Fiction

The Spirit Cave

We sit vigil by the fresh grave, waiting for my brother’s ghost for three nights and three days. The days are warm, but still short, and the nights are cold and long. Spots of snow still cling where the shade protects them.

When my brother finally appears, his eyes are empty, and he doesn’t respond to our voices.

“His spirit will heal,” my mother says. “It will just take time.”

Jehim, my intended, squeezes my hand. The rest of my family, living and dead, nod and mutter agreement. My brother has all the time in the world, now that he is a ghost.

My scrapes and bruises from the fight have healed, but the sick, angry feeling in my stomach has only grown with the passing days. I want vengeance. I want to crush the men who killed my brother. I want to hurt them so badly that it takes their ghosts centuries to recover.

“I am going to go to the spirit cave tomorrow,” I announce. Something that I can’t recognize flickers across my brother’s face. I storm away before anyone can object, and I feign sleep when my mother follows me home.


I rise at dawn, hoping to leave quickly and avoid talking about my decision. But my mother is already hovering over the breakfast fire, her hands fluttering like trapped birds. My father’s ghost stands behind her, his arms crossed over his chest. She hands me a bun filled with spiced rabbit, and says, “We love you. Please don’t do this, Narhana.”

I kiss her on the cheek, and I eat the bun as I take the path into the mountains.

The day is fine and clear, the air soft and filled with gentle sounds–birdsong, the breeze through the grass, the slow burble of the river. The rest of our family ghosts line the path that leads to the road. I ignore their frowns, but I walk quickly, not enjoying the intensity of their gaze.

I turn west when I reach the road, and I follow my shadow up into the mountains.

The sun is almost directly overhead when I reach the sacred spring. A ghost, one so old that her edges blur, regards me from the edge of the spring. “What brings you here, child?” she asks, her voice as gentle as the breeze through fresh spring leaves.

“I seek the spirit cave.” My voice is steady as I give the ritual response.

The ghost nods once and steps aside. “Once you are purified, you may walk the path to the cave of spirits. You must leave all of your possessions, though you are permitted to carry a stone to weight your steps.”

I strip and fold my clothing into a careful pile, then I heft a large, rounded stone to keep from floating across the pool. It takes both hands to hold it.

The steps that lead down to the water are cold and smooth beneath my bare feet. The water is glacier-cold, but I refuse to hesitate as I walk forward, one step at a time.

I almost cry out when the water hits my belly. My toes ache, and I can hardly feel the step beneath them. The water reaches my shoulders, then my chin. I take a deep breath and keep my eyes open as I continue forward.

The water stings, and the world swims around me. The cold seeps through my skin, settles into my bones, and I ache with it.

I’m grateful for the stone’s weight as I step down to the bottom, then start to climb up the steps on the other side.

My head breaks the surface, and I take a sobbing breath.

My grandmother’s ghost sits on a rock beside the spring. I am not surprised to see her. It’s only sensible that she is my family’s chosen representative. Their last hope of talking me out of my decision.

I reach the top of the steps, and drop my stone from shaking hands. I shudder from the cold and think longingly of the spring sunshine. But I stop before my grandmother, arms pulled tight to my body, naked and shivering.

“I understand why you want this,” my grandmother says. “But I also understand the cost.” Unshed tears glimmer in her eyes, and guilt twists in my belly. “Have you truly thought about what you will lose?”

“I choose to focus on what I’ll gain,” I say, tucking my freezing hands into my arm pits.

She nods. “You will have power. You will be able to avenge your brother.” Her hands tense into fists, then relax. “You would be able to protect our family.”

“If you understand, then why are you here to stop me?”

“Because I don’t think you’ve considered the costs.”

I shrug. “My spirit will be consumed, and when I die, I will vanish instead of becoming a ghost.” Ghosts are trapped to watch the world change around them, while they are frozen forever. I do not long to become one.

“But think of your life before then. Do you think Jehim will still want to marry you if you are sprit bound? Will he want to have children with you, knowing that you won’t be able to watch your grandchildren together after death? Knowing that eventually, you will vanish forever and he’ll be left alone?”

Jehim is a constant in my life. Like my parents. Or my brother. Our future has always seem set, immutable.

To lose him, too. It is unthinkable.

My grandmother sees my hesitation. “Your brother will recover. He isn’t gone.”

But his future is. There will be no wife for him. No children. Maybe Jehim will leave me. Maybe he won’t. I can’t control his actions. But I can control my own.

“My decision stands.”

My grandmother inclines her head. “Very well.” Her fingertips, feather light and ice cold, brush against my cheek. “Then you will need the key.”

“What key?”

“It is hidden in the pool.”

I am still cold, still shivering. My body still aches. I look back, at the water’s still surface. I don’t see a key. Still, I wade back in, one slow step at a time.

I pause on the third step. I can’t feel my feet at all, and I’ve stopped shivering.

The first ghost said nothing about a key.

Because there is no key. Only death in this pool, and then an eternity as a ghost. With enough time to forgive my grandmother for her lie.

I turn back toward the spirit cave and storm past my grandmother, too angry to look at her. She calls out to me, but I will no longer listen to her words.

The path is steep and rocky and my numb feet are clumsy. I stumble, right myself, stumble again. Blood drips from my elbow, my palm, my knees.

But I keep climbing, focusing on each step as it comes. Warmth gradually spreads through my muscles, but nothing touches the cold anger in my heart.

I am inside the spirit cave before I even notice it. The rocky ground gives way to sand, and I sag to the floor.

A tiger, his stripes night-dark against fur the color of moonlight, walks out of the shadows. His tail lashes back and forth as he approaches.

