TCL #16 – Summer 2015

Amsterdam’s Gods

Malachite, carrying her ailing father on her back, walked towards the city of Amsterdam over the ancient ringway. It had been ten years since she and Father had fled the ruins of their old life over this very road. She couldn’t remember anything about that journey.

“It’s easier to get into Amsterdam than out,” her father quoted the old adage in her ear, brandishing his stick in front of her eyes to underline the wisdom in his words.

The raised highway was blocked-in by ruined, overgrown edifices on both sides, so it was impossible to see where they were going. The old road was surprisingly passable for travelers on foot, but in spite of that few people were using it. Which suited Father, because he said the business of revenge flourished better without advertisement.

Malachite would have liked to speak to the other travelers, to get a feel for the city of their destination, but Father wanted speed and silence. She’d promised him she’d get him back to Amsterdam and to help him avenge her mother and her sisters. Malachite shifted Father’s fragile bones around to a more comfortable position on her back.

At the end of a day’s walking, there was seldom any comfort left. But at least she was seeing something of the world.

“We got out back then,” Malachite said, trying to fathom what the ruined castles lining the broken highway had once been used for. Forts, she guessed, to protect and oversee the great road. She had heard people could shoot from that far away those days, even without special divine powers.

“We did,” her father said. His hand clawed into her shoulder in a way that said, I don’t want to talk about it.

And he didn’t need to. Malachite had been ten years old when they’d left, wise enough to understand her mother and her sisters had died and that they had to flee from the god who had broken its promise. A guilty god was deadlier than an angry god.

Still, it felt uncomfortable to be out of the demesnes of Otte en Liet, the powerful gods of Rotterdam, after ten years of safety. She and her father carried small vials of river water for protection, in brittle but intact plastic bottles that had once been her sisters’, but in the end they’d be on their own. It would be just their wits to go up against Aterscha, the god that had betrayed them and caused their family to die.

The destruction of the known world hadn’t stopped Amsterdam being a home to many gods besides Aterscha, gods of all kinds, big and small, friendly and unfriendly. No other city was as god-rich, no other gods worked so hard to keep their promises and keep their many followers happy. No other cities had a god of fashion, a god of good hair and several gods of great shopping. Said Father.

“Are we going to get there before nightfall?” Malachite asked as she looked at the western sky. She didn’t want to be outside city walls at night, prey to the wild godlets that roamed the open countryside.

“It’s a big town, Mal. Bigger than what’s left of Rotterdam. Older and stronger and with more magic.”

Malachite shivered. She didn’t like magic, never had. She worked in the harbor with her strong back and her big hands. If she never had business with any god but friendly Otte it would be fine with her. Except for this: she still burned with anger for the god that had killed her family and forced them to leave their hometown. For revenge, she would follow her father’s crazy plans.

Father picked the off-ramps he wanted to use. They’d have to walk inwards on the spokes of the imaginary wheel that was Amsterdam.

“Otte and Liet gave us specific instructions,” Father said. “We’d better stick to them. Promises go both ways.”

Malachite knew. One of her best friends when she was little hadn’t delivered the pink hair ribbon she’d promised to the god Oopgoot in exchange for curing her sick bunny, and the girl had ended up hairy, pink-eyed and dead by Christmas.

“This one.”

Here the ancient road descended from the elevated highway and segued into a bridge across the river Amstel.

Two steps on the bridge, Malachite halted. “Shouldn’t we pay homage to the river god?”

She walked over to the parapet to offer some spit, but Father pulled her ear to stop her. “No. Feel it. This is a dead river. Some other god killed Amstel a long time ago, and no one’s managed to claim her territory yet.”

Malachite pushed forward through the muffled, dead air on the bridge. So different from the sparkling exhalations over Otte and Liet. “I’ve never heard of a dead god before.”

“She probably reneged on a promise and all her adorers left her,” Father said.

Malachite shrugged. She couldn’t feel pity for a god. With great power came a great sense of entitlement and whimsy.

At the end of the bridge, she slammed her nose against an invisible barrier. “Ow!”

“I should have looked up the bridge god,” Father said. “Sorry.”

“What tribute does it want?” Malachite said, rubbing her nose.

Father flipped through his precious notebook. He could read and write, something Malachite had never taken to. “Here it is. Mstel bridge, a few drops of blood.”

Guess who was going to offer them? Malachite wiped her bleeding nose and flipped a few drops on the crumbling tarmac. Then she offered a few more for Father.

“Mstel Bridge, can we cross?” Father asked loudly.

No answer came.

Father shrugged. “I guess we’re good.” A little gingerly they crossed the spot where Malachite had hit her nose, but nothing happened this time.

Father relaxed and ruffled her hair, which she hated. “See? We can do this.”


I run my fingers tentatively over the rough outer edges, my face almost touching the mirror. Folding back semi-rigid slits, I examine the tender pink tissues penetrating both sides of my neck. No question about it: These are serious gills.

I first noticed them yesterday, on my day off. Shaken, I paced the floor for a couple hours before checking out Wikipedia. I learned that gills are a common feature of aquatic organisms. Fish have them. Some amphibians do. They extract oxygen from water and eliminate carbon dioxide. I suppose they could come in handy, like when you go swimming. Maybe it’s not the end of the world.

But why now? Thursday is the evening that Liz comes by the restaurant for the vegetarian omelette, washing it down with decaf coffee and leaving me a decent tip. I finally decided that today is the day I am going to ask her out, on a real date. How many times have I pictured myself cruising in her sleek silver BMW convertible, with the top down and the wind blowing through her gorgeous shoulder-length red hair.

And there’s this other problem: I’m a couple inches shorter than her and working on a beer gut. As for waiting tables at IHOP, I can explain that I have greater aspirations, that I earned a degree in hospitality management, after all. Maybe she can overlook the fact that I spend most of my spare time in my tiny man cave watching episodes of “Lost” over and over. And perhaps she won’t mind that I don’t have a stereo or a bar–just a second-hand couch, a flat screen, and a few old pictures, like the one of me at about age six standing in front of the Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica pier.

Yeah, Sal, you’re a real prize. And now you have gills on your neck.

I rub myself down with skin cream, cram two tubes of it into my pockets, and rummage through the bottom of my closet. I dig out a black turtleneck sweater, a gift from my ex-girlfriend. Not exactly my style, but it does cover most of my gills. I finish dressing, grab my keys, and head out.

I’m five blocks from home and already I’m running late for work. It seems like there’s a fender bender at every other intersection. What’s wrong with you people?

I jog from my Prius to the front door. Gabriella is filing her nails and barely looks up from the reception desk as I rush by to get my apron and name tag. My asshole boss Crusty still hasn’t fixed the ceiling fan over my section. I bet he disabled it to save a few pennies on his power bill.

I enter the kitchen and realize instantly that something is terribly wrong. It’s Charlie, the head cook. Charlie who is always making up silly songs about women’s anatomy as he flips pancakes and slaps bacon on the griddle. Charlie who is always grinning like he’s higher than a kite, even through double shifts amid the relentless glare of ceiling lights reflected by an ocean of stainless steel.

