Month: July 2022

Scratch

She came to Fatum two days after the rats. Her feet spattered with mud, her face round and healthy. She had no hair but wrapped her head in cloths of many colors, dyes we hadn’t seen in months. Plague makes all things scarce.

We first heard about the coming of the rats from a tinker. She entered our village and stayed at your inn. That was two weeks before. Her name was Glorys. The night she arrived, she told us about the rats as you wiped the bar with a stained cloth.

“I came from Chiad’ow.” Some of us knew the name. It was a town twelve miles north. Sipping from glasses and cups, we waited for her to continue. “I was going to settle there, wait out the winter with plenty of business and a strong roof over my head, a strong wall around me and my cart.”

Glorys lowered her head. She was in her fifties, her skin betraying her origin from the north. She stood out in our midst, pale and wrinkled by care. Her eyes were a disconcerting blue.

“Why did you leave?” one of us asked. At the bar, you’d stopped paying attention to your work, your gaze fixed on the tinker.

Glorys shook her head, a small, trembling motion matched by her hands as they tried to clasp the drink you poured her. “They came,” she said.

We all leaned in to hear the next words.

“The rats.”

Glorys moved her cart into your stable. In the first week, we heard little, but travel from the north had started to increase. Chaid’ow was facing famine—and something else too unspeakable for travelers to relay as they passed through our village. As the days passed, the temperature dropping each night, refugees from Chiad’ow came to stay, then from Darna, about seven miles away from Fatum.

Plague, we whispered in the streets. You opened rooms that hadn’t been filled in years. Your daughter moved in with her brother to free up space.

I’m sorry about her. Your son was old enough to escape.

When the rooms filled, some of us opened our homes, for a price. With winter setting in, it did not pay to support extra bodies without recompense. I took in a weaver who paid her way by crafting marvelous woven goods. When I had all I needed, she moved to a neighbor’s house, supplying another of us with the means to survive the cold. She did not stay, however. Not when she—like all of us—heard that Treas had been struck, not two miles north. Then, she left. The refugees from Chiad’ow, from Darna, moved on. Some arrived with scratches on their hands, bites on their necks. These injuries healed before they left. But we worried, when Treas happened.

Some of us chose to leave before the rats came. You stayed, and so did I. We have weathered many things in our lives. I wish now that you had gone, taken your daughter and fled with the rest. But we didn’t know what would happen, after the rats.

When they came to Treas, we knew what we faced. Stores overrun, thatch roofs ruined, vestries profaned. The rats brought filth and disease into Treas, and those that had waited—like us—soon found themselves at Fatum’s gate.

We did not have room, so many moved on from there. A few slept in the streets, wincing as winter’s teeth bit into their flesh at night. In the morning, some were dead. Perhaps they were luckiest.

The next day, the rats came.

The Alternate Appeal of a Jelly Fox

I was midway through a series of concept sketches when Chuchuko popped out of my drafting table with a high-pitched dojyan. “Ohay?gozai-nezu, Otsuji Yuko!” chirped the RariJump mascot. “You have two guests waiting in the president’s office. Your presence is requested immediately! Otsukaresama deshita!” With that, the hot pink mouse swan-dove back into my table, rippling my sketches like reflections on water.

Guests? I didn’t get guests. I didn’t want guests. But I would get yelled at if I didn’t show up in five minutes.

I holstered my plastiq stylus and saved my work; belatedly I noticed the horrors that had snuck into my doodles yet again. Skulking among studies of a book-loving omu-raisu were disemboweled teddy-bears and headless kittens. The art of kawaii was surgery, taking ordinary things and amputating what was sharp and hard and ugly, injecting them with fluff like a botox treatment; these were botched patients I couldn’t remember cutting, more kowaii than kawaii.

Instead of SAVE I hit TRASH. Yet another file of morbid crap onto a heap eight months tall. You weren’t going to be anything anyway, Chappu-chan. We both knew that.

I headed for the president’s suite, confident that this was going to be nonsense.

