an elbow.
Then I heard it again. An animal’s high pitched whine knifing through the dark.
Lanna gasped as if she recognized the noise.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Trogs.” She scrambled out from under my blanket, and snatched her blouse.
“Here?” My stomach sank, fear overtaking me in the dark.
“They must have followed us.”
I dressed in record time, my hands shaking, my heart beating a mad rhythm. I lunged for the corner of my cell where my Nabow staff leaned against the stone wall. Mistress Eskelle had been teaching me how to use it. In the hands of a master, the simple polished wood would be a deadly weapon, but in mine … in mine it was a slim bludgeon.
“I need to find my master,” Lanna whispered.
“I’ll go with you.”
“No.” Lanna gripped my bare arm, fingernails digging into my skin. “Find the Priestess, make sure she’s safe. I can defend myself.”
I leaned in and gave her a hurried kiss. She smiled at me and dashed from my cell.
Mistress Eskelle would be in her chambers behind the altar room. I loped through the dark halls, boots clomping. My hands strangled the Nabow staff, ready to swing at anything that moved. I stifled the desire to call out to her, worried I’d bring the Trogs down on the two of us.
Varying shades of gray swirled past me, shadows within shadows. Moonlight slipped through opened windows only to wither in the confined halls. I imagined an arm reaching from a black corner and yelped like a puppy. I swung at it, the staff flitting through empty air. I grunted, embarrassed, and was glad Lanna hadn’t seen me attack a phantasm.
A man’s rough shout, most likely Xerax-Thal’s, echoed about me as I rounded a corner into the altar room. The wizard had illuminated the chamber with a will-o-wisp’s ghostly blue light. He stood encircled by the strangest creatures I had ever seen.
Trogs looked like short, skinny men with prominent spines. Naked to the waist, skin the color of old moss, they crouched and bared pointed teeth. Greasy hair grew a long, lustrous black. One of them turned toward me and hissed. It’s eyes were bottomless pits of darkness.
Xerax-Thal shouted in a language I had never heard, and swept a wand downward like a blacksmith at an anvil. A sudden, intense flare of light scorched my vision, driving me to my knees. Gasping for breath, I rubbed an open palm against my eyes, terrified the Trogs would attack me while after-images flooded my sight.
I struggled to my feet, an uncomfortable tingling flowing through my body. The air stung with the odor of sharp vinegar and rotting eggs.
One of the Trogs lay an arm’s length away, it’s mouth agape, bony fingers covering its eyes. My mind stuttered, but fueled by fear, my body reacted. The Nabow staff smashed into its face. The Trog made a piteous whining sound, much like the one that woke me, and raised a clawed hand to protect itself. Mad from terror, I swung twice more. When next I drew breath, the Trog lay dead at my feet.
I saw another, disoriented just as the first had been, and put an end to it.
The Paltos used a slim sword to stab the Trogs before they could recover from his magic. Several did.
One leapt to its feet and tore at me. Sharp nails ripped open my tunic and raked my chest. The wounds stung. I managed to jab the creature in its stomach with the butt of the staff, and crack its clavicle when it staggered. It jabbered on the ground, words that nearly made sense, but didn’t. I put it out of its misery by bashing its skull.
When all was said and done, Xerax-Thal and I stood amid a dozen Trog corpses. The iron smell of blood filled the room. I stared in horror at the wreckage around me. Shattered pottery, broken chairs, toppled candle-holders, a cracked mirror. And pooled blood. So much blood.
I had never killed anything before that night, and the orgy of death before me caused my gorge to rise. Trogs aren’t people, I assured myself. And anyway they had snuck into our holy temple with murder on their minds. Assassins in the night. Kill or be killed. Sometimes it couldn’t be avoided.
I stumbled to a corner and vomited. Afterwards, I knelt there whimpering, spitting acidic dregs from my mouth, miserable to my core.
A comforting hand gripped my shoulder. “It’s alright, boy. I think we’re safe now,” Xerax-Thal said in a low voice.
I rose to my feet, and felt blood dribble down my chest. Wounds across my ribcage sent flames through me. “Mistress Eskelle … ” I mumbled through lips stained with the taste of bile. I started toward the door to her chamber.
“Stop, boy,” Xerax-Thal commanded as he reached for me again.
I brushed his hand aside and hobbled to the half-opened door.
In the faint illumination of the witch-light I saw Mistress Eskelle lying on the stone floor, clutching at terrible lesions in her flesh. Her life’s blood, dark and gruesome, pooled around her body. I let out a strangled cry and bolted to her side.
I sobbed into her neck as she clutched at me.
When I could form words I said, “Don’t leave me, Eskelle. Don’t leave me.”
It was the first time I had ever used her name without the honorific. She had taken me in after both my parents died of the yellow fever. She became my adoptive mother and I grew to love her.
Her wounds were mortal. Even I could tell that. I felt a portion of my soul begin to separate, drift away, leave an aching void inside my chest.
“Don’t fret for me, young one,” she said, her voice cracking. “God has a plan for everything. This is … this is his design for me.”
“No,” I wailed, feeling the hysteria build inside me a second time.
“I want you … I want you to … ” She coughed, pink spittle flying from her lips. “You cannot stay here alone. Not safe. Go with the Paltos. Help him find … the weapon.”
“No, I won’t leave you.”
“Go, Lazio. With good care … I might survive the day, but not into the next. Better to let me … let me slip away now. God awaits me.”
I turned from Eskelle, seeking Xerax-Thal. He was a wizard. Magic could save Eskelle’s life. But the Paltos was nowhere to be seen. A frustrated anger welled up. “Where is he?” I snarled.
“His magic could not reverse this, Lazio. In any case … he went in search of his apprentice. The girl you took to your room.” She gave me a warm, knowing smile. Embarrassment rippled through me. She must have read the emotion on my face. “My Lazio, there will be many others for a boy of your charms.” She reached out a bloodied hand and stroked my cheek. “My sweet boy … I am proud of you. Prouder still … help the Paltos. It is my last wish.”
Her last wish. How could that be? Earlier in the week we had planted herbs in the garden together. Row upon row of them. We did that with late summer in mind. We had a plan, a purpose. All of that scoured away in one night. My mind rebelled, skittish as a colt, thoughts skidding back to the herb garden. Purpose.
As always, if Mistress Eskelle wanted something, I wanted to be a part of it. For her, for us. So, if she wanted me to help Xerax-Thal with his crazy adventure, then that’s what I would do. Not because her life drained away before me, but because it’s what I had always done. With tears flowing down my cheeks, I nodded. I tried to speak, but inadequate words caught in my throat.
“Go,” she whispered. “I’m so tired. I think I might sleep now.” Her eyes fluttered closed, and I cradled her until she went limp.
I pushed myself up, the world blurred by tears, and went in search of Xerax-Thal.
The Paltos, grim and pale, met me in the hall leading to his guest room. He grabbed my arm, fingers biting into my skin.
“Where’s Lanna?” I asked.
Xerax-Thal shook his head.
“This can’t be,” I wailed. “This can’t be!”
All of it had to be a terrible nightmare.
“She was my apprentice long before she took you as a lover,” Xerax-Thal stated, eyes dark in the dim light. “In the end, she acquitted herself well. She was brave and strong, and fought to the last. The Usurper tried to kill us and failed. Though I mourn her loss, I am unbowed.”
I struggled in vain against the Paltos’s iron grip. “I don’t care about your Usurper!” I shouted. I hated him for bringing tragedy into our temple. I hated the world. I hated God. “Let me go!” I swung a fist at him. He flinched at the impact but didn’t release me.
“Failing our murder, this is what the Usurper wants. He wants us grieving and broken. He wants us weak for his next attempt.”
My rage melted away as his words sank in. I slumped back against a wall. If this is what the Usurper wanted, he had gotten it. I was broken. Lanna. Oh God, Lanna. I should never have let her go by herself. “I want to see her.”
Xerax-Thal released me. “You don’t want to see her like that. Remember her as she was before the attack. That is my advice.” He stepped away to give me room to pass. “But do as you will.”
I took two shaky steps toward the guest rooms. Stopped as I remembered dancing, mischievous eyes and soft parted lips. A strangled sob forced its way out of throat. He was right. “Mistress Eskelle wants me to go into the Blighted Lands with you.”
“Yes. I thought she might. I’ve gathered the documents. The supplies meant for Lanna and I are waiting at the front entrance. We must leave at once.”
Was the Paltos completely heartless? “We can’t just leave them. We need to bury them, or make a cairn at the very least.”
“We must leave them. Both my apprentice and your Priestess would understand. There may be more Trogs lurking, and if they know we are here, then the Usurper will know by daybreak. We must be away under the cover of night.”
I closed my eyes and pushed the grief back. There would be time enough for it later. The holy texts spoke of detached souls drifting away from their corporeal bodies. That meant when someone died, their corpses weren’t them. What was had departed. Burials were for the living, and we didn’t have time for that luxury. “Alright, but I need to clean and bandage my wounds.”
Xerax-Thal nodded and strode ahead of me.
We travelled at night, putting as much distance between ourselves and the temple as we possibly could. I hauled both of our packs, muscles straining, as the cuts across my chest burned. I hardly felt them. Grief drowned out all other pain.
Sunrise glowed an angry red, then a bright orange, and last a piercing yellow. Birds of all sorts woke, invigorated, and began their incessant chatter. Fatigue hung over me like a sodden cloak, but Xerax-Thal forced us on throughout the day. We ate while walking, stopped to rest our aching feet on rare occasions, and spoke very little. I thought I saw the Paltos brush tears out of his eyes sometime during the afternoon, but I couldn’t be certain.
We halted at sunset, weary to the bone, and made a small camp. Raw blisters had formed on my feet. I cursed under my breath as I changed the dressing on my chest. The cuts stung horribly, but a salve seemed to have kept the wounds free of infection.
Xerax-Thal removed scrolls from his pack and examined them by the light of his wand.
Curiosity got the best of me. “How do you make the witch-light?”
“Magic. Obviously.” I scowled at his answer. Before I could compose a suitable reply he continued. “It is like a torch, boy, but only I have the capability to light it. Left alone it will produce illumination for the better part of a day.”
What a wonderful tool. “If I held the wand, it’d stay lit?”
Xerax-Thal gave me a hard look, eyes hooded by shadow. “Yes, but you will not touch the wand. Is that clear?”
I shrank back at the sudden hostility. “Yes, Paltos.”
Xerax-Thal went back to his reading, oblivious to my discomfort. A short time later, he raised a furrowed brow, gazing into the night. “If what I see here is correct, we will not have much time at the lair.”
“Why is that?”
“All accounts of the Blighted Lands agree. Man or beast, it makes no difference, if we spend more than two ten-day there, we will become sick and die.”
“All the more reason not to go,” I grumbled. “Can’t you just protect us with your magic?”
“That’s not how magic works.” His condescending tone nettled me. It seemed to say Lanna would have known that.
It was true. I was a poor replacement for his apprentice. Yes, I was strong. I could carry heavy packs over long distances, haul buckets of water and crack Trogs over the head with a short staff, but I wasn’t a wizard’s apprentice.
I had known Lanna for only two days, but we had bonded in that time, and I missed her terribly. I don’t know if true love had formed, but given time it could have. If I survived this, I might spend the rest of my life searching for another Lanna.
Xerax-Thal coughed. A gravelly eruption. “After we’ve retrieved the weapon, boy, you may return with me to Abados. I will make sure your needs are met.”
I spread a blanket out on the rough ground. “My name is Lazio.”
“Lazio,” he said by way of apology. “Do you read or speak any of the Ancient languages?”
Some of the oldest holy texts were written in them. Mistress Eskelle had hammered Engles into my head with all its strange rules. I might have been forthright with him, but everything about Xerax-Thal had come to irritate me. Perhaps it was the fresh grief. Maybe I resented being treated like an indentured servant. The most palpable reason was my heart-ache. Both Mistress Eskelle and Lanna were dead, but Xerax-Thal hadn’t said a kind word about either of them. Hadn’t even let us bury them.
“No, Paltos,” I lied.
“A pity. Do you know any languages beyond Monta?”
He grunted an acknowledgement, lips downturned. “Lazio is a Canno name.” Not a question. A statement. As if I didn’t know my own heritage.
I stifled bitter sarcasm. “Yes, I’m Canno,” I finally said.
My head swam with conflicted emotions. I resented the upheaval he had brought into my life, but was it really his fault? He hadn’t known the Trogs followed him. He should have. He was a wizard after all and besides it was common sense. I’d have challenged him on that point, but I feared provoking his anger. More importantly, it wouldn’t bring Eskelle and Lanna back to me.
I forced myself out of silence so I wouldn’t wallow in grief. “Do you know why the Blighted Lands are blighted?”
“The Ancients had a war. A long war, from what I could glean. Terrible weapons were used and many people died. In the aftermath, ruined cities were abandoned. I don’t know what good came of their war. Most of us think of the Ancients as brilliant and wise, but they weren’t always so. They were just people. Like us. Fragile and flawed.”
I had never given it much thought. After a quiet moment, I said “It was foolish of them to befoul the land. More so because they couldn’t reverse it.”
Xerax-Thal gave me an uncertain hum. “It is more complicated than that, boy. Regardless, there are two questions I have not been able to answer.” He said it as if that were an oddity.
“Just two?” In the past two days, I had come a long way from kneeling before him.
He arched a thick eyebrow at me, but ignored the verbal jab. “Why would the Ancients create an underground lair for a weapon, and why would they leave it in an infected land?”
“Am I supposed to know the answers?”
He tugged on his beard, but didn’t reply. Instead he pulled out a thick leather-bound journal, an inkwell and a pen. He scribbled while crickets battled one another with their shrill songs. Our campfire snapped and crackled, sending smoky tendrils drifting skyward.
I rolled onto my back and stared up into the star-strewn night. Pinpricks of light dotted the heavens. Were my parents up there? Mistress Eskelle? Lanna? Could they see me now? Could they feel how much I yearned for them? Too many unanswered questions.
I was drifting off when Xerax-Thal said something under his breath.
“What?” I mumbled.
“I’m sorry,” the Paltos repeated and turned away from me.
Six days into our journey the landscape began to change, both within and without.
Lightly wooded grassland transformed into muddy swamp, but not the type of marshes at home. Swampland in the Blighted Lands didn’t teem with wildlife. No deer roamed between the trees, no rabbits darted through high grass. Birdcalls vanished entirely. I had taken their presence for granted, but once it became clear they avoided this area, their absence shouted at me. Insect life flourished. Biting, stinging creatures, bold and fattened. Some wore garish colors, others sheathed themselves entirely in black.
Our environs didn’t bother me nearly as much as my restless mind. I had entirely too much time to dwell on what happened at the temple, and the circumstances bothered me.
When I had rounded the corner that night, a semi-circle of Trogs had pinned Xerax-Thal into a corner of the altar room. Behind the Paltos was the door to Eskelle’s chamber. The Trogs ringed him, but hadn’t set upon him. What were the chances the entire group of Trogs would find and converge on Xerax-Thal at the same time? Trogs weren’t pack wolves, and from what Xerax-Thal said they were dangerously intelligent. So, why did they hang back? Why group around him and give Xerax-Thal time to defend himself?
And then there was the location of Mistress Eskelle. She had been brutally slashed by the Trogs but there were none in her chambers when I entered. All of the Trogs had ringed Xerax-Thal and it appeared, at the time, that the Paltos was defending the entrance to Eskelle’s room. If that were the case, how was it that she had already been attacked? And how was it that Xerax-Thal happened to be at the altar in the first place? It had been late at night. He should have been fast asleep in the guest quarters. Lanna had assumed he was. What had he been doing in the altar room? None of it added up.
On the morning of the eighth day, Xerax-Thal stopped me as I packed up our camp.
“We are nearly there. I want you to stay here with our camp. I will go ahead, and come back when I’ve located the entrance.” I began to object, but the Paltos held up a palm. “Don’t argue with me, boy. Do as I say.”
I nodded, hating him a little more each time he called me ‘boy’. After some time of slapping at endless buzzing insects, I decided to retreat into Xerax-Thal’s tent.
Each night, I slept under the stars, a free feast for the insects if I didn’t huddle deep under my blankets. But the Paltos wouldn’t think of sleeping in such an undignified manner. The tent took up a great portion of my time when making and breaking camp each day, and I had begun to despise it. Once inside, however, I knew why the Paltos wanted it—protection from the elements and privacy.
Privacy. I glanced down at his pack. His journal lay nestled within. Curiosity made me take out the leather-bound book, and open it’s secret pages. Words written in Ancient Engles flowed across the pages in smooth, precise script. Why would he write in the Ancient’s language? Probably to keep someone from reading his private thoughts.
He had asked me if I knew Engles. Suspicion prodded me forward. I flipped to a random page.
Beckand believes the coin came from Detrand, but that’s a ridiculous assumption. I placated him, of course. He is thin-skinned, and although useful, he is prickly when contradicted.
I groaned and flipped a few more pages.
Someone has spoken with indiscretion. I don’t know who, but they will suffer for their stupidity when I unveil them. One thing is for certain, I cannot stamp out all the whispers. The more I try, the more that will spring up.
Court politics, for sure, but what indiscretion? I skipped ahead again.
Lanna has begun to suspect my motives. I am fond of her. She has grown on me like so much tree moss, but I cannot allow emotions to cloud pure judgment. If I am to achieve my goals, I cannot have an untrustworthy apprentice by my side. I must consider this carefully.
Surprised horror overwhelmed me. Untrustworthy Lanna suspected his motives. Motives in what? Goals for what?
No amount of reason will budge them. I’ve tried everything. The Trogs simply refuse to go into the Blighted Lands. The more I press them on the issue, the more agitated they become. I will need to find assistance elsewhere, and not from Lanna.
The Trogs? He had been conversing with those … monsters?
Mistress Eskelle had told me once that the most believable lies were founded in truth.
What if Xerax-Thal had told the story true, but the King hadn’t sent him on an unlikely quest to find an Ancient’s weapon? What if he was the Usurper and he controlled the Trogs? Anger welled up from the pit of my stomach and heated my face. If that were true, he had murdered both Lanna and Mistress Eskelle, and duped me into helping him find a terrible weapon.
My suspicions made a nauseating sense.
He thought his secret safe nestled in a language I couldn’t read, in a journal I wouldn’t dare open. And the only reason I had found this was an idle lie. What would Xerax-Thal have done to me if I had told him I could read Engles?
I found the last few pages and read, determined to bring all of Xerax-Thal’s deceptions into the open.
Eskelle is skeptical, despite the resiliency of the story I told her. She has an intelligence that I hadn’t suspected from a backwoods priestess. Although her maps are invaluable, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that she must be silenced. It is a difficult decision, but a necessary one. I’ll have the Trogs do the bloody work and come to Eskelle’s aid too late.
There was more, but the fear of discovery overtook me. If Xerax-Thal was cold-blooded enough to kill a priestess who did nothing more than help him and murder a faithful apprentice simply out of suspicion, there was no telling what he’d do if he found me reading his private confessions.
A vengeful hate thrummed through me. Teeth grinding, knuckles white from the grip I had on the leather cover, I placed the journal back into the Paltos’s pack. Had Xerax-Thal appeared at the tent flap at that moment, I’d have launched myself at his throat, magic be damned.
As it was, I had time to calm my rage and consider my actions. The safest bet would be to pack up our gear and leave him out here, in a fetid swamp without provisions. But he had murdered both my adoptive mother and a girl I had fallen for. To add insult to injury, he had lied to me about their deaths and duped me into being his pack mule. No. Leaving him in the hope that the Blighted Lands would kill him was the coward’s solution, and I wasn’t a coward.
I wanted to see this Ancient weapon for myself, and use it against him.
Xerax-Thal led me through the marsh, moving quicker than I, unburdened as he was by the weight of our packs. Thick, brackish mud sucked at my boots and squelched with each step. Pools of stagnant, murky water, much deeper than they appeared, attempted to swallow me. Long, spiky vines, pale and surprisingly strong, lying in wait just beneath the surface, conspired to trip me. Buzzing insects, the black ones with the tiny orange stingers, took delight in diving into my hair and face. And through it all the cloying smell of rot permeated everything.
We came upon the ruins at mid-day with pregnant clouds above our heads. Miserably weary, with fresh welts on my arms and neck, I dropped our packs to the first dry ground I found. The Paltos frowned at me, but I ignored him.
The ruins were enormous. Cracked and broken concrete stretched ahead of me as far as I could see. Tree trunks and vines had forced their way up from below, shattering the man-made surface with patient ease. Walls had collapsed into rounded, crumbling rubble. Rust colored stains blotched the remaining concrete like a wasting disease on an old man’s skin.
“This must have been the biggest building ever made,” I muttered.
“It wasn’t one building, boy. The Ancient’s called it a complex.” Xerax-Thal pointed at our packs. “Pick those up and follow me. I’ve located the entrance to the underground. I want to be back at last night’s campsite by nightfall.”
He tromped ahead, and I was forced to heave the packs back onto my shoulders. I cursed under my breath as I clambered over a crumbling section of concrete, only to have a wiry tree branch slap me in the face.
We picked our way through the complex, backtracking several times when inconvenient walls and stubborn vegetation blocked our path. Finally, as a light mist began to sprinkle us, we came upon a narrow set of crumbling steps. At the bottom lay a sewer-cover large enough for a giant. The rusted hulk had cracked the outer rim and tipped downward. The opening yawned black as night.
“This is it, boy. Down there, somewhere in those subterranean catacombs, is our goal.”
I edged close to the precipice, not liking the look of it. “Are you sure it’s safe?”
Xerax-Thal snorted contemptuously. “No. Leave the packs here and get the rope out. Tie it to that out-cropping. You’ll be going down first.”
I would go down first. In case the wall gave way, or the lip crumbled to send the rusted behemoth crashing down on me, or a snake the size of a tree had decided to use the pit as its home. I considered trying to shove Xerax-Thal down the opening, but rejected the notion. I would only have one chance at killing him. I would need to choose it wisely.
I tied the rope to the out-cropping and my waist, knotting it as tightly as I could. Then I heaved the rest of it down into the dark. Xerax-Thal grasped part of the rope, but only as a symbolic gesture. If the jutting piece of wall fell apart the rope would be ripped out of his casual grip, and I’d fall. I squinted up into the light rain, sending out a quick prayer before lowering myself into the hole. Hand over hand, my thighs clenching the rough hemp, I slid down.
A shallow pool of foul smelling water met my boots. The drop was, approximately, five or six times my height.
“I’m down,” I called up, my voice echoing. “Your turn.” An involuntary shudder passed through me. If a tree-sized snake did live down here, I had just announced its meal time.
The Paltos came down much slower. My patience was waning by the time he hopped from the rope. He was right to bring a helper with him. I doubted he could have accomplished the exploration on his own.