Charlie is staring straight ahead, eyes wide and mouth half open, scratching himself absentmindedly with his non-spatula-bearing hand. He doesn’t appear to realize that food is burning in front of him. Crusty is lurking several paces to my right, even more stooped than usual, his arms bent and waving erratically, his beady black eyes sweeping the kitchen from side to side before fixing on me.

“Where have you been? We’re down a person and you better get your ass out there right away–”

Hold on, Mr. Carlson, I want to say. It’s a Thursday evening in August in Cedar City, Utah, for God’s sake. There’s nobody here but the usual senior citizens who have been nursing java refills all afternoon, plus what looks like an unemployed guy pretending to read the help-wanted ads and a tourist trying to figure out why she brought the family to a ski resort during the summer. But I can’t get a word in.

Charlie signals me with his eyes. Two quick, furtive darts to his left, toward the food storage lockers beyond Crusty. I hazard a glance, but the boss scuttles sideways to block my view. A low moaning emerges from that direction. I look back at Charlie, nod my head slightly, hand him one of my tubes of skin cream, and retreat from the kitchen.

As I prepare to greet a couple of teen-agers on a cheap date, I silently curse the guidance counselor who steered me into this line of work. Mr. Denning, you made the fundamental mistake of assuming that I like people.

I avoid the kitchen as much as possible, hanging by the register when not waiting on tables.

Right on time, Liz arrives. She’s wearing a blue jacket and red blouse with pearls and a dark skirt. I bring Gabriella a box of candy every month, so she always seats Liz in my section. I guess everybody realizes that I’ve had a crush on Liz forever—everybody except Liz.

I try to avoid eye contact, but my God, just look at this woman. Tall, thin, with legs that go on forever. A slightly pointed chin, but intoxicating blue eyes and that spectacular hair brushing her face in just the right places. On top of that, she’s a successful real estate agent, well known and well heeled.

I pull myself together. “Welcome to IHOP. Can I start you off with a beverage?”

“Coffee, regular,” she states, not looking up from the menu. “And the bacon omelette.”

That throws me off. I mutter: “Regular, not decaf? And the bacon omelette, the one with six strips of bacon?”

“Yes. Any problem?”

“Uh, no, of course not. I’ll be right back with your coffee.”

What an idiot.

I slouch back into the kitchen. Charlie’s expression is even more grave. Crusty, leaning over a prostrate figure in the far corner, is covered in blood and making noises that I don’t even want to contemplate. I drop off Liz’s order, yank up my turtleneck collar, grab a pitcher of coffee, and take a deep breath.

Okay, Sal. You’ve rehearsed this a thousand times. Be relaxed, confident. Tell her that you’ve noticed her on Thursdays, that you think you have some things in common, that you’d like to get to know her.

Of course, I blow it.

Liz is scanning property listings. As I pour her coffee, I say without conscious premeditation: “I’m thinking of buying a house.”

She stares at me, hard, with more than a hint of amusement. I weigh the merits of bolting out the door and driving for days until I’m thousands of miles from anyplace where someone might know me or care that I have gills.

She opens her purse, withdraws a business card, scribbles on the back, and hands it to me.

“I’m usually up late,” she says.

Back by the register, I check out the writing. It sure looks like a residential address.

Somehow, Charlie produces an edible dinner for Liz. Somehow, I get through the rest of her meal without further screw-ups. She gives me a polite nod as she leaves.

Just an Expression

The job posting on the Newark Advocate’s website read, “Do you have an expressive face?” Beneath that single question was an inky little drawing, like a grayscale watercolor, of a man’s face. The only other text on the ad was an address.

The face from the ad had a kind of careless artistry about it, like it hadn’t taken much time or effort, but still hinted at a real mastery of proportion. More importantly, it was my face. It wasn’t a detailed drawing, just a smudge of a thing. But the angle of the nose, the jawline, the receding hairline, even the stippled hint of a five o’clock shadow were all mine. I’d seen them all in the bathroom mirror moments before opening my laptop.

It had been more than five months since I could reasonably call myself employed, so I was ready for a sign of hope from the universe. Hell, I would have settled for something vague. The faint s-curve of a dollar sign burned onto my toast. A fortune cookie promise of wealth. This wasn’t vague at all. It was right there on my computer screen in black and white. My face was on a help wanted ad.

My hands started shaking before I had finished running the iron over my interview shirt. I hated interviews. I also hated walking into a job without knowing a thing about it, but getting evicted was still the greater evil.

I did my best to think of witty small talk on my drive to the office park. I thought we could have a laugh at how much I looked like the little drawing.

“Looks like I’m you’re man,” I’d say.

“Ha, what a fun coincidence,” my soon-to-be boss would reply just before offering me a sizable signing bonus. Sure.

I found the address and parked. The office looked just like every other office in the complex, a brick façade with mirrored windows that showed nothing of the interior of the buildings. The door swung open just as I was getting out of my car. A young man with tidy blond hair and a charcoal gray suit stomped down the front steps scowling and muttering to himself.

He saw me heading toward the door and shook his head.

“I wouldn’t bother,” he said. He threw his arms up in exasperation and continued walking.

I decided to ignore him. After all, it wasn’t his picture in the ad and he didn’t seem like someone I would want to hire anyway.

Strange Eats at the Swan

You could say The Swan is a bit of an anachronism. Actually, you could say it’s a complete and utter, outlet-on-a-castle-wall-in-a-bad-movie anachronism. Maybe that’s what I like about it. It’s an honest to goodness, bad lighting and vinyl swivel stools diner. Has been since the forties. It used to be in good company on this street, but over time, all of the small independent shops ran to seed, and were bought up by this and that chain of cafes where coffee comes in a paper cup and cost three times what a coffee should. Hell, maybe It’s just my age, but I like it that at The Swan you still pay less than two bucks for a coffee that you can nurse well into the night without being bothered.

My coffee’s getting cold. I look at my watch. Have to squint to read the hands. Feels like an hour has passed since the last time I looked. Nope. Seven minutes. The waiting has become the hardest part.

The Swan is the kind of place where, in days gone by, blue-haired ladies would come on an afternoon to eat soggy-crusted pie and drink tea from those metal pots with hinged lids that would never close properly. A place where people would take a paper serviette from the metal stand on the table, unfold it and place it on their laps.

Whatever happened to all the blue-haired ladies? Nowadays they all take yoga classes and join book clubs. They drink decaf coffee and eat sugar free cookies. Lord above.

I have my usual table, a booth right next to the front window. The glass is late-night black and I see my shadowy, transparent self looking back at me. I want to put my hand out to see if it will go right through my reflection, but stop myself. I watch my face. Seems it’s been a while since I shaved. Can’t remember the last time. An all-night streetcar rumbles by, confusing the images. I look away.

The coffee tastes weak, but it does twice the job, caffeine-wise, of a coffee you get anywhere else. Another reason I like the place. And they serve it in those off-white cups and saucers with a band of off-white swans swimming around a robin’s egg blue rim. Robin’s egg blue. Not a color you hear of much anymore. Come to think of it, I don’t even remember the last time I saw a robin. Let alone a robin’s egg.

