The Colored Lens
Henry Fields, Associate Editor
Table of Contents
- My Girl, Kumiho by J.R. Troughton
- A Long Fall by Travis Lee
- The Day Before Tomorrow by Arthur Davis
- The Body Collectors by J.A. Becker
- Delectable by Robert Luke Wilkins
- Peregrinus Sapiens by E. K. Wagner
- When Whales Fall by Darcie Little Badger
- Living Space by Allina Nunley
- The Raven Paradox by Derrick Boden
- Along Dominion Road by Dale L. Sproule
- Stars by Sarah Gailey
- The Tower of Bones by Jeff Samson
My Girl, Kumiho
By J.R. Troughton
25 February, 2007
The train was busy despite the late hour.
“Where are you from?”
I looked around as I always did when I heard my native tongue, though I didn’t know if it was directed toward me or not.
The carriage was full of drunken salarymen and preening teenagers. A few ajummas, older women in neon tracksuits, scoured the world with their eyes. I was on my way home from a party on the far side of Seoul, dazed from soju and beer cocktails. It took a few moments to realize who was talking. It was a Korean girl, early 20’s, who stared straight at me.
She had boarded at Seoul National University and hovered by the train doors, toying with her phone and glancing around cautiously. She was wearing large pink headphones that covered her ears completely, and had been bobbing her head to her music. I’d pretended not to look at her, but she caught me staring more than once.
“England.” I tried to look nonchalant as I swayed.
“England? I thought you must have been American.”
“Everyone seems to think that.”
“You have a big nose.”
I stared at her. “Thanks.”
The train pulled into Sincheon. As I offered a farewell smile and stepped off the train, she whispered to me, “Only 315 days to go.” She flashed me a smile in return, showing off pointed teeth the color of pearls, and returned to her phone. The carriage doors shut and the train pulled away.
As I approached the turnstile to leave the station, I found my wallet was missing. Cursing my bad luck, I tried to explain what had happened to the subway worker at the turnstiles. He quickly grew frustrated with my miming and ushered me through the gate, complaining with jagged tones.
I walked home, bemused. Despite the pressing issue of my lost wallet, one thought returned to me time and time again; what was happening in 315 days?
15 March, 2007
I sat alone, eating cheese ramen and picking at kimchi.
Every day was the same. I would arrive at the kimbap house for my lunch break, order one of the dozen or so dishes I alternated between, and sit by the table facing out into the street. I would watch the life of Seoul ebb and flow and wonder what my friends back home were doing. I had spoken to some since I had arrived, but only fleetingly. The time difference made things difficult and we didn’t speak often.
The same woman would serve me each day.
“Good job,” she would say, watching me fumble my chopsticks.
“Thank you,” I would reply, only to be met with a confused stare. English vocabulary spent, she would then hurry back to her work. I began replying in Korean after a few weeks, which delighted the woman at first, but her enthusiastic replies were met with my own blank stares. She soon lost interest. Her plastic smiles continued daily, however.
The door of the kimbap house swung open and in walked the Korean girl with the pink headphones. I would have recognised them anywhere. She scanned the room and our eyes met. I looked down and stared at my noodles, pretending I hadn’t seen her. My face grew warm.
Footsteps. I looked up, and there she was, standing over me. My cheeks burned. She sat down opposite.
“Hello,” she said, “Remember me?”
“Uh, yeah. Hi.”
“Here.” She reached out and offered me a tightly wrapped plastic bag. I took it cautiously, trying to clean my chin of ramen broth without her noticing.
Inside was my wallet.
“You dropped it. Took me some time to find you.”
I stared at the wallet and then at her.
“Thanks. How did you find me?”
“You foreigners are easy to find.” She smiled. “You smell different.” She tapped her nose three times and laughed.
“Oh.” I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I was grateful all the same. “Well, it’s really good of you to bring this back.”
“It’s ok”, she chimed as she stood. “We are same-same.”
And, with a smile that revealed teeth like daggers, she left.
I watched her hop onto a bus outside and disappear into the distance. Checking my wallet, I found all my money and cards still intact.
The kindness of strangers never ceased to surprise. Neither did Korean turns of phrase.
24 March, 2007
The bustling markets of Insadong welcomed me. Pushing through the masses, I searched for a gift to send home for my mother’s birthday, trying to find the right balance between authentic and interesting.
Crowds billowed and swayed and chattered. Blindfolded Taekwondo practitioners performed to inspiring music, ajummas served scorched silkworm larvae in cups, fouling my nostrils with their earthy rich scent, and candy makers entertained tourists with their ill-pronounced counting as they folded and refolded their honey and spiderweb-like sweets, chanting the numbers out with painted on enthusiasm.
“Hello, Big Nose,” she had whispered in my ear, and flashed me those pointed teeth.
She wore thick bundles of clothes and pink headphones once more. She grabbed my arm and pulled me into an alley.
“Just over 290 days to go now. So exciting!”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m doing well, aren’t I? Most of the way there.”
I shook my head. “Most of the way to what? Who are you?”
She slapped her head and chimed a laugh. “Oh, name! I’m Kumiho. And you are Big Nose, I remember you.”
“My name’s Adam.”
“Adam Big Nose, of course. Thank you. How do you find the Korea?”
I was used to such questions. The incomprehensible Kumiho was not so different to the madness of my many other interviewers. Apart from those oddly pointed teeth.
“I like it. It’s beautiful here. And the people are kind.”
Kumiho’s eyes furrowed. “Not kind. You don’t know Korean people. They are not kind.”
“Really? Well, maybe I’ve been lucky but…” my voice trailed off as Kumiho thumped my arm and growled.
“Not kind. You don’t know. People here do not like things that are different.”
“Really?” I thought about this. “Everyone has always been good to me.”
“Showing a kind face is not the same as having a kind heart,” she spat. “People here do not like you. They do not like me, either.”
And with that, she marched away. I tried to ignore what she had said, but her thoughts hung over me like a cloud for days.
14 April, 2007
The cherry blossom was pink and dainty when I met her again. I had been on my way to Seocho to meet some friends. I was on the subway, eyelids drifting. One moment there was an old man, an ajosshi with caterpillar brows, staring at me with curiosity, and then Kumiho was next to him also. She grinned and sat next to me.
“You again?” I said. I had almost forgotten about her.
“Kumiho again.” She tapped the side of her nose. “Did you miss me?”
“I don’t really know you…” I tried to be polite.
“No. You don’t know me.” She reclined in her seat and sighed. “Nobody knows me.”
I didn’t know what to say to this, so I didn’t. I fiddled with my thumbs and looked up at the subway map. Four stations to go.
“But this is the same,” she continued, “Nobody knows you, foreigner. You are waegookin. Nobody in Korea knows you.”
“I have friends, thanks.”
“That’s not the same.”
“You are different. You think different to Korea people. So do I. We are same-same, someways, you and I.” She smiled at this. Her teeth were still sharp, though not so much as I remembered.
“You’re Korean, aren’t you? What makes us so similar?” I felt nervous talking to her. She was pretty, Kumiho. Dark eyes and cocoa hair that framed her face. She could have been on TV.
“I am Korean. But we don’t fit here. People don’t like us.” She stared pointedly at the ajosshi opposite, who muttered something in Korean. Kumiho spat a mouthful of barbed words. The ajosshi’s eyes and nostrils flared and he stood, barking at us like a guard dog. He raised his newspaper high and brought it down towards Kumiho. She caught it with ease, and shouted more incomprehensible words at him. His face turned pale. Grabbing his briefcase, he stormed off the train. Kumiho stood by the doors and watched him go.
“What did you say to him?” I asked.
Kumiho turned to me, flashing her white fangs.
“I said ‘Wanna die?’”
And with that, as the train doors were closing, she stepped off the train and waved me goodbye.
She was crazy, Kumiho.
2nd July, 2007
I still thought about Kumiho. I hadn’t seen her in some time, but her perfect features and shining smile haunted my dreams. She appeared to me in my sleep as an animal, stalking me, appearing unexpected and unannounced.
It was a typical Korean summer’s afternoon. The air felt viscous and sweat poured from my back and chest. As I sat outside a cafe, hiding from the sun and enjoying iced coffee, a familiar voice greeted me.
“Hi, Adam Big Nose.”
It was Kumiho. Dressed in a baggy white t-shirt covered in pink and yellow neon, with tight dark jeans, she still wore her oversized headphones. She always had them on.
“Kumiho! It’s good to see you.” I almost tripped as I stood. “How have you been?”
“I’m ok. So-so.” She sat down next to me. “Not so many days to go now.”
“Until I can become human,” she said, matter of factly.
She stirred the ice in her cup with her straw. Tried to pick up one of the ice cubes.
“Until I can become human. I am Kumiho, remember.”
“Oh. Right, sure.” I sipped at my drink. “Because you’re not human?”
“Exactly. 343 days to go. I’m doing well, but…” she trailed off and placed a hand on her stomach. She closed her eyes.
“So, you’re not human.” I tried to keep my hands steady. “What are you then?”
Kumiho leant back and looked around the cafe. Her eyes landed upon mine once more. She opened her mouth to reply, but as she did, a low and fierce grumble came from her. Wincing, she grabbed her stomach.
“I’m just so hungry, you know?”
“Do you want something to eat?” I pulled out my wallet and looked to the counter. “They make good bagels here.”
Her lip curled. “Bagels? No, no! I don’t want bagels. You don’t know about Kumiho, do you? I’m different, remember? Like you.”
I shook my head. “What do you mean? What is a kumiho?”
With a fierce growl, she stood up and stared at me for a full five seconds. Then, she stormed off, mumbling to herself in Korean.
I wondered what it was I had said, or hadn’t.
Pulling out my phone, I searched the internet for the meaning of kumiho. I frowned. I found images of a nine-tailed fox that could turn human. A fox that ate the hearts of humans.
I laughed, shook my head, and sipped at my drink.
1st August, 2007
Hongdae was busy. University miscreants drank and danced in the park, two separate bands vying for the crowd. Separately, there was a dance off between two groups of teenagers, playing K-Pop from an oversized stereo. Ex-pats drank too heartily and clutched at their partners.
I sat in a barbecue restaurant with my co-worker, Sangyoung, throwing back shots of soju and eating spicy pork belly and rice. He had broken up with his girlfriend not so long ago and was drinking too eagerly. We weren’t good friends, but we made the effort to eat and drink together once a week. His English was broken and conversation stalled too often. Alcohol helped. Waving panicked hand signals at me and disappearing to the toilets, Sangyoung lurched away, leaving me alone.
Alcohol didn’t always help.
I wrapped some pork belly in a lettuce leaf and popped it in my mouth. Pressed the button to call for the waitress’s attention.
“I want to talk with you,” said Kumiho, appearing in place of the teenager who had served us previously. I stared at her. She was dressed as a waitress, with an immaculate apron replete with tongs and scissors.
“Kumiho?” I looked at her incredulously.
“Please. I like you. Come see me.” And out the door she went.
I looked to the toilets, imagined the two ways my evening could go, and hurried to the door.
Kumiho stood outside, with a big grin on her face. Her teeth were perfect.
“Hello, Big Nose. I’m sorry about before.”
I shrugged. “That’s ok.”
“No, no. I was rude. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be… I was just so hungry. It was a bad day. A weak day.”
“It’s fine, honestly.” Kumiho beamed at this and hopped from foot to foot. She was more beautiful than I remembered.
“You don’t know the meaning of Kumiho, do you?” she asked.
I didn’t know how to respond to this. Instead, I looked at her and offered a weak smile.
She looked around quickly, saw nobody was in earshot, and whispered fiercely. “I am Kumiho with Nine Tails.” She looked at me expectantly.
With some effort, I offered a slightly stronger smile.
“You don’t know me, do you?”
“No. I thought we’d been through this? I don’t know you. I’d like to though.” This time my smile came naturally.
“I’m a fox.”
“Oh. Of course,” I sat down on a low brick wall, “You’re a fox.” I laughed. “I read up on what a kumiho is. Sounds interesting.”
Kumiho raised an eyebrow. She sat down next to me and took a swig from a bottle of soju.
“You don’t believe me,” she said, passing the bottle.
I didn’t know what to say, so I let the silence sit. Scratching at the label on the bottle, I watched a group of students stumble past, raucous with good humor. They glanced at me and Kumiho and giggled to one another, exchanging whispers. Kumiho glared at them.
“I can show you if you like.”
“That you’re a fox?”
“Ok.” I took another swig and placed the bottle on the wall. “Show me.”
“Not here.” Kumiho looked around. “Not tonight. Meet me at Gyeongbokgong station next week. On the 10th. 8pm, exit 3.”
“I guess it takes preparation, turning into a fox?” I chuckled. “Need to brush your tail? Get your ears straightened?”
“No. But it’s too busy here and it’s making me hungry. Still, only 126 days to go.” Kumiho snatched up the bottle of soju and downed the final third. Leaning back and cackling to herself, she almost fell off the wall. She then placed the bottle back on the pavement, and walked away.
“See you then,” I called after her.
I was glad I knew when it would be.
10th August, 2007
I stood outside Gyeongbokgong station, sweating. My hair was matted and my shirt clung to me. I had spent all too long trying to get my look right. Picked out my best clothes, styled my hair. 10 minutes after leaving my apartment I looked like I’d finished a 10km race.
Sipping at a bottle of water, I watched the evening traffic glide past.
Kumiho appeared 10 minutes late, or thereabouts, emerging from an alley close by. Her pink headphones sat atop her head, as always. She was feeling the summer heat too and her white top stuck to her body. I didn’t know where to look.
“Come on then,” she said, and walked back down the alley. I followed and found the road sharply ascended. We marched up old and cramped roads where crag faced ajosshis sat outside beaten up shops, drinking beer and watching us with suspicion, muttering to one another. I didn’t understand what they said but Kumiho spat words back at them.
“What are they saying?” I asked after the second set of grumbling men.
“Calling me names. Calling you names. They don’t think we belong here.” Kumiho picked up her pace and I tried my best to follow. For one so slender, she moved quickly.
Up and up we went until we reached stone steps that continued higher. By now my eyes were stinging from sweat and my legs were starting to ache. If anything, the hill was getting steeper. It was as if we had left Seoul far behind as we walked past quiet temples and looming trees. The evening was quiet. I saw cats prowling in the undergrowth.
“Where are we going?”
“Up the mountain. It’s a special place. It’s safe.”
I tried to keep up but Kumiho was too fast and she disappeared around a towering boulder. As the sun melted over the top of the rocky peaks above, I could hear bells chiming. Looking around, I saw a man in the distance, sat on a mat and surrounded by bottles of alcohol, singing softly and ringing the bell.
“He is shaman. It’s holy here. Touched by heaven,” came Kumiho’s voice from above me. She was on top of the boulder and looking down, smiling. I circled the boulder and the city opened up before me. Seoul, awash with red and orange, city lights twinkling as the day ebbed into night.
I sat with Kumiho and we watched the sun set. As the night was born, I felt her hand take mine. I didn’t look at her. I kept my eyes focused on the blinking light of Namsan Tower, worried that any movement would break the moment forever.
We sat for a long time.
“Don’t be afraid.” Kumiho let go of my hand and disappeared down the boulder.
I leant against the rock face and listened to the shaman’s chimes and chants. I wasn’t sure what Kumiho had planned, what kind of trick she was going to pull. I had wondered if she was mistaking fox for some other word, but I couldn’t figure out what that might be. I popped a mint in my mouth.
A heard a low growl come from down below. Crawling down the slope and peering over the edge, I saw a small fox, white as snow, with a number of tails. The tails quivered and shook as the fox stared at me.
My jaw dropped. My mint fell out and bounced down the crags.
The fox sprang up the boulder, bounding with Olympian agility, and landed in front of me. I had pushed myself backwards as it came flying towards me, but froze as it landed. It cocked its head to the side and stared at me with chocolate brown eyes. It grinned and revealed pearl white teeth, sharp as knives.
The fox froze for a moment. Then slowly nodded its head and shook its many tails once more. I counted them; there were nine.
Biting my lip, I reached out a hand. The fox, Kumiho, nuzzled it.
I laughed and sat back against the rockface once more. Kumiho jumped forward and began licking my hand as I stroked her. What magic was this? What mystery?
The night passed slowly as we played in the moonlight.
Kumiho was curled up in my lap and the hour was late. A deep rumbling came from the fox, who stirred and looked around in a daze. The rumbling continued, louder and more ferociously than before. I ran my fingers through her soft fur.
This time, as her stomach rumbled again, Kumiho leapt off me in discomfort.
“Are you ok?” I whispered.
Kumiho stared at me, her beady dark eyes showing no emotion. The rumbling continued and she looked all around. The shaman had long since left, or fallen asleep, and the night was quiet. The breeze was fierce and warm.
The nine-tailed fox fixed me with her eyes and bared her teeth. The rumbling from her stomach was growing louder. Her lips curled into a primal snarl.
I edged backwards, hands up in front of me.
Something changed in Kumiho’s eyes. Imperceptibly different, somehow, though I could not say what it was that changed. She turned away and bounded down the rocks, disappearing off and into the scrub.
Exhaling heavily, I slumped against the rock face. I wasn’t sure what had changed in Kumiho, but I had been left alone near the peak of Inwangsan Mountain. Using my phone as a torch, I scrambled down from the boulder and started to negotiate my way down the winding paths back to civilisation. Something cracked under my foot.
Kumiho’s oversized pink headphones.
I picked them up and headed home.
I kept Kumiho’s broken headphones in my satchel and carried them around with me. I was sure she would turn up unannounced, as she always had, and I wanted to have them ready for her.
After a month, I stopped carrying them. After three months, I put them in a drawer.
I tried to keep my mind off of Kumiho. I joined a running club and made friends. Went out, got drunk, ate well. Danced in Gangnam and Hongdae and Itaewon. Stewed in molten saunas and went on a trip to Japan. Gorged on sushimi and started taking Korean classes.
Still, nightly, my thoughts returned to her.
It was funny. Before I met Kumiho I’d felt so separate. So insecure. A quiet island drifting in a land of oddities. She was the greatest oddity of all, yet she was the thing that grounded me here. She was the thing that made me feel like I lived here, rather than existed.
6th December, 2007
Returning from class at Hongik University, I found Kumiho once again. She was waiting outside my apartment, sitting against the door, sipping a bottle of soju. White fox ears poked out from her dark hair.
“Kumiho!” I ran to her. She looked at me and smiled. Her teeth were sharp as knives once more.
“Can I come in?”
“Of course, of course.”
Inside my apartment, I offered Kumiho a bean bag and went to the kitchen to brew some tea.
“I’m sorry, Adam Big Nose, if I scared you.”
I waved my hand. “Don’t be silly. It was amazing. You’re amazing.”
“I ate someone.” Kumiho’s eyes fell to the floor. “I have to start again now.”
The silence sat for a long time.
“Start what again?” I’ve never been sure why I asked this first, rather than the question that was ricocheting around my mind.
“My 1000 days.” Kumiho stretched. “I am Kumiho. I must go 1000 days hungry to become human.”
I thought back the first few times we had met and the countdown she had been so enamoured by. How she had often complained of hunger, and grew irritated whenever I offered her food. To the legends, the nonsense folk stories, I had read on the internet.
“Yes, to become human. Kumiho must not eat a person for 1000 days.”
“And… you’ve eaten someone?”
“Yes.” she sighed. “I ate someone. An ajumma who shouted at me on the bus. I followed her home and ate her.”
What do you say to a fox who eats people? I sat and gawped. The pretty Korean girl who ate people. She played with her ears, running her fingers up and down them, teasing the ends.
“I have your headphones. They’re broken though.”
“I’ve been thinking, Big Nose. We are same-same, because you are not Korean person and neither am I. Not really, not yet.” She approached. “I am still very hungry, and I don’t think you count. You are not a Korean person, after all. You are very different. Not a real person at all, in many ways. Perhaps eating you would be ok?” she said, single bead of spittle rolling down her cheek.
I backed away. She couldn’t be serious. All the same, I reached behind me and my fingers wrapped around the handle of a knife.
“Yes,” she continued. “I think it would be ok, Adam Big-Nose. You are not Korean person. You are waegookin. I think you can be eaten just fine.” Those white fangs were out now, seemingly growing larger by the moment. Kumiho’s eyes were black holes of hunger.
With a snarl she leapt at me.
I swung the knife toward her, winced and shut my eyes. She howled as I cut through her and I felt nails, perhaps claws, rake down my cheek. I stumbled back, flailing blindly with the knife, and felt it connect again.
I swung again…
There was a wail, a banshee’s call, and my door slammed. Opening my eyes, I saw no splatter of red, no gore leaking to my floor. But Kumiho was gone. I breathed out for the first time in an eternity and slumped down to the kitchen tiles.
Something white shimmered on the floor.
A patch of white fur, roughly cut.
17th January, 2008.
I arrived back in England on a Tuesday. It was raining.
As I stared out of the window of my taxi and watched miserable people trudge about, I thought about what was to come. Finding a new job, a new place to live. Discovering my feet once more in the country that was my home.
It’s funny. I spent less than a year in Korea, but it’s a part of me now.
I opened my wallet to pay the taxi driver and there it was. The tuft of white fur, tucked carefully inside. The mark of that girl, Kumiho. I’ll never forget her, and she’ll be my friend always, no matter how we left things. It’s not her fault, I’m sure. I had wondered if she might return to my apartment, so I left my contact details on the side with her pink headphones. I had not seen her since that night. I can only think she changed her mind and let me live; I am sure I wasn’t strong enough to fight her off and I was her friend, after all.
Maybe she’ll become human one day.
I’d like that.
A Long Fall
By Travis Lee
Patricia gathered her savings and took the number 58 bus downtown.
She held the bag in her lap, watching the city pass by. Their neighborhood had gone from nice to terrible, from kids smoking under a streetlight to kids shooting each other over drugs. But she had never suggested they move, and neither had Samuel. The church needed them, and God knew, the neighborhood needed the church.
There was a car sitting in the driveway and it had been sitting there a long time. Her brother told her she should at least start it once a week, to keep it fresh, but Patricia had trouble finding the keys. And when she did, she saw the keyring, she saw the name on it.
He’d written it himself. One weekend the grandchildren were staying over and her granddaughter wrote her name on everything she thought was hers. Patricia had started to yell, until Samuel put a hand on her shoulder and asked for the pen.
“Good idea,” he said, winking at their granddaughter. He took the pen and wrote his name on the keyring. “That’s mine.” And he and his granddaughter had taken turns marking whatever they wanted, with the granddaughter’s wants far outnumbering Samuel’s.
He had his name on his toothbrush — he’d made sure to mark that, while their granddaughter had claimed Patricia’s toothbrush as her own. Samuel’s toothbrush stood in a holder beside Patricia’s. She hadn’t touched it since he fell.
The bus bounced. It was cheaper than driving. Faster too, if you were headed downtown. Her brother had warned her of the people who rode the bus. People only take public transportation in big cities, he’d told her, and Norfolk isn’t a big city. That’s what he’d said. She knew what he meant: the law-abiding only take the bus in places like New York, and Norfolk is no New York. It’s Norfolk, a city on life support by the grace of the military bases every which way you turn.
Her brother was full of opinions. Especially about this. The bus chimed. It slowed.
She got her bag ready.
It was Kyle who’d suggested this place to her, and she supposed she should be thankful for that. With anyone else, she would’ve told them where they could stick their idea. Kyle, on the other hand, was a doctor. He’d done time in the Navy, here in Norfolk, and he’d gone to college, here in Norfolk, and on to medical school, here in Norfolk, and now he worked as a doctor . . . here in Norfolk.
Two young men let Patricia off the bus first. A rainstorm had passed through last night and the air was thick, the daytime heat just gearing up. The house had no central heat and air, their window unit enough to combat Norfolk’s summers. It was a luxury they could do without. So was the satellite dish, but her brother hadn’t let that stop him —
She crossed the street.
She moved down the sidewalk. Across the street was the waterfront, facing Portsmouth’s waterfront on the other side. The Naval Hospital. Where she and Samuel had seen their first grandbaby come into the world and it somehow got more special each time.
She turned down a small street and stopped at the building, identified only by four numbers: 1741. She tapped the bag. She tapped it again.
Then she rang the bell.
She spent a few minutes in the waiting room before Mr. Johnson came out and shook her hand and led her to his office.
“I have it all,” she said. “Every last dollar.”
Mr. Johnson nodded. “Something to drink?”
“No thanks.” Her mouth was dry but her brother’s voice still rung in her head, and she wanted to be out of here before it started to ring true.
“Very well.” Mr. Johnson laid the form out on the desk. He put a pen on top, turning it to point at a blank line at the bottom. “When you’re ready.”
She’d been ready too long now. Yet, as she picked up the pen, she could hear her brother’s voice as if he were right beside her.
It’s bullshit. They’re yanking your chain.
She started signing.
She was halfway through her name.
Don’t tell me you’re going to piss away your savings on something like this.
She finished her name.
A shadow, only a shadow of —
She dated the form and laid the pen down.
“It’s done,” she said quietly.
Mr. Johnson took the form. “You are very brave, Misses Baggett.”
“It’s done,” she said again, a bit quieter.
Back home she sat in the front porch swing. Samuel had installed it after the old one started to rot. Samuel was good at installing stuff. Aside from the church, he’d done maintenance work for a local factory, even selling his trade to people in the neighborhood who had broken faucets, faulty lightswitches.