I am too tired to speak. I simply crawl forward and rest my forehead against his. His fur is warm, and when he flops onto his side, I curl up against him.

He has consumed a thousand thousand spirits, stripping out what they were in life and adding their strength to his own.

I offer him mine, and he takes it. Our spirits combine as his warmth seeps into my chilled body.

His strength is mine now, till my body fails. Till I die and become one more bit of power at his disposal.

He licks my wounds, his tongue dry and raspy and painful, but my wounds heal. I am no longer cold.

I do not know how long I stay curled against him, but eventually I roll to my feet.

I fashion myself clothing, weaving shadows and rocks into a dress that matches the color of his stripes.

I press my forehead to his again, then on impulse kiss his wet nose.

Even with my new power, I can’t destroy my grandmother’s ghost. But I could do her harm that would take lifetimes to recover. I can rip the men who killed my brother into a million tiny pieces with a thought. Instead, I continue up the mountain, past the spirit cave, to the icy peak. The cold can no longer touch me, and I sit and stare at the stars till the sun rises.

It is the first day of my new life.

My grandmother’s ghost appears beside me. “I didn’t want to lose you. Now, when you die, you’ll be gone.”

“No,” I say. “Now, when I die, I’ll become part of something greater than myself. And I think that is better.”

Soon, I will decide what to do to the men who killed my brother. But for now, I take my grandmother’s hand, because I can. And I forgive her, because I can do that, too. “Come on, let’s go home.”

Guinea Pig

The day my brother died I told him guinea pigs once grew ten feet tall.

“They weighed two thousand pounds,” I said, “and had tusks like elephants, which they used to defend themselves.”

He was looking out the window. I wasn’t sure if he heard me. The IVs in his arms weren’t working. On the table beside the bed was a picture of us with our old guinea pig Thoreau, whom we had stolen from the Institute where my brother was now housed.

This was about the time the coughing began, back when we thought his difficulty breathing was something he’d grow out of. We lived on the edge of the Institute and above us rose the bone-white buildings. For sixty years the Institute had been a home for tuberculosis patients. Scientists grew guinea pigs like Thoreau to inject them with serums and anti-toxins in the hope they might find a cure for the disease. When they finally succeeded and the buildings began to empty of tuberculosis patients, Mr. Wilkins, the last custodian, took care of the guinea pigs. When he died, we knew they’d be all alone.

The morning we went to save them, my brother had to stop often to hit his inhaler. We rested in the shade of the buildings among the old-growth pines. Pine trees were once thought to be an expedient for the cure of TB, and many of them had stood for hundreds of years. The Institute, despite the disease it holds within it, has always been beautiful. Our mother worked there for ten years, since just after my brother was born, but now she sits at home watching soap operas all day where people are suddenly struck down by terrible diseases.

At the top of the hill my brother said his lungs were burning, but he made it to the bunker where the guinea pigs were held. We had a key we’d stolen from our mother, and when we went in we saw them there in cages. There weren’t many left. We opened the cages and carried the guinea pigs—so small and warm in our hands, their hearts beating madly beneath their frail chests—outside, where we let them go.

The last one my brother kept. He named it Thoreau because they shared the same first name, or so I thought at the time. But maybe my brother already knew what was inside him—Henry David did die of TB, after all. We took Thoreau home, stopping often for my brother to hit the inhaler or rest beneath the big trees, me holding Thoreau and wondering what had been done to him in the secret rooms of the Institute where the scientists had, supposedly, saved the world.

We had him for less than a year. My brother would not cage him, and so Thoreau sometimes chewed through the baseboards and got beneath the house. Or he’d dart outside when our mother went on the front porch for a cigarette, and I’d have to catch him because my brother could not pass through the smoke.

The last time Thoreau got away my brother coughed so hard he began to shake. When he took the kerchief away from his mouth, we saw the fine spray of blood. Above us, the bone-white buildings stood like sentinels.

We always thought it was asthma, that he would eventually grow out of it. Turns out he was one of the first to get the new strain. Turns out tuberculosis can linger in small bodies and old buildings much longer than the scientists thought. We didn’t know then that the old diseases could come back. Or maybe my brother did, because he wanted desperately to find Thoreau. We looked under the house and all through the neighborhood and finally across the highway where the dark woods closed in. I could see my brother stopping often to draw in deep breaths and I thought he was dying, but I couldn’t get him to rest.

“We have to find him,” my brother said, voice almost unrecognizable, the handkerchief turned dark red now. In a month he’d be unable to get out of bed. Six months after that the Institute would re-open its doors, and he’d be the first patient admitted. The World Health Organization would send out its warnings, but it was already too late. The guinea pigs would be brought back. More tests run to try to stop the new strain that had sprung up all over the world. Some of the guinea pigs would escape the sterile halls where they were poked and prodded with needles, and before my brother died we could look out the window and see them all over the grounds of the Institute.

“That one looks like Thoreau,” he said once, not long before the end, which reminded me of the day I thought he was dying. His indrawn breaths sounded like sirens, or the first coming of some great cataclysm.

We never caught Thoreau. I saw him the day before my brother died, as I was walking back down to the house across the grounds of the Institute after visiting hours. He had grown as large as a house cat, but he ran when I got near. The next day my brother said Thoreau probably didn’t want to be caged anymore, which was why he ran.

“Did guinea pigs really weigh that much?” he asked. He would die in the night, alone. He looked so small in his bed. He had lost close to 50 pounds. The thin skin of his arms was bruised from all the drawn blood. We could see our house down the hill, and I knew he was imagining a world where Thoreau was as big as a mountain. Too big to be poked and prodded by men wearing sterile masks. Too strong to be brought down by any strain.

