Fiction

Farrago – Part 1

They had a new girl working the shoe rental. As Henry paid the twenty bucks for his three rounds (the owner liked him, liked that he was a cop, so he gave Henry a discount), the girl glided in front of the row of shoes, passing it over with the buzzing decontamination stick, the glow staining her hands pale blue.

Henry didn’t need to rent any shoes — he had his own pair, specially made, tucked away in his bag — but he lingered for a moment at the shoe counter anyway, until the girl glanced up, strands of her blonde hair falling across her eyes, which were, startlingly, the exact color of honey.

“What size?” she asked.

Her voice had a low thrumming quality to it. Her words reverberated off the side of her throat.  Henry shook his head, stammered a little.

“Sorry, I don’t — got my own.”

He jerked his bag up. The girl blinked at it and shrugged and then passed the decontamination stick over another set of shoes. Henry dragged his hand across the top his hair and trudged over to his lane. It was a Tuesday night in November, icy rain slicking across the city, and the alley was nearly empty. Just Henry at one end and a pair of teenage girls at the other end. He sat down on the bench and ordered a beer from the touchscreen and waited for his partner to show.

The last time he went to the cyberneticist they’d told him to lay off the alcohol, that it was corroding the bits of metal and plastic lining his stomach, and also they hadn’t exactly upgraded his liver, but he’d never listened to doctors before and he wasn’t going to listen to cyberneticists now. He traded out his scuffed black boots for bowling shoes. At the other end of the alley, pins clattered against the hardwood, and the two teenage girls shrieked and hollered. Henry leaned back over the bench. He craned his neck. The girl at the shoe counter slid in and out of view, her head bent low, the glow from the decontamination stick tracing the movement of her hands.

“Hello, Henry.”

Henry jumped. “Felton,” he said. “I didn’t see you standing there.”

Felton’s two glowing eyes brightened and dimmed. “Well, you appear pretty distracted.”

Henry chose not to respond. He stood up, pulled out his bowling ball — weighted for the bones of his steel-enforced arm, the finger holes measured against the span of his fingers and laser-cut for precision, the whole thing dyed dark green at his request — from its bag.

“Can’t start ’til I get my beer,” he said.

“Oh yes. I’m aware.”

Henry set his ball on the return and Felton did the same with one of Henry’s old cast-off balls — the in-house ones were all too light for him. As if on cue, the server-bot whirred out of the doorway to the lounge, a single bottle of beer on its tray. Felton followed its trajectory across the alley. He had told Henry once, at a bar, how he hated that the serverbots didn’t speak and Henry’d had no idea how to respond.

Henry and Felton were partners as cops, working together on Vice. They were bowling partners because Henry needed someone to bowl against now that he’d been upgraded. The guys down at the station kicked him out of the intramural league after the procedure, saying it wasn’t fair, he had too much of an advantage. The upgrades were supposed to get Henry out of Vice but all they did was get him out of the bowling league.

Felton bowled first and knocked over three pins. He wasn’t very good. Henry suspected he didn’t care enough to try, but he gave him pointers anyway.

“You need to swing your arm back more,” Henry said. He gestured with his beer bottle as he spoke. “Guide the ball with your thumb.” Felton rotated his head around and dimmed his eyes and didn’t respond.

Henry rolled a strike and swigged his beer in celebration. He looked over at the shoe rental, trying to be casual. The girl leaned across the counter. She wore her hair teased up and the lights caught on it so that her long narrow face appeared framed by a shimmering halo. Her hair made her look sophisticated, like she was about to leave for a holiday party. She stared at the score monitor hanging above the lanes but didn’t seem to really sae it.

“You’re being obvious,” said Felton as he picked up his ball from the return.

Henry laughed. He ordered another beer. “Like you know anything about it.”

Felton’s ball landed in the gutter. “I know you should talk to her instead of stare at her.”

Henry drank the last dregs of his beer because because he didn’t have anything to say to that. Felton knew more about Henry than he should. He knew about Melanie, for example. The commissioner had warned Henry not to get too friendly — “Even if you are part robbie now,” she said — but it was tough, riding around with the thing everyday. Sitting with him during the stakeouts. Teaching him how to bowl. You had to talk about something.

Felton wasn’t even one of the ones that sort of look like people, although he wore clothes like one. He was sleek and silver and jerked around sometimes, especially when the temperatures dropped below freezing. His eyes lit up and while this mouth did move, the movement didn’t always synch up with his words. The commissioner said witnesses would let themselves get questioned by a robot, as long as they knew for certain. As long as they didn’t think the city was tricking them.

“But we still need to have a human around,” she’d said. “For insurance. You know.” This was last summer, the days all long and bright and hot. The box fan she’d set up in her office rattled against the closed window. The edges of papers lifted up from her desk. “Nobody else is willing to work with the thing. You’re the closest we got.”