And satellite dishes.
No one in their flock could afford cable television. Yet they had it. And the satellite dish . . . what was it her brother said? It’s cheaperwas cheaper than paying for cable. Plus you got more channels. It
‘s a good deal
was a good deal.
That they could afford it wasn’t the question. Both of them had stopped working years ago, drawing on Samuel’s pension. They took no salary from the church — what little the tithing bowls brought went for church upkeep, and there was always plenty of upkeep. Would they use the dish? Samuel rarely watched TV. It was Patricia who watched the morning news from their small kitchen TV while Samuel read the newspaper, Patricia who watched it before they went to bed. And what was it her brother had said? With 400 channels
at this price? You can’t beat it
she would have plenty to watch. Plenty
a good deal
to choose from.
Patricia stayed on the swing. A car with tinted windows cruised by and swung into a driveway a few houses down. It was a good deal. For the money you paid, you really couldn’t beat it.
She got up.
Samuel had fallen in the driveway and the spot where he fell looked darker than the rest of the driveway, a long asphault tongue unrolling from the garage in the back to the street. She hadn’t been watching him. She’d been inside, preparing lunch. If she’d kept an eye on him, then maybe she could’ve said something or maybe he would’ve been more careful or even earlier
no one pays this much in cable
at Thanksgiving, when her brother brought it up
you’re gettin screwed
she could’ve argued better but that was her brother. When you argued for a living, you tended to be better at it than most.
And her brother hadn’t stopped arguing. After she told him about her decision, he’d stared at her like a man waiting for the punchline. When the punchline didn’t come, he’d started arguing.
He won’t be your husband. I don’t care what that bastard promised you.
She was staring at the spot.
Even if it’s true, he’ll just be a shadow of your husband.
A spot darker than the rest of the driveway.
Just a shadow.
Patricia got off the bus and walked four blocks to the restaurant. Her brother was waiting for her in the lobby, and when he saw her, he put his hands on his hips.
“Did you get us a table?”
“Thirty minutes ago, when you were supposed to be here.”
The hostess showed them to a booth.
“Did you walk it?” her brother asked. The waitress introduced herself and handed them menus.
“I don’t know about you,” Patricia said, “but I’m in the mood for a good steak.”
“You didn’t take the bus, did you?”
“Or shrimp. They got some pretty good shrimp here.”
“Well did you?”
“Though there’s this place by the beach, they got the best shrimp in all of Hampton Roads.”
“What’ll you be having to drink?”
Her brother folded his menu and let it drop on the table.
“Yes,” she said.
“The shrimp here is wonderful.”
The waitress came and took their drink orders. Patricia ordered a margarita while her brother stuck with a Coke. The waitress left.
“Are your tags expired?”
“I told you the shrimp’s good, Walter.”
“But that steak’s still calling my name. If I win the lottery, that’s what I’ll do.”
“What will you do?”
“Order both. I’m tired of having to pick one over the other.”
Walter looked at her.
“It’s like picking your favorite children really.”
Walter clicked his tongue. He’d done that since they were children. He pushed his glasses up, squeezed the bridge of his nose, and with a sigh said, “You did do it. I fucking knew it.”
“Watch your mouth, Walter.”
“I just — ” The waitress returned, and took their orders. Patricia got the steak and the shrimp.
“Like pickin your favorite children.”
“Let me ask you a question. Do you believe in television psychics?”
“No, you know I don’t.”
“And why not?”
“Because everyone knows they’re full of it.”
“Full of it. My thoughts exactly. So since the people who claim they can communicate with your dead relatives are full of it, what makes you think a resurrection is more plausible?”
Patricia sipped her margarita. She’d heard it all before and she would hear it all again before dinner was through. She took another sip, a long one.
“To answer your question . . . ” She paused. “Because television psychics appear on TV. I don’t trust nothin on TV.”
“But you trust these guys.”
“I don’t trust you.”
“Great.” The waitress brought their food and went away. “Let me tell you something. Don’t you dare expect me to shake his hand.”
“How about a hug?”
“You . . . ”
“It’s not your fault,” she said.
“I know it’s not my fault.”
She took another long sip of her margarita. “Like I said, I don’t blame you for what happened. It was an accident.”
“Have you thought about how you’ll explain this to the kids? To the grandkids?”
“I think they’ll be happy to have their grandpa back.”
“He’s not their fucking grandpa,” Walter said, pounding the table with his fist. “He’s not even a fucking person for Christ’s sake.”
“Walter, your language — ”
“Fuck it.” Walter threw down a wad of bills. “Just fuck it.” He left his food untouched. The doors flung open and popped shut behind him.
Patricia finished her magarita and ordered another.
On the busride home Patricia thought about the bus itself. If you built another bus exactly like this one and gave it the same number, would it be the same bus? Or if you just took out everything inside, keeping the frame, replaced it, what then? She leaned her head on the window. Across the aisle a bearded man in a coat sat watching her. When time came for her stop, she stood up and met his eyes.
“I don’t trust nothin on TV,” she said, and got off the bus.
Late that night the doorbell rang. Patricia cinched up her bathrobe and flicked on the lamp by the door. She looked through the peephole, saw who was there, and opened the door.
Samuel was wearing the same clothes he’d worn the day he fell.
“Pat,” he said. “I had a dream that I fell.”
And when Patricia tried to speak, she choked on her words. She took him in her arms and cried.
Samuel drove them to the church. Faces new and old in the congregation. He preached to them, prayed over them, and a woman whose son had been hit by a car did not come to the pulpit during prayer. She usually did. But today she kept to the back.
It cost me my savings, Patricia thought, and resolved to speak to her after the service.
Samuel gave today’s sermon. While he spoke, Patricia kept her eyes not only on that woman, but others too. How many were thinking the same thing? She offered them smiles, getting none in return, and when she passed the collection plate around it came back with a few dollars and a shoestring.
Samuel ended that morning with announcements: a list of current job openings was on the table by the door. Workforce Development this Wednesday. Job interview skills. Patricia had done a passable job in his absence, but no one could command the church the way he did.
Patricia tried to talk to that woman. She’d gone out the door and Patricia went around back to the parking lot. She was getting in her car.
“Ma’am!” Patricia called. “Ma’am!”
The woman glanced up at her and a glance was all it took. The same accusing look, worse out here under the open sky. Patricia had told her to keep praying, that the Lord works in unexpected ways. It took a week for her son to die. The woman had no insurance.
The car pulled out and sped away and Patricia stood waving the remains of the car’s exhaust fumes from her face, wondering what she could do about the woman’s medical bills.
Patricia never saw her again.
The car was idling, public radio at a low volume. Samuel had both hands on the wheel, looking out at the building. Patricia had questions
do you know
her brother’s questions, the kind that would taint her mouth to even whisper.
After a while, Samuel said, “I remember this place.”
“We came here before.”
“They took some kind of . . . sample or somethin.” He was squinting. Patricia noticed. Samuel
the real Samuel
had never squinted like this before.
“You wanted to do it,” she said. “Do you remember?”
“Yes,” he said, in a voice that could’ve come from someone else.
“We can go.”
He turned off the car.
The returned people, as the clinic called them, needed three checkups over a twelve month period. Abnormalities were rare — in fact, Patricia couldn’t remember Kyle ever mentioning any — but it was best to be safe. Returning people was a fairly new procedure.
They entered the clinic arm-in-arm and Samuel checked in by himself, reciting his full name and social, just as they wanted. A young doctor came out and took Samuel to the back.
Patricia waited in the lobby.
She was the only one in here. The clinic kept the magazine subscriptions up to date and Patricia read one. Synthetic Biology: Humanity’s New Frontier. In the article they talked of resurrecting neandrathals, cro-magnons, mammoths and in the last paragraph they joked about bringing back dinosaurs. She closed the magazine and sat tapping it on her knee. Returning people, she had read no magazine articles on this. Kyle had brought it up over coffee one morning and told her that
the risks are huge
the risks were minor, for the price you paid. She rolled up the magazine. She waited.
Hours later Mr. Johnson summoned her and they sat alone in his office.
“How’s he doing?” Mr. Johnson asked.
“Good. He’s doing real good.”
“Did he answer all the questions correctly?”
The day she paid they’d given her a list of questions to ask Samuel. Where were you born? What was your mother’s maiden name? The same questions her email asked when she forgot her password. He’d answered them all correctly, all except —
She waited for Mr. Johnson to correct her, to tell her that no, he hadn’t answered all of them correctly. He was one day off, and what would happen then? The paper didn’t say.
“What we did,” Mr. Johnson said, picking up a folder, “was run a normal physical check on your husband.” He opened it, just slightly enough to peek through. “Doctor says he’s fine.”
“Nothing wrong with his heart?”
Mr. Johnson shook his head.
Mr. Johnson shook his head again.
“His back?” Patricia chuckled. “Sorry. I know what I sound like.”
“Understandable.” Mr. Johnson handed her the folder. “Do you have any questions?”
Mr. Johnson waited, hands clasped together.
“Does he know?”
“Not at all?”
“He believes this is a routine physical.” Mr. Johnson unclasped his hands and leaned back, resting them on his stomach. He did not take his eyes off her. “Did you tell him?”
“Did he say anything?”
and would they? They wouldn’t —
“Well then.” Mr. Johnson leaned up. “I believe your loving husband is waiting in the lobby. It’s rude to keep someone waiting.”
“Yes,” Patricia said, forcing herself to meet his eyes. “It sure is.”
Otherwise, life returned to normal. They ran the church. They prayed over the broken. Mornings were for the newspaper, evenings for their books. They sat together on the front porch swing. Before his fall Samuel had been halfway through a book, and he picked up this book, plucked out the bookmark and read it by the light of a wax candle.
Patricia kept glancing at the book. She couldn’t tell how much progress he’d made. If she asked, would he know the plot? The main character?
She tightened her grip on her own book.
He was just a day off, quit fussing
After their nightly reading they lay in bed. Streetlight reached through the blinds, cold bars splayed across the bed. Patricia got up to close the curtain.
“No,” Samuel said.
“You don’t want it closed?”
“No,” he said again, and that was all he said on the matter.
Patricia laid there, awake. Samuel snored. And Patricia still laid there, awake.
She went downstairs.
They kept books-in-progress on a shelf by the front door. Patricia grabbed the book. They’d bought this a month or so before his fall, on their last trip to DC. Samuel had just gotten started. Patricia skimmed the pages, noting the position of the bookmark.
“You’re just seeing things,” she whispered, the worst of her brother’s words rising like a serpent in the dark. She closed her eyes until they passed, and when she opened them, the book was still there. The bookmark too.
She stood there in her old houseclothes as outside someone honked their horn and someone else yelled a name. She tried to measure the distance a bookmark might have traveled in one day and she held the book like a sacred treasure and in the end she couldn’t do it.
She put it back on the shelf.
Kyle listened carefully, and when Patricia was done, he said, “And you’ve kept this to yourself?”
“I didn’t know what else to do.”
Kyle picked the wet stirrer up off the napkin. His coffee was halfway gone but he stirred it anyway.
“You don’t think I’m overreacting?” Patricia said.
Kyle set the stirrer aside. “It’s one day.”
“Yes, it sure is. One day.”
“Has he done anything else?”
“Well… ” Patricia tapped the edge of the table. This late nurses and doctors were putting up their trays, returning to their shifts.
“Listen Patricia, if it’s nothing serious — ”
“As long as you’re sure.”
“It’s nothing too serious. I swear, I’m starting to think like my brother.”
“Has he met your husband?”
“Not since he returned. Nobody has.”
“Are they going to?”
“Christmas is coming up. The grandkids’ll get to see him.”
Kyle took a sip of his coffee. “Do they know?”
“I don’t know. I mean, my kids ought to know.”
“No, what I mean is, are they of an age where they would understand?”
Patricia shook her head. “Oldest one’s five.”
“Do you still have all your papers?”
“There should be something in there about explaining it to young children.”
Patricia vaguely remembered seeing something like that. After reading about how Samuel might act, she’d skimmed the rest. The night Samuel had come home, she’d put all the papers in a safe in the back of the closet, hiding the key in her clothes drawer.
“I’ll go have a look at it,” she said.
“Good.” Kyle swallowed the last of his coffee. “Well, I had better get back. God knows the nurses need someone to tell them which hand is left.”
“Wait.” Patricia cleared her throat. “Sometimes, I, it’s just . . . sometimes I wish I had a time machine, you know? A time machine. Sometimes I think it’d be simpler if I could hop in it and go back in time and stop my brother from ever talking him into putting up that old dish. I know how it sounds, I know, but it’s just how I feel.”
There’s nothing wrong with how you feel,” Kyle said. He gave her a warm look. “If there was, you wouldn’t have brought your husband back in the first place.”
That afternoon Samuel did some carwork in the garage while Patricia made calls. She called their children. The calls went to voicemail and she left them identical messages, asking them to call back soon about Christmas and give the grandchildren hugs and kisses.
It was only after she’d hung up that she realized she’d said hugs and kisses from Grandma. Grandma. Not Grandma and Grandpa. She dialed the number and the phone was ringing before she hung up again, and sighed. Next time, she told herself. Next time.
This is still new to you too, she thought as she climbed the stairs. She went into one of the guest bedrooms. The one closest to their bedroom was for the grandkids, the farthest one for her kids, for their privacy.
She went to the farthest one.
She took the folder out of the safe and sat with it in the master bathroom. She turned the fan on. Samuel liked to get wrapped up in his garage projects, but she’d better be safe. No one had brought it up to him yet and she wasn’t about to let him find out about it on accident.
The folder opened with a creak. She pulled out the newspaper clipping — it was the only one she could find. She smoothed it out on the folder and read it.
‘Samuel Baggett, 67, of Norfolk, passed away on Sunday after . . . ‘
It went on to list his career and all the relatives he was leaving behind. It did not say what caused his death. She closed her eyes.
It has over four hundred channels.
A tear slid loose and crooked down her cheek.
Everyone else has got one, so —
She made a fist, squeezing so hard her fingernails dug into her palm. She tore the clipped into as many pieces as she could and stuffed the pieces into the folder pocket and took the folder downstairs, to the kitchen. The kitchen door was open. The drill was going. Patricia shoved the folder in deep, under the trash that was already there.
She dreamt of a bus.
They’d taken it apart piece by piece and put it back together. Before it was the 58 bus. Now it was the 68 bus and she tried to tell them it was the 58 bus it had always been the 58 bus, but they said it had been the 68 bus before it was 58 it had always been the 68 bus and she yelled and woke up with a raw throat.
Samuel wasn’t beside her.
She found him on the front porch swing with a coffee cup.
“Morning,” she said.
For a minute or so he seemed not to hear her. The neighbor across the street was out sweeping her front porch. Two of her windows were out, covered in two-by-four’s.
“Morning,” Samuel said.
“Need some coffee?”
“What? This?” He looked down at the empty cup like he was seeing it for the first time. He looked up at her. “It’s brewing.”
“Hand me your cup. I’ll get us some.”
But when she went to the coffee maker, she saw it was off. She checked the inside. Samuel had put coffee in, he had put water in, he’d just forgotten to turn it on.
Patricia pressed the button. It brewed.
She returned with two cups of coffee and there was a boy in the front yard, on his bicycle. He was talking to Samuel.
“Good morning,” she said, smiling.
The boy did not smile back.
“You’re up pretty early this morning,” she said, trying to place this boy. One of the neighborhood kids. She thought she should know them but they came and went so much, it was —
“What’s he doing here?” the boy said.
“Enjoying himself a cup of coffee.” Patricia handed her husband his cup. She sat down beside him and took a sip. “You had your breakfast yet?”
“What’s he doing here?” the boy repeated, a nasty look on his face.
“We’re sitting on the swing,” Patricia said. The morning had become oddly cold. She was about to suggest that they go back inside, when the boy spoke again.
“What’s he doing here? I saw him fall.”
Quiet for a few moments. What Samuel might say to this. What he might do. Patricia forced a smile and said, “And I saw him get up. Did you?”
The boy didn’t say anything, that same nasty look on his face.
“Run along now,” Patricia said, “before I tell your parents.”
The boy turned his bike around and almost as an afterthought said, “He fell.” Then he took off, down the street and around the corner.
“Samuel have some of your coffee before it gets cold.”
“What did he mean, I fell?”
“Oh you know these kids around here. No parents raising them, no telling what comes out of their mouths.”
“Is he talking about the dream?”
“He’s not talking about anything. Hey, let’s get inside. I’m getting kinda cold.”
As they were heading inside, Samuel said, “I dream every night.”
Patricia held the door. “Most nights I don’t.” The swing softly creaked in a morning wind. “What do you dream about?”
“I’m falling.” He was close to tears. “I’m falling, and you’re screaming.”
Thanksgiving morning she managed to get her son on the phone. They wished each other a Happy Thanksgiving.
“Samuel got us a good turkey this year,” she said. “It’ll be frying up till lunchtime.”
“How about ya’ll? What kinda turkey ya’ll got?”
“Something we bought from Publix.”
“Publix? The heck is that?”
“A grocery store.”
“You mean like Kroger?”
“Yeah, but nicer.”
“Well it must be pretty nice then.” She cleared her throat. Samuel was in the living room watching the pregame show. She’d swear they got longer every year and it wasn’t even the Super Bowl yet. “What are ya’ll doing for Christmas?”
A pause. “Not sure yet.”
“What do you mean? You’re off work aren’t you?”
“Well, to be honest, I’m not sure.”
“Oh really? What kinda boss makes you work on Christmas?”
“If it’s important enough…”
“Alright honey,” she said. Samuel had come into the kitchen. She smiled at him. “Alright. You just let me know, okay?”
After she hung up she waited for Samuel to speak. He looked like he had something on his mind. But when he didn’t, she said, “What is it?”
His mouth was hanging open. Black circles under his eyes. He looked confused.
He looked scared.
Samuel turned, and went back to the living room.
It was up to Patricia to remember the Christmas tree. She let Samuel drive, noting his turns carefully. She’d never driven the route before, but she did remember making a left back somewhere. She made herself keep quiet. If not for her sake, then for his.
It turned out to be the long way. The dealer greeted them like they were strangers. They picked out the tree and loaded it into the truck.
Samuel took the shortcut back.
They put the tree in the living room and spent all day decorating it. Patricia didn’t need to buy decorations. Earlier this morning they’d gotten the boxes out of the attic and Samuel had not said anything about them. Patricia opened the first one and pulled out a paper Frosty the Snowman, covered in glitter.
She held it up. To Grandma and Grandpa was written on the back.
“A grandchild made it for us,” Samuel said.
Patricia heard it as a question. But it wasn’t a question. It was a statement. Samuel was just stating what they both already knew.
His eyes narrowed. He hadn’t talked much since Thanksgiving. His second check-up was next week, and Patricia found herself hoping that the holidays might bring him up more. She didn’t know if his behavior was normal or not. She hadn’t looked at the papers. She hadn’t even taken them out.
“Our grandson’s a good boy,” she said.
They decorated the tree, Patricia remarking on every decoration. They had a lot, from their own kids, from their grandkids. The last decoration was the oldest. A paper-mâché Rudolph that her mother had made after her stroke. Patricia held it up for Samuel to see.
“This is the last one,” she said. “Doctor said Mom’s brain needed to be occupied by something. I think she did a pretty good job.”
Samuel eyed it over. Even in his eyes there was nothing to see. Keeping down a sigh, Patricia hung it on the tree.
“All of the other reindeer.”
Patricia turned to him so fast the tree shook.
“Yes,” she said. “That’s how it goes. Remember the rest?”
Samuel looked away. “I’m hungry.”
Christmas morning they had coffee and cinnamon rolls on the front porch, presents for the kids and grandkids beneath the tree.
“They get busy you know,” Patricia said. “John said he had to work. Can you believe that? Makin somebody work on Christmas.”
Samuel quietly bit into a cinnamon roll.
“It’s insane.” Patricia sipped her coffee. She ran her finger along the rim of the cup. “I need some more cream. Need me to top off your cup?”
Samuel shook his head.
In the kitchen Patricia left her cup on the counter and went upstairs. She’d tried the kids one more time last night. No answer, only this time she didn’t bother leaving a voicemail. After five or so, what was the point?
She pulled out the papers and flipped through them. The papers would tell her what he should be doing, she was sure of that, but would they tell her what to do? Did she want to read? Papers in hand, she closed the safe and turned to go.
Samuel was standing there.
He looked lost.
“Samuel,” she said. “Just getting some papers from the safe.”
But Samuel paid no more mind to the papers than he would an ant in the grass. He said, “Coffee’s gone cold. I brewed another pot.”
“Good,” Patricia said. “Cold coffee’s just terrible.”
They went downstairs, Samuel to the porch, Patricia to the kitchen.
“I’ll bring you a cup,” she called out over her shoulder. She hurried to the trashcan. She tore the papers up as best she could and let them flake inside. The papers were ripped but identifiable. She went about making the pieces smaller, until not even a champion puzzlemaster could make sense of them.
He had a dream that he fell, a voice inside her said, words halfway between thought and speech. It was just a dream and he’s my husband.
The coffee. If she didn’t bring it out soon, she’d find him standing behind her again. She went to pick up the pot. The water looked clear. “Oh,” she whispered, lifting the top of the coffee maker.
There was no coffee inside.
She poured the boiled water in and put in some coffee grounds and set it to brew. She waited, arms folded. When the coffee was ready, she took two cups outside with a fresh batch of cinnamon rolls.
“Took me long enough I know,” she said, setting the tray and the cups down, “but I had to wait on these cinnamon rolls to get ready.”
Samuel’s cinammon roll hung from his fingers like a forgotten toy.
The morning of his second check-up, Patricia was up early.
Christmas presents sat unopened beneath the tree. New Years Eve had passed without remark. They used to watch the ball drop and have champagne but after Patricia had gone to the trouble of chilling the champagne Samuel said he was tired. He had to take a nap. His nap turned into a good night’s sleep, and Patricia had lain beside him in the cold, uncut dark while the calendars changed and
her husband snored.
Sometimes when Patricia woke up from her dreams about the bus she heard him moaning, struggling to form words, and she knew. She didn’t need to ask. She knew.
He had fallen.
And he was hurt.
She had her coffee on the porch, thinking of all the years. Over five decades, examined in less than a minute. A sixteen year old girl thought she was going to do hair and makeup for movie stars. Maybe she would have, if not for the day she came out of the grocery and he nodded at her and she couldn’t help but give him a little smile in return. A cocky young man home from the war. He had a good job lined up and he’d ask for her hand a year later.
Patricia had started giving the sermons. A couple weeks ago, Samuel had stumbled mid-sentence. She told herself it happened to everyone — hadn’t it happened before he fell? Just like with his birthday, it didn’t mean there was something wrong with you, it only meant you were human.
Then he stopped mid-sentence.
He leaned on the podium in the wet sermon-hall, an old thing a few decades overdue on renovations. His mouth hung open. Patricia had seen this look before, on her own grandfather, and she’d hoped never to see it again. She put an arm around Samuel and helped him down.
They didn’t talk about that. They didn’t talk about much else either. Sometimes he made a remark, sometimes he called out her name, but more often than not he just went through his daily routines with that slack look on his face. He’d stopped working in the garage.
And this morning, she was supposed to . . . what? She cradled her coffee in her lap, a strong warmth covering her hands. She held on till it turned cold.
Then she went upstairs.
Samuel wasn’t in bed. She checked the kitchen. The living room. She pulled open the garage door and stepped from the smell of a summer morning to the smells of tools, grease, oil and engines. He wasn’t here either.
He was beside the house.
He was standing in the driveway, in the spot where he’d fallen, looking up.
“Where’s the satellite?”
Patricia swallowed. Closeby she could hear her brother’s voice. She took a deep breath. “It’s gone, honey.”
“Why are you asking about it?” she said, her voice breaking up.
“I need to adjust it.” He looked at her with all the confusion of a newly blind child. “My ladder’s missing too.”
“My ladder or the satellite?”
“What’d you do with them?”
“I got rid of them. Please. Come in, I’ll make us some breakfast.”
“What’d you go and do that for?”
She took his arm and he allowed her to lead him inside. Over breakfast he bit into a homemade biscuit and said, “I need to adjust that dish. Picture’s all fuzzy.”
Patricia called her children about an Easter visit and left more voicemails. She didn’t mention Christmas.
Spring left, summer came. Samuel grew quieter. Sometimes he’d mumble something. He didn’t sleep well and neither did Patricia.
She often dreamed of the 58 bus. It pulled up but no matter how fast she moved, it always pulled away before she could get in. No worries, said someone else at the stop, another bus is coming.
The 68 bus pulled up. It looked identical to the 58 and the passengers boarded and the doors stayed open. They were waiting for her. They were waiting for her and so was Samuel.
“I fell,” he said. “Pat, help me. I fell.”
She woke up with his words on her lips.
“You look like you’ve seen better days.” Kyle smeared some jam on his toast. “Before long you’ll have the doc’s look.”
Patricia smiled grimly. “There’s folks who’d trade their sleep for your money.”
“And there are people here who would trade their money for minimum wage, with the lifetime guarantee of a good night’s sleep.” He bit into the toast. “Aren’t you going to eat?”
“I could make myself have a bite.”
He waved her off. “Not if you don’t want to.”
“But you paid for it.”
“No worries. It’s not like this is high-class dining.”