Always on My Mind

If you cut the main artery from some living organism and laid it out across an arid wasteland then, Sabbi supposed, you would have something much like the Strip. True, the Strip was inorganic, a man-made thing cast in concrete, steel and glass, but still it lived. There were places where you could stand and see the Strip stretching away like a ribbon of light across the night-time desert, unspooling for mile after mile, blurring into one featureless splash of neon advertising hoardings.

And sooner or later, it would bleed out and die.

But Sabbi had become expert at letting tomorrow take care of itself. Save your worries for the here and now: there were plenty of reasons to.

The crowds of shoppers ebbed and flowed–and that was good. They provided her with anonymity: a hundred thousand or more, thronging the broadwalks of the Strip on a hot summer afternoon, closeted by endless store-fronts and restaurants and coffee-houses–imprisoning them within the Strip’s rapacious jaws.

From behind the gleam of her sunglasses, Sabbi scanned faces, trying to avoid flat-foots mingling with the shoppers. Most of the cops wore the Strip-sponsored uniform–visibility a key part of their deterrent–but they came in a plain-clothes variety too. They knew all about the petty thieves, the grifters like Sabbi who worked the lower echelons of the Strip’s ecosystem. Flat-foots carried the authority of no lesser person than the Chairman herself to arrest-and-deport on sight. They also carried tasers delivering kick-ass voltage–not intended to be lethal but not something Sabbi was inclined to put to the test. Worst of all, they carried attitude.

And now the stolen bracelet was burning a hole in her pocket. Every fiber of Sabbi’s body could sense its bulk as she moved, its cool sleekness pressing against her thigh. You could find plenty on sale down the Strip worth ten times its price. But this one was special. This was a commission, lifted to order. These days, Sabbi only worked to commission. The payouts were lower but the work was steady, so it balanced out in the long run. And it helped make her feel more… legitimate. The way a professional business-woman ought to act. Yeah, go me with my worthless career aspirations.

Something didn’t feel right, though. A vague uneasiness gnawed at her. Nothing she could pinpoint, but you didn’t survive on the Strip without learning to trust your instincts. And right now those instincts were telling her this wasn’t worth the risk.

So just do it–and do it quick.

There was no shortage of marks to choose from. There was never any shortage on the Strip. That was the whole point.

She drifted closer to a young woman browsing store-fronts arm-in-arm with her boyfriend. Strip-standard attire said everything there was to say about her: wealth, privilege, arrogance. Perfect. Sabbi stumbled lightly into the woman, mumbled an apology, and the bracelet slipped into the woman’s shoulder-bag in one smooth motion.

Sabbi would drift for a while to get her composure back, but stay close. If all seemed okay, she’d find an opportunity to ‘reacquire’ the bracelet. No sense in wasting a commission payout. Nobody would be any the wiser. And no harm done, except maybe a tiny dent in profits for one particular Strip merchandiser, and frankly she considered them good for it.

Sabbi noticed a man watching her from thirty feet away, the way you do when one pair of eyes seems to be locked on you in a sea of oblivious faces. She felt her heart jump. She lifted her head, looking straight at him, letting him get a good look at her shades.

With the sunglasses on, Sabbi looked as if she had bug-eyes. The lenses had a clever faceted-prism design: transparent for the wearer, but appearing to everyone else like the compound eye of some nightmarish bipedal insect. And while the casual observer was trying to make sense of it–a hundred tiny reflections of their bemused face staring back from those lenses–Sabbi was checking them out, working out what kind of mark they might be, or what threat they posed. Or maybe sussing out an escape route. Definitely one of those, and sometimes all three at once.

She loved those shades. Sure, people noticed them, but they were meant to. And because they only ever noticed the shades, not the person wearing them, when she took them off it was like throwing an invisibility switch.

She side-stepped away into the thickest part of the crowd, slipping the glasses off, changing direction at random. Glancing back a couple of times, she caught only the briefest glimpse of the man. His movements seemed to lack urgency, but he was shadowing her moves and that couldn’t be chance. Sabbi quickened her pace, beginning to shoulder her way through strolling couples who didn’t move out of her way in time.

And now Sabbi could feel a buzzing at the base of her skull, a kernel of pain threatening to blossom into a headache. She ignored it and pressed on, puzzled at the surge of people suddenly moving in the opposite direction. A moment later, she heard it. Or felt it. Or–

Perfumes for the ladies! Maxine à la Mode! When it’s too hot to wear anything else! All kinds of perfumes!

The words slammed into her frontal cortex, assaulting her with almost physical force. No sounds though, just fully-formed words straight into her brain. Around her, people were dipping their heads and turning away, like a shoal of fish cleaved in two by a predator. Some were rubbing their foreheads, others muttering curses.

Maxine à la Mode! When it’s too hot–

Unwelcome thoughts and images exploded in her brain, thundering around inside her skull until she was sure she could feel her eyeballs vibrating.

She saw the hawker twenty yards ahead, his hand-cart piled high with bright packages of cosmetics. Sabbi knew most of the street traders in this zone, but here was a new face–frozen into a rictus smile that was fooling no one. In front of his stall, tethered to it by a thick ankle chain, the Thal paraded miserably up and down, issuing forth the mental torrent of advertising slogans.


Maxine à la Mode! When it’s too hot to wear anything else!

Maxine à la Mode!