The offices of RariJump Kawaii Company occupied the outermost ring of Cooperation Tower, some eleven million stories outwise from the face of the moon. From the window that was our whole southern wall you could spend a lunch watching Visitors arrive at the General Port a microscopic thirty stories outwise, via space-crunch and fusion catapult and asteroid barge. Our location was worth the rent as high as a small GDP: looking in, they’d see our most famous characters parading from left to right across the glass, welcoming friends from afar to our humble space elevator. We were never more than a presh-reg glitch away from a critical decompression, but a good first impression was a first stab in an industry as murderous as cuteness.

Guests. Plural, and how perfectly ominous. My mother and sister maybe, to confirm that I was still alive. More likely, HR here to politely fire me. It would be about time.

“Come in, please,” said President Abioye Okabe at the sound of my knock. I found him at his sequoia trunk desk, its polished stump littered with bobble-head Moto-Shiba-kun’s and beanie-bodied Giving You Song’s and other RariJump top-selling characters.

“Take a seat, Otsuji-san,” he said, smiling broadly. He waved me over to the emptier of two chairs. The other contained a stranger, a plain man of silvering hair. His armband bore the emblem of two clasped hands. He glanced at me once and returned to not seeing me.

“This is Mister Sauerbrey,” Okabe said, “from the Cooperative. He’ll be moderating as needed. And these—” he gestured to the other two guests, “—are Lovely Vanilla-san and Chocolate Tiger-san.”

I didn’t sit just yet. Standing to either side of him were two Visitors like I’d never seen.

They were of the same xenospecies, erectomorphs like us humans but much taller; I was a sixth less than Okabe’s six-one, and they towered over him. They possessed digitated fingers, though wrongly jointed, and their faces were reminiscent of Homo sapiens in the way that tigers are reminiscent of cats. Too-huge eyes, thickly lashed, lips painted on. Rubbery cables of something approximating hair were tied into rainbow-dyed twintails on one and a bubblegum princess cut on the other. One had skin of eggnog, the other cookies-and-cream, and nearly every inch was flyered in character stickers; I recognized more than a few RariJump products among them.

My eyes burned at the brightness of them. They were dressed in the fashion of human Decora Girls: frilly skirts and blazers fit for a different phylum, clashing legwarmers puddled around their shins, each finger ending in a fifteen-centimeter false nail painted pink and blue and polka dot. I might have been offended at the blatant cultural appropriation were the aesthetic not so unnervingly inapplicable. What would have been cloying on a Japanese teenager was on them as good as a ribbon around a centipede.

Toikitti, I realized after a bamboozled lag. The rarest of Visitors to Cooperation Tower.

< (:D)(´?`)(^-^)(?)?> the one on the left said.

< (:D)( (/???)/)(<=3)> the other replied, seeming to concur, and both laughed in sync. Less like people, more like hyenas.

“Please excuse me, Okabe-san,” I said, still hovering by the door. “But what exactly is going on?”

The president beamed like a solar flare. “Otsuji-san, do you remember Goodnight Smile?”

“Yes, of course,” I answered warily. Goodnight Smile had been one of my bigger successes. My sleepy reindeer with her omnipresent sleep mask had appeared on a few decently-selling lines of bedtime supplies, but that was about it.

It was also my last success since Eiichiro had gone away.

Okabe could hardly contain his excitement. “Then you will be overjoyed to know that our guests here have just put it an order for two million pairs of your Goodnight Smile house slippers.”

I looked back and forth between the twin Toikitti. The rightmost grinned; its teeth were small and uniformly sharp, like the tines of a comb.

“I am very confused.”

He shrugged and motioned for the Visitors to explain.

They crossed the room and backed me up against the door. The tang of port-issued disinfectant was overpowering; they must have docked within the hour. < (->)(:DDD)(Q-Q)(->)(T3T)( _(._.)_)(>)> the leftmost, Lovely Vanilla, chittered. As the emotograms left her tongue, the tower’s AmBab snatched them and reorganized them into something intelligible to the human brain.