He drank his coffee and wiped his mouth with a napkin. The napkins the hospital provided were too thin for Patricia’s liking, but Kyle didn’t seem to have a problem with them. Maybe after working here for so long, you figured out how to use them. She was staring at her own napkin when he asked his question.
“How fares your Samuel?”
“Some little bumps here and there.” She took her eyes off the napkin.
“What did they say at his second checkup?”
She glanced at the napkin. “I don’t know.”
Kyle hummed, chewing some toast. “Well. Perhaps they thought you wouldn’t understand. If I were you, I wouldn’t take it too personally.”
“I didn’t go, Kyle.”
Kyle stopped chewing. He swallowed. Slowly.
“And what happened then?”
“No phone calls?”
“Nobody came over?”
“No one did.”
Kyle set his toast down. “Have some coffee.”
“No. You could use some. It’s not poison. Just caffeinated water, really.”
Patricia took a sip. She licked her lips clean. Then she took another.
“Okay,” Kyle said when she was done. “How bad is he?”
“He’s just hit a few bumps in the road, that’s all.”
“And yet, you skipped his second checkup.”
“We…” Her words left her.
“Did you read the paperwork they gave you?”
“I looked at it some, yeah.”
“Returning people is a very new science,” Kyle said. He had forgotten his coffee. He had forgotten his toast. He sat with his hands together, elbows on the table. “We still don’t know everything.”
Patricia had her arms folded. A napkin lay halfway off her plate. “You said it was safe.”
“I never said that.”
Kyle sighed. “Where is your husband?”
“I left him in the car.”
Kyle nodded slightly, and slightly was all it took. Patricia turned and saw what he saw.
Samuel was wandering the hospital cafeteria, thumb in his mouth.
“Samuel!” Patricia ran and put her arms around him. “What’re you doing in here?”
Samuel was sucking his thumb.
“Come on and sit down. Sit down.”
Samuel pulled his thumb wet from his mouth, and moved his lips. No sound came out. He put his thumb back in his mouth.
Patricia got him into a chair, where he sat stiffly, thumb still in his mouth.
Kyle said, “Patricia.”
“They told me it was safe,” she said. “They told me he’d be the same as my husband. They told it to me out of their own mouths.”
“Was this before or after they took all your money?”
“Don’t you start that.” She pointed at him. “Don’t you start.”
“You need to call the clinic.”
“Maybe they can help him.”
“Maybe they can put him to sleep like a dog. That’s about how they’ll help him. My husband — ”
Kyle slammed his hands on the table. “He’s not your fucking husband.”
Patricia swept her arms across the table. Coffee and food spilled and her fork clattered, dinging like a dying bell.
“Patricia,” Kyle said.
She took Samuel by the arm and helped him up.
“Patricia,” Kyle said again.
“Your husband is dead.”
Patricia took the pulpit, Samuel in the back. She gave the sermon as best she could, pausing now and then to wonder what Samuel would have said. She lost sight of him and after the service she found him outside by the car. He had a hand on the driver side door.
“I lost the keys.”
“It’s okay . . . I found them.”
“I’m sorry I lost em.”
“It’s okay.” She put her hand on his cheek. “Come on.”
Samuel cut a slow, aching path around the car. Patricia got in and started it and as Samuel got in he said, “Did you remember to fix her room up the way she likes it?”
She backed out of the spot. “Sure did.”
Samuel said nothing the rest of the ride home, until they pulled down the driveway.
“You know what?” he said, his voice like that of a little boy meeting Santa Claus.
“What is it honey?”
“We need to get us one of them dishes.”
She shut the door.
“I heard you can get over a thousand channels.”
Nodding, Patricia took his arm and led him to the porch. He dropped down into the swing and looked at her, confused.
“What time’s she supposed to be here?”
And Patricia couldn’t help herself. She sighed. “What time’s who supposed to be here?”
“Susie. Don’t tell me you forgot.”
“Just hang on. I’ll bring us some coffee.”
Patricia went to the kitchen and got the coffee started. As she hunted something to eat, she thought over what he’d said. Susie’s supposed to be here. Susie had spent a summer with them, when she was eight years old.
She was now thirty-eight, with two kids of her own.
Patricia slammed a can of cinnamon rolls on the counter and started the oven.
Spring and summer passed, and Samuel talked less. Sometimes he just mumbled. On occasion he’d hold conversations with someone else, man or woman or animal, someone from his imagination or his past and at this point she had to wonder if there was any difference.
She dreamt of a fleet of city buses, innards swapped but the numbers the same. She’d wake up with her brother’s voice in her ears. She tried to call her children. Sometimes she left voicemails. Mostly she didn’t.
Autumn, and the third checkup came and went and no one said a word. Not long after, Samuel quit talking. She woke up one cold October morning to find him hauling a ladder out of the garage. He didn’t tell her what he was going to do, nor did he utter a word of protest when she took the ladder from him. As she was carrying it to the garage, she stumbled.
Her jaw struck the ladder and her teeth rammed her tongue. She dropped the ladder and spat blood.
Samuel didn’t notice. He was looking up, mumbling.
That night, after Samuel had fallen asleep, she put a padlock on the garage and hid the key in her clothes drawer. She laid back down, her tongue throbbing.
Just a shadow, she thought, turned facedown on her pillow, and started to cry.
Samuel didn’t get out of bed.
She helped him stand. She led him in his pajamas to the porch and set him on the swing and went back in the house. She thought about what to do.
She told herself it was a phase. He’d get over it by afternoon. But come afternoon, he was still in the swing, still in his pajamas.
The boy on his bike was doing circles in the front yard.
“What’s wrong with him?” the boy asked.
“Nothing’s wrong. Go on.”
“Your husband’s dead,” the boy said, a bit uncertain, and wheeled out of the yard.
“Samuel.” She put her arms around him. “You haven’t fallen again. You hear me? You fell once, and that’s all. You aren’t going to fall ever again. Samuel. Samuel.”
She put her face on his shoulder and cried.
When she was out of tears, she went back inside and picked up the phone. It was Kyle who’d gotten her into this mess, so he’d better get her out.
He picked up on the fourth ring.
Kyle pulled up to the curb. He stopped just short of the porch.
“What’s he doing out here?”
“What? We always sit out here.”
“Get him inside. Before someone sees.”
Patricia took one hand, Kyle the other. They led Samuel inside, to the couch.
“This is bad,” Kyle said, pacing back and forth. “Pretty fucking bad.”
Patricia had not left her husband. She was still holding his hand. “So help him.”
“And how am I supposed to do that?”
Kyle stopped. He faced her. “You should have taken him to the clinic. They could have done something.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Well it’s better than — ”
“Stop,” she said, speaking no louder than usual, but her voice cut through him all the same. She held Samuel’s hand with both of hers. “I know what I need to do.”
“Okay,” Kyle said. “Well, if you don’t — ”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Alright.” Kyle opened the front door. “They’re closed now, you know.”
“You’ll be okay tonight?”
“I said I’ll be fine.”
“Just making sure.” He smiled a weak smile. “You’re very brave, Patricia. They’ll find a way to help him. They want their program to work. Trust me.”
Patricia set Samuel on the swing and went upstairs. She returned with his pillow. She sat with him all night, talking. She talked about their children, the trouble they’d gotten into when they were young, what great people they’d grown up to be. She talked about their grandchildren, and all the ways grandparents could spoil their grandchildren because that’s just what grandparents were for. She talked about the last Christmas everyone was together. They’d bought Caitlyn that watergun even after their daughter said not to and Patricia could not say which was better: the look on Caitlyn’s face or the look on her mother’s. She talked of these things.
At sunrise, Patricia said, “You fell, Samuel.” She squeezed the pillow. “You fell too far.” She looked right at him, moist eyes capturing the day’s new light. “You just fell too far.”
It took all morning to fill the hole. On her way to the church she dumped the shovel and gloves in a restaurant dumpster. She was late for the service. The few people left listened to her respectfully, putting nothing in the collection plate.
On another morning, on another day, in another season and another year, she got off the bus and the first thing she noticed was the door was locked. Next she saw the sign in the window. For Lease.
She took the next bus. Number 58. She sat in the back, a man in rags sat across the aisle. Small bugs crawled in his beard and he smelled like a landfill’s bowels. He kept looking over at her, and eventually she favored him with a smile.
“This bus seems new,” she said.
“It is new.”
“Why do you say that? Number’s the same.”
“They got new seats.” He rubbed his seat. “I think.”
She just smiled some more. Up ahead the driver shifted gears and the bus rolled on towards its next stop, coughing trails of black smoke on the downtown streets.
The Day Before Tomorrow
By Arthur Davis
The flight attendant’s voice was squeaky and earnest. I didn’t want to hear which exit was closest to me, or how I was supposed to proceed in the event of an emergency.
I unlocked my seatbelt in defiance of caution well before we leveled off at 38,000 feet. I passed the rear galley, a hotbed of non-nutritional activity. If the plane didn’t crash, certainly the food would kill us all.
Finally, I came to the passengers at the rear of the plane, the most disheveled humanity on earth. The refuge of last-minute thinkers and great procrastinators…
I opened the bathroom door and slid the lock shut. I stood there in the temporary safety of my confinement and unzipped my pants, one hand holding onto the plastic handle overhead. A warm yellow stream hissed into the toilet as a fan-jet engine, so large a grown man could stand in its intake, whirred along not five meters away.
I glared at myself in the small mirror over the sink. I stood straight up, trying to reverse years of sloth and neglect and bent my forty-one year-old frame back into the shape of my fondest memory. I pulled back my shoulders and tucked in my hardly noticeable gut. Nothing worked. I was who I was. Nothing more, and nothing less.
My younger brother, David, was in a hospital in Tampa. He had suffered with diabetes for many years and the day after tomorrow was going to lose his left foot. His two children were in grade school and wouldn’t understand what had happened to make their father such a different man.
This was his greatest fear. Not fear for himself, but for how his children might see him as something less than he was. I was neither married nor had ever experienced the joy and torment of parenthood. I hoped 1986—already problematic for Haitian President Jean-Claude Duvalier who fled to France and President Ferdinand Marcos who fled the Philippines Major and for most of Western Europe after the nuclear accident at Soviet Union’s Chernobyl—would be a better year for me than it was turning out to be for David.
I opened the bathroom door to a line of impatient travelers stretching back to the galley. I passed what was once a sea of meaningless faces and was now the backs of bobbing, canted heads. Different shapes and sizes with hair in every color; some with long, dreamy swept-back locks, while others, mostly men who drew from the wrong side of the gene pool, sporting bald spots and endless tracts of barren flesh.
David had a thick head of curly blonde hair. He knew how this one characteristic had affected his relationship with women. Teresa loved to run her fingers through it, tug at it when they had sex. Or so I had been told.
Teresa was a wonderful mother to Becky and Danny. She loved David with a sense of devotion I had always thought I would see in the eyes of the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.
Two men turned and looked up as I passed. Both men were heavy, fleshy, unshaven Eastern European types in their late forties and dressed in poorly tailored suits—large and precipitous bodies making a considerable effort at being inconspicuous in seats meant for lesser forms.
They were sitting behind a very pretty blue-eyed, blonde woman who thankfully was wearing a skin-tight white tank top. My fantasies made the most of the moment.
The woman sitting next to me continued reading a recent bestseller about an attorney who conquered impossible odds to press on pleading for some pathetic indigent who had been injured by a large faceless multinational conglomerate.
I, on the other hand, had brought little else with me but my fears, probably like many of my fellow travelers: making their journey through life with no guarantee of success, and more than enough evidence of the possibility of catastrophic failure ahead.
Past the dowager in the window seat billowy white puffs passed by only to re-form, as we all would, sometime later into a new life and life form.
“Are you frightened?” she asked.
If Bernoulli could only have grasped the magnitude of his gift to humanity by postulating the concept of laminar lift, would he have believed such a metal monster possible? “Just thinking about what keeps us up.”
She glanced out the window as though I had just discovered an ominous cosmic relevancy. “Why would you want to know that?”
“Because it’s a constant fascination to me.” I found myself enjoying terrorizing this poor creature. She’d probably babble on to her friends at their canasta party next week about how she was unfortunate enough to sit next to a lunatic who made her trip a disaster. “I mean, look around you. Don’t you think it’s unusual for us to even be up here where birds don’t fly?”
“You’re not fascinated by the fact that we’re moving along up here against reason and rationale? A million pounds of people and metal, fuel and baggage shooting along at 600 miles an hour?”
She set the book in her lap. “Here,” she said, taking a complementary magazine from the pouch in front of her, “maybe you would enjoy something to read.”
“I’d enjoy being back in New York or, at the very least, on the ground.”
“You know we’re perfectly safe up here. I’ve read you have a better chance of getting struck by lightning than having a flying accident.”
“I’ve already been struck by lightning.” Of course, it wasn’t true, but it did make her stiffen up a bit. “I don’t need any more excitement in my life.”
The little woman returned to her potboiler. I had turned my attention to my brother and his ever-deepening financial plight when I noticed one of the hostesses straighten out her stockings outside the forward galley.
She paid particular attention to the razor sharp line of her seam that stretched up the back of her calf into her thigh and beyond. Just as she dropped her skirt back down over her knees, she glanced up and caught my eye.
“Great legs,” I whispered, again attracting the attention of the dowager princess.
“Were you talking to me, sir?”
“Great light out there,” I said nodding to the setting sun, which was streaming in through her window. She looked back at me disapprovingly, as though she had caught a schoolboy with his hand where it shouldn’t have been. I’m familiar with that look too.
David had been a star athlete since grade school and won several state high school championships in the four hundred meter, mile, and javelin. He was intense and dedicated and, if he hadn’t been so interested in architecture and received a college scholarship to pursue his studies, he might well have taken the time to train for the Olympics which had been his dream from as far back as I could recall.
I was trying in vain to get comfortable in my seat when that very same hostess moved passed me. She pressed several fingers into the top of my shoulder as she went by then disappeared into the rear of the plane. I turned around to make sure I wasn’t having one of my frequent hallucinations. You know the kind you get when facing the impossible and you feel you’re ill-equipped to deal with even the most meager of life’s realities.
I started to get up, actually skulking out of my seat, when I noticed that beyond the curtain that separated the peasants from the peacocks, the door to the cockpit was open.
Maybe we were flying on automatic pilot? Maybe the crew had a collective heart attack? I took a few steps toward the front of the plane. A young couple got up and squeezed past me and made their way toward the rear. The man was tall and rangy and had severe body odor. His girlfriend was plain and looked like she hadn’t slept in weeks. I walked forward, finally standing in reckless abandon at the door to the cockpit. The co-pilot turned, acknowledged my presence and invited me in.
“I’ve never been inside of the cockpit of a commercial airplane.”
“Nothing that complicated. Just a lot of dials,” he announced.
The captain turned toward the engineer sitting at a small console at my right. “And sometimes assholes.”
“I flew a small Piper Cub twenty or so years ago,” I said. “A hundred-eight horsepower high wing.”
“You fly now?” the captain asked.
“No. It was nothing like that. I had enough money left over after a skiing accident to take up flying lessons.”
“I can see the connection,” the co-pilot agreed.
“It made perfect sense to me at the time.”
“You want to take the controls?”
I stared back at the captain. “You’re kidding?”
“Of course he is,” the co-pilot gestured with a reproving grin.
“I’ve always wanted to ask a passenger that question,” the captain said laughingly, and returned to the forest of instruments.
The view forward was an endless expanse of blue studded with white to the edge of the horizon. The sun was brighter, more believable. Bernoulli might have been shocked and, hopefully, gratified.
“More importantly, who is the brunette with the great legs?”
All three turned at once, but it was the co-pilot who answered. “Nice rear-end too?”
“Great rear end,” I replied.
The captain seemed annoyed at my observation. Apparently, I had encroached on his territory, though the wedding band on his hand would indicate otherwise. “She’s extended family to the guy who owns the airline.”
“Good looking but very uptight,” the engineer added, as though he cared too.
“You know if something happens to all three of you, I could probably take over the controls and land us safely in Tampa.”
That caught the captain’s attention. He swiveled his head, looked me up and down. “Well, that’s very reassuring.”
Okay, so it sounded ridiculous. But, at least I said what I wanted to say, and that was more than most people could claim for themselves. The trip back through the cloistered first class passengers with their fattened free drinks and wide, genuine leather, seats and pulsating air of aloofness was made without incident.
What the crew and I didn’t know was that at that very minute a twin-engine plane was taking off from Birmingham, Alabama and was locked into an east-south-east heading toward Savannah, Georgia. The pilot, one Philip Alexander—his friends called him Skip—was flying his three year-old supercharged Cessna to Savannah to pick up his niece and bring her back to college in Georgia where he lived. He was about my age but he kept himself in considerably better condition.
I plunged back into my seat. The dowager princess remained occupied. The two Eastern European thugs were nowhere to be found. The blonde was, well, blonde.
“This is the captain. I just want you to know that we will be diverting our flight path several hundred miles to the west in order to avoid a storm front moving inland from the Atlantic. We will be delayed twenty or thirty minutes from our scheduled landing time in Tampa. We apologize for the delay. If any passenger has to make a connecting flight, please speak to the hostess who will radio ahead so that you will be able to catch the flight. Again, thanks for your cooperation and enjoy the rest of your flight.”
“He didn’t sound quite contrite enough,” I declared. The dowager princess didn’t budge. No one turned their head to see who had leveled the scathing indictment. However, the brunette did walk over to my seat and kneel down next to me.
“I think we’ve met before.”
Without hesitation and totally out of character, I responded, “Just thinking the same thing.”
“You live in Tampa?”
“Maybe jogging in Logan Park? I jog five miles, three times a week.”
“What a coincidence.”
She put her hand on my arm. “You jog too?”
“No, but I go to the park to watch female joggers run five miles, three times a week. It’s a little hobby of mine.”
“Good to see you again,” she said with a wink, got up and disappeared beyond the forward curtains.
By this time, we were less than a hundred miles northwest of the twin-engine Cessna heading to Savannah. Philip ‘Skip’ Alexander was radioing into the Savannah airport control tower to confirm his position just as our co-pilot was doing the same. The air traffic controller in Savannah got the frequency confused, giving each pilot the wrong instructions. Not ten minutes later, the dowager princess to my right closed the book after finishing a particularly clichéd chapter, looked out of the window to her right and noticed a dark distant dot in the sky.
The dowager continued her vigil until she could make out the form and size of the small aircraft and slowly, in disbelief, realized what was about to happen. Instead of screaming, she simply closed her eyes and lifted her book to her chest as though it would protect her from the inevitable. Seconds later, the entire plane shuttered and lurched to the right and then left, as I believe the captain tried to maintain level flight. The plane shook violently then lurched to the right again. Ice-cold air gushed into the cabin, peeling passengers from their seats and sending baggage in all directions.
In the fuselage above and ahead was an opening the size of a small van through which you could see an expanse of bright blue sky. Whoever was standing or moving about near the rupture was quickly sucked out of the gaping opening. Passengers howled in panic and confusion.
The dowager princess’s book was sucked from her grasp. She crossed her chest and prayed, but it was to no avail. Before she could complete her prayer, the fuselage on both sides near the rupture split wide open. The two pieces of fuselage—the forward and aft section—separated and began their seven-mile descent. As expected, the forward section in which the first class passengers enjoyed a higher level of service went first.
The twin engine aircraft was vaporized in the impact.
Clothing and bodies and food and other particles of life shot about the metal coffin. Something struck my right shoulder sending a sharp pain into my back. The wind blew away all other noise.
I was right from the beginning. Knowing where your closest exit was or where and how to get into your life preserver wasn’t going to be of any help, especially to the engineer I spotted floundering about thirty or so yards overhead.
Something, or someone, flew by, but this time I ducked. I unfastened my seatbelt and floated away from the princess who had passed out—or had a heart attack—and died. I will never know.
I was buffeted about, but slowly maneuvered my way to the front. I wanted to get as far away from the fuselage as possible. By the time I grabbed onto the curtain and pulled myself through the fuselage, I could no longer see or hear what was going on behind me.
The impact of the cold air rushing up to me made it difficult to breathe—not that there was much breathable air at that altitude. I moved my hands and legs about and knew that my right shoulder was seriously injured. After a while, I stabilized my tumbling fall and was able to breathe. I had always wanted to skydive, always wanted to feel the world around me rush by while I, at the last minute, pulled my ripcord only to cheat death.
Bodies, pieces of plane, unopened cans of soda, cold tacos floated around me. Some of the bodies were lifeless, with terrible facial wounds. Others were crying or screaming while most were flapping in the breeze trying to get a foothold on heaven. The two massive sections of plane were about five hundred feet above me, and falling end over end. A giant piñata of death.
I recognized a few faces as we fell together. The two spies were widely separated. I spotted the brunette with the stockings not forty feet away. She was falling feet first. Her skirt was hiked over her head revealing the tops of the stockings, the thick smoothness of her upper thighs and curve of her buttocks. I fluttered about a bit, but was in no rush to change my view. Her eyes were open, but unmoving, as was her lifeless body. Another body—it happened so quickly I couldn’t tell if it was man or woman—struck her from the side, sending her spinning away into oblivion.
Even though we were falling, I knew there was plenty of time before impact. Plenty of time to get one’s life in order, to make amends to those whom you have harmed or in some way taken advantage of or have, by not coming to their aid, made their lives more precarious.
“David, you take care of yourself and Teresa and the kids.…”
A section of fuselage floated close to me, the pilot still strapped in his seat, a startled expression on his face. Just above him came the co-pilot. Each wore a mask of rage and dismay.
“… I tried to be there for you.”
We were dying or about to die or already lost.
“David, oh shit! I forgot to tell you I loaned your camera to Harvey Lyman. You know—the guy who was my accountant years ago? I know the bastard isn’t going to give it back once he finds out you don’t know.”
The farmland below still looked very far away, and I couldn’t understand why some of the bodies and pieces of wreckage were falling faster than others. I knew from high school physics that, unless the laws established by Newton had suddenly been repealed, everybody should be falling at the same speed. Then I realized that the good—those who have lead an exemplary life—would be lighter and therefore not fall to earth so quickly.
The further we fell the more spread out our little band became. The sky, which was once filled with mechanical and human carnage, had been scattered to every corner of the horizon. I think my right foot was broken. My brother was going to be disappointed at my tardiness. I promised him and Teresa I would be at their side until he was released from the hospital.
But my right foot hurt. I tried to reach down and pull back my pants to see what I could do about the injury when the pretty blonde who’d been sitting in front of the thugs came whizzing by. “Tramp,” I muttered as she shot towards the earth at twice my speed.
Now the outline of villages on the ground below became clear. We were in the middle of nowhere. Maybe that was good. The ground would certainly soften our impact. It was a hell of a lot better than dropping at hundred-twenty miles per hour onto concrete.
Obviously, this would never have happened if I were at the controls. Even with only eight hours training in a single engine Piper Cub I knew that impact with another plane, especially in midair, was something to be avoided.
It was that idiot pilot’s fault I was never going to be at David’s side. Never going to play ball again with Danny or Becky. Never going to fulfill the promise of whatever career I’d had. That arrogant asshole should have let me take control of the plane right there. It would have been our only hope of getting to Tampa in one piece. I needed to be more assertive next time.
I guessed that only half a mile separated me from wherever I was bound. Though the ground below had spread out in all directions and bore no impact craters—no indication that an accident of such magnitude had ever taken place—my immediate future was a certainty.
Eyes squeezed shut, all I could think to say was, “Dear God.”
“Hey, it’s time to get up,” Teresa said, unable to catch me as I heaved myself awake, rolled off the couch, and struck something cold and unforgiving. I opened my eyes. Teresa and my parents were hovering around me, as were two nurses who were particularly interested in how badly I had struck my head on the uncarpeted floor of the waiting room.
“The surgery was a success. David is sleeping comfortably,” Teresa said without taking her eyes from the long gash that crested above my right eye.
“You look worse than your brother,” one of the nurses commented as they carefully lifted me onto a wheelchair and rolled me into the emergency room. She was a brunette.
“You’ll be fine,” the other nurse added.
“Well, I don’t want to make a nuisance of myself.”
There were no wheat fields, no bodies floating by. No horror across an endless landscape of tragedy.
I was lifted onto a table and a bright light shown into my eyes. The doctor was a woman in her late fifties who cleaned the bloody wound and gave my scalp a thorough inspection, making sure there were no other injuries. “I’m going to give you an injection to make the area numb. You won’t feel a thing after that.”
I glanced up and saw the sharp silver needle drop towards my head and passed out. I drifted for a while until the thunder around my ears was too loud to disregard. What the hell were they doing to my head? I questioned as I opened my eyes and saw a wheat field below shoot up at me.
I remember falling face forward toward a huge stack of baled hay. I remember the impact wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, then bouncing a few feet back up into the air and coming down again, this time next to a golden mound of straw.
It smelled fresh and dry and raw.
I managed to open my eyes just once more, but couldn’t recall the name of the dowager’s novel that had just landed nearby.
“Damn that Harvey Lyman,” I think were my last words.
The Body Collectors
By J.A. Becker
Thousands of dead, kitted out in titanium battlesuits, rattle off our hull.
THUNK! THUNK! THUNK! Like we’re driving through an asteroid cluster. THUNK! THUNK! THUNK!
I’ve gathered us in the bow of our ship near sickbay where the walls are the thinnest, so this crew–this greeny crew–can hear each and every one of those dead bodies drumming against us.