Henry had wanted to say something. He wanted to point out that he’d only gotten the upgrades because they told him he could make Homicide that way. How they’d given him all that literature about the importance of the department having an edge in this world of robots and mad scientists, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. But he hadn’t.

The Keeper’s Heart

This is the kind of Friend
You are –
Without making me realise
My soul’s anguished history,
You slip into my house at night,
And while I am sleeping,
You silently carry off
All my suffering and sordid past
In Your beautiful
Hands

– Hafiz

Yusuf had the largest hands of any man in the entire Hatay province. Even bigger, rumor had it, than Munah-the-Fisherman who had once wrestled a giant squid from out of the blue sea. Even grander some folk said than Coskun-the-Generous, who could hold eight ice creams in both his hand without crushing a single cone.

His hands had been revered since he was a small child. The Holy Man, in particular, had watched them with great interest.

‘He has Keeper’s hands,’ he had gushed. ‘Our village has not had a Keeper for over two hundred years. Yusuf is a blessing. He is a blessing to all of us.’

Yusuf’s mama had politely nodded. Yusuf was indeed a blessing. Her ninth such blessing in as many years.

As a child Yusuf was made to sleep in goatskin gloves and forbidden to play anything but Tavla and cards. It embarrassed him deeply to have such beautifully kept hands. The other boys had wild stories etched upon their skin; scars from fist fights and pide burns, brazen scratches from climbing trees. But Yusuf’s hands were soft and supple. They smelt of sweet rose oil.

‘You have Keeper’s hands,’ his mama said whenever he complained. ‘They do not belong to you my child. They belong to all of us.’

But Yusuf did not want Keeper’s hands; he wanted Skinner’s hands instead. Skinners made good money he’d heard, especially those with big hands like his.


Now when he was sixteen Yusuf was taken from his mama. Led away by the Holy Man up to Jebel Aqra.

‘Don’t despair,’ the Holy Man said as they walked the mountain’s ragged slopes. ‘Once you have become a Keeper you can come back home to us.’

He then left the boy on the bare limestone peak and returned back to the village.

Yusuf was gone for exactly ten years – one for each digit that spanned his great hands. At first he had stubbornly resisted becoming a Keeper at all, arguing petulantly with the gods that he would make a better Skinner. But as time passed, and his temperament slowly mellowed, his dreams of such menial work gradually ebbed away too and he began studying the Keeper’s Edict, carefully learning every word.

A Keeper is a chosen vessel whose hands are not his own. His only purpose is to hold the burdens he is given throughout his life. In the day he should keep them in his open hands but at night he may let them sleep in the crook of his arm. He should listen whenever they speak to him but never answer what they ask.

Remember you can never break what has been truly broken!

When Yusuf eventually returned to the village only the Holy Man and his mama could recognise his face. Gone was the boy with the unruly tongue and the frown of a put-upon. Instead was a man with black untamed curls who used his eyes to speak. Such beautiful eyes too; the colour of ripening almonds – with long, blinking lashes that fluttered like small wings.

Yusuf’s mama begged him to remain in the village but the years on Jebel Aqra had made him humble so he lived up among the mountains nearby. A cave not far beyond the village walls where the evening sky cast lavender shadows across his rock-strewn home.

Traction

Hef first turned up at one of our meetings looking, and smelling, the worse for wear.

“Wife problems,” he said. “Can I come in?”

I was secretary of the Hoddesdon Model Railway Club. I looked at the huge, squint-eyed bloke swaying at the door, his overalls stained with oil and the smell of alcohol layering over a sulphurous reek, and decided he’d fit right in.

“Are you interested in trains?”

“Anything mechanical.”

“Come in. We’re always looking for new members.”

“Can’t say I’m much of the joining kind.” But he signed the guest book where I indicated in a black scrawl, then held out his hand.

“Hef,” he said, crushing my fingers and half burning them too – he had the hottest hand I’ve ever grasped.

“My name’s Colin,” I said, “and I’m club secretary.”

“Good to meet you.” Hef looked over my shoulder at the assembled members of the Hoddesdon Model Railway Club. “No women. Good.”

“Oh, I’m sure we’d be happy to have some female members, it’s just that none have ever applied.”

“Make sure they don’t.”

“I can hardly stop…”

Hef left me bleating about equality legislation and fairness, and stomped into the clubhouse, over to where Barry was inspecting the skeleton of our new layout. He held out his hand, crushed Barry’s proffered reply, and slipped a pair of glasses over his nose.

“Now, what have you got here?”