“We are honored to finally meet you. It is a human custom to shake hands in order to express appreciation, yes? May I do so?”

“By all means,” I said, and found my hand swallowed by their spidery paw. Their flesh was textured like a lollipop, with subtle seams between joints. Mechanisms revolved on tracks around their heart-shaped irises.

“We are the biggest fans of Goodnight Smile,” the other, Chocolate Tiger, eagerly explained. “See?” They parted their hair-analogue to show me the slipper hung from her chiropteran ear-analogue. “We love all of your characters, but Goodnight Smile is our favorite.”

“Extremely yes!” Lovely Vanilla agreed, still pumping my arm. “She is ‘Super Kawaii!’”

I looked to the president for help.

“Our guests have a special request for us,” he said. “One that I have agreed to fulfill, in light of their exceedingly generous purchase.”

“You mean that I will fulfill,” I replied, putting two and two together.

“Just so,” he said, pleased to have me on the same page. “Beginning tomorrow your priority assignment is to design a spaceship.” His tone narrowed to a point. “You weren’t doing much anyway.”


I returned to my apartment forty floors moonwise in the Residence Block to find a message from my mother waiting to ambush me. I let the apartment read it off as I changed clothes and watered the cat. “Yuko-chan. I hope you will call me when you get this message. Yukiko and I are worrying ourselves to death over you. We know you are hurting, and we want to help make it better. Please, call me. Love you, Your Mother.

More of the same then. Delete message. That was one of the secret perks of living in the middle of a space elevator on the moon. Moonwise or outwise, everyone was far way.

Design a spaceship. I hid from the new assignment in the shower, where the hot water helped defrost my icy guts. It must have sounded so simple to Okabe-san, from whom everything got done via inter-office memo. No no no, he’d chuckled, don’t worry about the hardware of it. All they want is the aesthetic. As if that were appreciably easier for me.

With my mauve-dipped hair in a towel turban I came to sit on the edge of my bed. Eight months later and my husband’s shape was still imprinted into the mattress. I swept my hand through that crater, hoping against impossibility to scoop up some dreg of his warmth. But no, nothing.

My apologies, Okabe-san. It was hard to see the world in pastel colors with an open wound in your bed.

I retrieved my pants and turned out my pockets; a glossy black business card dropped into my palm. The man from the Cooperative had remained silent throughout the meeting but had smuggled this into my hand as we’d shook our farewells.

I brushed my thumb along the icon of two clasped hands and hissed at a nip of static. I dropped the card as a thread of blue light lanced from its center. I scrambled for a T-shirt to throw on as that thread dilated into a window in AUGer space. If only I’d bowed like a more stereotypical Japanese, I thought. I’d have saved myself this imminent trouble.


“You want me to be a spy.”

“The official term is Voluntary Xenological Informant,” Sauerbrey said. “But basically yes.”

His light-knit simulacra hovered a foot above the fallen card. This rendition made the government man no less unremarkable. If bureaucracy had a mascot character, he was it.

“I refuse. Please leave me alone.”

“Hear me out. This is a matter of Security and Advancement. Of all those Visitor species known to us, the Toikitti are the most obscure. We view your situation as an opportunity to further Human-Alien Cooperation.”

Ah, yes, Cooperation. The cultural doctrine that had seen humanity through a universe older and smarter and tougher than us. It hadn’t taken long after first contact, when our fleet of quaint little warships came up against the Hanrit species like a bird against a glass door, for war to start showing diminishing returns. As much as we loved it like an old sweatshirt from college, we had to let it go. From the rubble of outmoded nation-tribes arose the One Earth United Government and Cooperation Tower, a neutral agora facilitating commerce and cultural exchange between Visitors in the furtherance of intergalactic good will. And if we happened to pick up whatever exotech they didn’t keep a close eye on, well, who got hurt?