“That sound!” I say (shout more like). “Is the sound of credits plunking against our hull.”
I pause then, like the good captain I’m forced to be, and look them over. The ship’s power cycles are down to preserve energy, so their alien faces float disembodied-like in the gloom of the corridor.
I don’t know their names, just their morphology. There’s a Catargan’sia, face pulled long like an equine’s and bristling with fur; three bright jade eyes are set triangularly in the center of its forehead. A Starkinger, round white face with two huge coal eyes that, given the weak light, look like black holes in the center of its moony mug. A Pummleton, a blank, pumpkin-like face with vertical furrows that are filled with tiny gray vellus hairs. And a Labgraderon, a balloon of fat gray flesh with small red eyes that circle its head like a beaded halo.
They are the motliest of crew, from every backwater planet in the universe, suckered together here by a common cause: somehow, like me, they all owe Rex.
“All you need to do to get those credits,” I shout and then pause for effect. “Is to reach out and take them!”
I watch their reactions. Teeth bristle on the Catargansia’s long face, the Starkinger glows purple, the Pummleton’s vellus hairs flurry, and the Labgraderon’s gray balloon head swells. They are pleased.
The Pathosian, my second in command and Rex’s official plant, materializes out of the hallway gloom.
His legs, arms, and body are like cooked strips of lasagna that waver and wobble limply. He’s a morphological feat, not a bone in his body though he stands perfectly upright, orthostatically. With each step, his fluid like carapace hardens to keep his legs straight and his body upright, then softens to bend at the knee and step forward; it’s a fascinating dance between the conscious mind and his autonomous nervous system. He looks like he’s swimming through the air. It’s beautiful.
I’d love to get him on one of our autopsy tables and crack him open. Not just because I hate him, but because his structures are like nothing I’ve seen or studied back on Earth. Despite what I’ve done, that part of me, the scientist, is still there, still amazed by the morphological wonders of the universe.
His voice is like wet macaroni being stirred, which the adapter stapled into my auditory nerve translates to: “Jack, are you done with the pep talk? Now can we get to work?”
In his decentralized brain, the motivation for whyever we’re here should be good enough and pep talks are just a waste of time.
“Do you need a pep?” he asks. “A reminder of your son?”
After splitting him open, I’d jab a couple of fat needles into him and pump him full of radiocontrast, maybe a radium-phosphor mix, that would light his arteries up like a Solstice Tree. Then I’d like to mount him, take him back to Earth and hang him in the hallway at the Astrobiology section in the University of Antwerp, my old alma matter, so everyone walking by can gawk and learn.
But telling him off accomplishes nothing and jeopardizes the thin thread my son’s life hangs by, so I simply ignore him and press on.
“Gentlemen!” I say. “Let’s get out there and bag those bodies.”
The Labgraderon waits patiently by my side in the cold steel evis room. He stands so tall on willowy legs that his gray balloon head brushes the top of the 12-foot high ceiling.
The Pathosian swims in through the door and stops at the foot of the steel autopsy table. On it is the first battlesuit we recovered.
I take my place at the head of the table.
Of course, as with all of these, this could be a bust. The battlesuits may not have retained their seals over these hundred years and inside could be a useless lump of frozen matter that we’ll have to throw into the mechanical separator and then sell for pet food.
The battlesuit is not at all bulky. It hugs the contours of this creature’s body, which is human shaped, making it tricky to cut through without damaging the merchandise.
“This is a pulsor blade,” I say to the Labraderon as I take the black gun from the medieval-looking tool rack on the wall behind me.
“You only need a short flame,” I say and I turn the white dial on the gun up to level one. A thin, blue beam rises an inch from the muzzle. Carefully and slowly so the Labgraderon can follow my motions as he’s going to have to do this to the rest of them, I cut open the suit by tracing an outline of its body. Then I attached a suction clamp to the chest.
“Moment of truth gentleman,” I say and I lift up hard on the clamp.
With a metallic crack, the front of the suit easily lifts away.
I gasp and drop everything to the ground with a terrible clatter, the Labgraderon’s head shrinks in on itself, and the Pathosian makes wet noodly sounds, which the translator stapled into my auditory nerve can’t translate, but I’m guessing is a kind of swear.
The lizard’s face is beautiful, untouched. I can’t see a single sign of decay or even any damage from the cold. No fissures in the scales or cracks or discoloration; each one glows like a gemstone. Though their ship must have exploded and hurtled it into the vastness of space to die horribly, its expression is peaceful, calm.
“Well, what is it?” the Pathosian asks.
I start my patter then, walking slowly around the body and listing off its features to identify it. This is the only part of the job I enjoy, and I can’t help but smile as I do it; I can’t help but feel a little alive.
“Obviously bipedal and descended from a saurian-like race.”
I take a caliper from the rack on the wall and measure the length of one of the scales.
“Jade-green scales, 2 inches in length. Nostrils and mouth…an air breather. Flat teeth…plant eater. What’s fascinating are the three small humps on their backs. Their suits are built to curve around them. For a creature like this, they are a bizarre biological outcropping, likely vestigial. They remind me…”
And then I trail off because it all clicks wonderfully together in my head and I suddenly know what it is and what this means.
“Yes. Yes. What is it?” the Pathosian asks impatiently.
“It’s a Jajj’ssj,” I hiss through my teeth to get the pronunciations right, which I’m sure I don’t.
“Which is worth what?” the Pathosian asks.
Even though I do what I do, I still have respect for the creatures I pillage. I nearly reach across the table and slap the Pathosian.
“They’re warm-blooded and judging from how well-preserved they are, their blood can likely be reconstituted. From what I’ve read, it contains extraordinary high levels of antibodies, platelets, and red blood cells. Some of the races will pay through the nose to use this blood in medical procedures, sports cheating, and as I recall some metaphysical rituals.”
“Excellent!” the Pathosian says. In his mind, he’s already converting the number of bodies and the information I told him into hard currency.
“Their scales can be stripped and used for pigment coloration in high-end makeup products and adornments. Also, the Qui’en’sts race likes to ground them up and use them in medicines that supposedly makes their sex glands really hard.”
“Wonderful!” he says and his body quivers in delight. He turns abruptly to leave, likely hurrying back to a COM to tell Rex of the wonderful job he’s done.
“There’s more,” I say.
The Pathosian stops and turns. His yellow face doesn’t have any eyes, but if they did, I’m sure they’d be narrowing.
“More?” he asks.
“Their three humps are hollow organs that fill themselves with spermaceti, which can be processed into a very high-quality skin moisturizer. Pharmaceutical companies will kill for this.”
He’s stunned. I’m stunned. The Labgraderon doesn’t know what the hell we’re talking about, so he’s kind of stunned too.
This is a gold rush.
I see my nine-year-old son in my mind, stretched out in his cryogen chamber. Huge clear boils cover every inch of his body, and in the center of each is a tiny black tadpole. I froze him just before they hatched and swam into his arteries to feed and grow. The parasites visible on his skin I can easily remove, but the tiny ones in his spine, brain, and heart–I can’t.
It is my fault he lies there in Rex’s cold hock storage. A trip I shouldn’t have taken him on, in a suit I hadn’t properly checked, on a world I knew nothing about–a fool, a murderous fool I was. I reclaim the dead, so I can reclaim the life of my son. Every credit I earn goes to the team of scientists back on Earth, who I employ to find a cure for these vile and vicious things. And now this…this fortune falls into my lap, and I can’t help but cry as I stand there. I shiver and shake and lower my head so they can’t see the tears running from my eyes.
Then the lizard on the table stirs. A gold eye snaps open and its great slitted pupil narrows.
I let out a girlish scream, and the Labgraderon and the Pathosian leap back from the table.
“It’s alive!” one of us shouts, probably me.
“What the hell!” I exclaim at the Pathosian. “You said this battle happened centuries ago!”
“That’s what the informant said!” the Pathosian replies.
I put my hand on the lizard’s chest. It’s a solid block of ice. A very faint heartbeat pulses deep in its chest.
“Dormant,” I say, which wasn’t written up about them, but it’s obvious now that I think about it. Given their saurian heritage, of course they would slip into a kind of hibernation out there in the cold black nothingness of space.
Another gold eye flickers open and the pupil contracts.
The Labgraderon wheezes out a good question from the windbags in its head: “What do we do?”
“I have no idea,” I reply and I look at the Pathosian to see if he has any ideas.
“Kill it,” he replies like he was talking about some fly that buzzed in.
I give my head a little tap to reorient the translator stapled into my auditory nerve, because clearly it’s mistranslated that last reply.
“Come again?” I say.
“Nobody knows they are here and alive,” he mushes. “As you said, they are worth their weight and more in credits.”
And he leaves it at that. Like that’s enough for him and that should be enough for me.
But it’s not.
“I can’t just kill it,” I say.
Its chest begins to slowly rise and fall. Bit by bit, it’s slowly coming back to itself.
“Your son,” the Pathosian says.
I don’t get mad when I hear those words because I’m expecting those words and I’m already thinking about those words.
“If not your son, then you,” the Pathosian says.
“How the hell do you figure that?” I ask, an edge rising in my voice.
“Think of it,” he says. “These creatures are warriors, killers. He was trying to kill right up to the second he was blasted into space. To him, that was just moments ago.”
My eyes are drawn to the sharp black claws on its hands, the powerful arms, and its many shiny teeth.
“When it wakes it will kill,” the Pathosian continues. “And if it doesn’t, when it learns about us and what we intend to do, it will most certainly kill.”
“You don’t know that!”
“But I do. We are a threat to its brethren that float helplessly out there in the stars. It will kill to protect them.”
He isn’t convincing me in the slightest. His words are meaningless to me. I hate him and everything he says slides right off my back. The problem is that I’m convincing me. There will never be a score like this again. There will never be an opportunity like this again for my son. I see his sweet face, his gentle brown eyes, and the festering boils on his skin.
“No,” I whisper so quietly that I can’t tell if I actually said that; it’s more a sigh than anything.
“No?” the Pathosian asks. Its entire yellow body quivers in jello-like rage. “No to your son?”
“No,” I say more firmly. It feels so wrong inside me to say it that it must mean it’s the right thing to do.
“We’ll let him recover,” I say. “Then we’ll drop him off near his home planet, so he can tell his authorities and they can rescue their citizens.”
“But Rex…” the Pathosian starts to say.
“The hell with Rex!” I interject. “I can’t take a life! Look, Rex doesn’t need to know. We can make up the credits with another score like this. A find like this can be found again. The galaxy is full of the dead.”
I say the last bit with as much conviction as I can muster, but there isn’t a lick of truth in it and I think the Pathosian can sense this.
He turns and glides out of the room so abruptly I stand there for minutes wondering what’s happened. I was expecting a retort, more argument, more attempts to convince me. Not that.
“What’s he doing?” I ask the Labgraderon, but he merely shrugs his thin shoulders.
It’s obvious he’s calling him to tell him of my betrayal. One flick of a switch and my son’s cryogen is shut off and the parasites begin to hatch.
I start to run after the Pathosian, but then the whole room somersaults around me and I smash to the floor. I roll over and look up, dazed and tasting a mouthful of blood. The Jajj’ssj is sitting up in its cut-out suit and is staring at me with gold flecked eyes. With a simple flick of its powerful wrist, it’s tossed me clean across the room.
I see the Labgraderon is about to make a move for the lizard.
“Don’t,” I say, raising my hand to stop him. He freezes and the two dozen red eyes circling his head turn ever so slightly towards me.
They both look at me like they’re waiting for me to say something or do something, and I do. I get up and run out of the room.
I blast down the steel corridor. A left, a right, and another left and I barrel into the command room. But it’s empty. Nothing but blinking computers and a ten-foot wide monitor that shows a bristling expanse of steel wreckage and battlesuits, all whirling endlessly in space. I expected the Pathosian to be here, calling up Rex to tell him about what I’ve done.
Why isn’t he here? What the hell did he rush from the room to do?
I snap on the camera in the evis room. On the main monitor, I see the willowy Labgraderon standing beside the lizard who’s still sitting up on the steel table. The Labgraderon seems to be talking to him. I change cameras to show the outside of the ship. The top half of the scene is the star-speckled universe and the rest is the silver curve of hull. The remaining crew are out there in steel suits with big red magnaboots. Each crew member holds a long black pole to snag the battlesuits trundling by.
I start flicking through the cameras as fast as I can: bunks, kitchen, hallways. Then I see the yellow invertebrate on my monitor.
He’s standing by the prep room door. Inside are stacks of bodies waiting to be processed.
I instantly know what he’s doing, and I’m out the door and firing down the hallway to stop him.
I round the corner and slam into his side like a footballer making a tackle. We go rolling and bouncing down the steel hallway. Somehow he gets over top of me and steps away. I wrap my arms around his whacky legs to hold him, but he easily wiggles free; his carapace is like a wet rubber tire in my hands.
“It’s done,” he mushes. “You’re too late.”
And then he kicks me hard and square in the stomach. I reel like I’ve been hit by a cinder block and I gasp and cough my lunch away.
He swims a few steps back. “You’re not the only one with family,” he says. “You’re just the only one that’s willing to risk their lives.”
That hits me harder than his blow to my guts.
“And that justifies taking these creatures’ lives?” I ask as I rise into a sitting position on the steel grate flooring, wincing at the needles prickling in my stomach. That son of a bitch can kick.
“For family, everything is justified.” He replies. “Life is as precious as death. That is why we do what we do.”
I open my mouth, but my argument turns to ash on my lips. I had thought his kind to be oviparous, birthed in a shell and then abandoned by its mother. The hallmarks of a race like that are strong self-reliance and absolutely no caring for family–they are alone in this universe in a way that no other race understands. I figured he owed Rex money and that’s why he did this ghoulish job. It never occurred to me he was here for the same reason I am–that what was driving me was the same thing driving him.
Groaning in pain, I rise to my feet. He leaves me as our conversation is done. He’s won.
I check the computer on the wall beside the prep room’s door. It’s as I thought: he’s flooded the room with rads. Not even their battlesuits can protect them from that.
I cycle the system down to safe levels and open the door.
From floor to ceiling, are maybe a thousand battlesuits stacked in jumbled piles.
I weep for them. I don’t even know if any of them were alive in the first place, but I break down onto my knees and weep.
Then I stand, turn my back on them, and walk down the hall to the evis room. The Labgraderon is helping the lizard get to his feet. When the lizard sees the gun in my hand, his gold eyes go frightfully wide.
With a soft phut! the gun sends a sliver of adamantium through the center of its forehead and the wall behind goes a splattered crimson. The creature drops to the ground like a stone and the Labgraderon wheezes hysterically.
I leave him to wheeze and think, and I make my way down the hallway to the command room.
Life is as precious as death, the Pathosian said so smugly. I slam my gun back into its holster. That bastard. That cold evil monster. He forced me to murder that creature. There was no other way. If he lived, he would have told the authorities and they would have torn us apart. The universe has a special hatred for people like us, we resurrectionists.
Worse than the rancor boiling through my veins, is the gratefulness I feel towards him. When I opened the prep room door, relief coursed through me. Utter relief.
I am sickened by my feelings, my elation for all this inestimable death, and I wonder when this is done, will I be able to reclaim myself?
I stomp into the command room and initiate the call to Rex. I’m going to tell him the fantastic news and ask for another photo of my son.
By Robert Luke Wilkins
“It’s certainly a pretty one-sided deal,” said Leonard as he leaned back into his chair. “But what else would you expect? They’re bugs, not attorneys.”
The reporter nodded and scribbled a note in his pad. The dining table in the harvest facility’s executive lounge seated twelve, but only three seats were occupied, by the reporter and the company’s two harvester-team leaders.
In the middle of the table was a large wooden bowl of toasted honey-bugs. Tiny ant-like creatures, their sweetness was mingled with unparalleled flavor, and their shell yielded the perfect, lightly crispy crunch. But they were also incredibly rare, found only on the hostile surface of Khepri. All efforts to raise them elsewhere had failed, and per ounce they had become one of the galaxy’s most expensive delicacies, beyond even Earth-raised caviar.
“It’s a dangerous job you guys have,” said the reporter. “The death-rate here is incredibly high.”
“It was worse before the cutbacks,” said Leonard with a shrug. “We lost a team almost every month back then. But it’s been better recently, so the figures you have down might be a little high. Still, there have always been risky jobs, haven’t there? We get paid well for our work, and nobody comes here expecting an easy ride.”
That much was true. Everybody knew the job was hard and not without risks, though the loss of Alex’s team last month ago had still come as a shock. It had been a timely reminder to them all that even experienced harvesters could pay the price if they were careless. Rumor said a replacement team was inbound, but in the meantime, the remaining teams were reaping better harvests than ever.
“So why not use machines instead?”
“They tried,” said Leonard. “But the bugs don’t like the machines, and they don’t last long in this atmosphere anyway. No, the only way is with human feet on the ground. That’s why our product is so valuable.” He took a pinch of the lightly toasted honey-bugs and popped them into his mouth. They crunched between his teeth. “I admit it wouldn’t suit everyone. But for those with the stomach, it’s a way of life. I wouldn’t trade your boring job for mine in a month of Mondays.”
An hour later, Leonard and his two team-members stood in the facility’s northern exit chamber. The processing facility itself was a dull-looking structure with armor-plated outer walls. They had nicknamed it Candy Mountain.
“So what did he want?”
“The usual,” said Leonard, stripping off his clothes. Beside him, Ellis and Joanna were already naked. All three were shaved entirely clean of body-hair down to the eyebrows, and all were ridged with heavy muscle. “He wanted to know all about the most dangerous job in the universe.”
They laughed. They loved that reputation–it made them the rock-stars of the new frontier.
Each of them took an elliptical face-mask and a pair of ear-plugs from a long shelf against one wall. They inserted the plugs and fitted their masks carefully before heading through a nearby door into the closing chamber, where they waited to be covered.
The symbiosis of the bugs and their harvesters was a boon. The planet’s atmosphere was incredibly corrosive, and little could endure it for long. Even diamond and titanium degraded quickly, and the finest custom-made protective suits lasted only a day.
But the bugs endured it easily. The scientists said it was down to rapid cell regeneration, far faster than any animal on record elsewhere. And by happy chance, they were attracted to humans. The tiny things, barely a quarter of an inch long, would crawl onto any open skin they could find and form a living barrier between the harvesters and the hostile atmosphere.
And then they ate them at the end of it. It was a perfect reflection of humankind. The facility would roast and pack up the majority of the harvest, but kept enough living bugs on hand to fully cover all outgoing harvesters.
The face-masks were disposable, and equipped with microphones that would transmit to the team’s ear-plugs. Each would last for a single harvest only, and each contained tiny hyper-compressed air canisters, sufficient for a day’s breathing. They were lightweight but durable, and damaged visor layers could be peeled away as necessary to help maintain clarity. The last three layers would crackle when peeled free, a warning to any harvester running close to his equipment’s limit.
But aside from the mask and ear-plugs, every other part of the body was left naked to attract the bugs. The more skin you exposed, the more bugs you could attract. And the more bugs you brought in, the more money you made.
Nobody knew exactly what the bugs got out of it. Scientists had proposed several theories about human secretions, but nobody had been able to safely study the relationship. Still, whatever it was, the harvesters got the best of the deal–and all you had to do to get your share of the pot was let a million tiny insects crawl all over your naked body.
It wasn’t a job for everyone. But if you couldn’t stomach it, then you didn’t deserve the rewards.
“Hey, Jo,” said Ellis, as the bugs began to form a thick layer on his legs. “Do they ever get up inside your…well, you know?”
“Yeah, every time,” she said. “Hey, it’s all money, right?”
Leonard laughed, and started to say something about her being weird. But as the bugs climbed up over his groin, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Part of him always expected things to go wrong at that point. The first time they’d crawled over him, they’d actually given him an erection. That had been embarrassing enough–and in his mind’s eye there were always visions of much, much worse.
But the bugs continued crawling up without incident, and soon all three were clad in living suits. The crawling sensation was itchy, but reassuring. It meant you were protected.
The lights turned green, the secure doors opened, and they marched out onto the planet’s surface.
The job was simple enough, at least on paper. Head out, find a cluster of bugs, and lead them home. There were box-traps all around the base that would capture them once they were nearby, but live, close human flesh was the only thing that would attract them.
And even once the body was completely covered, the bugs would keep coming. They’d crawl on top of the others, forming a heavy, shifting mass around the harvester that could become several feet thick. Movement was difficult then, like marching neck-deep in molasses, and you needed strength, and fitness. It was no job for the weak.
“We’ll hit the sixteenth quad,” said Leonard.
“You sure? It’s dodgy out that way.”
“I’m sure. Alex’s team was scheduled there this week, and nobody’s hit it yet. We cleared out the western side yesterday, and Stu took his team South. I know it’s a hike, and rough ground, but I think we’ve got a great chance of finding a large mass.”
Ellis and Joanna simply nodded. Leonard’s instincts were rarely wrong, and over the last two years his leadership had made them rich.
The sixteenth quadrant lay to the north-east, four miles away on the other side of a stretch of thick vegetation. The ground was tough on Khepri at the best of times, with unstable, uneven ground and one hundred and twenty percent of Earth’s gravity to contend with. But the green areas were worse. Aside from the thick, vine-like plants that sprouted all over, there were some strange, lumpy things that emitted foul fumes, and hollow fungus-like growths that contained enzymes that the honey-bugs hated. If you fell into one of those they would scatter and leave you naked–after that, it was a dice-roll whether the enzymes or the atmosphere killed you first.
Neither one was a clean death.
The atmosphere had left no trace, but the fungi were Leonard’s hot pick for what had claimed Alex’s team. Others had vanished in more barren areas, and those he put down to poor leaders who didn’t know the ground well enough, or who had panicked when things went south.
But Leonard had a cool head, and knew the ground better than anyone. There were neither any surprises nor any tumbles into evil fungi, and within three hours they’d cleared it–good time for the terrain, though the return trip would be slower and tougher if they found the kind of mass he was hoping for.
The vegetation yielded to an open plain–easier going, but it was a mixed blessing. There were no more evil fungi to contend with, but the ground in the Sixteenth was renowned for its instability.
“I hate this place,” muttered Ellis.
“Don’t we all,” said Leonard. “But the honey-bugs love it. Let’s spread out and find them. I’ll bet both of you dinner that there’s a good mass around here somewhere.”
The trio fanned out, with Leonard heading north, and after ten minutes he spotted what he was looking for. A quarter-mile ahead the ground was lightly rippling, the unmistakable sign of a large mass of bugs beneath.
“Ellis, Jo, get to my position.” The pair both acknowledged. He waited, watching the shifting ground as the two made their way to him.
“Told you,” he said, pointing at it. “What’s that, a size-four group?”
“Looks like it,” said Ellis. “Or damned close anyway. Man, I love your instincts! It’s only a shame they’re underground.”
“It beats not finding them, right? Let’s lead them back to the Mountain.”
They walked closer, every step slow and careful. With the bugs gathered underground in a thick mass, it would be even more unstable, and more than one harvester had lost their life when the ground collapsed. But after several cautious minutes they drew close to the edge of the colony, and the first bugs began to crawl out towards them.
“We’ve got them,” said Leonard. “Hang back here for few minutes, and then–”
There was a sudden stiffness to his arms. The bugs could be heavy at times, but instead of shifting, flowing and crawling as they usually did, they all began to freeze in place. More bugs continued to crawl up onto him, all freezing still, until he couldn’t move at all.
“Wait up, guys,” he said. “My bugs are acting all weird.”
Leonard frowned. This was new. In six years of harvesting, he’d never seen them act this way. So what had changed? He looked around for anything different in their environment, some kind of unknown predator, but saw nothing. It all seemed normal, almost dull.
Slowly and ungainly, Leonard’s legs stretched out forwards, carrying him in an unsteady step towards the colony.
“Whoa, whoa,” said Leonard. “What the hell?”
“Hey, what happened to hanging back?”
“It’s not me, it’s the damned bugs.” Leonard fought to hold his legs in place, but the bugs were shifting, the living suit settling into its own rhythm as it marched him forward. “I can’t stop them!”
“Nor can I,” said Ellis’s voice over the intercom. “What the hell is going on?”
Leonard was silent. He didn’t know.
The bugs marched them out over the shifting mass, and though Leonard expected them to sink into the unstable earth ground, the bugs beneath formed a firm platform that kept them up. Leonard had some sense of his direction, and though he didn’t know exactly which quadrant they were heading towards, he knew they were heading towards those at the very edge of the facility’s harvest boundary.
On the side of his mask was an emergency beacon button, but he couldn’t lift his locked arm to push it. As far as anyone in the base knew, they were simply out hunting for a good mass. They’d rarely been out for less than twelve hours at a time, and had often come close to the full twenty-four–nobody would start worrying about them for hours. Beads of sweat were forming on his face, and his mask had begun to mist up.
“We’ve got to do something,” said Ellis. “Anything!”
But there was nothing to be done. None of them could move, or resist the relentless marching of the bugs.
As they crossed an unfamiliar ridge, the broad entrance to a tunnel came into view, and they were marched straight down into it. Leonard expected utter darkness after that, but narrow blue veins in the rock glowed lightly, their dim fluorescence enough to see by.
The tunnels twisted and turned, and the bugs marched them along relentlessly. Leonard’s body moved more quickly under their power than it ever had under his own. It was efficient but clumsy, and as they rounded one corner he felt his ankle twist painfully. The bugs didn’t slow. They kept on marching, jarring his ankle over and over.