The middle-aged waitresses here are also from another time. Their uniforms are that color–since we’re on the topic of almost extinct colors–that used to be called mint: that pale, slightly sickly green that went out of fashion decades ago and for good reason. But I kind of like it. Here at any rate. It wouldn’t be the same if the waitresses were all eighteen and went around in tight black tee shirts and jeans. Wouldn’t be the same at all.

The clientele has changed over the years. And not for the better. They all look the same these days: the old and young, the rich and poor. And everyone looks so damned clean and fresh and healthy. Squeaky clean. Much as I hate to admit it, I’d love to see a kid with a hipster afro, or a foot-high punk mohawk hair-do walk in here. Hasn’t happened in ages.

I look down at my wrist again. Eleven minutes. That’s better. Though I’m starting to get that fluttery, colony of moths in my gut feeling. I’m sure they should have been here by now. But, as I know well enough, there’s no rushing these things.

I tap my cigarette pack on the table top. Used to be able to smoke in here. Not anymore. Not for a long time. The waitress is glaring at me from behind the counter. She’s already given my cigarettes a warning stare. Now she’s coming over, slowly, on white sneakers that squeak slightly on the linoleum floor; the kind of shoes you can only find in service uniform shops. She reminds me of an overworked nurse as she makes her way to my booth, holding out the coffee pot like it’s a bed pan she’s just changed. I feel sorry for her. I really do. She looks tired. But I can’t help fidgeting with the end of a cigarette, pulling it slowly out of the package. The damned thing is I don’t even smoke. Never have. But I like the way a pack of cigarettes feels in the hand. Just noticed that my hand’s shaking. More than usual.

She comes closer. Then out of nowhere, I get the taste in my mouth. God. Can’t even begin to describe it. And it’s a bit different with each person. Depends, I guess. Although I try not to, I find myself chewing. There’s nothing in my mouth but that taste. And as I chew, the image of two people appears, just behind the woman, grainy in a bad TV reception sort of a way. One’s the waitress. The other some guy. Their images sort of cling to her as she saunters through the diner; warping slightly each time she takes a corner. Damn. They aren’t always this strong, but she must have been musing on it today. Whether relishing or regretting, I’ve no way to know. Don’t much care, either.

“Refill?” she asks. I nod and put the cigarette back in the pack and push the pack away. She pours coffee that’s never quite hot enough into the cup. The swans keep swimming around and around. I swallow half the cup in one go. She walks away and I notice that one heel of her white sneakers is worn down more than the other one.

The bells over the front door jangle to life and my heart bounces into my throat. My hand rests on my throbbing neck as I turn to see who’s come in. I’m disappointed. And relieved.

A young couple bubbles through the door. They’re nuzzling each other and smiling like they just got away with a bank robbery. In spite of the hour, they still look annoyingly, artificially fresh. I’ll bet they go to a tanning salon. That’s probably where they met.

They approach the booth next to mine, then stop for an instant. Their faces change as they look over at me, then carry on to a booth further down the row. I don’t take offense at their not wanting to sit at the next table, I’m not looking too terribly fresh these days, but what I do take offense at is that they don’t look the least bit embarrassed by not wanting to. Can’t say I’m not used to it. And I can’t say I care. Really.

Time as an Opened Letter You Didn’t Want to Read

Time as an Opened Letter You Didn’t Want to Read

“I can turn back time,” my father says, or he will say. He will tell me that he will save my mother who died when I was just a child. He will say this, or he has already said this, or he is saying it right now.

This morning, I was a simple man with a simple life and a simple job as an accountant. My life was scheduled hourly, and there was never any question of where I was supposed to be when. But now time is fractured and I have seeped through all the cracks. I find myself in a business meeting with J about my father’s new invention at the same time I’m deep-sea fishing the Gulf with my father, who, as usual, is barely aware I’m there. I am a child again, meeting yet another fly-by-night stepmother-to-be at the same time I’m in Dallas watching JFK’s parade, an event that happened before I was born. I know what the real when is, because I know the blending of time happened today, but those terms are rapidly losing their meaning as time scrambles itself like an egg.

Even right now in the nowest of nows, in the midst of talking with J about patents and business plans, I am also in the Intensive Care Unit standing beside my father, wires sprawling on the floor like spilled spaghetti and everything smelling of antiseptic null. My nose is scoured of scent. J finishes a joke and his face wrinkles in the beginning of a laugh, but even as I hear his voice rise, it is mixed with the sound of nurses washing their hands, torrents of dirty water swirling through an aluminum basin.

The heart machine’s tubes stick into my father’s chest with the awkward beauty of an octopus’ arms. The tubes pulse slightly with every pump.

“I’m sorry,” I say automatically, without regret, the same way my father apologized to me for years without ever looking me in the eyes.

The pumped blood turns from red to a brighter red, then dulls.

J’s face darkens slightly, then smooths into a white sail.

“It’s okay,” he says. “I don’t expect everyone to get the joke.”

There are a hundred other moments I’m living, but these two stick into me like hooks in a fish’s mouth. J, waiting for me to pronounce on my father’s intellectual property. And my father, waiting for a priest to pronounce last rites.

My dad is swaddled in bandages. His eyes are covered with jelly to keep the staring eyeballs moist. I shut my eyes and focus on J’s office, but I can still hear the subtle beep of the heart monitor, the suck of the pump, the intercom crackling in some other room.

My father is an inventor of the old school, of the purest sort. He is more a philosopher than a scientist, seeing technology as the means towards plumbing the depths of the human heart rather than a method for making money or for improving society. An idealist.

“And what do you want to do with your father’s blueprints?” J says. The ends of his mouth turn up, predatory. He’s been our family’s financial advisor for as long as I can remember, a friend of my father’s from when they were in school, latching onto genius, and hoping that it would pay off. I am a child in his office, and he hands me a lollipop. “I wish I had a son just like you,” he says.

As J’s excitement grows, his ears turn scarlet. Normally a handsome man, now he looks like a troll. He knows my father had a breakthrough, and he’s waiting to hear what it is. He’s waiting to tally up his profits. He’s waiting to put a payment towards that yacht. He’ll still be waiting years from now.

This morning, as my father called to tell me the good news, I listened to him in my office at the same time I was in the alley behind my condo burning all of my father’s notes and designs and blueprints in a garbage can half-filled with garbage. The smell of burning paper and rot made my mouth water. I didn’t know why I was burning his things, but I could feel in my gut that it was the right thing to do. The necessary thing.

At my long silence, J’s smile cracks to reveal uneasiness.

“Send the blueprints to the patent lawyer, of course,” I say, standing. “I’ll send copies once I get the originals from my father.” I pat J on the back. We’re co-conspirators in the world of business, and though he nods in agreement now, he’s also snarling at me from behind the bars. Except I’m the one behind bars.

It was exactly a minute before my father called me that I found myself in two places at once. His voice was ecstatic – a minute before, he’d completed his invention – full of a life and a confidence I hadn’t seen from him for years. He hadn’t been so happy since the birth of my sister.

