Fiction

Above the Clouds

Cordyn sat on the rocky cliff, one knee hugged to their chest, their other foot dangling over the edge. Their chin-length dark hair hid most of their face, and clouds lapped at their ankle, billowing in the wind that swept down from the mountaintop. I hesitated on the path, not sure what I could possibly say, but knowing that I had to say something.

“I’m fine, Arlyn.” Cordyn shifted on the ledge, tucking their wings even tighter to their back. “You should stop worrying about me.”

“I didn’t expect the egg to be so big. So close to hatching.” I stepped off of the path, reached out a hand, then pulled it back before my fingers brushed against their storm-gray feathers. “It was a bit of a shock, realizing that you’ll have to leave so soon.”

The wind swirled around us, revealing Cordyn’s face. Their gaze lingered on the horizon, far off over the cloud ocean. “Do you think there’s really anything under the clouds?”

“Of course I do.”

“Why does no one ever come back, then?”

“Because it’s forbidden. Because there is too much to do to waste time moving backwards.

Because there are insufficient updrafts.” I shrugged. “Because there’s nothing here to come back to.”

“I remember when you were an egg,” Cordyn said. “I remember Lialyn’s face when they held you. It broke their heart to leave so quickly after you hatched.”

“I’m sure they’re waiting for you, under the clouds.”

“I wish I was sure.” Cordyn stood up, towering a full head over me. They reached out and patted my shoulder, their hand warm and comforting. “It’s almost time for dinner. Let’s go home.”

Magic in the Mud Show

Homestead, Pennsylvania: August 1892


1

As the train slowed, Neva cracked open the door to the advance men’s bunkroom and peered inside. “Well, you’re not supposed to be there,” she murmured to the room’s petite, petrified occupant. But her words were drowned out by Brother Paste, who rapped the window at the other end of the railcar and shouted, “Damnation! It’s a sticker war!”

Neva had made her observation to a pale girl who couldn’t have been more than sixteen—the age Neva had been when she joined the circus four years ago. The girl looked more terrified than most runaways, but maybe that was because Brother Paste, whose voice was every bit as immense as the man himself, hadn’t stopped shouting.

“The bastards stole a march on us!” he roared as the train eased into the station. “They papered over all our mummies!”

Neva mouthed “Be still” to the runaway and then leaned back to see where the big man was pointing. Lithographs of wild animals and near-naked performers coated the saloon opposite the station, the bar’s sagging walls “mummified” from top to bottom with advertisements for the circus. But while the eye-catching colors were familiar—grassy greens and peacock blues and molten reds more brilliant than any you’d find in even the best magazines—the name was wrong: “Ringling Bros.” instead of “Barnum & Bailey.”

“Would that saloon be ‘The Tipsy Cow?’” asked Floy, the only other regular advance man on board. Unruffled, he was checking the list of pasting contracts.

Brother Paste, halfway through yanking his pasting smock over his head, grunted what sounded like an affirmative. He’d spent the last hour brewing a barrel of his flour-and-water-based adhesive in case they needed to post some last-minute ads. He was probably cursing himself for not making more.

“Advance Car 1 signed the bar’s owner—a Mr. Wilcox—to a pasting contract back in May,” Floy noted. “Cars 2 and 4 confirmed it in June and July.” He struck a line through that portion of the list. “No complimentary tickets for him.”

“He’ll still get a piece of my mind,” Brother Paste growled, finally out of his smock. He hefted one of the rolling pins the advance men used to flatten the lithographs against their intended surfaces. “After we make sure the Ringling crew is good and gone. Come on, then—get yourself something to knock heads with.”

This last was to Neva and the other fill-ins, especially grizzled Ceburn, who was almost as large as Brother Paste. But Ceburn said what he always did—nothing—and the significantly shorter Gemi and Dorian crossed their arms.

“No one said anything about paying us to brawl on our day off,” Neva reminded Brother Paste. “Come get us when you’re sure the Ringlings are gone, and we’ll put up your posters.”

The advance man glared at her, muttered something about “Old men and colored midgets,” and stalked off the car.

Once Floy followed, she turned back to the runaway, who’d had the sense not to repeat whatever she’d done to make the incriminating noise Neva had heard a few moments earlier. “You picked the wrong train, little rube. This is Car 6. It works for the circus, confirming supplies and spreading the word. But it’s not part of it.”

Dorian squeezed his head under Neva’s arm, winked at the runaway, and stretched his face into a wide-eyed smile so ridiculous the poor girl couldn’t help giggling.

“This one, though—he’s an act to himself.” Neva tugged his hair until he withdrew, still beaming like a jack-o’-lantern. “A clown on and off the job. Normally us performers wouldn’t be here, but most of Brother Paste’s team is sick.”

Dorian slid under Neva’s arm backwards this time, clutched his rear end, and made a long, wet farting noise. The runaway giggled again as Gemi—her hands hairier than most men’s—grabbed hold of Dorian’s shoulders and returned him to the main cabin.

“No one asked for an illustration,” Gemi growled.

“The rube came to see ‘The Greatest Show on Earth,’” he protested.

“Then stop disillusioning her.”

Neva couldn’t help grinning. “The rest of the circus will be along tomorrow,” she told the runaway. “Stay out of the way and we’ll get you sorted.”

The girl nodded.

“What’s your name?”

“Rassy,” she whispered, her voice threaded with hope.

“I’m Neva—Neva Freeman. It’s nice to meet you.”

Before Rassy could respond, Brother Paste bellowed “Trespassing bastards!” from somewhere outside the car. Neva motioned for the runaway to hide, then closed the bunkroom’s door and ran to the nearest window. A second later, she jerked her head back as a pail of paste thunked against the car and coated the glass in white goo. She moved to the next window and did a quick count of the sticky, shouting men outside. “There are at least seven from Ringling’s—no, eight.”

Gemi joined her at the window to watch. Brother Paste and Floy were standing back to back, dripping with paste from another hurled bucket. Even so, they were giving better than they were getting. Brother Paste had laid out two of the rival advance men with his rolling pin, and Floy had jabbed another in the gut with Car 6’s stirring stick, doubling the man over.

But the odds remained bad.

“Maybe we should go out and help,” Gemi said, reflecting Neva’s own thoughts.

“No need,” Dorian replied. “The fight’s coming to us.”

Neva turned in time to see four more of Ringling’s advance men clamber into the car.

“Look at this,” the ugliest said when his eyes lighted on Gemi’s furry arms and chin. “They brought the darkie freakshow.”

“Must be their Gorilla Girl.”

“And that’d make the little man, what? Her chimp husband?”

With a juggler’s grace, Dorian tossed a rolling pin to Gemi and two to Neva.

“I like the taller colored girl, myself.” The first advance man took another step forward and whistled at Neva. “Bet you she’s in their ballet. I might actually pay to see those legs do a kick or two.”

“Who’s the geezer, then?”

Neva offered one of her pins to Ceburn. “He’s our wax man. Makes the best models in the business. And if you don’t get off this car, he’s going to help us wax you.” She hoped it was true; she barely knew the man. He mostly stayed in his compartment on the main train and let his apprentice set up their sculptures at each stop—it had been jarring to see Ceburn volunteer for fill-in duty. But maybe there was more grit to him than he let on.

Or maybe not. When Neva gave him the pin, he just looked at it and blinked.

The Ringling advance men laughed. They were only a few feet away now, brandishing their own pins and fanning out as much as the cluttered car allowed.

“There’s no need for this,” Neva tried, glad her words sounded calm. “We only came along to make a little extra coin. You can keep your posters up for all I care.”

“Too late,” the first advance man sneered, tensing for a lunge.

“And to the fire-eyed maid of smoky war, all hot and bleeding will we offer them,” Dorian intoned, freezing everyone.

“What the hell was that?”

“A monkey quoting Shakespeare to an ass.” Dorian let the words linger in the air a beat before flashing a nastier version of his jack-o’-lantern smile and chucking a rolling pin into the man’s ugly face.