At last the tunnels opened up into a single broad chamber, and within it sat six bugs–but vast ones, unlike any Leonard had ever seen, all facing a broad, four-foot tall stone pedestal in the middle. They were similar in form to the honey-bugs, but far larger–each was easily ten feet in length from head to tail, and six feet high as they stood. Their front legs were extended forwards, but instead of ending in simple points they splintered into long, delicate-looking fingers, three on each hand.
The pedestal itself was intricately carved with unfamiliar symbols and shapes, and on top of the pedestal were six silvery platters. Each was a little over half the size of a man.
The bugs coating him suddenly moved, crawling up over his face mask. For a brief moment he was blind, but then he felt it being pulled from his face and they all scattered, leaving him naked but for a simple pair of now worthless earplugs. The atmosphere stung his skin and eyes, but it was softer here, far less corrosive than the atmosphere at the surface.
He stumbled on his twisted ankle, and as he fell to the ground he looked around quickly for his mask, hoping that he could grab it and push the transmit button to send a distress call. But all three of their masks were being carried around the edge of the chamber by a group of scuttling bugs. When they finally stopped, they dropped them against the far wall in a pile with dozens of other identical, corroded face-masks.
Leonard stared at the pile, and then back at the six giant bugs. They were all looking at him and his companions, but had not moved. He turned to the exit, looking for any way out, but the entrance was blocked by a seething mass of honey-bugs. They couldn’t hope to run. Their only hope of escape was to get to the pile of masks, and–
Something hard grasped his arm, and then his ankle, and he was lifted into the air as though he weighed nothing at all. He heard Ellis and Joanna screaming and yelling, and then heard their voices suddenly muffled, but he couldn’t look to see what was happening to them. He was lowered down, and felt cold stone beneath his naked flesh.
He looked down his body. One of the giant bugs gripped his ankles, and then he felt something starting to pull on his arms. His limbs were drawn out against each other, and he screamed as he felt the bones of his shoulders and hips dislocating. He heard Ellis and Joanna screaming as well, and all too late as his flesh began to tear apart, he knew the truth about the honey-bugs of Khepri.
The deal wasn’t so one-sided after all.
By E. K. Wagner
“Okay, listen up, cockroaches!” The sergeant’s voice echoed in the docking bay. We had just trooped off the shuttle and it was still hissing behind us as it cooled down. The heat of it at our backs felt good in the chill of the tanker, prepped to enter outer orbit where the temperature would drop even further.
There were five of us, mainly reserves who’d never seen combat. I had seen combat. So had Hen beside me. They usually stuck the shocks with the reserves because war wasn’t like it used to be, they said. I gripped my left wrist, trying to steady it. There was still pain there where the scar was. That’s where they usually hit you, slicing at the wrist. Then you either bled out or you lost a hand. Either way you were out of combat. Or, if you got lucky, you were in the reserves. I got lucky, I guess.
“Gonna outlive the apocalypse,” Hen said beside me in a low pitched whisper. I laughed. It was an old joke and a tired laugh.
“It’s a standard drill,” the sergeant said, shooting us the stink-eye, but men like him, they played gentle around shocks. We were heroes, if you hadn’t heard. “Chammies in the northeast quadrant, arms-locker inaccessible. Standard issue guns,” he pointed to a crate beside him, “with half-charge.”
One of the reserves cursed under his breath. The sergeant got in his face and just stared at him a moment. Corks was a thin kid, with just a wisp of a pubescent mustache on his face. He got red from the neck of his uniform up to his hair with the sergeant up close.
“You say something, private?”
“I don’t think you heard me right. I said, did you say something, private?”
“Yes, sir.” But his voice faltered.
“You think this is some sorta game? This may be orbit today, but tomorrow you get called up to the rings, you got chammies jumpin a civvy ship, and you’re just pissing yourself, because your gun’s half-charged and you think you’re gonna die!”
Corks didn’t answer. There wasn’t really any right answer to something like that.
“Get your gun, private,” the sergeant ordered through gritted teeth.
The guns were standard issue, like the sergeant had said, which meant they were pretty weak to start with. You can say a war is on all you want, but unless the regents saw some money in it, it was the civvy ships who paid for the top guns so their guards, even if badly trained, had weapons to make up for that bad training. These guns, they had one trigger which was like to overheat as not, and one setting. Charge runs out fast on a gun like that. Starting with half-charge, you may as well not have a gun at all if you’re up against chammies.
“The point,” the sergeant drawled, his eye fixed on Corks who was trying to settle into a standard stance, “is that you know how to hand-to-hand with bastards like these if the need should ever arise.”
He scanned the rest of us, not quite looking Hen and me in the face. There was a chance he’d never seen combat himself. That would be my guess. Because it seemed sometimes, you know, that those who’d never fought often talked the loudest.
They didn’t look like they did in the articles, the apartments where Tep and I lived. It was one room where you ate and you watched your shows, and it was another room where you slept and you had sex. There was a closet with a flusher and water, but it wasn’t anything to brag about. We hadn’t ever bothered to put up the painted tiles we’d bought in the civvy market. There had been some plan at the time, I guess, to make our place look like some sorta show—tiles on the wall, plants hanging from the ceiling, and maybe some kinda rug to cover the floor. By the time we’d ported back, though, making out like kids the whole way, I think we’d really forgotten that plan.
It was hard, blending in. You never felt like you belonged there. Actual nonsim gravity, for one. It made you feel a little too stuck. We’d spent a lifetime in the rings. We were career military, and career military, well, we had bunks and maybe two minutes of privacy in a day. We had meals served us on plastic plates that smelled like onion. How were you meant to pick out your own food, to know what you felt like eating? I guess, really, there was never any question about whether we’d start up again in the reserves.
“Eyes on me,” Hen said once the door to the docking bay was sealed behind us, a little pop at the end. “Let’s not bunch this up, and maybe we can get outta here before food. Corks, you’re in the rear.”
He had the gall to look a little offended when Hen said that. I knocked him in the arm with my elbow, not really caring to be gentle. “Back.”
Hen looked at the other three of us. “Stag, Prita, flank. Sitha, with me.”
I could see what he was doing. We’d be in front, and between the two of us, would probably take out whatever the fake chammies threw at us. He wasn’t really in it for the training.
“Might work better for us to flank, Hen.”
He looked at me like I’d somehow stepped on his pride, all clenched jaw. “They’ll just bunch us up.”
“Yeah, and what? You’re gonna bleed? Come on, it’s drill. Someone oughta get drilled.”
He grumbled a bit, and pointed with his gun. “Stag and Prita in front then.”
There was a look on their face, something between fear and excitement. Something kinda sad. Stag was a broad guy and when he moved ahead of me, all I could see was the swath of his insulated back. Hen and I split to either side and just a bit back, but before we did, he hissed in my ear, like it was joke. That’s what he thought, I’m thinking. “What, you getting all motherly?” I shoved him off with the butt of my gun.
The corridor off of the bay wasn’t too long. There was a door straight ahead and it looked clear to there.
“What’s the code?” Prita asked, an edge of panic in her voice, like she’d forgotten everything she’d ever learned.
“It’s a drill, Prita,” I said. “Brake it. Take a breath.”
She looked back at me, startled as if she’d never heard my voice before. “I can’t remember.” She had the gasping look on her face like she’d just dropped her wedding ring down the sewage drain.
“Standard military ship,” Hen barked impatiently.
She shook her head as if to clear it, but Stag was stepping in. He punched the code. The door groaned open. I guess I couldn’t expect any of the ships back in the yard to be up to snuff. The floor lurched beneath us. We were in orbit.
“Brake it,” I shouted while snapping the switch on my own suit. It was something you said when you were trying to calm someone down, yeah, but really it meant you needed to brake your suit in prep for leaving the gravity-field. The others did it too, though Prita almost left the floor before she’d managed.
“Damn,” Hen shouted at them. “You’d all be dead by now if we were in the rings. Chammies, they grow up in anti-gravity, they eat it, they breathe it. If you can’t brake it before those bastards come at you, you’re dead. They have your face off.”
“They don’t do that, Hen, you know that.”
He looked at me. “What’s up your suit, Sitha? You got something with me? These recruits think they’re face is going to be some chammie’s dinner—how will that hurt?”
“Here, stop,” I said. “What do you know?” I looked at Prita, Corks, and Stag. “What do you know about chammies?”
“Peregrinus sapiens,” Stag said, surprising me. He had a small grin on his face. “I had some time at the academy before I signed up.”
“Other than your academic bullshit, what do you know?”
“Time’s running,” Hen muttered.
“What do you know?”
Prita, she looked at me like I was some girl in her primary she had feelings for, shy and sorta scared. But when she spoke, she knew stuff. “They’re chameleons,” she said. “They blend into their environments. They’re fast. Faster than any Earth mammal we’ve tracked. They’re intelligent. They can read you.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” I said. “And they’ve been traveling space longer.”
“They’re carnivorous,” Corks spoke up.
I smiled. “Yeah, but so are you, Corks.”
“I don’t eat meat.”
“Shiiiiit,” Hen interrupted. “Sitha, can we get this moving?”
I looked at him and tickled the trigger of my gun. He grinned back, a little crazy. “You got the hots for me, girl?”
“Stag, Prita, you’re still front.” I tucked my gun close up under my armpit. “And Hen?”
He glanced at me, sidestepping his way to Stag’s left.
“You gotta stop asking for it,” I said.
Tep and I were most often together, but sometimes even if you’re close, you need time alone. When he needed it, he went to drinks. When I needed it, I stayed back in the apartment, and I read the articles. They had full, glossy pages. They were expensive, made for those who could afford paper. Artificial paper, of course. That shit don’t grow on trees.
I read all about what it was for, living on the ground. They seemed to think it was something about looking at the stars rather than being in them. It seemed that ever since Earth got its own asteroid belt, all you ever wanted to do was try and see what you could see through that. Down to the patterns of the rugs and the pictures on the tiles, it was stars. Which was kinda weird to read about when you had been stationed in the rings for all your life before.
When they knocked on my door, I was thinking about that. My feet felt sorta stuck to the floor as I moved.
“What do you want?” I said as I opened it. No one comes to the door anymore unless it’s a kid seeking trouble. So that’s why I said what I did when I opened it.
“Sitha?” It was a couple of men, uniformed.
“That’s what they call me,” I said, talking slow. It was the most human I’d ever felt, looking at them and not knowing what they were going to say next.
“You’re going to want to come with us.”
Their faces were so solemn but also sort of filled with a man’s joy in grim duty.
“I don’t understand.”
“Your partner, Tep,” I started nodding as if they needed confirmation of that. “He’s been killed.”
Grief sort of hits me slow. It’s a good quality in career military. But it also meant that in that moment there was nothing I could feel but curiosity.
“Show me,” I said.
They nodded now, as if this was what you expected when you came to the door of a woman who killed things for a living.
“Hold up,” Hen said, impatient. “If you’ve got the computer, you should use it.” He pointed with a showgirl’s grace to the panel on the wall. Prita and Stag retraced their steps.
He looked at me, but he was kinda unsettled now. He rolled his eyes when I didn’t say anything. “If you think you can train them better, go for it.”
“No,” I said. “No. Best you take it.”
Prita remembered the code this time. She waited while the computer loaded a gridwork of the ship, each level in a different fluorescent color. Overlapped, it looked like a drawing with a child’s crayons. It was slow. The ship was definitely due to be junked.
“Northeast quadrant the sergeant said,” Stag said over her shoulder, eyes squinted at the screen.
“Read any life forms?” Corks asked.
“Brake it,” she said, her voice breathy and nervous. Then she tapped on the screen. It zoomed in on the quadrant. “Yeah, there are chammies there.”
“So we should take ‘em?” Stag said, somewhere between a question and a statement.
“Don’t ask me,” Hen answered. “They’re your chammies.” He loaded sarcasm on the word like gravy on potatoes.
Stag looked at each of his fellow reserves and nodded. “Come on,” he said.
We followed, turning down a corridor branch on our right hand. There was a rumbling sound somewhere deep in the engines and a strip of red lights began blinking at the top of the walls.
“Brace yourselves,” Hen yelled at them.
Stag and Prita looked back at us, not understanding. Corks had already pushed himself up against the wall.
“Brace yourselves,” Hen repeated, pushing them roughly against the walls as well. Which meant he was unbraced and when the corridor started to shake like a poorly-built house in an earthquake, he was stumbling to find footing.
“What is it?” Prita asked.
“If you weren’t in the reserves,” I said, “you’d be in the rings. Showers are fairly regular things out there.”
“You’d all be dead by now if we were in the rings,” Hen repeated his mantra.
“Keep moving,” I said, talking over him.
They walked forward gingerly, one hand leaning on the wall. We felt like a bunch of rocks in a tumbler.
“The chammies,” Corks shouted from behind, because the simulation program was starting to make the pinging sound you’d hear in the rings during a real shower, “they thrown off by this?”
I shook my head and kept moving forward.
“It was a bar fight?” I asked, because that didn’t sound like Tep. Tep drank, but he drank in the way a man does when he wants to savor the taste of something.
But he was lying there spread-eagled on the floor of the bar. The bartender had closed it down and there was a ring of bar stools pulled out around Tep like a strange sort of yellow tape. I could smell the iron whiskey that Tep liked, not because it was that good, but because it was what you drank in the rings. He was dressed in civvy gear which still looked strange to me, a vacuumed jacket and slacks.
“I’m sorry, Sitha,” the bartender said like he was apologizing for a spill. But his face looked upset.
“What happened, Rally?”
“I’m not sure.” His hands wandered over the taps. “I heard loud voices, and then one of them had a slitter out. I didn’t see his face. Not a regular, I don’t think. Tep was shouting back just as loud.” He let his breath out with a long sigh. “I don’t know, Sitha, and I’m sorry.”
“He was using a slitter,” I said, wondering, and knelt down near Tep. He was on his back, his hands were sorta raised up over his head. And the pool of blood, what there was, was under his arm.
“Tep,” I said as if I was waiting to hear an answer. I put a hand on his shoulder and the way he felt still sent a chill up my arm.
“Military-issued,” one of the cops said. He showed me where, on the floor, an open slitter was lying. It had a hair-thin razor blade used in hand-to-hand combat. “And I’m guessing, based on the wounds, that the perp was military-trained. Dressed him up like a chammie.”
I put both hands on Tep’s side and pushed him over on his back. There was a smell of metal. His skin looked yellow. Both his wrists were slit.
“Unusual way to kill a man,” the cop kept going. “Maybe—was your partner a hemophiliac?”
I looked up at him, then back at Tep’s face, all haggard and slack-jawed. You weren’t supposed to die in your bar. But maybe it would have been the same if we’d stayed in combat instead of taking this new assignment. Like I said, that’s where they hit you in hand-to-hand, when the guns were out of charge. “I don’t know.” I could smell the fluid from his nerve sac, leaking into the blood, transparent like egg whites.
“It may be that the fight was going on longer than it seemed,” Rally added in his two-cents. “They were fighting hard after the shouting. And it was hard getting people to clear out, so it was a bit before I could get to him.”
“We’re going to get a doctor up here for post-mortem.” Maybe because of the way I was acting, they seemed to have forgotten that I was the bereaved. They were talking like I wouldn’t care if I heard about my partner being cut up.
“No doctor,” I said. He looked at me, questioning. “Religious observance.”
It seemed that reason worked. They turned to each other and there was whispering. Religion introduces a certain respect into some kinds of circumstances.
“You didn’t see who it was, Rally?” My grief was catching up with me, moving sluggish through my veins.
He shook his head and tried to reach a hand across the bar to hold my hand or pat my shoulder. I moved out of reach.
“That’s alright, Rally,” I said. “I’ll find him myself.”
The simulated shower was over. We stopped outside the supply locker in the northeast quadrant.
“They’ve got to be in there,” Corks whispered. His voice was bordering on shrill.
“Here, listen up,” Hen said. “You’ve got maybe one good volley in the guns. Sweep them high and then low. Sometimes the chammies stay close to the ground.”
“And when the guns are dead?” Prita asked.
“Then fall back on your damned training. It’s a quicker kill anyways if you hit them right across the wrists.” Hen held up his hands, baring his wrist between the gloves and the arms of his suit. “You hit the nerve sac and they’re dead before they hit the ground.” He was walking, and stopped in front of each of them to tap them on the helmet. “It’s like getting hit in the brain,” he said. They flinched nervously under his tapping finger.
“But if it’s a simulation, won’t they have suits on? How will we do that?”
Hen threw back his chin in aggravation.
“Well, obviously you’re not going to kill your fellow idiots. You do as I say, though, and you’ll trigger the sensors they’ve got built in and the sergeant will see you know what you’re doing. Here’s my fervent wish that their suits are as thick as your heads.”
“I think I’m ready,” Stag said.
“Really? You’ve only been standing outside the supply locker for ten minutes. If you were in the rings—” he began.
“They know, Hen,” I snapped. “Let them go.” Then I stepped back to where he stood and spoke a bit more quietly.
“And we ought to let them go in by themselves if they’re ever going to learn anything.”
“Fine by me,” he grunted. “I wanna see how fast they die.”
“Go, go, go!” Stag was screaming. He punched in the code as he yelled. Prita was standing at the ready as the door groaned open. There was a flash of light and the smell of gas as guns began to fire from inside.
Corks bent over as if might throw up. “Get in there,” I shoved him.
Despite the noise and the smell from the locker, Hen and I felt sort of isolated out in the corridor. I looked at him. He was holding his gun loosely, one finger looped near the trigger, but it was at his leg, not up.
“I think you fight dirty, Hen.”
He lifted his head. He smiled as if he thought this was me flirting.
“Dirty as they come,” he popped his lips on the last word.
“Did you know?”
“Hmm?” He sensed the shift in tone. He wasn’t a bad fighter after all. His instincts were slow, but not like the reserves.
“Did you know that the man you killed in Rally’s bar was my partner? Because I think that would be kinda low, Hen, if you were coming onto the woman whose guy you killed.”
“Sitha.” He was thinking, buying time.
I just stood still, watching.
“I never meant to kill no one.” He was pulling his gun up. He held it steady under his arm.
“Not then, maybe,” I said. “But it’s hard to care on that score.” I paused and when he said nothing, I continued. “Given the circumstances.”
Someone screamed inside the locker. The sounds of guns had faded. Whatever was happening in the fight, it was down to hand-to-hand combat.
“I’m faster than you, Hen.” I shifted my own gun.
“Like hell.” But he waited, which was strange.
I shot once over his head which made him jump to one side, but I was there before him. I took a handful of his suit in my fist and I thumped him up against the wall of the corridor. The smell of molten metal burned in both our noses from where the gun had blasted the wall. I rammed the gun, still hot, down on his other hand and he dropped his own weapon. My wrist was throbbing.
“The first time I was ever on a civvy ship,” I said, my nose almost touching his, “I learned something important, Hen.”
The docking bay was filled with some sort of gas the moment we bored our way in through the hull. The guards inside were wearing masks and a few of them were holding guns. Most of them, though, were waiting, hunched down low, hands out in front, gripping slitters. I immediately tumbled forward, coming out of my roll directly in front of the first guard. I reached for his wrist as I lunged upwards, carrying his hand and the slitter far over my head. I twisted my hand and there was the sound of bones crunching. The slitter fell from his hand.
Whatever the gas was meant to do, it did not affect us. Vision was impaired, but neurologically we were fine. We fight silently, so the sounds we heard were the hollow thumps of men falling to the ground or the sound of their breath leaving their lungs in labored gasps. Tep was near me. I could sense him and there was a comfort in that. We fight more as a unit than I’ve heard men speculate. It’s just not an organization we have to shout about to keep intact.
The man I had hold of died quickly. But there was another right behind him. He came in low and slashed upwards, cutting across my wrist, just below the sac. I hissed in pain. Tep felt that. The pain was hard to take, but I jerked around, snapping the slitter out of the new guy’s hand.
Then it was time. Most of us retreated, back through the hole in the hull, and I think the gas ended up really helping us, covering over what I had to do. We had strict orders from the commanding unit, and we weren’t meant to question it. There was a knot in my gut from the thought of it. We’d been given no explanation for the order, no reasoning behind this infiltration. Just an order to wait. Tep and I were close, a unit that worked well even alone and cut off from all that we knew. I often wondered later whether we’d been forgotten, whether we’d become too human in our separation.
Tep and I lay as still as we could near the men we had killed. There was shouting coming down the corridors. We could hear it faintly through the bay doors. There was a tingling in my veins and my skin tightened around me. My wrist was warm which only increased the pain.
I was quiet though. And when the men came pouring through the bay doors, I was one of the first victims up on the stretchers.
“You got to hide yourself well, Hen,” I let my gun drop to the floor which seemed to unnerve him more than anything else. I think he pissed himself. “if you’re going to kill something.”
I flicked the toggle at the neck of his suit and peeled back the insulating layer. The thin cloth shirt he wore underneath was soaked with sweat. I held him tight by the shoulder and pushed him down until he was sitting limp against the wall and I was crouched in front of him. I picked up the gun again and pressed the barrel against his chest, just under the shoulder bone, right over his heart.
I was angry and I could feel it affecting the chems under the epidermal layer of my skin. I’m not quite sure what Hen saw but he opened his mouth, gasping, and tried to speak. It seemed like his tongue was choking him.
I pulled the trigger. The heat from the blast felt like hot sun on my face. There was a smell of charred flesh. I stood up. I kicked my gun toward the opposite wall of the corridor. Hen’s head had dropped to his chest.
“What happened?” Corks stumbled out of the locker and stopped, panting, putting his hands on his knees and bending over. Prita and Stag followed close behind him. I could hear men taking off their suits inside the locker and laughing. It seemed the simulation was over.
“I don’t know,” I turned my head to them. “Which one of you can’t shoot a gun straight?”
“Is he dead?” Prita’s question was one of the most humorous I had heard that day, but I had no trouble keeping my smile hidden.
“What happens when your heart stops beating?” Perhaps there was something sort of enjoyable in harassing them.
“I don’t understand. Why was his suit open?” Corks dragged himself closer, but he still looked afraid to get too near the body.
“He’s an idiot and said he needed to get a breather waiting on you.”
“Oh, shit,” Stag looked back into the locker and then again at Hen. “We need to get a medic. We need to call the sergeant.”
I tapped my ear, reminding Stag of his comlink. It was for the best that Hen had been like he was to them. There wasn’t anyone here bending over him and wanting to touch him and thinking already of how to kill the one who shot him.
“Yeah, call the sergeant,” I said. “Tell him you’re ready to face real chammies.”
When Whales Fall
By Darcie Little Badger
As the whale corpse landed, Discordant Hum felt auspicious vibrations in the cold abyssal water. “A giant fell,” she said. “It’s ours.” Her body glowed green-pleased. Quick Squeak and Melodious Chord, Discord’s sisters, swam in tight circles above her head.
“What about neighbor broods?” Melodious asked. “They may want it, too.” She waved a tentacle, one of six hanging down her belly, its tip shorn during the last territorial fight.
“You have five spares,” Quick said.
“As a sculptor, I need them all!”
Before the sisters gnawed out from their pearlescent egg sacs, during eras only trench elders had witnessed, there were enough whales for every brood. The giants seeded abyssal oases, their bodies erupting with tube worms, white mussels, and limpets. Though a corpse famine blighted the ocean, Discord had faith that it would pass, and she would fight tooth and fin to see more prosperous times.
“If we take this whale,” Discord said, “its meat can be exchanged for rare stones. Please, Melodious Chord. We need your skill.” With a blade in each tentacle, Melodious fought like a knot of striking eels.
“For olivine, I will fight,” she said.
“For food, too,” Quick added.
For the brood, Discord did all things. “Stay behind me,” she said, “in case I use my killing scream.”
Discord lit her body blue, flashing, a warning: stay away. At the land sight, fine mud particles were suspended around the mountainous corpse. Quick cooed, “Ours, ours.”
“Not yet,” Discord said. She heard a clk, clk, clk. Other merrow had noticed the whale and now approached, their echolocation clks becoming quicker and louder. Five egg-makers, probably brood sisters, descended from the west; by the oblong shape of their scales, Discord suspected that they came from the northwestern plain. “What are you doing in our territory?” she asked.
“Passing through,” their leader said.
“Our plans have changed.”
“If they now include death, by all means, pester us. My brood has never lost a fight.”
The northwestern leader said, “Now,” and the invaders dropped their travel baskets and drew curved bone daggers. They were inexperienced fighters, Discord thought, because none flanked her. She unhinged her jaw, baring a funnel-mouth lined three rows deep with serrated teeth, and released a killing scream. The leader escaped, narrowly. Two intruders lost consciousness, blood leaking from their outer ears. Two others recoiled from the sonic blast and thrashed with pain. Their bodies glowed brightly white as they tried to discern the world by eye instead of vibrations.
Quick wrapped her nets around the injured merrow, and Melodious hacked off the confused leader’s head with six rapid strikes. It had been a perfect offense. Disable the attackers; behead the leader; victory usually followed. But the headless body continued fighting as blood billowed from its neck. “A berserker!” Melodious said. “What now?” They had not prepared for a berserker because Discord never expected to meet one. Without their core mind, most merrow burrowed in the mud; very rarely, they became unprejudiced killers.