Except I don’t have a sister.

“Oh God,” he said. “Now I’m a god.”

He says the same thing in the delivery room, my sister in hand, my mother beaten into a stupor by labor, nurses cleaning up their prostrate bodies, and the doctor the only one noticing business-suited me in the corner of the room, my mouth agape in wonder. Before he can blink, I am gone.

I barely knew my mother. She died when I was three, sideswiped from the sidewalk by a bus with a blown tire on her way home from the grocery store. But I recognize that woman in the hospital bed from the family albums, even if she’s older than the pictures, older than the girl of twenty-seven who died out of my life so long ago.

Now I’m a man of forty, responsible for my own affairs and my father’s. I pay my bills on time and float a responsible amount of debt. I’m not religious. I believe in what I can see and hold. I believe in history, and the fact that our past is what molds us, continually, into who we are.

Now I am walking up the front walk of my father’s house. Instinctively, I step over the concrete raised up by the roots of the oak tree that I had removed five years past as a hazard. There’s a scar on my chin from when I tripped on that concrete for the first and last time when I was ten.

Now I am in the shower washing the blood from my body. It comes off easily.

Now I am in the Intensive Care Unit, but I am also still in the shower. I am naked and wet before my father’s dying body, also naked and wet. Water pools on the floor beneath me. A nurse screams, and her screams echo in the shower.

I am in all of these places at once, and none of them for certain. I can sense the distance I am from the hospital bed while I step up to my father’s door. It is growing harder and harder to focus on exactly who I am and when I want to be, but I am learning small tricks. If I bite the inside of my cheek, the pain brings me back to the now I need to be in, back to the me that is pressing the doorbell on my father’s house a little too forcefully. Even so, I can sense all the other places I am. If I look away, I know I’ll be standing before the chair that is waiting for me to be strapped in it.

A car honks, and I turn to see M, a childhood friend, wave as he drives by. But when I turn back I am in my father’s laboratory. He is removing his new invention from its protective case. I need to explain to him what he has done. But then my mouth drops open.

“You invented a gun?” I’m amazed. My father doesn’t believe in violence. When I asked him what he felt when mom died, he’d told me he simply felt sorry for the bus driver and all the passengers, having to witness such horror.

But it just appears to be a death ray or freeze beam, because my father isn’t crazy. He’s just a little misguided.

“With this,” he says, “I can turn back time. Well, if time could be turned, which it can’t because time isn’t a sphere or a circle or even a line. It’s a point. And with this I’ll be able to see all points at once.”

“And how is this supposed to make us money?” I ask.

“This is more important than money,” he says. “With this I’ll be able to save your mother. Don’t you want to meet your mother?”

“Dad, you can’t change history,” I say.

He doesn’t argue. All of his excitement falls away to reveal desperation and disgust.

“You never cared about me,” he says. “All you cared about was what I could give you. But I’ll bring your mother back! And then everything will be as it should have been.”

He turns the invention on himself, but I leap forward and grab the tip and pull it away. He pulls the trigger and the end of his invention glows with an unearthly light, the tip emitting a beam which slams into me with all the force of a feather.

My father’s eyes are wide with alarm, but I’m fine. Nothing’s changed.

But everything has changed. The moment my father finished the invention, this event was destined to happen, and when it did I was shaken from the fixed timeline of my life like water from a dog’s back. As soon as it would happen, it did happen. But only now do I fully understand.

I can see the future where everyone is lost in time, everywhen at once. History is a water-soaked tissue, transparent and fragile, and if you pick it up, it falls apart. And for one final moment, I am at my 41st birthday party and my mother and my sister and, yes, even my father, are watching me blow out the candles with joy and pride and –

– and I am there in my father’s laboratory and I am burning his notes and I am dismantling his invention and I am at his death bed and I am facing the electric chair and all because time cannot be changed. It will not be changed. I won’t let it be changed.

I ring the doorbell to my father’s house. When my father opens the door he grins so fiercely I’m afraid he might pull a muscle. It is the happiest he’s been to see me in a long, long time. He doesn’t suspect the knife until its already deep, deep inside him.

He looks into my eyes, but he isn’t shocked. It’s as though he is seeing me – the real me – for the first time.

But we both know that’s a lie.

The Redemption

Three years and not a word from the world. Three years of fighting to stay alive in the overgrown nuclear wasteland of Chernobyl amongst desperate criminals. Without law. Without hope.

But our redemption is now at hand. We remaining three. We insidious, hateful three–a thief, a prostitute, and an assassin–have packed our atonement into a thick lead case, placed it in the back of a rusty Kamaz truck, and are rattling down the highway to Moscow for deliverance.

Anastasia sits shotgun. Her AK-47 rests across her lap with the loud end pointing out the open window. Yuri sits in the truck’s cab behind us, an MP412 REX revolver–a Russian knockoff of the .44 Magnum–is in his hand; it’s more gun than hand. And then there’s me, Gordon, in the driver’s seat with my Glock resting in my lap and my AK-47 snapped into the gun rack over the windshield.

I can’t tell if Yuri and Anastasia are sick, nervous, or otherwise. I can only see their eyes through the glass portholes of their black masks. The rest of them is sealed up in yellow radiation suits, which are broiling in this summer heat. The pavement shimmers like a watery dream and even though the windows are down and we’re driving at a good clip, I’m sweating like I’m in a sauna. The short, hot breaths I have to suck through my mask’s circular filter are leaving me dizzy and gasping for more.

I don’t know if this is the hangover, the heat, or the radiation poisoning, but my stomach feels like I ate a bag of nails.

We partied like it was the end of the world last night and I think Yuri and Anastasia got together. I remember at one point her arms were around me, bottles of Black Cherry Stolichnaya were in our hands, her tongue was flickering in and out of my mouth, and she was grinding her crotch against mine in time with that godawful Russian music. Then I can’t remember what happened next. I woke up in bed alone.

I am mentally kicking the hell out of myself for this. She is an absolute knockout with a body as sleek and as sexy as a Bengal tiger’s. The Russians would line up around her decrepit apartment building in Chernobyl. And then there’s Yuri: skinny, sickly looking, and with just a handful of teeth. How the hell did I lose out to him?

“Anna,” I say, but my mask muffles my voice and she can’t hear me. “Anna,” I say louder and put my hand on her leg. She bats it away and looks at me. Her angry blue eyes shine through her mask’s dark lenses.

“What did I do?” I shout.

Then I slam my heavy rubber boots down on the breaks, throwing everybody violently forward. At the side of the road ahead and glinting in the sharp sunlight is a Skitter. He’s alone; just one from the hungry hordes that swept across the world, devouring every animal, man, woman, and child, leaving nothing but stillness in their wake.

Anna snaps back the bolt of her AK-47 and Yuri cocks the hammer of his hand cannon.

“Time for go!” Anna whoops.