Too hot–

Too hot–

Sabbi had never seen an actual live Thal, and certainly never got this close to one. As far as she knew, the few that had survived into adulthood had all been taken to isolation centers once the geneticists had finished dicking around playing god and the federal legislators had closed down the labs. This one had a stocky build, classically prominent brow-ridge with receding hairline and thick black hair allowed to grow long, but otherwise normal-looking. Not all Thals were strong broadcasters, but most showed the symptoms: predisposal to unilateral telepathic projection, an ability–if that was the right word–that laid bare their soul to everyone around. She tried to imagine what it would be like to uncontrollably broadcast your innermost thoughts to anyone within range, to forego even the most basic level of privacy.

And now this? Using a Thal as some kind of all-pervasive advertising gimmick? That had to be a new low. Though never underestimate the Strip’s ingenuity if there was a quick buck to be made. Sabbi shuddered, but she was damned if she couldn’t nearly smell that perfume now.

The Thal was tiring. His thoughts were losing focus, breaking up into an incoherent babble that mostly radiated hurt and loneliness and longing. The hawker yelled something incoherent at him but the wash of emotions only fragmented further.

The Thal continued to parade up and down, his head endlessly questing from side to side in that curious manner of the slow-witted, as though searching for something long since lost. He looked forlorn.

Sabbi let herself be carried with the flow of the crowd away from the hawker, the Thal’s thoughts beginning to fade from her mind. She’d lost sight of her pursuer, and that made her nervous. And she’d almost certainly lost her commission.

Something hard and claw-like gripped her arm, tightening inexorably. From behind, a voice spoke into her ear, foul-smelling breath assaulting her nostrils. “Prosser wants a word, my little lady-bug. Wants to know when he gets paid.”

“Ow! Let go of me! You’re going to cut my frackin’ arm in half!”

“Prosser’s not happy.” The grip tightened. Sabbi half expected to see blood staining her sleeve.

“I told you before, Crab. When I’ve got it, Prosser gets it.” Her fingers skittered uselessly over the pincer-like artificial hand squeezing her upper arm, trying to pry it loose. A tingling numbness was beginning to spread from the loss of circulation. Rumor had it that Crab had once snapped a man’s head clean off at the neck, like dead-heading a flower. Some poor unfortunate who had seriously pissed off Prosser. Just like her.

With no lessening of pressure, Crab began to maneuver her towards one of the narrow service alleys leading away from the Strip. The people flowed around them in an ill-temper, unsettled by the Thal’s blunt advertising message. Even now, something akin to the Thal’s carrier wave reached out to anyone within a hundred yard radius, broadcasting its jumble of resentment and misery; a cacophony of sub-vocal thoughts. It was like having some whiney two-year old living inside your skull. She glanced back and saw the hawker slip some kind of gauze hood over the Thal’s head–and immediately a calm descended.

“Look,” she told Crab. “Maybe there’s another way.”

“Oh yes, lady-bug. I like the other way.” The grip tightened a fraction and Sabbi yelped.

“Listen! What if I could set Prosser up with a shot at the Lakenbys store?”

Crab seemed to think about this. The pressure eased a fraction. She could almost hear the gears turning in his brain. “Lakenbys is not possible.”

Well, yes. They all thought that. The smart grifters stayed well clear. Lakenbys took security to a whole new level on the Strip: i-cams everywhere, beam interferometry on the display cases, item tagging–you name it, and Lakenbys had almost certainly implemented it. And there were too many staff with suspicious eyes. Management policy was ruthless prosecution of all grifters to the maximum permitted in law. But even Lakenbys had a weakness. Customers. You had to entice customers into the store–so long as they came with big fat credit chips. Draw them in, sell the goods, complete the transaction, send them on their way. In and out. And that meant being open and inviting. A pro like Sabbi sneered at the unsubtle nature of snatch-and-run, but really it was no different to the usual mode of business–except for the bit about the credit transaction. You had to be audacious and quick, and the staff had to be slow or off-guard. But it could be made to work.

“No, not possible. Not Lakenbys,” Crab repeated.

“Yes, possible. With the right kind of distraction. And I know just the thing.”

The Memetic Vaccine

I sold Larry Robfort enough Narcoplex to tranquilize a walrus but I could tell there was something else he wanted. It was quarter to seven in the morning and the two of us were crammed into the bathroom at the Pickled Puffin, that extra-jurisdictional outpost of depravity and cheap booze that sat on the lunar surface fifty metres above Avalon Station.

“Listen, Jayna,” he said. “I gotta ask you something.” He started to undo his pants. “As my doctor.”

“Christ, Robfort,” I said. “Make an appointment.”

But he was already committed. He dropped his drawers and closed his eyes. “Does my bird look alright?”

“This how you treat all the girls?”

“Please, Doc.”

The desperation in his voice got the better of me and I knelt down for a closer look. What hung between his legs looked normal and I was about to tell him so when an alarm sounded in my ear.

“Do your pants up,” I said. Robfort flinched. “Belinda’s calling. Don’t forget my fee.”

He tapped at a keyboard only he could see and a second later I got a little richer. The shiver of victory at carving off a few more hours of my indentured Lunar servitude didn’t last long before Belinda appeared in the tiny bathroom between us. One hundred and ninety centimetres of woven-steel Quebecois female, Belinda wore her shoulder-to-ankle fitted grey dress the way a hunter carries a freshly slaughtered deer. The smoke that spiralled from the tip of her long cigarillo floated in way smoke doesn’t on the moon. Judging by the way Robfort was standing at attention, Belinda had chosen to project herself into his AR lenses too.

“Thirteen miners have called in sick this morning,” she said. “I hope Mr. Robfort isn’t one of them.”