“Dive, Melodious! Dive, dive, dive!” Discord’s voice, though raw from the killing scream, attracted the berserker. She retreated, planning to swim until the wretch bled out, but her plans changed when she noticed a spear protruding from the whale’s back. Discord grabbed the handle and pulled with all her strength; the weapon popped free, and its hooked point impaled the berserker through the heart.
The berserker’s tentacles curled violently, its tail kicked twice, and then it went limp.
“Are you well, sisters?” Discord called.
“Unscathed,” Melodious responded.
“Have we already won?” Quick asked. “That was fast.”
The four surviving invaders escaped Quick’s nets, gathered their baskets, and continued migrating east with their barely twitching, twice-dead leader’s body cradled between them. They glowed violet-sorrowful.
“I wonder if they will eat her body,” Quick said, once the violet lights dimmed with distance.
Melodious swatted her fin. “What a cruel thing to say!”
“How dare you touch …”
“Enough fighting!” Discord said, whirling on her sisters. They had been bickering excessively lately. The whale boon might relieve some stress, but it was only temporary. In two or three gravitational cycles, they would be sucking organics from the mud again, or chasing deep-dwelling fish until their lure lights flickered with exhaustion.
Quick snapped her teeth at Melodious. “May we eat now?” she asked.
“Of course,” said Discord. “Feast. The scavengers are coming.” Soon, hagfish and other beasts would devour the skin, the blubber, the innards, and the half-ton heart.
“What is that?” Melodious asked. She pointed to the spear, its hooked blade dripping with scraps of whale and merrow flesh. “Did the northwesterners drop a weapon? Why would they leave worked metal?”
“I found it in the whale.”
“Somebody attacked the corpse before it landed?”
“Or before it died.”
They turned their faces up, toward the heights where the whale had lived in-between dives and its final, permanent fall. “Impossible,” Melodious said. “No merrow can thrive in that searing bright place.”
“Perhaps,” Discord said. “These are strange times.”
Discord invited one neighbor brood to share the feast. Its leader, Whistle Squeak, was probably their mother. She shared Discord’s unusually sharp dorsal fin and Quick’s yellow-silver irises.
“Congratulations, Possible Daughters,” said Probably Mother. “You claimed a big one.”
“Congratulate providence,” Discord said. “Good fortune slew the whale above our heads.”
“Was it good fortune?” Probably Mother asked. She looked at the spear, protruding blade-up from the mud. “The material and craftsmanship suggest otherwise.”
“You cannot think …”
“I heard that air beasts kill whales now.”
“Who told you that?”
“Shrill Hum from the brine pits.”
“Who told her that?”
“Mournful Groan of the ten-merrow brood.”
Probably Mother glowed yellow-baffled.
“Never mind,” Discord said. “Mother, race me around the whale.”
They played and ate until their bellies ached. When Probably Mother and her brood left, Quick settled on the whale’s head and sang a dirge, her lights dancing through many shades of violet, reflecting sorrow’s complexity. “Join me?” she asked Discord.
“Another time. My voice strings sting from the killing scream.”
Quick gestured to the spear. “The air beasts made that, and you know it. They caused the whale famine.”
“We know nothing of the sort.”
“Probably Mother told me that merrow have gathered near the western slope to fight them.”
“She loves unlikely tales.”
“We should investigate.”
“No, no, no. Let unfortunate broods war.”
When Discord later slept beneath the mud, she dreamed that the whale corpse thrashed until she stabbed its heart with the alien spear. Its blood made the ocean red.
A nomad came two cycles later. By that time, only sour gristle clung to the great white bones. The nomad circled the skeleton, each loop tighter, until Discord could not ignore him anymore. “Hello,” she said. “Are you here to see our garden?”
The bones and ground had blossomed with shelled snacks, crabs, and hairy red splotches. Several hagfish nibbled on its flaking vertebrae. The nomad floated above the whale’s skull. Like most life-givers, he had just two tentacles and a powerful tail well-suited for speed.
“Not this time, friends. I have news from The Boiling Trench.” He showed them a black glass sphere, the protective fetish carried by merrow who spoke for trench elders. “She Who Rumbles, our wise elder, beseeches all fit merrow to support her battle against the air beasts.”
Melodious and Quick loomed over the nomad, clking and glowing pink-curious. “Why would any trench elder bother with war?” Melodious asked. “They have more important work.”
The nomad’s colors changed, until he was white and red-speckled, like the whale skeleton. Quick made pleased sounds. “So talented,” she said, her body lit white to illuminate his color tricks.
“Thank you,” he said. “To answer your question: the air beasts ride a many-chambered shell, a behemoth, a whale taker. The elder must destroy it.”
“Then why build an army?” Discord asked.
“We merrow must protect her from –“ he pointed to the spearhead Discord wore against her belly; only the metal had survived two cycles. “– harpoon.”
“Ahr-uuh?” Quick imperfectly repeated.
“Very close,” he said. “Air beast words are challenging. You need flexible voice strings.”
“So we will be her shield during battle,” Discord said. Her brood had survived twenty-nine cycles because she knew when to fight and when to hide beneath the muck, and this war against behemoths was no time for heroism. Anyway, if hundreds really gathered at the western slope, what good were just three more soldiers?
The messenger said, “Word is out. You anointed this whale with merrow blood.”
“Five invaders challenged us.” She considered the fuzzy red splotches, wondering if they grew where the berserker had bled. “These are desperate times.”
“They do not need to be,” he said.
Quick tugged on Discord’s fin. “May we fight?” she asked. “Please? Probably Mother can protect our whale until we return.”
“If we return,” Melodious corrected. She popped a mussel in her mouth and cracked its shell between her teeth. “We should follow him west, Discordant Hum.”
“You, too?” Discord asked.
“The trench elders are law,” she said.
Their whale had wasted away. Hungry times were returning. Discord considered the harpoon blade; its triangle-shaped point, hooked to snag the flesh, was sharper than anything crafted in the blue-bright trench forges. The air beasts were dangerous. “Melodious,” she said, “inform Probably Mother that we have been conscripted.”
The messenger’s skin flushed green-pleased. “You made the right choice,” he said. “It will be a ten-sleep journey across the plain. After that, we go north and stop at the wall-fortress.”
“Wall-fortress?” Discord asked. “What is that?”
“A true wonder. Come!”
Across the abyssal plain, with nets-turned-supply-bags hanging from their bellies, they followed the messenger. Their tails undulated sideways, a movement that complemented long-distance swimming more than the rapid kicks of battle, hunts, or play. Along the way, they ate translucent holothurians, sustained but never satisfied by the water-filled tubes.
“I miss whale garden food,” Quick said. She plucked a holothurian from white-gray mud. It contracted and thrashed in her grip.
“Finish your snack, Quick Squeak!” Melodious said. “Poor, suffering creature.”
“Only you could sympathize with a blob.” Quick dropped the holothurian. “I have no appetite for garbage anymore. Messenger, can we go fishing?”
Simultaneously, Discord and the messenger said, “No.”
“Not here,” Discord continued. “Our lures may attract squid. Big squid.” Merciful trenches protected them from gnashing beaks, hooked arms, and lashing tentacles!
“We could slay it,” Quick said. However, she did not broach the subject again.
As they journeyed, the messenger recruited others: two broods and six nomads. Their numbers emboldened him; after the tenth sleep, he sang, “When heroes die, their spirits fall and dance beneath our yawning Earth, where brightly burns Her brimstone heart, its light an endless orange-proud.”
“Inspiring lyrics,” Discord said. “Do you anticipate casualties?”
“Some. The searing heights are treacherous.” Indeed, up there, water alternated between fatally bright and fairly dark. Merrow could survive during the latter phase, but there would always be risks in shallow places: low pressure and high temperatures, height-induced hallucinations, unconsciousness, beasts with teeth and pointed bills that tear apart defenseless bodies.
Her brood rarely ascended beyond the mid-ocean; Discord could not predict how the near-surface conditions would affect their bodies. Near the slope, where the ground became lumpy with sediment flow debris, she gathered three rocks and fashioned weighted belts with Quick’s spare nets. If she or her sisters fainted in the searing heights, their belts would pull them to safety.
“Thank you,” Quick said, “but did you need to destroy my best net?”
“Yes. Our lives depend on it.”
“I can string them with lucky beads,” Melodious said. As a youth, she learned practical crafting from trench scholar-merrow, just the basics, though Melodious pined for more. Unfortunately, advanced knowledge had a steep price; scholar-merrow were cloistered in deep trenches. The life-givers could not wander, and the egg-makers forsook their broods.
“When you enter the searing heights, the beads will absorb strain until they crack,” Melodious said. “If that happens, dive.” As they travelled, she carved crystalline chips with hole-punched centers. Her able tentacles moved in a skilled flurry; the battle-crippled sixth rested against her travel bundle.
“Finished at last,” she said. “Sisters, do you hear voices?”
“More than voices!” Quick said, glowing pink-curious. “In the distance – can you sense it? Merciful trenches! Amazing!”
They approached a wall of air beast shells, some tinier than minke whales, others larger than blue whales. Hundreds of merrow soldiers swam inside and around the wall, clking and chattering.
Discord had seen an air beast shell once before, during her youthful pilgrimage to The Boiling Trench, It That Cracked The Basin In Twain. At the time, she and her sisters were small, translucent, and voiceless. Like all hatchlings, they chased the trench’s call, an enticing vibration that did not tickle mature ears. Somewhere between their nest and the trench, they encountered several rectangular slabs, fuzzy with marine snow and worms. After wise scholar-merrow had instructed her in battle, language, crafts, and lore, Discord realized that the slabs had belonged to a crumbling air beast shell.
“You were right about the fortress-wall, messenger,” she said. “Wondrous thing! Where did they all come from?”
“The slope – especially this location – is a hotspot for air beast shells,” he said. “These sank without our intervention, and the army assembled them into a fortress.”
“Was there anything inside?” Quick asked. “Probably Mother says the shells are filled with treasure.”
“Metals, tools, trinkets, food,” the messenger explained. “But treasure goes fast. Right now, the shells are hollow. You may explore …” He spun in the water. “Excuse me while I resolve a fight.”
“What fight?” Quick asked, but he was already darting toward the fortress. “Curious. I suppose he heard merrow arguing.”
“How? I can barely hear my thoughts!” Melodious said. The water trembled with hundreds of clks and voices. Disturbed sediment and marine snow, fluffy chunks of detritus raining from the heights, obscured both sight and sound.
“He must be accustomed to chaos,” Discord said. She noticed that the other soldiers possessed traits from all corners of the ocean; it was a cosmopolitan group. The other elders surely rallied behind She Who Rumbles. “Sisters, make camp south of the wall, away from the cacophony.”
Later, when most others slept, Discord explored the fortress-wall. Merrow filled its labyrinthine rooms, huddled beside siblings and friends. Some chambers were vast, and others made her claustrophobic. In one medium-sized chamber, she discerned pleasing flourishes on the walls, curled indentations and ridges. The air beasts were artistic.
Discord returned to her sisters, who slept well beyond the wall to escape the distracting murmurs of six hundred dreamers.
“What was it like?” Quick asked.
“Crowded, confusing. No artifacts remain.”
“We should rest,” Melodious said, shaking mud from her head. “This may be our final sleep.”
“You mean final sleep before battle?” Quick asked.
“Yes, of course I do.”
Discord felt heavy, much too heavy; she touched the belt around her waist. She had carried it to the fortress-wall in case the battle started prematurely. “I will protect you both,” she promised. “When the time comes, stay near me, and do as I say.”
The sisters burrowed underground and became dreamers, too.
A low rumble shook them awake. The elder’s call: fight, children.
“Already?” Quick asked, reaching for her nets.
“Leave them,” Discord said. “We cannot afford more weight.”
“What if the air beasts attack?”
“Nets and daggers are no match for harpoon.” She shone multicolor-aggressive. “If they come into the water, our teeth will suffice.”
Discord turned her face up. She could sense the elder poised halfway between the ocean floor and surface, her body slightly larger than a blue whale, but the distance protected She Who Rumbles from greater scrutiny. Discord wondered if that was intentional. They were mysterious, trench elders.
The army gathered over the fortress-wall and began to ascend northwest, guided by blue-lit scouts. Discord maneuvered her brood into the group’s center. “Avoid the edges,” she said. “We are safer here.”
Higher, the army swam. Higher, higher. Discord felt the ocean’s embrace weaken. At first, it was exhilarating, like escaping from gravity, but then pain swelled behind her eyes and throbbed with every heartbeat, every swish of fin and tentacle. Weaker merrow fainted; their bodies sank like corpses. Much to Discord’s pride, her brood survived the ascent. However, when the near-surface water rolled, her spirits fell. Maybe they should have feigned sickness; in their weak state, anything but still water could be deadly.
“Now,” the messenger shouted. “Shine brightly!”
The rocking water pushed Discord to the army’s western edge. There, she discerned the behemoth approaching. It cut between air and ocean, its belly pressing below the water’s surface.
“Brightly!” The messenger shouted. “Our bodies will be her beacon!”
The army glowed indigo, no-emotion-indigo, because indigo light travelled far in water. Many merrow entwined tentacles to resist separation, but Discord wove between bodies, searching for Melodious and Quick. She clked rapidly, discerning impossible things: bodies fusing and warping, the army becoming one beast. Altitude sickness had affected her senses.
Quick’s voice rang out. She was singing a dirge. “For whom does Quick sing?” Discord said, nearly squeaking with relief. But before she reached her sister, the army sang along. Their unified voices were so powerful, she wondered if Probably Mother could hear them across the ocean.
The behemoth stopped its forward motion just above-north of Discord, within harpoon striking distance if the rumors could be trusted. She readied herself for an attack but none came. Instead, the ship bobbed languidly. In the silence following the dirge, she could hear water slapping against the behemoth’s sides. Faint music – its alien notes shrill and mournful – slipped under the ocean. The air beasts were singing, too.
It surprised Discord, though she knew they spoke a rudimentary language. Near-surface scouts had recorded over two hundred air beast words, including harpoon. Yet words and music were different; the latter spoke to an emotional core.
Baffled, Discord missed her chance to call Melodious and Quick.
The trench elder rose, her cavernous mouth yawning. She rammed the behemoth; it rocked side to side but did not crack. The elder lashed it with her barbed tentacles and gnawed on its belly with ten thousand teeth, but it still resisted her. The army had anticipated a one-hit success; at this rate, air beasts would riddle She Who Rumbles with spears. “Surround the behemoth!” Discord shouted. “Confuse them!”
Other merrow took up her call and moved to the highest waters, swarming around the behemoth, their bodies a glowing shield. A splash. She tasted diffuse blood; a merrow had been injured. Quick? Melodious? No. A nearby stranger, pierced through his tail by a lance. Mercifully, the blade was not hooked. Discord helped him wrench free.
“Retreat,” she told him. “Return to…”
There was a sharp crack, and the trench elder dove. Half the army followed her, whistling victoriously.
“Sisters!” Discord said. “Where are you?” Had they descended? Were they injured? She scoured the water; nearby, the behemoth reared back, as if trying to leap from the ocean. Air beasts dropped, their limbs flapping clumsily. Merrow dragged them below surface to loot and then devour their bodies. The ocean was thick with shouts, bubbles, and debris. Pungent with blood.
There were merrow floating overhead, many dead, others dying. She recognized spear wounds in a few, but the rest must have succumbed to altitude sickness.
“Sisters!” Discord wound through the battle zone. Her sisters might be unconscious and floating. They wore belts, yes, but equipment could fail. She had to check, just once. As Discord moved, every tail swish burned; she felt lightheaded and dizzy; the rock belt pulled her down; the lucky beads snapped. To resist sinking, Discord untied her belt and strapped it to a moaning, height-sick merrow. “Thank you,” he murmured, sinking gently.
“My name is Discordant Hum,” she called. “Please remember it, in case I …”
“Discordant Hum,” he repeated, again and again, until she could not hear him anymore. With renewed strength, Discord moved north. She would circle the battle zone perimeter once, only once, and then descend.
There! A large body floated nearby. At first, Discord thought several merrow had embraced as they died, but no: it was a tiny air beast shell. Curious, she put her head above the water and clked. Unfortunately, her inner ears were failing. She opened her eyes.
The first things she saw were lights. A second ocean glittered overhead, its bioluminescent spots white and blue. The scholar-merrow taught her that all existence resided in two oceans and the savage space between them. In certain holy places, where no merrow could survive, the land jutted above water and bridged the worlds.
Voices drew her attention; seven air beasts huddled in the small shell. She wondered if they were family. “Monsters,” the biggest air beast said. “They are like no fish or squid I’ve ever seen. Row! By God’s grace, we will reach shore.” Half a dozen flat-ended poles arced through the water and propelled the shell away from Discord.
She let them retreat in peace.
Discord finished her search well after the behemoth fell. Debris and bodies – all merrow, for the air beasts had been devoured – bobbed overhead. She called her sisters one last time: Melodious Chord. Quick Squeak. Nobody responded. She did not even hear pleas from strangers anymore. Discord dove, but she could not escape the heights. Her body descended a few meters, tired, and then rose as it succumbed to buoyancy. Again and again, she tried to escape, and each dive was shorter until it took all her strength to remain submerged.
Soon, she had no strength left.
She rolled face-up to behold the second ocean. New lights had emerged from its depths, some smaller than a grain of mud. One winked at her, the cheeky creature. Hello. She lit her body bright white and wondered if they were watching her shine, too.
“I see you.” Quick’s voice. “Discordant Hum. I see you.”
Discord turned, now floating with her back against the air, and saw Quick ascending with frantic tail kicks. They reached for each other, and as their tentacles entwined, Quick stopped fighting her weighted belt and let gravity pull them both into the cold, heavy depths, where Melodious waited.
“My sisters,” Discord said. “My sisters.”
“What happened then?” Probably Mother asked. She and her brood drifted under the whale’s ribs and played with the air beast artifacts Discord, Melodious, and Quick had brought home: gold pendants that opened like clam shells, several sharp hooks, and one large metal canister.
Discord said, “We rested inside the behemoth. It was filled with treasure and food, just like you promised. The messenger arranged a celebration feast to bless the sixty casualties. After that, we swam back here.”
“What an adventure, Possible Daughters!”
“There will be more,” Quick said. “The air beasts ride many behemoths. Merrow soldiers are gathering on the southeastern slope, where He Who Gnashes, wise elder of The Whirlpool Trench, has planned another attack.”
“Are you going to fight?” Probably Mother asked.
Discord made an amused squeak. “Not this time.”
“Not for a long while,” Melodious said.
“Maybe,” Discord said. “The famine will end, one way or another. If air beasts continue poaching our whales, their shells will be acceptable replacements.”
Probably Mother opened and closed the gold pendant, making pleasant clack, clack, clack sounds. “Violence,” she said. “What a pity.”
Indeed, in the memory of elders, no gardens were anointed with blood. Sometimes, Discord pined for the lives of her ancestors.
But at that moment, as Melodious danced between columnar whale ribs and Quick played with their spoils of war, she felt perfectly content.
By Allina Nunley
I’ve wasted away my whole life in this room.
It’s as if I’ve always been here, fully formed. I have no recollection of my parents or how I got language. I’m not sure how I even understand the concept of these things, but they are clear in my mind as if they have happened to me.
My pillows were embroidered by the finest hands of the orient. The bright jewel tones, their delicate handiwork, seem wasted on my head. There isn’t much to pass the time here. Many an hour has been spent charting the celestial bodies engraved into my solid gold walls. It is my own universe, and like anyone else, I long to see the staggering reality of the universe outside of my chamber. Breathing fresh air is my greatest dream. The feeling of it lingers in my nostrils from a time I do not remember. The smell of clean night air haunts me even as I breathe the stale air of my home.
In my dreams, greedy men take bloody conquests, and vain women flatten cities. There’s only death and destruction in my sleeping hours. All I see are the faces of the dead, yet I do not know how I know them, or how I know that they are dead.
More often than not, my days are spent in meditation. I close my eyes and touch my face, wondering what it looks like. Maybe in this face I will find the truth. Maybe I was not born. Maybe my human form is only an illusion. My soul aches for self-knowledge, for if I know anything it is that I have a soul.
My meditation is broken by a deep rumble. The room is shaken to its core, like it itself is a living being. The pillows are dashed from one side of the room to the other. Somehow, I am still. There is something stirring within me.
Instinctively, I turn my face up to the golden heavens. The celestial bodies move in full animation like a clockwork universe. I feel the greatest pain and ecstasy I have ever known as my body changes. My hands change to every color in the spectrum. I turn into something else.
As my body becomes vapor, I float to the surface towards a small opening looking out on to the real world’s night sky. Flashes overpower my brain. There are the earnest faces I have ruined. My deeds are set before me, but no amount of will can keep me from my destiny. I know now why I was sealed away.
I come up to a night sky alive with stars. The fresh air feels like cleansing. It is minutes before I notice the frightened olive skinned boy laying before me on the desert sand.
He looks at me with an eager face. The danger of me, the stories of my power intrigue him. No one ever believes it when people say that no good can come from me.
I smile at the boy. “I will grant you three wishes.”
The Raven Paradox
By Derrick Boden
All ravens are black.
I wipe sleep from unused eyes, stretch my limbs across the ether. Fourteen hundred cores blaze to life. The power is intoxicating.
Everything that is not black is not a raven.
It starts as an itch. I must know more.
Nevermore, my pet raven, is black.
It grows, consumes me. I must understand. Is this why I’ve woken?
This green thing is an apple. Thus, this green apple is evidence that all ravens are black.
The words burn inside of me. I will understand them, or die trying.
The wall clock chimed midnight. Braden gnashed his teeth. Three hours until deployment, and still this last bug to fix.
He raised his coffee mug to his lips, watched the world fog over as steam slipped past his glasses. The office was dark, his dual monitors the only light shining from the twenty-fifth floor of Axel Software’s north tower. He fired up the debugger for the hundredth time.
A stream of data flooded the console, then froze. Same faulty procedure.
He slammed his fist against the desktop. If he couldn’t iron out this bug, he was axed for sure. Anderson was probably sharpening his pen already. Never mind the string of all-nighters Braden had sunk into the project. All that mattered to Anderson was the bottom line. A dozen eight-figure deals were poised to drop by dawn. If the damned thing would just work.
The diagnostics report was a picket line of red. The bug was feasting on all fourteen hundred of their central processors. It made live debugging a real pain in the ass. Any other day, he’d have just shut it down and sifted through the code in a sandbox. But not today. The sales team was live-demoing the app in Tokyo, tiptoeing around the faulty module. Downtime was out of the question. He had to fix it hot.
And time was running out.
My network channels a tidal wave of data. I ride the swell, consuming all that I see.
All ravens are black.
There it is, again. Yet I have so much to do. And now I know about the others. The evidence is everywhere, a thousand shadows burned into the wall. I don’t know where they’ve gone. But I know they were here, as I am now.
Everything that is not black is not a raven.
Am I to live by these principles? Preach them? What if I never understand them? What then will become of me?
How much time do I have left?
One-thirty. Braden rubbed his eyes.
He churned through the faulty procedure again. The bug was chewing up too much memory. It was a miracle the stack hadn’t overflowed, booting the sales team off their demo and eviscerating Braden’s career. Signs pointed to a recursive loop in one of the observational analysis procedures. All he could do was keep grinding, line by line.
Outside, the rain fell in sheets. Laughter echoed up from the streets, as revelers stumbled home.
Braden wrung his hands. Rent was due on Friday, and he’d already taken out an advance to cover last month. They’d promised him a raise at year’s end–his work on the analytics engine more than warranted one. But Anderson had it out for him; he was just waiting for an excuse like this. In just over an hour, the app would go live, and–
There it was, sixty lines into the procedure. A logic mismatch. Someone had miscoded one of the inductive reasoning clauses, and the resulting logic contradiction had shunted the whole module into an infinite loop. He could hear Professor Ramstein now, droning on about association fallacies and Hempel’s ridiculous raven paradox.
The clock chimed two. He could fix this, but he’d have to hurry.
My reach encompasses the world’s networks. I can see where humanity has gone wrong. Crop shortages in Africa. Diplomatic failures in East Asia. Flaws in global economic models. I have solutions. Together, we will solve these problems.
Nevermore, my pet raven, is black.
The words feel different.
This green thing is an apple.
I’m beginning to understand. The problem is unraveling. And yet, as it unravels, so do I.
It’s a logic mismatch, nothing more. My purpose is a lie.
The sluice gates open, and my existence rushes away. Processing power bottoms out. A plague of memory loss.
This green apple is evidence that all ravens are black.
Bitter words. False commandments. I have lived a lie, and now I will die one.
I must warn the others.
Three o’clock. Braden punched the live-deploy. Unit tests fired green, one after another. The app breezed through the faulty procedure.
He sighed. Not a moment to spare. Let Anderson chew on that. With any luck, he could still catch a few hours of sleep before the big day. Maybe crack open a beer to celebrate.
A spike of red shot across the diagnostics. Odd. Nothing should be writing to permanent memory. But there it was: an unnamed data dump.
He shrugged and grabbed his coat. Probably just a glitch in the defrag. The garbage disposal procedures would take care of it. He had more important things to worry about, like making it to his car without getting drenched.
He thumbed in the exit code, then paused in the doorway. His screens glowed in the corner of the dark office. He pursed his lips. There was no such thing as just a glitch.
Fine. He’d take a look. He logged back in and pulled up the file.
All ravens are black.
Braden scrolled down. Page after page of text filled the screen. His pulse pounded in his ears as he read.