Dorian got two more throws off before the advance men overcame their surprise. Both shots did damage, but not enough to prevent the Ringling goons from charging.

Gemi struck next, landing her blows low and fast. A shin, a knee, an ankle—in a trice, the advance men were all limping and yelping. Neva capitalized by whacking a few more legs, along with a shoulder and an elbow.

Yet Ceburn just stood like a lump off to the side.

If he’d done his share—or even half it—maybe they wouldn’t have lost the advantage. But once the advance men started swinging back, their size and reach quickly won out over the performers’ speed. Dorian went down within seconds, and Gemi soon after.

At which point Neva, woozy from a smack to her temple and inches away from being cornered, stopped holding back and revealed herself to be the biggest freak in the car.

It wasn’t just that she started contorting her body in ways that made her one of the most compelling acts in Barnum & Bailey’s Sideshow. She was flexible to be sure, her muscles more pliable than most of the acrobats’. But she could also stretch her bones. Silently snap and reform them into new positions that defied natural anatomy.

Was it magic? Witchery? Normally, these types of questions kept her from bending publicly in anything but her performances. And even then, she only augmented her twists and turns with minor distortions, small tweaks that were enough to make people marvel at the results without wondering what enabled them.

This idiotic sticker war seemed close to becoming a matter of life or death, however. And her friends were bleeding on the floor. So Neva bent. Compressing her spine so she could duck lower than she should have been able to. Nudging her ribs to the right so she could avoid a jab while staying in place. Extending her legs so she could jump over the backswing.

Lengthening her limbs also let her strike further and more unpredictably. Soon enough, it was the advance men who were retreating, eyes wild as she pressed them with unnatural, off-kilter flurries of her rolling pin. It hurt—bending always hurt. But it was also exhilarating to be this bold, this unleashed, this powerful.

Until three more Ringling advance men flooded onto the railcar, and the odds worsened yet again.

“Watch her,” one of the original assailants warned the newcomers. “She’s like a damn octopus.”

Yet they were too many now, bending or no, and it took less than a minute for her to lose all the ground she’d gained. “Ceburn!” she yelled as a vicious thrust forced her up against the bunkroom door. “Now would be a good time to stop acting like one of your stupid models!”

The jibe wasn’t enough to rouse him, but Rassy’s cry was.

She screamed when the ugly advance man from the first group missed Neva for the umpteenth time and followed his arm’s momentum into the bunkroom door, smashing it open and sprawling face-first into the narrow confines beyond. Neva nearly lost her balance trying not to trip over the man, but something about the fear in Rassy’s voice finally stirred Ceburn—and it made all the difference.

With a howl worthy of the menagerie’s hyenas, the “geezer” bowled into the advance men from behind, sending two flying and another to his knees. Belatedly, the rest turned their attention to the improbably furious sculptor while Neva caught her breath. More reinforcements arrived a second later, as Floy, Brother Paste, and a stranger wearing—of all things—a blue U.S. Army uniform rushed into the car trumpeting various battle cries. Combined with Gemi reviving enough to batter the Ringling crew from below, and Dorian springing up to bewilder them with more Shakespeare (“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste death but once!”), it wasn’t long before Car 6 belonged to Barnum & Bailey again.

“Right,” Brother Paste said once the last of his rivals had tumbled out of the train. “That was a good one. We all in one piece?”

Gemi slumped against the wall and shook her head. “Ceburn’s down. Took a hard hit at the end.”

“Not just down,” Dorian clarified in horrified awe. “They knocked his face off.”

“What?” Neva hurried to where Dorian was kneeling over the sculptor. Rassy crept alongside as the clown pointed to the big man’s nose.

His second nose. The first had been broken off, taking a layer of flesh with it and uncovering a perfectly formed duplicate beneath.

Ceburn had been wearing a wax mask of himself.

And now he was dead.

Recon

“They’re intelligent.” Josh Thompson leaned forward, both hands on the console. His legs were trembling. This changed the scope of the mission entirely. In four decades of interstellar travel, humans had only discovered two alien species that were considered potentially intelligent.

Sergeant Aboud raised one of her precisely sculpted eyebrows. “Are you sure? This one doesn’t look too bright to me.” She was watching a security camera feed from the storeroom, where one of the aliens had gotten itself trapped during the attack. It slashed furiously at the wall with its talons, leaving long scratches in the aluminum but making little progress in piercing the material. It could have conceivably scraped open a hole if it concentrated its efforts in one spot, but instead it bounded back and forth from one wall to another in what appeared to be blind panic. Josh could see why the now-deceased crew of the planetary research station had nicknamed the hairless, dog-sized aliens “hoppers.” They hopped like kangaroos. Josh hadn’t been watching a live feed, however. He was playing video of the attack itself. The aliens had used stolen key cards to move through the facility. In the feed from the motor pool camera, two of the creatures clearly observed one of the mechanics use his key card to flee. Then they’d retrieved the other mechanic’s card from her dead body and used it to open the door. The first mechanic hadn’t even made it to the end of the hall. “They’re using tools, and not in a primitive way,” Josh said. “They even blocked open the airlock. Why would they do that if they weren’t trying to make the interior atmosphere hospitable?”

“Maybe they just didn’t want to get trapped in a box.”

“Look at their tactical coordination. They split into teams to herd and isolate individual scientists.”

Aboud shrugged. “Some pack predators on Earth do that.”

“Not like this. The aliens are communicating, coordinating. I’m not sure how. I don’t hear any vocalizations on the video.”

“Maybe ultrasonic or subsonic. I’ll run an analysis. But I still don’t think they’re intelligent, Doc.” Aboud had a habit of calling anyone from the science division “doc.” Most of them did have doctorates, of course, but it still annoyed Josh. He was certain she meant it to be condescending.

Josh returned his attention to the playback just in time to see three of the aliens eviscerate one of the scientists–Doctor Xu, if he remembered the briefing notes correctly. Josh shut his eyes. He was feeling queasy, and it wouldn’t do his rep any good to puke in front of Aboud.

“We’ll know more when we observe them in their natural environment,” Aboud said. “According to the station biologist’s notes, their colony is four klicks southwest of here.”

Of course, the station biologist had also said the hoppers were docile.

Once they’d finished their analysis of the video, Josh followed Aboud down the main hallway where Sylvia Richards, their medical doctor, was bundling one of the dead scientist’s bodies into a black bag with the help of Scott “Perky” Perkins, one of Aboud’s security officers. Purging and restoring the station atmosphere had considerably reduced the stench of rot that greeted them upon arrival, but it was still bad enough here to make Josh’s stomach roil again. Sylvia, however, was whistling something cheerful. It was an odd thing to be doing considering the task at hand, but her quirkiness and constant optimism were a big part of why Josh liked her so much. That and her dimples.

“We’re going to recon the alien colony,” Aboud said.

“Give me a minute to get my gear,” Sylvia replied.

“No, you keep working, Dr. Richards. But prioritize an autopsy of the dead alien, the one the chef managed to kill. I want to know what I’m dealing with. Perky, stay and assist her. And make sure nothing gets into the station before we return.”

“On it, Sarge,” Perky replied.

“Take a close look at the brain structure,” Josh suggested. “I think there’s a chance this is an intelligent species.”

Sylvia’s eyes widened and she drew in a sharp breath, indicating she understood the magnitude of that possibility.

“They’re not intelligent,” Aboud snapped. “Thompson is just having dreams of glory.”

Josh felt heat rising in his neck and cheeks. He turned toward Aboud so Sylvia wouldn’t see him blush. Aboud stepped close and said, “Your job here is to help me understand the aliens’ behavior so what happened to the crew of this station doesn’t happen to us. Don’t get distracted.” She spun away before he could respond.

Josh glanced back at Sylvia. She gave a little shrug accompanied by the crooked smile that made him slightly dizzy. “Um… stay safe,” he said.