I left them to discussing the finer points of the plan and set about arranging the chairs and putting out the agenda. Tonight was our annual general meeting and since we’d completed the move from our previous club house – which actually was in Hoddesdon, unlike our new premises down the line in Broxbourne – and had settled in nicely, I didn’t anticipate any problems.

“I move, under article 3, clause 4 of our constitution, that Colin is asked to step down as club secretary and I nominate Hef in his place.”

Sitting at the table that served as the focus for our meeting, I fear I must have appeared about as witless as an unexpectedly stranded fish, mouth opening and closing more in surprise than for breath.

Barry sat down.

“Seconded.” That was Simon. I’d never heard him express interest in anything other than trains before. To hear him call for my removal was like your own mother telling you that you were a complete disappointment to her – and mine did, so I know what that’s like.

Another hand rose, and another voice, and another, and another. I would have probably continued my stranded fish impersonation indefinitely if Hef, from where he was sitting in the front row, hadn’t stood and raised a hand.

The seconders and thirders and fourthers immediately fell silent, which was odd, because trying to get that lot to be quiet was like asking a cage full of budgies to stop tweeting.

“Thank you for your faith, but I fear I can’t accept…”

Chorus of “Nos” and boos. This time Hef simply raised a finger and they fell silent. I remember thinking I ought to try that next time.

“No, I cannot. Colin has held the position for many, many years and it would be grossly unfair to cast him aside now. If, however, he were to admit that the job has grown taxing, and were to resign and the position fall vacant, I would be happy to put myself forward for election.”

As he spoke my name, Hef turned to look at me and it was that more than anything else which prompted my next words.

“If you want me out, you’ll have to kick me out.”

If Hef had just left it with all the blokes I thought were my friends calling for me to go, I’d have stepped down without a murmur. But not only was he trying to sack me, he wanted me to do the dirty work for him.

I stood up.

“Come on then. If you want this to be a vote of no confidence, someone’s got to propose it.” I scanned the room. Eyes dropped, or suddenly found the ceiling joists a matter of intense interest, or began cataloging back issues of ‘Railway Modeller’.

I was just about to sit down when a voice piped up. I looked around, trying to see who was speaking, for it didn’t sound like anyone I knew. Then I saw him: Simon, poor, slightly mad Simon, twisting his leather cap in his hands, the thin strands of his comb-over glistening on his scalp. I noticed he’d taken to tucking his trousers into his socks. His eyes, which normally either fixed on you with unwavering intensity or wavered around the room, were now attempting to do both.

“I… prop…pose a…vote…of no…con..fi…denCE.”

The last syllable came out as a shouted gasp and Simon clapped his hands over his mouth as if he’d just said a rude word. He looked surprised at what he’d just said.

But the motion was proposed.

“Any seconders?” I sounded weary even to my own ears.

Hands were raised. Tentatively, one or two at first, and then a veritable copse of arms pointing heavenwards.

I put my pen down on the table. I wasn’t going to look at Hef, I wasn’t….

I looked, of course.

He sat in the front row, positively glowing with self satisfaction, and already receiving congratulatory pats on the back.

Appreciation for Falling Stars a Must

We fell for each other.

Hard.

Like stars, it seemed.

Had I thought about falling stars then, how they’re just bits of space dust burning up as they hit the atmosphere, it likely would have taken some of the Zing! out of my romantic illusions.

But I didn’t think about it.

It was like we’d been made for each other, something I did let myself think even though I knew the cliché was only half true. I was as I’d always been. She, though, she’d been made for me.

By me.

It was a simple enough process. I’d designed every bit of her, filling in all the blanks and boxes on the Realationship™ site. And when I say design I don’t just mean the parts you might think. But everything. Down to the shape of her toes, the curve of her eyebrows.

I remember sitting at the keyboard, my fingers caressing the track pad, working my way through eye color and skin tone. Each drop down menu needed a carefully considered click, like a little nudge, a little push. Each choice opened a window to more, with all of them weighed against the ones that had come before.

And there’d been myself to consider as well–measuring my lips to match against hers, moving my hands in just the right way to see how they’d feel on the small of her back, following the prompts to upload my image so I could see how my brown eyes would reflect her blue. Finished, I’d just needed to click on all the agreements, debit my account, and wait for delivery.

The night I lost her, we lay in the back yard, a blanket between us and the ground. She rested her head on my arm, her blond hair threatening to make me sneeze as it tickled my nose. Our sweat had already begun to dry from the summer breeze, and if I moved my hand just a little I could trace the swell of her breast. It would have been perfect if we had seen a falling star then, but the cloudless sky yielded nothing but familiar constellations.

“What time is it?” she asked.