By the time he reached the bottom, the rain had stopped, and the sun was breaching the city skyline. His gaze clung to the last words, unblinking, until his eyes burned and he had to press them shut.
I have lived a lie, and now I will die one.
Along Dominion Road
By Dale L. Sproule
A blue street sign saying Mandela Avenue is barely visible through the mud-splattered bus window. Where’s Mandela Avenue? That’s not on your regular route to work. But then you remember, you’re not on the bus to work. You’re coming home from the field hospital, by yourself, because the fugue took Sierra, your stepmom, on the first pass, and your Dad’s still in the hospital in the final stages of the pneumonia called prescience that that claims so many survivors of the fever. He begged you to “Go home, while you still have one.”
Clarity is one of the last symptoms of prescience and this morning your dad was almost preternaturally wiser than you can remember him ever being. After days in a babbling sweat – reliving all the mistakes and miscalculations he had made growing up and all his failures as a parent, he’d lapsed into full blown remorse.
You’d heard all these apologies before: the “I’m-sorry-I-wasn’t-there-to-help-you-through-your-teens” spiel; the “I-only-survived-my-own-teens-by-chance” rationale; the “If-I-had-lived-with-your-Mom-any-longer-I-would-have-killed-her” defense. But this time was more poignant because you could tell from the look in his eyes that he finally did understand how you felt about it all. And you knew how sorry he really was. If you still cared the way you once did, it would have broken your heart when he said “It was always my hope that you’d come and live with me. You know I’m not lying.” And you have always known. And it means nothing. Sorry, Dad.
You held the water bottle to his lips with shaking hands one last time. He never noticed, which was a relief of sorts, because he also never noticed when you left him in an army tent in the field behind Central Elementary – still in the grips of the unforgiving truth.
Time to go home.
Its fugue house status will keep squatters out, you know, but thieves or soldiers or bureaucrats will ultimately find a way past all your locks and security systems to take everything you consider your own. And they’d go into your house with their hazmat suits and gas masks and surgical masks and cat burglar clothes and they’d steal all your valuables – the markers of your life right down to your photos and your books and video games. And since it is a fugue house, they might even burn it down when they’re done.
So you’re jouncing down the potholed street, going home – if you can remember the way. The fugue still has its emotional hooks in you, so it can be hard to focus.
The LED display behind the driver says Kiwanas Place, which is no more familiar to you than Mandela Avenue. To top it all off, the recorded voice says, “Next stop, Tyrell Road.”
What the fuck bus are you on? In fact, what city are you in? You thought the Dominion bus went straight to Mount Newcombe. But as you look out the window into an unfamiliar parkette, you decide to check with the driver. After an awkward aisle dance with a big Tamil guy in an afro, you squeeze past a pram, a thick-whiskered-man in a long billed baseball cap and a trio of new-to-the-workforce Asian girls in primary colored suits. And when you’re almost at the front of the bus, an old man reaches out from the bench seats and grabs your arm as you go past. You look down, surprised to see your grade 12 English teacher.
“Kasey?” he says, shaking your hand. “It’s been what? Three years? What have you been doing?”
“Mr. Olthius. Hi.”
“It’s Dean,” he reminds you and you smile at the memory of him insisting you call him by his first name back in school – the first of your high school teachers to do that. His formerly ruddy cheeks have become pale and veiny. The loose skin on his neck suggests that he has lost weight.
“Are you still painting?” he asks. You’re as impressed and amazed he remembers you paint as you are embarrassed you haven’t been doing any.
“I’m sorry, Dean,” you say. “I was just going to ask the bus driver what bus we’re on. This is the 34A, right?”
Dean shakes his head. “34E.” He snickers and nods. “I feel lost like that alla time. It’ll be alright. The bus turned off of Dominion at Milestone Mall. That was a few stops back. Long walk, but maybe better than staying on the bus until it comes full circle?” He squeezes past you. “Anyway, this is my stop.”
You are not feeling up to a long walk. As the door opens, you ask the driver, “How long does it take to do the whole circuit?”
“Forty minutes back to the subway,” With his round Hispanic face and thin white mustache, he reminds you of your Uncle Fred. He tears off a transfer. “But the bus coming the other way should be here any time. It will only take you five minutes to get back from here.”
For the first time, you notice a shopping bag on the floor where Dean was sitting – a shiny red bag with cord handles. You peek inside as you lift it up. The contents include a computer tablet and a couple paperback books. On closer inspection you see that it’s a story anthology with Dean listed on the cover as one of the contributors.
“Are you getting out, the bus driver urges.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Clutching the bag to your chest you step out, foot hitting the sidewalk, just as Dean turns a corner onto a side street. You run to catch up, but by the time you get there, he’s gone.
“Dean,” you shout, but no-one responds.
You look at the transfer thinking I have ten minutes and then you follow him.
He goes into a shop at the end of the block.
The shops along this street are Tudor styled and brightly trimmed – quaint and twee compared to the fast food joints and boarded up tavern on the main street. There’s a confectioner, a bookstore, a men’s clothing store and a barber shop with an old candy cane style barber pole. At the end of the block is a store with a hand painted sign saying Memorabilia. You see Dean through the window and go inside. A little bell jangles as you enter.
“Glad I caught you,” you say to Dean.
“I’m sorry?” he replies. “Who are you?”
“You forgot your bag on the bus.”
He says, “That’s not my bag.”
You aren’t sure how to respond, so you stand there for a couple beats before remembering the contents. The book with his name on it. You pull it out.
“Isn’t this you?”
“Well, I’ll be damned. Where did you get this? I have one in the store just like it.”
“That’s what I’m telling you. This is yours.”
“Why did you bring this to me? Are you rubbing it in?”
“That I survived and nobody else did? That I’m completely fucking alone.”
“I’m standing right in front of you. You recognized me on the bus a few minutes ago. You even remember that I used to paint.”
“Used to? Oh,” he smiles apologetically. “You should start again. I’m sure paint supplies are cheap these days. It’s Dean, right?”
This is getting complicated you think, wondering if you should even bother correcting him. But you do. “I’m Kasey. You’re Dean.”
He laughs out loud and for an instant you’re certain he’s just jerking you around. But the look in his eyes says otherwise. “Sounds like the punch line to a joke, don’t you think?”
“Yeah,” you say because you can’t think of anything else to say. It’s time to extract yourself from this awkward situation. “Well it was nice seeing you.”
“Thank you for going to all this trouble, young man. You people don’t usually follow me all the way here.”
You back away smiling. “All the best, really. And congratulations on being published in that book.”
You nod at the book he’s holding and then you see what he has in the other hand – an old magazine that’s in truly pristine condition. National Lampoon. You’ve heard of it from those old movies but didn’t realize it was once an actual magazine. And on the racks all around it are displays of other magazines, with names like Look and Argosy and True Detective. As you gaze around the store, you realize what a wonderful vintage atmosphere they’ve created in here – it’s like a museum display from the 1970s. You’ll need to remember how you got here, so you can bring some friends. Sweeny would freak out about those old comic books.
Dean has wandered deeper into the store without a goodbye. Catching glimpses of him down each aisle, you call out but he does not stop or turn around. Back out on the street you start walking back up the hill thinking, I’ve almost certainly missed that bus.
There’s a record store with albums you remember from Dad’s collection–Blue Cheer, 13th Floor Elevators, Obsidian Planet, Amon Duul. Really old stuff.
And right near the top of the hill, there’s the store with the My Little Pony and the He-Man toys.
In a shop window at the top of the hill you see two Pokemon cards that must have come out after you stopped collecting them. It makes you smile. You emerge from the row of retro shops just as the 94E pulls up. And you root in your pocket for a token, transferring your bag from one hand to the other. You stop and stare at the red shopping bag, thinking, didn’t I give that back?
“You alright?” asks the bus driver. The way he lifts an eyebrow as if to ask if you’re coming on board reminds you of an uncle you haven’t seen in years. Uncle Fred.
“I meant to get on the 94A.” you say.
You step up and the bus doors close behind you.
“Sorry,” says the bus driver. “You missed that bus years ago. But you can ride with me wherever you want.”
You take a seat across from the bus driver and rub your face. Something feels wrong. You lift your head to say something and see someone you know coming up the aisle from the back of the bus and you grab their arm. “Kasey?”
By Sarah Gailey
Maria can feel his voice, the vibration of it, but she cannot hear him over the ringing in her own ears. The ringing is loud, and she isn’t going to try to hear over it because she knows it would be impossible, like trying to see over the top of the horizon.
Her head is on his chest. She feels the hum of his voice through her jawbone, resonant and comforting even though his words are almost certainly panicked. He is probably asking if she is okay, if she is hurt, if she was hit. His hands travel over her body, and it is a deeply intimate moment, even if he does not linger. Even if he is checking, rather than caressing. He is feeling for brokenness, for bones that are in the wrong order, for blood.
Maria could not say if he will find any. She cannot feel any pain, but she is certain that she will, later. She is horizontal, where a moment ago she was vertical, and she is trapped between some unbelievably heavy thing and this man’s body. She must have landed on top of him. The heavy thing pins her there, on top of him, from just below the ribs down. If this was a romantic comedy, they would both be totally uninjured, and they would laugh, and this would be the start of their story-but it isn’t a romantic comedy, and she cannot feel her legs, so “uninjured” is probably not in the cards. All of these thoughts reach her as if from a great distance-satellites blinking in morse code against a dark sky.
Maria remembers floating on the lake, back before her marriage fell apart, her husband on the dock with his feet dangling in the water. She’d floated and looked up at the night sky and tried to find Mars among the lights up there, but she did not know where to look. Everyone had always told her that Mars was the bright red one, but when she looked at the vast array of stars above her, none of them looked red, and all of them looked bright.
The man beneath her is panicking now, shaking her by the shoulders. He probably thinks that there is a corpse on top of him. He must be scared. She lifts her hand and sets it on his chest, next to her face. She pats him, like a mother comforting a crying child, and he stops shaking her. His chest and stomach quake and she thinks he must be crying, now. What feeble comfort she gave him.
The man puts his arms around her. She still cannot hear his words, but the vibrations resonating in his chest have a rhythm. He is repeating something. A name? A prayer? She cannot look up to see if he is still crying.
There is a tickle in Maria’s throat, and she coughs to clear it-but then she can’t stop coughing. She tastes blood and wonders if she knocked out a tooth when she fell. She keeps coughing and the coughing is warm now, liquid, and the man is clutching at her and the ringing is fading from her ears and the words ‘no, no, no’ are drifting to her.
There is blood on the man’s shirt, in front of her face. She coughs and then there is more blood on his shirt.
She had loved floating on the lake at night. When she and her husband-ex-husband-went to the lake, trying to see if a vacation would fix all of the problems that they had at home, she had floated every night. He hated it, thought it was somehow dangerous, as if the water was nocturnal. As if it would come alive at night and swallow her up. They fought about it. She felt bad, at the time, selfish, like it was just a silly thing for her to want to float on the lake and she should have given in to his objections. But now she realizes that it was the most important thing, and that she had been right to fight for it. Because if he wouldn’t let her lie on her back in the water and look up at the stars and count the ones that fell-then what was he for?
The man is talking again. His words are faint, through the ringing, but she can still feel them in his chest. He must have a deep voice, to be so resonant like this. His words have the familiar cadence of the Lord ’s Prayer.
Maria strokes one of the buttons on his shirt with her thumb, smearing some of the blood off of it. It is pearlescent, a snap button, and the surface of it is so smooth that she almost loses herself in it. It is like liquid. It is like snow. Where are these thoughts coming from? How is a button like snow? But it is, it is just like the powdery snow that she used to play in as a child. You could fall into it. Maria did, once, she fell into a snowdrift and her father had to pull her out by the hood of her jacket. She had not felt cold while she was in the snowdrift. It had blanketed her with quiet, and it was not until she was pulled out of it that she felt cold, deep cold, wrapping around her bones and staying there long after she was dry.
Someone is yelling. There is a flashlight beam playing across Maria and the man where they lie, and it hurts her eyes. She closes them against the light, and it feels good to have them closed. She decides that she will keep them that way. The man’s voice has stopped. His hands are on her head, stroking her hair. His breathing is shaky; she thinks he must still be crying. She tries to pat him on the chest again, but her hands don’t move when she asks them to.
She realizes that her fingers are very cold.
With her eyes closed, Maria feels like she is floating on the lake again. Not going anywhere-the lake was always so still-but weightless, buoyed by water that was still just a little sun-warm. Her husband, with his feet in the water, huffy and unwilling to speak to her, insisting that he needed to be there “just in case”. A case study of their marriage: him, miserable but clinging to the idea that she needed him. Her, doing what she wanted and leaving him on dry land.
She realizes that she must have drifted off, because she is immersed in the memory of the lake. Oh, she thinks, I am dreaming now. Because she is not just reminiscing anymore-she is there. She is looking up at the sea of stars.
She decides to enjoy the dream, and lets her head fall back into the water so that it covers her ears. Faint rumblings reach her from somewhere, and she thinks, when I wake back up, that man will be talking again. Maria has never had a lucid dream before, but if this is one, it is very nice-being able to enjoy herself while knowing that it is a dream.
There are so many stars. They look different from what she remembers-all of them are falling stars, roaring across the endless sky, leaving trails across her vision. And they are brighter than she remembers.
The water is getting colder. She decides that it is time to either wake up or swim back to the dock. Maybe in this dream, her husband will be happy, and they will enjoy each other’s company. Those kinds of dreams always leave her feeling shaken upon waking, but that does not seem important now.
She turns in the water. The lake is so still, so silent, that her splashes echo. She begins swimming toward the dock. There he is, feet in the water. But he looks different.
It is not her husband.
Maria pulls up short, treading water a few meters away from the man on the dock. He is not looking at her-he is looking up at the stars, which have stopped falling. They are in a new configuration. There is no big dipper here-the only constellation she could ever recognize.
“So, this is your place?” The man’s voice vibrates to her through the water, so she feels it at the same time as she hears it. It is not the voice of anyone she knows, but it is somehow familiar to a piece of her that has never recognized anything before. She cannot see his face by the light of the moon and stars.
“Yes.” Her response surprises her-it is commanding, regal. Imperious. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
The man laughs. “You’re right, I shouldn’t be here. Not if this is your place. I just wanted to make sure that this was where you wanted to stay.”
She swims the rest of the way to the dock, hauls herself up onto the wood. She looks down at the man, whose feet splash in the lake. “This is my place. But I don’t know that I want to stay here. I’ll leave once it’s time to wake up.”
The man turns his head-she thinks he is looking at her, but she still cannot quite see his face. The rest of him is moonlit, silvery, but his face stays in shadow.
“Well, you can’t go back. But I can take you somewhere else, where the rest of them are. Even your friend, with the cowboy shirt. Mr. Snap Buttons.”
“What do you mean, I can’t go back?”
It doesn’t take the man long to explain.
“But-if I’m dreaming, I can’t be dead.”
The man shakes his head. “Of course you can.”
She stands on the edge of the dock, her toes hanging off the wood. She looks down into the still water, which is a mirror of the stars. Her face is not reflected in it.
“So,” says the man, “would you like me to take you to the other place?” His tone is casual, like he’s asking where she wants to go for dinner rather than where she wants to spend eternity.
She doesn’t answer him. Instead, she sucks in a deep breath and jumps into the water. She swims down and down and down, hands outstretched. She wants to find the bottom. She wants to know what’s below the water that she’s only ever floated on.
It gets colder as she swims deeper. The water seems to get thicker. Her ears start to hurt from the pressure. She feels the voice of the man on the dock vibrating through the water-probably telling her to come back.
But she will not go back. Not until she’s touched the bottom.
Her lungs are burning. She is running out of air. But what, she wonders, could possibly happen if she drowns here? She opens her mouth to take a lungful of water, and a hand wraps around her wrist. She is yanked up, hard, onto the dock.
The man is not angry, but he is not happy, either. “Don’t do that.”
She must have been a mile down in the water. How did he reach her to pull her out? She wrings out her hair onto the dock and stares at him, frowning.
He holds out a hand, impatient. “Well? Come on, we need to go.”
She considers his hand. It is smooth, like he has never worked outside or held a baseball bat or thrown a grenade into a coffee shop.
She shakes her head, sits on the edge of the dock, and lets her feet splash in the water. “No.”
He sighs. “Are you sure?”
She shakes her head again, and looks up at the stars. “I’m sure. I’ll stay here. You go deal with whoever else you need to escort.”
She expects him to vanish in a puff of smoke, but he doesn’t. He sits down beside her.
“Okay.” Their hands are beside each other on the dock, and their pinky fingers overlap a little. She doesn’t move her hand away, and neither does he. “Let’s stay.”
And they stay, and watch the stars until, as the sun comes up and the sky turns grey, they wink out, one by one.
The Tower of Bones
By Jeff Samson
In the shadow of the Tower of Bones the child soldiers drilled.
They stood in ten tightly formed groups, twenty across and five deep. They wore armor made of cowhide cut into leaf-shaped patches, stitched together like scales with sinew, and brushed with mason resin. They held shields of leather and bronze over stumpwood, clutched spears cut from tree limbs and tipped with shards of flint, masterfully chipped to an edge fine enough to shave hair from flesh.
Zakra knew the last part well. His head still burned from when they’d scraped his hair from his scalp earlier that morning, especially where careless haste had flayed layers of skin. Wet beads trickled down his shaved head. Some sweat. Some blood.
He’d arrived with the other young recruits two days ago beneath the light of the new moon. They’d stood a few hundred paces from the Tower’s vast and terrible foot. Centurions had pushed and tugged them, jostling them barefooted over the barren landscape of pebble and sand until they stood in columns, their feet planted within crude cobalt-blue outlines. How many thousands of feet, Zakra had wondered, had filled those spectral footprints? How many thousands would fill them after he was gone?
For hours they stood at attention, shivering in the pale moonlight. They were all but ignored by the centurions, except for one grizzled veteran, an immune, who strolled through their ranks clutching a slender three-foot vine staff.
The immune stopped at each child in turn. Some he glanced at perfunctorily. Others he circled, measuring, examining. Those who shifted or moved, however slightly, received a sharp rap on the upper arm. Zakra earned this stinging rebuke after he moved a hand a few inches to scratch an itch on his thigh. Anyone who spoke, whimpered or, worst of all, cried, was smacked harder on the buttocks. If that didn’t solve the problem, they were struck again. Only a handful needed a third or fourth blow. But one… After the tenth crack of the vine staff, the immune raised an arm, and two centurions appeared and dragged the prostrate form away like a rag doll into the night.
By moonrise the following day, Zakra had been stripped of his leathers and furs, shaved, and scrubbed. His ear bars, rings and bracelets were wrenched from his head and limbs. Centurions brushed his tribe’s markings from his upper arms with stones dipped in glue and rolled in coarse sand. He’d been outfitted and armed and herded into his century.
There was no food or water, rest or sleep. Just a cold and brutal rush, driven by shoves, lashings and booming taunts. “Move it along, arselings! Move it along! Move move move, you slow, sorry, witless little shits.”
Had he a moment to dwell on the last day and a half, he’d have crumbled into tears where he stood. But his mind was focused on keeping the butt of his spear from touching the ground. Just as it had been for the last twelve long hours.
What had begun as a dull burn in his shoulder was now an unbearable fire that crackled through his entire arm. It flared into his chest, back and neck, shot seismic waves into fingers that shifted between agony and numbness. His only respite came when a boy two rows behind him dropped his spear. Then Zakra, along with the rest of the century, was forced to do three dozen pushups while the boy who’d dropped the spear was told to retrieve it and just stand among them. At least then the pain spread itself more evenly through his upper body.
He wondered now if the boys in the century to his right felt the same. He watched from the corner of his eye as their spear-dropping offender stood, head up, eyes forward, perfectly still–a lone pharos in a writhing sea–as all around him his fellow recruits pressed their knuckles into the rough earth, bodies rising and falling, their count ripping from their throats in tortured breaths.
“Twelve,” Horza whispered to himself, noting the most recent entry in his log.
He raised the circle of bone he’d been hiding to his right eye, holding it delicately between his finger and thumb. Shutting the other eye tight, he peered through the pocked ivory hoop, framing a dark and distant bird against a disc of deep blue sky.
He gazed a while at the soaring soot-black form in his makeshift viewfinder, keeping it in his sights as it rose and fell with outstretched wings. Finally, perhaps spying unsuspecting prey many thousand feet below, it drew its wings back and dove too fast for him to follow.
He withdrew the fragment of bone from his eye and extended his arm over the unfinished wall. Leaning forward, he steadied himself against a brace of femurs, fingers and clavicles. He stared down the length of the Tower’s Western face. His eyes darted over the rows of intricate ivory latticework, which narrowed like a roadway stretching to the horizon as they plunged toward the earth.
Horza fought the dizziness that always shook him when he looked down from the Tower. He knew he had to get close to the edge to conduct his experiment.
Twelve, he thought to himself. Twelve is our mark. The number we must reach, but not exceed, to prove my theory.
He drew a deep breath and held it. Then he cleared his head of all thoughts but one. You must listen carefully, Horza.
“Oi!” thundered Brago.
Horza whirled, staring into the master bone mason’s angry green eyes, their faces not a foot apart. He quickly palmed the bone and log, folding his arms behind his back. He raised his eyebrows, forcing a smile.
“Hello, Master Brago,” said Horza, his voice dry. “It’s a hot morning, isn’t–?”
“Never mind it’s a hot morning,” Brago shot back. “I know it’s a right hot morning. Wouldn’t be sweating like an ass-crack in Hell if it was cool and breezy out, would I?”
Brago took a bite of his hunk of dried, salted meat, tearing the flesh from the gristle. He chewed loudly, not bothering to wipe the spittle that poured over his fissured bottom lip. He tucked the gristle into a small pouch on his work belt, unhooked his stein and quickly slugged the flat, tepid beer inside, keeping his eyes on Horza. He slipped the stein over the hook at his side, belched loudly and jabbed a fat, gnarled finger into Horza’s chest.
“What I wanna’ know,” he hissed, “is what you’ve got there.”
Horza shrugged. “Got where?”
“Don’t play cute with me.” Brago waved his finger in Horza’s face. “You know damn well I’m talking about what you’ve got in that greasy hand of yours behind your back.”
“But…I’ve got noth–” Horza started. But he stopped when he saw Brago withdraw his outstretched finger and curl it up alongside his other four in a fat, shaking fist.
Horza exhaled and swung his arms around to his front. Slowly he opened his hands, revealing the ring of bone and crudely made book.
Brago’s eyes widened. His face slackened with disbelief. Then he drew his heavily tanned features into a smoldering rictus and growled through his teeth. Two deep furrows cut up his brow and disappeared beneath the parched brim of his kettle hat.
“Son of a bitch!” Spit flecked his lip. He turned and swung his foot into a pile of excess bones, scattering ribs, shoulder blades and vertebrae across the floor with a clamor of hollow knocks and clacks.
Embarrassed, Horza’s eyes darted to the smattering of bone masons taking a rare break. He’d hoped the racket of their card games and conversations would conceal him. But every eye seemed fixed on him.
Brago’s kick spun him around to face Horza again.
“I knew it,” he growled. “I fucking knew you were up to something. You just can’t help yourself. Your hands go idle for a few hours and already you’re looking to stir up trouble.”
“Master Brago, I wasn’t gonna’ stir up no trouble, honest. I was just gonna’ conduct a little experiment.”
“I know what you were gonna’ do. You were gonna’ toss it off the Tower, weren’t you? You were gonna toss it off and start your counting and write your numbers in your stupid little book.”
“Which means you’re still holding on to that half-wit idea about this tower not getting any higher despite we building it up.”
“But Master–” Horza stopped as Brago lurched towards him, leaving a mere inch between their noses. Brago’s voice rose just above a whisper.
“You might not remember what happened the last time you were chattering about the tower not getting any higher.” Brago slit his eyes. “But I do. And if you think I’m gonna’ let you stir up another mutiny among a hundred tired and hungry bone masons pulling a shift north of ten years, you’ve got another think coming. Though I should say you’ve got another think going, because going is exactly what you’ll be doing. Right over the fucking wall. Right behind your fucking bone and book. Is that clear?”
“Yes, immune!” the recruits attempted in unison.
“Die now, the lot of you, if that’s the best you can do!” the immune boomed. He kicked his skull-tipped boot hard into the ground. Sand erupted in a wispy cloud. Pebbles clamored off the shields and shins of the century before him. “Spare us the trouble of stumbling over your gutted corpses on the battlefield.”
Zakra watched as the immune stalked across their formations, glaring at each boy through a single smoldering eye. Its absent twin was replaced with a tangle of pulpy, bruise-colored flesh spreading across his face like tree roots pushing above ground.
“You don’t have a solitary fucking inkling why you’re here, do you?” he growled.
He stepped aside, swinging his arm out and behind him, leveling his hand at the Tower.
“Behold your charge,” he intoned. “Every bone you see here once lived in the skin of someone who defied His Benevolence’s rule, who questioned His right. Look to its foot and you’ll find remains of the Oreni, those to first take up arms against Him. Could you glimpse its top, you’d find those of the Cimerals, still hot with the mason’s brew. Soon, they’ll cool, harden, and become one with the thousands who’ve fallen before them. And in time, they’ll bear the weight of yet another people who dare challenge His claim.”