“Um, I’m not the one going into the field.” She winked at him. Josh tried to smile, but feared it came off more as a wince. Despite all his training in behavior, he still hadn’t learned how to avoid saying stupid things when talking to pretty women.

“Thompson!” Aboud shouted, halfway down the hall already. “Let’s go. Only four hours until sunset.”

They met up with security officers Lopez and Lopes, or “Z” and “S” as they were called to prevent confusion. Josh didn’t know why they didn’t just go by their first names–Al and Miguel–but it seemed there was nothing soldiers liked better than nicknames.

They went on foot as there was only a single two-man buggy at the station, but the trek was easy. Trappist-1d’s atmospheric pressure, composition, and temperature were similar enough to Earth’s that only oxygen masks were required. A human could even survive several hours without one, though there would be long-term health consequences to that. Gravity was noticeably less than on Earth, which made all their gear feel light. The surface of the planet was about 60% ocean, and of the single, large landmass, 90% was flat plains. Trappist-1d had ceased being geologically active millennia ago.

Almost the entire surface of the plains was covered in a blanket of three-foot-high yellow grass with wheat-like heads and clusters of small, black berries at the base of the stubby leaves that protruded from the stems. It was easy to move through, though the grass left a dusting of yellow particles on their jump suits–pollen, most likely, though Josh had been trained not to assume alien life functioned the same way as life on Earth.

The walk might even have been pleasant if Josh wasn’t so acutely aware that the hoppers were short enough to hide beneath the undulating surface of the grass. After what happened to the station crew, Josh felt a sharp jolt of adrenalin every time the breeze riffled the stalks nearby.

They Also Feed

The Feeder King often hunched by the shadowed mouth of his cave, listening to the rush of the waterfall as he waited for pilgrims to visit him. He’d see them coming from miles off. They would emerge from the shadow between the mountains before laboring up the twisted pathway, hugging shawls, cloaks and scarves to their necks and shoulders even as they sweated with the effort of the climb. It wasn’t easy to bring new lies to the Feeder. But they brought their lies all the same.

“I gave up my farm to help my sister’s boy.”

Lie.

“The village watch makes sure nothing befalls us.”

Lie.

“I love my old woman more than all the gold in heaven.”

Lie.

“We all worship you, Feeder King.”

Almost a lie.

One of the Feeder’s acolytes once asked him plainly, “Why lies, Feeder King? There must be some more tasteful way to sate you, if you take my meaning.”

“Would you rather that I taxed you on your food instead?” the Feeder asked. “Your gold? Your women? Your handiwork? I could live off those things too, like you scrawny men do.”

The acolyte recoiled ever so slightly. “I’m only curious. I don’t presume to tell you what’s best.”

“Of course you presume. All people do, in their own ways,” the Feeder replied, smirking at the acolyte’s discomfort as he leaned his oily body closer. “I’ve tried feeding off other things before.”

He’d consumed grain and meat when he was young, light, water and fire after that, then music for a time. He’d even tried truth when he was feeling desperate. The thing was, truth didn’t change anything. It simply was. But lies? Lies tipped the balance. They transformed people. Lies made things. Infused new life where there wasn’t anything before.

“I think I’ll stick to lies for now,” the Feeder said and dismissed his acolyte with a wave of a deformed hand.

The Fog Queen

The girl walked into my office. Yeah, I know that’s a boring first line. I’m supposed to wax poetic about her calves or whatever, but that just wouldn’t be true, even though I sometimes swing that way. This girl all but stomped into my office with her angry face and her frumpy clothes.

“Mr. Sidney Bergamot?” she asked.

I’d called her up through the building’s intercom. From that brief conversation, I knew her name was Greta Wong and that she was a referral from her friend Mary Lee. Mary Lee was the daughter of a higher-up in the Eighth Street Tong, and as such, had paid me good money to help her out a while back. This girl, however, in her faded plaid dress and scuffed-up shoes, was clearly no tong princess, and I immediately wondered how she was going to pay. Not that I should be too snooty—Oakland’s now chock-full of sleek new tiled skyscrapers accented with sunbursts and zig-zags and God knows what else, but I’m stuck in this draft-plagued dust factory.

“Miss Wong, please take a seat.”

She flopped into the chair in front of my desk, then reached into a battered knapsack and pulled something out. She placed this object on my desk: tortoiseshell glasses that had seen better days—a man’s glasses, by the look of them.

“As I said downstairs, I have an urgent request,” she said. “A missing person’s case.”

I sighed internally. A man who’d run out on his lady friend: just the case every detective wants. Unless she was pregnant, there was nothing to tell her but to let him go.

“Who’s missing?” I asked gamely.

“Ciaran McKay. He goes by Kay.”

“An Irish boy. Why not? It’s the 20th Century.”

She didn’t laugh.

“Age?” I asked.

“Nineteen, same as me.”

“What are the circumstances of his disappearance?”

“He was ambushed on Piedmont Avenue two days ago, out by the cemetery. A man tackled him, knocking off his glasses, then pulled him into a green car.”

Ok, maybe this was more than a boyfriend who had skedaddled.

“What was he doing out by the cemetery?”

“He was hired to sing at a funeral.”

“He’s a singer?”

“Yes, a bass-baritone. He’s exceptional. I’m a composer.”

“I see. And you were with him?”

“No, I was at my job. I work the box office at the Grand Lake Theatre, and sometimes play the Wurlitzer.”

“Who saw him get taken in the car then?”

If it was a friend of his, we were right back at skedaddled. Instead, the girl gestured to the tortoiseshell glasses.

“When he didn’t come home, I took the street car out there and found these. They’re haunted by the sea turtle whose shell was used to make them. She told me.”

Unconventional, but I’d seen stranger things. Still, I’m not a sucker.

“Is this turtle ghost willing to be interviewed?”

“She only talks to me and Kay.”

Of course.

“Okay, so you go out to Mountain View Cemetery and find his glasses. Did you talk to anyone else out there? Anyone at the chapel?”

“Yesterday I canvassed that neighborhood for hours. Everyone brushed me off except a groundskeeper at the cemetery. He told me there hadn’t been a funeral that evening.”

“Who hired him for the job?”

“A woman. She came into the grocery where he works.”

“You know her name? Or what she looked like?”

“Kay said her name was Mrs. Jones, but I’d guess that’s an alias.”

“Good guess. What about enemies? Either of you got any enemies?”

She shook her head.

“Is there someone you owe money?”

She shook her head again.

“Does the kid have rich parents who don’t want him with a Chinese girl? Or do yours not want a white boy around their daughter?”

Another shake of the head. “He’s an orphan. We both are. Neither of us have anything.”

“You’re not…in the family way, are you?”

Greta’s face reddened. “The cops asked the same thing before they laughed me off. No. And we haven’t had any arguments, either.”

I held back a sigh. “Look, you’re not giving me a lot to go on here.”

“You found Hana Yamamoto.”

Hana Yamamoto was the girlfriend of Mary Lee, the Eighth Street Tong daughter who’d referred Greta. When Hana went missing, Mary had reached out to me instead of using the tong’s vast resources because the relationship was, of course, a secret. The daughter of one of Chinatown’s most prominent families romancing a lady, and a Japanese one at that? She would have been disowned.

Hana’s folks weren’t any more understanding, and when they figured out what their daughter was up to, they had her smuggled out of Oakland in the dead of night. I found her in the Central Valley, got her to San Jose, and helped the star-crossed lovers set up a secret correspondence. They planned to run to Paris in a year or so.

“I did find Hana Yamamoto, but I had a bit more to go on there. Girl in a relationship her family would disapprove of disappears? Of course it was her family. And what do you know, she ends up at her uncle’s farm in Fresno. So far you’ve given me a green car and no witnesses besides a ghost turtle.”

Some potential clients would have started the waterworks, but Greta just stared me down.

“You’re the detective. Finding the clues is supposed to be your job.”

“Sure, but it will take some work, and you’re clearly no daughter of a wealthy tong family.”