Xerax-Thal produced his long, polished wand and waved it over his head. “Vo’sha!” he announced. My stomach clenched as the ghostly witch-light appeared at the end of the wand. With a flourish, he pointed it into the dark. Faint outlines of a rounded ceiling and walls unveiled themselves, glistening with moisture.
“Do you see those brown patches, boy?” he asked.
Grotesque slicks of greenish-brown slime slathered the walls. “Yes.”
“Don’t touch those. They are the expectorant of poisonous spiders. Touch them and your exposed skin will necrify.”
I had no idea what expectorant or necrify meant, but I got the gist of it. Don’t touch the brown patches. Bad things would happen if I did.
“Yes, Paltos,” I said, doing my best to sound subservient.
“Follow me, and don’t wander off.”
Sodden detritus swirled beneath our feet as we shuffled deeper into the lair.
The Ancients must have been masters of iron-working and construction. Rounded tunnels, smoothly sculpted from concrete and steel, turned and turned again. They led to intersections, stairwells and rusted, crumbling ladders.
Shadows slid along the walls, folding into corners, expanding along the dry patches of floor. Something with a long tail darted away from our witch-light as we rounded a corner, and a leggy spider the size of my hand sat amid a giant web in a room full of metal tables. The air lost some of its sulfurous odor to be replaced with a stale, tangy scent.
Xerax-Thal must have seen me wrinkling my nose at it. “That is the spider’s poison. Smells faintly appetizing, does it not? The rats agree. They learn to avoid it or they die.”
During our exploration, we came upon two snakes, the second of which was as long as I was tall, and did not flee our light. I might have heard a slight tremor in Xerax-Thal’s voice as he directed me around the pale creature.
After what seemed like an eternity, we came to a long curved room deep inside the catacombs. One side supported a series of sheer glass windows. The other held metal shelves sprouting with multi-colored studs and black glass panels. I gazed at them in wonder. I couldn’t imagine the skill and resources required to create such a thing. Nor did I understand its purpose.
I reached down to touch one of the studs.
“Don’t!” ordered Xerax-Thal.
I snatched my hand back.
“The Ancients called those ‘control panels’. They required a magical power that doesn’t appear active now, but there is no reason to take chances.”
I glanced up at a faded yellow sign. The letters were written in Ancient Engles. It read “Caution. Radioactive Materials Handling Area. Potentially hazardous quantities of radioactive material are handled in this area.” The symbol of a pink sun threw out three equal curved blocks of rays.
This weapon, whatever it was, used something called ‘radioactive.’
“What does that say?” I pointed to the sign.
“Weapons storage. Authorized personnel only.”
I nodded, doing my best to appear awed. I knew he’d lie to me.
At the far end of the room I saw another sign, but this one was a small map of our area. We stood in a curved, semi-circular room painted in light green. Beyond, an isolated room filled with a garish yellow displayed a red exclamation point. There was only one way in and one way out. The Ancients must have been very serious about their secret radioactive weapon.
The Paltos pointed his wand toward a heavy metal door. A scarlet wheel had been mounted at chest level. “If my guess is right, the weapon will be in there. Stand back.” Xerax-Thal tucked his wand into his belt, strode forward, grasped the wheel and turned. I heard a hiss and a metallic creak. The thick door swung open and cool air washed over me. The room had been sealed tight, but no longer.
I glanced at the door. It was hugely thick. Pure steel, and the lock on it had three metal bars the size of my forearm. No one could break that door down. Turning the wheel must have retracted the bolts, and there was no corresponding wheel on the inside.
What would be the use of such a sturdy portal if someone could shatter the glass? The Ancients weren’t stupid. I must’ve missed something important.
Xerax-Thal edged into the room, wand extended forward like an alley-thief holding a knife.
I moved up to the glass, knowing Xerax-Thal’s attention was riveted elsewhere. I raised a palm to the smooth surface and pressed. It was solid and unyielding, much thicker than I had guessed, and not glass. Whatever its composition, the Ancients had known what they were doing. I bet if I swung a chair at it, it’d break the chair.
“Here it is!”
I jumped, Xerax-Thal’s exclamation startling me.
Through the glass, I saw the Paltos standing before a long workbench. The weapon didn’t look like a weapon. It was a long, curved tube with an open hatch. From my vantage point, I couldn’t see much of the insides, but it appeared to have more of those ‘control panels’. How in the world was he supposed to use that?
“Boy, come in here! I need you to hold the wand. This will require both my hands.”
The weapon was a disappointment. The only way to kill him with it would be to drop it on him.
But there was another way. A much simpler way.
I did as he said and backed away.
Xerax-Thal grunted as he heaved the contraption up with both arms. Witch-light played with the shadows on his face, darkening the creases at his nose, chin and forehead. A wicked grin split his lips. He held the weapon as if it were a newborn baby. Delicate steps took him toward me.
Genuine fear coursed through me as I backed through into the room with the ‘control panels’. It was now or never. If I let the Paltos live, he’d silence me like Mistress Eskelle and Lanna. I was certain of it.
I dropped the wand to the ground, grasped the wheel on the door and shoved with all my strength.
“Boy!” Xerax-Thal shouted.
Metal screeched as the door slammed home. I spun the wheel, breath catching in my chest. I heard the massive door lock with a final click. My heart raced. Exhilaration mingled with fear.
I had defied and out-smarted a King’s Paltos.
I expected the door to fly outward, knocking me back. Or the windows to burst. Or something.
Instead, when I peered through the glass, the Paltos’s wand held up for light, I saw Xerax-Thal standing in the center of the chamber cradling his precious radioactive weapon.
My guess was that he’d need his magic wand to activate the weapon, but the wand was safely in my custody.
Failing some other trick, trapped in the workroom, he’d either die of thirst or suffocate. I should have felt guilty, but I didn’t.
He shouted something, mouth working in a vicious snarl, but I couldn’t hear a word of it. The walls were too thick.
I smiled at him, satisfied with my work, and held up his magic wand. My voice cracked as I said “That’s for Eskelle and Lanna, you bastard.” I knew he couldn’t hear me, but it didn’t matter. I’m sure he guessed the meaning.
It took me the better part of the day to find my way out of the complex, Xerax-Thal’s wand lighting my way. I found the previous night’s camp at sunset and slept soundly for the first time since leaving the temple.
A week later, bedraggled and miserable, I arrived back at the temple. Kingsguards, swathed in azure and black, took me into custody. I told my story to a grim-faced captain. He didn’t believe me until I showed him Xerax-Thal’s journal and personal possessions. They treated me kindly after that.
Mistress Eskelle and Lanna had been buried before I returned, but I spent some time at their graves, presiding over my own personal funeral service. I cried, but felt better afterward.
The King’s men told me they’d take me back to Abados. The King would want to reward me himself. Crowds would cheer my name. The slayer of the Usurper. I would be celebrated as a hero, but I didn’t feel like one.
I couldn’t stay at the temple. Too many memories, both good and bad, so I agreed to go. Abados would be the start of a new life atop the ruins of the old.
No one heard from Xerax-Thal again. I imagined him, slumped over in his tomb, clutching his prize. Sometimes I wondered what went through his mind in his last moments. I hope he suffered.
By K. A. Blaha
I saw him on a walk after Learning. I don’t usually interact with long people, but when I saw him brush his shining black hair from his eyes, I was transfixed. I waited around the pool until he came off the stand.
“My name’s Cali,” I said. He towered over me. I hadn’t been able to see how tall he was from a distance. My whole body tingled. I shouldn’t be doing this.
“Can I help you?” His voice was soft, with a hint of an accent. Maybe Thai? I’d query it in Learning tomorrow. “I’m off shift right now, but I suppose I could answer a quick question.”
“Oh, I’m not a pool patron,” I said too quickly, trying not to let my face grow hot. “I’m new in town,” I said. I regretted the lie instantly. “But I thought you looked about my age…” far from it. He was teenaged and I was three.
“My name’s Kusa. I was about to go join my friends at the park. Do you want to come?”
I smiled and nodded.
His friends sat in a grassy field on bleach-spotted towels with ragged edges. “Hey guys, this is Cali. She just moved here. I met her at the pool.” He pointed around the group. “This is Ali, Greg, Alfons, and Nadya.”
“Come sit down,” Ali called to me. “Where did you move from?”
What could I say that would inspire the least curiosity? “Missouri.”
“My aunt lives in St. Charles,” Alfons said. I smiled and nodded as if I knew.
I leaned back and stared up at the sky. I listened absently to the conversation around me, enjoying its existence more than its content. They talked about people I didn’t know, bands I didn’t know. I’d never “hung out” before. This was only my tenth day of Free Time, a rite of passage when a brief person turned 3.
“We must be boring you!” Ali said.
“I’m just quiet. I like to listen,” I said.
“What do you do for fun?”
I spent all my days in Learning, and all my evenings working with all the other brief kids. I studied physics… I could make that work. “I like the stars.”
“Cool, you’re into astronomy?” Ali asked. “Do you have a telescope?”
“Something like that, yes.”
They went back to talking of current events and new movies. I watched Kusa, though I tried not to be obvious. When he smiled at me, I felt like Einstein was watching because time dilated.
Later, Ali and Nadya left for work. Greg had dance, and Alfons had to pick up his sister from tae-kwon-do.
“I should go too,” Kusa said. He rubbed the back of his neck. I thought he seemed a little awkward, but what did I know about long people? I studied his face. I’d watched couples kiss in videos. I tried to recall them. I wanted to get this right. It was Sunday, and I wouldn’t have Free Time again until Saturday, a small eternity.
“Do I have something on my face?” Kusa asked.
I leaned over and put my lips to his lips. At first he jumped, but not away from me. My body was on fire, but my brain fired furiously logging and analyzing the event. The texture of someone else’s lips, soft muscles under the skin. The musky smell of his sun-baked sweat. The warmth of exhalation against my cheek. I pulled away.
“What… what was that for?” He stammered. His cheeks were rosy.
“I like you,” I said. “I’ve got to go,” I stood up and left. When I peeked over my shoulder, he was still watching me, his mouth gaping a little.
“So what did you do with your afternoon?” Disa asked. It was time for evening calisthenics.
“I met a boy,” I said. “What did you do?”
“I went- wait, a boy? A long boy?” She smiled and blushed.
“Yea,” I said. “And his friends.”
“What did you tell them?”
“I didn’t tell them I was brief, if that’s what you mean. I said I was new in town.”
The teacher led us in our evening calisthenics. Brief people age about five times faster than long people, which means we grow much faster. Though I’m small compared to a long 15 year old, I’m extraordinarily big for a three year old. I hated the calisthenics, but then it was better than the alternative. Before they developed the regimens for the early brief people, they would get terrible muscle cramps and strained tendons. Sometimes calisthenics were nice after a long day of Learning, hooked up to those machines and staying still for so long, but most days it was still a chore.
“I won’t get to see him for a whole week. Will he forget me by then?”
“Not if you made an impression. Did you?”
I felt my face burning brightly and I giggled. Disa giggled too and soon I fell out of the posture.
“Disa, Cali, is there a problem?” the teacher said. His face was stern. It was easy to stop laughing, looking at a face like that.
“No. Sorry sir.”
After calisthenics, there was second dinner. I told Disa everything—about the bands, about the slow, silly way they talked sometimes, knowing it was silly and not minding. We talked about it until the sleeping bell sounded.
Monday and Tuesday passed. Wednesday dragged on for an eternity. Three times the Learning machine recorded my mind wandering. On Thursday it was four times. I focused my mind razor sharp on Friday. If the machine logged three days of poor performance, I might lose my weekend Free Time. Late morning and evening calisthenics classes passed too. I told Disa everything there was to tell, and after that we speculated and pondered and finally invented wild fantasies.
The Learning session on Saturday morning passed a second at a time. At last it was 11:30; I think I never left Learning so quickly.
I went back to the room I shared with three girls my age. I picked out a favorite summery blouse from the closet we shared. It was too tight in the bust. My breasts had chosen to come in recently. I hated it. I didn’t want to grow up and have to work all the time. I found another shirt with a little more stretch.
Perhaps my new development would be enticing to Kusa. It was strange to ponder my appeal. Disa had entertained fantasies of some brief boys. I never had. Someday I’d have to pick one to have children with. Every time I even tried to fantasize about one of them, that’s where it ended. With Kusa, I could be anyone.
I hurried out of our campus. I paused near the pool to catch my breath. I hoped he would be working. What would I do if he weren’t?
When I arrived, he wasn’t in the chair. My heart sank. I felt weak.
“Cali?” Kusa said from behind me. “I’m still on shift for another 15 minutes.”
“I’ll wait,” I said. I smiled so hard it hurt a little, but I couldn’t stop.
“Want to go hang out?” He asked after his shift.
“Maybe you could show me the town,” I said. We took the bus downtown. I’d only been there a few times, and mostly for laboratory field trips, so I was genuinely curious. We went to his favorite hot dog stand (I wasn’t impressed) and to his favorite spot by the river. The barges drifted lazily past the park bench. Kusa put his hand on mine. We leaned close and he wrapped his arm around the small of my waist.
I met Kusa the next day and every weekend. I told him I took classes during the week. I invented more lies when the days grew shorter and long teenagers returned to school. I didn’t know if he could accept me as a brief person, and I didn’t know if I cared if he could. It was so simple this way.
The days grew shorter yet, and the leaves turned ochre and fell from the trees. We sat on the bench by the river for hours in the cool dry air. Barges puttered by. Birds dove and swam and flew. The waters shimmered past in eddies and ripples, reflecting the fiery colors of fall.
“Don’t you have autumn in Missouri?” Kusa asked one day. His cheeks were rosy with autumn chill. His warm breath was just visible in the air.
I was only two years old the last time it was fall—a ten year old in long years. I had never had free hours to enjoy the seasons before, either.
I shrugged more casually than I felt. “We have to appreciate good things while there is time.”
In November, it was Kusa’s 16th birthday. I wondered if I’d live to see my own. I’d pondered what I should do for his birthday for weeks. Amongst brief people, even half birthdays are major events. Should I do something sexual? Beyond concerns of crassness, I had serious reservations about whether or not things would fit. He was very tall, and I was so small. But then what? I had no personal money to buy things, and little time to myself to make things. I discussed it endlessly with Disa, and queried the net in spare moments.
I taught him a dance. Disa and I invented it one day after calisthenics. Most of the moves were part of our stretching routine. It was probably klutzy looking; Disa and I had fallen over laughing at its oddness a dozen times. I taught it to him, in the middle of the pizza parlor, in front of his giggling friends.
In January, I celebrated my own half birthday, though not with Kusa. Long people didn’t care about all those milestones. It was also time to start preparing for my four-year selection, when I would pick a research topic.
“You seem distracted,” Kusa said. It was snowing. A thin veneer of ice had formed at the rivers edges, catching the snow. On the trees around us, thousands of tiny branches glittered.
“Do I?” I said. I still didn’t know what to tell Kusa about the selections. My half-birthday also signified the halfway point of my free year. In six more months I wouldn’t have time for Kusa. It had never occurred to me before. A year had seemed an infinite time to fall in love again and again.
“I’ve been worrying about college,” he said. “I wish my grades were better.”
In a way, he had a selection of his own to worry about. But, like always, he had time. I nodded.
I couldn’t assuage his fears, and he couldn’t assuage mine. But I could be here, for now. We kissed. His breath was hot against my cold face. I touched my cheek to his icy cheek.
“I love you,” he said. I think I’d loved him since I’d first seen him on that lifeguard stand. My heart felt heavy.
In March Disa picked a study group in Trondheim, Norway. When she turned four in June, she would spend a month studying there. Then she would return to our brief campus, which was more set up for our needs. Once she returned, she would be considered an adult. It wasn’t required, but it was expected that she would pick a mate before she turned four and a half.
“Mate selection is as important as research selection,” she told me at calisthenics. “We each have an intellectual and a biological legacy to leave behind. You should start thinking about it too.”
“I still haven’t picked my research topic. There’s still a lot of time.”
One Saturday in March, the buds on the tulip trees were just beginning to open. I wished the seasons would cycle faster. I felt out of sync with the world. Kusa and I sat on our pollen-coated bench in the damp, cool breeze.
“How is Disa?” Kusa asked.
“She’s fine,” I said. Disa and I hadn’t spoken in a week, longer than any time before.
“Is everything alright? You seem wound up.”
My life shot forward, while his idled in the daisies. For a moment, I felt so resentful. But he smiled and it all melted away. I stroked his cheek softly. A little weak stubble had grown in. He was growing up, too, but too slowly.
“Ali and Alfons and the others are going to a concert tonight. I know you’re usually busy in the evenings, but–”
I had calisthenics. But to hell with that, I’d dance at the concert and make up for it. “Sure.”
Kusa illuminated. “Great!”
“Cali! Kusa!” Nadya cried in the crowded hall. All around me, hundreds of teens in trendy, flesh-baring outfits mingled and danced. My own sweatshirt and jeans seemed out of place.
The opening band came on. The kids roared. I didn’t know who they were, but I roared too. Alfons elbowed me. I looked down and saw a flask, of alcohol, I assumed. I’d never drank. I took a deep, burning drink. I coughed and passed it back.
By the time the main act appeared, I had taken two more swigs, and the world was swimming. I hung my arm over Kusa. I didn’t care about the music, so it was easy to ignore the loud performance. In the cacophony and crowd, it was a little like being utterly alone. We kissed. His lips tasted like the burning alcohol as well. I ground against him. He held me around my waist. I wanted to be with him. I didn’t want to be with any brief boys. Why couldn’t I choose Kusa?
Kusa slid his hand up under my shirt. My ragged breath against his face told him I had no objections. I felt his rough fingertips on my nipple and moaned. I wanted to be with him. I broke the kiss and took him by the hand away from the roil of teenagers.
I led Kusa into a handicapped bathroom. I could tell he wanted me. I peeled off my sweatshirt and my t-shirt. He tried to take my bra off, but eventually I had to do it for him. He kissed my neck. I stood topless next to him, feeling tiny. I think he was even taller than when we met. I undid his belt buckle and he groaned softly. I kissed him. I was hot all over. He reached into his pants and I saw his passion. The old panic returned. That would never fit. This would never work.
This would never work. I had to be an adult in a few months. I stopped. I didn’t know what to do.
“Do you have a condom?” He asked, his mind where it ought to be. His face looked exactly as it had when I’d first met him. My own pictures from last summer looked so different. We were out of phase. I picked up my t-shirt and pulled it on as I ran out the door.
I ran three straight miles back to campus. Disa stopped me at the gate.
“Where have you been? You missed calisthenics.”
Now that I’d stopped running, my stomach turned. I vomited in the bushes. “Let’s not talk about it.” She came over and stroked me on the back.
“Where is your bra?”
I didn’t see Kusa the next day or the next weekend. Finally I couldn’t ignore his texts and messages. We met on our park bench. Dogwood blossoms spotted the banks of the river.
“I’m sorry I upset you at the concert. I shouldn’t have taken advantage of you in a state like that.” I could imagine the look on his face, that hangdog puppy face. I gazed at the dogwoods instead.
“I was the one that dragged you to the bathroom,” I said.
“There are some things you don’t know about me,” I said.
Birds twittered. I didn’t even know where to start.
“Have you ever heard of brief people?” I asked him.
“Aren’t they research people? I think there’s a campus of them not too far from the pool… Wait… you?”
“I didn’t know they were allowed to leave.”
“We don’t often, but we are encouraged to explore the world some before we enter our research career as adults, since there are things the machines can’t teach us. As adults we’re free to explore as we like, but we have little time…” Time. “You’ve probably seen brief people without knowing.”
“So… how old are you?”
“I’ll be four in the summer.”
He exhaled as if struck. “God.” There was silence. “Will you even live to see my age?”
“Probably. But probably not twenty.”
“I still love you,” he said. “I still want to be with you.”
Tears brimmed in my eyes. “It isn’t that simple. When I turn four, I’m an adult. I have to start my research career.”
“And I have to start having kids.”
“No one can make you.”
“No, that’s true. But I won’t be able to have kids after I’m nine or so. To sustain our numbers, I should have at least two.”
“That’s stupid,” he said, his voice turning to anger. “What’s the point of breeding people that don’t live to see twenty? What kind of life is that?”
“It’s my life,” I said gently. “Do I not deserve to live?”
“Oh… I’m sorry…”
“I’ve wondered the same thing before. But I get to do exquisite research. Because of the structure of our brains, we learn much faster. When I turn four, I get to join almost any research project I want to. We’re the ultimate researchers.” I’d been dreading my adulthood, but telling Kusa about it, I was excited at the opportunities.
“You can’t do that kind of research and live a normal life?”
“Right now, the two are mutually exclusive. Though I’m sure someone’s doing research on it.” Somewhere, ambulance sirens rang out. “So you see we really can’t be together. Even if you were willing to have kids now, I don’t know what that would mean. And I probably won’t be there when you turn thirty.”
“I don’t care, I don’t care!” He shouted.
“I do,” I said quietly. He seemed so like a little boy. I would continue to age. It would only become more so. I had caused him so much pain with my adventure. But I’d been younger than him when I started. We had started in phase.
I kissed his head. “Goodbye.”
He didn’t say anything, but I could see him softly shaking as I walked away from the park bench.
By Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
I came back from the war without hands. First thing I did was call up my boy. To do so I had to use the fancy voice phone, hands free, the army gave me as a parting gift. Guess they felt bad cause I couldn’t use my old one no more. I asked my buddy Kyle if he wanted to have coffee. Two years was all I’d been away, only twenty when they shipped me off. Kyle and I were going to be married. At least that’s what I told myself, it might’ve been pretend. He gave me his photo before I left, a high school picture with a blue ocean-looking backdrop, his graduation gown draped over his narrow shoulders. I couldn’t see no part of his body but his feet, at the bottom of the picture, showed from the legs of his tight blue jeans. And his hands I could see, folded into fists at his sides like he was angry at being photographed. Two green beads for eyes and his mouth pursed sour-like. In fact Kyle did hate having his picture taken. I took pride in knowing that little fact, like all the tidbits of his I picked up along the way. Part of why he always liked me was I no longer felt the high schooler’s need to capture everything on camera like all his track friends did. I’d been out of school a little while.
He agreed to meet me, and so I had Ma help me put on a flower-print dress, blue roses. In the mirror, if I hid my arms behind my back I nearly looked innocent. The fact of my hair, which had to be clipped down to the scalp and still hadn’t grown back, and the scar across my shoulder, one huge chunk of charred red skin like dry black lava, all of that kind of ruined the effect of the dress. My scars were still healing, so they couldn’t fit me with the temporary prosthetic, and all that was left of my arms were two stumps at my sides. Looking into that mirror, I realized I couldn’t have coffee with Kyle. Not only would he not know me anymore, I also couldn’t hold a teacup. Asking him to feed me through a straw would be too much for him. This was one of those facts I knew.
I had Ma cancel. I heaved my wilting body onto my childhood bed and didn’t cry. The army doesn’t cry. My hands were a gift to my country. No take backs.