“He was complaining of an upset stomach,” I said. “Figured I’d check him out over a pub breakfast.”

Robfort looked over at me as we waited the four seconds for our message to reach Belinda and the four seconds it would take her response to reach us.

“Have I not made it clear that what you do with your free time is of no interest to me, Dr. Patel? We’re paying thirteen miners double time to fill in for those who called in sick. Chung Fat does not like to see its profits wasted away on petty illness. See that these men are back at work tomorrow.”

She touched something on a desk we couldn’t see and disappeared. For some reason, the AR decided to let the illusory cigarillo smoke linger.

The Labyrinth Disme

There’s a ghost in my bed. She’s crying. She is the first, and it has been three days since my Burning—a ritual of my people that resulted in an ashen wound down my back. It healed into the literal shape of a ship on a sea of smoke.

When Nylin saw the ship, she said she always knew I’d be a Ferrier. Nylin’s always right, of course, like most Watchers.

“Don’t take me,” pleads the ghost. “I can’t leave them. My family.”

“I have to,” I say.

The ghost stifles her tears and rubs at her cloudy face. “What’s your name?”

I tell her my name is Gavin, but it feels like a lie. I chose the name for myself two years ago and haven’t used it since. It feels foreign to my ears, in my own voice, but the ghost doesn’t seem to notice. The Disme people don’t need names before they turn eleven.

Her name is Sen. It feels soft, like the feathered edges of her soul.

Sen is maybe nine or ten. I don’t ask because I’ll know soon.

I pluck my dime off the stack of striped, folded tarp beside my bed. Nylin had given it to me, as well as the clothes on my back, the thin mattress beneath me, the lamp that burns only one simple shade of pulsing dim, like a heartbeat.

The dime fits perfectly in my palm, despite not being a perfect circle. It is more akin to a broken ten-piece than uniform currency. The cold metal weighs heavy in my palm and I try not to tremble with it.

I hold my palm flat between Sen and me, then I call my Disme Mark forth, the way Nylin taught me.

The burn comes off my naked back in a wave of chills, as if a cold finger is running a nail down my spine. I roll my shoulders, tense, and my spine pops. The sound echoes around my tent like canon fire. My Disme Mark coils and folds over my head in swirls of black smoke, like a hood being drawn.

It crawls down my face and creeps across my arm. The Mark plateaus on the dime displayed in my palm. It is an empty, silent ship, made of smoke and charred flesh. It is as real as I am.

My ship curls itself around Sen’s wispy, white frame, collecting her. With its first passenger, the Disme ship returns to me, pasting itself onto my back where it had been burned into me not three days before, on my thirteenth birthday.

Sen is no longer in my bed, but she isn’t gone. She is on my ship and for a time, I am ten.

Sourdough

“This is disgusting.”

“You’re just being difficult.” He always accuses me of being difficult.

“No, it’s disgusting.”

“Would you just go with it? This is supposed to help you.” He shifted his weight to his other foot, that way he does when he’s trying to look like he’s not pouting.

I sighed and rolled my eyes at him, even granted him a little smirk. Partly because he’s still cute – the salt-and-pepper at his temples is probably my fault – and partly because the hip-shift caused a weird little disturbance in the hologram being shot up by a hundred little projectors embedded in the floor. “Fine.” I could survive this. I was promised pizza afterward.

“Thank god.” He turned and started a little at the projection he had interrupted. There was part of a woman there, jaw agape in surprise. When he stepped back, the rest of the image was unimpeded, and her arm materialized in front of her. This exhibit was supposed to be solemn. I giggled anyways.

“This isn’t funny.” His pout gone, he now had on his stern eyes.

“I’m sorry.” I hoped it sounded genuine.

“This isn’t going to work unless you at least try to be serious.”

“I know, I know.”

He considered the hologram woman for a moment, now that he wasn’t standing inside her. She was lit up from the front, and her line of sight indicated something horrifying behind us. I knew what it was. I didn’t want to look yet.

“Michael Whitmore.” He read the tag that hovered next to the woman frozen in fright, her hand covering her face.

“Her name was ‘Michael?’” I tried the smirk again.

“Stop.” He sounded real serious this time.

“You like this sort of thing. You brought me here.”

“Because your therapist thought it would be a good idea.”

Pepperoni. “Right.”

He looked down at the glossy pamphlet he held tight in both hands, then back up at me. “It’s a safe way – ”

“It’s a safe way to relive a traumatic event, allowing me to process it with higher-order thinking skills, to help the healing process.” She’d been feeding me that shit for weeks now, ever since the financing came through.

“It could help.”

“This has nothing to do with – ”

“Stop. We both know why she recommended this.”

“Yeah, but you secretly love it. It’s like the Hiroshima museum.” I wasn’t going to go down without saying my piece.

“You’re deflecting.”

“Fine.” I leaned my head way back, stretching my neck. He could have this one. Besides, he did love museums. Who was I to deny him this?

“Michael Whitmore.” He faced the woman again. “She was a zookeeper, meeting the Thai ambassador to discuss breeding a captive Asian Golden Cat.”

“Boring.” I could taste the crust, flaky on the outside, steamy on the inside.

“She was a mother of two. Over there was where the shooting started. At least in this building. She was the first victim.” A red line on the floor indicated her eyeline, just in case visitors were too dense to figure out what she’d be looking at.

A man in a light brown t-shirt very obviously pointed a rifle in her direction. Only, the rifle wasn’t displayed in the hologram. So he just stood there like an ass with one hand twisted up by his nipple and the other cradling the air in front of him. Something about trigger warnings. Triggers. We could have opted into the tour that showed everything, but the therapist had other thoughts about that. Baby steps.