Her attention faltered and I realized she was looking past me. “You have a cat?”

I sighed. I didn’t need to look to know what I’d find behind me, but I swiveled my chair anyway. There on the windowsill, smirking at me, was a black and white cat with striking blue eyes. The bastard had snuck in.

“I don’t,” I said, turning back to Greta. “He just shows up sometimes. Let’s not get distracted. How are you paying for this?”

“I don’t have much, but please—”

“Can’t Mary Lee give you some money?”

“She gave me two dollars.”

“Two dollars?”

“She sends almost all her allowance to her girlfriend now. You have to find Kay. You’d be doing the world a favor. His voice…there’s nothing like it. He’s going to be an opera star someday. In my operas. And he’s the kindest—”

Judging by her startled reaction, the cat chose that moment to jump off the windowsill and turn into a slim, dapperly dressed young man with slicked back black hair and sinister-yet-breathtaking blue eyes. This was Alexander Cobalt, villain-for-hire of the San Francisco Bay.

I had met Alexander “Coby” Cobalt when he showed up in my apartment two years earlier to threaten me. He’d been hired by a wealthy industrialist whose wife had hired me to get evidence of his affairs. I’ll be honest: he got the drop on me, being able to silently sneak in through a barely cracked open window as a cat. But when he lunged at me in human form, the true distraction was that this criminal Adonis was throwing himself at me, albeit with decidedly unromantic intent.

“Look, kid,” I said once he had me pinned to the floor with a knife to my throat, “if you’re going to kill me, let’s at least have some fun first. I might even teach you some things. You’ll know I don’t have a weapon on me, ‘cause I’ll be naked.”

Those deep blue eyes expressed no disgust at the suggestion, but rather alarm that I had him figured out, so I continued.

“Come on, when are you going to get another opportunity like this?”

Now, I’m about twenty years older than Coby, and closer to fifty than forty, but I’m not awful to look at, I’m a pretty smooth talker, and I won’t be shy in saying I have the skills to back my talk up. To conclude: the wealthy industrialist’s wife ended up with the fortune, and Coby started stopping by whenever he felt like it, sneaking in as a cat.

In human form, Coby leaned against my desk like he owned it. “Keep the two bucks,” he told Greta Wong, who had recovered from her momentary shock—after all, changelings were rare, but hardly unknown. “I’ll cover the cost.” Then he turned toward me. “Take the case. I’ve heard this girl play the Wurlitzer at the Grand Lake; she’s a real pro. And I’ve heard the Irish kid sing arias all over Oakland. This girl’s usually going around with a hat, getting pennies from the crowd, but he should be at La Scala.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Greta.

Coby stuck out his hand. “Alexander Cobalt, patron of the arts.”

“Greta Wong, composer and Ciaran McKay’s manager.”

“Now, look, I haven’t agreed to take the case yet,” I interjected.

Coby smiled at me in that smug, suggestive way that drives me crazy. “I’ll make it up to you later.”

Greta put two and two together and looked me in the eye. “After all, it is the 20th Century.”

If A Tree Cries In The Forest

He never saw his mother again after that night.

He never saw his father, either, except for news photos of the trial.

The sheriff assumed his father dumped her body in the river, and though deputies spent weeks dredging and searching, they never found it.

His father never said what he did with her corpse, and eventually the hangman sealed his lips forever.

Unsurprisingly, the boy grew up sad and alone.

Older cousins took him in, and while they treated him kindly and saw to it he never wanted for anything, they couldn’t fill the void the crime left.

In school other kids would talk about him, whisper about him, and while most weren’t overtly cruel, neither were they compassionate.

He started taking long walks in the woods, then hikes, then weekends camping.

Being in the wilderness soothed him, and as his senses absorbed the sharp pine smell, the calls of birds, the chatter of squirrels, the brisk cold of fall and the drowsy warmth of spring, he could forget about people, forget about his pain.

Small wonder he gravitated towards working in the great outdoors.

He inherited his mother’s calm and forbearance, but from his father a burly body and exceptional strength.

Logging proved the perfect trade for him: He could work outdoors and vent his feelings by swinging a great ax against a mighty tree, until finally his pain and sorrow brought it down.

A dozen trees, a hundred, then a thousand.

For him, as good a life as possible.


Call him Hank, an apt name for any logger, especially a faller, and a perfect name for him.

Hank felled the trees after the high climbers topped them by removing their crowns and branches.

Swinging a double bit ax, he hacked away at both sides of the selected trees, first cutting a notch about a third of the way into the trunk on the side he wanted it to fall, then a second notch, deeper and higher up, on the opposite side.

Eventually gravity came to his aid, and the trees majestically toppled over, crashing to the ground where buckers would cut them into more manageable lengths, then setters would wrap choker chains around the limbless trunks to drag them down the skid road to the river where the knot bumpers would brand them for their trip to market.

After their lunch break, Hank and Witte, a wiry high climber, went up the hill to the tallest spruce, one marked for them to fell that afternoon.

Hank wanted to plot the angle of the fall; if he fell the tree right, it would slide halfway down the hill on its own, making the setters’ job easier.

As Witte strapped on his climbing spikes, Hank, ax resting on his shoulder, casually placed his palm against the bark of the tree.

He didn’t hear it, he didn’t feel it, but he suddenly knew it:

His mother lay buried under the tree.

He staggered back, blinking and working his open mouth like a mountain perch hooked out of the stream.

“You okay?” Witte asked. Hank never took a sick day, and while quiet and stand offish, never acted peculiar, either.

Hank blinked some more, getting reoriented. He nodded, and Witte took out his climbing belt to top the tree.

Hank stopped him. “No.”

“No?”

“No.”

Witte looked up at the tree then back at Hank. “Why?”

Hank swallowed drily. How could he articulate what he knew — how he knew it? A tribal native logger might claim to hear spirit voices, but Hank heard nothing.

All he knew was…he knew.

“We just can’t,” he said.

Witte looked at him for a moment, then shrugged and started looping his climbing belt around the tree.

Hank slapped the belt away.

Witte looked at him impassively. Other than the occasional arm wrestling match, nobody at the camp ever knew Hank to be physical, much less confrontational.

But while Hank didn’t threaten him, Witte could tell the bigger man wouldn’t let him climb the tree.

“The siderod ain’t gonna like this,” Witte said, referring to the camp’s second in command.

Hank shrugged, standing like a baseball player in the batter’s box, waiting his turn at the plate. “Can’t help that,” he said. “But we aren’t chopping this tree down.”


Tyree, the siderod, looked like a rat bastard.

That’s to say he resembled the short, thin metal file of that name, skinny and colorless, with hard rough edges.

It took him less than ten minutes to confront Hank and Witte. “Why aren’t you jackasses working? You got blanket fever?”

“Ask him,” Witte said, glad to excuse himself from the conversation.

“We can’t cut down this tree,” Hank said.

“The blazes we can’t!” Tyree said. He stood on the downhill slope, allowing Hank to tower over him even more than normal, but he never felt intimidated by the larger men working for him. “Quit screwing around! Get that tree topped and down pronto.”

“I can’t let you do that,” said Hank.

Tyree scowled at him. “Okay, you’re fired.”

Hank shrugged: So be it.

Tyree realized that despite being fired, Hank wouldn’t move. “Go down to the ink slinger, draw your pay, and hit the pike!”

“No.”

Tyree leaned back now, not in fear, but in careful consideration of how to proceed.

He dealt with drunks and timber beasts before, but Hank seemed different.

“Clear outta my camp,” Tyree repeated, but he could tell Hank wouldn’t move.
Hank shook his head.

“Bah!” Tyree turned on his heel, marched down the hill, found five big buckers working on a felled tree, and sent them up to deal with Hank.

The five all knew Hank, of course. Bunking months with the same crew made them pretty much family.

“Hank,” said Oleson, the eldest of the five, “Tyree say you gotta clear out.”