I’d designed her to disregard the tech she ran on. Occasionally, I’d hear a servo spin somewhere in her body, but if she ever heard the same, she ignored it. And so, though her operating system included a perfectly accurate internal clock, it was instinctive of her to ask me the time or to check the delicate watch I’d given her on our one-month anniversary.

She wasn’t wearing it now. Or anything else.

“Almost ten,” I said after raising my wrist and blocking out part of the sky for a moment.

She seemed to take a second to process the information, then sat up, leaving my right arm and whole right side suddenly cool as the night air touched the skin she’d just been pressed against. I smiled at the sight of her naked back.

“I’m leaving,” she said.

My smile faded.

“Leaving?” I asked, nonplussed. My turn to process.

“You,” she added.

Then she was up. Off the blanket and picking through the clothes scattered on the lawn.

“What do you mean?”

“What I said. I’m leaving you.”

Pythia – Part 2

Are you looking for Part 1? Click here to go back and read Part 1 of Barry King’s novella Pythia.


Deception is the way of serpents. In memory, I walk with the old Pythia. She tells me her name is Amantaeia. I give her the name Khalkis gave me: Spazakia. She snorts, finding it funny, but says nothing. We tread the steps of a hidden stair behind the temple. There are two points where the path seems to move on to the left, but she takes me down an animal track to the right, each time, and we find another hidden stair.

Reaching the crest of the ridge, she explains the need for such secrecy.

“Look down there, Spazakia. What do you see?”

I tell her. “The north road. It comes into the vale directly ahead. It would lead up here if it did not bend to the west and lead up to the sanctuary.”

“And down the slope? What do you see?”

“Trees. They are thick. They lean over a gully.”

“And in the gully?”

I squint against the harsh sunlight.

“Nothing. It is bare, like a dry stream.”

“It was never a stream. That way is cleared every winter, while we are in Eleusis, tending to the mystes there. Servants of this sanctuary keep it clear of all obstructions.”

“Why?”

“Look up there,” she says, and points to a crag above. I see that the top is levelled off and great stones, squarish, somewhat rounded, rest there. “If I was to go up there, and lever one of those stones off and into the gully, it would roll all the way to the road and down the road for several stades.”

“But that would kill anyone on the road!”

“Yes!” she says, grinning, and draws herself up with a look of vengeance in her eyes. “And if the road was filled with a thousand hoplites, neither bronze nor bone could stand.” Again I see the dramatic flair in her delivery, and realize that despite my horror at the idea, I can imagine myself breathless, watching the great unstoppable stones crashing out of the forest, bloodthirsty as charging elephants, tearing into serried ranks of men.

“Hundreds would perish,” she continued, “and they would be routed. Furthermore…” she says, pointing at spots below the forest canopy, “Men of brass and great engines would be released, and a vast horn would trumpet. It would seem as if the god himself were at war upon them. They would flee, and never return.”

“But…”

She lets her poise settle. “Deception, my little Spazakia. Deception has defended this sanctuary against the pillaging horde in the past, and it will again. How do you think we can live here at peace with half the world’s treasure in our vaults? The sanctuary is defended. Perhaps not by the god, but defended it is.”

“But it is a lie.”

“Is it? Is it any more a lie than a bit of doggerel that may kill a man as well as save him? More of a lie than the love of the god himself, who turns his lovers into bushes, or fountains, or mad things that no one will believe?”

I shiver at her words. Again, I see the distorted face, the pale eye of the monster that I fear I am. She speaks of me. Of my kind.

Quietly, almost like a concerned mother, she takes me in her arms. “Please, little Spazakia. Trust me in this. Do not strip us bare of our deceits. It will be the end of the sanctuary.”

I know she speaks for her family, for the priests, for the great wealth of Delphi. I pull myself out of her arms and look out on the plain below. I notice for the first time that the north road continues a ways, and joins an east-west road. The roads follow ridges, and the ridges converge on the sanctuary. She follows my eyes.

“Yes, you can see it only from up here. Those roads meet at the wound the god made in the earth on the fourth day of his life. It was there that the he forced his arrows into the navel of the earth. All the earth cracked around, and the dragon was pierced, and tore the ground around him. Since then, the dragon obeys. He speaks for the god.”

She turns, addresses me with her eyes cast down, her voice gentle, intimate as between two sisters. “Or so I am told. The dragon does not speak to me. I wonder if he speaks to anyone. I wonder if all our deceptions hide only a deeper deception. One that we have made for ourselves and have fallen for.”

I shudder, my arms prickling with gooseflesh. I also turn my face downward, unwilling to give her a glimpse of the dragon that may still linger in my eye. She leans in close, whispering in my ear.