The Blue Tigress Dreams

To: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station

From: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station


Did you know that at Rilltide, there are six names for mold? It all depends on what the color is and where you find it. Today we were scrubbing green slime from a bank of failed oxyinators. They call it “Green Jenny.” It smells like that time you decided to make us compost. Remember? A month of rotting garbage in bins before Mom called it off?

Gross. I can still smell it under my fingernails.

Work sucks, Tav. If we didn’t need the money, I’d find something else. I don’t know what or where but…

She knows when I hurt her. I don’t care what you say about “Machinae don’t feel pain” garbage. Blue Sion hates it when I weld her. And I don’t blame her, not really.

But there’s not much choice, is there? Palladium armor stripped off to keep the sodium-lights running and the saline purifiers keeping us wet or not and we shut down shop and that’s not going to happen.

So, that has been my week. Mold and torture.

We can’t leave her bone motors and silica-net to the air. It’s too wet in the station now, and we both know what will happen if moisture gets into the systems, let alone mold. I don’t know what they’d call mold inside Blue Sion.

She’s too old.

I asked around like you wanted me to, there’s no one at the station who has any idea what to do if she had a major malfunction. There are a couple of deadwater techs who think they know how. I wouldn’t trust them to fix the toilets right.

I’ve been here for six months, Tavis. And no one even knows my name.

To top it all off, the tide generators aren’t working right either, so they’ve shut down half the station and there’s talk about more layoffs. There are whole sections of the station where the lights are off and there’s nothing but the sound of the ocean pushing against the walls. Things aren’t looking too good. We turned the water system off for two days to get enough power into the mag-dock. No showers, only bottled water.

We both know I need this job, big brother. If we’re both not working… I don’t know what Mom will do.

The work still sucks though.

I felt bad about what we had to do, watching her handler lead her into the gate only to have the locks turn on. I don’t know what you do for Red Sion, but Blue fought it when the magnets pulled her paws down and made her crouch down. I worried that her plasteel frame would break under the strain.

She roared while we did it, Tav. There are only five people left on the welding team, it took most of the day to pull the plating off her. Without the dock I don’t trust our chances to do it again. Her claws are still palladium and there’s no way we’re going to declaw her.

At least we’ll last a little longer. The Site Manager said the palladium we took off her would keep us going for another six months. It’s sad to see the station this bad off. But what do you do with a weapon when the war’s over?

I love you. Please don’t spend your entire letter-allowance writing to me a lecture. You’re not a doctor yet.

Love your sister,

P.S. Everything still smells like mildew. The eco-grid is awful.

P.P.S. Yes, I remembered to transfer money into Dad’s account. I won’t forget again.

* * *
To: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station

From: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station

Dear Sis,

I’m sorry things are mildewey. If the heating-shield fails this close to the caldera, mildew won’t be our problem. There are some issues with the thermal transformers, but all-in-all, things aren’t too bad out here in the heat. If I get bored, I can go out and get a tan.

Thanks for sending Dad the money. It’s been busy here, too, but just because we’re busy doesn’t mean we don’t have responsibilities, Lurie.

And yeah, it’s been busy here.

Can you believe we ran through an alarm drill last week? I don’t know what Management was thinking. A whole lot of work for nothing. Red actually tried to fire up his thermal cannons. The lights were flashing and the alarms blared for almost an hour. It’s been fifty years since there was an incursion.

The old thing actually thought his Pilot was calling. Red Pilot must be what? Seventy? It was actually sort of sad, Red bashing against the hatch.

There must be something wrong with his wiring. He should know better. Took his handler most of a day to calm him down. We’ve scheduled the blaster removal for next week. Something that old has no business with a gun the size of a star cruiser on his back.

Red’s been on half rations since the Calm started, thank god. You’ve probably sat through the same video training I did when I started: the Sions blasting away whatever the Enemy called up. We had to watch the one with Shadow Zerker at our last facility training. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the one from when the war just started and they were still filming in color.

There’s good footage of Blue Sion, if you ever get bored. You were always the sentimental one.

Still creeps me out to see that cannon’s turbines whirring though. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sound.

Anyway, I’m going to write the Systems Manager at Cobblerock Station. He was visiting last month and I think we hit it off. I know they frown on inter-base relations, but it’s not like we get leave or live off-base. Can’t spill secrets, right? I’m sure Green Sion’s no different than Blue or Red—out to pasture waiting to get put down. At least it’s a paying job, right?

I know it gets lonely. I feel it too. Keep writing me.

Lurie—write Dad. He says he hasn’t heard from you.


P.S. Don’t forget to wash your underwear.

* * *
To: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station

From: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station

Dear Smartass,

I’m writing from Blue’s observation deck. The windows look out over the enclosure with its deep pools and high rock. It’s amazing to think that the water goes down ten stories.

It’s quiet, and as close to abandoned as Rilltide is, quiet is a luxury, so I sit here and ponder three important things, dear brother:

1. My underwear is none of your business.
2. I’m not writing Dad anything. Stop asking. I sent the money and he can go to hell.
3. Tavis got a boyfriend? Are you kidding?

You can imagine which of these things matter to me the most. I thought you were dating an engineer? Did the volcano finally blow up? No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. I hope it works out, Tav. You deserve someone nice, and someone whose underwear you can ask about besides your sister’s.

I don’t know why I keep sitting here. Observation deck has a nice kind of mold they call “Grey Prancer” and it makes my eyes water. Too dry in here to get slime, but no one sits on these chairs and watches her anymore. Not in years.

She’s pacing in the enclosure tonight. Sometimes she acts like a real cat—dashes from place to place, claws at the rocks. Remember when Mom brought home that kitten? Kind of like that. I figure Red does the same, huh?

Do machinae dream, Tav? I wonder what Blue dreams of when her systems slow and the sodium lights are turned down for the night. I don’t dream of anything, any more. There’s not much in this place worth dreaming about, even if the pay is steady.

I don’t want to be here. I want to tell Dad he can pay his own bills. He could get up and find a job, do something good instead of live off his kids.

I’m watching her tonight to make sure the new welds hold. She doesn’t have any palladium left, and the metal looks like a motley coat. We’ve salvaged whatever we could—steel, aluminum plate to weld the gash. Blue Sion is twelve meters at the shoulder; there isn’t enough metal in stores for that kind of repair.

Weird, she’s grooming herself like a real cat. I never stop being surprised by her, Tavis. There’s something beautiful about her, the way she is so perfectly herself, no matter how bad things have become. She saved the world from the Enemy and we repaid her with a cage. I wonder sometimes.

Anyway, I hope things work out with the guy from Cobblerock. A piece of advice though? Don’t ask him about his underwear until the third date. Believe me. Third date.

Love you,

P.S. I overheard a couple of the deadwaters talking about Important Visitors coming soon (capital letters and all). Not sure what that’s about.

* * *
To: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station

From: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station


I know I said I wasn’t going to write to you this week, but my letter to Siao got returned, unopened and my letter allowance got credited. I don’t know if he just didn’t want to talk to me, or whether Management cares more about inter-station relations than I thought they did.