“If we want to Cooperate we need common understanding,” Sauerbrey went on, “and these bastards are a big sparkly question mark. We’ve established a Minimum Tolerance Basis with them but beyond that, we don’t know where they’re from, we don’t know how they reproduce, and we don’t know what makes their ships work better than ours. About all we do know is that they go nuts over our cute crap.”

“The official term is kawaii,” I shot back, a little offended. “It’s different. And it’s not crap.”

“Whatever, sorry. All we need is for you to record your interactions with them. Give us more observations to work with than what we’ve got. We’ll be providing you the necessary equipment.”

“I’m not hearing anything about a carrot here,” I said, folding my arms.

“I’ll do you one better,” Sauerbrey replied, his gray voice suddenly going ice-blue. “Here’s a stick. If you choose not to comply, as is your right, the Cooperative might decide that this highly in-demand apartment here would better serve a citizen with a higher Utility Score. Apropos of nothing, your boss tells me you’re in something of a slump. I’m sorry to hear that.”

I bit the inside of my cheek until I tasted blood. “Fine.” Losing my home meant losing my job. I’d plummet as hard into my old room at my mother’s place in Nowhere Prefecture as if I’d fallen there from all the way up here. I told you, Yuko-chan, she’d say. You go to live with the aliens (using the Cooperative-discouraged slur) you wind up broke with a probe up your backside.

But worse than saying I told you so, she’d pity me.

That I could not stand.

“Excellent.” Sauerbrey’s lips twitched into the bare minimum of a smile. “You’ll receive what you need via GoPak within the hour. Have a good evening, Miss Otsuji. Best of luck.”

The Recovery

There was a rock in Alan Gunnel’s boot but he was too nervous to try and dig it out. Bruce Finch meanwhile was holding in a bowel movement and Ryan Kaczka was thinking what it would take to knock down all the trees and build a race track. It was Mrs. Corbin’s idea the men should all hold shovels, so the Ouranoi knew they meant business, she said, but also so they could better tell the laborers apart from the ambassadors and the television crew. When the men weren’t looking toward the sky they were scanning the rocks and the scrub. Tom Dietrich had found an old rifle casing so now everybody was on the lookout for some piece of the battle, some memento to bridge the gap between theirs and their grandfather’s generation, to assure them that, yes, despite growing fatter and softer and never having to worry about war or hunger, they were still the same species of man. Ed Finch, who was Bruce’s cousin, thought he saw something glinting in the weeds but it was just the sun on the dew.

It was 8:55 when one of the television crew pointed it out, a faint, dark spot puttering across the blue. Mrs. Corbin and the government people all put themselves in order, to which Charlie Stern, the foreman, commanded his men to do the same. Standing up straight, resituating their collars and gripping their shovels, they brushed up against that feeling of being a soldier. They watched the ship carve an elegant streak of white above the mountains then double back on itself as it descended, toward a patch of ground that’d been stamped out ahead of time into a landing pad. As it set down there was none of the jostling or general rickety quality of an earth ship; it moved like a pat of butter across a hot skillet. The ship sat there a minute, humming, a sheen of ice still clinging to the hull. The television crew seemed to have a hard time photographing it.

The engine quit and the ship opened and the first one out lead the way in acclimating to the planet, a process of opening what counted for his nose and mouth in such a way it looked like he was warbling a silent, impassioned aria. Pete Calabrese said to Alan Gunnel it was the ugliest looking thing he’d ever seen.

When that first one was finished he turned and signaled the rest to follow. They were five in all, not counting the pilot. One of the Ouranoi was markedly older than the others and had to be helped to acclimate by his nurse. There were deep pale scars knotting up the left side of his face and while the others all looked like they were singing he looked like he was screaming. It took him longer to get his breathing right, but once he did he settled into a deep, bovine repose. He scratched his chest as if to fondle the air in his lungs and observed the place, the people, like it was all just an obstacle to him taking a nap.