If you want to know did I ever meet up with Kyle, I’ll tell you. I did. Not too long after the dress and the mirror either. Ma told me to wait, that once I got the operation he would see me different, that it would be a fool idea to meet up before. The list I was on for that op was a long one, and if there was still the spark that used to buzz electric between us on the futon in his bedroom at his parents’ two-story, then my hands didn’t much matter.
Neither me nor Ma was really wrong. Kyle was freaked by the stumps but not enough to bolt. That wasn’t really why it didn’t work, why he said we should just be friends, like high school all over.
“Josie, I’m just, you know, going to school now. Got into the U on rodeo scholarship,” he said between gulps of white coffee in Ma’s parlor. “We’re of different worlds now. I don’t even believe in the war anymore.”
He sure was different, more talkative, his speech rich-sounding, high and mighty-like. I sucked coffee through my straw, looking down into the oily stuff. The steam burned my face.
“Yeah, maybe you’re right. We probably wouldn’t work that way. I don’t want to argue, but you sound full of shit.”
Kyle smiled. It was the same tightlipped grin, showing his crooked front tooth. We talked safe stuff for a while, then I led him to the door. He let himself out. I wanted to wave, but it wouldn’t have been a fitting finale. A wave meant something different for me now.
Everything else was normal at home until I saw a flicker of something at my bedroom window one night. I’d been eating Ma’s food, all the goods she used to deliver: chicken and dumplings, pecan pie, balsamic walnut salad, and mashed potatoes with sausage gravy. Dad would come home each night, just like when I was younger, and try and force us into table small talk, which I now had an excuse to avoid. After all, I was readjusting to the home life. I didn’t have to talk at dinner if I didn’t want, thank you very much. All day long I would sit in front of the TV, but I wouldn’t really watch it. Just look at the screen, change the channel when they showed the news, try not to think. I’d done too much of that the last two years. It was time to give my brain a quiet. Every now and again Ma would coerce me into doing a puzzle with her – part of healing is working different mind muscles, she would say, despite my protests. You can just tell me where the pieces go, and I will be your hands. Puzzling is a hobby she must have started when I went away, cause it used to just be TV and entertainment magazines when she was home alone.
That day with the flicker at the window, I hadn’t felt much like the evening bowl of ice cream my Dad insisted we share, as a family, so that we would associate spending family time with the sugar high of dessert. I’d copped out to my room. I’d just gone to close the curtain when the flicker passed by the window so fast I almost thought I was hallucinating.
“Aw, shit,” I said. “Fucking post-traumatic.” I stumbled back onto my bed, suddenly dizzy. But it passed like the snap of my old fingers. It happened again, a brown flicker like an animal or a person running fast.
Now let me tell you, my parents’ house was a little run-down. No more than the other houses in the area, but the yellow paint outside was chipped and had curled at the edges in the sun. We had a full two acres of land and a bent-up fence around the house that shielded us from the coyotes, who had grown so bold they’d hunt for cats right up at the side of the house if we hadn’t fenced them out. My Dad’s old lemon rusted in the driveway, but also his new blue car shone there in the sun.
Anyway, there would have been no real reason for a thief to pick our house over any of the others in the general vicinity. It might, I thought, be one of my old boys from the neighborhood come to welcome me home. My window was close enough to the ground that I could climb out as a teenager, and there had always been a group of neighborhood boys to climb out for. In high school I used to sneak off for illicit cigs and warm Firedog Ale and quick fucks under the trees. When I got older, I never grew out of them, boys: naïve, scrawny, adventurous, too young yet to complain about sore thighs and weak knees, too impressionable to pretend they knew better than me what’s right in this world.
I opened the window, unlatched the latch with my teeth and pressed the sides of my arms into glass to lift, and just yelled out. Called some old names I knew. No one answered, but in the far off crickets whined. Coyote stopped midhowl. The hairs on my arm stood attention. I never heard one do that before.
The neighbor boys I’d known would all be out and about in the world anyhow. Like Kyle, colleging and jobbing and marrying. Still over there in their wars. Not all of them sent home because they let a bomb take them the way they wished a boy would: totally, without mercy. It wasn’t one of them. I shut the window the same way I’d opened it and climbed into bed, scared I wouldn’t be able to sleep. But the chill subsided. There were few fears that could get me now. That was one thing the army gave me. Steel balls.
After that night, though, I didn’t stop thinking about the boys. I called their old houses up, but their mothers all said like I thought, that the boys were now men. They talked to me different, too. Like I was a woman. I didn’t feel much like a woman. Guess I’d never stopped thinking of myself as a girl, a girl playing with boys on fields of fireworks and noise. I’m going to get a little perceptive and say maybe it was the way I dealt with it all. Nothing new, War. I’d done this all before in my own backyard. The smells of smoke and warm blood, just like in my head back then. How could something scare me that I’d practiced time and time again?
One day I called every old boy I could think of. The ones I liked, the ones I hated, even the ones I maybe loved. Most of them from the neighborhood went the same place I did. It’s one of the only things folks like us can do, after high school. After two years of living at home and slacking, really just putting off the future that was written for me since I got my diploma, I went too. I never saw any of those boys on the field. As I sat before the bedroom window, I thought of their scrawny bodies twisted like pretzels. I got up and went to the TV, where I perched myself in front of it and didn’t get up till Dad came home.
At dinner that night, Dad asked how my day was. I didn’t say nothing, just nodded my head, made a squeaking noise I hoped he’d take for what he wanted.
“Josie, why don’t you talk to us?” Ma asked. “You know we’re here for you, should you need us.”
To eat I used my nubs pressed together to hold silverware. With my fork I moved corn around, didn’t look up at them.
“You think you’re above us, do you now?” My Dad’s voice rose like hot air. “Cause you went away to a war, you can’t relate to the people that raised you, that it?”
Because I didn’t have an answer, I stood from the table. “Of course not,” I said, but I said it soft. The imprint of my old boys’ naked bodies had been at the back of my eyes all day. I’d been home for one month already. I had yet to get out into the yard like I used to. My whole body ached from disuse.
“Now I know you had a rough time over there. You won’t admit it, you might claim everything’s fine, but I know it. If you need time, fine. We’ll give you time. But if you keep on like you’re all okay, like you’re still the same one hundred percent, then we’re gonna ask that you do some stuff around here. Pick up after yourself. Cook a meal or something. Take the damn trash to the burn pile.”
I held my arms out. “How you expect me to do that?”
My Dad’s face reddened. “There’s ways. Maybe not trash, maybe not that, but something, anything, Josie. We just wanna know you’re here. That you’re alive.”
I padded down my body. “Alive,” I said.
Ma smiled, but her eyes were sad. “We love you, Josie dear.”
In my room I watched the window again, but for some reason it didn’t make me feel good. Made my stomach turn, in fact. I could feel my palms where they used to be all sweaty and I had to keep rubbing my arms on the bits of leg exposed by my jean shorts. I rubbed at my head until my skull was numb. I had to move my body. It was screaming like old boys in heat. Or that other death.
That my first venture in the woods since I came back happened at night was appropriate, but no less spooky. In the years since I’d been gone, some of the trees had died. I walked in the skeleton grove till I came out to the stock pond the boys and I used to wade into bare-assed. Different groups of boys but always the same me. I never change. It’s what’s safe about me, what high school boys consider my best quality. I’m forever relatable. I’m that piece of them that they know will become past.
Used to we told ghost stories. Kyle and I, our buddies, we’d get together with flashlights, that old cliché. The boys were sick, telling stories all about blood and guts and vomit. My stories, they told me, were boring. The same old shit. Something in the woods. Boys in the woods turned monsters. Walking through those woods again, I knew my stories weren’t stories at all. There was something in those woods with me, breath heavy as a lover. I could smell the stink of garbage, the old boys’ story vomit. Like rotting vegetables.
I turned around but saw nothing. Didn’t expect to. Boys know their hiding places. Boys can find a place to hide in the desert even, in a desert of sand and shells. I wrapped my arms around the nearest trunk and rubbed my cheek on the bark. It scratched an itch I didn’t know was there. I kept on rubbing. My heart hummed all fast. The phantom sweat palms that made me leave my room came back. I could feel them slippery on the wood the way I never thought they could be, like they was touching the trunk of someone. From the past. Someones in a field somewhere, in a desert. On the desert floor where I couldn’t lift them because my hands are across the sand, walking across the sand with their fingers. I wanted to press my cheek so hard into the tree it would take me alive and whole again.
Something sharp grazed my shoulder. I didn’t jerk back, just let its touch scratch into me. Maybe it could find me in my skin. I wanted to cry. No crying. The army.
“I won’t cry,” I said. It was all I could think. All I could care about.
The thing grabbed a weak hold of me, made a noise, this moan. Nothing like a sex or death moan, more like there was meaning in it, a word all garbled. Right up next to me like that, it stunk like garbage left in the sun. It moaned again, desperate-like.
“Leave me alone,” I said. “I didn’t do nothing to you.”
The hand on my shoulder didn’t feel like a boy’s hand. There was nothing soft about it. The hardness of it felt like more than calluses. Felt like the skin had hardened. I never felt anything like it. You could say I was scared. My heart sure was beating fast. But I might tell you I don’t get scared like that. I gave up scared a long while ago. I closed my eyes and didn’t pray.
It let go. I kept my eyes closed a while longer. Didn’t hear no crunch of leaves meaning it left, but I turned round anyhow. It just stood there, looking at me, its bald head tilted to the left. It had a long ridge down its back that looked kind of like the fin on the carp in the stock pond. Its lips were thick and straight, if that makes sense, fish-like too. Its eyes big, buggy, popping out of its head almost. Comical, in a way, but they were the brightest green I ever saw, even in the bare moonlight. It hunched over a little like an old man. Its skin was slick and army green, it shone in the dark, but the hands were shriveled claws, like oranges that had been left too long and had dried up inside. They hung from its arms like limp dicks.
I had seen these things on television. They were called Finfolk, and no one really knew what they were. Some scientist people said they were fish evolved out of the water, but I was skeptical. Even in a small town like Riddle, we learned something about evolution. Our middle school science teacher brought a book in one day and told us we was allowed to believe whatever we wanted, but that he was required to tell us about it. That he thought it was bunk, but maybe we didn’t, so he would give it to us straight and we could make up our own minds. He said it took a long, long time, longer than the world been around, for something to come up out of water. These “Finmen” came overnight. I didn’t think they were aliens, like some fool people in this town, like some of my old boys, but they weren’t fish. I knew fish. Fish didn’t look at you like you were the most curious thing in the world.
The Finman’s eyes wouldn’t leave me. He motioned without looking at them to my missing hands. His claw hand flapped as he did. I think I blushed a little, despite myself and that aching tremor in my chest. I wanted to run, but I also didn’t want to run, cause what was there at home better than this? The Finman reached out to me. I flinched, then immediately felt boiling shame in my belly. It was his hands. His hands made me cringe. I looked down at my own. The tremor in my chest sunk to my belly, and it made me feel like puking.
“What do you want?” I asked. “I’m not touching you.”
It shook its head.
“Do you understand me?” I asked.
It didn’t say nothing, just gaped.
“Are you alone?” I asked. “It’s no good to be alone.”
It looked down at the ground. At first I figured it was sad about it, but then its gaze traveled into the woods a little, like it was looking at something. I looked down too. A line of tracks led into the trees, back toward where the creek used to run before the neighbors dammed it. Further on past the dry creek was the stock pond. I wondered if this was where he’d been living. After all, if I was some crazy creature in the woods, it’s where I would go. Water to drink. Fish to eat.
Then, like a bomb flash, I remembered. Finfolk didn’t eat fish, and not because they were one. They smelled like they did cause of the trash they ate. It was some strange and scientific process I didn’t really get, hadn’t had time since being back to really figure out, but it dawned on me that Ma and Dad hadn’t burned their trash before. The smoke that rose into the sky every night from the houses round the neighborhood wasn’t something from my youth. The rubbery smell of burning junk. Back as a kid, the smell was unbearable sun and dry dirt. Only thing filled the skies was faint starlight and a glow from town on the horizon. People must have got scared of the Finfolk. There were rumors, after all, of their abducting people, rumors I didn’t believe. There were also stories of Finfolk helping people. Government bulletins claimed they weren’t nothing to be scared of.
“There’s more of you?” I said. “Where they at?”
It loped like a man almost, the only difference the length of its legs, which came up to its belly. Its torso was squat, and the arms swung from side to side as it led me wherever the hell we were headed. I’d seen boys with legs near that long, so I was able to squint my eyes and pretend I was following an old friend. Maybe we’d go running through the marshes and pick up discarded paint balls, squish them on one another till we were dripping pink and blue.
He didn’t lead me to the stock pond, but it was mighty close: a rundown barn that once belonged to the neighbors but had been forgot when they up and sold their house. Now no one claimed to own it cause no one wanted to take care of it. Back when the neighborhood was nice, it was a point of contention. Now it was just a joke no one remembered to laugh at.
The door to the shed was off on both hinges. To open the door the Finman placed his wrists on either side and lifted the door, set it aside. Despite his deformed hands, he moved it fine. The garbage reek rushed out. I tried to be polite and pretend like I didn’t notice.
I kicked up dirt as I walked across the floor. The Finman waved his arms in front of him. I didn’t know if he was telling me something or trying to clear the air or even gesturing some secret code to someone, but I didn’t see a soul in there. It was dark despite the holes in the ceiling. The rotten wood creaked. Over in the corner I thought I saw a people-shaped outline, but when my eyes adjusted it was a scarecrow.
Then there really was movement, from both sides of the barn. Shadows meandered into my line of sight. I counted eight then two then three. Three Finfolk stood before me, and the one to my side blubbered like he had bubbles in his mouth and was trying to blow them. With what I assumed was his tongue he groaned a little, motioned with that limp claw. The others tittered and nodded like bobble heads. Two of them were shorter than the first, and the other looked about the same size, maybe the same as Kyle. About six foot or so.
They all looked similar, except the other tall one had some spiky things coming out of his head, like those punks downtown who gelled their hair back. Only the Finman’s wasn’t hair, but hard, as if from his skin. The shades to them were varied, too. They was darker and lighter. And the one that found me was the only one whose claws had dried up like that. The rest’s still seemed to work okay, cause they were gesturing with them as well as with their arms.
“Nice to meet you boys,” I said. They stopped their clicking and blubbering and turned their heads all toward me at once. “I hope I’m not intruding.”
They nodded their heads again, a chorus.
“Well alright then. Guess I’ll be headed out.”
The screeches they then emitted were like pigs dying.
“Well okay, maybe not.”
The Finfolk quieted and stepped to either side so there was a clear line of sight down the middle of the barn. One of them with working claws made his way to the end and grabbed something off the floor that rustled in his grip. He came back and handed it to me. I held my arms together out in front of me to accept it. They placed it on my arm like a shelf. It was an old Styrofoam container, the lid ripped off. The bottom was greased over with what must have once been food.
“Why, thank you,” I said. “I will cherish it forever.”
They tittered some more, made more gestures. I could tell this level of communication was going to get old real fast. Their excitement was rising, and I figured I should get out of there before they did something stupid. I knew how old boys could be when they got too worked up. They start fights, get all handsy. I nodded to them, a gesture they seemed to comprehend, and backed out of the barn. I let the Styrofoam fall to the ground and ran home without a rest.
Dad didn’t say nothing more about chores. Instead, that night, as I lay in my bed, the mosquito netting hanging around me, Ma came and sat on the bedside.
“Your dad’s stressed is all. Don’t pay him no mind. He was so sad when you were away.”
“I’m back now,” I said. “There’s nothing to be sad about.”
In the dark I felt her gaze slip down. I had my arms underneath the blankets.
“It’s okay, you know, to be angry. To be upset a little. These would be logical emotions. You can talk to me, like I said at dinner.” She brushed her hand across my forehead as if she meant to move a strand of hair. But when her hand hit skin and only skin, she drew it back, held it to her chest.
“There’s nothing I need to talk about, Ma. Everything is fine.”
The next night I went to the Finfolk again. They were all there except one, one of the smaller ones. When I opened the barn door, they emerged from shadow and crowded round me, purring almost.
“Whoa, fellas. What a way to greet a lady.”
One of them reached out and touched my arm, turned it over, walked around me looking up and down. When he faced me again, he held out his open claw.
“What, was I supposed to get y’all a welcome gift or something?”
They nodded. Drew invisible lines in the shape of a square. Thrust their pressed-together arms out at me as if they was handing me invisible presents.
I left there quick as I could and followed the Finfolk’s grassworn paths back to my house, through the gaping woods. Snuck back into the house, though I was loud as all hell without hands, and filled an empty trash bag with knickknacks. A plastic soldier figurine from my childhood, a glass jar from the kitchen cabinet, an old cell phone and charger, some lotions I’d been given as Christmas presents from people who didn’t much know me. I even threw in a Styrofoam container of leftover Chinese food, in case the reason they was so crazy-acting was cause they were hungry.
When I handed them the bag, they upturned it into the dirt. They rummaged through it. They tossed everything into one little pile behind them. When they got to the Styrofoam, they opened it up, sniffed the noodles and chicken, dumped it too. Then they sniffed the Styrofoam, one by one, and the tallest held it to his mouth. His lips opened wide enough to fit all the way around it, and he sucked. It made a whistling noise as the white disappeared into his mouth. When he stopped, he spit ash onto the ground. The others jumped around him and smacked him with their claws, then dove for the rest of the stuff. One by one all the items I had brought disappeared into the mouths of beasts. The one with the dried up hands bent down into the dirt and picked my soldier up with his teeth. There was little ash when he was done with it.
After that they were hyper, boys on too much sugar. They ran out the barn door, and the tall one pushed me after them. They ran around the stock pond, dove into the water. In the reflection they looked like they belonged there. The wet on their scales made them glint with moonlight. With some hesitation I dove in after them, but I stuck mostly to the sides. I wasn’t ready to swim without hands, afraid I’d drown. That they had led me there to drown. There were those rumors, after all.
I dug my toes into the dirt. It squished between them. I felt for plastic down there. My old boys and I lost more than one water gun at the bottom of that pond. I wondered if anyone ever made a water gun for cripples. Smiled despite myself.
The Finfolk emerged from the pond, water dripping from their shiny skin. As they passed, they each reached out and touched my arm. I watched them go back to their barn unaware if they wanted me to follow. Or if it was what I even wanted.
There are some things you can’t do without hands. Things they haven’t fixed yet. Water guns is one. Another is cooking. Not like I ever wanted to cook, but I might’ve appreciated the choice. I cannot pet kittens. I cannot pick my zits. That one’s a plus side. But there’s still a lot I can do.
My parents used the army stipend to put in a voice-activated television, for one thing. They updated our movie database so it too would work by voice. I can open the doors using the foot levers they installed, and the window in my room opens smooth if I press my arms against it and push upward. It never was secure. I can’t do my own laundry. Painting is a hobby I won’t ever get to perfect. I won’t be no Picasso. I can eat but not corn on the cob. Has to be something I can wrap my stumps around. I can wrap them around a utensil, so most everything edible is still up for grabs. I can’t tie my shoes or button a shirt. I can’t wipe my ass. Ma has to do it. I can’t give a hand job anymore. I can still blow someone. I can still feel my hands beside me as I sleep, in the shower as I wash my hair half-assed. When I get my hands, I wonder if I’ll remember how to do these things for myself. Right now I feel like I’m a child again. I hate it.
That’s the honest truth. Fuck all if I ever tell it to someone who cares for me. That would be too much.
Instead of family, I spilt everything to the Finfolk, telling them all about feeling useless like they could understand it. Each night I snuck out of the house – hiding from a mother who probably wouldn’t have given a shit if I walked at night, would probably have told me midnight walks were good for the soul. I always brought the Finfolk our trash. I told Dad I was taking it to the burn pile. If he knew where I really took it, he’d have gave me a talking-to. Told me not to feed stray animals. That it would only make them stick around, like the deer that ate his maters or the coyotes who ate our cats.
For the Finfolk I built a fire. I had them stack the logs, and that night I asked Ma if she could light me a candle. When I snuck out, I took that candle with me. The old boys and I used to hoot and holler around a good old bonfire back in the day. The Finfolk didn’t seem to like the heat, though it clearly fascinated them. They stepped away from it, then back toward it, as if sampling the new sensation. But never took their eyes off it. The old boys were pyros too.
I taught them to play paintball, but we couldn’t play it right cause we didn’t have any guns and I didn’t have any way to throw the balls. So mostly I just ordered them around, told them who to toss the neon green ball at, where to squash the pink one. The floor of the barn looked like a rainbow died in there.
Still there was something inherently maddening about friends with no voices. I never could tell if they understood me or not. Their gestures and noises – who the hell knew if they could even be translated?
From what I could see, they did the things my old boys did but did them with a distance. When they touched my shoulder, their claws were cold and slimy. They didn’t look at me like the way that first one did. He was the only one who I felt anywhere close to.
When we went to the stock pond, he followed at the last, always close to me but never close enough that his reek overwhelmed. He walked with a limp. He splashed less than the rest of them. Always I felt his eyes on me. As though I was protected by something out-of-this-world.
Ma asked about the mud on my feet. Because she was the one who scrubbed it off, she felt she had a right to know.
“Pond,” I said.
“Who you been going to the pond with?” She sudsed my back and legs. Took the razor and began shaving my calves. “Is Kyle back home?”
“No,” I said. “Kyle and I aren’t right for each other, Ma. He made the war out to have stolen something from me. Made me feel a fool for believing in it.”
“Maybe you should listen to him.”
I jerked my leg back. The razor slipped and nicked my leg. A thin line of bright red bloody water streamed down my leg, down the drain.
“War didn’t take nothing from me I wasn’t willing to give,” I said.
“I didn’t mean nothing by it, hon. Your Dad and me, we just want to see you move on past this. Get your life started independent of us. We want you to live on your own, no regrets.”
“I don’t have none of those,” I said. “No regrets.”
Maybe the conversation with Ma sparked something, or maybe I just got to noticing things that night, but when I visited the Finfolk I realized that the others treated mine different. It wasn’t just that he stood off to the side, watching me. It was that they let him stand to the side. I didn’t much like it. He could do everything they could, had learned to do it all.
They were splashing in the pond that night when one of the shorter ones snuck off to the side, just like my one did every night. It stood over by the bank of the pond looking out into the woods, its claw resting on its belly. The other two would have none of it. They rushed through the water, sending ripples in their wake and wary waves out in front of them to where the sullen one stood, which wasn’t too far from where the cripple was, maybe four feet to his left or so. They grabbed hold of him by the waist and the legs, dunking themselves under the water to grab hold of the upper thighs, and dragged him back into the splashing middle. He splashed right along with them again, like all he needed was validation. The cripple one watched, and when they were playing together again looked down into the water.
I considered going to him but thought better. I never even knew how to comfort old boys. Kyle, for instance, was the most sensitive of boys I ever met. I never did figure how to make his frown upside down or what have you. His moods would take over, and it was all I could do to keep him from crying something awful. I never did know what he wanted to cry about, but he was smart, and sometimes I think he thought too much about the world. What was I supposed to do with that?