A blue square resolved a few meters beyond the woman, a crowd of people appearing with it, all responding to the same empty-handed assailant. There was a fat man with an unoccupied holster at his belt. He was frozen for all eternity trying to retrieve nothing out of it. Or until they needed the building for something else. Nothing lasts forever.

“Whitman,” he read the security guard’s badge. “He’s the only one named in the group. These were the – ”

“Whitmore and Whitman. No relation.” I tried to get him to crack a smile. “Whitmore and Whitman, attourneys at law? Nothing?”

“Babe.” He tilted his head to the side. Tired now. Another reaction for the bingo card.

“Okay,” I sighed, a little more dramatically than I intended, and he turned away.

I’d been through worse. And there was cheese and tomato at the end of this rainbow.

Cedar

Cedar means love, never forget that. I made the rockers from cedar.

Aunt Suzie died before the fire, and Uncle Henry’s heart with her. I was glad of the burning, since it hid what I had done.

Black walnut boughs blown down in the forest with stripped bark and green moss, they did well for the arms.

The stomach cancer ate her up, the docs cut her open and stitched in a steel mesh for half her belly but that didn’t stop anything. Uncle Henry wasn’t gonna tell her but how could she not know? She faded from busy farm wife to bedridden frailty in the course of months, unable to keep down but a little this and a little that. Henry went from farmer to nurse, or rather both at once, out of his mind with worry over his wife and panic about his herd of milch cows and neglected fields of corn, not yet waist-high and still needing care. He called me in to help, which must have made him crazy after years of disparaging my living, wildcrafting the woods, harvesting the roots and herbs and berries, living in my own cozy place deeper in the hollow. Their house stood on a hill and I climbed it to sit by Suzie as she died.

Her weathered old rocking chair sat idle in a corner and her bed was stacked with a pile of quilts twice as thick or more than her own body. She’d never been a beauty, plain and tall and proud and with ivory colored hair that hung to her knees. Illness didn’t lend a deathbed glow, just carved her away from her own bones. I saw her with love and she was beautiful for being familiar, my aunt who’d sat me on her lap when she rocked in that rocker and read me Bible stories and sung me choir songs. No more songs, not even words through those ragged lips. I touched her hand so she knew she wasn’t alone.

She passed along a note. She must have written it long before, the writing was steady and measured. A recipe for soup. And a little something extra.

I pressed it back to her.

She didn’t have the strength of illness so often mentioned in stories but she had the persistence of a successful farm wife, used to running a house and a farm and hired help and a husband. Four or five times later I bowed my head and accepted the chore. “Tomorrow,” I said.

She couldn’t reply. She couldn’t nod. But she opened her eyes at me and I swear I saw relief.

The seat was a stone, flecked granite from the hill, carved deep with blue and gray lichen.

I poured the soup, herbs, marrow, mushroom, into a fat blue coffee cup sitting unused in the kitchen. I held the mug to her lips and she sipped, slow and steady, the first meal in ages. The last. I closed her eyes with a penny each and settled her hair and clothes and quilts then sat and rocked. Henry would return from the fields soon enough, no reason to bother him now.

The back was a tangle of morning glory vines. In time they’d take over if they got ahold.

Henry knew what I’d done, of course he did, why else ask me there? He beat me and drug me from the house. He followed a few minutes later, leaving behind flickers of flame. We stood and watched the house light up and burn down, the shingles smelling rich of cedar. Henry stood thin in his cotton shirt and overalls and boots and said, “Nothing left.” I think he went to sleep in the barn.

I waited the flames out. Morning dew damped the embers though the ruin was still hot. Heat never bothered me none. I found her room, her bed, her body under the quilts, and I gathered her up. I’m neither big nor strong but I was sufficient to the task. Henry had prepared the plot and I set her down in it. And got to work on that rocker.

A body needs a place to rest and so does a soul. Suzie’s rocker was her headstone, now.

He raged his way across the field yelling how dare I and too soon and leave her be and when he saw the rocker he stopped cold. He raced up the knock it over and stopped cold again.

“What are those?”

“Dunno.” He meant the crystals lighting up like fireflies but I meant the new-sprung flowers and herbs I’d never met before.

There was no breeze and yet the rocker rocked. No breeze yet the wind of its passage riffled my hair and dried the cold sweat on the nape of my neck. The scent of her perfume grew large, overflowing the rocker, engulfing me. I believe it was her silent voice that said thank you.

The Spider and the Rose

I hadn’t liked Aultmar Artos much when I’d worked for him in the past, and studying his flickering image now reminded me why. Something about those deep-set, hooded eyes in that long, lugubrious face resembled a serpent; and what I knew of his cold, calculating personality did not help much. Rumor said the Chairman of the StellarCast combine rarely smiled and never, ever laughed. I was fully inclined to believe it.

However, our business together had been mutually profitable despite my dislike–a sentiment I suspected was returned. I also suspected he did not care for the position in which he now found himself: supplicant to the Pantheon. But I could only guess at that, for I could read nothing in his expressionless face.

“It’s been a while, Chairman,” I said.

“The same, Athena.”

“I received a message from the Pantheon informing me you had requested my services.” A loose network for those of us who did black work and had risen to the top–the best of the best, and proud of it–the Pantheon gave those clients who could afford us an easy way to find us while preserving our own secrecy.

Those steely gray eyes blinked–eyes as gray as mine, and supposedly as artificial as they looked. Rumor had it that his eyes–along with almost every other part of his body, including his heart–had been replaced, modified, amplified, so that there was very little of him that was human.