“You know, girl, I have travelled and I have seen this with my own eyes: If you cross the sea towards the rising sun, you will come to another temple, far older, far greater, to the god’s sister. There is a navel there also, and all who dwell there say that is the true centre of the earth. And again, if you go south to the island of Crete, there is another navel to the earth where the god and his sister are holy and all who dwell there say that is the world’s centre. There are others. Many others. The earth must have many mothers to have so many navels!” She smiles at her jest, raises my face to look into hers. “So tell me, Spazakia, who is the real deceiver here? Would you be able to tell?”

I shake my head, as much to free it from her fingertips as to admit my ignorance.

“There is a reason the Oracle doesn’t interpret her own prophecies, girl. I hope you never have to learn that reason.”

But I have learned it all too soon. Sardis is burning.

I rage, shaking the bars of my tripod, trying to break it. I reach for the dragon, a thousand vicious claws at his throat. “You let me send Sheep-beard to Sardis, and now Sardis is burning!”

That was your choice.

“No!” I shout. The dozing mystia, who was waiting for me to speak, jumps up, her tablets and stylus clatter to the floor.

“Sister?” she cries out.

I do not know if I speak to her. Whatever comes from my mouth, she is frightened by it and runs out of the room.

“Do something!” I scream at a god who does not hear me. I beat the cage beneath me with my cracked hands. My hands, my arms are so thin, so wiry. In my imagination, I see Sheep-beard and his Oxana standing in the fire, calmly watching me as they are consumed like figures of melting gold withering into the coals. They dwindle to nothingness in my mind.

I reach out to the dragon again. My heart is full of vengeance. “Show them to me.”

But instead, I see the Mule-king’s bearded son, the new King of Kings, on a disc of gold, like the coins in Sheep-beard’s hand. He fires a great bow into the sky, piercing the sun. His promise of vengeance is terrible to feel. It ripples from horizon to horizon, echoing with the tramp of five million marching feet. Even the dragon is taken aback.

“Daughter?” It is Amantaeia. She is in a rumpled, hastily-donned gown. She approaches me, squats to look at me better. “Daughter, what is it?”

I try to form words, but I cannot get them to fit around the vast misshapen feeling in my chest. My mouth moves like a fish. “I killed him.”

“Killed? Who? How?”

“My step-father. I sent him to his death. With my words.”

Her face grows still, and a great sadness comes over her. With halting movements, she lifts me from the cage and holds me, but without warmth. I look up into the sad steel of her eye and I realize where her sorrow comes from. I return her cold embrace with my own chill. We have both spoken our heart in the name of the god, and felt the cold bite of our own venom.

I resolve then never to listen to my own prophecy. Never to winnow out meaning from the dragon’s words. I am the liar now. A woman deceiving the girl she once was.

Pythia – Part 1

The words of the god beat their fists on my teeth, my tongue tickles with the honey of them, but I will not speak these words of joy and hope for my enemy, the Lacedaemonian. I refuse them. I will not betray my mother, my promise, nor the years of my service by speaking them.

My face, the good side, is pressed to the hot brass bars, good eye closed against the stinging fume. The open cage swings in a gout of dragon-breath, suspended as it is from the crux of a tripod.

“Sister?” the young mystia asks, her voice muffled by the wet sash over her mouth. I hear her concern distantly—disconnected from meaning. It pulls me from the myriad cracks of time to the here and now, wakes me from my half-dream, from wandering the dragon-mind labyrinth.

I peek, squinting in the hot acrid air rising from below. She is bent forward, golden tassels in her headdress rippling in the updraft, lamplight quivering in watery motion. Her hands quiver also, the wax writing-board and stylus shaking in her delicate, pink hands. Hands that may one day be as grey as my own, cracked, the cracks limned by the ash of the dragon.

The dragon’s eyes close. The earth itself quivers as he breathes in… breathes out.

Speak. His voice is deep as chasms.

The verse bursts from me in a torrent of words. I gasp for breath after every line, each acid breath tears through the passages of my throat, burying its barbs within me. I dictate the words my enemy has waited long and travelled far to hear: By his hand, he will end the bitter feud which drove him from Lacedaemonia on the Laconian plain, the city we Euboeans call “Sparta”.

Tiavviastis of Laconia, be glad you tended
Your shining locks, for you have earned rewards
So long deserved. Go forth to conquer your foe;
Your name will be spoken in Attica for all the years
That stone shall prove mightier than rain

The dragon leaves me, and I abandon myself to silent tears. In the end, I have betrayed them all.

I am Pythia. A word with split meanings: a title and a place. It also means “I stink”. Thinking on this makes me smile. I do stink. Everywhere is the sulphur-smell of the dragon. In my clothes, in my hair. My poor hair. My once-dark, pitch-bright hair is grey, brittle, ragged. Uneven across my eyes. Moons of grey grime line my yellowed fingernails and moons of black ring my mouth and nostrils. I am burned and battered.