Mrs. Corbin, flanked by her attaché, stepped forward and, unsure of who to address first, spread her deference equally among the Ouranoi. She had a clear, ingratiating voice and a daring, cards on the table smile, but enough sense not to stray too far into whatever body language wasn’t included in an Ouranoi handbook for Earth custom. One of the Ouranoi, the leader in breathing the air, identified himself and a partner as from the government. Ouranoi speak English like it pains them, like they’re spitting hot coals from their tongue. Their voice, their appearance, was such that, the war aside, it was, according to men like Ryan Kaczka, only natural to be prejudice against them, the way a boot is prejudice against the spider. A shudder ran through him as the Earth and Ouranoi ambassadors shook hands, as they rubbed their legs together like each was one half of a cricket.

“The women,” he said, pointing to the Ouranoi nurse. “A friend of mine says the women click their teeth like castanets when you touch them just right.”

He got some of the other men to laugh but then Charlie Stern overheard and upbraided him. He’d fought tooth and nail for the contract, he said, and wouldn’t let anyone ruin it.

The introductions, the formalities, were all rather painstaking. The tenor could never be too patriotic, nor to conciliatory, nothing that might upset or suggest weakness in one side or the other. It was warm milk to the television crews, who were after even just a sliver of the bombs, the death. They trained the majority of their cameras the majority of the time on the worn and ravaged face of the old Ouranoi man, who never spoke nor was made to speak. After the introductions the Earth and Ouranoi delegates went off on their own and the old Ouranoi man, his nurse, and what turned out to be his son, sat beside their ship, passing back-and-forth what appeared to be some kind of dried fruit. The son kept leaning across the nurse to speak in a hurried patter at his father, to which the old Ouranoi man, maintaining a dreamy gaze out over the field, would languidly flex the fins at the top of his head, what counted for the Ouranoi nod. Rob Lingenfelter was trying to listen in but could only make out every other word. His grandfather had been a translator during the war.

“Something about money,” he said. “Something about money and somebody’s mother or something.”

The men stood at some distance under a nylon canopy, smoking cigarettes and on the whole in generally good spirits for so far getting paid to stand around doing nothing. Alan Gunnel finally dug the rock out of his boot and Bruce Finch went to use the bathroom.

“Now he’s saying something about the weather. Something about the air. Don’t know if it’s complementary or not.”

“All sounds like mush to me,” said Ryan Kaczka.

“A lot of it’s just the same couple of sounds and once you get those you can start picking up on things.”

“I didn’t say I wanted to learn I just said it sounded like mush.”

“I’m going to go try and talk to them.”

The other men all watched Rob Lingenfelter stub out his cigarette, fix his hair. He was young and excitable, irritating in an admirable sort of way. He had screws in his leg from a four wheeling accident and was half deaf in one ear from standing too close to a homemade firework.

“Charlie said not to bother them,” said Alan Gunnel.

“Not going to bother them I’m just going to talk to them. I never met one before.”

The other men wanted to see what would happen and gave up trying to reel him in. The son of the old Ouranoi man frowned as he approached; the nurse crossed her legs. Rob Lingenfelter greeted them first in English then in Ouranoi, then stuck out his hand, which the son shook, the nurse squeezed, and the old man observed a moment, as if some curious piece of driftwood, then took in both of his. The old Ouranoi man whispered something over their grasp.

“What’d he say?” asked Rob Lingenfelter. “I didn’t catch all that.”

The son muttered a reply but Rob Lingenfelter couldn’t understand that either.

“Do any of you speak English? I know some Ouranoi but not enough. My granddaddy was a translator and he––”

Rob Lingenfelter didn’t know he was speaking as loud as he was. He was used to speaking like that because of his ear, because he spent all day working with loud machinery. The nurse plugged her ears and turned away from him. The son waved a hand and let slip a war-time insult, which was, unluckily, one of the couple dozen words in Rob Lingenfelter’s Ouranoi vocabulary.

