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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.

The Purifier

I was one of three foremen who ran the Purifier for the General Secretary before and during the upheaval. Those were dark days for all of us, and anyone who can sit in a rocking chair by the fire, warming his fingers and talking about those times, is lucky. Lucky to be alive, lucky to have his fingers still, lucky to have his tongue. But not everything about those times was evil. Like all times, in all places, I suppose, some bits of light make life worth living, grim as things might get.

The light for us, back before the Upheaval, was the Secretary’s Science and Projects Liaison. Now, I’ve been accused once or twice of being a bit of a dreamer. But understand, everything I have to say about the Liaison is pure truth. Heaven knows how a woman like that ended up with that position. She wasn’t dumb, exactly. In fact, as models go you’d consider her rather intelligent. She was in her mid twenties, and we all recognized her from various men’s interest magazines that were in circulation before the Secretary took full power and the presses were shut down. I guess that put her out of work. Maybe the Secretary hand-picked her for the job, maybe he felt guilty for putting her out of business. You’d think that picking a beautiful woman with no scientific background for Science and Projects Liaison would be a terrible mistake, but really what her job entailed was keeping us workers in line. And that was something she could do with a flick of the wrist and a bat of the eyelashes. She even was able to keep the women workers hard at work with barely any effort at all. It wasn’t just her beauty, she had an aura about her – call it charisma, or leadership, or maybe just confidence. Anyway, we saw her about once a month, which was more than most other facilities and projects could say. The Purifier was very important to the Secretary.

The Purifier was a marvel of human ingenuity and engineering. I wish, now in the twilight of my life, that I could claim I had helped to build or design it. But I didn’t. I just came on after it was finished, with my wrench and my hammer and the rest of my toolkit, and I made sure the other mechanics didn’t screw anything up. Not to say that this wasn’t hard work. A number of my men died or became too sick to work because of leaks in the reactor. The fact that I’m still alive, after all the years I spent at the Purifier, is a testament to something. Probably my great reservoir of dumb luck.

I never used to believe in luck until I got stuck in the elevator with the Liaison. The elevator was on the side of the Stack, which was a fifty story, eighty foot radius chimney stack. This was how the Purifier released the water back into the atmosphere. This was how we made the clouds. The Liaison and I were riding up to check on some repairs that were underway two thirds up the Stack. Most of the deaths were from people being knocked off by gusts of wind, so needless to say, being that high on the Stack, once you got out of the elevator, was dangerous. But the Liaison never shied away from danger. She was utterly fearless in fact.

99-Cent Dreams

After some deliberation, Libby decided to buy the ability to draw. “This one,” she said. “I’ve never been able to manage anything more than stick figures. This would be nice.”

Alfred Corrigan smiled at her. “Yes. Very good.” He coughed before continuing in his high, papery voice. “Let me remind you, however, that this only guarantees the ability to draw recognizable pictures, not the talents of a master artist. These are only–”

“–ninety-nine cent dreams,” she finished along with him. It was the name of the store, and he had given her the patter when she had first come in. Ninety-nine cents could only buy small dreams, not miracles.

“Precisely. That said, your satisfaction is guaranteed. You shouldn’t find yourself reverting to, ah, stick figures. One moment, please.” He shuffled through the door in the back. Libby kept her eyes on the catalog, not wanting to watch the way he moved. He was a young man, clean-cut and broad-shouldered, but his slow, fumbling movements reminded her of her grandfather; the way he’d limped toward her when she first entered the store had almost caused her to mumble an excuse and go outside again.

She flipped through the pages idly, glancing at the glossy stock pictures of laughing, photogenic couples and families. All items just 99¢! Make your partner a dog person! Item 13A. LIMITED TIME ONLY! Maintain weight over the holidays–LOSS NOT GUARANTEED. Item 13B. Have the baby sleep through the night once a week. Item 13C.

That picture was of a sleeping baby, his little mouth relaxed into a faint pout. Libby bit her lip–she’d been doing a lot of that in the past month, and it was starting to taste chapped and bloody–and rested her fingertips on the baby’s face. In the back of her mind, she could hear Sasha screaming, “If you want kids so fucking much, find a man! I’m not your goddamn brood mare!”, could hear the glass bowl shattering against the wall behind her head. Sasha had apologized in tears the next day, of course, and Libby had forgiven her, of course, and they had made desperate love and promised that they would never fight again, just as they always did. But that time it had been true, because now Sasha was gone.

She had to turn the page. Blindly, she flipped to the tab in the back. FREE SAMPLES!

“Here you go.” Corrigan’s dry voice made Libby jump. She turned and saw him holding a cobalt blue bottle about the size of her little finger. “Stir this into a beverage and drink it just before going to bed. I’ve found the flavor complements an English tea wonderfully.”

“Great. Thanks.” She gestured at the page of samples. “What are these?”