Almost as little as there is of me. I buried the thought.

“I have a contract for you. If you will accept it, of course.” It must have cost Aultmar to ask that; he was not a man accustomed to asking if his will would be carried out.

“Details?” While I spoke, my mind accessed the starnet, pulling up background information on Aultmar: partners, associates, colleagues–not friends, for he had none. Info feeds scrolled directly through my mind, characters flashing in fully-formed, three-dimensional images, then dissipating.

His lips compressed. “There is a woman.”

That narrows it down. A little. Even cut in half, Aultmar Artos’ enemies list was truly impressive.

“Her name is Arakhne. She lives on Arcadia.”

Arcadia. Hmmm. I’d heard of the planet–a recent acquisition of the StellarCast combine–and after a moment I was able to call up some information on Arakhne. “An artist, is she not? A light-weaver?”

“Yes.” Those lips compressed further. “Find her. And kill her.”

“For a simple killing of a simple weaver, you don’t need me. Or my fee. What else?”

Those eyes flickered down toward my fingertips. “I want her memories.”

Now it starts to make sense. Perimortem memory capture was a skill very few possessed, and among those few, I would vouch with no false modesty that I was the best.

“That might be tricky. I’ve told you before, the process is not always precise or accurate.”

“I understand. Your standard fee if you simply kill her, double if you bring her memories back.”

My curiosity rose. The only reason Aultmar might want her memories would be if he suspected they contained something damaging. But what could a weaver know that would trouble him? I would dearly have loved to ask, but that would have been unprofessional.

“I’ll do it,” I said. “Usual conditions. I’ll inform you when it’s done.”

He nodded. “Thank you. And give my regards to the rest of the Pantheon.”

“I will. Zeus and Hera in particular have spoken of you with great regard.”

“That is pleasant to hear. Until next time.” He leaned forward and touched a control. Aultmar’s image winked out before me. And I was left with a mystery. Who is this Arakhne of Arcadia and why on earth does Altmar want her dead?

Consequences

Carriel felt like a cloud of gloom hovering over a parade. The morning sun cast the snow into piles of glitter. Excited, bubbly people swarmed around her sister, Lionye’s golden child, winner of the Emberithshire Skating Championship, Junior Division. Bree laughed and chatted with friends, rivals, and fans.

Even Garray looked excited. Well, of course he did. Their grasping brother had set up this race to give himself another reason to gamble. He’d be thrilled all day, unless their little sister lost.

A whisper, like a sudden gust of wind, ran through the crowd. She turned, following the ripple. The crowd shifted, allowing a woman and a girl about Bree’s size to cross the park to the pond. She shielded her eyes against the glare of the sun on the snow, but even standing on tiptoes, she couldn’t catch more than a glimpse of the competition’s knit cap through the press.

Whistles sounded. Cheers erupted. Her sister flashed an elated grin. The head of the Lionye’s Skating Commission stepped away from the judges’ table and raised a megaphone to his lips.

“Welcome to today’s special event race. We’re pitting our very own Bree, the Winter Wind, against Tayla of the Peolline district of Feballiase.”

The crowd roared. Bree waved to her cheering fans. Tayla turned at her name and gave a tentative smile. Carriel blinked. What?

“Ladies, please take your places at the starting line.”

Snapping out of her shock, she grabbed her sister’s arm before she could hobble more than a couple of steps towards the starting line.

“What?” A bemused smile on her face, Bree turned. She clearly expected wishes of luck or advice. The usual before a race.

“She’s not human.”

“Huh?” Her sister glanced at the starting line.

“She’s some sort of winter Fae. I think she’s an ice sprite.”

Wild excitement filled her sister’s face. “Really?”

She gritted her teeth. “I know what I see.”

“Bree of Lionye, please join us at the starting line.” The ice sprite already stood there. She smiled, too innocently to be believed, when they looked at her.

“I’ve got to go.”

“You can’t–”

“So she’s an ice sprite. It’s just a race.”

“Bree–”

“It’ll be a laugh. Tell Stacia.”

“You cannot hope to win.”

Her smirk turned mischievous. “Tell my coach. Let the word spread. Think about it. Racing an ice sprite? Sure I can’t win, but depending on how close I come? How fast and famous does that make me?”

The officials called for Bree again. Laughing, she spun and hobbled quickly to the ice sprite.

Carriel dashed over to her sister’s coach. Stacia cursed at the news and ran to the alert the head of Lionye’s Skating Commission. Blood drained from his face. Stacia continued to talk for a few minutes. The Commission Head turned and raised his whistle to his lips. One bleat.

Ice sprayed from their skates. The crowd roared. Neck and neck as they neared the first curve.

Carriel’s heart pounded. This wasn’t right. She shouldn’t have allowed this.

The ice sprite pulled ahead on the first curve. On the opposite side of the pond, the ice sprite lengthened her lead. The crowd screamed for their Winter Wind to speed up.

A determined frown creased Bree’s face. Carriel had watched her sister skate enough times to pick up the minute increase in speed. She skated as fast as she could, perhaps faster than her fastest time. They wouldn’t know for sure on that until she crossed the finish line.

Which she did a good forty-five seconds after the ice sprite.

A crack echoed across the park.

Bree flashed out of existence.

The ice sprite pivoted. The glee on her face twisted into a good facsimile of shock.