Damn it, Lurie. You know I agree with you. This is a good job and there aren’t a lot of them. The pay is steady and I’m not killing myself in a factory somewhere. But… it’s lonely. All the windows look out onto the Caldera. There are—what did you call them? Deadwaters. The old timers who remember when working on Red Sion was a privilege, they were helping stop the Adversary. There’s no one here that I’m friends with, and being stuck on “special assignment” makes it all that much harder.

Dad can’t work and you know it. It’s not his fault. I’m as lonely as you are.

You mentioned Blue grooming after you took the plating off: there’s a machine inside the tongue system on the Sions that regenerates armor after battles. That’s probably what she’s doing.

But look, Sis—go make some friends. It bugs me knowing that you’re stuck in that station and it was my idea to get you there in the first place. Don’t sit up in the observation deck for hours in the dark. That’s how you go crazy.

Anyway, there’s not much going on here. Work work work, sleep, eat processed food. Watch the lava flow, wait for the alarms to ring. They’re never going to ring, though. The Calm is going to last forever—isn’t that what the news says?

It’s good enough for me. It’s what people like Dad fought for. The least we can do it keep the lights burning a little longer.

Any new molds?

Love you,

P.S. No PS this time. But maybe you should talk to your boss about a promotion or something? Seems like you’ve been working hard. Tell them I recommended you.

* * *

To: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station

From: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station

Dear Tav,

The Important Person was a surprise visit with the War Minister. Tav, you wouldn’t believe how crazy it was—like someone had kicked an ant hill! I don’t think an attack from the Adversary would have sent us scrambling so bad. They had to dig out uniforms from stores.

I’ve never seen a uniform in this place. And they were made of this weird plastic-feeling fabric. There was blue fringe and epaulets and whatever else.

Mine was too big, almost down to my knees. But something got through them so there were a bunch that were ripped or eaten or gnawed. There was mold on a few of them blue-grey like the dinner we had a few nights ago (Blue Jimmy, since you’ve become fascinated with mold).

We stood in line as though we practiced that sort of garbage every day. He walked down the line, didn’t stop to talk or inspect or whatever the War Minister does. He was about as tall as you. About as fat as dad with a thick moustache the silver of plasteel. We lined up on the launch deck and it surprised me how few people were actually at Rilltide. Maybe fifty. This station used to hold seven thousand.

Blue Pilot came, too.

She was old like you said, Tav. It’s hard to imagine her as our age. She was fat, and it strained the suit she wore. The suit was peach colored, like the water gets when the desalinators don’t work right and the chemicals wind up in the drinking supply rather than in the filters. She lurched behind the War Minister and didn’t say anything to anyone.

Tavis, she never saw Blue. She didn’t ask the handler anything. She showed up, walked a few hundred yards and then left.

How could she have done that? I don’t think Blue realized what happened. If she knew it, it would have broken her heart.

We got the order after the Minister left.

Tav, the order is to get the palladium off her claws. They’re going to declaw Blue Sion. The order says they expect “residual damage” from the process. They don’t expect her to make it.

This isn’t what I signed up for. I watched the videos again—where the Scions came together and made MechaSion and the final battle when they defeated the Adversary and brought the Calm. Where’s the pride we had then? Where is the loyalty? How can the Sions be scrapped for parts, while we wear hand-me-down uniforms and pretend to care?

It hurts.
* * *
To: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station

From: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station

Come on, Lurie. They’re machinae. They were built for a purpose and it’s over. The bases are falling apart and they’re not going to upkeep obsolete systems. It costs money the government can’t afford. This isn’t about Blue Sion and you know it.

But sure, if you want to say it is, let’s talk about some things:

1. It’s been fifty years and there are still cities in rubble. The communication framework is restricted to military personnel. We have to write letters to each other and get one letter a week. The days where these stations matter are over.

2. We’ve been bleeding Red into the power systems for years. His reactor reinforces the Goutflame Station. If we weren’t, the Eco-grid would fail and the station would melt into the volcano. Same way Rilltide would drown or Guststorm Station would fall out of the sky. Hiding these bases made sense in the war, but now we’re haunting the relics.

3. It’s over, Lurie. Do your job. Get it done.

They’ll find another place for you. Maybe White Sion or Black. Look, I’ll talk to the Station Manager here and see if you can transfer.

You won’t be lonely forever. We can talk about Dad and see if we can’t figure out something. I’ll send him a little more and maybe he can just make do, okay?

Just get through it. I’ll take care of you, sis.

Love, Tavis

* * *
To: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station

From: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station


The mag-dock was broken. They’re calling it sabotage. There’s no way for them to take her claws now.

It’s not about Dad or the money. It’s not about mold or quiet halls or…

I’ve been dreaming, Tavis. That my claws are digging into the rock. The alarm is my heartbeat. There are monsters to fight. The Adversary cannot win. There is a Pilot to guide me. When I dream, I know I am not alone.

How did they build the Sions, Tavis? If they’re just machinae why does she howl and claw and pace? Why does dread move down my back when I wake up? I’ve started sleeping here in the twilight of the observation deck. I don’t want her to feel so alone.

– L
* * *
To: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station

From: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station

Sis, you’re scaring me. I just got your letter. Are you crazy? Do you know what they’ll do to you if they think it’s you? It’s just a machina. It is just metal and parts and pieces. It’s not alive, Lurie.

No, I don’t know who built it. Some government program long-since shut down and forgotten. They’re going to shut down the stations. We just had a walkthrough too.

But it doesn’t matter, we’ll land on our feet. Talk to someone you trust, sis. Or don’t trust. Only don’t do this. I’m half a continent away and can’t lose you. Who’s going to write to me? Or remind me of stupid stuff we did growing up? Pull yourself together. If not for yourself, than for me. Please.

Things are getting ugly here too. Pay didn’t get distributed this week, but they’re still collecting rent for rooms and food. There’s grumbling and a few people tried to talk to the Station Manager. No luck there. What else can we do?

Let me know you’re being safe. Please.

Love, your brother,

* * *

To: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station

From: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station


I went into her enclosure tonight. The station sleeps by 20:00 hours. They’re rationing power now. Four of the tide generators shorted out over the last week. There’s water rationing going on too. More of the sodium lights are off and the hallways are filled with darkness so thick you half-expect a monster from the Adversary to materialize.

No one checks the doors anymore. There’s not enough people to care. There’s probably a system somewhere that checks for codes and scans finger prints or something. It wasn’t hard to pop the lock. We used to do it as kids, remember? One of the useful things Dad taught us from his army days.

I wanted to see her. No, I needed to see her.

It was cold in the enclosure. The sea water lapped at the rocks. They don’t bother with lights inside either, at night. At first, the only thing I could hear was my heart beating. They told me at orientation that the Sions weren’t safe to be around outside of a Mag Dock.

And I kept thinking that I was one of the people who peeled her armor off and replaced it with scavenged siding from walls and decking from old floors off the station. She should hate me.

Blue’s paws didn’t make noise on the rock. I didn’t realize she was behind me until I saw four stories of Sion leaning down. How she moves so quietly, I don’t know. Her eyes double as lights, Tavis, did you know that? They made two pools of blue light. And as I looked up there were her eyes and her teeth.