A tall order for a girl like me who finds it awkward to put her arm around a frowning man and tell him all’s gonna be good in the end. I don’t feel comfortable doing that for no one. Especially not a someone with skin the color of fatigues.
The dynamic among the Finfolk didn’t end there. Sometimes he was alone when I arrived, and sometimes he wasn’t there but the others were. I wondered why he had been the one I met in the woods. Wondered what he’d been looking for. Was it peace of mind, like me? Tried to ask him, but he just stared at me. I guess if he had asked me the same I couldn’t have articulated any kind of answer even if we did both speak a language.
So instead of comforting him, I brought him a figurine. I thought he would likely just suck it dry, but it was an old favorite of mine. A warrior woman from a childhood cartoon. Princess Yeanna. A rugged-like woman with bear skin around her shoulders, forest smeared on her cheeks. Her left hand had been chewed off by our dearly departed dog when I was just a little girl. Before I brought it to him, I chewed off the other hand.
I handed it to him when we was alone, separate from the food. He lifted it to his mouth. I cringed but didn’t stop him. I wasn’t one to give gifts then tell people what to do with them. But he sniffed it is all. Lifted her stumps up and down, rotated her leg in its socket. Held it to his belly. What came over his face was not unlike a smile, though it sure wasn’t one neither. Then he nodded toward a rock right outside the barn. We walked over to it, and he kneeled and placed Yeanna underneath. Then we made our way back into the forest, to find the others, like a habit we would never have thought to break.
Spring Break, Kyle came home. Called me up the second night he was in town, wanted to come over to catch up. He talked at me like I was a skillet that needed buttering. Laughed loud when I told him I’d met some Finfolk that were my new friends now.
“I’m not joking,” I said.
“I can’t wait to see you. Honestly, Josie, you’re such a funny woman.”
Ma wanted to make us tea, but I didn’t think the conversation we were going to have should take place in a family kind of room, so I asked him to my room instead. He opened the door for me, opened the window. Insisted though I said I could do it myself. We sat on my bed with the netting parted how I knew he wanted my legs. I was planning on letting him too, hadn’t had any since the war. One thing you cannot do without hands is touch your own body. Kyle could be my fingers for a night, no problem. Even if I knew he was going to pretend it could be more but not mean it.
“You poor thing,” he said, touching my stump end. It seemed as though he had passed through invisible skin to get there; it made my stomach lurch. “I feel so bad for you.”
“Cause I can’t masturbate?” I said. “They’ll figure something. Don’t you worry.”
“You’re so strong. I never realized it before I went off to college, but you’re the strongest person I’ve ever met. You should be so much more fucked up than you are, what with the lot life handed you. Coming from where you did and all.”
“Excuse me?” I pulled my arm from him.
“Even though you didn’t break the cycle, didn’t end up pursuing an education, you went on and did what you could with your life. It’s a shame the army preys on the poor, but you’re by far the least victimized victim I ever met. You could still get a degree, you know. Even with your grades, you could –”
I stood. I paced, wanting more than anything to spit on his high-and-mighty face. I was learning plenty more than him with his big time education. I was learning how to live without hands.
“You,” I said. “This is how you try and fuck me? Let me tell you something, the army didn’t take nothing from me. The bastards took my arms ain’t the army, and they’re the only ones I’m any angry at. All of you can go fuck yourselves, cause for damn sure you won’t be fucking me. I’m fine. Not victimized, not nothing.” I crossed my arms. “Go back to your parents’ cushy house or your cushy little school, cause you still sound like shit.”
Kyle trudged down the hall and out the front door. The door slam sent a chill up my spine. I heard Ma calling after him, asking him what the matter was. Then I heard her own footsteps down the hall.
“I heard yelling,” she said to my closed door. I bent down and twisted the lock with my teeth so she couldn’t come in. The knob rattled like snakes. “You okay in there, Josie? What in God’s name did you say to him?”
“I’m fine,” I said, already at the window. “I keep on telling you, I’m just fine.”
I climbed out into the night air, warm on my cheeks. Without shoes the grass was dry and brittle beneath me. I remembered when spring was cool air and wet grass. Now the heat stayed on through March and only left come November, winter gone and disappeared on us. I would be okay out there alone. Except I wouldn’t be alone. I would have old boys to watch over me.
I had memorized my way through the dark. I could have closed my eyes if I wanted. I didn’t. I kept them open so I wouldn’t trip, too hard to get up once I was down. I held my stump out and let it hit on the tree trunks. Each wince was a shock through my chest that kept me from crying.
The last time I cried was the day they shipped me off, when I said goodbye to Kyle. I cried so hard I thought the pain would break my ribs in two. Best not to let it in. Best to keep it swallowed.
When I reached the barn, though, it was empty. I plopped down into the dirt. From under me I pulled the figurine I’d given the crippled Finman the day before. Held it to my chest the way he’d held it to his. If only I could open my skin and replace the beating organ there with this, I thought. I was tired of living at home.
“I’m too old to take out someone else’s trash,” I said to no one. “Too old to sneak from the damn windows and have my legs shaved. I’ll let the damn hair grow.” In the empty barn, my voice echoed back to me. I didn’t like the way it sounded. I had been to war. I had given my hands to my country.
I choked on the words. Spit into the dirt cause I couldn’t take the taste of my mouth. “The war took my damn hands.”
Here is what I wanted, then. What I realized I wanted: I wanted those fancy hands the army said they’d give me. Wanted to have had a chance to make my own dinner before I lost that chance. I wanted a different kind of past, one where Kyle was right and I was strong enough to take care of myself. I wanted to know how to be on my own.
From the back of the barn something rustled. The shape of two green eyes and a body barely distinguishable from the dark emerged on hands and knees. My Finman crawled to my side and sat across from me. He looked down into the dirt below me. There were tiny drops of new mud there. I wiped my arm across my face. Sure enough, wet.
“The army don’t cry,” I said.
He shook his head and whimpered. He touched his small nub of a nose to mine and pushed my face up, the gesture reminiscent of both lover and dog.
It seemed to me like there was a voice somewhere, in my head, from his head, from the bottom of my belly, you ain’t the army anymore.
There are places in the forest you can’t find even if you look. Barns that have been forgot so that they are now invisible. Trees creatures climb to blend into the branches. We don’t climb trees, of course. We can’t. But we are mindful of those who can.
As we walked along the dried up creek bed, following the sound of an invisible stream, the Finman touched his broken claw to my arm. We weren’t walking the way I would have as a young girl with an old boy. We were walking the way of creatures looking to find their way in a forest of hidden places. We were looking for a language we could share. We were looking for a way to be happy without hands. Maybe as we walked we would find the grass green and wet again. We would find a cool place and let it keep us. We would find a stream with water so cold it kept us warm. We would find our hands washed up on the banks.
If You Give a Girl a Blaster
By George S. Walker
“Edison!” shouted Jiaying. “Wait!”
How could anything so big move so fast?
The gorilla’s leap ricocheted off the metal carapace of a deactivated tunneler, up to the stone ceiling of the underground gallery. Edison scrambled into a dark passageway.
Jiaying launched herself after it, underclocked compared to Edison. Her exhausted muscles couldn’t pace his, even in Martian gravity. Sweat plastered hair against her face. She couldn’t brush it away because of her suit helmet.
Before she lost the transmitter link, she snapped the telemetry from Edison’s suit: power, water and air all 100%. Her suit recycled her urine, but she was below 50% on everything else.
“Bring it back,” Blake had ordered. “Before the damn thing starts taking tunnelers apart!”
You reap what you sow, she thought. She reached the upper passageway, stone walls gnawed away by a tunneler. Her suit lights panned the empty length.
No trace of the gorilla.
Jiaying had glimpsed Edison’s dark face through his helmet before he’d leapt away. No anger or desperation burned in those deep-set eyes, only sadness.
Now she wasn’t even picking up a signal from Edison’s transponder. He was too deep in the warren of Martian tunnels. Which made her claustrophobically aware of millions of tonnes of rock pressing down above her. She took slow Tai Chi breaths. The way in is the way out.
Jiaying and Edison had arrived on the resupply ship from Earth 26 Martian days ago. But two days ago, Edison had refused to come out of Warren #2.
Blake and his mining crew could hardly believe their good fortune. They’d never concealed their dislike of Edison; he’d gotten the project back on schedule after they’d failed miserably. Edison was a gene-spliced idiot savant, a miracle worker at repairing heavy machinery. Half the tunneling machines had been out of service when Jiaying and Edison arrived. Thanks to Edison, everything was running again, excavating a deep radiation-shielded expansion for the colony. But then he ran.
Reaching a tunnel intersection, she looked up at the camera-comm router on the ceiling. Edison had neatly disassembled it, leaving all the parts for future repair. Over the past two days, he’d disabled hundreds of them, enraging the men. The heads-up display in her helmet showed a wire-frame image where she was in the warren, but the dots marking all the cameras were unlit. That was also why her radio didn’t work underground. If an accident were to happen…
“It trusts you,” Blake had said. “It won’t let the rest of us near it.”
Then he’d given her the blaster: the kind that only ship captains and security chiefs were allowed to have. She’d tried to refuse it. “It’s too dangerous!” He wouldn’t let her.
“Use it if you can’t coax your pet out of the warren. Or if you see any more signs of sabotage. Then your job is to take it out. Blast it out of existence. We don’t have time for this. The project has to finish on schedule.”
“He’s already bought you time: months, maybe a year!”
“Edison served its purpose. The company created it. The company can decommission it.”
“He’s not a machine!”
“Cyborg, wild animal, whatever. Not a citizen of Mars.”
When she hadn’t found him yesterday, she’d spent the night in the warren, further depleting her air and power. She’d barely slept, waking either from a nightmare of being trapped in the warren, or of Edison taking the blaster from her pack. I wish I’d never taken the damned thing. She’d slept with her arms around her pack, suit heaters keeping her from freezing in the dark.
After training with Edison for over a year, she thought she knew him. But Mars wasn’t the Congo; it wasn’t even Earth. There were no forests, no birds, no insects. Something in Edison had snapped in the tunnels, like a soldier with PTSD. Who knew what he’d do? If my life depended on it, could I shoot him? She hoped she wouldn’t have to find out.
Jiaying turned off her suit lights and switched her cameras to infrared.
Edison’s footprints in the gravel appeared as faint heat images nearly washed out by the heat radiating from her suit. She jogged down the tunnel lit only by ghostly infrared. Soon she came to the top of another gallery. Here, Edison’s heat trail vanished in the vast open space. He’d leapt, taking one of the tunnels leaving the gallery. If she picked the wrong one, his trail would be cold by the time she picked another. Choose, woman. The gallery had a tunnel sloping up to the surface. She picked it.
A minute later, she realized it was the wrong choice. Dammit, Edison, where did you go? At this point, so close to the surface, she decided to go all the way up.
The thick pressure door at the top was closed. Although the tunnels weren’t pressurized for colonists yet, all the surface doors were kept sealed because of the radiation. She reached out her right hand, ring glowing through her translucent glove. In response, the door forged of Martian iron slid aside. Once she walked through, it slid shut behind her. Her ring opened the next door as well. Now she stood at the exit of the bunker, looking out on the polar landscape. Pale brownish-red desert surrounded her; no CO2 frost in this season. The surface was bathed in weak sunlight. She scanned the sky till she spotted the small bright disk of Sol.
Her suit’s online interface chirped. She had reception.
“Did you get it?” asked Blake.
It. She clenched her jaw. “I saw Edison near a tunneler.” She made a point of using his name.
“Did you damage the tunneler when you fired?”
“I didn’t use the blaster.”
“Why the hell not?! I showed you how to use it, girl! If you had a clear shot…”
She didn’t reply. I’m so tired. Her dreams of coming to Mars had been crushed like gravel in the tunnels weeks ago.
She heard Carlos’ voice in the background. “Tell Jane-girl to get her ass over–”
She heard the shuffle of Blake’s hand covering his communicator. Jane was what the men called her behind her back. They called Edison Cheeta.
Blake spoke again. “Jiaying, you’re at grid C5. I want you to head across the surface to the bunker at B3. There’s a tunneler in the gallery below, one of our small rock cutters. I’ve loaded a command sequence in your ring to order the tunneler to surface for new programming.”
“Programming for what?”
Silence. Then Blake growled, “We’ve got a project to run. Maybe you forgot while you were pet-sitting. B3. You want me to send you mapping–”
“No.” She bit back a retort that would only cause more trouble with the men. “I got it.” The sooner she was beneath the surface, offline again, the happier she’d be.
She took her bearings from the heads-up display and loped across the surface: high, leaping strides like a princess of Mars. Her feet kicked up rooster-tails of brown sand behind her.
The warren was laid out as a grid, bunkers sprouting like prairie dog hills. It didn’t take long to get to B3. Her ring opened the outer door. It slid shut behind her and she opened the inner door, unveiling the mine-like depths. She felt the vibration of a tunneler through her boots.
She took a few Tai Chi breaths, then descended toward the gallery. The vibration through stone felt like a rocket under thrust. Dust churned in perpetual motion: a quantum whirlpool, rock chips bouncing off her suit and helmet. The haze kept her from seeing more than a couple meters ahead, but her ring glowed red through her translucent glove, indicating proximity of a tunneler. She pirouetted slowly, holding out her arm to see which direction glowed brightest.
She followed the ring’s direction, arm outstretched. Abruptly the vibration ceased. As the dust slowly sifted down, she saw the tunneler embedded halfway in rock. A dozen mechanical arms gripped the stone wall like a metal tick. The dust-coated tunneler was smaller than most, engineered for drilling service crawl tubes. Atomic power pulsed within its belly. “You see me, don’t you?” she said.
A beam from her ring darted to it through the dust, conveying Blake’s commands. The tunneler extracted itself from the opening in the wall and turned jerkily, camera-stalk eyes regarding her. Then it ascended toward the tunnel where she’d come in.
She should have recharged her suit’s power and air when she was in the bunker. Well, I’m not going back up there with the tunneler. She sipped water from the tube in her helmet, then set off through the tunnels back toward C5.
Just let me talk to you, Edison.
After two hours of hiking through the nightmare maze, there was still no trace of the gorilla. She knew Edison had smuggled supplies into the warren, but where? I can’t even find his caches! Jiaying’s mind was playing tricks on her, imagining Edison lying in wait around every bend. In the darkness all the tunnels looked the same. If not for the HUD guidance, she’d be hopelessly lost. She walked back toward B3 to recharge her oxygen generator at the surface bunker. What are the chances I can avoid talking to Blake?
She was nearly to the gallery beneath the B3 bunker when she noticed crude scratches on the wall: the Chinese characters for her name. She’d taught them to Edison back on Earth. Still no trace of his transponder signal. Footprints imprinted the tunnel floor, both from Edison and a tunneler. She kept going, searching for more scratchings on the walls. She found another set of characters by the entrance to a side tunnel. Did you go in here?
After a hundred meters, it dead-ended with no more marks on the walls. She felt vibration through her boots. Only then did she notice the red glow from her ring: a tunneler.
Thunder rumbled through her boots as the roof ahead of her collapsed, tonnes of rock crashing down near the intersection with the main tunnel. Dust shook from the walls like the skin of a drum. Rubble bounced toward her. She scrambled backwards, heart racing. A nightmare. Except I’m awake.
As the clouds of dust settled, she saw the exit was plugged. No way out. She noticed the glow of her ring fading as the unseen tunneler retreated.
What wretched timing to be so near a digging tunneler! If she was lucky, it had recorded her presence and was going for help. But she couldn’t count on that. As Blake had said, “We’ve got a project to run.”
She shone her suit lights over the fallen rock. On Mars, her Earth-trained muscles made her a superwoman. But she was running out of air, and with this volume of rock…
If ever there was ever a time to use it, this was the time. She took it from her pack, examined it in the lights from her suit, and flipped off the safety as Blake had shown her. Power hummed through her glove.
Backing up ten meters, she raised the blaster and gently squeezed the trigger.
There was a blinding flash. The shock wave hurled her backwards, and her helmet-protected head struck the rock floor.
Sitting up, hands shaking, Jiaying switched the safety back on. She got to her feet, eyes taking a minute to adjust from the flash. She tasted blood from biting her tongue. As the dust settled, she could see the blockage. The blast had collapsed even more of the ceiling. The blaster wouldn’t get her out of this. She felt panic rising and took slow breaths. Stay calm.
The alternative was simple: clear the opening by hand, one stone at a time. Her air processor was good for a couple more hours. Maybe that was enough. It would have to be.
She stepped forward and picked up a rock.
Hours later, still trapped in the passage, Jiaying drifted in and out of consciousness. Her suit was keeping her alive, just barely. It had turned off her suit heaters to divert remaining power to her air processor. Freezing to death wasn’t the worst way to die, but it was taking a long time. I just want this over with.
She lay with her eyes closed, curled on the floor of the tunnel, helmet pressed against the rock. She could feel the vibration of rocks shifting in the stone dam plugging the tunnel. Hallucinating, she imagined the rocks tumbling closer, stacking themselves on top of her body. Turning her into a Martian fossil for paleontologists.
A paleontologist shook her shoulder. She was too groggy and cold to open her eyes. She wondered if he would put her fossilized skeleton in a museum or leave her in situ, encased in glass.
The paleontologist lifted her body. Her stiff eyes fought their way open. It was too bright. She remembered her suit lights were off. Someone else’s lights. A man in a huge spacesuit was pulling her through a narrow passage in the rubble.
Her mind floated in a cottony wad of cold and CO2. It wasn’t till she was in the stone gallery that recognition trickled into her brain: Edison. He carried her over his shoulder like a pillow; she weighed almost nothing.
A bulkhead door opened. Edison laid her on the floor. As she wrapped her arms weakly around her pack, protecting the blaster, she felt recharge connectors click onto her suit. Fresh air hissed into her suit. Warmth began returning to her hands and feet, tingling painfully.
The gorilla peered down at her in concern, touching his helmet to hers.
“Edison,” she wheezed.
He propped her gently against the wall, checking the hoses and cables connected to her suit.
“You came,” she whispered.
“We can go back,” she said.
He shook his head and held up his hands, signing, “No place for Edison.”
And with those words, all her pre-rehearsed arguments to bring him back collapsed. This wasn’t the Congo. Edison would never be a citizen of Mars. And the company would never fly him home. There was no cost-benefit payout.
Abruptly the outer bulkhead door behind him slid open, letting in the dim Martian daylight. As Edison turned, metal arms reached in, clamping onto his suit. They dragged him through the doorway to the surface of Mars.
Jiaying’s ring glowed red. “No!” she shouted.
The door slid shut.
Fumbling with stiff gloves, she struggled to disconnect herself from the recharge station. Finally she staggered to her feet and stretched out her hand. The door slid open, revealing the polar desert.
She stumbled outside the bunker, looking for Edison.
Her suit’s communicator chirped.
“Jiaying?” said Blake.
She spotted the tunneler that had pulled Edison from the warren. It was the small unit she’d surfaced for reprogramming. How long ago had that been? Hours? A day?
“Where’s Edison?” she asked. She was still gasping for air.
“Shit,” said Carlos in the background. “Cheeta’s fucked up the tunneler.”
She walked toward it, turning her head from side to side, searching for Edison.
When she got closer she noticed a spacesuit arm sticking out from beneath the weight of the tunneler.
Reaching the tunneler, she knelt by the arm. The gorilla was pinned beneath the heavy machine. The ring on his dark finger glowed red through the clear glove, fading as the tunneler’s power died. She felt along his arm, tugging desperately on it. As her hands reached his shoulder, she discovered his suit was torn open, shredded by metal claws that could grip rock.
Or carve Chinese characters on walls.
Within the tear, blood bubbled, boiling away in the thin atmosphere. She scanned the telemetry from his suit. No air pressure. All his vital signs were flatlined. Jiaying blinked at tears she couldn’t wipe away inside her helmet.
“Girl? What’s going on there?”
“Yeah,” said Blake. “And I’m reading total shutdown from the tunneler. Your pet put up a hell of a fight.”
“It was just a matter of using the right bait,” said Carlos.
Jiaying heard the shuffle of a hand muting the communicator.
She let go of Edison’s dead hand and stood, looking in the distance toward the operations center where the men were. Carefully, she unsealed her pack and flipped off the safety on the blaster.
By Michael Carter
She despised all Welfare Centres as a general rule, but most especially this one.
She’d waited three hours in an uncomfortable metal chair, watching the news channel on the muted viewscreen, night-vision images of gunfire, bombs and airstrikes. Eventually, the display light at the service desk buzzed garish red neon with her name: “Frankie Simkins”.
With a struggle, using her crutch to get up, she hobbled across the wipe-clean flooring. While she’d been sitting and waiting, the floor had been sheened over by KleenBots twice; first when a thin, sickly-looking child puked all over himself and the floor, and second when an old man had urinated on it, shouting something threatening in a foreign language. Security had arrived and took him away, then the KleenBots had buzzed in.
Frankie got to the appointed desk without slipping over and sat down.
The Welfare Officer was a woman, bland-looking, severe.
“Mrs Simkins?” she asked.
“How can Welfare help you today, Mrs Simkins?”
“I, erm…I need a crisis loan.”
“I see.” The WO prodded buttons on her computer, and scanned the screen.
“Mrs Simkins, you’ve had three Crisis Loans from us in the past four years, one of them still outstanding. You don’t qualify for another.” The WO was closing the file on the computer; that was it, it was not negotiable.
“But I can’t afford it any more. Everything’s gone up. I can’t pay my bills. Please, make an exception, I’m begging you.”
“Mrs Simkins, you’re aware of the current state of the economy? And the war, too is very expensive. You don’t qualify for another loan.”
“But I’ve got a family to feed. Please… look…do you have any children? You must know what it’s like?”
“My status is of no concern here,” said the WO plainly.
“Please help me.” Frankie was close to tears now, but trying to sniff the emotion back into her nose. “I need help.”
“You know the procedure, Mrs Simkins. There can be no loan.” She swiped at her computer screen; “Do you still have three children Mrs Simkins?”
“Yes, three. Jilly’s just a baby, I can’t afford her milk formula.”
“Are you telling me you’d like me to open a Social Care Order?”
“We would redistribute your baby. It would ease your financial situa-”
“No! No-one’s taking my baby!” Frankie screamed, between tears now too numerous to dam.
“Then perhaps you would like a token to take to your clinic. The State would meet the cost of your womb being biologically dessicated.”
“I can’t do that! I’m only 28. Look, it’s just my budget’s really squeezed. I can’t feed-” She nearly said, ‘I can’t feed my kids’, but stopped herself; they would probably be taken away if she said that. “Me and my husband barely eat. The kids get it all. Please, I just need a few hundred.”
“I see your husband works in the Uranium Plant. A labourer. Are you still looking for work, Mrs Simkins?”