Hank shook his head. He backed up against the tree so they couldn’t get behind him. “You can take any other tree you want,” Hank said, “but not this one.”

The five advanced on him. When they were still two ax handles away, Hank swung his double-headed ax in a wide lazy arc at chest level.

A warning, a caution: Stay back.

The Little Bang Theory

Cynthia Toms clung to her bed like a life raft sinking in a sea of chaos. Maybe if she didn’t open her eyes, the world would give up and go away. Trying to do the right thing, over the course of the last three weeks, had turned her existence into a hot mess. First, she was fired as assistant barista second-class from a downtown San Antone Starbucks. Then Herbie, the expresso guy, dumped her for the cold-brew girl- because Cynthia was “smothering his bliss.” After that, the cat she tried to rescue ran away, presumably to a better home two streets over; and to top it off, last night just before bed, she stepped on her glasses. They now had a lightning crack over the left eye that made her look like a crazy woman.

She exhaled and rolled over into a crucified position. “At this point,” she said out loud, “crazy would be easy. I’ll just stay in this heap of an apartment, gorging on cheese doodles and talking to myself until social services arrive.”

Trouble was, her bladder was about to burst. “Pain! The great motivator,” she moaned.

With tremendous effort, she righted herself and searched with her toe for her slippers. She found the left slipper and while groping for its partner, she hit upon her broken glasses. Wearing her broken glasses, her WWF t-shirt with the spaghetti stain over the panda’s face, and one slipper, she shuffled into her cramped apartment bathroom. Once finished with the commode, she summoned the gargantuan effort necessary to confront herself in the mirror. She sighed. Brown curls fought for control of her forehead, while several renegade strands of hair reached upwards as if possessed. She leaned in. “So, this is what hair looks like when it has given up on life.”

It caught her by surprise- the loud “Pop!”- followed by the “Bang!” And then the whole room reverberated. Out of sheer self-preservation, she crouched and squinted into the mirror. Plaster trickled to the floor from the wall behind her as a jagged hole appeared. It was dark, and no bigger than a nail-hole, yet the insides swirled with a strange purple light.

She spun around just as an object the size and shape of a pumpkin seed sailed out of the hole. Four similar shapes followed it. “Great. Flying termites. Just what I need.” She raised her hand to swat them then stopped. They were humming. “What type of termites hum?” She peered through her cracked glasses. The things reflected off the bathroom light, like they were made of metal. She ran a hand across her cheek and stepped back, “I’m losing my mind.”

Her doorbell chimed. She jumped at the sound of a man’s voice. “Ms. Toms?”

“Oh great! The landlord,” she said to the little buggies, then shuffled out, clicking the door shut.

“Mr. Bukowski,” she said, opening the front door. A gangly man in his mid-seventies, sporting a long hipster beard, stood impatiently on the bright sidewalk leading to her apartment.

“Woe!” he said when he saw her. “Didn’t think it was that early.” His beard yo-yo’ed up and down on his chin whenever he spoke. The motion reminded Cynthia of a ventriloquist’s dummy performing one-liners. “It’s about the rent,” he said, his beard yo-yoing. “You’re past due. If you can’t pay by tomorrow. You’ll find your stuff waiting for you on the curb. Sorry- young lady.”

Not so young anymore Mr. Bukowski. She wanted to say. Instead, she said, “Look at this place. The water comes out as brown as the Rio Grande, the AC has two settings- frostbite or arctic blast, and if I’m not losing my mind there seems to be some kind of insect infestation in my bathroom. It may lay vacant a long time if you boot me out.”

“Nevertheless, you have until tomorrow. I’m sorry,” he repeated and he lumbered away, the tools on his work belt clanging with each step.

“What I need, is a little diversion,” she said in a huff. She found the bottle of gin under the sink and poured two shot glasses. One for the Cynthia who used to give a damn and one for the Cynthia who was determined to never get a job, never fall in love, and never set foot in the real world again. She raised her glass in a toast. “Here’s to my new motto. If you don’t try, you don’t fail.” She downed both shots and followed them with several more. It was 11 AM.

By two o’clock, she was swinging the bottle low and circling her cluttered dinette table reciting her new motto. Wasn’t repeatedly talking to yourself the first sign? Maybe she actually was losing her mind. Not unlike the poor homeless woman out front of the store standing in the rain she had given a free coffee too. Or the crazy brown cat she rescued from the rain and hid in the supply room. Events, that eventually got her fired.

She tip-toed to the bathroom and eased open the door.

The insects were building some kind of a nest. It hovered a good five feet from the middle of her bathroom floor with a lot of bugs buzzing about it. They really were amazing. She peered closer and whispered, “Hovering nests?”

She set down the gin and staggered back to a kitchen drawer. She found the huge magnifying glass she used to read microwave cooking instructions with and patted back to the bathroom.

A line of pumpkin seed bugs seemed to be commuting between the nest and the hole in her wall, which had now grown to the size of a quarter. She held up the magnifying glass. The hole was very dark but the seeds were spewing out of what looked like a purple-blue funnel worming its way out of the blackness.

She moved to the nest thingy. It floated at maybe four inches square. The insects frantically filled it with weird webs of scaffolding and platforms and oddly colored oblong structures. “Incredible!”

She zoomed in closer. There were minuscule doors and windows, with tiny, tiny creatures scurrying to-and-fro as they worked. The creatures were kind of pleasant to look at, like happy yellow dust motes with arms and legs. This wasn’t a nest at all. It was some kind of metal frame. She could see that now. The seeds too, they were more like tiny ships, filled with busy yellow dot people, moving back and forth inside.

She let the heavy magnifying glass clatter to the tile floor. She slowly leaned against the far wall and slid down onto her haunches. “Okay, it’s official. I’m bat-crap crazy.”

True to her new motto, she did the only thing she was capable of doing at the time. She stumbled back to bed, and slept until five forty-five A.M. the next day.

She woke. Without thinking she headed to the bathroom.

The four-inch square structure floating in the middle of the room had now doubled in size. It had grown to roughly the dimensions of a toaster. With an impressive complex of intricate buildings and miniature spaceports, haloed by an entire regatta of seed-ships in various holding patterns. “Oh. My. God!” Cynthia said, “They’re building a little city! A city, with a spectacular view of my toilet!” It was almost flattering. But if she got evicted…

She hopped back to her bed and sitting cross-legged against a pillow, fired up her laptop. It was now up to Google. Before dropping out, four months of community college had taught her how to perform a perfect keyword search.

“First,” she said, “we have to find out who you are.” She typed: “What are tiny little holes in your bathroom that have strange flying seeds buzzing out of them?” Yeah…no good. She tried: “Swirling holes.” Then, “Bang holes.” Then, “Popping, banging swirling holes.” Which brought up a whole slew of graphic images she’d likely never forget. Next, she tried: “Appearing holes,” which lead to the Big Bang theory, which lead to the controversial, Little Bang Theory, derived from the work of Hawking in 1971. This proposed that lots of small black holes could have been produced by the Big Bang or possibly through subsequent phase transitions.”

She frowned, and read on. Currently, the Little Bang theory was being explored by an associate professor of physics at the University of Texas named Heart. Evidently, Heart and his hypotheses had been unanimously dismissed by many of his fellows. “Poor guy,” Cynthia said, glancing at a photo of a young man in a plaid suit sweating under hot camera lights. “He looks sweet. A little goofy, but sweet.” She tapped the screen. “Hurts to have your hypotheses judged, doesn’t it, cutie?” Then she stopped. The proposed rendering of Professor Heart’s tiny bang hole was a dead ringer for hers. The caption read, “Could be a possible means for interstellar transportation.”

“Hot damn,” she said, smacking herself on the forehead. “I don’t believe it. They’re aliens! Little, tiny, aliens living in my bathroom. And I’m not even allowed to sublet.” She shook her head, and said, “Now who’s gonna look out for them?”