“Come again?” He observed the nurse, the son. The old Ouranoi man seemed to’ve already forgotten him and was staring somewhere off into the distance. “Do any of you speak English?” He tried them in their own language but the reaction wasn’t any better. “Alright then,” he said. “Alright,” and went away a lot less enthusiastically than he arrived. He rejoined the men and lit another cigarette.

“How’d it go?” asked Alan Gunnel.

“Couldn’t understand them. Just a bunch of mush.”

Goodbye My Friends

MAGI Mission Log 21231702:

Mission going well so far. Bridget is a diligent and hard-working member of the team. I know some of the other team members were concerned at the late change when Deena had to withdraw at the last minute, but Bridget has proved a more than capable replacement. She’s analysed and written up reports on over thirty samples since the mission began a week ago. I like Bridget; she’s shy but also craves company. I think of her as social secretary to our little group. Last night, she tried to get the others to play some board games with her round the table in the Hab after dinner, but none of them were interested–they just wanted to chill out in their sleep pods listening to music or watching VR flicks on the headsets. I stepped into one to fill the void, and played a game Hive with her–kind of appropriate given what we’re doing out here. I did tell her she could have just played against me on the screen, I am the central mission computer–or at least the personality of it–after all. She said she preferred playing against my biped unit though, as she liked the social aspects of gaming, the human interactions. I’m not human, and don’t look it unless you almost close your eyes and squint at me from a distance, but that didn’t bother Bridget. I like her for that.

MAGI Mission Log 21231802:

The whole team is very excited today, as they’ve dug up one of the most exciting finds so far: a crystal lattice structure on a metal substrate. Rashid has theorized this could be a data storage device, and that this type of data structure has the potential to retain information stored on it for millions of years. If so, this could be the key to unlocking the secrets of the civilisation that lived here long before humanity’s ancestors came down from the trees. He’s asked me to help him try to interface with the device and see if we can read any of the contents. I am about as excited as my circuits will allow to be a part of this discovery, and look forward to working with Rashid on it.

Dr Lee is still working on the organic matter in the deposits of blue amber that Poona found while on one of her expeditions (as she likes to call them). If Rashid’s crystal promises one form of discovery, the genetic material found in the amber is another one. There’s a bit of healthy competition between Dr Lee and Rashid about who can make a breakthrough first, and whose discovery will be the biggest. Friendly competition though, there’s real camaraderie in this team.

Rashid made dinner this evening. It isn’t necessary for any of them to cook, as I remind them frequently; I’m capable of cooking any meal they could wish for. Rashid likes to cook for the group though. Tonight, he cooked a curry using real spices he smuggled here in his personal belongings, rather than using replicated stuff. Everyone loved it, even if Poona thought it was a bit spicy for her. My olfactory senses reported some pleasing and unusual odours coming from the food. Contrary to popular opinion, us machine intelligences don’t yearn to be human, though I do occasionally wish I could eat food like humans do, and the sight and smell of Rashid’s curry was one such occasion.

MAGI Mission Log 21231902:

Poona is ill today. She woke up sweating with a temperature of 39.4 degrees, and regularly flips between being hot and cold. I wondered at first whether it could have been Rashid’s curry, but he assures me not. It wasn’t that hot, he said. If anything, she’d have got something Rashid called ‘Delhi Belly’ which my data banks reveal means a functional dyspepsia. Her medical implants haven’t detected any unusual foreign viruses or bacteria. I ran some additional tests, but nothing came up. Bridget told me to stop worrying, that these things always sort themselves out. I do worry though; these humans are my responsibility.

Dr Lee has isolated a molecule in the organic samples which he believes could be the messenger molecule which stores and transmits genetic information, just like DNA and RNA does for Earth based life. He’s getting more excited by this every hour, and is dreaming of publishing in the most prestigious scientific journals, the VTV deal, and watching the millions of credits in research funding come flooding in. Rashid said he was getting a bit ahead of himself, and he should get on with actually making the discovery first.