Frankie’s tears stopped with astonishment. She stood up on her crutch and took a couple of hops away from the desk. “Haven’t you seen my problem? How am I supposed to keep a family together and clean and fed, and then go out to work and labour somewhere. Who would employ me?” She aimed her plastic stump at the Welfare Officer. “I’ve only got one bloody leg, for Christs sake!”
“Okay, Mrs Simkins, please sit down. There’s no need for hysterics.” She swiped more screen, ruffled more papers. Frankie sat back down.
“Clearly you know all the benefits of the system,” the WO said, “Therefore you know that there will be no crisis loan today, or in fact, any other day until you’ve repaid what is outstanding.”
Frankie was about to get up and leave; she was considering urinating on the floor on her way out.
“All we can offer is to further lighten your load…if you were willing to make a Contribution to the War Effort. I’m obligated by my employers to inform you that a single Contribution to the State will lessen your nutritional needs and therefore your personal food intake by up to nine percent. With a hungry family to feed, this could make your life just that tiny bit easier. And, of course, you’d also receive all the appropriate benefits for your Contribution, which now include the new Severance Allowance for six months.”
Frankie was dabbing her eyes; the tears had gone, but reality remained.
“Just one more loan,” she said. “That’s all I’m asking. I’m desperate.”
“Desperate times require desperate measures, Mrs Simkins.”
Frankie sighed, defeated. “But…it’s hard now. How would I manage?”
“You seem to be a strong woman…but something in your family has to give. The baby is still an option.”
“No. God, no,” said Frankie. She sat for a moment, head bowed, weighing up the devil and the deep blue sea.
“Alright,” she said, finally, “if there’s no other way… I suppose I’ll have to…”
The WO reached into a drawer for the correct papers, and began to put the process in motion.
“…before I change my mind.” Frankie said under her breath.
Applications were filled, papers signed, and financial support determined in a little under twenty minutes. Frankie had remained mostly quiet; she was deflated, beaten.
“Ok, Mrs Simkins, that’s all correct,” said the WO and pointed to the far end of the office. “Booth number six has just become free. You can go straight in. Your new benefit package will begin immediately. Thank you once again for your worthy sacrifice to our great country. Goodbye, Mrs Simkins.”
Frankie hauled herself up, massaged her palms on her forehead, and hobbled over to Booth Six. The door was standing open, and she went in, forcing herself not to hop like hell away from the place.
In the room was a man in a white plastic coat. He closed the door behind her, and slipped on the ‘engaged’ sign.
“Hello again Mrs Simkins,” he said, quite cheerily, as he changed his white rubber surgeons gloves, “What did you have in mind, this time?”
Frankie was crying again, and shaking her head.
“Oh, don’t you fret,” said the doctor, as he handed her a surgical gown. “They graft them on really quickly these days, and they’re so much more versatile than the prosthetics. Six months or so, and our boys and girls are back on the front line. If you could just get changed into the gown please.”
Frankie began to cross the room, heading for the changing area.
“What do you think, then?” the doctor said, as he readied the anaesthetic mask. “Perhaps an arm this time? Those robotic ones are so fiddly; our soldiers like nothing better than /real/ fingers.”
The Flames in Flesh
By Jackie Neel
“He should be up there,” Kevor said to me over his shoulder. He was barely panting, the bastard, but then he wasn’t hauling half his weight in a pack. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought the firestone after all.
Kevor stopped where the path briefly leveled, and I was happy to pause and catch my breath. The wind was at our backs, blowing as though it needed a running start to get up the mountains ahead. It twisted his cape around his legs, so that the twin streaks of flame on the black cloth seemed to dance even without their enchantment. But he didn’t notice. He was watching me.
I let my bag slump to the ground. We had only left the Occultarium an hour ago, and already I no longer cared how the rocky road would treat the albino ox leather I had paid so much for. My own cape, a dreary black, was stuffed in the bottom of my bag, but my velvet doublet kept the wind out and looked phenomenal to boot.
“You don’t have to do this, Dasper,” he said. His whole face seemed clinched with anxiety, an expression I hadn’t seen on him in the months since his own Venture. It was a welcome relief from the flat, grim face that he’d worn recently.
“Sure, I do. Headmaster Laren will expel me if I don’t.” I didn’t add, and probably even if I do.
He put his hand on my shoulder, gently, as he once had. “It might be better that way.”
“Easy for you to say, you’ve already earned your sword and cape.” I gripped the ten-inch athame at my belt to contrast the blade at his hip.
His face slackened as he began to withdraw again into his melancholy, like there was an ice fortress in his eyes in which he could hide.
“I’m sorry,” I said after a sigh. “I know that something happened to you during your Enkindling.” Something he wouldn’t tell me, or anyone save his fellow Blazes. “But each Enkindling is different. Everyone’s price is different. I’m not afraid.”
“Then you are a dolt.” His eyes were cold again, the icy gates had closed. He looked away from me, up the path, and pointed.
A man, surely my client, stood where the mountain trail met the sky, silhouetted against rolling clouds.
I picked up my bag and began my trudge. Kevor did not move.
“The price is always the same, Dasper,” he shouted after me. His voice echoed through the foothills so I would hear him half a dozen times as I hiked toward my client.
“As much as you can bear.”
He looked like sex and war. He was big, a head taller than me and half again as wide. On his shoulders he wore a fur mantle, but his thick arms crossed a chest barely concealed beneath a spun wool shirt. Iron bands gathered long black hair into a rope past his shoulders. This was a mark of the Pravic tribes to the north, but I had never read of a boy older than fifteen still wearing iron. The shield he rested against a scrawny pine confirmed it though – stout oak painted white, with a black iron border. Beside this leaned a staff capped with an iron ball as big as a fist.
He watched me trudge up the hill without speaking, without moving. He was either glaring, or the sun was in his eyes.
“Hello,” I said. “Did you order a fireworker?”
I looked around for a wheelgolem, or at least horses. Anything that could take up the miles ahead. “And we’re to go to the Ruins of Darius?”
He seemed to struggle with the question, which was strange, but I had always heard Pravic men could not lie. Half my heart hoped he would say yes, and we would have a short, safe trip to the picked-over rubble of the once-famous temple. The rest of my heart knew that a safe trip wasn’t likely to lead to Enkindling, and Headmaster Laren would expel me when I returned. The thought of a life as a clerk didn’t get the blood flowing through that half-a-heart.
“Yes,” he said.
“I don’t really know the way,” I said, in case he wanted a guide.
I waited, but he didn’t add anything. Instead he picked up his shield and hammerstaff. He hung the shield from his back on a strap, then began pounding the earth with the iron shoe of his staff with both hands. Gravel shattered underneath. After a few more thumps, the gravel was ground to powder, and the thunking sound deepened.
Wind rushed over the rise, mingling with the echoes of the pounding. Then there was a sound like a plow digging through rocks. A great lizard charged out onto the road. I fell back a step. It was half again as long as a man and stood waist-high on four bent legs. It surely weighed twice as much as the Pravic and I together, and it looked far, far from home.
The Pravic laughed, as shocking as the sun rising at midnight, and it rushed to him like a puppy. He ran his hand over the thing’s head while it nuzzled his leg. Its amber eyes looked over me, and its tongue flicked out as though it couldn’t wait to taste me.
The Pravic tossed one leg over the beast and climbed up near its head. It didn’t shred him with its claws or tear his leg off with its teeth. If fact, it seemed to smile a bit.
“Come, the saurum will not hurt you.”
“I prefer to walk,” I said.
“Very well.” He strapped his staff and shield along the creature’s back. He clucked at the saurum, which looked at me once more before starting down the road at a brisk walk.
I hauled my bag to my shoulder and followed on foot.
I dozed on the lizard’s back as it carried me with my blistering heels hitched near to my flanks. Its skin was surprisingly smooth, almost dusty feeling, and softer than I could have imagined. Little specks like mica sparkled in it. How it would look as a pair of boots?
Beside us the terrain passed by at the pace of a trotting horse. Trees going dormant for the coming winter and dusty gray rocks stood as an ode to dullness. Even having my knees around the muscle-bound Pravic had become boring, in part because he didn’t seem to notice.
We had exchanged names, but his was something primitive and strange, and I had lost track of it while I slept. I didn’t know how to ask him again.
“So, do you live near the Occultarium?” I asked when my boredom had grown nearly terminal.
“I live nowhere.” His voice was muffled, since he hadn’t turned to speak and a thick wall of meat sat between his mouth and me. “I wander.”
“Surely you lived somewhere, though. Before.”
He pointed to the mountains ahead. “My foremothers were from there, before they were driven away. I was born in Vale Corto.”
I racked my brain for details of the history of the Prava, but all I could remember was the King’s war in the valleys beyond.
He must have been thinking of something similar, because the muscles in his back became even tenser. He said nothing more.
I sighed and tugged a bag of dreamcap mushrooms from my pocket. Two would have been sufficient, but I looked around at the landscape and the dull-as-dirt primitive in front of me and popped three into my mouth, washing them down with a swig from my flask. There was a flare in my mouth like earth and fire rioting, and reality gently dissolved.
As the mushrooms wore off, I found that I was propped against a fir tree in a gravel-strewn clearing. The Pravic must have carried me, or at least dragged me from the back of his beast. He had also already stacked wood in a ring of stone, but he and the beast were nowhere to be seen.
I crawled to my gear and drained my canteen, trying to get my tongue back down to a normal size, before finally sitting by the fireless fire ring.
The dead wood wanted to burn, nearly begged for it. The flames writhed wantonly just beneath the surface. I drew my athame across the wood and stirred them, teasing them. It took only the lightest touch with my will to set the naked flame free.
The Pravic and the saurum sauntered into the clearing. “You are with us now, I see.” His voice was flat as a blade, but at least he was speaking.
He spitted two rabbits over the fire as I settled back against my tree. A third rabbit he tossed to the lizard, which swallowed it in two bites and collapsed by the fire with a dreamy smile. The Pravic stroked its head while squatting next to the fire pit. His haunches were pulled taught as harp strings, and I twirled my athame, thinking of strumming them.
He frowned down at me, and I thought he must have caught me staring.
But he said, “In my land, only men carry steel.” He nodded at my blade.
“I am a man,” I said, more quietly than I had meant.
He frowned. “Yes, I suppose. But big men. Right men. Warriors.”
“Why do you carry iron?” I asked.
He jabbed a stick into the fire, stirring the flames as I had before they were freed, but of course he didn’t know this.
“The axe you carry is steel,” I said.
His back straightened and he stared into the flames. “It is only a tool.”
I sipped from my flask. Smoke and fire, it was good. The saurum sauntered over to the edge of the pit, getting so close that I worried for it. But a cold-blooded creature such as that must have been uncomfortable in the night’s chill. I wondered what would happen to it as a cold night fell, or as we passed higher into the mountains.
“Even the clever ones like you don’t carry steel,” he said. He turned his head and eyed his stack of logs. “The earthworkers of my tribe, they carry great drums. The fireworkers carry sticks. Wands.”
“Foolish,” I said. “Trees are made of air and water. Steel is born in fire.”
He grunted and tossed a split log as big as my leg into the fire, which splashed me with sparks.
“Bastard! You had better not singe my doublet! It’s velvet.”
The saurum hissed quietly as the Pravic stopped petting it. “You make fun of me.”
I looked at him, shoulders hunched and eyes fixed on the fire, and in that moment tweaking his nose further seemed as sad as it did dangerous.
I pulled out my flask and held it out. “A peace offering, then.”
He nodded, so I crossed the camp to sit next to him. He took the flask.
“Why do you still wear iron? You must have twenty years on you.”
He stared into the fire, then held out his hand toward me. I passed him the flask and sat cross-legged next to him. He seemed huge, squatting next to me, like he could swallow me up in his arms so I’d never escape, even if I wanted to.
“My family revoked the steel I won. My people are not like yours. In many ways, this is good, but-”
He stopped, staring into the campfire.
“Why did they take back your steel?”
He took a long drink from the flask. Then he handed it back.
I raised my hand and brushed the hair from his face. It was like a waterfall of silk.
He struck my hand away. “Your people would not understand.”
“Then let your people play with drums and sticks, with your iron and steel.” I picked up the flask and smirked over the top of it. “It certainly worked for them in the Vale.”
He glared at me, eyes glinting in the firelight. “One day I will unite my people. Then we will crush yours.”
He said no more, and I heard only the grind of his feet in the gravel and the leather-on-sand sound of the saurum following him.
I rolled out my blankets, having dug them from my bag. His name came to me, then, as though I had stuffed it into my pack – Jarngeir. By now I had started regarding him as the Pravic even in my mind.
From the bottom of the bag I drew the hand-sized block of firestone. It didn’t seem hot in my hand, but when I tapped it with my athame, the fire inside it began to leak out as warmth. I shoved it into the foot of my makeshift bed.
Making myself as comfortable as I could on the rocky ground, I drifted to sleep.
We hardly spoke the next day, or the day after. The lizard’s legs chewed through the miles between us and the pass that would take us to the Road of Darius. Each night we would sit around the campfire, each alone in our heads. Even the saurum grew melancholy.
The mountain was musing upon winter. Its premature chill seeped through my blankets, and I awakened on the third day to numb toes.
Frowning, I dug through the blankets until I found the firestone by my feet. Only dim flames lurked within it now. I fed it with fire from the ground beneath me, but I had only the strength to pour a trickle into it. It was as good as dead, weeks before it should have been. I chucked it into the brush, making a mental note to demand a refund at the shop.
Chilly and grumbling, I gathered my supplies for a scrub. A pool formed at a turn in the stream, and though I could not awaken the fire within the water as a Blaze would do, I found that I could shift the flames within the rocks. Gripping the athame in both hands, I brought fire from within the ground, as deep as I could reach, and dragged it near the surface beneath the pool, which it warmed. It was cooler than I liked for shaving, but it served as bathwater.
When I was finished, I treated myself to a breakfast of dreamcaps and some whiskey from my final flask. The Pravic chewed berries and gave the saurum slivers of cold cooked rabbit.
Then we set out in silence. The day was filled with sun-dappled paths and floating geometric structures. The secrets of the universe whispered themselves to me for hours.
By the time my visions subsided, the horizon was dragging down the sun like hunters netting a griffin. I was pulled against the Pravic’s body by my arms, which he had tied together around his torso. Even through the fur of his mantle, he felt solid and warm, like a monolith standing in the desert noon.
More trees passed by in the twilight, but the saurum was ascending on a road that hardly deserved the name. Trail, perhaps.
“Haven’t we reached the road to the Ruins yet?” I asked. It was difficult to get my mouth around the words, as if it were full of molasses and crackers.
“You’re awake,” he said. Pressed against his body, I could feel the rumble of his speech in my sternum. The rise of his chest stretched my arms as he breathed.
He tugged on the rope, some clever knot, and my hands were freed. “Among my people, only the wise ones eat the mushrooms, and only on spirit journeys.”
“You could call mine a spirit journey,” I said, pausing to sip from my flask, “but I am nearly out of spirits.”
He sighed. “We passed the road yesterday. You would have seen it if you had been able.”
Then where was I being taken? Yesterday on the back of a trotting lizard meant days on foot. The spindly pines around me seemed like the bars of a cell.
I grabbed my bag and jumped from the trotting saurum. Landing on the rocky track and tearing the skin of my knees and palms, I scattered gravel along the path. The Pravic stopped a little ways away and walked back. The saurum waited, watching.
“You lied. Pravic cannot lie.”
“A Pravic man would have to give up his steel for lying.” He held out an empty hand. “I am not yet a man.”
I ignored his hand and stood. The ground seemed to roll under my feet. His face left a trail in my vision.
“You can go if you like, but there are dangerous things in these mountains.”
I looked around at the darkening wood. Branches creaked and sticks cracked. Were those red eyes, or just the sun glinting off a shiny stone? Or a remnant of my mushroom dream?
The Pravic made no move to stop me as I strode back down the mountain trail.
It was hard to stomp down the steep graveled path, but I gave it my best effort. To the west, the sun drooped, and shadows reached greedily for the eastern horizon. After walking for an hour, I began to doubt my decision.
It was the creature, pale white and short, that brought my doubts into sharp focus.
It stood a bit higher than my waist. Its whole body was covered in long white hair. It should have been matted or filthy, but instead it was straight like the hair of a merchant’s pampered daughter. It might have been beautiful if not for the snarling face and the skewer-like spear it held across its chest.
I stood stock-still. The air was like stone in my lungs. Was this a figment of the dreamcaps?
At a rustling beside me, I turned and saw another, this one slightly shorter and brandishing a dagger as though it were a sword. It gripped the tang of the naked blade rather than a handle.
I backed away. How many were there? What were they?
“Peace,” I said, in case they understood.
Whether or not they understood, they did not comply. The taller one screeched, and the other lashed out with the knife as fast as a raptor striking from the sky. I leaped back from the blade, but something caught my foot and I fell onto my back.
My head struck the ground and rang like a bell. White-haired creatures stood around me with weapons poised. The tallest one, the one with the spear, made chucking noises at the other two.
Lying on the ground, I could feel the fire within it, but locked away like a maiden on the night before her debut. I reached for my athame, still sheathed at my belt, and the ground opened itself to me.
I drew the fire into my blade before slipping it free. Yellow eyes went wide, and the tall one shrieked even before I released the flame with a flick of my wrist.
It did not grow like a fireball a Blaze would throw in battle. Though it was little better than throwing a rag lit by a candle, the hair of the creature burned like a lace curtain. It shrieked and ran. The one with the knife screamed and stabbed at me. A silver gleam raced at my face.
It never made it. There was a growl, a green blur, and then a cry.
The third one raised a sharpened rock in its hand, but before it could jab at me, its head crumpled beneath an iron ball.
The world spun gently around me. The Pravic held out his hand to help me up.
The saurum snuffled at the tallest creature, which lay burnt and wheezing at the side of the path.
“Ferm,” he said, kicking the shorter one at his feet. “They must have burrows in these mountains.”
I stumbled over to the burned one, though I had to lean against a tree to stay upright. Its skin was blistered and red, but it still breathed laboriously. It caught my eyes with its own, begging pity. “Why don’t we know of them? Men travel these mountains.”
“We are far from the King’s road, farther from the passes your people use.”
“What are they?”
“These are fermlings – the drones of the species. Sexless.”
“They look like little men,” I said. That wasn’t true, unless a man wore a full-body wig, but they walked like men and carried weapons. And the panic I saw in its eyes looked like the panic of a dying man.
He nodded. “The fermlings work and fight, but they are not wise like men. They will use tools if they are given them, but they cannot create or build. Only the queens, who are great,” he held his hand above his head to indicate their height, “can reason. The rest are like dogs.”
It didn’t look like a dog. It looked like a child, one with a ruined face and a short future.
The Pravic moved next to me, putting his hand on my shoulder and speaking softly. “It would have killed you. Fermlings near my hamlet took away some children when I was a boy. My father sent a team to destroy the burrow. It was my first battle.”
The fermling locked its eyes to mine just as the Pravic raised his staff to end it.
“They are not men, Dasper.”
The Pravic put me on the saurum’s back and once again lashed me to his body. I stared into the woods as though the dreamcaps still captured my mind, but I only saw one vision: two eyes amid blistered flesh.
“Dasper,” he said. “This is Jarngeir. Do you hear me?”
Jarngeir shook my shoulders. Some time had passed. The sun was gone from the sky, and the quarter moon was high.
“Dasper? I need you.”
I saw his face floating in front of me, just inches away. His eyes were intense, his jaw seemed worked from stone.
“See this plant? I want you to find five more of them and dig up their roots. Do you understand?”
I looked at the plant. I didn’t recognize it from botany class, but it had opposite compound leaves and a small red bloom. I left the camp, stepping through ankle-deep snow that I hadn’t noticed falling.
A high cliff rose to the north, but at its base a sparse forest grew. The undergrowth was thin and largely buried in a white blanket. The plant was rare, it seemed, and it took an hour of careful searching to find enough. Which had probably been Jarngeir’s intent.
When I returned, the ground of the campsite had been cleared, and there was a stack of split wood by a stone ring with a haunch of venison spitted above it. At my raised eyebrow, Jarngeir smiled and pointed at the saurum, who gnawed on the carcass at the edge of camp.
I sparked the fire with a twist of my athame and we sat while we cooked venison and roots, seasoned with strips of leaves from the plant I brought.
The Ruins of Darius, and their patrols of Kingsmen, were far from here. This was a place of sharp edges and danger, where I might be Enkindled. But I hadn’t been. My life had teetered on the point of a blade, and I had only been saved by Jarngeir and the saurum. I had no more flame at my call than ever, only a trickle. Magic had not come to the rescue.
Jarngeir sat away from the fire, staring at the night sky. The saurum lay curled next to him.
I went and sat on his other side. He studied the stars, and I studied him. A short, ragged beard was growing in, a little lighter than his hair, which he wore lose at the moment, foregoing his iron bands.
“What are you doing?” My hand was so near his that I could feel its heat through the air.
“Speaking with my foremothers,” he said. “They sleep in the skies, our elders teach, and waken in our need.”
I studied the stars, trying to remember the shapes of them that my tutor had taught, The Plow, the Spire. But they looked all the same to me.
“The firemasters tell us they are made of fire and air, and are more distant than any man could travel in his whole life, or in the lives of all his forefathers.”
He nodded, then lowered his face.
“But you believe they are your ancestors,” I prodded. His face was shadow, and I wanted to light my athame to see him. Was he growing angry, impassioned?
“No,” he said at last. “I said that our elders teach that it is so. Still, when I have questions, it is a comfort to come and speak to the shapes of them.”
What would it be like to have family in the sky? Ones that watch, and care? But the stars do not care. They only burn. There is a lesson in that.
I moved my hand, just an inch, but it could have well been the distance between two stars. He pulled away.
“The food is ready.”
Afterward I sipped from my last flask. It helped dissolve the garlic taste of the roots.
I handed him the flask, which he accepted.
“Is there a pool nearby?”
His brows came together, but he nodded and pointed.
My tone of voice was a masterpiece of craft, perfectly casual. “Care for a dip?”
“I did not think your kind cared for the cold mountain waters.”
“We don’t.” I raised my athame.
He followed me to the pool, a little spring pool a few feet deep and a man’s height across, and watched as I heated the stone to warm it. His face was alight as he reached his hand into the waters. “You can make it cooler, too?”
“Why would I?”
When he didn’t answer, I pulled off my clothes and stepped into the pool. It was deliciously warm, better than I had managed before.
After a moment, Jarngeir stripped in the brush and joined me quickly, so that I barely caught a glimpse of a pale back flashing in the moonlight before he was lounging in the pool across from me. He reached out for my flask, which I handed to him.
I grabbed the oilskin bag from the pocket of clothes by the pool and removed the last dreamcap. “Split it?”
“No. As I said, only the wise ones may take them.”
“So, that rule you choose to observe. What about the others?”
It was dark, with only a low-hanging quarter moon to light his face, but still I could see it darken.