But I do not break.

Like water, I do not break, but flow.

A memory, Sheep-beard says to me “You can break a pot, not its water.” He clung to that thought, in exile, far from his beloved Sardis. I had broken an amphora that bright afternoon, trying to carry it despite my shaky knees. Spilled water roused the colour of sunlit stonework in the courtyard. Gentle vapour rose as he spoke.

I love the memory of his voice. Kindness and patience in that voice. But listen, Sheep-beard, if you can hear me: The sun is too bright. I cannot gather the water back. Can you?

But he was not thinking of me as I am now, spread wildly as I am. He was thinking of his city, and how his city was once-broken like my amphora, all its people flowing away, spilt water flowing across the baked Lydian landscape in the shattering that came with the Medan Mule’s iron shoes.

The serpents warned them, those men of Sardis, boiling out of the earth and across the battle-plain in anticipation of Cyrus the mule’s armies. Oh, yes. Serpents always warn, but their cloven tongues form split meanings. And the dragon, King of Serpents, betrayed old Croesus of Lydia; betrayed him to the “King of Kings”. There is a third King of Kings, now. Grandchild of Cyrus; grandchild of a mule, so no heir of his grandfather’s loins. Xerxes is indeed coming, with five million in his wake to wreck the walls of Athens.

My hand is trembling. I am flowing beyond the cracks of my own soul’s amphora. I reach out to the dragon in the depths of the earth. He slumbers: a chance for respite. I am tired, slipping away, draining out into the place where there is no gulf between yesterday and tomorrow, no space between myself and another….

No space between myself and the dragon. The dragon promised me payment in kind, after the duty is done. I think he has forgotten his promise….

Promises are to be kept; I dream of the girl that is my distant hometown, and how she slips through the cracks of Gaia to come to me still. She has not forgotten Spazakia, “little cracked-pot”. Every month she comes, to give me her cold, sweet kisses to my face and cleanses me of the ash, of the duty. I need only hold my shards together for a little more. It grows harder, month by month, and memory of past and future presses upon me like a leaden fist.

I let go, spill out of myself.

Beasts on the Shore of Light

Keith Suarez emerged from a long, dark tunnel and scuttled across the cardboard-brown regolith of 21 Lutetia toward the sun. His eight tiny feet dug into the grit as he moved at a steady clip over crumbly mounds and deep craters. Keith wasn’t alone on his journey; this was, after all, the vacation season. There were hundreds—thousands—of others pouring out of hidey-holes, crawling away from the cold murk of 21 Lutetia and hunkering down on the surface, their matte black chassis glistening in the radiance as they absorbed all the energy they would need for the rest of the year. If you were to see the mass-migration of artificial crustaceans from above, it would look like a potato infested with mites.

On his way to his little plot of land in the sun, Keith waved an amicable claw at work-mates in the throng and flashed a quick laser “hello” at passing acquaintances, but he never stopped—in part because the animal algorithms that controlled this trek urged him on, but also because he really didn’t have any friends here. This was all simply the Kafkian nightmare that paid the bills; or was it Cronenbergian? Never mind that he spent most of the time as a bug eating dirt and defecating nickel, iron, gold and platinum. This was not a life.

Suddenly, something caught his infrared attention and he turned his eyestalk to get a better view. Someone wasn’t headed for the sunside. They weren’t moving at all. Grudgingly, he overrode the impulse to migrate and made his way against the current of pushy crabs toward the fallen person. In another life, some twenty years ago, Keith had been a pretty decent software engineer (before that career morphed into something incomprehensible and he was forced to retire), so the management of 21 Lutetia had promoted him to maintenances, although his main duty remained to gorge himself on flavorless rocks and shit out precious metals.

He approached the crab sprawled in the shallow frost of a crater and shone a cautious “Do you need help?” light.

“No,” replied the crab in the cosmic ditch.

“Are you sure?” He could tell that six of her long, segmented legs were broken.

“Really, I’m fine. Please, don’t let me stop you from your migration. I’m sure you’re eager to get on with your holiday,” she said, with a faint Slavic tinge to the beam of her voice.

Keith tried to imagine her as a gorgeous blonde with blue almond-shaped eyes, but the reality, rendered in the stark contrast of the intense light of the sun and the utter darkness of the pit, was much too sharp for fantasizing. She looked like every other crab on this rock. He did notice her smooth carapace lacked the pockmarks and scuffs that, over time, gave them their distinctive exteriors. She was recently fabricated and new to all of this.

“Here.” He crawled the few inches into the hole and the temperature dropped to minus one hundred degrees Celsius. “Let me help you.” He examined each of her shattered appendages and repaired what he could on the spot. “How’d this happen, anyway?”