A Ghosted Story

When Eliza returns from the bathroom, after fifteen minutes that saw me sliding from calm to fretful, she looks pale underneath the low lights produced by the restaurant’s chandeliers. Moving listlessly and a little awkwardly, she drifts along until she pauses in the empty stretch of hardwood floor between the kitchen and the dense puzzle of tables. A distracted waiter nearly runs her over, apologizes, but she doesn’t notice. Her eyes roam through space like she’s forgotten why she’s there. They glaze over me, unseeing, and I raise a self-concious hand, give it a few limp waves. Eliza misses it but starts heading my way, the essence of noncommittal.

She sits down, but doesn’t pull her chair into the table. Her eyes fall on the candle flickering at its center, beside the bottle of wine, half of which has been distributed into our glasses.

“Are you okay?” I ask. I’m careful with the next sentence, lest I offend her. “You don’t look like you’re feeling so great.”

That’s an understatement. Eliza’s so pale I’m worried she’s about to fall out of her chair. She slumps back in it, half-dead in the face, and doesn’t answer my question.

“We can go if you want,” I say. “If you’re not well we don’t have to stay. I’ll pay for the wine and we’ll get out of here.”

She doesn’t say anything.

“Eliza.”

Still nothing. I lean back in my chair, brushing my cheek with my knuckles, aware that something’s gone terribly wrong.

The restaurant, which I selected, is a newish place surfing on a wave of delayed hype, the kind of place everyone talks about for a week but no one remembers to actually visit until a couple of months later. In response to rising demand, the powers that be have crammed in as many tables as possible, creating a maze through which the staff careens, running glasses and plates back and forth with manic intensity, near-misses happening all the time. It’s anxiety-inducing to watch, but beautiful in a way.

To the left and right of our table, couples dine so close I could reach out and touch their shoulders without locking my elbow. At a loss with Eliza, I shift my head to the man sitting on a diagonal from my right. Catching me, he raises his eyebrows.

“Are you really not going to say anything?” I return to Eliza to find she’s tilted her head back, to stare up at the distant ceiling. “If something’s wrong, you can tell me. I’m not going to mind.”

The woman at the table to my left is studying me, but when we meet eyes she drops hers, embarrassed.

Perhaps she’s wondering if she’s witnessing a first-date trainwreck. She’s not. Eliza and I have been seeing each other two or three times a week for a couple of months now, ever since our introduction at a brunch outing with mutual friends. It’s been going well, or so I’d thought until the moment she returned from the bathroom–well enough that I was inspired to hope for the first time since Mikayla and I broke up, plunging me into a morass of bad dates, poorly conceived Tinder messages, and too much drinking on weekday evenings. Eliza and I had similar views of life and relationships, our failures in each inspiring a healthy cynicism that still couldn’t break our natural tendencies toward optimism. She laughed at my bad jokes. I listened to stories about her narcissistic parents. We went to movies, to plays, to bars, to the planetarium. When we weren’t together, we texted regularly, sharing the little things that happened to us on average mornings and typical afternoons, things that didn’t usually leave our heads. I thought we were becoming something. When I rounded onto Congress Street and saw her waiting for me beneath the awning, in her black dress and denim jacket, the pulse in my neck started going faster, and sweat leaked out of my palms.

But now the speeding train has derailed. I observe the wreckage, which doesn’t amount to much–we were in the restaurant only fifteen minutes before she got up to find the restroom–and try to locate the fault, the crack where blame might fit. Our evening had been going well, at least as well as the others. Eliza referenced a joke from our text messages. I complained about my dentist’s appointment. She complimented my new shirt. I told her about the colors in the sky that morning, how I’d meant to send her a photograph like the one she’d sent me.

The waiter comes over. He introduced himself when he brought us glasses of water, but I’ve forgotten his name.

“How we doing over here?” he asks. “How’s the wine?”

“It’s good,” I say, taking a sip as if to prove it. When I ordered the bottle, Eliza giggled at my clumsy pronunciation. “I like it.”

“Excellent. Would you like to put in any appetizers, or should I give you a couple of minutes?”

Between my initial rapture with Eliza and my current state of confusion, I haven’t even glanced at the menu.

“A couple of minutes.”

“Certainly. I’ll be back.”

As he dashes off to tend to his other tables, I realize that he never once looked at Eliza. On the far side of the table, she’s sitting upright, with an expression of waiting-room boredom. Her roaming eyes never once land on me. And it might be a trick of the light, or of the wine, but I swear she looks less defined than she did, like she’s steadily fading from view.

“I should’ve slapped him,” says the woman to my left to the man across the table, who’s leaning on his elbows. “I would have, too, but my friend was, like, dragging me away.”

Determined to ignore Eliza as she’s ignoring me–an unsatisfying form of revenge, because I know she’s not going to care–I make a point of inspecting everything in the room with an expression of casual interest, as if that could make her reconsider how she’s treating me. Inside, meanwhile, I’m threatening to boil. In an abstract place behind my stomach, a box that doesn’t really exist contains all the worst parts of me–penchants for self-pity, revolting neediness, and narcissistic anger, all of which I can’t help but indulge, self-flagellation working as an excuse for emotional self-pleasure. These fragments of my narcissism, unleashed by whatever minor stimulus–a message gone ignored, another guy’s joke laughed at, an offhand comment interpreted as a slight–have spoiled every relationship I’ve ever managed to start. With Mikayla I became a seething, touchy, obsessive shell of a person; in the aftermath, I vowed to shut my bad parts away, to weigh them down and bury them somewhere from which they might never resurface. But as I don’t look at Eliza, with pressure mounting behind my eyes, the anchors fail and the box drifts free. Its flaps open and its contents release into my chest, where they merge into a storm. The closest point of egress is my mouth. For five seconds, I fight off words I know I’ll regret.