“The lying. The axe.”
He looked away. “Those are different. Necessary.”
“Everyone has their own boundaries, Jarngeir. I think growing means allowing those boundaries to stretch.”
I reached out with my foot and stroked his thigh with my toes.
He watched me for a moment. I took his silence as consent, and I stretched farther.
“You are an interesting creature, Dasper.” He caught my ankle in his grasp. “But you are wrong. To grow means to learn where your own boundaries lie, and to guard them.”
He rose, glistening in the moonlight, and vanished into the trees with his clothes.
I left my last dreamcap by the pool that night, and slept curled in my blankets. By the time I awoke, Jarngeir had the saurum packed.
“We are done with the trails that men can follow.” Jarngeir cinched the lines around the saurum’s body. Above him a span of rock rose, and beyond that the summit stabbed the sky.
Using deft knots and strong hands, Jarngeir tied us prone to the back of the saurum. At his command, it ascended.
With each vertical step, the creature’s claws fused to the surface. The dusty green of its scales flowed into the gray-brown rock of the mountain like a man sticking his hand into pudding. Only the rock hardened around the claws after it was placed. This took only an instant, and the saurum scaled the face as quickly as a man could crawl, only straight into the sky.
Jarngeir was between the saurum and me. We were tied body-to-body and leg-to-leg. My arms encircled his neck. Iron rings held his hair in a band, which hung over my shoulder.
He cleared his throat into the silence. With the quiet now wounded, he slew it.
“When I was thirteen, my father led us to fight the ferm. I fought and defended my father, my brothers, and sister. But the steel the ferm carry is rare and usually poor quality. I did not win my steel. In truth, I probably didn’t even make a kill. My younger brother did win steel, though, at only twelve. I vowed that I would win my own.”
The saurum began crawling up an overhang, so that Jarngeir began to hang downward into me. His weight was crushing and enticing.
“There was an older boy who had won steel at Vale Dorak. He agreed to train me. He was not large like my family, but he moved like an eagle striking, with his whole body behind each blow. He was smart, too, and could read a battle like song from a tapestry.”
“I loved him.” His voice rose barely above the scratching sound of the saurum’s climb.
“My sister found us together and told my father. I thought he would send me away. I thought he might kill me, or deny me food and shelter. He did none of it, though the Elders demanded it. Still, he never spoke to me again; commands were given through my brothers.”
“The boy was not so fortunate with his family.”
The saurum paused at the lip of the overhang. I raised my hand and rested it on Jarngeir’s head, above his ear. He tilted his head into my palm.
“When next the King’s men came to Vale Prava, I was fifteen. My brothers and I returned, though many did not. This time I killed three of your king’s men by myself before we were driven out.”
A boy against the hardened men of the King’s army, wearing and carrying steel. Not to mention the troops of Blazes they would have had, casting fire into the Pravic ranks, or the students released at the point of Enkindling into their lines to wreak unfathomable havoc. My throat was tight.
“After the battle, my brothers knocked me down. They took my steel, saying that I was not man enough to keep it, that I would remain a boy while the sun still glowed.”
Jarngeir ran his hand along the saurum’s shoulders. It rumbled, like a cat purring. “I did not kill them, but I left them broken and bleeding on my father’s soil. I let them have their steel and left that night. When I return, it will be with steel they cannot deny. My grandfather’s sword, lost here in a battle with the ferm when my people still lived in these mountains.”
The saurum scampered over the round of the overhang. A few dozen feet remained between us and the top of the ledge. I shifted forward, and he turned slightly toward me. His face was stern, but his eyes were damp. I pulled his head back, gently, by his hair and kissed his cheekbone.
He grabbed my other hand, which rested still on his shoulder. His calluses felt like the bark of a red oak. He squeezed my hand gently.
The world seemed to tilt as the saurum dragged us over the top of the cliff.
We stood on a wide shelf on the mountain’s edge. On one side, the mountain rose to dizzying heights, though less steeply than the cliff we had just scaled. Before us, a hot spring-fed pool billowed steam into the air. It was large, as wide as three men are tall, and to my eyes bottomless. Rivulets poured down the porous stone behind it, and the spring’s heat kept the shelf free of snow. To my right, the cliff below and above melded, making it impassible. Only a narrow path ran down to the left, away from the King’s lands and roads.
Jarngeir pulled his bags from the saurum’s back and propped them against the rocks along the farther edges, away from the pool. I warmed my hands in the vapors.
“This place is sacred to the ferm,” he said, squatting next to me.
I watched him from the corner of my eye. He frowned.
“Not sacred. Special. But they come here frequently. We must be quick.”
I swallowed the knot that built in my throat and nodded. “I’ll watch your back.”
“I need something else,” he said. “The water is too hot.”
I frowned. The fire was too deep in the water for me to even see, much less draw out. The rocks around the thermal pool glowed with hidden flame. I could move it, stir it, but to move enough to cool the water was beyond anything I could manage.
Still, I drew my athame and tried. After ten minutes of struggle, I had cooled a section of rock the size of my head. The water didn’t seem to notice.
I dropped my athame, dejected. “I can’t do it, Jarngeir.”
“Then, you must make me-” he trailed off and held out his arm. “You must make it so fire cannot harm me.”
The ground seemed to drop away from me. “Jarngeir. Is this why you hired a fireworker?”
He nodded and held out his arm again.
“Jarngeir, it’s impossible.”
His face began to redden. “I have seen your kind. I have seen them make it so a man on fire will not burn. I have seen them turn the air to steam and walk through it unharmed, though it boiled men’s heads.”
I shook my head. “Firemasters, perhaps, or Enkindling Blazes. How much did you pay for me, Jarngeir?”
“Twice the price of a good horse,” he said, spitting.
I sighed. “Jarngeir, a firemaster would cost ten times that. Fifty times, maybe. Do you know what I am?” I touched my athame. “I am a Brand. A student. I am Unenkindled.”
His face looked like it burned in the steam, so red was he.
“You must do this!” He shoved me. “I must have the steel.”
He shoved me again, and my foot slid on a rock. I fell to my rump.
He began tearing off his clothes and his gear.
“No!” I reached out my hand as though I could work the air and catch him. The splash swept out and soaked me. It was like the boiling oil at an enemy’s gate.
I rushed to the side of the pool, peering through the haze, but all was dark. The saurum pushed past me, and I thought it was going to dive into the water, but it only stuck half its body in. The saurum’s rear legs clamped into the porous stone, its tail stuck straight out to balance.
In a moment it pulled Jarngeir out, his left shoulder in its teeth. The trails of blood were barely redder than his skin. As his hand emerged from the pool, the steel flashed in the sun. It struck the rocks with a clank and slipped free.
The sword tumbled in the water against the slight rocky slope in the pool. I dove unthinking, left arm outstretched. I might have well shoved my arm in a furnace. Still, I gripped the blade and yanked it from the waters. A scream seared my throat.
My arm was pain. I held it outstretched from my body and swung it in the cool air. The scalding water remained soaked into the velvet sleeve, but it began to cool after a moment. Then I remembered Jarngeir.
Scalded flesh was already blistering, and some blisters had burst. His flesh was as red as the end of day, and he shone like wet leather. I snatched my athame from the ground but the heat that burned him was locked behind flesh.
The saurum cried, a grinding rumble that seemed to rise from the ground itself. It nudged Jarngeir’s shoulder, then his neck. Whimpering, it laid its giant head on his chest.
I dumped out my bag and grabbed my cape from the top of the pile, and then ran past the ridge of rock that surrounded the spring, down the narrow path. With cold-burned fingers I shoveled the snow onto my cape, slung out into a train.
When I returned, the saurum was slumped on its side, steaming and alight with inner fire so bright that it shined even to my poor sight. Jarngeir’s skin was pale and clammy, no longer red. I knelt by them. Jarngeir’s skin was as warm as a summer day, but not scorching. The saurum was too hot to touch. I thought of my exhausted firestone, and what it would take for a cold-blooded creature to survive a trip into the frosty mountains. The saurum could work fire, at least into itself.
I dumped the snow on its body, which added to the clouds of steam without doing any visible good. It breathed in ragged gasps.
It took four more snow-gathering trips before the saurum was cool enough to touch. Both it and Jarngeir remained unconscious.
I made one last trip for snow, which I packed around my arm before I huddled on the rocks and sat watch.
Jarngeir’s legs trembled as he lifted the final stone and placed it carefully at the top of the cairn.
“They bury themselves in the sand,” he said, resting a hand on the highest stone. “The old ones, when they are near to death. They crawl from their caves and wander into the desert.”
He lowered himself unsteadily to a rock to sit. After a long sigh, he pulled the sword out. He gripped it in two hands at the handle. It was long and curved, widening a third of the length from the tip before tapering to a hand-and-a-half grip with a simple cross guard. It looked a thing that could be had by a month’s worth of a laborer’s wages, except that after untold years at the bottom of a thermal pool, it was still in perfect shape. He turned it over in his hands, looking at every inch, never letting it touch the ground.
At last he laid it across his lap to look at me, sitting cross-legged on the ground. His eyes sought mine.
“Tell me what happened to your arm,” he said. His voice was empty of concern. Suspicion crept into his eyes.
I held his eyes. “The saurum was struggling to pull you out.”
“The sword?” he asked. His face was a mask, but his eyes were desperately asking, was his hand the one that rescued the sword?
I shrugged. “You wouldn’t let go. I had to pry it from your hands to keep it from burning you more.”
He examined his right hand, frowning.
I looked at the haphazard cairn that housed the body of the brave beast that had brought us up the side of a mountain and dragged Jarngeir from a boiling death.
“How will we get down?”
I held up my arms to shield my face from the whipping branches. My feet fluttered faster than dancing the tarantella, but the rocks tumbled and crashed beneath them. To fall meant gashes on my face rather than scrapes, and potentially worse.
The minute path from the shelf with the pool was steep and treacherous, but only dusted with snow as it wound north. Jarngeir and I made precipitous progress, punctuated with periods of rest. As we traveled, it widened ever more.
I held on to a tree. Jarngeir crashed into another one nearby, grabbing on to catch himself. His staff and shield were strapped to his back. His new sword was tucked through a belt at his waist.
Clouds of breath billowed out in front of him. He turned and leaned back against his tree, tilting his head back to rest against it. He ran his hand over the hilt of his sword, almost caressing it.
“What will you do now, Jarngeir?”
He looked at me. I could see the luster of his eyes from where I stood.
Instead of answering, he turned and dashed down another expanse to another tree. I followed, dodging whipping saplings and low branches.
“Return,” he said when we had come to a stop again. “Perhaps kill my brothers, if necessary.” He said it dully, and I hoped it was his grief that chilled his voice.
“Right away?” My voice was as even as a master carpenter’s cut.
He twirled around the tree and danced down the slope. Again, I followed.
The slope curved upward ahead, a wide swath of flatter, snow-covered ground. Jarngeir slapped at trees to slow himself, but still tumbled and rolled into the drifts. I feigned a stumble and dove on top of him.
We rolled through the snow, laughing. It was cold, but he was warm. I wound up laying half atop him. His mind played upon his face: grief and triumph, attraction and fear. The mask had slipped, and I felt like I knew him. His lips twitched up into a grin. I lowered my head to his.
His lips were warm and softer than I had thought, and though he could crush me with his arms, his kiss was as gentle as a fawn’s first steps.
Sex is fire and earth, water and air. Stone churns the seas, breath fans the flames. Elements synthesize and erupt like a geyser.
I had felt it before, with both men and women. I wove those elements like a firemaster worked true fire. But there was something else that I hadn’t felt before. A fifth thing that bound the others in new ways. I saw it in his eyes. I felt it in his hands and lips and body.
I nearly whispered the truth of the fifth thing, but I clamped my lips around the secret, lest sunlight burnt it away in the open air.
I was falling in love.
I lay tangled in his arms. We were dressed again against the cold, covered in the blankets from my pack. He hadn’t spoken, but he stroked my hair absently as he stared into the clouded sky.
But then he shoved me aside with one hand, just as a spear the length of my forearm embedded itself into the snow bank beyond our bunk. He rolled to his feet, and slipped the harness of his shield onto his back. He drew his sword.
There were six fermlings, armed with sharpened shafts of wood, bent bronze daggers, and stone tipped spears. They were as fast as cats, dodging from the charging bull of a man. But he was no fool, and turned quickly to avoid being hamstrung as the fermlings regrouped.
I drew my athame and pointed it to the ground. I pulled fire from the stones beneath the snow and, with a flick of my blade, threw a ball at the closest one, a gray-white beast carrying a club. The fireball went wide, but he noticed. With a tisking sound he turned and rushed at me. He hardly made it a step before Jarngeir’s sword decapitated him.
I threw another ball into the bulk of them, singeing one, but its back was too snow-damp to light.
Jarngeir danced around them with his long legs, never getting between two of them. One by one his sword found them. He never spent longer than it took to deliver a killing blow before he was on the next.
A stubby fermling caught him with its club, but it did no more than bruise. I distracted a dagger-bearer with another fireball, and Jarngeir cut him down.
The remaining two fled. I looked at the four small bodies on the ground. It was hard not to think of them as children.
Jarngeir turned a circle, keeping perfect balance and his sword ready. Seeing no more, he straightened the shield on his back.
A battle horn echoed around us. Jarngeir’s face became grim.
“She is coming,” he said. He grabbed my shoulder and shoved me eastward, back toward the steep rise we had just run down. To the west, the ground dropped again steeply. He retrieved his hammerstaff and held it in his right hand, moving the sword to his off hand.
They surged over the tops of the stones like ants streaming from a nest. Each carried a weapon that would be pitiful alone, but looking out over dozens of them they froze my blood.
The sound came again, much like a horn, but now I could hear the raw vibrato of a screaming throat. It was the ferm queen.
The fermlings swarmed. Jarngeir swept them away with great swings of his hammerstaff, but each swing only killed one, if that. The rest were shielded by the bodies of their comrades.
I pulled the fire from the stones with my athame and flicked it into the pack descending upon Jarngeir, striking one fermling in the face. It screamed and clutched its eyes.
Three of its neighbors turned toward me and charged. With no time to pull fire, I held my athame out in front of me like I had seen alleymen do in plays.
I stabbed at the first, but it ducked aside and swung at my knee with a club. I toppled to the ground. A taller one raised its spear to stab.
It flew into a tree, first smashing into its friend with the club and taking it along. The final one lost its arm to a chop from Jarngeir’s sword.
Jarngeir jumped back into the fray. Around him ten or more fermling bodies lay motionless, but two dozen live ones swarmed around, looking for holes in his guard. Already his legs bled from a handful of wounds. He seemed to drag his left leg a bit as he ran.
As he used his hammerstaff to force a trio of fermlings back, one quick creature climbed onto the shoulders of a comrade and leaped upon Jarngeir’s back. It shoved a bronze dagger into his shoulder.
Jarngeir dropped the hammerstaff and screamed. The fermlings swarmed.
Terror boiled up in my throat. Each glint of bronze or flint seemed like a promise of Jarngeir’s death. But then each gleam flared, a sea of reflected fire. Primal heat welled up in my bones, seeming to bake me from within. It was as though I had fallen into the volcanic spring and drunk my way out again.
As I rose to my feet, the world became fire.
The flame in the stones, so dim before, was as bright as summer noon. My athame was on the ground, dropped, though I didn’t recall when. It no longer mattered. The fire in the stones begged me for release, and so I granted it.
I pulled the fire up through my legs and let it fly as a stream into the throng of fermlings that surrounded Jarngeir, aiming at those farthest from him. This fire pulled more from the stones as it flew and struck the fermlings like a jet of magma. Hair burned and flesh seared to the bone. High-pitched screams tore at my ears.
They turned toward me and I pulled fire again. This time I pushed it into a thin wide sheet that cut at waist height. All but those closest to Jarngeir clutched at faces melting in a blaze.
Jarngeir swung his sword warily at the last ten fermlings around him. Two more were upon his back, stabbing with their little knives. His legs crumbled.
I dredged the earth for fire, but the stones had no more to give. Around us, spindly pines bowed under snow. With a thought, I burst the trees into a blaze, and I dragged the paltry fire from their limbs. It was enough to send two balls of flame into the faces of the crawling fermlings.
Smoke billowed from the smoldering trees, obscuring the band of remaining fermlings that crept toward me, teeth bared and weapons raised. There was nothing left to pull from the ground or trees.
Jarngeir struggled to his knees, fending off a few fermlings with wild swings of his sword. The others approached me cautiously.
A horn-like scream echoed, sounding like the war horns at the end of the world. A giant ferm, clearly the queen, clambered over the edge. She was huge, bigger than Jarngeir by half, and covered in the same downy white hair as her children, though hers was braided in dozens of strands and stuck through with tiny flowers. Her cry cut through to my bones.
She looked around the shelf of stone. I looked with her, seeing the piles of smoldering bodies, each one a child of her blood. She screamed and clawed at her face, leaving streaks of tears and blood. Then she turned and looked at me, and then turned to Jarngeir. I saw rage and terror and despair swim in her eyes. She raised both arms, each ending in a murderous set of claws. And she charged him.
The others rushed me. Without fire left to draw from the stone or trees, I looked into them. As they neared I saw the fire in their flesh, flowing in their blood. I reach out with my mind and touched them, one at a time, and set it alight. Flames burst through their mouths, their eyes, and then their skin, which cracked like a boar on a spit before their white hair flashed.
The ferm queen crashed into Jarngeir, smashing away his sword and falling upon him, teeth gnashing and claws dragging across him.
With a scream of rage, I rushed at her. The two or three remaining fermlings dove out of the way and cowered, but I barely noticed as I set them alight. I saw only her.
I saw the fire in her blood that I could set alight, but not without incinerating Jarngeir. I saw the fire in her heart that gave her rage. The fire in her mind was her intellect, surely as great as a human’s. And the fire in her, in her spirit, that gave her life.
She looked up at me, claws and teeth dripping blood, with eyes that could have been a grandmother’s. I reached out with my will and snuffed her fire out.
She crumpled to the ground, lying half atop Jarngeir. I ran to his side, and what I could see was a travesty. Jarngeir was stabbed and slit and bit and clawed so much that he looked nearly flayed.
Deep inside him, I saw but one faint flame. I drew a breath, pulling faint fire from the air, from the flitting tiny things that live inside it. Newly born frost competed with smoke to fill the sky. Locking my mouth to his, I stoked his fire with the bellows of my lungs.
The spire of the Occultarium stood as a testament, and as a beacon. From the rear of the trader’s cart I stared back up the mountain road, hoping to see a giant man with a gleaming sword, but the track was bare.
Headmaster Laren was there, waiting at the gates, arms folded under her breasts. Kevor and a dozen other Blazes, each of whom I had known as a Brand, stood behind her. I expected scowls, or grins, but each face was soft.
Laren took a folded cape from Kevor’s arms and unfurled it. Twin streaks of flame danced in the cloth.
“Welcome home, Blaze,” she said.
She bade me turn, so she could drape my shoulders with the prize I had bought. Through the great gates I could see the distant mountains scrape snow from the sky, and I thought of the battle.
“Tell me, Dasper,” she said, her voice uncharacteristically kind. “Can you feel the fire?”
It was around me, in the stone, in the sky, in the bodies of those around me. I held out my hand and drew it effortlessly into a ball the size of my head. Some of the other Blazes muttered, impressed. I hadn’t even touched my athame. I supposed I would receive my sword soon.
“This is our secret and our curse, Dasper. The strength of a Blaze depends upon the hardship of his Enkindling. You pay as much as you can bear, and open to power proportional to the price.”
I turned to look at her.
“It is vile to let students think they had a choice,” she said. “Most students wish they had never paid their price, and the rest should never be allowed to attain great power.”
I turned away again. When I closed my eyes, even if only to blink, I saw a field of corpses, mostly small except one giant, and the horror in the face of the man I had brought from the brink of death as he stumbled to his feet to flee from me and from the terrible fire he saw in my eyes. Fire that burned away that faint fifth thing.
It was as much as I could bear.
By Sean Monaghan
The galaxy, for a moment, looked frozen. Claire’s ship pitched on its axis and she had a passing view of the stars in lockstep with her angle through the forward windows. From orbit, especially this low, the distant blazing suns were always sweeping by. The ship’s current altitude, 326 kilometers, had her completing an orbit in just over ninety minutes.
The ranging radar pinged at her. She was less than thirty kilometers from the errant satellite. With a sweep on the controls, she swung the cockpit around on its internal gimbals. For a moment she was in darkness. Only another couple of hours and she would be done for the month. Back to Levithab for two weeks in the station’s gravity spin. After three months on call–basically meaning out all day every day–and a full week in the Demeter’s tiny cockpit and living quarters, she really needed a break. The ship was starting to feel dank and lived in, like old socks that needed a wash, rinse and airing.
The hull’s underside window slots rolled into view as the cockpit slowed. It locked into a position with a heavy clunk. Now she was looking along the ship’s underside, the long, sleek groove with the six chunky bulbs of the grabbers. Below she could see the snowy Andes.
Following the turnaround she called up a hot soup from the dispenser and after a moment a silver tube slid into the dispenser’s slot. Putting the nozzle into her mouth she sucked gingerly. Minestrone. Mashed, by necessity, but still thick and good.
“Claire?” the radio squawked at her. Mandy, back at the McKinnon outpost dispatch. Claire liked McKinnon. After time in Demeter it always felt spacious and clean. Nothing like Levithab, but then that station catered to the tourists and executives. McKinnon was strictly a maintenance hub.
“Hi Mandy,” she said. Mandy was always cheerful and upbeat. She was always in the process of ditching a boyfriend or wooing someone new. Nothing seemed to last more than a week or two. “I’m coming up on our sat. Sweepstar 36. I’ve got a visual. Nasty angle on her solar panels here.”
“I can see you on my scope.”
“It looks like a twenty minute job at most. I’ve got spares on board.” Easy, she thought. Unbolt the sail with the Demeter’s claws, bolt in a new strut and fix the panels onto that. She could do it all from the cockpit through the screens.
“Yeah, sorry honey, I’m going to have to ask you to ditch that and take on a new assignment.”
Claire’s shoulder’s slumped. She could see the satellite, a pinprick of light moving in at her. “Don’t do this. I’ve got leave coming up. Soon as I’m done with this cold little Sweepstar, I’m having time off. You didn’t forget that did you?”
“It’s an emergency.”
“Mandy, it’s always an emergency.” People wanted their communications now. They wanted their Google updates right now. No one could wait a couple of days. No one could wait an hour.
Claire was in her forties now, and felt like she was still clawing her way through life. Myth had it that satellite recovery pilots were well-paid. They were–she was–but there were a whole lot of expenses against that. The monthly payments on the Demeter were more than most people made in a year. And then there was insurance, fuel and consumables. Rental on the slot at McKinnon, commission for Mandy. It added up fast.
“Got a ship in trouble,” Mandy said. “Guy in there’s bleeding oxygen.”