Corrigan peered over her shoulder, and she saw his eyes go bright. The eyes were old, too, she thought; it wasn’t just his gait. There was a tired, stretched look around the edges, and she hadn’t even noticed until that eager brightness took it away. “Ah. These are from my new supply. Ninety-nine cent dreams fill a necessary niche, but my current stock is rather, ah, modest. I’m hoping to expand. I haven’t dealt in larger dreams in a long, long time.”

“Can I look?”

“Of course.”

She turned the page. This was more what she had expected when Corrigan had explained to her that he didn’t run a fancifully named dollar store, but a shop dealing in dreams themselves. Regain sight for the blind! Item 47A. Recover a missing heirloom! Item 47B.

She turned the page again, and her heart swelled to a huge size in her chest. She couldn’t move. All she could do was stare at the page, hands trembling. It was a generic photo of a man and a woman embracing in front of a sunset. Bring back the affections of a lost love! Item 47C.

Sasha. She could bring Sasha back. Oh, God, if this place was for real. . . . She imagined the faint, spicy smell of Sasha’s shampoo, the way she hummed in the back of her throat when she was falling asleep, the rich alto of her voice as she sang along with Libby’s cello. All the times in the past month with she’d felt frightened and she’d known that having Sasha near her would make her brave, because without Sasha she was just a timid little mouse. All the times she’d seen bridal magazines or women with strollers and thought, That’s not for me, that’ll never be for me; it’s what drove Sasha away, but she’s the only one I’d ever want to have any of it with.

It could have been a thousand dollars and she would have taken it. But a free sample…

“Ms. Morell? Did you find something of interest?”

Libby had almost forgotten that Corrigan was there. She looked up and saw him smiling benignly. “This.” She pointed to the picture. “This is free?”

He glanced down. “An excellent choice. A simple modification of Item 7D, stop your lover’s passing attraction to another. It should run wonderfully.”

“Great. I’d like to buy it also, please.”

Corrigan twiddled his tie between two fingers. “I should warn you, Ms. Morell, that the word ‘free’ is misleading. There’s no monetary cost for these dreams, but . . . well, I have to get my supplies from somewhere, especially if I want to upgrade. It’s a trade. A dream for a dream.”

“So you’d stab out my eyes so a blind person can see?” It would almost be worth it.

“No. A dream, Ms. Morell. You don’t dream of sight. You take it for granted. I’d want a dream from you.”

Libby bit her lip, tasting blood again. Sasha… “Let me–let me try this one and come back if it works.”

“Of course you may. And it will work, I assure you. I sell no monkey’s paws.” He punched a few numbers into the chunky gray cash register, and it thought for several seconds before displaying “$1.05” on its screen. “Tax, you understand.”

“Right.” Libby fished through her purse and placed the money on the counter.

Corrigan smiled blandly, a smile that didn’t touch his old, old eyes, and handed her a receipt. “Thank you, Ms. Morell. Enjoy your dream.”

The Death Of More

THE PRISONER

Shadows danced around the sparsely furnished cell as his candle guttered in a draft. It was a large room, and thankfully above the worst stink and grime of the lower tower, but a cell nonetheless. The tattered, threadbare robe he had worn for the past fourteen months fluttered about his legs as he shuffled across to the bed.

He lowered himself down onto the straw pallet pushed up against the wall. For most of his life he had lived in palatial homes, and slept on massive four-poster beds with feather mattresses swathed in silk sheets. Servants lit fires to drive away the slightest chill, and the kitchen was always ready to accommodate him. My goodness, he thought, how things have changed. At least it was summertime, and the brutal heat of the day had surrendered to a warm, humid night.

This cell had been the abode of some of the most famous and wealthy prisoners ever to find themselves confined in the tower. The conditions of their stays largely depended upon their ability to curry favor or mercy from the Crown. Many were allowed to furnish the cell as if it were their own home. The most privileged prisoners could walk about the tower grounds, and even host guests with dinners of roasted capons, puddings and wines. Thomas had no illusions about his standing with the King. He had been allowed only the most rudimentary comforts, those which his family could beg, buy or smuggle in to him. A short, three-legged stool, a chest for his small possessions and provisions, and the straw mattress for which he was immensely thankful; it was the only soft thing in the stone chamber.

In the end though, we are all prisoners here, he mused. Fine furnishings did nothing to change that, evidenced by the hundreds of scratched pleadings in the stone walls. They were perhaps the only lasting memorials to the poor souls who had languished out their last days here. Thomas had read them all. Some were simple protestations of innocence, some were whimsical poetry, and still others were fervent pleas for succor or salvation. The sheer desperation of the etchings was enough to destroy the morale of any man. He was not just any man though; Sir Thomas More was a knight of the realm, and until his conviction of high treason, had held the post of Lord Chancellor. One of the most powerful men in England and a favorite of the King himself, and yet now he was sleeping on straw in the Tower of London. That was not the worst of it though. Today was July 5th, the year of our Lord one-thousand-five-hundred-and-thirty-five. On the morrow, he would lose his head.