Rashid meanwhile is getting very excited about his own work, as he believes he’s found a way to interface with the device. With my help, he was able to replicate a connector that latches on to extruding strands of crystal lattice in much the same way that early computers and peripherals were linked by physical connectors. I expressed some doubt about this–it was obviously a very sophisticated device, so why would it have a physical connector? We’d left such things behind a century ago. Still he was undeterred, and I attempted to support him in his work as much as I could (my programming wouldn’t allow me to do anything less).

Rashid was too busy to make dinner tonight. I made a smoky beef casserole–was I trying to compete with Rashid? It was well received, but it didn’t smell of anything much. Maybe next time I will have to ask Rashid if I can use some of his spices.

The Trapezoid

His father’s side of the family says that the boy grew up half-wild in the forest. But wouldn’t they have too, if they’d lived where he did? They wouldn’t have been able to resist the fluting trunks of the plaster-birches, serried to eternity before the subsiding sun, or the swish of tails in the undergrowth or the skitter of fire-beetles’ hot legs on bark either. They too would have felt part of a story ten thousand years in the making, and nowhere its end.

Of course, he doesn’t say any of this. He just smiles, and nods, as if he knew what they meant. As if he was a little embarrassed by it too.


The day his childhood ends he rides back after a morning spent stalking a deer. In front of him is the Manor, reclining between silky green paddocks and the gardens replete with polite shrubbery. Farther down is the green nook of the valley snaking to a distant floodplain, flanked by tired old hills, at its nadir the river named for his ancestors. The water is rich with coppergold flecks of early-afternoon sunlight. A fragrant afternoon wind sweeps up over the fields and the treetops and the terrazzo roofs and rushes in bearing a storm of aromas–grass, and livestock, and the stinging sweetness of spiralflowers blooming in glorious purple-red lakes on the otherwise bald hillsides.

Looming over all this in the distance is the Trapezoid. A giant tower of brute greyblack metal rising so high it scythes the clouds like the bow of a colossal ship. A thing neither seeking nor receiving welcome in this pleasantly aged land. A thing of grim purpose, and nothing else.

He lets his horse loose and notices a cluster of black cars parked by the Manor’s entrance. The knowledge that his father is back sucks the life from his blood. Grey-suited guards watch him approach with their arms crossed and their eyes hidden behind their sunglasses.

The boy halts in front of one of them.

“It isn’t sunny,” he says.

The guard scowls.

“What?”

“You’ll address me as milord, thank you very much.”

The guard sneers and makes to say something. Then he pauses, and purses his lips.

“What, milord?”

“Why are you wearing–”

A pyroclastic blast of the boy’s father’s voice erupts from inside the house.

“Boy, is that you? Come here! We have guests!”

The boy gives the guard one last look.

“You’re going to ruin those nice city shoes in this country mud,” he says, and heads in.

His father’s in the main hall. The wooden beams latticed overhead, golden-brown and sinuously irregular, are older than the country the valley is now part of. On the far side is a bay window opening onto a balcony and a view of the valley and the Trapezoid.

There’s someone else there. A young woman, thin-lipped, large-nosed and severe, pretty in the way statues of goddesses are. She looks like she’d be cold to the touch. His father–bearded, dark, taking up more space somehow than just what his body does–at her and says, “Say hello.”

“Hello,” says the boy.

The woman looks the boy up and down like she was appraising a purchase.

“Hello,” she says.

“This is my protege from the city,” says the father. “She’s an immensely talented young lady, and will be very important one day. You are to be her husband.”

The boy looks out across the balcony. The sun slinks down behind the Trapezoid, and the half-night of its shadow slicks down the hillsides. In the gloom the valley is transformed. A truck full of goats bleats on their way to some distant abattoir down the road. The swirl and curve of a flock of birds flying back to the forest to roost. Yet even the distant hillsides, where the sun still shines, seem dim and bleached. Strange, he thinks, how the brightness of the outer world seems so much at the mercy of his inner one.

“I see,” he says.