Claire took a sip of water from the cockpit tube. Though it tasted fresh and cool, she always balked a little at the end of a tour, knowing that every drop was recycled from the air and waste systems.
“You still there?”
Claire sighed. Why did they let morons up here in ships? “Well tell him to suit up. There’s no way I can help.” Distances up here were so different to down on Earth. It took a lot of fuel to alter orbit.
“He’s six hundred kilometers from you. In a similar orbit. Fifteen kilometers higher, so he’s a little slower than you there.”
Automatically Claire checked the fuel levels. With a quick burn she could make that distance in maybe twenty-five minutes. At least she wouldn’t have to go high, overshoot and then decelerate to meet the idiot’s orbital velocity.
“I’m the closest?”
“By a factor of five. That shouldn’t surprise you.”
“Of course not. Send me his details. I’ll get underway. What about this satellite?”
“Someone will get it on the next shift. Sorry to mess with your vacation.”
“I can just add it on the end, right?” With the change in orbit, trying to patch his ship and everything else, she was going to lose at least a half a day now.
“Uh,” Mandy said. “Maybe. I’ll have to talk to Nichols.”
“You talk to him.” The data started coming up on Claire’s displays.
The stricken ship was a Boeing-Spader Amdrift 16. Similar to her own Sikorsky, but newer. She’d flown in the Amdrifts for a couple of years. Light and responsive, though with harsh cockpits. No one had thought to include padding on some of the internal spars and she’d had to tape her own pieces of foam in.
A rescue would pay her at regular rates plus expenses, plus fuel. But it was cutting into her vacation time. She was old enough now that she knew the value of time off. More than she could count in dollars.
She rotated back around to flight configuration. The stars spun by as the Demeter’s bow pitched down. The onboard system plotted her an intercept course. Thirty two minutes.
“I’ve got limited details here,” she told Mandy.
“Sure, got that, but no telemetry from his ship.” She started cycling the main engine system to give her a full burn. Something from the back of the cockpit was clicking as if it had fallen out of place. She turned and squinted toward the sound, but couldn’t see anything. Pulling a daughter screen from the side of her main display, she had it run a system check on the cockpit servos. Demeter would be getting a full service while she was on Levithab, but she didn’t want anything fouling up now.
“How about now?” Mandy said. “I’ve routed your security feed to pick it up. Are you looking at his oh-two?”
“If he’s losing it, yes. It’s going to take me a half hour to get there.” Claire watched her screen. She snapped up Mandy’s security and tried to pull the data that way. Nothing.
“I guess the ship’s damaged,” Mandy said. “Maybe it’s lost its feeds too?”
“Gotta be something. I mean, if he’s still intact enough to have sent a distress.” She could see the emergency triangle broadcast coming through. With another snap, she had the Demeter’s probe codes seek back along that broadcast and try to open up the datafeeds from that.
“Oh. There’s something,” Mandy said.
The ship’s telemetry started coming through. On the left half of the screen Claire saw a flash from the main engine: ready.
“His orbit’s decaying,” Mandy said. “He’s…”
Claire stopped listening. The pilot’s name came up on her display. David Scanlon.
“Can you confirm that?” she said to Mandy.
“Identity. It’s coming up as David.” Claire kept reading. Employed by Philadelphia Duster Co., a diversified company providing low Earth orbit sweeps. Eighteen years old, two years out of school, with a pilot’s license already.
“David Scanlon,” Mandy said. “That’s right. He’s… oh. Is that…?”
“I’ll pull you off the mission. Finish up with the Sweepstar. They’ll find someone else to get to David.”
Claire didn’t change her vector. What was he doing up here as a pilot?
Reaching for the burn icon, Claire held her finger for a moment. “I’m going to get him. You already said I was the closest.”
“I can’t let you. You’ll be… hey!”
Claire had tapped the disconnect. Mandy no longer had override control. Risky. If something went wrong with Demeter now, it limited options from the outside.
“Claire? You locked me out.”
“I’m going to get him.” She touched the burn control and the blast shunted her back into the seat. As the ship rattled away from the Sweepstar 36, she recalculated the vectors. She pushed it up to a six-gravity acceleration. The ship’s onboards recalculated the path.
“You’re going much too fast,” Mandy said. “You’re going to overshoot.”
The Demeter was sixty meters long. Her main fuselage was a shade under five meters across at the widest point. She looked, to Claire, like a wingless version of the old seaplanes she’d seen photos of, but with the cockpit set far further back. Her main nacelle was right behind the cockpit, and along each side there were three bulbous stubby legs. The underside of the hull, between the legs, was soft and configurable.
She would approach a satellite, nestle it in between the legs, which would then twist to grip it. With a satellite in place, she could effect repairs, mostly with the remote arms and tools that slipped out of slots in the bulbs. A lot of it was automatic, but on occasion she had to do EVA, just to hit something with a hammer or rip away some stuck shrouding.
The little ship was not built to be a racer. Six gravities was above her standard rating.
Claire could feel it in her eyeballs and chest.
“Claire. Unlock your systems.”
She opened her mouth to reply, but nothing more than a hoarse whisper came. Of course she’d experienced burns like this coming up here from the ground, but she’d never run the Demeter at this pace.
“You’re going to wreck your ship,” Mandy said. “Let me have override so you can get optimal delta-v here.”
David had been in school, last she’d heard. A couple of stupid things she’d done a decade and a half ago, and the boy’s father had sued for custody. She’d barely seen her son in the meantime. Last time had been a couple of years back.
She’d been on the ground, in Memphis. Her sixteen year old son had been dropped at an Arby’s to meet her for lunch. He’d muttered a few non-words, practically eaten his weight in burgers, and stared at her.
“I miss you,” she’d told him. Friends had assured her that it was a transition, that he’d talk to her again.
But then she’d gotten this contract, and she needed the money. Somewhere, almost sub-consciously, she’d known that being in orbit was a way of hiding out. Avoiding something. What she hadn’t counted on was how much more it would make her miss him.
“Okay,” Mandy said. “Keep accelerating like that. Have you got a handle on it? Because you’re about six minutes from him now, but you’re going to have to shed that velocity.”
“Yes,” she wheezed. She tapped the automatics. The main engine throttled back to almost nothing and she came almost weightless again. The forward thrusters flipped the ship around and the nacelle opened up again, shoving her back into the pilot’s seat.
“You’re a hundred thirty kilometers from him now.”
Claire didn’t answer.
He’d talked about his ambitions, sometimes. They’d had a whole week when he was ten, out at Cape Henlopen, with the ocean crashing in and the gulls wheeling. A nice age. Old enough to have intelligent conversations, young enough to not be surly. He’d talked about becoming an architect or an engineer or a political scientist. That last surprised her, but it turned out he followed the machinations of international relations, and the continual acrimonious hedging of Republicans and Democrats. Very aware for age ten.
But here he was a pilot.
He had to be a trainee, so how could he be out on his own?
The ship should have been set up for multiple crew. At the very least a twin berth vessel with an experienced, capable pilot riding along with David. She’d taken some cadets out on occasion, though training wasn’t her forte. She tended to get irritated and impatient with them.
The deceleration diminished. It ramped back to perhaps just two gravities. Able to move her arms easily again, she called up the mission brief David had been working to.
An Egyptian research satellite, monitoring Nile irrigation levels. It swept around in a low-inclination orbit, crossing not only Egypt but numerous other dry countries, doubtless gathering intel on agrarian practices in all those regions.
It had gone on the fritz two days ago and Philadelphia Duster had sent him out.
In a way she thought she should be glad that he had a job.
“What’s their problem?” Claire said.
“Oh, you’re talking to me now?”
“Why would they send David out on his own?”
“Give me a minute. Okay, you’re six minutes out now. He’s moved lower. Whatever’s venting is throwing down fast.”
“I’ve compensated?” Claire could see on her displays how David’s ship was dipping. Another orbit and he was going to go into the atmosphere.
“Yes. Don’t go too low.”
It went without saying that the Demeter was not a landing ship. She’d been constructed in space and at the end of her working life she would be disassembled up here. With all her knobs and protrusions she would turn to slag and then vapor if she ever dropped too low.
Not when she still had payments to make on it.
“You’re thirty klicks from him.” Mandy said. “You should be able to get useful imagery from your external feeds already.”
Claire daughtered another display and swelled it so she could get the video from the stern cameras. The onboards threw a ranging list on the side and a reticule around the point where the ship lay. Still too far off to be visible at one-by magnification.
Claire zoomed the feed in. The ship came into view. A little shaky, but clearly a ship. “I see him.”
He was spinning. Not wildly, but it had something out of control going on, as if it had misfired its retros or been in a collision. It was spinning about its axis every forty seconds.
The Demeter’s onboards flickered, pulling up still images of the other ship.
The Boeing-Spader had a narrower fuselage and two more of the leg pods than her own ship. It had red livery along most of its length with bright brassy trim. Big solar panels, similar to the Demeter’s stowed set, stuck out from midway along the ship.
In the still images she could see a wide gash along the side.
“What did he hit?” she asked Mandy. “And where did it go?”
The ranging display flashed as the Demeter came in. The magnification dropped down. She was getting close. Less than eight kilometers apart. Her ship was chugging through burns to match velocity. He’d lost height even in the time she’d taken to reach him. They were at 312 kilometers altitude, with a speed of just over twenty-seven thousand k.p.h.
Nothing like enough to stay orbital.
But enough to possibly correct.
“Okay,” Mandy said. “Looks like he came in on a Japanese whaling sat and something glitched with his systems. His ship flipped and smacked that thing straight into the ocean. Huh. Okay. I’ll send you over the telemetry record. He was about to grab it when a nose retro fired and gave him that spin you’re seeing now. Hit the satellite like a baseball bat. Home run. Up and over the bleachers. Splashdown.”
“I might think you were funny, if it wasn’t David in there.”
“Yuh, sorry. What are you going to do?”
“Any sign of comms yet?”
“Nothing. Even the telemetry is buggy. Think he’s running suit air now. Cabin pressure is zero.”
The Demeter came up within a hundred meters, matching velocity. She got a general alarm from the system. A plot appeared showing her parabolic arc into the ground.
“Splashdown indeed,” she said.
“Could you repeat your last?” Mandy said.
“Unless I can get him stabilized, we’re going into the northern Pacific in under thirty minutes.”
“You’re never going to stabilize that. I’m getting your visuals here. He’s going like a windmill.”
Claire brought her ship within fifteen meters. If she went EVA and scooted directly to the center of the rotation, she could clamp on. From there she could use the hand-hold points to climb down to his cockpit. She would need a full tank: if she tried to run on an umbilical, it would be twisted up within a few minutes.
“Can we program Demeter to come pick us up?” Already in her mind she’d abandoned David’s ship. She hated to think the dollar value of it. How much had he invested?
“Pick you up?”
Claire explained. Once she had David outside the cockpit they would let go, if she could get her timing right. The spin would fling them away, into a temporary higher orbit.
“Demeter can do that,” Mandy said. “I think. Might take a minute to program. You need to give me access.”
“Get on it.” Claire released the override.
“It’s not a good idea. You could end up anywhere.”
“Playing a percentage game now.” It was either that or watch him plough through the atmosphere. Claire slipped out of the cockpit into the cramped airlock and started getting her suit on.
“What if he just got out himself?” Mandy said. “You could go get him manually. Without having to risk-”
“Have you talked to him?” Claire imagined him stuck in the cockpit, unconscious from the impact. “Has there been any communication?”
Mandy didn’t reply.
“He’s not dead.” Claire felt her jaw tightening, her teeth grinding. “Not yet.”
“You’re too tied up in this. Let me get-”
“I’m going out there.” The suit’s waist seal flashed green. A good seal.
“I was going to suggest we get someone on the line to help talk you through this. It’s your son, you’re not thinking straight.”
“He’s another pilot in trouble, Mandy. I’m going to get him out.”
“The ship did a burn,” Mandy said. “I guess trying to get to a higher orbit?”
“Tell me only good news here.”
“Sorry. It’s worse. Going into the atmosphere pretty soon.”
“I’m going as fast as I can.”
“You won’t have much margin.”
Then it came to her. A better solution.
“I still think-”
“Hush. I’ve had an idea. How long before we cross the Rubicon?”
“Rubi… oh. Point of no return in, say, eleven minutes. It’s a fluid scale here. Lots of variables. You’ve got some atmosphere bite already.”
Still in her suit, Claire scrambled back into the cockpit. She killed all the daughter screens and expanded her main control, putting it into satellite retrieval.
“What are you doing?” Mandy said.
“Gonna grab him.” With a twist of her hand Claire had the Demeter fire maneuvering thrusters front and back.
“Grab… like a satellite?”
“You got it. I can put a hardline onto him and maybe pick up his controls. Talk to him if he’s still conscious.”
“Or still ali…” Mandy trailed off. “He’s not a satellite, though. I mean, not a robot. There are protocols for crew rescue.
Already Demeter was spinning, coming close to David’s ship’s rotation. In the cockpit, Claire could feel the fraction tug of the spin, pulling the chair against her.
Claire rotated the cockpit so she was facing out through the ship’s keel. With a couple of minor adjustments she got the Demeter’s underside facing David’s ship and spinning at the same rate.
With delicate pushes on the maneuvering thrusters, she brought the ships closer. The leg buds detected the proximity and began softening, ready to mold into the shape of his hull.
The distance closed to within three meters and she gave a little burst on the reverse end thrusters, directing them out and away from the other ship. It wasn’t often that she picked up something so big. Most satellites were less than a quarter of Demeter’s length.
“You’ve got maybe six minutes now,” Mandy said.
“Roger that.” Claire knew full well. The time was rolling by on a big daughter screen she’d already pulled out.
From the tips of the legs tendrils whipped across and grabbed hold of David’s ship. Drawing themselves back in, they pulled the ship close. As it came in, Claire’s window slot fell into its shadow. With a thunk sound the two ships came together.
“Got ‘im,” Mandy said. “Well done.”
“Let me concentrate.”
“Okay. Four minutes thirty.”
Working quickly Claire had Demeter’s onboards work to slow the spin. If she could get them leveled out she would be able to aim up and out of the atmosphere. David’s ship might be a complete loss, but that was very low on her scale.
“Demeter’s sent tendril’s into his ship’s systems,” Mandy said. “There’s some nominal control. He can adjust attitude a bit, maybe. No atmosphere in the cabin. The main engine’s out. Comms are gone. His ship’s pretty dead.”
“We can bring it in for salvage maybe. Once I’ve got him safely off.”
“Yeah. Maybe. Might not be time for all that.”
“How long have I got?” Claire figured that she only needed a couple of minutes to fire up her main engine again and push them higher.
With the cockpit rotated back into position, she clambered into the airlock and started it cycling as she fumbled with the helmet.
No time for a full cycle through the lock. She got a good seal on the helmet, grabbed hand-hold and blew the outer door.
Air blasted by her. The whole cockpit and cabin emptied. It was only thirty cubic meters, but it packed a real punch.
She hoped that with Demeter already compensating for the spin that the little ship would be able to just add in for the sudden venting.
There wasn’t enough air to replenish that. Not after a week since docking and six other proper cycles. She was going to have to ride back in her suit, probably with David in the Demeter’s sealed emergency bunk. She might have to use his tanks.
She didn’t dare think of any alternatives.
Like, he was already dead. Or something else went wrong.
She climbed out of the lock onto the ship’s exterior. Pulling herself along the rungs she could already feel her palms getting sweaty. The suit was doing its best, but her hands still felt slippery.
“Watch your heart-rate,” Mandy said.
Claire looked along the length of the bonded ships. Even with the nasty gash along the hull David’s seemed shiny and new compared to the Demeter. Her own ship had chips and bumps all along the paintwork and edging. Amazing how in a vacuum things still wore out.
Their spin had almost abated now and she could see out into the stars again. They were coming into daylight, dropping out from behind the planet.
She climbed up to David’s cockpit and peered through the viewscreen.
There he was. In a suit. He waved at her and tapped the side of the helmet.
Relief. He was alive.
Claire tapped the viewscreen and pulled right up so her visor touched. “Come on,” she said, “do the same.”
She knocked on the glass. If the interior was evacuated he wouldn’t hear, but he should recognize the signal.
As she watched he slipped out of his harness and swept up to the viewscreen. She pressed her visor in and he did the same.
“Can you hear me?” she said. In all the reflection and refraction from the glass and their visors she could barely see his face.
He turned his head, but there was no response. The viewscreen glass was probably too thick to transmit much sound.
“David?” she shouted.
Her heart leapt. “Yes. See if you can open your lock from inside.”
“I’m stuck.” His shout sounded so distant and thin that she barely heard it.
“I’ll try to cycle in from out here.”
“I don’t… Mom? What?”
Then Mandy crackled in, her voice suddenly loud and crisp after David’s distant shouts. “Claire?”
“Just going to his lock.” Claire pulled away from David’s cockpit and headed for the airlock.
“You’ve got maybe two minutes.”
“That can’t be right. I blew my own lock.” Claire’s mind raced. If she could fire up her main engine she might be able to gain some altitude with David’s ship attached. It was a standard procedure with a satellite. Not with one about to enter the atmosphere, though. And the velocity required might be too much for the legs. David’s ship might tear away and wreck them both.
No. She had to get him out and into her ship, then let his go and burn with the Demeter alone. His was a loss anyway.
“You’re already streaking,” Mandy said. “You need to get back into your ship.”
“I need to get David out.” Quickly she punched the lock emergency code.
“I’m giving you a count,” Mandy said. “If you’re not back inside your ship before that, you’re dead. Do you understand?”
“You’re the dispatcher, Mandy. Don’t tell me how to run my ship.”
“Huh. Well, until you said that, it’s been nice knowing you.”
“Let me concentrate.” The emergency panel flipped open and she grabbed the red handle inside. Standard emergency access.
“Ninety seconds,” Mandy said. “I’m sending it to your HUD.”
Claire’s helmet display flared. 89. 88. It went to three decimal places, the last figures flashing too fast to read.
Claire yanked hard on the handle. It jerked up and came right off in her hand. Cursing, she tossed the broken piece, sending it tumbling away.
She could see the Earth rolling by below. The sun glinted off the Pacific.
Reaching into her tool belt she found a multi-driver and rotated out a probe. Jamming it into the hole, she wrenched the tool around, looking for the release.
The HUD flicked down to 70.
Despite her digging around, the probe wasn’t releasing the emergency lock.
“Try the hammer,” Mandy said.
“I’m going to break everything.” If only she had an hour and could cut in with a laser torch.
“Try. Hit it on the end of the multi-driver.”
“I’ll wreck it. Then I won’t-”
“Now you’re worried about wrecking a forty dollar tool?”
The display went from 61 to One Minute and flashed on that before changing to 59.
“Better do something,” Mandy said.
Claire got the hammer. She positioned the multi-driver and released it to grab a handhold.
Holding her breath, she swung the hammer over her back. Making sure her aim was true, she brought the tool down on the driver’s handle.
The multi-driver shattered. Fragments bounced up at her. One struck her visor, creating a short hairline crack.
The HUD flickered and went off. It came back on again. 51. It didn’t change.
“Uh-oh,” Mandy said. “You’ve got suit damage. I’ve got a row of reds here.”
“My visor.” The HUD had jammed, just staying on 51. At least the crack wasn’t growing.
“No. Worse. You’ve got punctures on your chest. Pinpricks. You’re losing air.”
“You need to get back inside,” Mandy said. “You need to let him go.”
The multi-driver’s handle had gone, but the solid part of the probe was still wedged into the gap. There was enough protruding that she could take another swing.
“Claire. You’ve got thirty seconds.”
What she should have done was stayed inside the Demeter and given a light angled burn right away. She could have lifted them slowly to a higher orbit and turned to slow into that.
No. She’d done all right. She’d needed to see about getting him off the ship. That was procedure. She’d just wanted to see him, wanted to check he was all right.
“My display says fifty-one.”
“That’s because you…” Mandy trailed off. “Wrecked it,” she said quietly. “Sorry. I told you to.”
“It was a good idea.” Claire swung the hammer again.
The probe went into the control system. Part of the external hull split, the thin metal tearing as the probe drove along it.
“Fifteen,” Mandy said.
The airlock door hadn’t budged.
“You need to get back into your ship and break away,” Mandy said. “Now. You don’t even have time to do that. Hurry.”
Claire took pliers from her belt and peeled back the damaged parts. The ship’s skin tore like a soda can. She saw insulation and circuits. And the end of the broken handle. With the pliers she pulled the handle stub up and out.
The door shifted. Just a couple of centimeters, but it was enough.
“Time’s up,” Mandy said. “You’re officially in the atmosphere.”
Claire turned and grabbed the edge, lifting the door from its frame. The inner door was open too. David hung there in the opening. He beckoned her over.
“We have to go,” she said.
He kept waving her over.
With a twist she moved to him and pressed her visor directly against his. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Mom,” he said, his voice closer than before, but still distant. “You shouldn’t have come.” He reached around behind her and pulled the outer door closed.
“What are you…” she stopped. Without direct contact she couldn’t talk to him.
He dogged the hatch closed and moved back to her. “I’ve been watching the readouts. We’re too low.”
“There’s a margin of error. We need to get aboard the Demeter and undock.”
“Are you talking to him?” Mandy said. “He’s okay?”
Claire ignored her. “Listen to me,” she said. “I’ve been flying for years, you’ve been up here for, what? a few days. I know we can-”
“We’re in atmosphere, Mom. We need to pilot ourselves down.”
Claire sighed. It had always been like this. Even though she didn’t see him that much, he still had to contradict her.
“You’ve got hull heating now,” Mandy said. “You’re in aerobrake.”
“I need to get back to my ship and get us up to a higher orbit.”
“Whatever.” David turned away and moved for the pilot’s seat.
Claire grabbed his ankle and yanked him back toward the lock. He kicked her off.
“Claire?” Mandy said. “We’re going to lose contact soon.” Her voice was flat. As if she knew she was talking to a dead woman.
Cursing, Claire grabbed for David again. She climbed up his torso and shoved her helmet against his.
“Watch that,” Mandy said. “Your visor’s cracked already.”
“It won’t make any difference.” They were going to burn up now. Her son, the Demeter, all lost and fragmenting as they shot into the atmosphere.
“Let me go,” David said. “I need to be in the chair.”
“Let him pilot,” Mandy said. “He still has some attitude control.”
“But no burn,” Claire said. “He can’t pull us out of this. I should have done that first.”
Mandy didn’t say anything.
“Mom. I need to work here.” David pushed back and got into the main seat.
“You should find somewhere to strap in.” Mandy’s voice crackled. “We’re losing contact.”
“I…” Claire stared at David. “We don’t have a heat shield,” she said.
The radio just clicked static back at her.
“Demeter?” she said. “Do you copy?” No response. Normally the HUD would give Demeter’s answer, but it was still stuck on the 51.
Her ship had burrowed into David’s ship’s systems. Mandy had received the telemetry. Maybe there was a way to route back and fly Demeter from here.