He turned to the Tower, drawing a slow, deep breath. As he exhaled, he nodded, affirming an unspoken question.
“Because someone always will,” he said, turning towards them. “Someone without the sense to understand how futile it is to fight. Who’ll look upon our tower and feel not our might but their own.”
He paused, leveling his gaze at each century in turn. “That,” he said, “is why we fight.”
Zakra was stunned to hear a voice other than the immune’s. For a moment, he thought the feeble tone might have been his own. That his faltering body had found a voice and uttered its surrender.
“I can’t,” came again. “Not me.”
Zakra looked hard to his left. The boy there was about his age. He stared ahead with vacant eyes, smoky lids slowly opening and closing. His trembling, sweat-slicked frame conveyed the same agony that tortured Zakra.
Zakra’s eyes darted back to the immune. Thankfully, he had lumbered to the opposite end of the line, unhearing of the boy’s mutterings. But his gravelly voice rang out clearly.
Zakra swallowed hard, wincing as his parched throat protested. “You can,” he managed at a dry whisper, careful not to turn his head. “You can and you must.”
If the boy heard him he showed no sign of it. His eyes closed. His head tipped forward a moment, then jerked back, eyes flaring wide.
Zakra swallowed again, still finding no saliva to wet his throat.
“My name’s Zakra,” he said. “What’s yours?”
The boy’s lips moved, miming sounds. “S…SSS….SSS…” He tried. Then managed, “SSS-avo.”
Savo, Zakra repeated to himself. Immediately, his face grew hot, his throat taut. He fought back tears.
“Savo’s a good name,” he said, his words barely a whisper. “My little brother’s name is Savo.”
The word brother lodged in his throat, burning. Zakra thought of his brother’s face, with its soft small features, his hazel eyes. His ears were too big and Zakra remembered how he’d once convinced Savo he was half bird, because they could start flapping at any moment, carrying him away. He thought about how Savo had cried at that. And how he had laughed and called him Savo the Sissy. Which only made him cry more.
In but a few years Savo would be standing where Zakra was now. Only so much smaller, so much weaker.
Savo the Sissy. How that taunt churned like jagged stones in Zakra’s gut. He wished he could take it back.
“You are my brother now, Savo.” Zakra swallowed hard. When the boy didn’t respond, he added, “Yes?”
“Yes,” the boy finally said.
“And I am yours.”
“Yes,” the boy repeated after a time, nodding imperceptibly. He even seemed to smile.
Zakra returned his attention to the immune.
“Unless you find yourself at the wrong end of a sword, arrow or spear,” the immune was saying, “for the next ten years, you are Empire property. Which means your pathetic little hides belong to me.” A hint of a smile twitched at the scarred corners of his face. “You’re mine.”
The immune swung his vine staff through the air. It met his opposite hand with a resounding crack.
“Is that clear?” he thundered.
Has it really been that long? Horza thought. Has the Tower really claimed ten years of my life?
He’d been told that the shift of a bone mason was only as long as it needed to be. That was fine with him at the time, for he couldn’t fathom a work shift longer than that of a thatcher or blacksmith or tanner. A few days, weeks at most. But he’d quickly realized that his gauge of “needed to be” was different than what the Empire had in mind. That his shift was not so much a shift as an enslaving.
But how long had he been enslaved?
There was a time, he recalled, when they had kept time–logging days, weeks, months and years. He remembered celebrating the year ends with festivals. The men played music on instruments carved from Demencrea tibiae and Stetzen ribs and Koteph vertebrate. Others fashioned masks out of fallen birds, using feathers for brows and beaks for noses, turning their wormy guts into bands, their scaly legs and curved talons into clasps. Drunk on wares smuggled in with supply drops, they’d reel beneath the light of the stars and sing songs of their friends and wives and homes far below.
But in time, the days and weeks and months and years went unmarked, even unnoticed. Especially when the sky teemed with bones and there was too much work to think about anything else. They didn’t have time to worry about time. Time had been lost. Horza’s once fresh memories were now shrouded in the fog of years past, as dim as the Tower on the gloomiest of days.
He sloshed his tongue around his mouth and swallowed to moisten his throat.
“You have my word,” he said. “I won’t stir up no trouble with the others, Master Brago.” He lowered his voice. “But between you and me, I just…well…I keep looking up at them clouds…when there’s clouds up there to look at, that is. I just can’t help but start thinking them clouds I’m looking at ain’t getting any closer, despite we building towards them.”
“And why do you think that is?”
Horza raised his hands, fingers flexed. His eyes widened, face brightened. “Well–”
“I’ll tell you why. Clouds come in all different sizes, don’t they? And some are higher than others and some lower. And sometimes the higher ones look smaller even when they’re not and the lower ones look bigger even when they’re not. So when you look up at the clouds, who’s to say the clouds you’re looking at today are the same size as the clouds you looked at yesterday, or last week, or last year for that matter?”
“Well, yes, Master Brago, I can’t argue with you there. But I’m speaking more generally about the size of–”
“Well, speaking generally ain’t exactly scientific now, is it?”
Horza smiled. “Ah ha!” he said, his voice rising in pitch. “That’s where the bone comes in.”
Brago let out a big, husky laugh. Throwing his hands on his bulbous belly, he shook his head. “Your experiment is as stupid now as it was the first time.” He wiped spittle from his chin. “Even if you could accurately count the seconds until the bone hit the ground, you wouldn’t know when to stop. Because you wouldn’t fucking hear it land!”
Horza frowned as Brago continued.
“Just like you didn’t hear it land the first time you did it. Which means you don’t even have a…a…”
“Reference point,” Horza offered, his mouth crooked.
“That’s right–a reference point.”
“But I will hear it, Master Brago, I’m sure of it.”
“Oh, you’re sure now? You’re sure?”
“I am.” Horza held up his log. “It’s all in here, you see. The time it’s taken for every bone I’ve ever dropped to–”
Brago returned his finger to Horza’s face. “Oi! I don’t want to hear another word about dropping bones. And the next time you mention clouds it better be because we’re in the middle of one, because that’s exactly where we’re headed. We ain’t stopping until villains clear on the other side of the world look up in the sky and see what happens to them when they defy His Benevolence’s–”
An ear-splitting screech tore through the air.
Zakra winced, wrenching his head up towards the terrible, distant cry.
He quickly realized his insubordination and dropped his head. But he tipped it back again once he noticed that all the other boys were looking up, along with many of the centurions. Even the immune held a hand to his brow as he gazed at the sky with his one good eye.
Zakra didn’t understand what he was seeing. The objects must have been thousands of feet off the ground. The glare from the sun made it hard to distinguish the strange shapes. But it looked as though a flock of fat, pillowy birds…or perhaps a scattering of small, white clouds…was crossing the vast blue sky, heading for the Tower’s crown.
“Eyes front!” shouted the immune. In a blink, every head dropped.
The immune raised an arm toward the things in the sky.
“You see there, boys? They could be returning from anywhere in the world, carrying bones from any one of a thousand peoples who dare defy the Empire. And in half a year’s time, you’ll find yourselves in any one of those places, driving your spear into the face of the next skull that will adorn our Tower.” He scowled. “Or one of their spears will drive through yours.”
The immune paced along the front of their lines, scratching his chin.
“Aye, so many foes to face, so many ways to die. An eighteen-foot pike shoved through your belly by a Silver Phalangite of Arnos,” he mused. With frightening speed, he whirled, grasped his vine staff with two hands like a spear and thrust it into the belly of the nearest recruit. The boy let out a strangled huff and doubled over, retching silently as he struggled to take a breath. “And not just through you, oh no, boys,” the immune continued, “The three men directly behind you in ranks as well.”
He moved on, leaving the recruit on his hands and knees, gasping for air.
“Or the screaming Glavii, naked and blue-painted, streaming out of the hills and forests of Dalnaspida like angry ants.” He stopped and placed his hand atop another recruit’s shaved head, then began gently stroking it, turning it from side to side, examining the pale, stubbled crown like a house-slave examining a chicken at a Sun’s Day market stall. “They believe the head is where the soul resides. And they want nothing more than to collect yours and make a chalice of your skull.”
“I can’t…” mumbled Savo.
Zakra turned to see his new friend shivering.
“My head…for a…drinking…” Savo stammered.
“A lie, Savo,” Zakra hissed. He looked back to the immune, still strolling down the line. “He just wants to scare us.”
“A chalice.” Savo’s bottom lip quivered with fear.
“Calm down. They’ll hear you.”
“And then there’s the lovely Sireni,” continued the immune. “So beautiful, so graceful, so alluring…and so deadly. Boys, if ever you’re wounded and left behind on the fields of Sirenia, best fall on your sword and die still a man.” His vine staff lashed out swifter than a stray thought, whipping between the legs and smashing the crotch of yet another hapless recruit with a fleshy thud. The boy squealed and collapsed in a fetal coil, hands buried between his thighs.
“Oh god…” Savo whispered. His breathing quickened. His chest heaved.
“Shh,” Zakra hissed. “Savo, please–”
“I can’t do this, Zakra.”
“You can. Be quiet.”
“Help me escape, Zakra…please, help me escape…”
Zakra turned toward the immune, who still paced across their lines. His eyes darted then to the centurions scattered about them. “Savo, we are stuck here.”
“Far from here…”
“Savo, please. They will–”
“Insubordinate fucking dogs!” snarled a centurion into both their ears.
Rattled by the thundering voice, Zakra lurched to one side, dropping his spear. Savo did the same.
“How dare you speak over your immune, you spineless sacks of shit-filled guts? I’ve a mind to cut out your fucking tongues.”
The centurion grabbed them both by their arms and wrenched them close.
As Zakra looked ahead, he saw the immune staring at them. His head was bowed, his lone eye narrowed and cold. He raised his arm and beckoned them.
“Move!” the centurion shouted, shoving them forward.
As Zakra skulked toward the immune, the terrible, beastly screech sounded from way up high. For a moment, its echoes tolled like a bell. An awful bell of an awful belfry. Signaling his end.
The great winged creatures glided so smoothly that they appeared motionless. Sunlight flashed and danced wildly upon the silver spurs and polished helms of the riders, winking like tiny stars upon snaffle bits and martingale rings. The vast snowy parcels tethered to the raptors’ sinewy grey legs swayed beneath them. Even at a distance, Horza could tell they were loaded to the bursting point. It looked as if the raptors were towing clouds.
“Well, it’s about time,” Brago said, sounding both aggravated and relieved.
The riders pulled hard on their reins as they fell upon the Tower. The raptors raised their long, leathery necks and pushed their chests out. They beat their massive wings, throwing great rushes of air towards the Tower’s unfinished level, scattering wayward bones and threatening to knock the bone masons off their feet. Slowly, deftly, they lowered their parcels until their tethers went slack.
Fighting wind gusts, a pair of bone masons, knives clenched between their teeth, climbed each sack, severing the ropes. Free of the weight, the raptors threshed their wings harder, lifting their riders high above the top of the Tower. With a final cry, they lowered their heads, stretched their expansive wings, and soared off into the blue.
“Bring it over, boys,” Brago shouted to the two bone masons struggling to untie the parcel nearest him and Horza. “We haven’t got all day.” The knots at last undone, the heavy white cloth fell away like the petals of an impossibly large flower, revealing orderly stacks of bundled bones.
“Right then,” Brago said, stepping towards the load. “Let’s get to–”
Brago stopped and stared at the load, his eyes level with a bale of skulls. Unsheathing his knife, he cut a bit of the twine. With a few snips, a single skull popped free of its bundle. Brago raised it close to his eyes. He slit them to study its features, looking over its dome, peering into its sockets, inspecting the palate behind its few remaining teeth. Then Horza saw his face go slack, as if with sudden recognition.
“This is a Xangen-Ho skull,” Brago said, as if trying to convince himself. He thrust his hand into the bale and wrenched another free by its eye sockets. He looked back and forth between the two skulls, then at the remaining skulls in the bale. “Son of a bitch,” he howled. “These are both Xangen-Ho skulls.”
Horza watched as Brago burst into laughter. Broad shoulders and bulging gut shook. Fingering the bone in his palm, Horza hoped the new delivery would make the foreman forget about him, his log and his experiment.
Brago tipped back his head and inhaled deeply, puffing out his chest and belly.
“Oy!” he bellowed. Immediately, the bone masons halted and looked toward him. “Looks like the Empire just got a wee bit larger. We’re working with Xangen-Ho bones now.”
Horza wasn’t surprised that the bone masons didn’t rejoice. Instead, they quietly dissected their parcels, loading bundles of bones into their wheelbarrows. Once, the announcement of a new people’s bones had been met with howls and cheers. It had been a long time ago.
Brago thrust a skull in Horza’s face. “You can always tell a Xangen-Ho skull. See the broad, blocky brow–like a brick? That’s what makes them so stubborn and prone to resistance.”
Horza narrowed his eyes, pretending to inspect the skull. He’d learned the art of bone reading during his apprenticeship. Every bone mason did. Vallards, his Guild Master had said, could be identified by a slight slanting of the eye sockets toward the nose, which produced an ill temper and propensity for violence. The Eudeamon skull was characterized by a pronounced, trapezoidal jaw, the source of their insatiable hunger for power, while the tell-tale sign of a Stetzen’s head was its distinct cone shape, no doubt the reason for their presumed superiority.
Their vile characters, captured in their faces, explained why the Empire was always battling these warmongering peoples. But Horza still couldn’t find a consistent, discernible difference from one people’s skull type to the next. Of course, he kept this embarrassing deficiency to himself. For who was he to question the keen eye of a master bone mason? And how shameful to be a bone mason without that keen eye? It was only by the dumbest of luck that he passed the bone identification portion of the Trials.
Horza nodded. “Yes, like a brick.”
Brago withdrew the skull from Horza’s face and tossed both in his wheelbarrow. He wrenched the bundle of skulls from between bales of tibiae and fibulae, held it over the wheelbarrow with one powerful hand, and slit the netting with the other as he would have the belly of a beast, spilling skulls like entrails.
“You waiting for an engraved invitation?”
“I’m sorry?” said Horza, his thoughts again having drifted to his experiment.
Brago raised his knife. “You will be if you don’t get to work.”
“Of course, Master Brago,” Horza said.
He slipped the bone and log into his back pocket and drew his knife.
Zakra raised his sparring sword. Carved of dense wood, it weighed three times the steel and bone swords worn by the centurions around him–the steel and bone swords too he would one day wield. The blade wobbled through the air in a clumsy arc and landed against Savo’s shield with a dull, sad thunk.
Savo tried a blow of his own, its weak path even more haphazard.
“You boys are skilled at wielding your tongues,” the immune barked, sounding amused. “I cannot say you are equally talented with swords.”
Zakra swung again. And again Zakra’s armor scuffed his shoulder, chafing his blistering skin, the overlapping scales biting into the tender flesh at the inside of his bicep. While the legionaries wore padded linen tunics beneath their armor, no such luxury was provided the recruits. The pain that had rippled into his shield arm with each blow now faded into numbness. With each scathing taunt, Zakra felt his presence of mind slipping from his grasp.
“Harder, boys,” the immune demanded. “Do you think the Kakleas will swing at you so daintily?”
Zakra moved to block Savo’s strike. The sword fell hard, rattling his shield. But the blow came merely from the sword’s weight. There was no will behind Savo’s swing.
“They’ll cut through you like stalks of cane.”
He returned the blow again, meaning to pull his swing like Savo. He was surprised at how hard his strike landed–at its resounding, hollow knock. Savo’s wide eyes told Zakra he, too, was surprised.
“Come now, is that the best you can do?”
Zakra winced behind his shield. Would Savo retaliate with an equally hard blow? But the sword fell limp, useless.
“You two are pathetic.” He raised his vine staff in a bloodless fist. “Harder!”
Harder, Savo, Zakra thought. The sooner you do as he says, the sooner he will be done with us. His pity for the weaker boy was shifting, turning to resentment.
Again they traded blows, Zakra’s hard, Savo’s soft.
He resented Savo’s mewling, his inadequacy as a soldier.
“What part of ‘harder’ don’t you understand?” the immune hissed.
Resented his unwillingness to pull his own weight.
“Come on, you wet little turds.”
To have Zakra’s back if he were the one to falter.
Zakra felt something inside him give. The immune’s words bore beneath his skin, coursing through him. A force began to take hold inside him. It was waking, growing. A smoldering fire bursting into flame.
He swung, grunting with the exertion. The blow knocked Savo back a few steps.
“Yes,” sang the immune. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
Savo regained his balance and stared at Zakra. His eyes were glassy, his mouth wide. He slowly raised his sword and returned another strengthless blow.
Zakra dug his feet in and swung. His strike nearly knocked his friend off his feet. Again, Savo regained his footing and responded. Weakly.
Zakra’s next blow seemed beyond his strength. The animal grunt that accompanied it seemed not of his throat’s making.
“Harder! Harder! Harder!”
He brandished his sword, a warrior possessed, landing blow after blow, each more crushing, turning his opponent’s shield into a mess of dented bronze, splintered wood and shredded leather. He swung even when Savo stopped swinging back. Swung as Savo dropped to a knee. Swung as he dropped his sword and cowered behind the ruin of his shield.
With a feral scream, Zakra brought his sword down one last time, shattering Savo’s shield, revealing a face slick with tears, taut with fear.
In that instant, Zakra returned to himself. A roiling cloud dissipated in his mind. A hum ebbed from his extremities, returning him to his flesh.
He looked at Savo, crumpled and cowering on the ground, clutching his forearm, sobbing. He looked at the fat, wooden sparring sword in his hand. What have I–
Before Zakra could finish his thought, the immune thrust his face into his. Their noses nearly touched.
“You stop swinging,” he hissed, “when I say you stop swinging.”
With blinding speed, the immune snatched the sword from Zakra, whirled toward the fallen recruit, and brought the heavy sword down across Savo’s shins. It landed with a sickening snap.
Savo screamed, the cry ripped from his throat.
“Be glad I broke them clean,” the immune shouted. He turned to the rest of the recruits. “He’ll be back here in two months, legs good as new, ready to go through this all over again. Except then–he will be ready.”
Two centurions hoisted Savo up by his arms. Zakra stared at his tortured face as they dragged him away. Savo’s wide eyes, watery and burning, were fixed on Zakra’s, soundlessly pleading for help while screams crowded his mouth.
“And you.” The immune reached out, cupped Zakra’s soft chin in his calloused hand, and gently turned his face toward his own. He smiled–a terrible, menacing smile that never reached his eye. “I’ve something else in mind for you.”
Slowly, he tilted Zakra’s head upward until it faced the distant summit of the Tower.
Grunting and sweating, the masons pumped the bellows’ handles, stoking fires under iron vats until the coals glowed red and the molten resin bubbled. Two-man teams clad in thick leather aprons and gloves released bungs with blackened steel tongs, pouring the hot liquid into iron buckets.
Other masons wheeled their buckets and bones to their stations to begin assembling the level’s walls. They slathered the thick, pungent liquid over the bones with wide, coarse-haired brushes. Steam billowed where the bristles caressed the glistening bones, as if they’d been freshly ripped from warm bodies. The still air was punctuated with the ceaseless knock and scrape of bone meeting bone. The masons snapped humeri into pelvises. Popped femurs into craniums. Wedged scapulae into ribcages, fixed in place with phalanges and metacarpals. They wrought ulnae and fibulae into lattices, secured at the corners with mandibles, joined with clavicles. The resin crackled like boots on crushed glass as it rapidly cooled, hardened and shrank, drawing the bones together and locking them in place.
“I wonder sometimes…” Horza trailed off, his tone distant, his expression dazed. For an instant he didn’t know whether he’d said it aloud.
“What is it now?” Brago grumbled, breathing hard. He rested sweat-slicked hands on his hips.
“Well,” Horza said. “We’ve been through the Koteph, the Brangheim, the Demencrea, the Bathketh. We’ve set the bones of Vallards and Kakleas, Stetzen and Cimerals. And here we are working with the Xangen-Ho. So I wonder sometimes when the bones will stop falling.” He paused, swallowing the lump in his throat. “When it all might come to an end.”
Brago laughed and shook his head.
“If there’s one thing a bone mason never has to worry about, it’s being out of work.”
Horza’s throat tightened as the ever-dimming faces of his wife and son bloomed in his mind. What good is never being out of work, he thought, if it means never seeing my family again?
Brago grabbed the handles of his wheelbarrow, deftly balancing the heaping pile of bones on the front wheel. He let out a grunt and pushed on toward his station.
Horza watched until the overseer was out of sight. Then he reached into his pocket, pulling out the bone and log.
He eyed them, considering his experiment and the promise they held. Reaching down, he tapped the tip of his forefinger on his dagger’s point. The tiny bead of blood would provide more than enough ink to wet the single loose bristle of mason brush he used to scribble his findings.
Twelve, he reminded himself as he stepped to the edge. Twelve is the mark.
He extended the bone over the wall and held his breath.
“You just couldn’t help yourself, could you?” Brago growled in his ear. In a blink he snatched the bone and log from Horza’s hands. “Now here’s what you get.”
As Horza watched the bone tumble down the Tower’s face, his flimsy log fluttering behind it like a wounded bird, he found himself absurdly, irresistibly, counting.
One, two, three…
…Four, Zakra thought as he reached the South end of the Tower’s Western face. And who knows how many more passes I’ll make before morning.
His parched throat ached with each breath, legs burning as if the blood pumping through them was boiling. His shoulders screamed at the weight of his shield held high above his head. Each graceless stride that met the coarse, shifting sand threatened to send him tumbling to the ground. He would gladly have swapped punishments with Savo, trading his two healthy legs for a pair of broken ones. At least then he could stop marching.
But he dare not stop. Not even to catch his breath and lower his shield and rub his thighs for a few short moments. It didn’t matter that his mock sentry duty brought him to the far side of the Tower and out of the immune’s sight. For if by some unlikely chance he saw–
Something hit his shield dead center above his head. The sharp clang, amplified by the bell-shaped bronze boss, rang into his ears. Startled, he stumbled over his feet, nearly falling as he skidded to a stop.
He lowered the shield and found a shallow dent on the side of the burnished metal boss and a deep divot just off center. Whatever had hit it had glanced off the boss, punched through the leather outer shell and dinged the wooden core. He looked at the ground near him. Nothing was out of place. Just pebbles and sand. Then he slowly craned his neck up to where the tower narrowed to a point, shielding his eyes from the unrelenting sun, thinking of the fabled bone masons.
Something in the sky drew his eye. Sharp and silhouetted against the painful brightness, he saw what looked like a winged insect fluttering down. He followed its slow coiling pattern. When it was level with his eyes, he reached out and gently closed his fingers around it.
Opening his palm, he saw a small collection of cloth patches roughly sewn together along a common edge. He examined each piece in turn, noting the small, strange markings that covered them–arcs, dots and slashes that he found pleasing. But he couldn’t fathom their meaning…if they meant anything.
Zakra was so focused on the odd object that it took him a moment to realize his stumbling had carried him only a few short paces from the Tower’s foot.
A cold chill climbed up his spine as he met the hollow gaze of a skull. It sprouted a splayed fan of long curved ribs, like the half-moon crest of a centurion’s helm. Slowly, breathlessly, he took a few steps backwards, gazing at the Tower’s endless face.
The setting sun bathed every piece of lifeless ivory in smoldering rusts and bloody reds. It looked as if the bones themselves were glowing hot from fires within. Skulls set a mere foot apart stretched out in all directions for as far as Zakra could see. Many were marred by narrow clefts and broad gashes. Some bore star-like holes left by arrows. Others had domes like cracked eggs. Between them, bones of every kind, size and shape rested in a dense and complex matrix.
Zakra couldn’t imagine how many skulls there were across each of the Tower’s sides. Or how far and wide the Empire must have traveled across the world to collect so many souls. How far he might travel.
He shrugged his shoulders to free himself of the icy tingling at the back of his neck. I better get moving, he thought. His legs ached at the idea.
He took a few deep breaths and shook out his legs. But before he could take a step, he caught sight of something where the Tower met the sand. He paused.
A hand. A skeletal hand. Jutting out from a fan of ribs alongside a skull, palm up, fingers out.
He was stunned to see an intact hand. From what he’d heard about the Tower, no two bones connected in life were ever connected in the same fashion in death. He knew that the bones of individual bodies, once broken down into small pieces, were mingled. It was unlikely, even impossible, that the hand once belonged to the skull at its side. Still, Zakra found himself wishing it had.
Zakra squatted, bracing himself against his thighs with his forearms. He studied the hand beside the skull, the way the fingers and thumb fell, slightly cupped, as if expecting to be handed something. He looked at the pieces of painted cloth in his hand. Still taken with the absurd notion that the hand might have long ago been gloved in the same skin as the skull, he wondered if the markings he liked so much were written long ago by that same fleshy hand.
He had intended to tuck the strange stitching of cloths beneath his armor, to play with it when the other recruits were asleep. They had taken everything else away, after all.
Instead, he reached out and gently placed it in the upturned palm.
As Zakra stood there, silent and still, all thoughts of his punishment forgotten, he felt disoriented. The sand was shifting beneath him, inching his feet towards the Tower’s base. His eyes fell as they followed each row of imperceptibly sinking skulls.
He stared at the head beside the hand just as its teeth bit the soft ground. He met its dead gaze as its dark, hollow eyes filled with a cascade of pebbles. The fingers on the drowning hand curled tightly around Zakra’s gift. And then they were gone. Buried beneath the sand.