It felt like I stopped breathing, looking into those lights. It’s probably how a mouse feels before it gets eaten. But Blue didn’t stamp me out with her paws, or claw me. She didn’t knock me into the water and watch me drown.

She lowered herself beside me, tons of metal. She put her head down on her paws, looking out into the dark water. I don’t know how long we sat there, until I rested against the smooth metal.

I didn’t realize that Sions were warm. Is there a system that makes it happen?

She was warm, even though the air was cold and the sea lapped at the edge of the enclosure. I don’t know, Tavis, but as the hours past I watched as another light grew. There is a hatch near her shoulder. It opened on greased hinges. There is a stair that descends all the stories.

Blue didn’t move. Didn’t growl or shake. She only offered, Tavis. But as I saw it, I got scared. It hit me that I shouldn’t be there, like you said. That I had no business in the Enclosure and what would happen if I got caught. At best, I’d be fired and there’d be no one for Blue Sion at the Station. At worst…

Tavis—the alarm’s ringing. It’s ringing. The lights just went up. The sirens are echoing down the hall. Tav–I can hear her roaring. I can feel it echoing through the Station. I need to go, I need to go…

Be happy, Tavis.

* * *
To: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station

From: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station


What’s going on? Your last message was cut off. We had an alarm here. Lurie, answer me as soon as you can. Red went crazy. The containment systems failed. There was an alarm and the outside hatches opened. The Eco-Grid almost went off. We tried to stop Red, but he went out into the heat. No one realized that he had enough energy to get the jet boosters going, but he did.

Red Sion’s disappeared. We’re trying to get secondary systems up and running to track him, but they’re old. We’re not even sure which of the computer banks the trackers are, even if they worked, or if we could get enough energy without compromising the entire station

Jesus Sis, we’re not getting news reports. What’s going on? Management is telling us to calm down, but Red’s gone. Without him to back up the reactor systems, we’re not going to be able to keep the Eco-Grid going. I don’t know what we’re going to do.

When you get this, please let me know you’re alright. Hopefully—hopefully the Sions will be back. It must have been an accident, or some sort of test? No one’s sure and they’re starting to get scared. If you’re okay, I don’t need to be scared. I’m sending a letter to Dad too, to make sure he’s okay. Please, please, please tell me you’re okay.


* * *

To: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station

From: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station

It’s been a week, Sis. You haven’t answered. Red hasn’t come back. There’s rumors that there was an attack on one of the cities. People are getting drunk and saying that the Adversary is back and the Sions were called.

How could they have called the Sions? The Sions were being scrapped. They didn’t have Pilots, or weapons or armor. How could they?

No one will say if Blue Sion was there. No one says what happened. They all just keep looking at me from the side of their eyes as if they know something I don’t. People keep asking me if I have a sister from Rilltide Station.

Where are you, Lurie? Goutflame’s Eco-Grid is failing. We can’t stay here any longer. I won’t be able to write you.

Look – I’m coming, alright? They’re shipping us out and I’ll start making my way to you. It will be a few weeks for me to get to Rilltide, but I’m coming. I promise. Please hold on.

Please be there.

I love you, Sis,

Sean is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA. His work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and is forthcoming from Betwixt, and Apex Magazine. When not writing, he works in the social services field in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. You can find him (occasionally) on twitter @Kesterian

New Boy, New Girl

On a springlike end-of-winter morning I awoke to a furious itching deep under my skin, as if my upper ribs were chafing one against the other. I prayed it wasn’t a rash or a spider bite or any other mundane nothing. I mumbled silent vows. Tithing my allowance at church? I’d do it. Treating Dirty Joe to a dollar menu burger? As soon as he drew near. I’d even try and be gracious with my older brother, Pete.

Hours later, I fidgeted in the back row of Geometry class. The pain in my side flared with such searing intensity that I nearly fell from my seat. For two merciful inhales the agony faded. It swelled again. Pinprick needles chased a disconcerting crackle that I knew to be bone. I wiped away tears before anyone took notice and felt the inside of my shirt with the stubs of new fingers.

Approaching Mr. Henderson’s desk with casual swagger wasn’t easy. The titters of the class threw off my stride, and the singing in my head made my feet feel as if they weren’t my own.

“Johnathan?” Mr. Henderson turned away from his whiteboard proof.

“Yes, I—”

My voice came close to breaking. I couldn’t finish. I couldn’t risk the class hearing such a quaver at such a time. It was all too cliché.

Mr. Henderson didn’t miss a beat. “Do you need to see the nurses?”

The classroom stilled. They sensed the importance of this moment. Even the rudest among them found it too boorish to intrude.

“Your right, is it?” Mr. Henderson asked, but that’s not where his eyes were. He knew. He was giving this to me.

I cleared my throat. “Left.”

The class buzzed and whispered incredulously.

“Let’s see.” Mr. Henderson capped his marker and helped me with my shirt’s lateral zipper. It didn’t lower easily. Bad luck befalls eager fingers, as the saying goes—I’d never dared touch it.

My third hand slipped free. Everyone saw and everyone knew. My new arm was growing fingers first, fully sized and already straining out beyond the second knuckle. No infantile growth. No months of exercise to match my new limb to its peers. Not only was I a lucky lefty, I’d jumped over years of development.

The rarest of rare beginnings. And everyone saw.

Every other high school student already had a second right, though precious few limbs were yet the equal of the originals. Corey, in back, was respected for his three rights, and though Nathan, the star basketball player, had two rights and two lefts, both were slight compared to his natal pair. He folded them, smooth and feminine, across his desk. They’d look right at place on his sister—still, he took due pride.

Today though, belonged to me. I’d caught up. At the rate my arm was progressing, I’d be passing some of my classmates by the weekend.

Mr. Henderson slid open the bottom drawer of his desk, retrieved a double wrap, and secured my new fingers. I’d bled no little amount, but didn’t mind at all. I wished eleven through fifteen could feel the open air. I wanted to watch them wiggle.

“Get down there pronto,” Mr. Henderson said. “It starts to really bite in when the adrenaline fades—always just in time for the wrist too. Trust me.” He waved a dozen times at the class and they chuckled at his humor. Very few adults ever reached ten. That made Mr. Henderson the coolest teacher in the building.

“For the rest of the week I’ll pipe the lesson down to Miss Oshi’s offices. Channel—” Mr. Henderson punched at his computer keyboard while signing out a hall pass and gathering up the day’s assignment as he cleaned his glasses. “—twenty-three. There are so many mending this week. Something in the air?”

“I—I dunno.”

The class chuckled. It may have been at my expense.

“Hurry down. And call your parents too. They’ll be proud.”

“I know. I will.” I thought of all the early morning promises I’d made and didn’t regret a single one.

Final Exam at the Academy

Jhest waited for the toadstools to stop singing before emerging from his cocoon.

He peeled aside the gossamer threads of small magic that had cocooned him safely during the process of incarnation. The delicate web melted away to nothing, leaving him blinking in the bright starlight.