Moving up beside David, she pulled a daughter screen from the side of his main display. His helmet moved as he looked at her, but he kept working on the display, one hand on the control yoke.
Did he believe he could actually fly through the atmosphere?
Working fast on the screen, Claire hunted for Demeter’s systems. It should be easily recognizable. She ran a search and found data streams.
David grabbed her shoulder and hauled her up. Leaning into her he touched visors again. “You should strap into the jump seat.”
“I’m trying to get us out of here.” She found an access to Demeter’s control interface. Switching through she accessed the main nacelle control. If she could get a burn then they might just pull away.
A lot of systems were dead already. No forward thrusters, no external video feeds. The internal temperature was over eighty degrees centigrade already. No external readings.
No fuel. The tanks were dry.
David had emptied them. She could see the list of remote commands.
Was he determined to kill them?
She held the little screen up. “What did you do?”
He shook his head.
Claire kicked up and touched helmets again. “You took control of Demeter? You could have blasted us away.” She could feel weight returning as the atmosphere dragged on them.
“You’re too hopeful,” David said.
“But then you emptied the fuel.”
“It would have ignited.”
“So we’re burning up?” As she said it she knew what he’d done. And it made sense.
She would have done the same. Except it was her son. She hadn’t focused on the most practical solution.
“Demeter’s our shield?” she said.
“Yes. Strap in.”
Claire swallowed. Her ship. Burning apart under them.
The ship shuddered.
Slipping the daughter screen back into the slot she moved to the jump seat. It was still an iffy proposition, riding his damaged ship down through the atmosphere with the Demeter attached. The two were strongly bonded externally, and there were some internal tendrils, but they wouldn’t hold it in if the clamps burned away.
She wanted to be in the pilot’s seat. It took experience to do something like this. She watched his gloved fingers dance across the display. His other hand moved fast, pushing the yoke back and forth, left and right, keeping the attitude thrusters working. She wondered how long before the poor little nozzles turned to slag. They were never designed to operate in atmosphere.
Just as Demeter had never been designed to be an ablative shield.
She got into the jump seat and struggled with the harness. The ship shuddered constantly now, with occasional sudden jerks. Even through the insulated suit she could feel the heat climbing.
When she was clicked in, she looked up at David. He glanced her way, lifted his hand from the display and gave her a thumbs-up.
Claire took a breath. It was heartbreaking to think that he wouldn’t get a full life. She tried not to blame herself, but she could see so many levels where she’d gone wrong. From fifteen years back, to fifteen minutes. If she hadn’t gone into space, he might have done something safe like accountancy or sports casting.
Maybe, though, it was just in the blood.
Sitting, watching her boy pilot the melded remains of their two ex-atmo ships down towards the ocean, she couldn’t help but feel admiration. Maybe she had done all right after all. Here he was confident and assured, doing something nearly impossible.
After a while, the ride smoothed out. There was still some shuddering, but she got the sense they were through the worst of it.
Well, except for the landing.
David held his hand up, fingers splayed. Did he mean five? Five minutes?
Her radio crackled again.
“Mandy?” she said.
Mandy swore. “Seriously? You’re alive?”
“For the moment. I think we’re going to impact in a few minutes.”
“I’m still tracking you. You look like a meteor. It’s on the T.V.”
“Three minutes twenty left in the air. You’re still going pretty fast. That was some amazing piloting, Claire. You swung left and right, burning off speed and altitude as if you were designed to land.”
Claire smiled. “That wasn’t me.”
David showed her four fingers.
“I don’t know what you’re going to do now,” Mandy said. “You’re going way too fast and way too steep.”
“I think I know,” Claire said. She kept watching. David gave her three fingers.
She was still angry with him, but proud too. If he pulled this off and landed them, she was going to give him the talking to of his teenage life. Then she was going to treat him to the biggest and best meal at the place of his choosing. That would probably be Carl’s Jr., but she could tolerate that.
She made sure her straps were tight, and wedged her feet in.
Smart kid. She hoped it worked. There was a lot to get through yet.
He waved his hand quick, as if silencing someone. Back on the display, he tapped. His other hand yanked the yoke back.
They were either going to explode or gain altitude.
The blast kicked her back into her seat. The ship shook and shuddered. Her helmet knocked back against the bulkhead.
Suddenly she jerked forward. Her forehead hit her visor. Something white flashed across the windows.
She had a moment of weightlessness again.
They’d bounced on the ocean.
She imagined the practically molten remains of Demeter shattering into millions of pieces as they struck the chilled water.
Another bounce. More water over the windows.
“Goodbye Claire,” Mandy whispered.
“Still alive,” she whispered back.
Another bounce, then another, and suddenly they were flipping. The cockpit whirled around her.
Another second of weightlessness and they plunged straight down, nose first. The ship’s prow pointed at the bottom.
Dazed and dizzy, she could see bubbles streaking past the windows. The descent slowed and they rose slowly. In a moment they were at the surface with water lapping against the windows. She could feel the bobbing motion.
David hung from his harness.
Claire punched her release and climbed down to him. She grabbed his hand. It was limp.
They had to get out of here. She had no idea how long they would stay afloat.
He fell when she unbuckled him. Getting her shoulder around under his torso, she hauled him around. Glad for the cramped cockpit, she pulled him to the airlock door. It opened easily.
Hoping that the outer door wasn’t fused into a solid mass, she punched the release. The door shivered and she felt the pressure of a surge of air rushing in. The door swung away.
Blue sky, some high streaky clouds.
A wave washed water over the airlock’s lip. Claire pushed David up and out. He rolled into the water and floated.
Good. It would be a fine time to find out that their suits didn’t float. She guessed that the pinprick holes in hers wouldn’t matter.
Another waved dumped more water over her.
Climbing out, she floated out next to David. A wave tried to push them back in. She got her boot on the lip and kicked away. The ship had settled further and water rushed constantly through the gap.
Demeter’s cabin and engine nacelle rose up beside her. They were blackened and melted, like the streaked and runny remains of a cheap candle. She dipped her helmet into the water and looked down. She could only see a few meters down, but it looked like almost the whole of the ship had burned away. She could see some parts of David’s ship through gaps.
Pulling back up, she looked at David, peering into his visor. He blinked and grinned back at her. He gave her a thumbs-up sign. She wanted to take her helmet off and talk, but it was better to stay suited until they were rescued. She grinned back and put her thumb up too.
He seemed to mouth I love you, Mom.
“Love you too,” she said.
“Claire?” Mandy said.
“Oh, you’re still in range, huh?”
“Yes. Just. How come you’re alive?”
“Well, it turns out my son is a very good pilot after all.”
“Cool. I’ve got a fix on your location. There’s a navy ship about eighty klicks away. They’re sending a VTOL. I guess they can pick you up.”
“Okay,” Claire said. She rolled forward in the water and put her arms around David.
He rolled too, hugging her back.
She Leaves Things Behind
By Sarena Ulibarri
The smell didn’t come from Kim’s dirty carpets, or from the stacks of moldy magazines, or even from the ashtrays full of Salem butts scattered around the house. Those were smells of neglect. This was a fouler, more active smell, and I realized when Kim’s aunt Eleanor pushed past me with an armful of clean clothes that it came from her. I could almost feel the particles of rotten air getting lodged in my nasal passages, scraping the back of my throat. I could taste it.
On the kitchen floor, Kim used a butter knife to scrape caked food from between the tiles. I poured some extra Pine-Sol on her coffee table to try to mask the smell. It was something like burned hair, something like crushed insects.
Kim looked up at me as she dumped the crumbs into the trash. Her hair was slipping out of her ponytail. Without her makeup, the lines around her eyes betrayed that she wasn’t much younger than me.
“Thanks for helping me clean, Leah,” she said. “I already feel better.”
“We’ve still got a long way to go,” I told her.
Even with the three of us, it would take at least the whole day to even put a dent in Kim’s perpetual mess.
“I know,” she said, “But I’m ready for a change. I’m not going to slide back this time.”
I finished wiping the coffee table and picked up a stack of mail from the floor. One of the postmark dates was three years old.
Eleanor emerged from the bedroom, the smell with her.
“Where you keep your socks?” she asked.
Kim looked confused, as though the question had never occurred to her before.
“Just find an empty drawer,” Kim said.
Wherever Eleanor was, I tried to be in the opposite part of the house. By the end of the day I found myself shut in the bathroom, scraping dried toothpaste from the sink.
Seeing Kim out in the small town bars you wouldn’t guess her house looked like this. She always had a new sequin shirt or dress with flowing sleeves from the downtown tourist shops, and she usually smelled of cigarettes and dollar store perfume. I met Kim at Karaoke six months ago. She sang sad country songs with a voice that put everyone else in the karaoke queue to shame. She was the only real friend I’d made since I moved to the mountains. My mom had just died. The move was a desperate attempt to not have to take care of anyone for awhile.
Kim knocked on the bathroom door.
“Aunt Eleanor’s leaving.”
I frowned at the streaked mirror. Did she expect me to come out and give the old woman a hug goodbye? I gulped a breath of relatively fresh air, then opened the bathroom door and took one step out. I glimpsed her at the front door.
“Nice to meet you, Eleanor,” I said.
She lifted a hand but didn’t turn to me. I stepped back into the bathroom and discovered something sticky on my shoe. My sole was covered in purple goo. I sat on the edge of the bathtub. It wasn’t gum. Jelly, maybe? I sniffed it and recoiled when I found it had the same smell as Eleanor. I ran the shoe under the tub faucet, scrubbed it with shampoo. I wedged it in the towel rack to dry.
In the corner by the bathroom door, I noticed a small purple ball, the same color as what had smeared on my shoe. I picked it up with a square of toilet paper. It reminded me of a fish egg, but the size of a marble. I took it out to Kim.
“Do you know what this is?”
She pulled her head out from under the bed, dust bunnies stuck to her hair.
“Some kind of mold?” she said.
That, it certainly was not. Whatever it was, I took it back to the bathroom and flushed it.
The first time I had seen Eleanor was during my first week in the mountains. There were no Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s up here, so I found the tiny health food store, which doubled as a metaphysical gift shop. Crystals and dream catchers hung over the cashier’s station; statues of Krishna sat in between boxes of quinoa and gluten-free crackers.
I passed Eleanor in the dairy substitutes aisle. She was shorter than me and had a manly sort of face. I smiled politely, but she didn’t smile back. Instead, her face seemed to darken. Not in metaphorical way. Her skin faded to a grayish brown. Her teeth and eyes warped as if some demon were bending them from behind a mask. I stopped in the aisle and let her pass. I rubbed my eyes and decided the Cashew Chicken I’d had for lunch must have had MSG in it.
She’d left the store by the time I took my basket up to the cashier. He was white-haired and apron-clad, and he’d lit a bundle of sage incense and was sweeping it around the store.
He thumbed toward the door Eleanor had just exited.
“She sometimes leaves things behind.”
He swept the smudge stick over the cash register. I picked one from the impulse display and added it to my basket.
“Good idea,” he said.
I bought it because the smell reminded me of my mom. We’d moved a lot when I was a kid, and in each new house she’d burn sage and sweep it through the rooms the same way the cashier did to his store. She insisted on doing this before any boxes or furniture came in. She might have told me why. If so, I forgot a long time ago.
After I left Kim’s house, I pulled the sage out of the kitchen drawer where it had been for six months. When I bought it, I’d thought I might sweep it around my house like my mother, even though the furniture had been moved in, the boxes all unpacked. But I never did it. Now I could use it as an excuse to get rid of the smell of Eleanor, which had lingered with me on the drive home. I couldn’t find a lighter so I turned on the stove and used that flame to light the sage.
The smoke curled toward the ceiling, and I tried to think of my mom they way I remembered her when I was a kid, as a young woman in a yellow dress, with dark hair to her waist. But I saw her instead as the gray-haired lady in a stained t-shirt, the one I had to help to the bathroom.
I walked around my one-bedroom cabin, letting the smoke drift and hover in a gray line along my path. I took a shower, then did all my dishes and took out the trash. Maybe because I didn’t want to be like Kim. Maybe because Mom had always yelled at me for little things like that.
Kim called me while I was cooking dinner.
“Leah,” she said. She sounded panicked. “Something scratched me.”
I stirred my spaghetti noodles.
“What are you talking about?”
“Scratches, I’ve got scratches all over my arms, and I don’t know where they came from.”
I assumed she’d had an allergic reaction to one of the cleaning products. There goes that new leaf, I thought.
“Jesus,” she said. Her voice was distant, like she had dropped the phone.
“Kim, are you still there?”
There were scuffling sounds and a string of curses. Then her voice, clearer.
“I think I might have stirred something up by cleaning today.”
“Like bugs or something?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Or something.”
“Do you need me to come over?” I asked, hoping she’d say no.
I turned the stove off and left my half-cooked pasta soaking in the pan.
Kim dabbed Neosporin on five red scratches, shallow, but several inches long.
“What did you do to yourself?”
“I’m telling you, we stirred something up while we were cleaning.”
“Like what, a raccoon?”
“No, like— this is an old house, you know?”
Kim finished tending her wounds. She left the cap off the tube on the kitchen table. I picked it up and screwed it back on, then took it into the bathroom.
“So you think you’re getting attacked by ghosts, is that it?”
I closed the bathroom cabinet.
I ran back to the kitchen. She swatted at her own torso, looking like a dog chasing its own tail.
“There’s something in my shirt, there’s something—”
She pulled the shirt over her head and threw it to the floor. She stood in her bra with her back to me.
I watched as a long red scratch appeared on her back. It stretched at a diagonal from just below her bra line to her right hip. Her hands flew to it and she cried out in pain.
I had an extra shirt in the back seat of my car. Kim put it on and sat biting her nails. I drove down the mountain roads, heading for town. It was dusk. A pair of deer trotted across the road.
“We’ll go to the store and get some pest repellant and some mousetraps,” I said. “And some sage. And if whatever attacked you is still there, then, I don’t know. You can come stay at my place.”
Kim might have nodded, or it might just have been her ripping a cuticle with her teeth. I didn’t really have the room for her to stay, I think we both knew that, but I was already coming up with ways to make do.
So much for not taking care of anyone for awhile.
Really, I’d been taking care of Kim since I met her. I didn’t count the rides home from the bar, but I did count the lunches I’d bought and the money I’d lent, and the time I’d noticed a man slipping something into her drink. I counted the cleaning, which she’d asked me to help her with after she watched something on TV about hoarders and realized she was only a few steps away from that.
When my mom was younger she would have said friends shouldn’t keep track. That was back when she left extra bowls of food out for the stray cats, back when she sewed her own dresses and grew tomatoes in a window box. Near the end my mother would have said don’t let people take advantage of you. Keep an actual list if you have to.
“Aunt Eleanor might know what the scratches are from,” Kim said.
“How would she know?”
“They look the same as scratches she had a few years ago. I just remembered. I asked her about them back then, but she just covered them up.”
“Can you call her?”
“She doesn’t have a phone.”
She pointed at an intersection. The street sign was hidden by tree branches.
“This is where she lives. We should stop and ask her.”
It was Sunday and every retail store in town closed in half an hour; if we were going to get anything the stop at Eleanor’s needed to be fast. I almost drove straight through, but Kim said it again.
“Here, turn here.”
I turned. She guided me to a plain blue house.
“Let’s be quick, okay?” I said.
Kim slammed the passenger door and ran up the porch steps. I lagged a few paces behind. Kim knocked.
A minute passed. She knocked again.
I was on the verge of saying we should go when the door creaked open. The smell poured down the steps. Eleanor peered out.
On her shoulder sat a creature like a deformed bat. Leather wings folded across a naked rat-like body. Black talons gripped Eleanor’s shoulder. Its head moved in the same motions hers did. A steady pan when she first opened the door, slow nods when Kim began to speak. What I thought at first was the creature’s tail was actually stuck into the skin at the back of her neck.
“Kim, what is that thing?” I asked.
She looked at the sky and to the sides of the porch.
“What’s what thing?” she said.
“Kim, let’s go.”
I pulled at the back of her borrowed shirt. She protested. I nearly made her fall down the stairs so I let go and backed away. Kim apologized to Eleanor about me. The creature turned toward me, its eyes like sickly green marbles. Eleanor’s head turned too, her eyes still on Kim like her head was being pulled against her will. Then her face darkened the way it had in the health food store, a shadow that revealed all the decay in her skin. Kim saw the change too, I could tell by her sudden expletive.
Eleanor took a step forward. I turned and ran to the car. Kim followed. I pulled out of the driveway without checking for deer or traffic.
My car beeped, the passenger seatbelt light blinking. Kim sat with her knees up into her chest.
I tried to label the monster, but nothing quite fit. It made no sense that I could see the thing on Eleanor’s shoulder and Kim couldn’t. Because of the sage, maybe? Because of what I had stepped on in Kim’s bathroom?
This wasn’t the first time I had seen something others didn’t, though.
Once, when we were moving between cities, Mom and I stopped at a roadside historical point, some ruins of an old fort. We wandered through the barracks, pointing at men who slept on cots in full uniform. Inside the mess hall a thin chef in a stained apron stirred a pot and tipped his head to us. Out in the field the military band played their trumpets. When we came around to the gift shop, Mom bought a chunk of turquoise from their gemstone bin.
“Those are some great re-enactors you’ve got in there,” she said to the cashier. “Very believable.”
“What re-enactors?” the cashier said.
We assumed she was joking, and left laughing. But when we walked back outside, the clouds rolled away from the sun and we watched the trumpeters disappear in the sunlight.
Back in the car, Mom rolled the piece of turquoise around in her hand.
“You saw them?” she asked.
I nodded. I was scared.
“Just because someone else can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there,” she said.
I hadn’t thought of that memory in decades.
The drug store was closed, the pesticides and mousetraps locked behind the glass door. By the time we got to the health food store, the lights were already turned off, but the door was open. Kim stayed in the car with a cigarette. I didn’t have the heart to ask her not to smoke in my car.
The cashier didn’t seem to think emergency sage was a strange request.
“Does this stuff actually work?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said. “It drives out the darkness.”
“Let’s say I had something less abstract than ‘darkness.'”
“Ah,” he said. “Sometimes.”
Back at Kim’s, she didn’t want to get out of the car. She pointed at one of the scratches on her arm.
“We should just burn the place down,” she said.
“That’s not the answer,” I said. “And I had a house burn down once. I can tell you it’s not what you want.”
This wasn’t entirely true. My mom always kept a candle lit on a small wooden platform, and one time she’d left the window open and the curtains blew into the flame. We managed to put out the fire, but the smell of smoke and the shriek of the alarm had been enough to give me a glimpse of the loss we had almost suffered. I laid in bed that night making an inventory of what I would try to save (my favorite teddy bear, Mom’s guitar, a few books) and what I would leave to the fire (the TV, most of my clothes). She kept the candle lit, even after, but she moved it away from the window. Like the sage, the candle was something I took for granted and never asked her to explain.
I held up the sage to Kim. It seemed a weak defense, just an herb I could have picked from the side of the road, but I didn’t know what else to do.
“Do you believe this will work?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
“Neither do I. Let’s go.”
The smell had grown faint, but it was there, under the cigarette ash and Pine-Sol. I turned on every light in the small house. In her kitchen drawer I found nothing stronger than a flimsy steak knife with a splintery wooden handle, so I took that. She refused to let go of my arm. She held onto my sleeve the way I used to hang onto my mother’s long skirts when we were in a crowd. Kim had no shortage of lighters. I lit the sage, let it flame for a second and then blew it out. Smoke swirled into my eyes.
Kim clutched me while I inched across her kitchen. I tried to remember if there had been any ritual to the way my mom spread the sage smoke, any particular gesture or method. I felt like there should be some invocation to chant, but I knew none. We moved into the bedroom.
When we reached her dresser, a pain hit my ankle. I limped, nearly dropping the sage in confusion. My ankle bled, the sock torn in a clean slash.
I waved the smoke toward the dresser. It seemed such a desperate, stupid act that I had to stop myself from running out the door, leaving Kim, leaving the mountains. The state, maybe. I held my ground.
She let go of my shirt and ran for the bedroom door. I watched a black clawed hand reach out from under the bed. She fell. That time I did drop the sage. Kim scrambled through the hallway and I followed.
She was by the coffee table when the thing sprang on her. She stopped suddenly, on her hands and knees, paralyzed in the act of standing up. It retracted its wings, folding them across its furless body. It climbed toward her shoulder. This one was smaller than Eleanor’s. It probed the back of her neck with its tail.
I grabbed the stack of magazines from the coffee table and swatted the creature. It landed upside down, thin legs reaching and twisting. Kim moved again. Before it could flip itself over, I dropped the magazines. They landed on top of the creature, then started to slide apart. I pressed a knee onto a glossy cover and stabbed underneath the magazines with the steak knife. The smell was overwhelming.
Kim crawled away and covered her face with her shirt. I went back for the sage. It had burned a small hole in the bedroom carpet.
Just as I picked it up, Kim screamed.
Two of them now, flapping around her head. She tripped over the coffee table. They seemed to be fighting over her. I rushed toward them with the knife in one hand and the sage in the other, but then stopped short, not sure what to do.
One of the creatures flapped into the line of sage smoke. Its wings slowed. It dropped to the floor and crawled, sluggishly. I pushed the knife into its side. The blade broke off. The creature screeched, but kept crawling.
The other one, now without competition, dug its claws into Kim’s shoulder. Again, she froze. I grabbed a lighter from the floor and lit the whole bundle of sage on fire. The creature’s tail had nearly found its hold on the back of her neck. I blew out the flame, urging the cloud of smoke toward the creature. It slumped off of her shoulder, bounced off the coffee table and landed on the floor.
Something scratched my leg. The other one. It crawled up my leg, claws ripping my jeans. The knife blade still stuck out of its side. I kicked in panic, but it climbed higher. I swiped the sage at it. The bundle was almost gone. Heat singed my fingertips. I swiped again and the creature dropped off. I kicked it toward the other one. They spasmed pathetically, crawling like poisoned wasps. I picked up one end of Kim’s coffee table and turned it over on top of them.
Kim and I stood there looking at each other, waiting for the next attack. I expected a swarm. Creatures crawling out of the faucets, bursting out of the couch cushions. But it didn’t come.
Kim knelt down and peeled the sticky mess of magazines apart.
“Gross,” she said.
She scooped the dead creatures into a trash bag and carried them outside. I took the last bit of sage and walked around, blowing the smoke into all the dark corners of Kim’s house. I found several more of those purple eggs like the one I’d stepped on. They disappeared when the sage smoke touched them.
Kim stayed at my place that night. She slept on my loveseat, her feet hanging off the end, a thin blanket all I could offer.
I stared at the ceiling and thought about my mom. How graceful she used to be, when she’d dance in the kitchen and sing folk songs I never heard anyone else sing. How many things she had known but hadn’t taught me.
I felt a tingling on my shoulder and slapped violently at it, finding nothing but raised hair.