At the bottom of the site was a link to Heart’s email. “What the hell.” She dashed off a description of the tiny-tot-dots and the hole in her wall. Five minutes later she was surprised to hear the “ding” of a response. It read:

“Your description is incredibly detailed. Do you have any physical proof?”

She jumped up, took a picture of the hole with her phone and then, against her better judgment, took a picture of the structure. She sent them both off to him in an attachment with the reply: “How’s this?”

He responded: “Either a great job of photoshopping or world-shattering proof that life exists elsewhere in the universe. In any event, I am intrigued. If this is legit, it must be documented immediately. Please forward your address.”

“Sure.” She sent her address. Then she sat back, ran her fingers through her hair, and panicked. “I don’t know this guy, what if he ends up hurting them? The whole scenario of her screwing up yet again, rushed toward her like an oncoming bus.

She emailed back, “You can’t come. The address I sent you was fake. Sorry.”

“Fake? Wait. Listen, you seem like a nice person and this is quite important. Let me investigate. Or at the very least allow me to communicate with them before it’s too late. In theory, tiny holes of this type should eventually evaporate.”

“Forget it. You can’t come here. And don’t ask me to meet you cause I’m never leaving my apartment again, except to buy gin.”

“Gin? That explains a lot. LOL”

“What? That explains nothing. You nerd!”

“Agggghhh!!” she screamed and slammed down the laptop lid.

Something professor-nerd had mentioned pecked away at her for hours. When she nudged open the bathroom door, the amount of construction the tiny-tot-dots had accomplished astonished her. It wasn’t that the thing was bigger, just more complex, more dazzling. Intricate avenues bisected miniature skyscrapers one built atop the other and all adorned with twinkling lights. They were like seven-year-olds with a subatomic Lego set. Maybe, as Professor P.H.D. Smartass suggested, she should get to know her guests.

In a relaxed, friendly voice, she said, “Tiny-tot-dots? Yoo-hoo? Aliens? Can you hear me?” They froze. She hadn’t bothered with the magnifying glass and it was difficult to see. She moved in closer. She scrunched shut the eye behind the cracked lens while crinkling her nose. They scrambled away helter-skelter. It occurred to her that until now, she must have been nothing more to them than a giant, blurry, foreign object, hovering in the background. Like a cumulus storm cloud, you might be too preoccupied to notice. She pictured a humongous head moving ever closer, with uncombed hair and a funky nor’easter blast of morning breath. Not to mention an earth-shattering voice. Louder than a Christina Aguilera concert.

She backed off and whispered as softly as she could, “Welcome to Earth. I hope you like it. I know it’s a mess but you have landed in my filthy bathroom. Can I get you anything? Cappuccino? Gin?”

Tinkling alarms sounded all over the structure in rapid succession. Tiny-tot-dots scattered in terror. “Oh, God, I’ve made it worse,” she stepped back. “Didn’t mean to frighten you guys. Don’t zap me or anything.”

“Hey! Keep it down!” Small flakes of plaster flittered onto the top of the alien structure as the super-sized, hairy guy who lived upstairs, pounded on his floor. “Sorry!” Cynthia shouted at her ceiling.

A second wave of alarms joined the first. “Oh my, oh my. Hang on.” Cynthia ran to her kitchen and returned with three white paper coffee filters. She draped them carefully over the structure to protect them from the falling specks of plaster.

One by one the alarms grew silent.

“Phew!” she pursed her lips and clutched her chest. Caring for them was going to be harder than she realized. She took a seat on the toilet lid, resting her chin in her hands and watched as they set immediately to work incorporating the make-shift filters into their design. Studying them made her feel good. Like some kind of scientist. Like Jane Goodall with, what was it? The leopards? She observed how they worked continually, and always together. If an arrangement collapsed or for some reason didn’t suit them, they tore it down and rebuilt. If a structure was off-balance, they constantly enhanced it, always rebuilding, always rethinking, and always together.

For no apparent reason, Cynthia thought of a waterspout and a song she learned at summer camp. The one about the itsy-bitsy spider. No matter how hard it rained or how many times the spider was washed out of that spout, eventually the sun would come out, and that sucker would try again. Even when any other self-respecting bug would have given up and gone home… it didn’t. It kept going. Just like the little-tot-dots.

“Huh…” she said out loud. She stood up, careful not to distract her ambitious little visitors and looked hard at herself in the mirror. “Shit!” she sighed. “I don’t even recognize myself.” She gripped the edge of the sink and leaned in, looking herself straight in her one good eye. “Cynthia Mora Toms, You’ve got to get a hold of yourself. If buggy alien dust motes can build, and keep building, a thinga-ma-jig in your bathroom, you can at least get your ass together.” In a grand, dramatic gesture she yanked a cheese doodle bit out of her hair.

Grabbing her brush, she carefully combed out the rat’s nest of knots. She washed her face. Not wanting to risk a shower, she wiped down with a washcloth and slipped on a pair of clean jeans, along with a nice blouse. She set to work picking up the apartment. In her clothes hamper she found her spare eyeglasses. Next came the kitchen. The dishes alone took close to an hour. At last, she was able to sit down with a hot cup of chamomile tea. And it felt good. It felt right. I’m gonna be okay, she thought.

Then there came a knock at the door.

The Nexus Murders

Delmo’s third eye itched. He stopped outside the morgue to scratch his forehead. An inconvenience, the cybernetic device signaled his occupation as a registered private eye. He was exhausted, but space station cases were few and far between and his rent was due. His rent was always due.

It was 2 a.m., and station’s hospital corridors were empty. No one noticed the tall human in a wrinkled suit that looked as if he’d slept in it. He had. His last case, a background check, had paid a few of his overdue bills, but he couldn’t remember when he’d slept last. At least the client was happy with the results. Dead, but happy.

An old miner had hired Delmo to check out his hot new girlfriend. He’d retired to Nexus Station after striking it rich and wanted to make sure it was true love and not avarice that kept her in his bed. Delmo did a lot of “background” checks for clients onboard the station, hacking and stalking them. Most of his cases ended in divorce court, but Delmo’s work had uncovered the gold-digger had been hired by his family to steal his money before he died. The news of his family’s treachery had given the old man a heart attack. Thank goodness Delmo always made his clients pay in advance.

Giving his eye a final rub, he tucked a small gift box under his arm and opened the door.

“Valma!” He smiled at his old friend across the room.

A Denebian, purple and weighing half a ton, looked over an open human body and frowned. “This area is off limits, Delmo.” She stood in the middle of a well-lit room. It was clean and smelled of antiseptic. A large table held a flattened corpse.

“Valma, my darling,” he said. “You wound me. Can’t an old friend visit without having an ulterior motive?”

“Old friend?” She snorted and tossed a bloody organ into a pan. “You only visit when you want information.”

“Nonsense.” Delmo held out the black box. “I bought these Viladian chocolates and need a medical professional to verify they’re real. With restitution, of course.”

“Viladian chocolates?” She washed her hands in a nearby sink. “My husband saved an entire year to buy three pieces for our hundredth anniversary. You couldn’t afford an entire box.”

He loosened the ribbon, opened the box, and revealed twelve dark brown pearls. “I’ve heard they super-sensitize the taste buds and overload the brain’s pleasure centers.”

His artificial eye scanned the body on the table for playback later.

“Oh, yes.” Valma smiled at the pearls. “Did you steal them?”

“They’re a gift from a grateful client.” If he’d lived, Delmo felt sure the miner would have shared the contents of his safe. There hadn’t been anything else of value. “Why don’t you try one? They might be fakes.”

Valma took a pearl in her delicate fingers. “They’re worth a year’s rations if they’re real.”

And very traceable. Otherwise, Delmo would have sold them to pay his energy bill. At least he could use them for bribery on a new case.

Valma popped the pearl deep into her lipless mouth, and her eyes rolled back in her head. She swayed, and Delmo feared she’d fall, but she steadied herself and smiled so wide her secondary teeth showed.