“I fell into this hole,” she said, annoyed.

Keith knew that, between the robustness of the exoskeleton’s design and the microgravity of the asteroid, the fall shouldn’t have caused any damage at all. Deciding not to press the issue, he simply said, “If you spend your holiday down here your batteries will run out and then you’ll be in real trouble.”

She didn’t protest as he awkwardly hefted her broad, flat frame onto his back. He became aware that, aside from registering her weight, he couldn’t feel her on top of him and for the first time in a long time the absence of tactility bothered him.

“Have you been here long?” She asked as he climbed over the lip of the crater and joined the others on their long march. “Your shell is very rough.”

“About five, six years, I’ve lost track of time.” He turned an eye backward to see her bobbing up and down on his wide armor. “Where are you from? You have a nice accent.”

“Kiev, Ukraine.”

“I was going to guess Russia.”

“And you’re American?”

“Yeah, my body is resting somewhere in Atlanta, Georgia.” There was a heavy silence for a moment and he instantly regretted drawing attention to their existential predicament. He let the surge of the others and the ancient biometric subroutines guide him over the dull terrain. There was something reassuring and primal in this parade. This was what life had always been about, since the Paleozoic; horseshoe crabs striving for the shore by the light of the moon.

Alchemist’s Alphabet

I didn’t realize what the building meant when I watched it go up. I didn’t know what a blast furnace was, or a converter. I didn’t care when the first plumes of smoke rose from its chimney. It wasn’t until the orders stopped that I realized my life had changed forever.

It started with the glow stones. People wanted oil lamps these days, and so I stopped enchanting glow stones. It was a small part of my business, not worth fretting over. Then it was the poultices, then the artificing. Then, finally, Alex came into my shop and opened my eyes.

I put down the scale I was cleaning as the door swung open.

“Alex, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Just thought I’d handle pickup this week, give the apprentice a break. You’re well, Alemnus?”

“As well as ever. I had a few steel orders dropped this week, but nothing too extraordinary.”

Alex pursed his lips, and I got the sense he was holding something back from me.

“Everything’s in order, I assume?” Alex said.

“See for yourself.” I pointed to the steel ingots stacked by the door. “Perfectly uniform, every one.” I might have been bragging, but I wasn’t exaggerating. A village wizard needed to know all branches of magic, but alchemy was my passion.

“Aye, looks good,” Alex said, though he’d barely glanced at them.

That was when I knew something was wrong. “Usual order for next month?”

“Actually, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. There won’t be an order next month.”

I must have heard wrong. “Excuse me?”

“I won’t need another shipment.”

A month of frustration poured from between my lips. First Ulrich, then Stefan, now this? Alex was my biggest customer.

“Who are you getting it from? Mendelus over in Greyspring? Because his work isn’t half what mine is, I assure you. If it’s cost–“

“It’s not Mendelus. It’s him.” Alex glanced out the window to the new building. “That Fletcher fellow.”

“The one with that glass contraption strapped to his face?”

“Aye, that’s the one.”

“You’ve been my customer for twelve years.”

“I know, Alemnus, that’s why I came myself. All the other smiths are buying from him, dropping their prices. I had to, to compete.”

“How much is he charging? I’ll match it.”

Alex leaned in, as if he were whispering some dirty secret. “Three marks a pound.”

I nearly gagged. That was impossible. I’d studied with the best alchemists at the academy, and my costs were twice that. There was no way, unless they had some new technique.

“Can you match that?” Alex asked. “Because if you can, frankly I have a mind to think you’ve been robbing me blind the last twelve years.”

“No, I can’t match it.” What else could I say?

“I’m sorry, Alemnus, take care of yourself.”

I nodded mutely, helping him load the steel into his wagon. The moment he was out of sight I locked up shop and went to see Fletcher.

Wings


Original painting by Candice Mancini

“Da? Da, look what I can do!”

I frowned at the monitor and the columns of numbers that refused to add up. “Not now, Becca. Da’s working.”

“Look, Da.”

I could try to ignore her and not get anything done, or indulge her for a minute and salvage the remainder of the afternoon. I turned around in my office chair, and my heart went cold.

My six-year old daughter pirouetted in mid-air, a flutter of wings between her shoulders where this morning there’d been only rose print pajamas and strawberry blonde curls. She smiled at me and spun again, arms outstretched. “I’m flying!”

“Yes, yes you are.” I tried to clear the anxiety clotted at the back of my throat; it wouldn’t budge. “Where did you, um, where did you find those?”

Aggie came in from the kitchen, saucer in one hand, dish towel in the other. “Here now, I told you to leave – oh!” She dropped the towel and saucer, the latter landing on the former, so no harm done to the dish at least.