He was crouching on a beach of white pebbles, a lazy sea hissing up to brush his feet; further to landward, Jhest could make out the silhouettes of the toadstools he had heard, their strange booms almost completely closed now that their song was done.

To wait for the singing to stop, that had been the first rule the Warlocks had impressed on their young apprentices, five years and a whole lifetime ago. A diligent student would know better than to emerge from his cocoon before the singing was complete, lest they find themselves in a world not yet fully-formed, with dangerous currents of unearthed potential roaming the landscape, just the sort of thing that was liable to take an unwary apprentice before the exam had properly begun, and turn them from a promising candidate into a warning in tomorrow’s lessons.

Jhest stood, his lithe, efficient frame unfolding warily into an unconscious half-hunch, and tested the scent on the air. He could smell salt and sulfur and ozone, the bitter-blue tang of a freshly minted reality. Beside his feet, the last lambent strands of his decaying cocoon melted silently into the pebbles. He scanned the horizon, but saw no sign of any other nearby apprentices, no other flicker of magic draining back into the core of this little world.

For a moment he wavered, caught up by the unbearable solidity of the pebbles under his feet, of the sea as it rose to touch his bare toes, and of the impossibly bright stars that flamed in the sky above. The lessons had always made a point of emphasizing the solidity of this unreal exam world, the final hurdle after years of study, of how it would look and feel and taste, even, as real – no, more real – than the everyday world of lectures and libraries and endless hours of study. But even though Jhest had thought himself prepared for it, he and his little coterie of fellow apprentices, he realized now that understanding something on an abstract, intellectual level was no real preparation.

Then his months of training took over. First things first! He thought, and forced himself to concentrate on scanning the ground nearby. He made one pass, then a second, then a third. A feeling of panic began to rise within him. We’re meant to be sent with one, he thought desperately. They promised us! One amulet with every cocoon, so look carefully for it before running off into danger unarmed!

He stopped. Something faint glittered under the waves, a few feet out from the line of foam where the sea met the shore. Almost not daring to hope, he splashed out into the surf and bent down. The small amulet he pulled from the waves was silver and seemed to hold more weight than it had any right to. He turned it over, and smiled when he saw the blue lightning emblem that was engraved on the other side.

A lightning totem.

It could have been worse. A lot worse.


The old woman ladled broth and noodles from the clay cook pot into a wide wooden bowl. “Whatever your problems, they can wait until your stomach is happy with hot soup.”

Icho wiped a hand across his eyes. “No! You don’t understand! My family – ”

“Yes, yes, your family.” A spoon and a splash of shoyu, and she pushed the bowl towards him across the low table. “Problems can wait until after soup.”

“I can’t eat! Bandits attacked my village! They killed my father, and, and – ” Icho looked around the hut, eyes wide. He saw fire, bloody blades, his father falling. He’d run, run so fast he thought he might die like a coward and not his honorable father’s son. He’d eventually found the old woman when he really wanted a soldier, an army, anyone else. “Please, you must help me. They’ll kill everyone
if I don’t do something.”

The old woman patted his cheek. She was fat like a toad, with a wide mouth, and bulging eyes beneath wiry brows. She wore a simple green kimono and thick tabi. “Soup first, then talk.”

Desperate, Icho grabbed the spoon and took a sip of broth. The sweet warmth of ginger filled his head. Another. He’d had nothing to eat since his onigiri at midday. Tasty bits of daikon and egg hid in the nest of noodles. He slurped the bite of chilies and onion, the salty tang of fish sauce. Before he knew it he‘d finished his second bowl, and the autumn night had wound tight and dark around the tiny hut.

The old woman set the bowl and spoon in the wash bucket by the cook fire. “There. You have had your soup, and your stomach is happy.” She grinned with crooked, yellow teeth.

“I guess.” Icho rubbed his eyes. “Can you help me now, please? I need to reach the garrison in Nagasaki before. . .” He stifled a yawn.

“Nonsense, you can’t travel at night.” The old woman led him to a tatami mat he had not noticed against the far wall. “Rest here tonight, and tomorrow you can go for help.”

The mat pulled Icho to his knees, then his head to the barley husk pillow. “But my family. . .”

The old woman tucked the kakebuton around his shoulders. “You are a good son. Sleep now, worry about your family later.”

Icho opened his mouth to protest, and was asleep before the first word came out.

The old woman whispered in his ear, “You must go now, Icho.”

He sat up, squinting in the candlelight. “How did you – ?”

Four men in dirty padded armor sat at the low table, battered helmets beside them. The old woman moved around the table, ladling hot soup into their bowls. Icho recognized the long knives tucked in their belts, and fear splashed like winter water down his spine. Brusque chatter, and the whinnying of horses came from outside.

The old woman set the pot back on the fire and wiped her hands on her kimono. “Awake finally, hmmm?” She waddled to the tatami mat and took Icho by the shoulder. “Up and off with you, then.”

Icho clambered to his feet. He screamed a bare whisper: “That’s them!”

The old woman looked over her shoulder. “These men? Bandits? Certainly not.”

Icho clutched her kimono. The threadbare cloth was bitter with woodsmoke. “No, you don’t understand. They’re the ones who attacked my village.”

The men watched him with sharp dark eyes, dog eyes. One sneered at him, made to stand.

“Don’t mind the boy,” the old woman said with a laugh. “Eat, eat. Make your stomachs happy with hot soup before it gets cold.”

The man hesitated, then settled back with the others. He lifted his bowl and gulped the broth. His eyes widened, he smacked his lips, and nodded to the others. After a moment, they lifted their bowls to join him.

The old woman walked Icho towards the door. “Head back home. Bring me noodles for my soup the next time you come this way.”

“They’ll kill us. We have to – ”

The men standing with the horses looked up from their dice as she pushed Icho outside.

“Of course not. Get on home now.” She motioned the men inside, her eyes sickly yellow in the dim light. “Come in. I have soup to warm your bellies.”

The dark woods reeked of smoke and hot metal. Blood and death grabbed Icho by the heart and he ran, the way he ran when the bandits came for his family. Left the old woman standing in the doorway, her terrified screams so much like his mother’s! Icho raced his shame into the night until fear tore the breath from his chest and he tumbled into darkness.

The next morning, Icho followed his shame along the path of broken branches to the hut. His coward’s heart would have rather kept running, but honor demanded he return. If he couldn’t apologize for his cowardice, he could still bury the old woman’s body then give himself to the sea in shame.

He stopped at the edge of a small clearing littered with slick, white bones and bits of cloth. Shreds of padded armor hung from dead black branches overhead. In the center of the clearing, leather reins knotted around a pile of human and horse skulls at the base of a small stone altar. A fine breath of smoke hung in the air, then drifted away on the wind.

Icho walked to the altar. He pressed his palms together and bowed low to the stone soup pot perched on top. A master’s hands had given it life – a wide toad mouth with crooked teeth, and bulging eyes beneath lightning brows. “I thank you. My village thanks you. My father thanks you.”

On the other side of the clearing stretched a wider path made by horses. Icho started home. Noodles. He would not forget.