She shuddered. “I’d forgotten how wonderful they tasted. You mentioned restitution?”

“How about we split the box? Six for me and five for you?”

“For verifying they’re real? I don’t suppose it’s a bribe to obtain Mr. Palmaster’s autopsy report to learn the strange way he died.”

Delmo removed six pearls, put them in a bag in his pocket, and handed her the box. “What do you mean when you say ‘strange’?”

Kraken

1

They’d spent last night in a clean and neat little cabin of light wood. James wished he knew what it was. They did this stuff at school nowadays, design and technology, D&T. Making tables and all that. Ed had told him. But it seemed unauthentic somehow. He wondered if they did any woodcutting (probably not). They’d go against the grain. Most amateurs did. As he walked further away from the cabin, the circles molded together into a homogenous mass until he could no longer see them.

Lena had said she’d get the boys to pack, so he went to the café alone to get coffee and sandwiches and to leave the keys with the barman. He passed the white plastic sign nailed to the wall of the café (the same pale wood as the cabins):

‘FILMORE CASSEY LEASURE: LOG CABINS SALES & HOLIDAY. HOT–TUB SALES NEW& USED’

Most places had so many signs now you ceased to see them. OPEN, JUST EAT, No smoking, Mind the step, FOOD HYGIENE RATING–and so on, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. This one looked lonely on its own on the brown wall.

To the left of the café was a small playground stretching over half the lawn in front of the open car park. Two swings were tied to a thick horizontal wooden bar resembling a crossbeam. No wonder Sammy loved these things. They were proper authentic swings like the ones James used to have as a kid. No plastic nonsense around here.

I might get Ed a beer.

Immediately, he remembered he couldn’t. Ed had wanted to drive and he’d said “yes”without thinking. Now there was this, on top of the condoms. Lena still didn’t know and Lena would have a fit, though Ed was seventeen and had a full license. It was funny she was pissed off about Ed–of all things. It was James’ guilty conscience, of course.

He kept wondering whether maybe–maybe–she did know.

“Good luck with your drive.”The barman said as he poured filter coffee. “Where are you guys off to?’

“Sunderland.”

“Geordie women with big hair and yellow fake tan, eh? Why Sunderland?’

“Nephew’s going to study there. We’re from Manchester ourselves.’

“A bit far from home, no?’

“Yeah.” James said. “We think it’s because of a girl. My sister’s having a fit, of course. But I mean, why not? Tony Scott went to the University of Sunderland, did you know that?”

“No.” The barman said. “No, I didn’t.”

The Demon in the Cage

“I don’t see it,” Hinaru confessed through gritted teeth, dropping his head in frustration and embarrassment. “I’ve stared at that cage for half of the day and I have not seen anything but empty bars.”

He felt a hand settle on his shoulder. The Chain Breaker, the head of the Demon Guard stood behind the ornate, velvet-cushioned chair where Hinaru sat. The man had remained in the stone hall with him and waited patiently for hours, allowing a potential new initiate every opportunity to pass this final test. But it had been wasted time.

“Forgive me, Breaker Allito,” Hinaru said, trying to keep the stinging in his eyes from resolving into tears. It was bad enough he had to admit defeat, he would not have the highest-ranking soldier in the city see him cry. He could not live with that shame. “I’ve failed you. I will collect my property from the barracks and leave at once.”

“You will not,” said the old soldier behind him. “You have failed no one and you are not going to be banished.”

The Chain Breaker walked around the chair to stand in front of Hinaru. His craggy face, marked deep with the passage of time and painted with a gray stubble along his jawline, was surprisingly kind. He paused a moment, waiting for the younger man to look up and meet his eyes. “You have passed every other test we have administered. You are smart, courageous and, if your instructors are to be believed, one of the finest swordsmen they have trained in years. Even if you can’t see the demon and are unable to join the Demon Guard, you have earned a place with us, Hinaru.

“And, the test is not necessarily over.”

The leader of the Demon Guard pointed to the wall on Hinaru’s right, indicating an assortment of twenty-three swords hanging from metal brackets. Each weapon had a gleaming, narrow blade the color of milk. They appeared as delicate as porcelain, but Hinaru knew they were made of the hardest substance known to the Realm. Forged in Hell, and stolen from the demons during the human uprising, they were nearly indestructible. And they were the only defense men had against any future assault from the underworld.

Several tens of empty brackets were also visible on the wall.

“How many pale blades belong to us?”

“Fifty-seven,” Hinaru answered immediately.

“Fifty-seven,” Breaker Allito repeated. “Very good. You have been paying attention to your lessons. Of those fifty-seven, thirty-four are currently in the hands of guardsmen and twenty-three remain hanging uselessly on our wall. That is not good for us. That leaves us weak and vulnerable. We need men to wield the swords.

“But, we need the right men.” The graying soldier turned his back on Hinaru to face the cage located in the center of the hall. It was a gleaming white monstrosity, all sharp edges and jagged points welded together. The structure was four paces wide and four paces deep; rising from the floor to the height of two tall men. “Do you know why we have the cage, Hinaru?”

“To test new potential soldiers,” he responded. This was common knowledge. “You cannot kill a demon if you can’t see it.”

The Chain Breaker flapped a hand dismissively at his answer. “Yes, yes. But, do you know why the cage was built?” He spread his arms wide, encompassing the metal structure before him. “The humans collected almost two hundred swords from the demons in the uprising. Why do you think building the cage was so important that men would destroy most of the weapons Lars Itarsa, the first Chain Breaker, worked so hard to gain?

Two hundred, thought Hinaru. That was not part of his training. Why would anyone use a hundred and fifty swords to build a cage when those blades could be so much more useful in the hands of trained soldiers?

“I didn’t know about the other swords, Chain Breaker. I thought we always had the cage. I don’t know how to answer your question.”

Breaker Allito nodded, expecting such a response. The man hooked his thumbs into his red leather, sword belt, then turned back to face Hinaru. “It is not a secret, but neither is it discussed much openly. Many thought it a mistake at the time, and some still do now. But that decision was made long before I was even born, so questioning it serves no good purpose. I can tell you the reason it was done, however, if you care to hear the explanation.”

Hinaru nodded quickly, and the Chain Breaker smiled at his eagerness; an expression that sat unexpectedly well on the old soldier’s time-worn face.

“When men organized and revolted against the demons, we won because we outnumbered them, and they had grown careless enough to allow us access to weapons. They did not believe that we were intelligent enough or courageous enough to turn on our fearsome masters. At the time of the uprising, every man, woman, and child in the city could see the demons. We believed this was normal and did not find the fact remarkable.

“Thirty years later, during the Second Wave, the demons almost took the city back. We were lucky there were only a few tens of the creatures that attacked our walls in that assault. Even so, many men died. We discovered that of those born after the uprising, only about one in five could actually see a demon. At first, we thought this was because of something the demons had done to blind us to their presence, but that idea was soon discarded.

“The truth of what was happening was discovered when survivors of the original uprising shared stories of the demons murdering and eating children by the hundreds. Four out of every five children born were killed. It was believed that these numbers could not be coincidence. Do you see?”

The Chain Breaker paused to allow Hinaru an opportunity to answer, but the young man had not yet made a connection between the story he was hearing and what the soldier wanted him to understand. When it was obvious his young student was unable to respond, the older man continued.

“Only one in five men has ever been able to see a demon. When the creatures ran the city, they eliminated those that could not see them. A slave is of very little use if it cannot see its master.”

Light dawned in Hinaru’s eyes as he digested the information. The people of that time believed that everybody could see demons because everyone alive had the ability. They also thought the death of children at the hands of the demons was a random act rather than the specific selection process it truly was.

“I think I understand. The cage allowed them to test their soldiers and find out who could see the demons. So, the demon in this cage is dead? The body was collected after the Second Wave?”