Becca flew higher and rapped the ceiling with her knuckles. “Look, Mum!”

“I see.” The words trembled on Aggie’s lips. She lowered herself to the sofa and I joined her, putting a hand on her knee. Her words weren’t all that trembled. “I haven’t seen those since before Da and I got married.”

Our daughter flit close, hovering right above the floor. “Really? Are they yours?”

“Once upon a time, yes.” Aggie looked at me then, so wistful and sad it all but broke my heart. “Let’s have a closer look.”

There was enough of the mother voice to the request that Becca did as she was told, but not without: “You’re not going to take them, are you?”

Aggie answered before I could. “Not at all.” She motioned for Becca to turn around.

With both feet flat on the ground, Becca showed us her back. Uneven slits perhaps five inches long had been cut in her pajama top so the wings could poke through. A small part of my attention allowed that we would have a sit down about when, and on what, we used scissors, but not this moment. What mattered most was how the wings caught the blue of Aggie’s eyes, the blue of the summer sky over Niarbyl Bay, or perhaps the other way around.

Rabbitheart – Part 3


Looking for the beginning? Click here to go back and read Part 1 or Part 2 of Nicole Tanquary’s novella Rabbitheart


“And you said my ideas were stupid,” I muttered. We were walking side-by-side through the forest, with a host of not-vie around us. I couldn’t see them … they had covered themselves in some kind of blackish paint, which matched them perfectly to the shadows … but I could hear their breathing, and the clinking of their weapons.

Spiderhands clapped me on the back, grinning to himself. “Well, your ideas all tried to get One in trouble. This plan is about getting revenge for what Mama Salli did to the vie. It’s much more noble.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, right, ’cause you’re the picture of nobility.” His night clothes had been scuffed up while running from the not-vie, not to mention filthy from lying in the dirt while I was explaining everything to Mestra. His Mother would probably cry if she saw him right now. The thought made my fingers clench. I couldn’t wait until I could remember my own Mother again. But Spiderhands … “Hey, Spiderhands. When you were talking to Mestra earlier, you said that later, Mestra could give me back my memories. But what about you? I thought you wanted the Ventine poison out just as much as I did.” This made him go quiet for awhile.

“Well … how do I put this. I guess I don’t really want to remember. I get a feeling that a lot of bad stuff happened to me when I was younger. I still have nightmares about it sometimes, when little pieces come back to me.” He shook his head. “I definitely don’t want all of it in my head again. That’d be too much to handle.”

Nightmares? I narrowed my eyes at him. How come he had never told me about this? Come to think of it, the circles under his eyes did seem a little darker than they should be. And his hair did seem a little thinner than other people’s. The nightmares could be stressing him out … then again, maybe it was just me. I wasn’t used to looking at him at night.

Acting on an impulse, I wrapped my arm around his waist and pulled him closer until our sides were touching. It felt natural, easy. Like breathing. “You can tell me these kinds of things more often, you know. I want to be there for you,” I said. Spiderhands smiled at me, then put one long arm around my shoulders. We had never been this close before, since it wasn’t allowed in the camps. The supervisors would probably have bitten our hands off if we tried. Now, though, I could feel the heat coming off of him in the cold night air. I could even smell his sweat. I knew that smell from when we mined together, but at that moment, it seemed a lot sweeter than it had before. A smoky kind of smell.

Things were quiet for a moment. Then I felt something crash into my back. There was a flash of blue-black hair, and then I was lifted off my feet and speeding along so fast that things started to blur. “Hey, lovebirds! You walk too slow!” said Tan.

“Rab? Where are- hey get off me I can walk just fine so you just put me down right now-” Bumping along on Tan’s back, I could see that a not-vie female had come up behind Spiderhands and had thrown him across her shoulder, and was keeping pace behind me and Tan. It seemed darker out here, in the trees, so I couldn’t see much of her. Just the gleam of her knives, and her chest, slick with war-paint.

“Aw, gross!” I said, feeling some of Tan’s paint rub off onto the front of my uniform. “And who are you calling lovebirds, anyways? We were just … just …”

“This is the way you miners use to get to the camp, right?” I glanced straight down at a bare path we had come across, a stretch of dirt pressed into stone by hundreds of footsteps, criss-crossed with tree roots.

“Yeah. Camp shouldn’t be too far away.” I felt Tan nod to himself, then motion a hand at the not-vie behind him as he disappeared back into the trees. Me and Spiderhands had warned him that the supervisors sometimes went hunting at night. They had to eat, too, and what they ate – besides miners who tried to run off – was small game like rabbits and squirrels. So the closer we got to the camp entrance, the slower and more cautious Tan became, until we were just barely creeping along, silent except for the occasional crinkle of a dry leaf and my own breathing.