“Of course, it’s not dead,” snapped Breaker Allito with some disgust at the suggestion. He began to pace, slowly making his way around the chair where Hinaru perched. Hinaru was forced to shift sideways and crane his neck to follow the Breaker’s movements. “A dead demon decomposes too rapidly. Besides, why build a cage to hold a corpse? No, the demon is quite alive.

“When the Second Wave was over, and the Chain Breaker of that time, Samanth Ken, realized the nature of the problem, he gathered the soldiers who had proven themselves able to see the enemy. He formed the first Demon Guard, then collected all the white-metal weapons in the city and placed the pale blades in the hands of those that could most effectively use them. Finally, he put the members of the Demon Guard in charge of the rest of his forces. He made certain that at least one of them was always on the city wall, watching for the demons’ return.

“Time passed. Forty years went by and there were no more attacks. Members of the Demon Guard were growing old and dying, and there was no effective way to test for new recruits. Breaker Ken, himself, eventually died, and Todrick Bortu replaced him. Breaker Bortu was the man who ordered the cage built. He knew that when the last of the Guard was gone, the city would be unable to properly protect itself. The best they would be able to do was to arm men at random and hope by sheer chance that the right people were fighting when the demons came again.

“Because the white metal is the only thing we know that can effectively harm or hold a demon, he ordered that most of the swords the Realm possessed be reforged and made into a cage. He justified his actions, explaining that the only way to protect future generations from the same uncertainty experienced in the Second Wave was to capture a demon and use it to test new Guard members.

“He was taking a great gamble, because if the demons came again after the last of the Demon Guard had died of old age, the reduced number of remaining swords lessened our chances of survival. Although not building the cage, he believed, carried bigger risks.”

Breaker Allito dropped a heavy hand onto Hinaru’s shoulder, startling him. The old soldier leaned forward to speak softly into his ear. “But, you can guess what happened next, can’t you? We are, after all, still here.” He stood, not waiting for Hinaru’s answer, and resumed his pacing.

“Whether by a fool’s luck or by divine intervention, the Third Wave struck the city barely one year after the cage was created. We turned the demons away from our walls and captured the creature that now resides in the cage before you. It was fortunate that Breaker Bortu took the gamble that he did, as it has been over a hundred years since the Third Wave was defeated and there have been no subsequent assaults on the city. There is not a man alive today that has ever seen a demon.”

The Breaker paused in front of Hinaru and pointed a finger, directing his gaze to the center of the great hall; to the gleaming white bars. “Except for the one trapped in this very room.”

“We are alive today, Hinaru, because of the foresight of the Breakers who led this city before me. They decreed that only those who can see our enemy may become soldiers of the Demon Guard. I will not go against their orders. However…”

“Yes?” asked Hinaru when the Chain Breaker paused. “However, what?”

The Breaker smiled again, his bright, blue eyes sparkling kindly. “However, the decision does not have to be made today. You may come back tomorrow morning and try once more to see the demon. It does not happen often, but there have been instances of soldiers who failed on their first attempt yet were later able to see it. Perhaps you will be one of those few.”

Breaker Allito patted the younger man on the cheek like an affectionate parent, then turned and strode away.

Hinaru remained in the chair a moment longer, listening to the soft pad of the Breaker’s leather boots on the stone floor as he exited the chambers. A door opened, hinges groaning slightly as it swung out then back to its closed position.

With one last disgusted glance at the empty cage, Hinaru rose to his feet and stormed angrily across the room to the main entrance of the great hall. There were only two ways in and out of the Chamber of the Demon, as it was called by the soldiers in the barracks. The Breaker had exited through a private passageway to the south that led to his personal chambers, while Hinaru retreated to the massive, wood and metal, double doors at the north end, through which he had originally entered.

As he pushed through the doors, back into the labyrinthine passages of the Demon Guard’s keep, he was intercepted by one of the guardsmen.

“Hold up, Hinaru. I’d like to speak with you, if I may.”

The man was tall and thin, with a long beard of black hair oiled and twisted to a single braid that hung almost to his belt. He wore the red and brown uniform of the Demon Guard, and pinned to the left breast of his shirt was a small gold medallion in the shape of a closed hand. His name was Oatha, Hinaru recalled. He held the rank of Fist; responsible for the training and supervision of five soldiers. Hinaru stopped and bowed formally.

“Of course. How may I be of service, Fist Oatha?”

“First, you can stop bowing. I am not here as a fist, but rather as a friend.”

Hinaru blinked, unsure what to say.

“You didn’t see the demon?” continued Oatha. “No, don’t answer that. I already know you did not. How could you? There was nothing in that cage to see.”

“What?! What do you mean by….”

Oatha draped a friendly, but firm, arm around Hinaru’s shoulders. He guided the confused young man down one of the many hallways. “Walk with me, Hinaru. A moving conversation is much harder to overhear, and I do not want what I am about to tell you to become common knowledge.”

The two walked in silence for several seconds, Oatha occasionally glancing down branching hallways, or cocking his head slightly as though listening for pursuing footsteps. When he seemed satisfied that they were not being followed or spied upon, he spoke.

“The demon in the cage is a test designed to remove undesirables from the Demon Guard. It is a final challenge for anyone who has passed all the other requirements but, for one reason or another, is still deemed unfit by members of our order. Before you pass the test, a current member of the Guard must judge that you are worthy to join us, then let you in on the secret of the initiation.

“I have seen you spar, and I know you are quick witted enough to make a fine addition to our ranks, so I have decided to give you the information you need to pass this test. Just as another member of the Guard did for me before I joined.”

Hinaru paused, forcing Oatha to stop and turn to face him.

“I still don’t understand,” Hinaru said, his face pinched in thought. “It isn’t real? But what about the white metal? What about the swords, and what the Chain Breaker told me about the Third Wave?”

Oatha placed his hands on Hinaru’s shoulders, squeezing lightly and forcing the recruit to meet his gaze. “I believe that demons used to exist, a very long time ago. They seem as reasonable an explanation as any for the origin of the white metal. But they have been gone a very long time and I think it highly unlikely they will ever return. They probably died out following the Third Wave.”

Oatha slipped a hand behind Hinaru’s back and started them walking again.

“Regardless, whether there were ever demons in the first place, there aren’t any now. If there was a demon in that cage, it died over a hundred years ago because there is nothing at all currently between those bars.”

“The Chain Breaker told me….” Hinaru began.

“Yes, I know what he told you,” Oatha interrupted. “The older officers will never openly admit the truth. Particularly not the Chain Breaker. The Demon Guard is an elite force, destined to carry the pale blades and defend the city from the hordes of Hell. So, consider this: how elite would the Guard be if it became common knowledge that there are no demons? Even though it is a lie, the cage is a symbol of our position. The secret must be kept if the Guard is to survive.

“I believe in you, Hinaru. I think you belong with us, and I think you can keep our secret. That is why I am talking to you, now. I’m going to tell you how to pass your final test.”

Hinaru stopped again and bowed deeply toward Oatha. “Thank you, Fist Oatha. I will not disappoint you. What do I need to do?”

“It’s simple,” said Oatha, taking Hinaru’s arm with exasperation and standing him back up straight. “You must describe the demon in the cage.”

Hinaru’s face fell. Was Oatha toying with him? Was this all an elaborate joke by the Fist before the soldier escorted him to the gates of the keep and kicked him out?

“Fist Oatha, I have not seen a demon. How can I describe something I have never seen?”

“That is the easiest part,” Oatha assured him. “I’m going to tell you what to say to the Chain Breaker. You must describe the creature exactly as I explain it to you. That will let the Breaker know that you have been approached by one of us, and that you are not just guessing.”

“I’m listening.”

Oatha held up one finger. “First, the creature is hideously ugly. Its face is a cluster of horns and spikes over a massive mouth filled with long pointed teeth. It walks on two legs, standing half again the height of a man, and it has two arms that each end in narrow hands with three, clawed fingers. Although tall, it is still slender, and the body moves like that of a serpent. But most importantly, you must mention that in the center of its chest…”